BOOK REVIEW: ‘Catastrophe at Spithead: The Sinking of the Royal George’

 

125.

Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title:  Catastrophe at Spithead: The Sinking of the Royal George

Author:  Hilary R Rubinstein

Total Number of Pages: 288

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 8

______________________________

The inexplicable sinking of the HMS Royal George and the simultaneous loss (by drowning) of its Commanding Officer (Rear-Admiral Kempenfeldt) at Spithead on 29 August 1782 was a national tragedy for the United Kingdom. Despite a subsequent enquiry to determine blame, according to this volume’s dustjacket, this book is ‘…The first comprehensive account of that calamity and is based on new research of a wide variety of contemporary sources…’ It is a reasonable precis of what is to follow.

An Introduction placed after the volume’s Contents page opens the volume. The section simultaneously summarises the life of Rear-Admiral Kempenfeldt and publicly acknowledges those who assisted the author in the volumes’ creation. The ten Chapters which form the largest section of the work now follow. Within these, two narrative-streams exist in parallel; that of the life of Rear-Admiral Kempenfeldt (Chapters One to Four) and, to a lesser-extent although simultaneously, events relating to the construction, operational service and subsequent loss of HMS Royal George. Unsurprisingly, the two narratives come together in Chapter Five (Into the Vortex), a description of the actual sinking and Kempenfeldt’s death, and remain intertwined to the volume’s final pages. Also unsurprisingly (and as the actual event was [and is] controversial), Chapters Six to Ten concentrate on the causes and effects of the events detailed in Chapter Five. Where necessary, the volume uses End-note citations to provide additional source material. These are Chapter-specific and numerical in sequence; the relevant references appearing in a designated Notes section placed after Chapter Ten (The Fate of Survivors). Due to the numerous Notes appearing within the volume, this specific section is 29 pages in length. A Bibliography placed after the Notes section lists the written material (both manuscript and published) used during the preparation of the volume. The section is followed by the book’s Index: it is its’ final section. The volume contains an eight-page long and all-colour ‘Plates’ (images) section. This contains portraits, plans, maps, landscapes and illustrations relevant to the narrative. These come from a variety of sources and are accompanied by informative captions and appropriate source citations, their existence being dignified by the statement ‘Colour plates section between pages 80 and 81 which appears at the foot of the Contents page. This is however, the volume’s only reference to their existence. Additional monochrome images, engravings, advertisements and plans also appear within the pages of the volume itself.  Although these also come from a variety of sources, a majority carry the credit citation Author despite being very evidently not by her hand, those appearing on pages 200 and 201 being but two examples of this practice. Why this should be the case is unknown. Neither the Contents page nor the Index carried reference to their existence. The volume also contains numerous Quotes. These vary in length with many carrying no authenticating and supporting source citations, with those appearing on pages 126-128 being somewhat-lengthy examples of the practice. The sheer quantity of such quotes and their lack of authenticating citations inevitably raised questions concerning their authority, ‘genuine-ness’, and usefulness as bonafide historical records.  In the absence of the necessary verification, the questions are reasonable ones. The volume contains only one Map (correctly a Chart), this carrying the caption ‘A chart of Spithead and the Solent, dated 1791, clearly showing the position of the wreck of the Royal George’. While adequate for purpose (Although perhaps the location of the hulk could have been made more obvious), an Ordnance Survey Map of at least Southern England and the Isle of Wight would have been useful to put the events and location in context. For those unfamiliar with the area, this would have been of great assistance.

While this volume is very well researched, written and readable, for this reviewer it was ‘Let down by the details’; the small things which when combined have a large effect. While the paucity of support for many of the Quotes and Images has already been alluded-to, it was the lack of entries in the Index that proved most problematical.  The section could best be described as being ‘Patchy’ with random searching finding items mentioned in the text being omitted for unknown reasons.  Examples of this practice included a lack of Index references to Gibraltar (pages 9 and 170), Kempenfeldt Bay (p.235) and Sir Edward Codrington (page 211), while several examples were found where Index entries were incomplete or inaccurate. An example (but one of several), of this latter practice was in relation to an Index entry for Horn, Betty and John. In this instance, and despite being mentioned en volume on pages 103 and 223 (but not on page 123) Horn, Betty and John received an Index entry for pages 103, and 123 (the latter being spurious) while an actual entry on page 223 was omitted completely. As already noted, there were other, similar, examples. Such discoveries did nothing to engender confidence in the accuracy of the narrative.

Although let down by the ‘technicalities’ notated above, this is a well-written and informative volume which is begs fair to become a Standard Work of Reference on its subject. It is likely to have wide appeal to Historians of several persuasions (Naval, Military, Social), and to members of the public with an interest in ‘England’s Wooden Walls’ and the Royal Navy of the ‘Nelson Era’. Modellers with an interest in the Men o’ War of Britain’s ‘Sailing Navy’ may also find the volume’s plans of interest.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent), I have given this volume an 8.

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Catastrophe at Spithead: The Sinking of the Royal George’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Uncommon Valour: The Story of the Victoria Cross’

115. UNCOMMON VALOUR (VC)

Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title: Uncommon Valour: The Story of the Victoria Cross

Author: Granville Allen Mawer

Total Number of Printed Pages: 282

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 6

____________________________

When writing in this volume’s Introduction, the author makes the following observations: ‘…The VC [Victoria Cross] is the ultimate bravery award…’ and that ‘This book sets out to not only examine individual deeds with a view to understanding them, but to also align them collectively with the expectations of those who instituted the decoration and those who administered it thereafter’. As a precis of the book’s intent it cannot be bettered.

Within the volume, an Acknowledgments section is placed immediately after the Contents pages. Within this the author pays tribute to those who assisted him in book’s creation. A list of Illustrations follows. The title is self-explanatory. Within the book the author has used a variety of graphs to provide visualisation of statistics relating to the awarding of the Decoration. These are listed as a subsection (titled Figures) within the list of Illustrations section. The 27 Chapters which form the bulk of the book now appear. Within these the reader is led from the ‘Cross’s origins to the Twenty-first Century, With the exception of the book’s final Chapter (Chapter 27; Rules and Exceptions) each Chapter within it presents a particular aspect of the larger narrative. To reinforce that aspect, the actions of VC recipients are presented as specific examples of that particular perspective. Curiously (and in an apparent attempt to assist readers in finding specific individuals sans Index), although the names of such individuals appear under each Chapter when the latter are listed on the Contents page, the self-same names are not placed at the head of the individual Chapters within the volume itself. Why this should be so is unknown. The previously-mentioned Chapter 27 focusses both on military protocols in respect of the award and on efforts made to have deserving individuals added to the list of recipients.  Three Appendices follow Chapter 27. Appendix 1 (The 1856 Victoria Cross Warrant) reproduces the ‘Founding Document’ on which the award is based. The title of Appendix 2 (The Who, When, Where, What, Why and How of the Awards) is self-explanatory, with the information-concerned being presented in Table format. Within the table however, the recipient names are presented in a First name, Surname sequence instead of the more-usual Surname-first sequence. As result trawling through the tables to find a specific individual can be both tedious and time consuming.  By way of contrast, Appendix 3 (How I Won the Victoria Cross) is an Australian-sourced humorous recitation best described as being ‘A tale of unintended consequences’. Where necessary within the individual Chapters, additional information is provided through the use of End-notes, these being numerically-sequential and Chapter-specific.  The relevant citations appear in a designated Notes section placed after Appendix 3. The volume’s Bibliography now appears. It lists the printed sources used in its creation. The Bibliography is followed by the Index; the volume’s final section.  The book contains 49 Images that are ‘…Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise attributed’.  The source has resulted in a collection of pictures of varying quality, many excellent, but several seemingly from boys comics; those on pages 88, 118 and 173 being examples of the latter. There were several others. The volume contains numerous Quotes and while many carry supporting citations to verify their authenticity, others (such as those on pages 144 and 151 and 152 [for example]) do not. While wishing to believe that the latter are also authentic and accurate recitations of events, the absence of supporting citations does raise questions… The book contains no Maps.

For this reviewer poor proof-reading has served to reduce this book’s effectiveness and resultant usefulness. This is specifically evident in the Index where a lack of attention has served to destroy any pretentions of authority that that section (and, inter alia the entire book) might have had. The Index consists of 19 pages, numbered from 263 to 282. Random searching during the review process revealed that (for example) a written entry for Aaron, Arthur (incidentally the first entry in the Index itself; on page 263) could be found on page 266, and that one for Topham, Frederick (Index entry page 280) would be appearing on page 271; i.e. within the Index itself! These are but two of numerous similar examples. To find that one Index entry only leads to another Index entry raises serious doubts about what other ‘errors’ might exist. There is no way of knowing. It was also noted that at least one individual’s name (that of Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa Ngarimu) had been entered under M rather than his surname (Ngarimu) As the name is not ‘British’ this is perhaps understandable, although the name IS correctly given within the Appendix 2 table (Award No. 1238; page 238). Have other similar ‘mistakes’ been made? Again, there is no way to know.  In addition the Index is largely ‘People’-focussed, to the almost total exclusion of geographical locations or events. Notably (despite being active participants in the larger narrative and mentioned within the volume), Australia, New Zealand and Canada as geographical / political entities are not mentioned within the Index. When combined with the previously-noted issues with Images, Quotes, Maps and Award Tables the ‘Index-related’ difficulties serve to seriously-erode the volume’s usefulness as a serious work on its subject.

Although in this reviewer’s opinion the problems detailed above are of considerable magnitude, the volume is both well written and easy to read. Military Historians with a specific interest in the Victoria Cross may find it of interest, as could readers with a more ‘generalist’ interest in the British armed forces, and their awards for brave deeds. Readers seeking descriptions of ‘Feats of daring-do’ by ordinary individuals in unusual situations may also find it worth of their attention.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent I have given this volume a 6.

______________________________________

 

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Uncommon Valour: The Story of the Victoria Cross’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Britain’s Island Fortresses: Defence of the Empire 1756-1956’

114.

Reviewer: Michael Keith Rimmer

Title: Britain’s Island Fortresses: Defence of the Empire 1756-1956

Authors: Bill Clements

Total Number of Printed Pages: 274

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 8

__________________________

When writing within this volume’s Preface, and seeking to explain the raison d’être for what follows, the author notes that ‘The aim of this book has been to record the history and importance of a large number of British colonial fortifications’ with the intention being ‘…to bring to the reader’s attention this somewhat neglected area of historical research’. In this endeavour he has been largely successful.

Within the volume, a Preface placed immediately after the Contents page provides background to why it was written, while simultaneously acknowledging those individuals and organisations that assisted in its creation. It is followed by a 23-page Introduction. While this section summarises what appears within the nine Chapters which form the main part of the book, it also explores contemporary (Nineteenth Century) technical developments in the areas of warships, guns, fortifications and naval mining. The section also investigates the prevailing administrative structures associated with the defence of the military facilities described within the volume, although notably it gives no indication as to why the specific dates (1756-1956) appearing within the title were chosen. The main part of the book now appears. As previously-noted, this comprises nine Chapters, with each of these being focussed on a specific island within the (then) British Empire. Curiously (and for unexplained reasons), this list is not arranged alphabetically, with (for example) Antigua (Chapter 4) following St Helena (Chapter 3) instead in of the usual alphabetical order of ‘A’ preceding ‘S’. In a similar manner Singapore (Chapter 8) precedes Hong Kong (Chapter 9). It is an unusual arrangement which does not engender confidence in what is to follow. Within the individual Chapter, a standardised format is followed. This comprises a general history of the island followed in turn by a history and description of its defences and their history. Subsections within each Chapter provide more detailed information about a specific aspect of the larger narrative, their presence being indicated through the use of subheadings.  Where appropriate within the Chapter, Photos, Maps, Plans and Diagrams are used compliment the narrative. These are accompanied by informative captions and source-indicating citations. The existence of the Photographs, Maps etc. is not mentioned in either the volume’s Index or on its Contents page. Where necessary, End-note-type Citations are used within the Chapters to provide additional information. These are numeric in sequence and Chapter-specific, with the necessary entries being placed in a designated Notes section located towards the rear of the book.  Many of these citations are Quote-related, indicating the sources of the latter, yet it was noticeable that not all Quotes are referenced, with that appearing on page 221 being but one example of the latter. An Appendix (Artillery, Guns and Mortars) follows Chapter 9 (Hong Kong). It uses a Table format to describe the various artillery pieces mentioned within the volume, and is followed by the previously-mentioned Notes section. A Glossary follows. As the volume uses a variety of technical and military terms, acronyms and abbreviations to describe its subject, such a section is essential and informative. The Glossary is in turn followed by a Bibliography. Within this, the relevant titles have been grouped under the individual islands as they appear within the book; a helpful move. The Bibliography is followed by the volume’s Index; it’s last section.

While this volume is both informative and well-written, this reviewer found the Index to be problematical. Random searching revealed surprising ommissions, with the non-appearance of Index entries for entries for Shoeburyness (page 15) and Winnipeg Grenadiers, Stanley Mound, Chung Hum Kok and Tai Tam (all on page 245) being but five examples of what was found. There were others…! What else may be omitted cannot, of course, be known, and leads to doubts about the authority of the section, and ipso facto, the larger volume. In addition (and when selecting this volume for review), this reviewer was interested in learning why the specific date of 1956 appeared within its title. However (and as previously-noted), he searched its Introduction in vain for this information, and only when reading page 213 accidentally learnt that ‘On 31 December 1956 coast artillery in Britain and overseas ceased to exist’. That despite its prominence in the title, it took 213 pages to discover such a detail was surprising and when combined with the ‘difficulties’ with the Index did little to engender confidence in the volume’s veracity.

The ‘difficulties’ mentioned above notwithstanding, this volume is well-researched, well written and very readable and begs fair to become a ‘Standard Reference Work’ on its subject. Historians with an interest in the British Empire, British Empire defence and World Wars I and II may find it of interest, while military enthusiasts and hobbyists with an interest in both unusual fortifications and military operations of the Sixteenth – Twentieth Centuries may find it worthy of their attention.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this volume an 8.

__________________________________

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Britain’s Island Fortresses: Defence of the Empire 1756-1956’