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Perilous Glory: The Rise of Western Military Power.

Perilous Glory: The Rise of Western Military Power. By John France. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011. Pp. 438. $35.00.)

The author of this study has produced a truly comprehensive and authentic summary of warfare. His work serves both scholars and general readers as a concise encyclopedia of tactics, strategy, weapons, and methods of warfare from the earliest days to the present. John France gives clear explanations of how all the major developments in warfare came about.

His work has tremendous importance because he provides deep insights into the transformations of warfare and how they have changed the course of history. For example, France points out that the horsemen of the great Muslim warrior Saladin adopted the fast cavalry methods and weapons--especially the powerful compound bow that could be wielded on horseback--developed by tribes of the Eurasian steppes. These tools allowed Saladin to inflict a disastrous defeat on Christian crusaders at the Horns of Hattin in Palestine in 1187. This battle led to the ouster of the crusaders from the Middle East.

In another example, France notes that the heart of Chinese civilization lay in the great northern plains opening into the Eurasian steppes. This forced the Chinese to develop powerful cavalry to counter the steppe horsemen, especially the Mongols and the Turkish tribes. These horsemen presented a great and lingering peril to Chinese civilization. Europe, on the other hand, was far removed from these steppe horsemen, and their forays into the West were not decisive. This fact allowed Western civilization to develop largely unmolested.

France's chronological approach to the development of warfare is exceptionally wide ranging and coherent. This is particularly noticeable in his description of warfare in the West from the days of ancient Greece and Rome through the Middle Ages to modern times. He chronicles the changes that led to revolutions in warfare. For example, France tells the remarkable story of the Wagenburgen or "wagon fortresses" developed by John Zizka in the Hussite wars of Bohemia in the 1420s. At that time, gunpowder weapons were in their early stages and took a long time to reload. Zizka saw that his untrained rebel infantry could not stand against assaults by German heavy cavalry. He hit upon placing his infantry within a circle, or laager, of wagons chained together. The firepower of the Wagenburg decimated attackers, stopped German cavalry, and gave the infantry a safe place to reload their arquebuses. These wagon fortresses were widely copied. They gave raw troops cover to use their gunpowder weapons, and this led to the rapid demise of the knight on horseback.

France describes how the seventy-four-gun ship of the line developed as the primary naval weapon in the eighteenth century. This multidecked wooden box was designed to carry as many guns as possible while retaining maneuverability at sea. France shows that this ship paralleled the infantry battle formation of the time--lines of musket-armed men who marched up to within fifty or so yards of the enemy. In a period of single-shot weapons, the aim in both cases was to deliver savage, close-range volley fire to shatter the enemy.

France shows how the simplest of ideas can lead to profound changes in warfare. In the eighteenth century, cannons were usually twelve feet long so that the muzzle would project beyond fortifications and the muzzle blast would not damage the masonry. This made cannons extremely heavy and awkward to use on the battlefield. Frederick the Great of Prussia sharply reduced the length of his barrels, attached wheels to the much lighter cannons, and used horses to keep them up even with his cavalry. The French seized on this idea and developed highly efficient light artillery. Napoleon often rolled these light cannons up to within two hundred yards of an enemy line, blasted a hole in it, and threw the enemy into chaos.

The author depicts how, in the wake of the great movements toward democracy in Europe in 1848, the Prussian officer corps sided with the king against the liberals to give decisive power to the monarchy. By the time of the unification of Germany in 1871, the German military had separated itself from the civilian population. "Throughout recorded history," France writes, "with very few exceptions, armies have been isolated from social culture" (240). The Prussian officer corps expected the state to enforce its wishes. Other officer corps felt much the same way. The result was contempt for the mass of the population and a feeling by officers that they could win wars quickly and cheaply. This attitude contributed to the ease with which the powers entered World War I and the disasters that followed.

France shows that none of the European officer corps had drawn the proper lessons from advances in weapons in the nineteenth century. These weapons included field fortification perfected in the American Civil War [1861-1865], much more powerful explosives after Alfred Nobel invented dynamite in 1866, the magazine rifle with an effective range of over one thousand yards, smokeless powder, the machine gun perfected by Hiram Maxim in 1884, and the new science of hydraulics that allowed cannons to absorb the recoil of discharged shells and thus to remain in position after firing instead of rolling backward.

All these developments ensured that massed attacks by infantry against prepared defenses were essentially impossible. But none of the Western powers had yet drawn this lesson, and they sent their troops into frontal attacks. This caused enormous casualties and led to stalemate on the Western Front for four years during World War I. In 1896, the French compounded the error by putting their faith in a 75-millimeter gun with lightweight hydraulics, prepared cartridges, and a firing rate of twenty shells a minute. This gun was designed to operate in the open against enemy infantry. Though this weapon had a shield that deflected small-arms fire, it was highly vulnerable to enemy shellfire. Other armies had solved this problem by developing long-range howitzers that could be located far beyond the range of infantry weapons but whose shells could be directed onto enemy positions by forward observers up with the infantry.

France records events of World War II with excellent detail. He describes the development of many new weapons, including radar, methods of tracking submarines under water, radio-directed bombs, the first effective jet aircraft (the German Me-262), the V-l cruise missile, the V-2 ballistic missile that flew faster than the speed of sound, and the atomic bomb. He also records the vast technological developments in weapons since World War II, including weapons directed by the Global Positioning System (GPS), radar, laser, radio, and other devices.

This study provides the most complete collection of information about warfare that exists in a small volume. It should be on the shelves of historians and students, and it is a superb source for anyone interested in the effects of warfare on human history.

Bevin Alexander

Longwood University
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Author:Alexander, Bevin
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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