Friday, 30 January 2015

Review: Caesar’s War Commentaries, by Julius Caesar

The Queen of Bithynia, or Julius Caesar as he is sometimes known, was a chap from the first century BC who wrote two accounts of his military and political adventures. The Gallic Wars covers his substantial role in conquering Gaul (NB Gallia Narbonensis, covering the south coast, was a province founded before Caesar turned up). The much shorter The Civil War is about his tussle with a chap called Pompey for supremacy of the known world.

The edition I read is from the 1950s, an Everyman’s Library version with an interesting take on the translation. Interesting, in that Caesar wrote in the third person and it’s been shifted to the first (with the exception of a connecting letter written by Aulus Hirtius). I have read a different version of The Civil War (including three parts, of four, which were written by other chaps) and have to say the perspective change really improves it. Another change, of which I was less fond, was changing the ‘cohort’ to ‘battalion’. Changing the money sums to pounds (from 1950s Britain) is also a bit tricky. Modern place names are used, with ancient equivalents mentioned as footnotes on the first occasion.

I have to say I really rather enjoyed it. The Gallic Wars is written in a more polished, immersive way than The Civil War (which is terser and there is some suggestion he intended to edit and redraft it until he had a meeting with Brutus which resulted in a dramatic decline in his writing output). Descriptions are concise but sufficient to fully convey the situation, and there is an air of objectivity about the writing which lends weight to the account (even though Caesar cannot possibly be entirely objective, of course).

It should be stressed that there’s an emphasis on military matters, both strategic and tactical, and that the political situation, excepting The Civil War (which is perhaps a fifth or less of the book), are in the background.

Because it ends with the last portion likely written by Caesar, it does not finish at a natural point (after Pharsalus, for example), but that merely adds to the sense of mortal strife that was encompassing the world at that point in history. Many other notable people are killed during the course of the two accounts, and the fact the author himself falls prey to mortality fits the subject matter nicely.

Caesar’s life and the aftermath of his death marked the end of the Roman Republic and ushered in the Roman Empire. It’s a critical turning point of the Roman state, which had existed for about seven centuries at this point and continued, using the longer measure, for another fifteen or so afterwards.


Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Review: The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation, by Ian Mortimer

The Perfect King is, as the title suggests, a biography of Edward III, who reigned in the 14th century. It’s a bit modern for me as far as history goes, but I had hugely enjoyed Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England and was looking forward forward to it.

The history begins ahead of Edward III’s own story, which helps to set the scene and establish the situation into which he was born and grew. The difficulties his father, Edward II, suffered (and caused) are gone into in sufficient detail to create the context for Edward III’s own story, without going overboard. It’s worth noting the author employs the simple consistency of referring to Edward III as ‘Edward’ throughout (handy when his father shared the name and his eldest son, usually called ‘the prince’ or ‘the Black Prince’, likewise).

I had the vague notion that Edward II had been murdered by red hot poker, though the author disagrees. Direct evidence of Edward’s father’s survival is scarce, but the circumstantial evidence is quite numerous, and a credible case is made for Edward II surviving for years longer than is generally believed.

The amount of information is extensive, and not limited to battles and war (although I must admit that is what most interested me). It was fascinating to read how early moment swung to and fro as Edward tussled with King Philip of France.

Throughout the book, the author does a good job in the useful (and sometimes essential) task of providing context to the actions and speech that are described. The medieval world is, in many ways, far removed from ours and the behaviour of those in the 14th century can seem inexplicable, without explanation.

The succession of sad news and rapid descent from glory to tragedy of Edward towards the end of his long reign (one of the longest in English history) is very sympathetic. It takes little imagination to place oneself with an old man whose mind is fraying daily but who remains burdened by royal responsibility (particularly in the modern age, when Alzheimer’s is on the march).

It’s slightly surprising there wasn’t a brief section on the immediate aftermath of Edward’s death, regarding the succession.

The book has a number of maps near the beginning, including England, the Anglo-Scottish borders, France and other bits of Europe. Unlike some maps in books, they’re detailed without being cluttered, and none of the maps get partially devoured by the spine of the book.

Notes are frequent throughout. It’s a small thing, but I much prefer footnotes to having notes explained at the back of a book, which happens here. Checking back and forth is a little more tedious than glancing at the bottom of the page.

As is common with this sort of book, there are a number of photographs (black and white) and the odd picture contained within. The tombs are particularly interesting as they feature, in all likelihood, realistic depictions of the faces of significant figures, including Edward.

The end has eight appendices. Generally, these were of little interest to me (excepting an interesting explanation of why I* was almost certainly descended from Edward III). However, the whole purpose of appendices is to provide additional information that doesn’t sit easily in the main body of text or is not essential to the main subject, so that’s not an issue.

*Well, anyone with English ancestry. But that includes me.

I really rather like this book, and finished it feeling that I had an understanding of England prior to and after Edward’s reign, as well as the impact of major events (including the Black Death) on society. I have a little knowledge of the era but wouldn’t say I was well-versed in it, and never felt confused or out of my depth. 


Friday, 16 January 2015

2015: The Plan

Last year was a bit fallow in terms of stuff I released.

There was the milestone of getting my first published short story out (Saxon & Khan, part of the Malevolence: Tales from Beyond the Veil anthology), but that was the only story of mine released in 2014.

The reason for the fallow year was just a matter of circumstance, in the same way that Journey to Altmortis and Sir Edric’s Temple were released a few months apart in 2013, and didn’t reflect any slowdown in how much I was writing (quite the reverse, to be honest). Hopefully, 2015 will be a bumper harvest.

I’m very glad to announce that the first of 12 episodes in the Zodiac Eclipse mini-series is out now at Kraxon magazine. Zodiac Eclipse tells the tale of Gertrude Jaeger, a crippled bounty hunter coerced into piracy on the infamous ship The Sun Dancer. One thousand word episode will be released each month of 2015.

I’m endeavouring to get Kingdom Asunder self-published this year. It’s hard to say when, precisely, as it’s currently being brutalised by a small army of beta readers, whose hard work beating out the weak spots is greatly appreciated. Kingdom Asunder is a fantasy novel which occurs in the Bane of Souls/Journey to Altmortis world.

Those who enjoy comedy may be pleased to know that the second edition of Sir Edric’s Temple (published by Tickety Boo Press) has been pencilled in for release in 2015. Sir Edric’s Treasure, the follow-up comedy, will also be published by Tickety Boo, possibly this year, possibly next.

I have a number of short stories in the pipeline with several anthologies. They range from sci-fi to steampunk (which was surprisingly fun to write. I’m giving serious consideration to a full-length steampunk novel). Can’t say which will be given the green light, or when precisely they’ll be out, but I’m hoping for at least one short story (within an anthology) to be released in 2015, in addition to the 12 Zodiac Eclipse episodes.

So, at the maximum extent this year could see about sixteen short stories and three solo efforts, and the minimum should be twelve short stories and one solo effort. Either way, it’s a lot more than 2014, so stay tuned for announcements on new releases.


Wednesday, 7 January 2015

2015 – a year of two anniversaries

There are two historic anniversaries this year. By chance, both of them involve crushing defeats of the French (one turned out to be a strategic triumph, the other was rendered a glorious but fleeting moment due to the cruelty of fate).

It is two centuries since the Battle of Waterloo, which demonstrated the tactical supremacy of a British footwear designer [to paraphrase the famous Albino Blacksheep page] over a troublesome Corsican. Six centuries have passed since one of England’s most heroic kings, Henry V, proved on the field of Agincourt that charging towards thousands of archers was not necessarily a recipe for victory.

The Battle of Waterloo

Napoleon had been exiled to the island of Elba. Unfortunately, the former French Emperor decided retirement didn’t suit him, and returned to the fore. He marched north, having been declared an outlaw. Numerous powers, including the UK and Prussia, organised forces to match his own. Napoleon had to destroy part of the coalition against him before reinforcements could arrive, and so the path to Waterloo began.

On 18 June Napoleon and Wellington clashed in the Battle of Waterloo. Blücher, commanding the Prussians, was nearby and heading to reinforce Wellington.

The French and multi-national armies led by Napoleon and Wellington respectively were almost identical in raw numbers, with 69,000 for the French and 67,000 for the coalition. Roughly half Wellington’s chaps were British or from the King’s German Legion. The coalition had 11,000 cavalry to France’s 7,000, but the French had 250 guns against the coalition’s 150. Infantry numbers were very close (50,000 coalition, 48,000 French).

The distant but nearing Prussians had 50,000 men.

Wellington adopted a defensive position along a ridge running east to west, effectively hiding many of his men just over the crest. A hamlet and château ahead of the ridge were fortified, as was a farmhouse.

Napoleon drew up his forces symmetrically, as he couldn’t see Wellington’s deployment and therefore couldn’t respond to it.

It had rained heavily overnight, which led to the Prussians moving more slowly than might’ve been the case, but also Napoleon setting up the battle later as cavalry and artillery aren’t fond of soggy ground and the French were unaware the Prussians would arrive so quickly.

There was fierce fighting to capture the château, Hougoumont, but it held throughout the battle. However, the French enjoyed success elsewhere on the field, putting the farmhouse under serious pressure and pushing back the coalition. The Earl of Uxbridge commanded a heavy cavalry charge to try and rescue the beleaguered infantry.

Initially, the cavalry swept all before them and made great and bloody work of the French, and although stiffer resistance was met, the infantry had been heartened and two eagles were captured from the French.

However, the horses were fatigued and any semblance of order seemed lost for Uxbridge’s cavalry. Napoleon ordered a strong counter-charge of cavalry and the British cavalry suffered heavy losses.

The farmhouse, La Haye Sainte, finally fell because the men defending it simply ran out of ammunition. But it had been held for most of the day and its long resistance may have been the critical difference between victory and defeat. Its capture enabled the French to advance their guns and hammer the coalition squares, which had been formed to (very successfully) repel the efforts of French cavalry to break them.

Things looked bleak. Changing from square formation would’ve left the coalition vulnerable to the French cavalry (the coalition had little strength in this arm remaining), but staying in them crammed men close together and made them soft targets for the increasing number of French guns firing their way.

Then Blücher and 50,000 odd Prussians turned up. The French put up a spirited resistance to this new threat, but were immediately on the back foot.

Napoleon attempted to rescue the situation by sending in his famed Imperial Guard, who had never known defeat, to destroy the Wellington army before the Prussians could make serious headway. The Imperial Guard were driven back, however, and the battle was lost.

Wellington had 15,000 casualties (dead or wounded), Blücher suffering about half this, and Napoleon around 25,000.

As well as being important in itself, Waterloo marked the final end of Napoleon as a political power, the end of tumultuous wars that had rocked Europe for decades, and an era (rare in Europe) of relative peace.

The Battle of Agincourt

The Battle of Agincourt occurred during the latter stages of the rather lengthy Hundred Years’ War (on 25 October). Henry V, King of England, had besieged and taken Harfleur, and was marching his army of around 9,000 men (some estimates have it as low as 6,000) to English-held Calais.

A French army shadowed the English as they made their way to Calais. The English were in pretty ropey shape, suffering dysentery, possessing little food and having marched rather a long way in a short time. Henry decided to engage in battle as those factors and the potential for French reinforcements meant delaying would only strengthen his enemy and weaken his own side. It was a brave decision, given the English were outnumbered (estimates vary a lot, but one consistency is that the English were substantially fewer in number than the French).

The battlefield was a narrow strip of land between two woods. Henry’s army was over three-quarters archers, armed with the famed English longbow. The archers were on the flanks with men-at-arms and knights in the centre.

The French had the advantage of numbers, with estimates varying from 12,000 up to 36,000. Several hundred horsemen were on either wing, with the men-at-arms, who outnumbered their English counterparts very significantly, in the centre. The French also had thousands of archers and crossbowmen but the narrowness of the battlefield and the eagerness of the French nobility to capture noble Englishmen (and thereby claim substantial ransoms) meant that the men-at-arms advanced and the French archers played little role.

As well as being narrow, the field was muddy, making it difficult for the French men-at-arms to move quickly. The French advanced in three lines, with no opportunity to outflank the English due to the terrain. The English archers could scarcely miss, and the dead and wounded severely slowed the French advance. They did meet the English foot soldiers and push them back, initially, but the three French lines mingled and became very congested, making the English archers’ lives very simple. In fact, it seems the French were so tightly packed that they were unable to properly wield their weapons due to lack of room (reminds me of the latter stage of Cannae).

The French cavalry attempted to charge the archers, which was a disaster. Woodland prevented flanking and the archers had hammered stakes in front of their positions. Horses weren’t well-armoured and very easy to hit, with wounded/dead horses a serious danger to their riders and the advancing French foot soldiers.

When the archers ran out of arrows they grabbed whatever melee weapons they had and attacked the French men-at-arms, who were, as previously mentioned, in dire straits already.

The French lost thousands to capture or death, although this ended up being much the same thing. Fearful of the French regrouping and the prisoners becoming combatants once more, Henry ordered their slaughter, sparing only the most noble (and therefore able to fetch the highest price for ransom). Reportedly, the prisoners outnumbered their captors, which is pretty unusual.

As with army numbers, deaths are subject to a wide range of speculation, with English losses from around 100 to 1,500, and French losses of around 4,000 to 10,000.

The victory on the battlefield was total, and established Henry V as a great king in popular imagination. However, the Hundred Years’ War ended up being lost (if you’re English). Henry had all but won it, when he rather unhelpfully dropped dead just a few months after the French king did likewise. Had he lived, he may well have become King of England and France. But, like Hannibal, great heroism and battlefield victories do not necessarily mean winning wars.

It’s usually better to win battles than not (although Pyrrhus might argue the point), but strategic, logistics and diplomacy are crucial to winning wars, as is just a little luck now and then.

Incidentally, sometime next week I’ll be posting a cunning plan for the year ahead.