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

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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.

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

BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Mau Mau Rebellion: The Emergency in Kenya 1952-1956’

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Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title: The Mau Mau Rebellion: The Emergency in Kenya 1952-1956

Author: Nick van der Bijl

Total Number of Printed Pages: 250

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

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The Mau Mau rebellion was a small, nasty conflict that occurred in Kenya (Africa) between 1952 and 1956. It was essentially a clash of cultures. There were two protagonists. One was a people-group who, after being denigrated and humiliated, had lost large amounts of hereditary land through no fault of their own. The second was a governing power which believed that it had absolute authority to do as it wished and was not about to negotiate with those it considered to be its inferiors. This volume narrates the story of the conflict that resulted.

Unlike other works on similar subjects, this volume focusses on ‘… The Regulars and young National Servicemen’, who participated in the conflict. The result is a book which ‘…Is a collation of information from published works, regimental periodicals, the internet and some interviews with and recollections of ‘those who were there’. The volume is a largely objective, eminently readable and well-researched work which gives an immediacy that is unusual. This reviewer found Chapters One (British East Africa) and Two (The Colonization of Kenya), particularly interesting.

A Preface and Acknowledgements section has been placed after the Contents page. Within it the author thanks those who contributed to the volume. It is in turn followed by a two-page Maps section An Introduction then provides an overview of Kenyan geology, fauna and native peoples. This is in turn followed by the 12 Chapters which form the bulk of the volume. A section titled Conclusion follows that section. It summarises what has gone before. Two Appendices are placed next, and are in turn followed by a Glossary. This provides interpretation for the numerous acronyms which occur within the book together with two indigenous words widely used during the conflict.  A  Bibliography then provides sources for the material used within the volume.  Although numerous quotes appear within the volume, there are no accompanying source citations. As a result there is no way of knowing from whence the quotes came. As they were presumably sourced from titles appearing within the Bibliography, for this reviewer this reduced the latter’s value for further research. The Bibliography is in turn followed by the Index. A well-captioned 16-page photographic section appears in the centre of the volume. There is however no reference to its existence on the Contents page.  Although this reviewer could find little to fault in this work, he does have reservations about the authority of the Index. This is occasioned by an entry on p.158 where it is stated that ‘…Four No.8 Squadron twin-boomed NFB-9s detached from Aden provided low-level …ground attack’. Despite a search of the Index under both Aircraft and Royal Air Force Units, no reference to either ‘8 Squadron’ or ‘NFB-9s’ (perhaps De Havilland Venom F.B.9’s?), was found. With two such errors appearing on a single page, it is reasonable to ask if other, similar, omissions have occurred? There is no way to know.  

The ‘difficulty’ with the Index notwithstanding, this is a well-written and researched volume that may be of interest to several different groups of readers.  Former residents and military personnel who were in Kenya at the time of the rebellion will no doubt find it both informative and nostalgic. Military historians interested in ‘brush fire’ conflicts and tactics could also find it useful, while the photographs may be of interest to military modellers and war-gamers. Those with an interest in the politics associated with ‘liberation’ conflicts may also find the narrative informative.

Due to the uncertainty of the Index, and on a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent. I have given this volume an 8.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Mau Mau Rebellion: The Emergency in Kenya 1952-1956’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘THE RHODESIAN WAR FIFTY YEARS ON’

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Reviewer: NZ Crown Mines

Title:  The Rhodesian War Fifty Years On

Author:  Paul Moorcroft and Peter McLaughlin

Total Number of Pages: 208

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

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It is rare to find an academic work that is readable. It is even rarer to find an academic work that is readable, well-written and objective. By those criteria, The Rhodesian War Fifty Years On is a rare book indeed. It is a delight to read, being well-written and well-researched, and, most importantly, objective in its narrative.

The volume is an upgraded reprint of a title originally published in 1982 as Chimurenga, a fact reflected in the provision of additional preface and analysis sections at the front of the work. It is comprehensive, well-researched and authoritative in its narrative and chronicles the Rhodesian / Zimbabwean conflict from that country’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in 1965, to the cessation of hostilities in 1979. In addition, it also records Zimbabwean history for the period 1980-2015, during-which time this once-prosperous nation gradually acquired ‘failed-state’ status. The ‘Rhodesian’ conflict was a nasty little war with a pre-ordained conclusion and, at one level could be simply seen as European colonialism’s last gasp in Africa. Such was not in fact the situation and the work records the rise and fall of various personalities, the changing allegiances and alliances and the unique military tactics that were developed in response to an increasingly-untenable military situation. The conflict was also one of invasion and counter-invasion and of intrigues and modified ideologies where the protagonists could be simultaneously in conflict while working in harmony.  It was very definitely not a ‘little war within a little country’, but rather one in which a small nation punched high above its weight and in ways un-thought of and considered impossible by larger powers. As a feat of arms it was unique. As a political event it was ultimately, for some of the protagonists, a disaster.

All of these events, and many more besides, are carefully recorded in this work, which has to be worthy of the appellation ‘Classic’. The authors describe the events and the sub-conflicts within the larger war in detail, with care and, most notably, with objectivity and complete impartiality. It is a refreshing change.

The work is arranged in four main sections, with subsections appearing within these. Maps, tactical illustrations and photographs also appear within the work, together with two Prefaces, a Prologue, a Glossary, a Select Bibliography and an Index. Zimbabwean history for the period 1980-2015 is contained in a separate section, as are the authors’ biographical details. The need for anonymity means that quotes and the majority of photographs are unsourced.

In this reviewer’s opinion, this work will appeal to several groups of readers. On one level it will be of use to military personnel interested in tactics and responses to specific military situations and exigencies, while historians and war-gamers will also find the information it contains useful. In addition to these special interest groups (and because it explains ‘the reasons why’), this work could be of immense value to those expatriate- Rhodesians who may still be wondering why events occurred as they did. If only for that reason, this little volume would be invaluable. That it manages to do so much more, clearly, concisely and objectively must inevitably earn it the appellation ‘Classic’. In the opinion of this reviewer, that is a designation well–deserved.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I would give it a 9½.

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nzcrownmines is also available for book reviewing: Contact nzcrownmines@gmail.com

 

BOOK REVIEW: ‘THE RHODESIAN WAR FIFTY YEARS ON’