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Book Reviews

The World’s Greatest 20th Century Battlefields

by Peter and Dan Snow

London: BBC Books – Random House, 2007
288 pages, $48.50
ISBN – 10:0563522959X

Reviewed by Paul R. Hussey

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Book Cover: Twentieth Century BattlefieldsFrom its ambitious title through to its structure and style, this is a book aimed at a mass audience of only superficially informed but interested readers. The book was published to accompany the television series entitled, “Twentieth Century Battlefields,” first broadcast on BBC2 in 2007. The authors, during the course of writing the book and making the television program, “walked” all of the battlefields they chose to represent. They have used the television technique effectively of overview and context with personal commentary or interview quotes containing tactical detail or compelling “I was there” evidence dispersed throughout the chapters. Obviously, more of these latter personal quotes are available with respect to the more recent conflicts chosen. In all, they add a certain uniqueness and human interest to the book.

The authors chose eight battlefields: Amiens (August 1918), Midway (June 1942), Stalingrad (September 1942 to February 1943), The Imjin River (April 1951), The Tet Offensive (January/February 1968), Yom Kippur (October 1973), The Falklands (April to June 1982), and Kuwait (August 1990 to March 1991). Why these particular battles and not others? Each author and many readers will have their own opinions. Other voices have longer lists of decisive battles. The length of this particular work may, of course, have been influenced by the length and coverage of the television program itself. The authors do admit in their introduction that any list of decisive battles is subjective, and they acknowledge, for example, the importance of the Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War, but decided to commence coverage with the First World War. Authors Peter and Dan Snow are of the opinion that these eight all had a critical impact upon the course of history, and that they all had one feature in common – they changed the future. The world, they say, would have been very different if the outcomes of these particular battles had been reversed.

Each of the eight battles, battlefields, or wars is covered in a similar approach. The authors begin with an overview of the strategic political/ military context. They then proceed through a campaign-operational level description, coupled with a tactical and individual skirmish level commentary, or quotes from interviews or testimony given in the post-conflict analysis stage. Overall, given the style of this book and the amount of material covered, these techniques work very well. This is not a book of analysis. Rather, it is one of exposure. Indeed, it constitutes a good starting point to pique one’s interest in a particular conflict.

It should come as no surprise that there is a little something for everyone in the “BBC audience.” There is even some Canadian content in the chapter on Amiens, and the chapter entitled, The Imjin River Korea. High praise comes for the Canadian soldier in the Amiens chapter, through the comment that the Canadians were left off the front line until the last possible moment because the Germans had so much respect for them that their presence in any part of the line would be taken as a sure sign that the next attack would be felt at that particular location. In the Imjin River chapter, the authors describe how the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) unit isolated on Hill 677 near Kapyong, directed the New Zealand artillery to fire upon their own positions as they were surrounded and being overrun by Chinese troops.

The book is full of interesting anecdotes, such as the following lesson in communication and cultural differences. During the Chinese attack at the Imjin River, the British 29th Brigade under Brigadier Brodie, having borne the brunt of an attack by two Chinese divisions, requested a withdrawal. However, his American commander ordered him to remain in place. The British were holding a vital section of the line, and American units were withdrawing on their right and could have been attacked from their flank or rear if the 29th Brigade had been permitted to withdraw. Many of the survivors of the onslaught in the 29th felt that Brigadier Brodie and his American superior failed to communicate as effectively as men from the same nation and cultural background might have done. Brodie apparently told his American commander that things were “a bit sticky.” This classic bit of understatement by a British officer was not “fully appreciated” by the American commander, and so, resources were not committed “...in proportion to the threat” that the British forces faced. This is a significant lesson to be remembered in today’s multinational coalitions.

It is these scatterings of personalities and anecdotes that come out of the general overviews and chronology that give this book its appeal and character. Overall, I believe the authors achieved their goal of extending the reach of the BBC television program on 20th Century conflict to the general reader. It provides a very readable introduction across the broad panorama of a very violent century of warfare.

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Major-General (ret’d) Paul Hussey, OMM, CD, is the former Commander of the Canadian Defence Academy in Kingston.

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