Thursday, 27 February 2014

Review: Napoleon and Berlin: The Franco-Prussian War in North Germany, 1813

Napoleon and Berlin: The Franco-Prussian War in North Germany, 1813
Napoleon and Berlin: The Franco-Prussian War in North Germany, 1813 by Michael V. Leggiere

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fine account of the 1813 campaigns in Saxony with a focus on the role of Prussian general Von Bülow. This is an interesting perspective as Bülow’s career in 1813 touches on several crucial episodes in the Prussian revival of that year.

He first played an important role during the three months between the return of Napoleon’s shattered army from Russia in December 1812 and the Prussian shift of alliance from France to Russia in March 1813. It shows that apart from walking a tight political rope between French demands for action, insubordination to his own king and challenges from Russian frienemies and Prussian revivalists, he maintained his freedom of action while building up his own untrained force. Leggiere holds that the Prussian army was the prime mover driving king Friedrich Wilhelm into the alliance and that it remained the driving force behind the campaigns against Napoleon in the next two years.

Next, Bülow was tasked with the defence of Berlin during the spring campaign. This gives a nice assessment of the Prussian ability to defend the capital and the amount of prestige invested in holding it. Elaborate plans for a system of inundations around the town were marred by lack of water and offered no help in practice. It also shows the central place Berlin held in Napoleon’s long term plans. On the other hand, the fact that he never led a force to occupy it in person and the resources he put at the disposal of his underlings suggests that it wasn’t a primary goal. A feeble attempt by Oudinot in May was stopped by Bülow at Luckau.

During the armistice Bülow took the responsibility for the reorganisation and final completion of the Kurmark Landwehr. The armistice provided a crucial breathing space that ensured the Landwehr was an effective combat force in the autumn. This is a very interesting episode illustrating the high water mark of the reform movement in Prussian military and political affairs and the challenges of building up an army in an impoverished state. Although the Landwehr had been envisaged by the reformers as a separate institution to the regular army, the generals’ involvement in its organisation and training ensured that the two forces merged and that the ideals of a people’s army and a nationalist force were subjected to conservative and monarchical considerations.

With the resumption of hostilities Bülow was again tasked with the defence of Berlin but now in a multinational army under the orders of Crown Prince John Charles of Sweden, formerly known as Marshal Bernadotte. Bülow, not an easy man to work with himself, suffered from Bernadotte’s single minded pursuit of Swedish and private objectives at the cost of allied cooperation and success. At the battles of Gross Beeren and Dennewitz the Prussians essentially fought the French thrusts towards the capital by themselves with the Swedish and Russian elements of the army watching from a distance.

Towards the end of the book the focus of action shifts away from Berlin but Bülow once again plays an important part in the final day’s fighting at the battle of Leipzig. Meanwhile, the fraught relationship with Bernadotte reaches new lows, and it is easy to see that this would affect Bülow´s operations in the Low Countries in late 1813 and 1814.

Bülow’s difficult relationships with about every other allied commander show that personality played as much of a role in generalship on the allied side as between Napoleon’s marshals. It also affected his performance in 1815. On the other hand, Leggiere shows that the general was not a conservative doctrinarian but an intelligent man of experience with a principal distrust of the reform faction in the army, who developed as good a working relationship with his reformist chief of staff Boyen as Blücher reached with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.

Leggiere’s great achievement is to weave all these elements into an engaging narrative that adds much to the classic accounts of the 1813 campaign.

View all my reviews

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Review: Hell Upon Water

Hell Upon Water
Hell Upon Water by Paul Chamberlain

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well written and well researched book about the prisoners of war kept in Great Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. Most of these were French, but also included French allies, Americans (from 1812) and even British soldiers who had misbehaved.

Although life in the prisons was no pleasure, Chamberlain makes every effort to show that it wasn't too bad and most British officials earnestly tried to provide for the men in their care.

Part of the problem was the breakdown in Anglo-French agreements over care and exchange of civilians captured at the recommencement of hostilities in 1803. This meant that the French refused to pay for the food and lodging, but also that there were hardly any exchanges. French soldiers therefore knew they were in it for a long time and this created further problems for discipline.

However, the vast majority of prisoners seems to have behaved as well as might be expected in confinement. Escapes and mutinies were rare and even officers rarely broke their parole to escape.

The best bits of the book are where Chamberlain describes the social stratification of the prisoners, but Chamberlain also extensively describes how they occupied themselves with crafts like carving, straw work and forgery.

The officers on parole and the craftsmen through their sale on markets became a part of the local communities, even resulting in a few marriages and permanent settlement. Another nice feature of the book is the many examples of remaining signs of the POWs in artifacts, graves and geographical names like Frenchmen's Road.

View all my reviews

White Monks, Black Monks, Red Monks...

Played with Da Mike and Da Mir last Tuesday. Good times. First time I ever played In the Name of The Rose. This is and interesting deduction plus placement  game in the setting of the book by Umberto Eco. The setting has no other relevance in that there is a bit of mystery in finding out who your opponents are. But the mechanics worked well and the game was more enjoyable than I thought it might be (no, I didn't win).

As you can see my secret identity was the white monk. He scored the most
evidence points and so turned out to be the murderer.
hen finished with a game of Set, which just showed that I'm getting old and slow. The only comfort was that I got better as the game progressed.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Review: In the Wake of Napoleon: The Dutch in Time of War 1792-1815

In the Wake of Napoleon: The Dutch in Time of War 1792-1815 by Mark van Hatten

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book written around items from the Napoleonic collection of the Dutch army museum. The main part consists of short biographies of individuals illustrated with their personal belongings or uniforms. This ranges from the princes of Orange, king Louis Napoleon, and several officers from different units to Wexy, the favourite horse of Willem, prince of Orange, which was killed at the battle of Waterloo.

As such, the book offers no synthesis and is rather anecdotal. But the illustrations are special.

View all my reviews

Review: Ongewilde revolutie. Limburgs Maasland onder Frankrijk

Ongewilde revolutie. Limburgs Maasland onder Frankrijk by Ubachs, P.J.H.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A case study of the Nedermaas department under French administration. With the French conquest of the Southern Netherlands in 1794 the whole area was placed under French administration, but it would take a decade before it was fully integrated in the French empire. The area had been a patchwork of states so that the new department included parts of the Dutch Republic, the Austrian Netherlands, the Duchy of Gulik, the Prince Bishopric of Liège and some others.

Very interesting to read this just after Woolf's Napoleon's Integration of Europe, which touches on many similar subjects: the long and winding road of incorporating territories outside France into France (or the Empire), administrative reform and creation of a modern bureaucracy, conscription, the struggle with the catholic church, regional cultures and attempts to integrate elites by setting up societies and through masonic lodges. And of course forms of resistance or at least maintaining distance from the regime.

View all my reviews

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Review: Officieren aan het woord. De geschiedenis van de Militaire Spectator 1832-2007

Officieren aan het woord. De geschiedenis van de Militaire Spectator 1832-2007 by Ben Schoenmaker

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Precursor of Schoenmakers' more detailed Burgerzin en Soldatengeest. While the latter is a detailed discussion of several Dutch military periodicals in the 19th century and the debates about the place of the military in a changing society, this book focuses on the history of the first and most popular magazine.

It is more institutional: the editors and appearance are as important as the content. It charts the change from a conservative to a professional magazine, although the road takes some twists.

Written as well as might be hoped

View all my reviews

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Napoleon's Imperial Headquarters

These two Osprey books form a miniseries, with the first describing the growth and zenith of Napoleon’s headquarters while the second focuses on the 1815 campaign. I bought them to get a better idea of the organisation the imperial household so I could get an idea who was who among the memoirists like Flahaut, de Montesquiou, Mameluke Ali and Fain. 

The books in question plus extra

Apart from that, it was useful to learn the distinctions between the emperor’s Aides de Camp (general officers to be used for independent assignments), his officiers d’ordonnance (junior officers used for inspections and reconnaissance) and the personal Aides de Camp of the Major-Général, Berthiér. Especially as the latter included quite a few critical of the emperor.

For my interests the first part paid too much attention to the civil household, equipment (from coaches to cutlery) and details of camp layout. I would have preferred to learn more of the actual operation of army headquarters. The more limited focus of the second booklet makes it better than its sister. It contains useful information on the composition of the staff, on travel speed and arrangements and a bit more on the actual activity in the army staff. The details on what Napoleon ate and where he slept are more useful to me here as well.

What struck me is that the books are heavily Napoleonophile: the marshals are described as unthankfull and treacherous, and all the mistakes are somebody else's fault. I was actually amazed to find that Pawly had any good words for Soult as Major-Générale. But maybe that’s just playing to the expected audience.

The obvious point to continue the quest are the first few chapters of Elting's Swords Around A Throne.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Why bother about Games Workshop? Because it matters!

Every time somebody mentions Games Workshop anywhere, it is likely to spark a lively discussion. This article is not going to end those discussions. I'm just trying to figure out what it is that is driving those discussions. What do wargamers expect of GW, and what bothers them so much?

A nice example of some GW-love to be found on the net

First of all, everyone agrees about what makes GW special: high quality miniatures (let’s see failcast as an short term aberration), well developed and engaging mythos and mostly innovative games. Although this applies more to the ‘specialist games’ than to Warhammer.

Second, I don’t think it’s about prices. What is acceptable is an individual consideration. I feel awkward at spending more than 3 pounds on a 28mm miniature, while others will gladly smack down a tenner for a superior sculpt. So almost all GW stuff I own I got second hand or remaindered. I was tempted but didn’t even buy the LOTR Nazghul set at half price. Many people have no such inhibitions. But generally people will not get worked up over this much, especially now there are reasonable alternatives.

Where GW lost the plot is in the peripheral shenanigans: gamesdays, White Dwarf, intellectual property, its treatment of its own shops and independent traders and most of all the players. In the last five years we've seen GW's heavy handed approach towards fansites that where keeping alive the interesting in older games, like BloodBowl. And the policy that favoured the online store over independent brick and mortar shops. Then the end of the specialist games. Or the new model for the games days, which was less show, more shop. And now the demise of the monthly White Dwarf in favour of a weekly plus a monthly glossy. In all, it looks like GW is sacrificing its community for the quick buck. 

The point is why non-GW wargamers bother about that at all? I mean, apart from the enjoyment of sticking  it to 'the Man'. My guess is that it is the notion that Warhammer is the portal for young kids to start wargaming. We want more opponents to play against, and somehow expect GW to deliver generation upon generation of fresh blood. 

Of course, Non-GW players realise that the things they value in a lively hobby are not always the same as those of a stock marketed company. GW is in the money making business and has no interest whatsoever in providing clientele to its competition. Not for nothing does it expressly ignore other forms of wargaming by declaring itself The Hobby. No wonder wargamers feel irked by that, but GW have no obligation to anyone other than their shareholders.

An relevant question is whether GW actually serves as the gateway to wargaming. As someone who delved directly into historical wargaming, I have no personal experience, but a comment on one of the Masterminis GW blogs made a big impression on me. A former GW European mainland employee remarked that after the first year about 40% of GW 'kids' quit wargaming altogether, 30% stay in The Hobby and the other 30% move on to clubs or play in their own circle. Which kind of proves the point that we have a real stake in GW's success.

So, with this in mind, many wargamers are torn on the issue of whether they’d like to see The Evil Empire fall or fear the disappearance of those young lads from wargaming forever and see the hobby die out. In fact, knowing those 40% of kids disappearing after GW has ransacked their (parents') wallets breaks our hearts. And we have a sense that if GW pisses of more people, they will not turn to other games and manufacturers, but disappear from wargaming for ever.

So wargamers have good reasons to worry about GW's recent attempts to antagonise their community. The sense of powerlessness only makes it worse.  

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Weather Vanes: the Art of Changing Sides

Mattijs Lok: Windvanen. Napoleontische Bestuurders in de Nederlandse en Franse Restauratie (1813-1820)

A study of the political survival of Dutch and French members of the Napoleonic regime during the Restoration. This book draws its strength from the comparison between the two countries, the analysis of the rite de passage that was inherent in crossing the political lines and the description of the popular press criticising the ´weather vanes´.

Despite the political revolution of 1813/1815 many bureaucrats, officers and senior politicians remained in office. How did they manage? Over the course of the regime change, the senior politicians were able to shape the events by shifting their loyalty. They did not all do so at the same time and not always out of conviction. But by their conversion in a period when the new regime had not settled they moved the scales in the right direction, thus ingratiating themselves with the new rulers.

The new regimes needed experience bureaucrats and, being still weak, had no ambition to create an internal opposition from the start. Also, both Willem Frederik and Louis XVIII had previously sought Napoleon’s favour themselves so they could not claim the moral high ground.

There was also a striking continuity in the institutions of the old regime, despite public displays of the restoration of the ancient regime. The Napoleonic legacy was not only popular enough that a real return to the old institutions would have created such unrest as to unbalance the fledgling monarchies, the bureaucracy was also very useful to the Louis and William. The imperial system of government was a top down authoritarian administration subjected to the needs of the emperor and the military. It gave the restored monarchs more power than their ancestors had had before the revolution.

But there was such a broad sense of unease that much of the Napoleonic bureaucracy remained that this continuity was downplayed as much as possible while stressing the need for unity and reconciliation. This narrative was enforced so strongly in the Netherlands that opposition to King William was stifled for years.

But discontent could not be suppressed entirely. The most committed supporters of the returned Houses of Bourbon and Orange could not hide their disappointment. Not only did they resent that former opponents went unpunished and were even rewarded, but more so they lamented that their suffering for the cause had gone unnoticed. They had sacrificed their careers for their convictions and now felt insufficiently compensated. They took out their revenge on the weather vanes by publicly holding them to account for their lack of conviction.

A successful conversion went to several phases. The first (optional) step was a request to the old ruler to be relieved from the oath of loyalty. Next a letter was written proclaiming adhesion to the new rulers. This was often a convoluted document defending the choices for former regimes in the past. Most times this was followed by an invitation from the new prince to enter his service. This later involved swearing a new oath. The monarch later confirmed the union by continuing the noble titles from the Napoleonic regime or awarding new. Knightly orders were also instituted so the king could express his gratitude.

The move from regime to regime was by no means an easy one. In the Netherlands it took several weeks before it became clear that the rising against French rule would succeed, and many preferred to bide their time before committing themselves. In France the dismantling of Napoleon’s rule in April 1814 was more rapid, but complications erupted as the emperor returned. It forced politicians, bureaucrats and officers to make difficult choices twice in three months.

And so it went wrong occasionally, as in the cases of Dutch admiral Ver Huell and bureaucrat/general Dirk van Hogendorp. Ver Huell eventually ended up in the French Chamber of Peers, but Van Hogendorp met a tragic death in Brazil. In France marshal Ney was the prime example of failure to choose wisely. He died in front of a fire squad.

The second restoration of the Bourbons was in any way more traumatic than the first and the Dutch. To the reactionary ultra monarchists the reversal of many bureaucrats to the returned emperor was a betrayal of the magnanimous treatment they had been offered in 1814. This inspired the ultras to sweeping purges of a quarter to a third of all French bureaucrats. In some parts of the country this even escalated into mass arrests, and occasional murder and lynching. Although Louis and his government discouraged these excesses, they were nevertheless tainted by them and their legitimacy of their regime was weakened as a result.

Although this book focuses almost exclusively on the civilian side of the bureaucracy, there are some interesting bits on the military and the rite de passage analogy is readily applicable to army officers. Maybe I can use it to analyse letters by Dutch officers in the National Archives in The Hague.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

NYR update January

What's up with my new year's resolutions? Doing reasonably well, actually.

Sometimes it feels like Ospreys don't really count as books
1. The Book. Done considerable reading, but not everything I had wished to do in January. But 11 of which 5 Ospreys is not a bad score (distracted? sometimes). I´ve written loads of notes and over two dozen pages, but it needs a lot of footnoting. So I continue in February with what I had set out for January: 1814 books and the Dutch army and economy. Been thinking a lot about the (dis)similarities between 1814 and 1815. Obviously, Napoleon carried his experiences of the previous campaign with him after he returned and this guided some of his decisions, both politically and militarily. Another point is the difference between the military careers of Willem I and Willem II (and their brothers, both named Frederik).

We've also got the basic framework set up, a possible third author and rough planning. That all needs to be detailed, but the essence is that I need to finish as much as possible on my chapter about the mobilisation before summer. It seems doable, and my partner knows what he´s doing. He´s got maybe 15,000 copies sold in two months, after all. Yes, you read that right.

2. No games bought. Five games played, of which three out of my collection I had never played before. That drives up my played share up from half to 53% (games have popped up over the last weeks from the most unusual places). Good going.

Mag Blasting!

3. No minis bought. It was easier to ignore all kinds of temptations knowing there was a ban.

4. Bought hardly any books, only Napoleonics. My wishlists is still growing but books, even 2nd hand, aren't always cheap. There´s always the library!

5. Did 17 blog posts, which is high by my standards and much higher than my goal of a weekly update. Linking my Goodreads reviews straight to my blog helps.

6. No new projects started. Just musing the post 1815 options. That mostly means considering which projects I would pick up again. And South American wars of independence. Been looking out for that one a long time.

So overall a good month gaming related.  Don´t expect this rate in February, though. Fewer books and games and so fewer posts as well.

But it was satisfying to have over 4,000 hits this month (and cross the 40,000 all time). My post on Andrew Bamford's Bold and Ambitious Enterprise did very well, but I think Uffindel's Napoleon 1814 actually deserves a bit more love, so check that one out if you haven't yet.