War's Artifacts, Oddities; A Hundred Years of Military History

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 24, 2002 | Go to article overview

War's Artifacts, Oddities; A Hundred Years of Military History


Byline: John M. Taylor

When Byron Farwell died in 1999, devotees of military history lost one of the most knowledgeable and skillful writers of his time. Although he was American born and a graduate of the University of Chicago, Farwell served with British forces in the Mediterranean during World War II, and there developed a lifelong interest in the British military. Over the years he came to be known for his books dealing with Victorian England. Biographies of explorers Henry M. Stanley and Richard Burton were followed by two splendid books on military subjects, "Queen Victoria's Little Wars" and "Mr. Kipling's Army." He demonstrated his versatility in 1992 with a fine biography of Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson.

This posthumous volume is the vehicle into which Farwell distilled his remarkable knowledge of 19th-century warfare. There are definitions of forgotten terms. The khanda, for instance, is a broad battle sword native to India. A machicoulis is a projecting gallery that permits a building's defenders to fire down on attackers. Farwell offers 11 definitions of the word charge, nine as a noun, two as a verb.

But the charm of this volume derives from its essays on topics that Farwell found of particular interest. In his discussion of guerrilla warfare he quotes Confederate partisan leader John S. Mosby as saying, "It is as legitimate to fight an enemy in the rear as in the front. The only difference is in the danger." In his biographic sketch of Wellington's ally, Marshal Gebhard Blucher, he quotes the marshal's reaction on seeing London: "What a place to plunder!"

Farwell's biographic essays are more than listings of promotions and battles; they often provide special insights into his subjects. In discussing the German general Helmuth von Moltke, the author notes that von Moltke once agreed to translate Edward Gibbon's massive "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" into German for 75 pounds because he wanted to buy a horse. Von Moltke had completed nine of the 12 volumes when the publisher canceled the project.

On occasion, Farwell allows his own sentiments to show, as in this passage from his essay on Robert E. Lee:

"Lee has been charged with being too bloody-minded, of fighting on even when he must have known that his cause was lost. Viewed realistically, this was certainly true, but what the mind knows the heart cannot always accept."

Part of the charm of this book is the offbeat subjects that draw the author's attention. …

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