Saturday, April 20, 2019

Book News: Bull Run to Boer War

Several decades ago when I first started getting into Civil War reading, most general history books and many other types parroted the simplistic view that the major European armies dismissed the armies of both sides as "armed mobs" and saw few lessons to be learned from any serious study of the conflict. I was always skeptical of that but the topic didn't grab me enough to investigate deeper. At one time I had a copy of Jay Luvaas's classic The Military Legacy of the Civil War: The European Inheritance but don't recall if I read it.

During the present mini-explosion of 1864-65 Richmond-Petersburg Campaign publications, discussion of the links between Civil War trench warfare and what occurred on the Western Front during the Great War, though the connection has been downplayed, has resurfaced. Recently I noticed a new study in the pipeline that addresses this topic and many others, Michael Somerville's Bull Run to Boer War: How the American Civil War Changed the British Army (Helion, January 2020). The description has me hooked.
"The American Civil War is often said to have predicted the way in which later wars such as the Boer War and the First World War would be fought. As a result the British Army has been criticised for not heeding its lessons, a view that can be traced back to the 1930s. This book challenges that long-held view, and demonstrates that the responses to the lessons of the war in the British Army were more complex, better informed, and of higher quality, than normally depicted.

Key to this new interpretation is that it takes a nineteenth century perspective rather than pre-supposing what the British should have seen based upon hindsight from the South African veldt or the Western Front trenches. It demonstrates that strategists and policy-makers reacted to the changes in the nature of warfare suggested by American experience, looks at how officers in the cavalry, infantry, artillery and engineers applied their observations in America to the technical and tactical issues of the day, and even examines the war’s influence on the development of aeronautics.

In studying how the Civil War changed the Late Victorian British Army, the book provides insight into its learning process, and concludes that although sometimes flawed, its study of the American Civil War meant that it was better prepared for the wars of the twentieth century than previously acknowledged."


  1. This looks interesting. I will be very interested in seeing how the author handles lessons in the proper and effective use of cavalry, since the Brits appear to have failed to apply those lessons in the Boer War and at the outset of WWI.

    1. I don't get too many review copies from foreign presses, but Helion's distributor is Casemate. They send me stuff all the time so I hope to get a look at the book.

    2. What lessons were the British cavalry supposed to learn? The lessons the American cavalry learned during the war was that European style sabre charges worked much better than dismounting.

      Of course, in South Africa the cavalry had operated with dismounted firepower action since the occupation of the Cape, because the ground dictated.

      In WW1 the British cavalry was very successful once the infantry broke a hole for it. The final campaigns of WW1 justified old style sabre cavalry, because it worked far better than tanks in destroying the enemies rear area.


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