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Military Book Reviews for June 2009

Books

Military Book Reviews for June 2009

Military book reviews from Warfare History Network.

Al Hemingway shares with us his military book reviews for the June 2009 issue of Military Heritage Magazine.

by Al Hemingway

Defeat of Rome in the East by Gareth C. Sampson

No man in Rome was richer or more influential than Marcus Licinius Crassus, a member of the powerful First Triumvirate that included Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar. However, despite his victory at the Battle of Colline Gate and his impressive conquest over the slaves led by Spartacus in 71 bc, Crassus remained dissatisfied. He was jealous of the many victories his rivals Caesar and Pompey had compiled, and he lusted after more military honors for himself. Assigned to the Roman province of Syria in 55 bc, the overly ambitious general would suffer one of Rome’s most humiliating defeats near the little-known town of Carrhae, in present-day Turkey.

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Gareth C. Sampson examines the life of Crassus and the events leading up to the catastrophic engagement for the Roman Empire in his new book The Defeat of Rome in the East: Crassus, The Parthians, and the Disastrous Battle of Carrhae, 53 B.C. (Casemate, Philadelphia, PA, 2008, 224 pp., notes, index, photos, $32.95, hardcover). Sampson also goes into detail on the fate of the individuals involved in the fighting and the battle’s long-lasting consequences from the perspective of the opposing sides. The trouble started when Rome decided to meddle in an ongoing dispute between long-time foes Parthia and Armenia. With the assistance of Armenian King Artavasdes and the Greek community in Syria, Crassus decided on a military campaign aimed at subjugating the Parthians, whose territory included parts of present-day Iran, Turkey, and Syria. Against the advice of Artavasdes, the arrogant Crassus marched his 35,000-man force through the arid desert. Although it was a more direct route, the trek exhausted the Romans and left them in no shape to fight a battle.

No man in Rome was richer or more influential than Marcus Licinius Crassus, a member of the powerful First Triumvirate that included Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar.Responding to the crisis against his country, Parthian King Orodes I split his army, already small in number. Orodes took the bulk of his men and traveled to Armenia. He gave the remaining wing, comprised of 9,000 horsemen and 1,000 heavily armored cavalry known as cataphracts, to his trusted general Spahbod Surena. The objective of this arm of the army was to scout, harass, and delay the Romans as much as possible. The Parthian cavalrymen were well-known for their exemplary riding ability. During battle, they would feign retreat and fire arrows at the pursuing enemy with great accuracy while riding backward. This unusual style of combat became known as the “Parthian shot.” Down through the years it has been altered to be the “parting shot,” a caustic comment fired off at the end of a conversation.

At the outset of the fighting, the Parthian archers let loose thousands of projectiles to keep the Roman legions at bay. Crassus ordered his son Publius to take a combined group of cavalry and infantry and eliminate the threat. Unfortunately, Publius’s contingent was far removed from the main body and found itself surrounded. The cataphracts killed the Romans to the last man and placed Publius’s severed head on a spear as they attacked Crassus’s remaining cohorts. The sight of Publius’s head on the lance of a Parthian cavalryman severely distressed Crassus. The unsettled commander ordered a hasty retreat from the battlefield, leaving behind 4,000 wounded Roman soldiers who were immediately put to death by the rapidly advancing Parthians.

Crassus led his remaining legions back to Carrhae to make ready for a long siege, despite the fact that he still outnumbered the enemy. A Parthian spy talked the general into fleeing the safety of the town. The undercover agent knowingly led the Romans over harsh terrain, allowing Surena’s men to catch up to them. Crassus was lured into a supposed peace conference after his men threatened him if he did not meet with the Parthians and accept their offer. It was a trap, and Crassus and his party were all put to the sword. After his death, Crassus too was beheaded and molten gold was poured down his throat to mock his riches.

When the fighting was over, 20,000 Romans had been slain and another 10,000 seized by the Parthians. The men were released years later after Rome negotiated their release. Surena, who had masterminded a glorious victory against the Romans, was executed by the jealous Orodes, who feared that his own popularity would be eclipsed by Surena. The Battle of Carrhae also saw the demise of the all-powerful triumvirate and the end of the First Republic. Increasingly concerned with internal strife, Rome took little notice of Parthia for the next three decades. Despite this, Orodes had little success in attempting to conquer Syria and Armenia after Surena’s untimely death.

Carrhae was the first major engagement between Rome and Parthia—it would not be the last. “In the end they so exhausted each other that their armies became easy prey for a third power,” wrote Sampson. “Furthermore, after the devastation that the two had caused each other’s territories in these endless years of warfare, the peoples of the region were receptive and eager for a new power to rule and one that would unite them in internal peace. Thus was born the empire of Islam and so ended the ancient world.”

The Line: Combat in Korea edited by William Bowers

It is always refreshing to have another book about the Korea conflict, often referred to as the “Forgotten War.” What makes this new entry unique is the time frame it covers—February and March 1951—the first winter of combat on the Korean peninsula. The vast majority of books written about the war usually concentrate on the larger picture. When they do cover the combat, the discussion normally centers on General Douglas MacArthur’s amphibious assault at the port of Inchon, the fighting to retake Seoul, and the debacle at the Chosin Reservoir. The battle at Pork Chop Hill in 1953, just before the signing of the armistice, has also become somewhat noteworthy after serving as the subject of a 1959 movie, Pork Chop Hill, starring Gregory Peck.

Between the latter part of 1950 and the end of hostilities in July 1953, little if anything was accomplished militarily. The war went from a fluid nature to a stagnant one as the months ground on, reminiscent of trench warfare in World War I. Men fought and died to acquire a few acres of real estate in no-man’s-land between the lines. Still, 40 percent of all casualties occurred in Korea during this strategically fallow period.

There was no shortage of heroism, however. Numerous personal decorations were awarded for incredible acts of bravery. Colonel William T. Bowers, USA (Ret.) has done a credible job of collecting personal interviews of those soldiers who participated in some of the bloody campaigns from that bone-chilling winter of 1951. Many in the West believed the war was lost after the humiliating retreat of Allied forces from the Chosin Reservoir, when the Chinese Communists entered the fighting. The American fighting man, however, was about to prove them wrong.

Bower delves into the battles of Twin Tunnels, Hill 312, Wonju, and Chip’yong-ni, names that remain largely unknown to most Americans. Many of the interviews are with the soldiers of the 2nd Infantry Division, which had suffered a bitter loss at Kunu-ri in November and December 1950. The infantrymen of the “Indianhead Division” recovered and dealt the North Korean forces and their Chinese allies a stunning blow, halting their advance and leading to the long and frustrating stalemate.

Much of the combat depicted in the book is on the squad and platoon level. Bowers convincingly demonstrates the remarkable change in morale when MacArthur was replaced by the hard-charging General Matthew Ridgway. By instilling discipline and an improved fighting spirit into the Eighth Army, Ridgway spearheaded a dramatic transformation that managed to stop a determined enemy and drive him back into North Korea, where he remains bottled up today.

Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War by Edwin G. Burrows

Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War by Edwin G. BurrowsThe subject of prisoners of war has always been a controversial one. Every conflict has produced tales of atrocities and brutality by those holding enemy servicemen captive. But the inhumane manner in which American soldiers during the Revolutionary War were handled by the English has been largely overlooked. An estimated 30,000 American prisoners were taken captive during the conflict. Many of them were held in New York City, the hub of British military operations at the time. Of this total, 18,000 are believed to have perished because of shortage of food, disease, poor living quarters, and harsh treatment received at the hands of sadistic British prison guards.

Some of these unfortunate souls were crammed aboard rotting vessels anchored in New York harbor. Others were confined in a number of buildings that dotted the town. One such place was the Old Sugar House, where hundreds of patriots died. Years after the war, ex-prisoners would stroll by with their families and tell them of the terrible conditions they endured there. The structure was demolished in 1840. Burrows reminds us of the horrendous plight of these American patriots, who sacrificed so much for their fledgling nation. They should never be forgotten.

Thomas Ewing Jr.: Frontier Lawyer and Civil War General by Ronald D. Smith

Perhaps no other individual was more prominent in the early days of Kansas statehood than Thomas Ewing, Jr. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Ewing resigned as chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court and formed the 11th Kansas Cavalry, with himself as its commander with the rank of colonel. The lawyer-turned-soldier distinguished himself on the battlefield and eventually rose to the rank of major general of volunteers in the Union Army.

The state, often referred to as “Bleeding Kansas,” was overrun with bushwhackers and unsavory groups on both sides of the conflict. Jayhawkers and “Red Legs,” siding with the North, committed a host of heinous crimes. Southern sympathizers, called bushwhackers, included the notorious Quantrill’s Raiders, led by William Quantrill, which raided the town of Lawrence, Kansas, in August 1863, killing more than 150 men and boys.

As a response to the Lawrence massacre, Ewing issued the controversial General Order 11. The proclamation decreed that all civilians with Rebel leanings in four counties in western Missouri be driven from their homes. The Draconian law was an attempt to stem criminal acts, but it nonetheless was extremely unpopular. Smith, an attorney himself as well as a historian, combed numerous sources to tell the fascinating story of Thomas Ewing—lawyer, judge, and general—and his still controversial place in Kansas and Civil War history.

This article is from the June 2009 issue of Military Heritage Magazine. If you would like to read the rest of this and other articles, visit our order page to see which digital editions we have on offer.

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