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Son of the Morning Star by Evan S Connell

General Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Pavilion Books (Michael Joseph), 1985, 447 p.

Son of the Morning Star cover

This book does what it says on the (subtitle of the) tin. It is an account of the fatal (to Custer’s Seventh Cavalry troop) encounter at the Little Bighorn. I say encounter, as to describe an engagement involving so few combatants on the one side as a battle is stretching things a bit. Compared to those of the US Civil War in the previous decade and of the century following it was really only a firefight. Account is also misleading. Along with everyone else Connell does not really know exactly what happened. None of Custer’s troops survived, the Native Americans who fought them did not know till later it was Custer attacking their camps and their recollections are beset by translation difficulties and their custom of noticing those things which made sense to them rather than to historians from outwith their culture.

The narrative begins a little oddly, with a description of the engagement’s aftermath, specifically of Major Reno’s and Captain Benteen’s commands whom Custer had detached from his own to attempt a pincer movement. Here is a first indicator of the range of Connell’s project. He goes into details of both these officers’ lives – before and after the Little Bighorn – and when referred to gives us biographies of all the notable characters who had anything to do with the events of that day (and even of some of those who didn’t.) All interesting stuff, but leading to a certain lack of focus.

Custer’s misjudgement in attacking a force of whose size he was unaware was not a one-off. He had acted similarly in the Civil War, where his tendency to charge at anything without adequate reconnaissance and (not) think later became almost a trademark (and he got away with this against Indians at the Battle of the Washita, gaining his unearned reputation as an Indian fighter.) But then, what else is to be expected of a man who graduated twenty-fourth out of twenty four in his year at West Point, with the most demerits of any such student to that time? Indeed his rise in the ranks during the Civil War could be said to be without trace as none of the actions in which he was involved (not that they are explored in great detail in the text) indicated any intrinsic military ability. But they did catch the eye of his superiors.

In an interesting aside Connell states that any photographs said to be of Crazy Horse are most likely of someone else. He would apparently sit for paintings but felt a photograph would steal something from him and refused to have his picture taken. Also, one observer noted he lacked the usual high cheekbones of the North American Indian and had a pale skin colour. Connell does not suggest this but that seems to me to imply he could have been of white ancestry, though brought up as a Cheyenne.

There are no fewer than thirteen pages of bibliography – in smallish print – in this book (and only three for the index.)

So what makes Custer’s story endure? Why has so much been written about it? The Little Bighorn was not the greatest defeat suffered by US soldiers at the hands of Indians. So why is it remembered? The text quotes a Professor Rosenburg* as saying, “Custer meeting death at the Little Bighorn descends to some impalpable region of the American psyche.” This is perhaps the nub. The legend persists of a lone survivor – dog, or horse – and that at the climactic moment Custer “must have flowing locks”. He didn’t; his hair had been cut before the expedition set out – for practical reasons. And too, “Reaction throughout the country was no different in 1876 than it is today on receipt of similar news: shock, followed by disbelief, fury, and a slavering appetite for revenge.”

Then there are the numerous representations of the battle on canvas and, later, film, so that “Custer’s last stand remains an inviolate myth.” According to Walt Whitman, there is “nothing in the books like” John Mulvany’s painting of the battle, “nothing in Homer, nothing in Shakespeare; more grim and sublime than either, all native, all our own, and all a fact.”

And all for what? Canada had no Indian problem – mainly due to the fact that the Canadian government kept its word. It wasn’t the Indians who broke treaties. Custer’s fate was sealed as soon as the presence of gold was confirmed in the Black Hills of Dakota. Nothing could then have stopped the influx of prospectors and the inevitable protection they demanded from the US government in the name of progress.

But even then it could perhaps have been avoided. Feather Earring in 1919 told General H L Scott, “‘If Custer had come up and talked with us, we had all agreed we would have surrendered and gone with him,’ if he had approached diplomatically the Indians would have gone back to the reservation. General Scott observed that such a method of dealing with the hostiles had not occurred to anybody.”

Pedant’s corner:- *Is this the Bruce A Rosenberg of the bibliography, author of Custer and the Epic of Defeat? Otherwise; Sturgis’ (Sturgis’s: the possessives of all names in the text ending in “s” are rendered similarly,) teepees (tepees,) diety (deity,) Macawber (Micawber,) idyls (idylls,) witnesss (witness,) Congressional stationary (stationery,) as to “knobby days”, and “whiffenpoof” I can’t find a definition.

Battlefield Monument, Langside, Glasgow

The monument, now in the middle of a roundabout, was designed by one of the good lady’s collateral ancestors, Alexander Skirving, and commemorates the Battle of Langside, site of the last defeat in Scotland of Mary Queen of Scots, and is somewhat at odds with its modern surroundings.

From east:-

Battlefield Monument from East

From south:-

Battlefield Monument from South

From west:-

Battlefield Monument From West

Battlefield Monument plaque:-

Battlefield Monument Plaque

Planter at monument’s foot:-

Battlefield Monument Planter

A Piece of Rocketry History

What a piece of nostalgia this is. This is a what a space rocket ought to look like – and in all those 1950s SF story illustrations always did. (It’s a pity it’s based on a V-2, though.)

From Astronomy Picture of the Day for 1/10/2018, the first ever rocket launch from Cape Canaveral.

First Launch from Cape Canaveral

Rochdale Co-operation

Rochdale is the home of the modern Co-operative Movement, through the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers

The original site of their first shop, in Toad Lane, is now a museum:-

Co-operative Museum, Rochdale

Side view with Co-op Tea painted on the brick:-

Rochdale Co-op

The museum extends into the modern building you can see on the left in the first photo.

Just up Toad Lane are two shopfronts which are Victorian in appearance with lovely stained glass:-

Old Shop Windows, Rochdale

More Old Shop Windows, Rochdale

On the other side of the entrance to Toad Lane is a memorial to the Kobe earthquake, which, from its inscription, seems to have something to do with the Co-operative movement:-

Kobe Earthquake Memorial, Rochdale

Buildings in Rochdale

Apart from the Town Hall there are several fine buildings in Rochdale town centre, a few of them banks or former banks.

Royal Bank of Scotland, RBS:-

Royal Bank of Scotland, Rochdale

This has “bank” inscribed in the stone above the door but is somewhat anonymous now:-

Old Bank Building, Rochdale

Lloyd’s Bank (the rounded building):-

Lloyd's Bank, Rochdale

If you look closely at the above picture you can see a blue plaque. It was once the Union Flag Inn. In 1745 a confrontation between the Jacobite forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the town authorities took place here:-

Union Flag Inn as was, Rochdale

Beside Lloyd’s Bank is the very modern Beales and behind and above both a building with faded writing on the brick. “Rochdale (something I can’t make out; equitable?) Pioneer Society (something I can’t make out.)” The Co-operative movement started in Rochdale (see later post):-

Above Beales and Lloyd's Bank, Rochdale

This building has a fine cupola:-

Cupola'd Building Rochdale Town Centre

Càrn Liath Broch (ii)

The broch’s entrance:-

Carn Liath Broch

The broch had bronze age modcons. Stairs:-

Carn Liath Broch stairs

An internal chamber:-

Càrn Liath Broch, Internal Chamber

View towards Golspie and Dunrobin Castle:-

Towards Golspie and Dunrobin Castle

The towers of Dunrobin Castle peek above the trees to the left here and on the hill is the statue of the infamous Duke of Sutherland:-

Golspie and Dunrobin Castle

Càrn Liath Broch (i)

It’s not just Orkney where you can find the remains of brochs.

This one, Càrn Liath Broch, lies west of the A 9 just north of Golspie, Sutherland, Scotland. It’s very well preserved.

Park at the lay-by on the other die of the road – take care crossing, it’s fairly busy – and it’s a short walk to the broch

From the A 9, Moray Firth in background:-

Càrn Liath Broch

From north:-

Càrn Liath Broch, from North

From south:-

Càrn Liath Broch from South

Broch interior:-

Càrn Liath Broch, Interior

An external structure:-

Càrn Liath Broch, External Structure

Information board:-

Càrn Liath Broch Information Board

Crichton Castle

The castle is in Midlothian, by the village of Crichton, which is itself near Pathhead on the A68.

The castle from the access path:-

Crichton Castle

Castle and stables from minor road across the valley:-

Crichton Castle

The stables (or they may have been a slaughterhouse or chapel) from the castle:-

Crichton Castle Stables

Closer view of stables:-

Crichton Castle Stables Close View

View through stables:-

Crichton Castle, View Through Stables

View to castle through stables:-

Crichton Castle, Through Stables

Unusual “pointy” internal wall of castle, apparently Italian influenced:-

Crichton Castle, Internal Wall

Internal detail on stonework:-

Crichton Castle, Internal Detail

More detail:-

Crichton Castle, More Internal Detail

The castle contains Scptland’s first scale-and-platt (ie modern style) staircase:-

Crichton Castle  stairs

The Great War Generals on the Western Front by Robin Neillands

Robinson, 1999, 557 p (including ii p Contents and List of Maps, iv p Acknowledgements and Dedication, 19 p Index, 4 p Select Bibliography,) plus 8 p Photographs.

 The Great War Generals on the Western Front cover

The common perception of British generalship in the Great War – as put forth in many depictions of the conflict from at least Oh, What a Lovely War! through “lions led by donkeys” to Blackadder Goes Fourth and beyond – is of cavalry officers with little knowledge of infantry tactics in charge, of widespread incompetence and callousness, of throwing men rather than competence at the enemy, of safely staying well behind the lines. In this book Neillands sets out the evidence for and against these assertions and as a result comes down in favour of the generals. In many respects for me he was pushing against an open door. It has always struck me that if the British generals were so incompetent and useless how come we didn’t lose the war? Add to that the fact that the British (and Empire) force was the only major Allied combatant (setting aside the short – but still bloody – sojourn of the US Expeditionary forces) that did not suffer a large mutiny or rout and the questions ought to be why, if their leaders were so useless, were British soldiers so steadfast? Why were they so willing to follow orders – and keep doing so?

Despite its all-encompassing sub-title the book is chiefly focused on the British generals on the Western Front, though French and German generals are of course dealt with as necessary. Overall, however, it is more of a complete history of the British sectors of the Western Front rather than a summary of the doings of the generals who directed the efforts there.

Neillands states that it is only British generals that have been subjected to such criticisms as a group. No such opprobrium has been heaped on the French or German generals as a whole despite similar propensities to life squandering, particularly the Germans at Langemarck and the French in Nivelle’s offensive. Plus there’s always Verdun.

For all sides this was a new kind of war (though slightly prefigured by aspects of the American Civil War and the Russo-Japanese War.) None of the European agonists had been subjected to industrial war of this kind before, though in terms of numbers the French and Germans were prepared for it, the latter also in terms of artillery. All expected a war of movement – and a quick resolution. As it was the trench system came about by accident; in the attempts of both sides to outflank each other in the “Race to the Sea.” And throughout defence held the upper hand.

Like all British armies at the start of a war the BEF was inadequate to the coming task in numbers and equipment; lacking in machine guns and especially artillery. Its astonishing proficiency in rifle fire could not make up for this. It would take time – years – to provide enough artillery ammunition, to recruit, to equip and to train not only the soldiers but also the staff officers necessary for the army to function efficiently (and of these the staff officers take much longer to train.) Until that came about the generals, like the soldiers, had to do the best with what they had, and to learn the techniques and tactics required to succeed. Plus they were fighting Germans; dogged professional soldiers who never gave in easily, the best army in the field – certainly until the end of 1916 (when the British perhaps took over the mantle.)

Among other beliefs Neillands describes as myths is that all British troops on the first day of the Battle of the Somme moved forward in line and at walking pace. There was in fact a large variation in tactics, the generals on the ground being largely responsible for their own formations’ procedures. The sentence attributed to Lieutenant-General Kiggell, after Passchendaele, “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?” has no provenance and is likely to be apocryphal. Neillands finds it incredible that any general faced with all the reports from the front, aerial photos, requisitions etc could have been unaware of the conditions. Quite why Third Ypres was nevertheless persisted with is a question harder to avoid.

Some criticisms are easily dispatched. Much fewer than half of the British generals were originally from cavalry regiments while an average of one general a week was lost to enemy action, hardly indicative of distance from the front. They were not hidebound tactically but learned from earlier reverses. However, in response to British innovations in attack the Germans continually adopted new defensive tactics and provided new problems to solve.

Neillands contends that the difficulties of prosecuting such a war have not been sufficiently acknowledged by the critics. The generals were from the outset instructed by the British Government to co-operate closely with their French allies. This in many respects tied the hands of both British Commanders-in-Chief, Sir John French and Sir Douglas Haig. Sometimes this necessary support, as at Loos, led to attacks the British generals did not favour. At the Somme and Third Ypres the necessity to divert German resources to relieve pressure on the French (from Verdun and the consequences of the French mutiny respectively) more or less demanded action.

The static nature of the trench system, the opportunities it gave the Germans to develop defence in depth (from Second Ypres in 1914 till their spring offensive in 1918 the Germans did not launch a major attack on the British Army anywhere along the line,) was a large factor in preventing a breakthrough. Allenby was not a notable success on the Western Front but in a war of movement in Palestine was able to show his capabilities more readily.

The main problem affecting the war’s conduct, though, was communications; which could not be relied on. Amid the smoke of battle, lines of sight were obscured; wireless technology was neither robust nor portable; telephone lines – even buried metres deep – were prone to severance by shellfire; carrier pigeons inadequate. The problem was never properly solved even by the war’s end.

Nor are any alternative strategies entirely obvious. Short of abandoning the war (so allowing Germany to keep its gains) – a course which the Allied Governments never contemplated – there was little option but to carry on.

Another factor affecting the generals was that Prime Minister Lloyd George never trusted them, Haig in particular. Neillands holds Lloyd George partly responsible for the British being forced to retreat by the German “Michael” offensive of March 1918 as he had held troops back in Britain rather than reinforcing the front. The overwhelming force of their initial attack would have caused problems in any case but even in its unstrengthened form the army, though it retreated, nevertheless did not break; the Germans were held.

In passing Neillands decries the “Pommie bashing” of latter day Australian and Canadian historians who variously claim the British “establishment” was biased against their own commanders and treated colonial troops as cannon fodder. While acknowledging the quality of these troops and the abilities of the Canadian General Currie and the Australian General Monash in particular, he shows most British divisions – and not a few generals – were equally effective.

Some criticisms are harder to defray. Typically there was a failure to exploit initial success quickly (in the case of Cambrai a disbelief in the extent of that success and a lack of preparedness for it) and an all too prevalent tendency to keep bashing away when an attack slowed down, in the belief that the Germans were weakening and “one more push” would prevail.

Yet the final victories – and they were victories, the Hindenburg line was breached, the British Army ended up as far advanced from the trench lines as Mons (where its participation in the war had started) – are not given nearly as much attention as the earlier “failures”. That is an indictment of those who give more weight to the generals’ shortcomings than to the achievements of the men under their direction. It was the war, and its continuation, plus the inability of the technology of attack to overcome that of defence that was the problem.

This is a book that, while not ignoring their faults, attests to the good faith of the British generals of the Great War, men doing their best amidst adverse circumstances.

Pedant’s corner:- “Field Marshal Sir William, Robertson’s father” (no comma,) “Seventy-eight British generals were lost their lives” (no “were”,) “led to the way it in which it was conducted (the way in which,) “over 9, 000,000” (there were frequent occurrences in the text of this extraneous space when a large number was cited and the practice wasn’t consistent,) a missing comma before a quote (x 5,) mache timetables (march timetables?) “we have go back” (have to go back,) “the infantry were mustered” (was mustered,) “Lieutenant-General Sir, Henry Grierson” (no comma,) “including the German and Soviet armies” (Soviet armies? Pre-1917?) ulster (Ulster,) “The force of France were already in trouble” (forces,) “and and” (only one required,) “in orders to denigrate” (in order,) “Readers are invited to look again at the message French sent to Smith-Dorrien again” (only one “again” needed,) “the true state of affairs were brought to the attention” (was brought,) General Franchet d’ Espery (d’Espery, x2,) “gave Haig time assess the situation” (to assess,) “just how grievously the Haig’s command had suffered (no “the”,) “the artillery … were…. their stocks of ammunition” (was…. its stocks,) Bellewaarde (Bellewaerde?) “the BEF were now set upon” (was set upon,) “smoke screen screen” (only one “screen” required,) to cut of the wire (off,) earlier in his book (this book,) any battalions fire plan (battalion’s,) “might wander of their axis” (off,) “that the Rawlinson’s attack” (no “the”,) a missing comma. “This family were not wealthy” (His family was not wealthy,) a missing full stop x 5, XV Corps’ (Corps’s,) with with (only on “with” needed,) “and the defences the Germans were building…… was like nothing seen before” (were like nothing seen before,) “four-battalions-to-a-brigade. Dominion division” (“four-battalions-to-a-brigade Dominion division”,) “the bombardment rose to a crescendo” (a crescendo is the rise, not its climax,) “First Army were …. Third Army were …. Fifth Army were …. (in each case “was”,) “to be launched to on” (no “to”,) “force their forces along the coast, either to withdraw eastwards” (no comma.) “Zero hour for was set” (Zero hour was set for.) “Given his a well-earned reputation” (no “a”,) “three years earlier. Currie had been” (no full stop,) Lieutenant General Sir Kavanagh (Lieutenant General Sir Charles Kavanagh.) “The cavalry were to be commanded” (was to be,) “Tuesday 20, November” (no comma,) Hidenburg Line (Hindenburg, elsewhere correct,) the Middlesex Regoment (Regiment,) General Cardona (Cadorna,) “the main theatre in this war the Western Front” (war was the Western Front,) “that the he had always wanted” (that he had,) “the enemy were preparing an attack” (was,) narrow-gange track (gauge,) “the German armies in west” (in the west,) “for the politicians understand” (politicians to understand,) the United State (States,) “to wait and attack, again in 1919” (no comma.) “This is not the say” (not to say,) Austrain (Austrian.) “The learning curve …. and only starting to rise” (started,) “against the Bolshevik” (Bolsheviks,) “he was named. Presidential Chief of Staff” (no full stop.)

Arnhem by Major-General R E Urquhart

Pan, British Battles Series, 1972, 221 p plus 8 p photographs. First published in 1958.

 Arnhem cover

In 1944 Urquhart was the Commander of the 1st Airborne Division which along with 1 Polish Parachute Brigade carried out the ‘Market’ part of the overall ‘Market Garden’ Operation to take the crossings over the Rivers Maas, Waal and Neder Rhine by aerial assault with a ground push intended to relieve them. As such he was therefore in command at Arnhem, location of the famous “Bridge Too Far.”

The book mainly covers Urquhart’s own experiences at Arnhem to the west of the town and bridge but it does broaden out at times to cover other aspects of the operation.

Perhaps a desperate adventure in the best of circumstances, the enterprise was totally compromised by the plans for the complete operation being found by the Germans on the body of a US officer. The German commander, Model, had in any case quickly assessed the likely focus of the attack and made his dispositions accordingly. In addition, from the outset there were problems with British communications, as radio sets failed to function properly. As a result subsequent air supply fell on the places designated before the operation started which were mostly back in German hands by the time the drops took place. Urquhart pays tribute to the dedication and bravery of the aircrews on these missions. They had to fly in a straight line for kilometres sometimes making several passes over the drop zone all in the teeth of German anti-aircraft fire. As a result many planes and lives were lost. So too with the fortitude of the defenders of the Allied positions at the bridge and in the pocket.

A strange circumstance seemed to take place with medical provision for casualties at one location where relatively lightly wounded of both sides were treated in the same building (under German guard) before returning to their respective positions.

Oddly, I felt that a history of the battle might have been better written by someone not so intimately involved with it. Urquhart was perhaps too close to the events to clarify them sufficiently for the general reader.

Pedant’s corner:- Horrocks’ (Horrocks’s,) none the worst (none the worse,) at the feet of a ten-feet-high brick wall (at the foot of,) 82nd Us Airborne Division (US.) “For a while we were enduring…” (For while we were enduring,) “but an forming close defence” (am forming,) XXX Corps’ (XXX Corps).

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