BOOK REVIEW: ‘HORSES IN THE BRITISH ARMY; 1790 TO 1950’

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Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title: Horses in the British Army 1750-1950

Author: Janet Macdonald

Total Number of Printed Pages: 208

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 5

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One thing must be made very clear from the start. Despite its title, this volume is largely-concerned with the acquisition, training, care and general maintenance of the horse (as well other creatures when they occurred), within the British army. It does not cover actual military operations in any depth, with those that are mentioned, being adjuncts to the greater ‘care’ narrative.

To quote the dustcover ‘…This book encompasses the whole spectrum of horses in the British army over a 200 year period, from their acquisition and training, through their care and feeding and their transportation to theatres of war overseas. It also covers the selection and training of their riders and has a brief chapter on other animals used by the British army’.

Within the volume itself, a List of Plates is placed after the Contents page. This repeats the captions of images appearing in an eight-page section placed at the centre of the volume. Of these images, only one contains an indication of its source. That list is in turn followed by a short three-entry explanatory section titled Author’s Note, together with an Acknowledgments section. The latter thanks those who assisted the author in creating the volume. A Glossary is next. This is three pages in length and clarifies many of the terms used throughout the book. An Introduction follows. In it, the author sets the scene for the 15 Chapters which form the largest part of the volume. Each Chapter is devoted to one aspect of the military use of horses as practiced by the British army, with particular emphasis on their care and maintenance.  Where necessary, subsections within the Chapter provide additional information relevant to the matter under discussion within the larger Chapter. A 12-page Appendix follows. Within it, subsections are again used to provide additional information not covered within the previously-mentioned Chapters. The volume uses Endnotes to provide additional information within the chapters. These are sequentially-numbered within each Chapter, their citations appearing in a designated Notes section placed behind the Appendix. A four-page Bibliography placed after the Notes section, records the resources used during the preparation of the volume. An Index completes the work.

This reviewer was interested in learning why the title’s very specific 1950 cut-off date was chosen, this volume being requested on that basis. In that expectation he was disappointed!   Despite repeated perusals of the volume, he still has no idea why 1950 was chosen; or why it couldn’t equally have been 1955, 1975; or 2017!  The absence of such information suggests that the date was a convenient number of the author’s own choosing. There is nothing to indicate otherwise. That this reviewer found only one section within the volume that was even remotely near the title’s 1950 date would seem to confirm that hypothesis. Titled After the Second World War, and appearing as a sub-section within Chapter 3 (Getting the Horses), this single-page subsection was concerned with the disposal of surplus animals. It had no relevance to the title.  As previously noted, within the individual Chapters, Endnote-type citations are used to provide additional information. Their use is not however widespread, and the volume contains many instances where this reviewer believes they should have been used but were not. These include both quotes (those on pages 11 and 12 being but two examples) and sentences. On page 181, an uncited example of the latter (and when referring to the use of porters to carry military equipment, states  ‘…Numerous humans…in some countries including …New Zealand [were used]…to carry supplies and munitions’  With no citations to establish / prove the accuracy of such statements, they might just as well be imagined. Difficulties also arose with ‘terminology’. What (for example) is a Mallein test (pages 23 and 110)? No explanation is given, and the reader is none-the-wiser. Military rank and unit abbreviations are similarly treated, and a list of commonly used military abbreviations and ranks would have been beneficial. A peculiar use of tenses was also evident, with the subsection Yaks in Chapter 14 being but one such example, The Index is also problematic. While reviewing this volume, this writer had occasion to randomly search the Index for several words. Amongst these were Shabraque (used on pages 133, 144 and xiii), with a search finding only a single Index entry (that for page.133), the other two entries being evidently overlooked or ignored by the Indexer. Similarly, the words Otago and Otago Saddle, despite being mentioned on page 142, were also not found within the Index. New Zealand itself (mentioned twice on page 142 and again on page181), garnered no mention. As these are the results of random searches, there is no way of knowing what else might be missing.

Because of its emphasis on ‘horse care’ this volume will probably appeal to readers who are primarily ‘horse-enthusiasts’. Readers seeking information about the care of horses within a very specific military environment may also find it worthy of their attention. Readers interested in combat use of the horse within the British army are certainly likely to find some information relating to that use. However, as already noted, this is as an adjunct to the larger narrative. The 1945-1950 period in particular is not covered with any degree of adequacy.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this volume a 5.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘HORSES IN THE BRITISH ARMY; 1790 TO 1950’

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