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Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/April 2019/Book reviews

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Australia's War with France: The Campaign in Syria and Lebanon, 1941 - by Richard James

A Vickers machine gun team from the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion in Syria, 1941

4/5 stars

By Peacemaker67

When France fell to the Germans in June 1940, the British and Commonwealth forces found themselves in the tricky position of fighting their former ally, France. This book covers Operation Exporter, which was launched by British Commonwealth and Free French forces against Vichy French forces in Syria and Lebanon on 8 June 1941, and concluded with an armistice on 14 July. I read this book as part of my development of the article on Arthur Blackburn VC, a South Australian officer who commanded the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion during the campaign.

This is James' first book, and he makes no claim of academic qualifications that I've been able to find. His motivation for writing the book was sparked by meeting many veterans of the 7th Division who participated in this campaign and later fought on the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea. He met these men whilst doing his day job; he is a tour guide on the Track. Despite his apparent lack of academic qualifications, the book is very well researched and well written, with excellent footnoting and an extensive bibliography. He covers the colonial history of the region, the geostrategic situation at the time, and the diplomatic intrigue that led up to the campaign very well. He follows this by covering each of the Allied coastal, mountain and desert columns in turn, providing a detailed and readable narrative leading to the capture of Damascus and the end of the fighting. It is well illustrated, and each time I was wanting to refer to a map to better understand the fighting, one was immediately at hand.

James' analysis of the command and leadership of the campaign is excellent, highlighting some pretty poor decision-making in the lead-up by British General Henry Maitland Wilson, who led the campaign from the luxurious King David Hotel in Jerusalem, then handed over control to Australian Lieutenant General John Lavarack when things bogged down. In particular, James criticises Wilson's insistence that the Vichy French would not resist, and the impact this had on preparations. Wilson also failed to designate a "main effort" among the three Allied columns, which resulted in insufficient concentration of force to achieve decisive victory by any of them. James also points out that the Allies lacked any medium tanks or effective anti-tank weaponry, whereas the French had a significant number of Renault R35 tanks that caused havoc and serious losses when they were used to spearhead several fierce counter-attacks. James also criticises the performance of the Free French forces, but concedes that they were understandably reluctant to fight other Frenchmen. James provides a detailed order of battle for both sides as an appendix, which is a great reference for those studying the campaign.

Due to the diplomatic embarrassment involved in the decision to fight the French, the short campaign was soon forgotten and the 7th Division became known as the "Silent Seventh" as a result. Of the 4,600 Allied casualties in the campaign, a third were Australian, including around 400 dead. The Vichy French suffered between 6,000 and 9,000 casualties. The terms of the armistice were very generous, and allowed 30,000 Vichy French to be repatriated to France. This book is an excellent addition to the limited works available on the campaign, and should be used to further develop the Syria–Lebanon Campaign article.

Publishing details: James, Richard (2017). Australia's War with France: The Campaign in Syria and Lebanon, 1941. Newport, New South Wales: Big Sky Publishing. ISBN 978-1-925520-92-7.


The French Army and the First World War - Elizabeth Greenhalgh

French soldiers marching through Paris during World War I

4/5 stars

By Nick-D

The French Army and the First World War was the final work by Australian military historian Dr Elizabeth Greenhalgh, who sadly passed away late last year. It forms part of Cambridge University Press' Armies of the Great War series.

I purchased this book expecting it to be a thematic work on the different aspects of the French Army in World War I. Instead, it's largely a campaign history. Greenhalgh provides a surprisingly detailed and rich account of the French Army's central role in the war in Europe. This includes very interesting analysis of the performance of French doctrine, weapons, generals and soldiers. It also goes into some detail on the experiences of ordinary French soldiers. I found the level of detail such that it took me several goes over a few months to get through the book, as I needed to take breaks to read more lightweight works!

The work does have some limitations though. It would have benefited from more discussion, including perhaps thematic chapters, on the Army's organisation and tactics and how they evolved over the war - these are covered as part of the narrative on the Army's campaigns, but this leaves the analysis somewhat under-done at times. The few maps in a work focused on corps and division-level accounts of battles is also a significant shortcoming.

Overall, this is a very worthwhile work. The French Army's role in World War I is currently grossly under-appreciated by the English-speaking world, and Greenhalgh provides an fine summary of its achievements and experiences.

Publishing details: Greenhalgh, Elizabeth (2014). The French Army and the First World War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781107605688.


John Curtin's War: Volume I - by John Edwards

Wartime portrait of John Curtin

3.0/5 stars

By Hawkeye7

Wartime leaders are a common subject of biographers. The appeal is of a story of people confronted by, and rising to the challenge, of extraordinary times. Australia actually had five prime ministers during the Second World War: Robert Menzies from September 1939 until August 1941; Arthur Fadden from August to October 1941; John Curtin from October 1941 until his death in July 1945; Frank Forde for a week in July 1945; and Ben Chifley for the rest of the war (and until his defeat by Menzies in December 1949). But Curtin is usually considered Australia's wartime leader.

This work is divided into two volumes - the publisher said mainly for occupational health and safety reasons. The first volume covers up to March 1942, when General Douglas MacArthur was appointed Supreme Commander of the South West Pacific Area on Curtin's recommendation. Despite its formidable size, this is not a full biography. Although the first volume covers his life before the war in about fifty pages, the focus of the books is on the war, and Curtin's prime ministership. To be sure, that is what most readers are really interested in anyway.

John Edwards is an adjunct professor at the John Curtin Institute of Public Policy at Curtin University in Western Australia. He was a senior economic advisor to Paul Keating as treasurer and later prime minister, and later served on the board of the Reserve Bank of Australia. He got Keating to launch the book in his usual colourful manner; he is more comfortable talking about economic matters than defence ones.

The Australian form of government is a cross between the American and British systems, sometimes known as a "Washminster" system. Between the wars, the main political parties at the national level were the Country Party, led by Earle Page and then Arthur Fadden, which represented farmers; the Australian Labor Party (ALP), led by Curtin from 1935, which represented workers; and the United Australia Party (UAP), led by Joseph Lyons until his death in 1939, and then by Robert Menzies, which represented no one in particular.

The Labor Party was in office only from 1929 to 1932; for the rest of the inter-war period Australia the country was governed by a coalition of the two conservative parties. The outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 found both ALP and the UAP in state of disintegration, breaking up under a combination of personal, political and regional rivalries. Moreover, no party commanded a majority in the Australian House of Representatives (lower house) between 1940 and 1943, so there was a series of minority governments. Curtin rejected an all-party government like that of Winston Churchill in the UK, but Menzies established the Advisory War Council to allow all to participate in the decision making.

Edwards recounts how Curtin adroitly and sagely declined to challenge Menzies and add political chaos to the misery of a major war, concentrating instead on bringing his factious and quarrelsome colleagues together so that his party was ready and able to govern when the coalition crumbled and two independents switched their support to the ALP. The outbreak of the Pacific War found Curtin reliant on the independents to govern in the lower house, and the consent of the opposition in the Senate. However, this book does not explain how Curtin was able to bring his party back together, although it notes a series of canny decisions.

The term "Pacific War" is contentious: to the British, then and now, Japan's entry into the war was not distinguished from the war in general; to Australians, it was a new war, and a sharp distinction was drawn between the two. The relationship between Australia and Britain forms much of the narrative of the book, although there is little analysis. Edwards argues that in severing the defence link between Britain and Australia, the British inadvertently reduced the relationship between the two to one akin to that between the UK and Canada, confined to history and culture. That Britain was no longer a great power was hard to accept for people like Curtin, who grew up in the heyday of the British Empire.

The defence policy of the coalition was based on the British Singapore Strategy. The idea was that Japanese aggression could be halted by a powerful British fleet. In the hands of conservative politicians, this degenerated into pushing the burden of Australia's defence onto the UK. Searching for an alternative strategy, Curtin found one put forward by Army officers like Henry Wynter and John Lavarack, who argued that Britain could not afford to send a fleet to the Pacific if there was a war (or the threat of one) in Europe. Instead of a maritime strategy, they argued for a continental one. With a sufficiently powerful army, Australia could render an invasion impractical, when invasion was the only way to defeat Australia. Not being in office, the ALP did not have to come to grips with the fact that it opposed the measures required to implement its own defence policy.

Paul Keating was particularly incensed by the revelations of defeatism uncovered by Edwards. In particular, a telling passage in which General Brudenell White (an elderly officer recalled to active duty as Chief of the General Staff) argued that in the absence of a British fleet, Australia's best option was to surrender, as the Army had ammunition to fight for only a few weeks and, in any case, the Japanese navy could cut Australia off from the rest of the world and blockade it into submission. How that would be accomplished is not discussed; given the length of the coastline, it does not seem possible. Even cutting the trans-Pacific sea routes by occupying Fiji and Samoa, as the Japanese planned to do, merely lengthens the voyage to Australia, which would remain accessible via the Southern Ocean.

There are also some annoying bits. Edwards says that MacArthur turned back the first B-17 sent to pick him up (p. 3). He didn't; this could have been corrected by reading the Wikipedia article on Douglas MacArthur's escape from the Philippines. He describes the two Australian cavalry divisions as being armed with sabres (p. 173). Well, yes, just as the infantry were armed with bayonets; but the main weapon of both was the trusty Lee–Enfield rifle. I fear that this may mislead some readers.

Publishing details: Edwards, John (2017). John Curtin's War: Volume I - The Coming of the War in the Pacific and the Reinventing of Australia. Melbourne, Victoria: Viking. ISBN 978-0-670-07347-4. OCLC 1081065848.


Recent external reviews

Richard Holbrooke being interviewed while visiting an Afghan National Army training centre in 2010

Santos, Luis Gorrochategui (2018). The English Armada: the greatest naval disaster in English history. London: Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 9781350016972.

Ailes, Mary Elizabeth (2017). Courage and Grief: Women and Sweden's Thirty Years' War. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 9781496200860.

Fahey, John (2018). Australia's First Spies: The remarkable story of Australia's intelligence operations, 1901-45. Crows Nest, New South Wales: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 9781760631208.

Packer, George (2019). Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century. New York City: Knopf. ISBN 9780307958020.


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  • There's a new book, The Lost Battalions by Tom Gilling, about Blackforce, but I have not read it. Hawkeye7 (discuss) 03:18, 9 April 2019 (UTC)