Review of Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yeager

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I picked up this book hard copy – a rarity for me, in the airport coming home from vacation and had it completed by the time we landed.  Granted, I’m a fast reader, but the message here is that this is not a deep book.  It is one, however, that is a good geopolitical read.

My printed copy clearly had some issues, with two inserts covering up errors or putting in text that was missing in the final copy.  There were a good number of pictures and maps, which were useful.  This was a foreign war against a terrorist state where religion played a part.  Hmm, the parallels to today seem pretty obvious. 

The authors do a fair job of giving you the context – both overseas and in the US at the time.  It was good to know, but what makes this book, as with most history, is the characters.  This had some outstanding heroes and some villains that seemed to have come from central casting.  The war itself was oddly balanced – the fledgling US against a well-established albeit minor state.  It is a strange balance but one that works.

As a military historian, I wanted a little more. I didn’t get the feeling of being there, though I am sure from the footnotes, that there was a wealth of material that could have been brought to bear in this regard. There were plenty of opportunities to provide readers with a wealth of detail that simply were overlooked.  The authors clearly wanted this to be an overview of America’s first foreign conflict…and therein lies the rub.  

If you are looking for the definitive book on the war with the Tripoli pirates, this is not it.  There is not a wealth of new material here on the subject.  In fact, I didn’t learn anything new and that left me wanting.  Again, I’m a history reader and writer – so I always want new data. 

If you only have passing knowledge of these conflict, I recommend this book.  Otherwise this book doesn’t break any new ground – but it is well written.  Personally, I wanted more.  As such, I give it three out of five stars. 

 

 

Book Tour Dates – The Original Battle Creek King of Crime

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People have been asking if we are coming to Michigan to do any speaking or signing events for our latest true crime book…The Original Battle Creek Crime King: Adam “Pump” Arnold’s Vile Reign.  There’s no doubt that Arnold was a devious and despicable character – and a murderer of his own son.  This book provides a Victorian-era glimpse into the nefarious dealings with a kingpin of crime – some humorous, some deadly.

Here’s the one’s we know at this time:

Thursday, Oct. 13, 7pm

Heritage Battle Creek

 

Friday, Oct. 14, 3-5pm

Books & More of Albion

 

Friday, Oct. 14, 8:10am

WBCK Radio (TENTATIVE)

 

Friday, Oct. 14, 6:30-8pm

Willard Library

 

We hope to see you there if you are in the area.

Book Review – The Lafayette Escadrille – by Steven A. Ruffin

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With the centennial of the Great War upon us I expected more books and interest in the Lafayette Escadrille.  This was, after all, a pioneering group of Americans that flew for France years before the US even declared war.  Most of its surviving members went on to be the nucleus of the American Air Service.  Without the Lafayette Escadrille and its larger fraternal organization, the Lafayette Flying Corps, the US Air Force might have begun as a debacle.  Instead it was seeded with these combat veterans.

When I heard Steve Ruffin had a book out on the subject I was excited.  In the last few years Jon Guttman and I both had written books on the Lafayette Escadrille – albeit mine was a biography of one of its more “unique” pilots, the rogue Bert Hall.  I had to wonder…would Ruffin’s book really be able to stand out?  There are a lot of books about this unit out there over the century since the war.

This one does stand out.

First, it is a photo history of the unit.  Ruffin hit some of the same places I did for photos of the unit.  What he brought to the table was context.  Paul Rockwell’s photos are in boxes down at Washington and Lee University.  Ninety-percent are unlabeled.  Steve Ruffin dove into that treasure trove (and others) and not only identified the men, but where they were and when they were there.   This book is chocked full of photographs, many of which we simply haven’t see.

Some of my favorite images Ruffin included were side-by-side shots of the men and machines, then a modern shot to show the same camera angle at the same locale today.  I loved these then-and-now images.  It is a testimony to how he must have buried himself in the research.

On top of that there are a lot of color images of the aircraft.

On the history itself, Mr. Ruffin did his work too.  He did not give us a glossed-over summary of the unit but instead went to archival sources to tell the story.  This is always a favorite of mine.  Let the men speak in their own words – with their own letters.

My only critique of the book, albeit minor, comes purely from a historian’s slant only.  It’s not footnoted.  I would have liked to know where the sources of some of the quotes he had came from.  And yes, that’s me being nitpicky, but I often find footnotes useful (and in some cases even entertaining).  On a personal note:  He dug up material that I missed in my own research when writing The Bad Boy, and I want to see where he found it!

Does Ruffin break new ground with this book?  Yes.  Some of the letters he has here have never seen the light of day in a century.  He gives us some new tid bits that will appeal to WWI aviation historians.

The Lafayette Escadrille – a Photo History of the First American Fighter Squadron, is available from Casemate Publishers for $37.95.  It is well worth it if you are an aviation enthusiast of the era.  If you are a buff, make sure you join the League of WWI Aviation Historians as well, www.overthefront.com 

Centennial of the formation of the Lafayette Escadrille

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Lafayette – we have arrived.  The Lafayette Escadrille

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Escadrille Américaine, later known as the Lafayette Escadrille.  Sadly, most Americans know little of this unit today, but at the time, the exploits of these pilots in the Great War were daily newspaper articles.  In 1916, young boys wanted to be these heroes of the air and young men headed off the Europe to join them.  Ladies wrote them, sent packages and gifts, swooning over these young aviators.

America would not declare war for another year and it would be many months later before any American squadrons arrived and joined the fight.  In the meantime the men of the Lafayette Escadrille (and the broader Lafayette Flying Corps) would be the core of the American Air Service, the only combat-experienced American aviators.

While the Lafayette Escadrille was a squadron whose ranks were Americans, they were led by a French commanding officer.  The unit is often confused with the Lafayette Flying Corps (which most men were joint members of.)  The flying corps was much larger and its member were Americans that were seeded into French escadrilles. Both of these volunteer organizations were at war long before America as a nation stepped up to the plate.

Many of the members of the unit began in the American Ambulance Service and the French Foreign Legion.  They came to Europe for many reasons, most believing that the war would be over in a few months.  When they formed the Escadrille Américaine it spurred an international incident because America was officially neutral.  The eloquent solution was to rename the organization to the Lafayette Escadrille.

Most of the original founders came from rich families.  There were a few rogues in the mix – namely men like Raoul Lufberry and Bert Hall; older more seasoned than the high society college boys.  The war they fought was one of bitter stinging cold open cockpits.   Parachutes were not part of their kits.  They flew planes that were spruce and metal covered with doped linen.  Their cockpits were not armored and often the men sat next to or on top of their fuel.  Death could come at any angle at any moment – yet that did not deter these brave men.

There was a romantic air about these men (pun unintended). Their mascots were two pet lions – Whiskey and Soda.  They had a bottle of champagne that was a “Bottle of Death” reserved for the last surviving member to toast his fallen comrades.  In may respects, their exploits were crafted for Hollywood.  Two movies have been made about the unit, but both sadly missed any degree of historical accuracy.

The Lafayette Escadrille and the Lafayette Flying Corps were to become the heart and soul of the American Air Service.  Without these men, America’s aviation pursuits in WWI would have been a disaster – with countless more casualties.  The formation of the escadrille marked the start of a true US Air Force.

This week, the French honored the Americans at their massive memorial outside of Paris.  I received my invitation to attend but was too late.  That was okay.  I’ve had the honor to write about such men in my books Lost Eagles and The Bad Boy – Bert Hall, Aviator and Mercenary of the Skies.  I have enjoyed the honor to chronicle exploits of such men.  And in this week, marking the centennial of the start of their incredible historical journey, I wanted to take a moment to remember what these volunteers did for the American Air Force.

The 180th Anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo

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No matter how bad-ass you are, you are never going to be Davy Crockett at the Alamo bad-ass.

This week marks the 180th anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo (February 23-March 6, 1836.)  I have always held this battle in reverence since my reading of Bill Davis’s outstanding book:  Three Roads to the Alamo.  It’s one of those books I read every two years or so…it’s that good.  As a bagpiper myself, the fact that John McGregor was at the Alamo, playing his pipes in battle, offers a fascinating mental picture for me.  Yes, the defenders had a bagpiper with them, how kick-ass is that?

On paper, the fight was one-sided.  Santa Anna’s 1800 troops against 185-200 Texas volunteers.  The defenders of the old mission were not professional soldiers by any stretch.  When you think of the Alamo, it is hard not to wonder what was going through the minds of the volunteers.  They knew the odds against them.  Surrounded, they knew they were cut off and that reinforcements were not coming.  There’s a special bond formed among men facing such calamity that is impossible to put in words.  We know it, we think we understand it, but how many of us would have remained there in the mission and opted to fight – knowing what the final fate was going to be?

The Alamo brought unlikely men together, as if it was destined to be a crossroads in history.  Travis and Bowie were both struggling with debt and had played land speculation.  These were not heroic figures up until this battle.  Only the last days of their lives forever changed public opinion of these brave men.  Both were drawn through circumstance to be at the mission 180 years ago.

Perhaps the most intriguing character that came to the defense of the impromptu fort was former congressman David Crockett.   A failed politician he was, at the time, more hype than reality.  The Alamo changed that.  Crockett and his party’s arrival at a juncture of history ensconced him as a Texan and American hero.

There is a transformative ability that the siege of the Alamo has.  It took men, and even the efforts to carve out Texas as a nation, and make them a reality.  Last stands are not the property of America, but it became one of the few that the entire nation adopted as its own.

Hollywood further solidified this battle in history.  Be it Fess Parker, John Wayne, or Billy Bob Thorton; the Alamo is destined to be something the entertainment industry will never let us forget.  Gaming wise, SPI put out a fairly good game of the Battle of the Alamo but few boardgames have tried to capture the fight.

Militarily, the battle, like many epic stands, on its own, was not strategic.  The same could be said of Rorke’s Drift.  The Alamo did buy several days for the Texian forces to assemble, but overall, the Alamo did not determine the fate of the war.  Their devastating defeat however served as a rallying point for the Texians to eventually drive to victory.

The men didn’t have to fight to the brutal end but chose to.  That kind of resolve, especially in our modern age, is unheard of.  There are images, scenes of the siege that stick in our minds.  Did Travis draw a line in the sand with his sword, challenging men who wanted to leave to cross the line?  Did Davy Crockett survive the fight only to be slaughtered afterwards?

In the end, those details simply don’t matter.  The Alamo is a symbol in American and Texas history.  And on this 180th anniversary I merely wanted to take a few moments to remember the resolve of brave men everywhere in our armed forces.  The men at the Alamo set a standard for heroic behavior that few of us would have the courage today to set up and embrace.

 

Unboxing the Handley Page 0/400 Bomber – Wings of Glory

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Here comes havoc! 

I took part in the Wings of Glory “big jumbo honking bomber” (my name for it) Kickstarter.  It’s not that I’m a big fan of the large aircraft, but I do enjoy Wings of Glory quite a bit.  Introducing massive bombers could add some dimensions of play that are fascinating.  Also, my grandson is six and is almost at an age where we can start playing the game…it’s that easy.

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The packaging was my only issue, albeit a minor one

As you can see, you get a two-sided game map with the Kickstarter, ace cards, a maneuver deck, stands, rules and oodles of miniature WWI goodness.

The bomber itself is an impressive model.  I struggled for five minutes to extricate it from the packaging however – the Ares Games guys REALLY had it secured.

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They all look like ants from up here…
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Pristine…almost too pristine.
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Crisp lines
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Seriously dude, if you shoot now, you’re hitting your own tail

I love the paint job on this mini.  I kind of wish the Wings of Glory stuff all didn’t look as if it came new out of the factories.  Some weathering would be neat.  I’m sure there are guys out there frantically repainting these for realism, which is great.

While I’m not a British aircraft fan, this mini has a lot to offer for WWI aviation buffs.  Enjoy!

 

Anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt

Begone fair herald...
The fewer the men, the greater share of the honor…
“This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”
Henry the V, William Shakespeare
 

October 25 marked the 600th anniversary of he Battle of Agincourt (1415). Considered by many to be one of the most brilliant battles of the medieval era and certainly one of the most interesting of the Hundred Years War. I’m a fan of battles where one side is greatly outnumbered and prevailed. For me, my love of this battle goes back to my purchase of the old SPI boardgame Agincourt -Archery Over Armor – still a classic in my book.

The English expedition in France had been plagued with long wet marches, dysentery, and a French force determined to attack and capture/destroy them. When twenty-eight year old Henry the V’s force of approximately 6000 moved towards the port of Calais to return to England he encountered a French force outnumbering him from 3-5 to 1. For the French it should have been an easy victory. The English force was nobles and commoners, many with the English longbow. The French had heavily armored cavalry, some crossbowmen, and legions of French noble knights.

The topography of the battlefield played well to the English. The flanks were heavily wooded, prohibited the cavalry from sweeping along the flanks to attack the bowmen. The field was wet and churned to mud easily. The land had difficult to see drop-offs which provided deceptive cover in the open too. Henry opted for a defensive fight, ordering his men to sharpen stakes and angle them towards the French position.

The French moved on the English first, sending their cavalry tearing at the English line, churning the field into a muddy ooze as they came. They encountered the English longbowmen, the machineguns of the medieval battlefield. With iron tipped bodkin arrowheads, these bows could rain down fire that could pierce the French armor – and did. The cavalry was devoured in raining waves of arrows.

The French crossbowmen moved forward to deal with the English bowmen. While effective, the crossbow took three times as long to load as the longbow. Soon these men were devastated under English bow fire.

The armored French knights slowly surged forward in dense formations, going over the muddy ground which slowed them considerably and made the trek even more difficult. The rain of arrow fire consumed them and the moving mass of men pushing forward often trampled the men ahead of them. The woods on the flanks served to funnel them into the English. The few knights that did reach the line found themselves dealing with the English knights who quickly finished them off or captured them.

The French sent a squad of knights to try and kill or capture Henry personally, only to have them cut to shreds in the process. A significant number of French knights were captured to be held for ransom, a common practice at the time. When Henry heard a rumor that French cavalry were moving to free the prisoners he ordered them killed so as to free up the men watching over them for battle.

In the end, the French force was decimated. Shakespeare did the rest – immortalizing the battle in his play Henry the V in the classic St. Crispin’s Day speech.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-yZNMWFqvM