Book Review: Battlegrounds: Geography And The History Of Warfare

Battlegrounds:  Geography And The History Of Warfare, edited by Michael Stephenson

Organizing a set of mostly familiar battles by their terrain, and examining the important role that terrain played in the outcome and course of those battles, would appear to be such an obvious sort of book about military history that one figures many people would have undertaken the task.  But that is not the case, and this worthy volume fills the gap by providing some excellent food for thought about the impact of topography and climate on the course of military history.  Despite some minor flaws in copy-editing and occasional minor factual errors (for example, claiming that Ypres flooded so easily because of a low water table, rather, like swampy Florida, the water table is high, and close to the surface), the book is mostly very informative and very well-conceived.  It is a good idea executed competently, providing something new and worthy to read in the heavily saturated battle history market.

One thing that makes this book particularly noteworthy and provides much of its insight (as the book is mostly conceived as a set of essays on particular battles) is the fact that the battle studies are organized by the terrain, in roughly chronological order.  What this organization allows is for the reader to compare how similar problems in fighting in particular terrains were solved in different periods by different leaders using different armies and technologies, giving an implicit comparative treatment even with unrelated essays being written by different historians, providing case study approaches for the reader.  One major weakness of the work is its relentless Eurocentrism, including a grand total of 0 battles where a European or North American military power is absent.  That said, at least the battles included, for the most part, will be familiar to the reader, and I imagine the highly selective battles were chosen in mind to appeal to a Western military history reading audience that is not going to need too much background information about unfamiliar regimes and is going to want familiar battles viewed through the unfamiliar light of the restrictions of terrain and climate.

A group of historians and retired military leaders:  Matthew Bennett, Bryan Perett, Ian Castle, Gary Gallagher, Philip Haythornthwaite, Peter Huchthausen, Will Fowler, Col. Joseph Alexander USMC (Retired), Agostino von Hassell, Nigel Cave, Stephen Badsey, Eric Bergerud, and Michael Stephenson (the editor of the whole project), divide up the battles, most taking several of them.  The battles are divided by terrain:  Plains (Issus, Little Bighorn, and El Alamein), Valleys (Balaklava and Cedar Creek), Rivers (Hydaspes, the Berezina, and Arnhem), Islands (Malta, Crete, Iwo Jima), Woods and Forest (Teutoburg Forest, Chancellorsville, and Belleau Wood), Coasts (Marathon, Gallipoli, and Tarawa), Highground, covering hills, mountains, and ridges (Masada, Little Round Top, Vimy Ridge, Peleliu, Monte Cassino, Chosin Reservoir, and Khe Sanh), Desert (Omdurman and the First Gulf War), Jungle (Buna and Ia Drang Valley), Passes (Thermopylae and Kasserine Pass), Bays and Harbors (three naval battles–Salamis, Battle of the Nile, and Mobile Bay), Peninsulas (Yorktown and Bataan), and “The Geography of Hell” (Passchendaele, Verdun, and Stalingrad).

The essays themselves are mostly short and solid, containing information about the leadup, purpose, conduct, and outcome of the battles with a mixture of literature, personal touches, and notes on notable features and casualties.  The focus on mostly familiar conflicts (The Greco-Persian Wars, Alexander’s Campaigns, the Jewish War, The American Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, The American Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, as well as the First Gulf War) means that the material in this book is likely to be mostly familiar to the well-read military history audience, though the context of the battles as a result of the terrain they were fought in is likely to be a little unfamiliar.

The main purpose of this book appears to be an attempt to show familiar battles and conflicts in light of the vital role of geography in shaping how men fight, as well as how armies can be supplied, and this goal appears to be met very well by the solid work done by the historians involved.  It would have been even better to have had less “selection bias” in the battles, but if this book influences its readers to think more (or maybe to think at all) about the role of terrain in shaping battles and their outcome, this book would be successful in its aims.  I think the authors of this book can rest easy knowing they have succeeded in bringing a great deal of much needed attention to an often-neglected aspect of warfare, while providing plenty of opportunity for others to expand beyond the confines of the familiar to more unfamiliar historiographical terrain.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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