Book reviews by Steve Earles, November 2017

Military, Political & Social History

Rebellion in the Reign of Charles IIRebellion in the Reign of Charles II

Written by Julian Whitehead

Published by Pen & Sword History

The Restoration is one of the most fascinating periods of history, and certainly a great favourite of mine. King Charles II (known with good reason as the Merry Monarch as is well known from Samuel Pepys diaries and his many mistresses) fell between two monarchs whose reigns came to a bad end. His father was executed by Cromwell and his brother was illegally deposed after a brief four-year reign, subsequently spending the rest of his life in exile. But Charles ruled for a quarter of a century and died in his favourite place, in bed.

His subjects welcomed him with open arms when he was restored to the English throne in 1660 but the honeymoon period did not last long and soon there were plots and uprisings to deal with. The open Catholicism of Charles’ brother James was a magnet for all manner of troubles. In a Protestant country with a great deal of hatred for Catholics, this was a potential disaster in waiting.

You could not make up the cast of characters in this superb book, which proves that truth is indeed stranger than fiction. There is Colonel Thomas Blood, who stole the Crown Jewels, and yet, for reasons you shall discover in this book, escaped execution. We have Charles’s many mistresses such as Nell Gwyn. We also have Charles’ illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, a spoilt individual who plotted to seize the Crown. While his father indulged him, his uncle would not, and had him executed following a failed rebellion (an execution botched by the infamous Jack Ketch, despite Monmouth paying him a substantial bribe). And there is the wicked Titus Oates, a pathological liar and hater of Catholics, the architect and impetus of the so-called ‘Popish Plot’ (a parallel to the fear that Protestants had of Catholics would be that the fear of Communists in America in the 20th century).

Julian Whitehead read history at Oxford and thereafter worked in government intelligence at a high level. He has also been the Security Advisor to Historic Royal Palaces, so a more suitable author for a book such as this would be hard to imagine. The author combines an expert eye for research with a novelist’s skill for telling a tale. This is a book that would appeal to a wide audience and would make a superb documentary.

Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege In British History

Written by Roy and Lesley Adkins

Published by Little & Brown

The husband-and-wife historian team of Roy and Lesley Adkins are authors of some fine books; including ‘Trafalgar’, ‘Jack Tar’ and ‘The War For All The Oceans’.

The Siege of Gibraltar is a subject that hitherto I knew little about. Now I have read something about it, I can see what an important and interesting subject it is. It is something that should be much better known. From 1779 to 1783, the small territory of Gibraltar was blockaded and besieged, by land and by sea, by the vast combined forces of France and Spain. The Siege of Gibraltar is the longest siege in British history. The commitment made to saving Gibraltar at all costs was held responsible for the loss of the American colonies in the War of Independence.

Strategically located between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, Gibraltar was melting pot of various religions, nationalities, languages and social classes. Thousands of soldiers, their families, and civilians, endured disease, starvation and terrible bombardments during the Siege.

This a fine work of social history that would appeal to a wide audience.

The Forgotten War Against Napoleon: Conflict in the Mediterranean 1793-1815

Written by Gareth Glover

Published by Pen & Sword

The battles waged against Napoleon in France, the Iberian peninsula, Germany, Russia, and Italy have been written about extensively, analysed exhaustively. Indeed, in a lifetime, a person could not hope to read all the literature on those campaigns. But the fighting against Napoleon in the Mediterranean has rarely been studied as a separate theatre of the conflict against Napoleon in its own right. So, Gareth Glover, an expert on the Napoleonic Wars (and a former Royal Navy officer) has produced a well-written and fascinating book which will be popular with all those interested in the Napoleonic Wars.

The Russian Revolution book coverThe Russian Revolution: A New History

Written by Sean McMeekin

Published by Profile Books

I really enjoyed (and learned a lot) from Sean McMeekin’s previous books, July 1914, The Berlin-Baghdad Express, The Russian Origins of the First World WarHistory’s Greatest Heist, and The Red Millionaire, so I am very familiar with McMeekin’s work. That he is a great researcher is without doubt, that he is a great storyteller, able to explain complex history and ideas in a clear and concise fashion is without doubt too, but his really special talent is to look at events with new eyes and make hitherto unseen connections. Hence, his The Russian Origins of the First World War eschews the ‘Germans bad, Allies good POV’ of view that so many history books on the Great War take, proving the part Russia played in starting the Great War with hard facts. His History’s Greatest Heist tells the tale of how the Bolsheviks plundered and destroyed their own country’s cultural heritage, something McMeekin feels Russia has yet to recover from.

The Russian Revolution is one of the most defining events of the 20th century. Prior to the Great War, Russia was in great shape economically. By the end of the brutal Russian Civil War that followed the October Russian Revolution, more than 20 million Russians had died, millions more were homeless, wounded or ill, between one and two million people, many with desperately needed talents, had fled the Bolsheviks for sanctuary abroad; yet by 1950 a third of the world had embraced communism. How did this happen? How did the Bolsheviks survive against the odds, against common sense and justice?

McMeekin asks these very questions and he says that ‘war is the answer’, and he backs his arguments up well. For instance, following the February Revolution of 1917, the Germans allowed Lenin to cross their territory into Russia. They did this, not out of kindness, but because they knew Lenin would be a thorn in the side of the Provisional Government. To that end they bankrolled him and the Bolsheviks with huge amounts of money. Their investment paid huge dividends in October that year when Lenin seized control and shortly thereafter, following the shameful treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Russia left the war, leaving Germany free to use the troops that had been fighting the Russians against the Allies.

This alone would be startling to many readers; but as you read this fine book, there is much more to come, inhabited as it by such characters as Rasputin, Kolchak, Kerensky and Trotsky. Simply, the best book on the Russian Revolution since Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy.

Freeing The Baltic 1918-1920

Written by Geoffrey Bennett

Published by Pen & Sword Maritime

The Russian Civil War that followed in the bloody wake of Russia’s October 1917 Revolution is one of the most significant events of 20th century history, yet surprising few people are aware of the detail, which is a great shame. With the anniversary of that war arriving, this will change. This very welcome republication of Freeing The Baltic 1918-1920 will do a lot to help that. Pen & Sword did well to discover and reprint this long-lost gem.

The British Navy under Rear Admiral Sir Walter Cowan was operating in the Baltic post-World War One. The whole area was in total chaos. There was revolution in Finland, the Red Army wanted to take over the Baltic States, and the White Army wanted to march on Petrograd. Cowan provided a great deal of support for the fledgling Baltic states and indeed, performed miracles with a relatively small force. He wasn’t given any specific instructions and in many respects, had free reign at independent action, which suited him very well. Most significant of all, was the raid he approved by British torpedo boats into the hitherto-thought impregnable Kronstadt naval base, which sank two Russian battleships.

Cowan was an amazing man, whose career continued well into World War 2. Readers will be delighted to rediscover this exciting well-researched book, which once again proves that truth is stranger than fiction. I hope Pen & Sword reprint more classic books on the Russian Civil War as this is a subject that will catch the reading public’s imagination as its centenary arises.

Red Famine: Stalin’s War On Ukraine

Written by Anne Applebaum

Published by Allen Lane

It is truly amazing that there are still people, with the benefit of a century of hindsight, who think the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was a good thing. It was not, and this book, aptly titled, gives heartbreakingly poignant evidence as to why this is so.

Following the Bolshevik takeover of the former Tsarist Empire, by 1923, almost four million Ukrainians died from deliberate starvation. It is one of the greatest crimes in history. Renowned author Anne Applebaum investigates and explains this horrendous man-made atrocity in vivid detail. Being Irish I am well aware of our own Great Famine, and it gives you empathy for another horrible man-made one. Genocide wouldn’t be too strong a word for it; in fact there is no one word for it – you really have to read all of ‘Red Famine’ to do it justice.

Red Famine draws on archival material from the Soviet Union, as well as that of Ukrainian scholars, and first hand harrowing accounts of those who survived. Few of us have ever been truly hungry; read this, and be thankful it is so. The Soviet state used propaganda to turn neighbour against neighbour. Yet there were still those that resisted manipulation of their hearts and minds and did their best to help.

Following the famine, the Soviets mounted an attack on the Ukraine’s political and cultural leadership, followed by a denial that there ever had been a famine. Some Western journalists, to their eternal shame, swallowed these lies, while others who were brave enough to seek out the truth were harassed.

An important book by a brave and courageous writer, and as a glance at the news will tell you tonight… the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Steve Earles is author and co-author of numerous projects, including To End All Wars: The WWI Graphic Anthology, available summer 2014 (