Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Why Study History?

Dear Readers,

Today we are going to venture off the Kabinettskriege path and look at a question that many minds (much greater than mine... Marc Bloch, for example) have answered, or attempted to answer.

The question is this: why study History?

Why should anyone care about History? It doesn't feed you, it doesn't clothe you, it doesn't shelter you, why should you care?

As a history student, I can't recall how many family dinners where someone hears that you study history, and asks something like, "So you are studying history because you want to be a professor... doesn't that seem like a self-sustaining system?" or, "What is the use of history? So we won't be doomed to repeat it?"

The answer to this question is manifold. Here, I will attempt to give you the bare bones of an argument for history.

1) The "doomed to repeat it" mantra.

Believe it or not, this is actual a legitimate reason to keep the past alive. Ever heard of the Holocaust? American Slavery? There are people in this world who attempt to argue that the Holocaust didn't happen, and that Slavery, "really wasn't so bad." Well, as a Historian, I can guarantee that the Holocaust did happen, and Slavery really was so bad. Let's not even talk about what happened to the Native Americans. 

2) The "Informs who we are today" argument.

This is another common argument, and another good one. The best example I have ever heard of this is the Confederate flag. If you think History doesn't matter to people, go buy a Confederate (non-American readers: The rebels during the United States Civil War) flag, and wave it around in the American rural south. The individuals there will probably clap you on the back and offer to buy your drinks. Do the same thing in urban centers of the American north, and you might receive a beating. (With VERY good reason.) Thus, while history might not put food on the table, it informs who we are today.

3) Leads to a full life.

I met someone recently, who told me that living a life without a knowledge of history is like watching the Thanksgiving day parade on a small black/white tv. You could hear the commentary, perhaps even make out the various floats, but would it really be enjoyable? Living a life without history is the same way.Without it, you can get by, do your job, and live your life, but history adds meaning and depth to life.

4) Believe it or not, some people actually enjoy it! (And this makes History marketable)

In my mind, one of the best arguments for history is that some individuals actual enjoy it! Ever met a Civil War reenactor? A wargamer? Or perhaps someone who just enjoys reading? These people love history. In this way, one could think of the historian as a someone in the entertainment or hobby industry. While my professors would doubtless cringe to think of themselves in this way, the historian is not unlike a company which builds fishing boats. Not everyone loves fishing, or fishing boats, but some people do, and these people fishing boats, creating a demand for more fishing boats. In the same way, historians create a product (books, lectures, etc) to meet a demand.

5) Unless our society changes, schools and colleges require students to have History classes. 

History is a subject which students need to have. Like it, hate it, you have to take it anyway. This creates a demand for history teachers and professors. No one tells the science teachers that they are unnecessary. The fact that history teachers cannot be coerced into designing WMD's is an advantage, right? Just watch Back to the Future. If Doc Brown had been a History teacher, the Libyans wouldn't have shot him.

In summary, History warns us about the traumatic events of the past, (even if we usually choose to ignore that warning,) creates the word in which we currently live, adds meaning and depth to life, and is a commodity which can be bought and sold like anything else.

Believe it or not, History matters.

Thanks for reading,


Monday, April 22, 2013

Sorry for the long delay!

Dear Kabinettskriege Readers,

I know its been a while since I posted, but don't worry, I haven't forgotten about my blog. My MA program is keeping me quite busy, but school will be over quite soon. This summer, in addition to my seasonal work, I will be taking a class on the Russian military with Dr. Sergei Zhuk, so look forward to some Russian themed posts in the future.

For now, let me know what you would like a post about. As opposed to giving specific topics, I'm going to let you choose a theme, and then I will write about something within that theme. So, readers, would you like:

A) Biography (King/Queen/Statesman/General/Soldier etc)
B) Battle Analysis (Looking at a particular engagement in this period)
C) Army Analysis (Looking at a particular army in this period)
D) Diary Analysis (Looking at the wartime experiences of a particular individual)

Let me know what you think!

Thanks for reading,


Thursday, April 11, 2013

Film Review: The Patriot

The Patriot (Copyright 2000, Columbia Pictures Inc)

Dear Reader,

Many historians get very up tight when movies portray their period inaccurately. The fact of the matter is that movies are fictional creations, and should not be taken literally. Doing so only causes pain for those of us who are alive to a sense of the past.

First of all, the Patriot is obviously a great movie. It makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside about the creation of our great nation during the American War of Independence.  Mel Gibson delivers the performance which equals his work in Braveheart.  Jason Issacs, who would go on to play Captain Mike Steele in Black Hawk Down, and Lucius Malfoy in Harry Potter, plays the quintessential British villain.

The movie portrays the Southern theatre of the American Revolution, through the eyes of Benjamin Martin, a plantation owner, whose freed Africans continue to work for him. This is the first problem with the film. If a white master freed his slaves, they would generally not continue to work on his land. For former slaves, it was much easier to make a living as a produce farmer than a cotton worker.

In the film, Martin is a good man, who cares for his children after the death of his wife. His character is based on Francis Marion, the "Swamp Fox." Marion was a guerrilla leader in the American South. In actuality, Francis Marion was not a terribly pleasant person. While it is true that he was a man of his times, and needs to be examined in his historical context, it is also true that he committed horrible atrocities against the Cherokee Indians during the French and Indian War, he hunted down and killed slaves who were "suspected" of aiding the British in any way during the American War of Independence, and occasionally, his men massacred British wounded and prisoners.

Jason Issacs character plays the devilish British villian in American History: Colonel Banastre Tarleton. (In the movie, the character is called Tavington.) Tarleton receives something of a character assassination in The Patriot. His men massacred American soldiers at the battle of the Waxhaws, but only because they thought the Americans pretended to surrender, and then shot Tarleton. He recieves some criticism from Washington Irving, but none of it appears to be factual. While light cavalry officers in the 18th century often had a reputation for violence, Tarleton appears to have been a fairly standard example of this type of soldier, not an evil aberration. The worst thing that can proved against Tarleton was that he advocated for slavery during his time Parliament (and he only did this because his family's economic investments would have been crippled, not because he though slavery was morally acceptable.) The infamous scene where the British burn down a church, full of trapped parishioners, is totally fictitious. One historian stated that if this scene actually occurred,  America probably would have used it as an excuse to stay out of the World Wars.

Let's move on to the films portrayal of the war. The British soldiers are pictured as mindless automatons, who can only move in rigid lines and fight in compact bodies. This myth has been thoroughly destroyed by Matthew H. Spring's excellent book, Through Zeal and Through Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America. In this work, published through University of Oklahoma Press, Spring convincingly argues that the British quickly adapted to the conditions of North America.  Thus, the only scene where British soldiers behave appropriately is where they exit the corn, in the scene directly before Mel Gibson's house is burned down.

The films climatic battle combines elements of the Battle of Cowpens and the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, and makes it appear as though there were relatively the same number of British and American soldiers. In both battles, the British were significantly outnumbered.

Overall, The Patriot is a very enjoyable fiction of the American Revolution. The movie is quite entertaining, and that's what movies are for, right?

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Games at the Seven Years' War Convention

The view from the hotel: Notre Dame! (Hesburgh Library to be precise.)

Dear Reader, 

I promised pictures of the games: here they are! The majority of the pictures come from Dean West's beautiful Sandershausen game, but I managed to take pictures of several other games as well.

The French prepare to attack at Sandershausen

The Hessians (or Prussian stand ins) prepare to receive them.

The Diesbach Regiment: The end of the French Line
 The above photo is of the Diesbach Regiment, one of the best units in the French army. This regiment was on of the few to come out of the disastrous battle of Rossbach with any honor. They formed a square and marched of the battlefield, leading Frederick of Prussia to quip, "What is this red brick wall, that all my artillery cannot manage to bring down?" 

Behind the Hessian lines (again, these are Prussian figures)
The overall scenario at Sandershausen.
The French (bottom) are attempting to drive off the Hessians (top). As you can see, the French have superior numbers on their side. 

Some light troops and Landmiliz

The Hessians commanders, and the game host (1st play through)
The Evil French! (1st play through)
Sadly for the forces of good everywhere, the French soundly beat the Hessians in record time during the first player through. Good Job to the French players though!
The table during the 2nd play through

The French commander leans over the table, menacingly (2nd Play through)

Against all odds, the Hessians managed to defeat the French on the second play through. They did so by emulating the actions of the historical Hessian commander, Johann Casmir von Isenberg-Birstien

Dean West assisting with Patrick Lebeau's game on Saturday. Dean is attempting to get a bird's eye view of the proceedings.
Pat Lebeau's beautiful Burkersdorf scenario
A confused naval action of the coast of India. Jeff Knudsen's beautiful 1/900 scale ships of the line help make this game a favorite of convention go-ers.
The British attempt to break the French line

Oddly enough, after a long day of gaming, there was a fireworks display for some other event outside our hotel room. A fitting end to the convention!

Duffy's Lecture

Dr. Duffy takes the podium

Dear Readers,

Every year, Dr. Christopher Duffy makes the arduous journey from England to give a lecture related to some aspect of Seven Years' War history. He was formerly a professor at De Monfort University, and for many years taught at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. He is the author of over 20 books, the majority of them regarding warfare in the Kabinettskriege period. You can purchase some of his books at the Emperor's Press.

One of the best things about Duffy is his frequent use of humor. Taking the podium, this normally quiet, mild mannered Englishman looked at us with the glare of an 18th century drill sergeant,  and shouted, "Listen up, you scum!" After pausing for the laughter to subside, he began to inform us about the divisional system in the 18th century.

In his lecture, he argued that the French used the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 (the '45) as a testbed for many of their military ideas. One of these ideas was a divisional system. Whereas armies had previously consisted of a commanding general and a collection of units, the divisional system combined certain units into permanent groups. The French and Austrians attempted to perfect this system during the Seven Years' War, while the Prussians stagnated after the death of Prussian General Winterfeldt.

Duffy discussed the plight of Austrian General Lacy, who was a brave soldier, (wounded six times,) and an innovative thinker. He desperately tried to introduce a divisional system in the Austrian army during the Seven Years' War. Unfortunately for Lacy, he was sidelined by two of his fellow generals, Loudon and Daun, both of whom had more influence at court.

Duffy concluded that the divisional system developed during the Seven Years' War, but was unable stick in most armies. It was a useful tool, as it allowed armies to march rapidly and then fight together in one place.

If you like wargaming, history, or just want to spend a weekend with some great characters, you should definitely come to the Seven Years' War convention. It is truly a treat for those of us, "who are alive to a sense of the past."

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Seven Years' War Convention Report: Fun, Family and an Overview of Events

Dinner at the Seven Years' War Convention

Dear Reader,

Every once in a while, its a great pleasure to be a historian. Amid all the papers to write, research to do, and classes to teach, you get to have some fun. (And to be honest, most of the rest of it is fun as well.)  This weekend was the 30th annual Seven Years' War Convention. While primarily a place for wargames, this convention also has a great many book sellers, knowledgeable individuals, and downright fun. For the past few years, my cousin Peter, and I (along with both of our fathers), go to South Bend for this convention.For the wargamishly inclined, fear not, there will be a lot of pictures of the event in a subsequent post.

On Thursday, I arrived in order to help Dean West set up his Sandershausen game. I have researched the battle of Sandershausen extensively, and recently published an article on the battle in the Journal of the Seven Years' War Association. Dean is a really great guy, and setting up the battle was a lot of fun. He has some beautiful wargaming terrain, which helps make the battle look realistic. From there, we all went out to dinner at the Cafe Navarre, a local restaurant in South Bend (pictured above).

On Friday, Dean put on the Sandershausen game twice, and there were many other games, which I promise to post pictures of soon. While the French defeated the Hessians in the first playthrough, the Hessians were able to hold their own in the second battle, winning the game for the first time in the history of the scenario.

On Saturday, Dad, Uncle Ray, Peter and I went over to the Fiddler's Hearth, a local Irish restaurant. Peter, as always, ordered Leg of Lamb. Here he is, trying to get through the meal!
Sorry Peter, I just couldn't resist. 

After the meal, we returned to the convention for the highlight of the trip, the meeting of the convention members, and a lecture by Dr. Christopher Duffy, the leading Seven Years' War historian. He recently published a new book, The Best of Enemies: Germans and Jacobites, where he destroys the notion that the Hessians should be villianized for their role in the '45. You can buy the book from John Brewster of Bitter Books at their website, here.

The Mitchell Cup went to Jim Purky, of Der Alte Fritz blog fame, for his excellent American War of Independence game. Also, Jim Mc Intyre, a professor at Morraine Valley in Michigan, restarted the Journal of the Seven Years' War Association

In the next couple of days, I will be posting about more details on the various games, (with photos), and a in depth discussion of Dr. Duffy's lecture.

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Britian vs. France and the Creation of the Modern World

Britain vs. France: The Creation of the Modern World

Dear Reader:

Today, we will look at one of the great rivalries in history. Like modern sports rivalries, the honor and reputation of the contestants was at stake, but unlike today, the fate of the world also hung in the balance. This rivalry, Britain vs. France, shaped the world that we live in. This rivalry led to multiple wars, including two periods of warfare lasting a hundred years or more! In this post, we will examine the second of those hundred year wars, lasting from roughly 1688 to 1815, with short periods of peace throughout. This was one of the defining conflicts of the Kabinettskriege period. For a timeline of events referred to in this post, click here. 

British Soldiers in North America

Britain vs. France: The Background

Why did Britain and France engage in this period of conflict? The answer, though complicated, can be boiled  down to this: both wanted power in Europe, and power overseas. Louis XIV of France, often called the "Sun-King," ruled over France during the first half of the 2nd Hundred Years War. Louis XIV consolidated much of the states power into the person of the monarch, and greatly increased France's military forces.  During this time, France still had the position of Europe's leading power. Govind Sreenivasan, a historian at Brandeis University, refers to France as the, "nine hundred pound gorilla," of early modern Europe. Around the year 1700, France possessed a huge population, roughly 20 million compared with 6 million in Great Britain, less than 6 million in the Low Countries, 8 million in Austria, and 1.5 million in Prussia. Thus, in order to oppose France, the countries of Europe needed to ally with one another in order to resist French expansion.

French Soldiers of the War of Spanish Succession
The Opening Stages: 1688 to 1715

The French juggernaut was opposed by England, Austria, the Dutch, and Prussia, in the Nine Years War, and the War of Spanish Succession. In the Nine Years War, the French sought to oppose William III, a Dutch Prince who recently took the throne of England. In this conflict, the French won most of the victories in Europe, but failed to invade England or have notable success at sea. In the War of Spanish Succession, the Allies attempted to prevent the unification of France and Spain under the house of Bourbon. While the French candidate did eventually take the Spanish throne, the French lost overseas power, and were forced to give up power in Europe as well, such as the Spanish Netherlands, and the Kingdom of Naples. Louis XIV died shortly after the conclusion of the War of Spanish Succession. While the war was technically a French victory, it was costly, and weakened the French position in future wars. Louis XIV's policies also created higher levels of social unrest in France, a trend which would continue under his successor, Loius XV.

The World in the Balance: 1715 to 1789 

During this period, the French and the English engaged in numerous wars over colonial possessions. While the French occasionally made local gains, they were heavily defeated in the Seven Years' War, (known as the French and Indian War in North America) and lost what we now know as Canada to the British. They experienced a brief revival late in the 18th century, assisting the American rebel colonists in obtaining independence in the American War of Independence. For once, the French navy was able to pull through when it mattered, defeating the British in the Battle of Chesapeake, and ensuring Cornwallis' surrender to a joint American-French army at Yorktown. Throughout the 18th century, the French overseas empire lost ground to the British, most notably in Canada and India.

The Battle of Waterloo-The Last Gasp of the Franco-British Wars

The Final Chapter: 1789 to 1815 

In 1789, the French people, dissatisfied with their living conditions, rose up in revolution against yet another Louis (the XVI). This dramatic event led to consternation throughout the rest of Europe, as other monarchs began to fear for their lives. It also had horrible consequences for warfare. The French revolutionaries, unable to compete with the rest of European armies in quality, instituted the Levee en masse, drawing on the entirety of the population for support in the war. This quickly enlarged the French army, and required the other European states to follow suit. Unfortunately for France, even the Levee en masse, the higher morale of French troops, or the genius of Napoleon and his marshals could not save the French from the combined power of Europe's monarchies. The French were defeated at Waterloo in 1815, and Napoleon went into his final exile. Even more disastrously, France lost her overseas colonies, as a result of the unparalleled British navy in this period.

The Results: How did this give us the modern world?

In the 1688 to 1815 period, the British managed to defeat the French repeatedly in overseas conflict, despite the French success during the American War of Independence. The British dominated Canada, India, and managed to keep France from overwhelming the rest of Europe. After 1815, the French, while still forming a potent piece of European (and global) affairs, never quite threatened the rest of Europe as they did in the 1688 to 1815 period. The British joined an alliance dedicated to the punishment of French expansion, and ended up winning a global empire of their own in the process. Eventually, the other European powers realized that Britain was running away with the global game. Unfortunately for the French, the damage was done, and the French Revolution turned France into the enemy of the whole of Europe. Today, in places like Canada, India, and the United States, we are still reminded of the consequences of this competition.

Thanks for reading,

Alex Burns

Seven Years' War Convention This Weekend!

The Seven Years War
Dear Reader,

Its that time of year again! The 30th annual Seven Years War Conference is happening this weekend in South Bend, Indiana. This year, Dr. Christopher Duffy is the keynote speaker, presenting on connections between the Seven Years War and the Napoleonic era. In addition to Dr. Duffy's lecture, there will be booksellers and historical gaming. For the third year in a row, I will be going with my cousin, to partake in the festivities!

Look for pictures and a write up next week on the conference.

Thanks for reading,