213. A Portrait of Lord Nelson
by Oliver Warner
This slim book took longer to read than I expected. I'm not sure why that was. The writing style was not terrible, though it didn't exactly flow either. Perhaps it was because I thought the book would be more about the iconic Royal Navy commander's military genius and skill at sea and less about his mistress Lady Emma Hamilton. War at sea in the days of sail was a complex and tricky business and I felt this book failed to capture its intricacies. But Warner does capture the intricacies and complexities of Horatio Nelson's own character. And that, after all, is what the title of the book promises. A chance encounter in Whitehall office waiting room between Nelson and the Duke of Wellington oddly sums Nelson up nicely. The Iron Duke found the naval hero silly and vain during the first part of their encounter. Then Nelson left the room and when he returned he was changed man. Wellington found himself very impressed by the naval hero's grasp of military reality and high intellect. It seems while he was out of the room Nelson had taken the trouble to discover the identity of the hook-nosed gentleman he was sharing a waiting room with. The Nelson Warner describes is both vain and brilliant. The admiral did indeed make a fool of himself, and disappoint many of his friends, over Lady Hamilton. But by turning long-accepted naval tactics on their heads he succeeded in smashing the combined French-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar in way few, if any, of his contemporaries could have done.
212. England's Last War Against France
by Colin Smith
When I first saw this book, I was more than a little exasperated. Britain's war against Vichy France during the Second World War was getting near to the top of my list of possible topics for a new book or magazine article. I had already written about 11 Commando's battle around the Litani River in present-day Lebon in Scottish Military Disasters. And I had just read about the Royal Scots Fusiliers campaign in Madagascar. But now former Observer journalist Colin Smith had beaten me to the punch. And a fine job he has done. France's aid to Nazi Germany is not discussed very often. Officially neutral, the unoccupied rump of France after Germany's successful Blitzkreig of 1940 was an enthusiastic partner of the Nazis. Britain decided it could not risk the modern French battlefleet, based in North Africa, falling into the hands of Germans and attacked it. This was despite assurances that the French would scuttle their fleet rather than let it fall into German hands. The French did indeed scuttle what was left of their fleet when the Germans invaded unoccupied Vichy France in 1942. But the British attack in 1940 had embittered the French and soured relations. The story Smith tells is complex and tragic. But at the end of the day, the French regime sided with evil and a lot of people, British and French, died. Among the the first to die was a Royal Navy submarine commander who had boarded a French submarine tied up at Plymouth after the France signed its 1940 Armistice with Germany. He was shot by a French officer who had little hope of preventing the French submarine being seized by the British. Three British sailors and one French died in the Plymouth incident. The Frenchmen responsible for the bloodshed were returned to France unscathed. Somehow, that opening incident captured the essence of the whole sorry business. Smith's research is good. Some of his flippant asides can be a bit grating but his writing is strong and pacy. This one is in the running for the 2014 Book of the Year.
The Dorchester Review, based in Ottawa, Canada, recently published an article I wrote about one of the more eccentric of the British regiments - Victoria's Royal Canadians. Most Canadian historians seem unaware of that a regiment was raised in Canada to fight in the Indian Mutiny.
The Winter Issue of the Scottish American Military Society's magazine The Patriot contains a two page interview with yours truly. I thought the least I could do in return was give them a plug. At a later date, I'll see about either linking to the article or posting a version of the interview on the SMD site.
It’s been a busy few weeks. Last Saturday (Nove. 3) the Scottish Daily Mail published a two page spread under my byline about the 2/10th Royal Scots campaign against the Bolsheviks in northern Russia 1918-1919 titled "The Tsar's Fighting Invalids". I’ve found a link to a site which carries the article but before I post it I want to make sure I’m not sending you somewhere you might regret going. The Daily Mail article let the cat out of the bag when it comes to the fact that I’m working on a new book – working title, Jock and Rorie – Tales of Scottish Soldiers. Read about the Forgotten War
In the News Again
I happened to be checking out the closing-down sale at one of the last remaining locally owned bookshops in Edmonton recently when a newspaper reporter pounced on me as I left and asked me comment on the closure. As a former reporter, I know what a pain grabbing random people on the streets for quotes can be; so I was only too pleased to help. Imagine my delight when the story appeared and I found my quote printed in large type. It made me look like a big deal. There were some genuine big deal Edmonton writers quoted in the story but whoever was designing the page must have just grabbed the first quote they found for the break-out - and luckily for me....
Sadly, the break-out does not appear in the online version of the story but if you're interested Edmonton Journal
In the News
The Scotsman newspaper invited me to put in my tuppence-ha'penny when it published an article about the controversy surrounding the 400th anniversary celebrations in Norway of Battle of Kringen - Scotsman Article
The battle and subsequent massacre of Scottish prisoners in 1612 featured in Scottish Military Disasters.
A new Canadian history magazine The Dorchester Review published a tongue-in-cheek go at the spate of books about How the Scots Created/Invented the country in its launch issue. In an article called How the English Invented the Scots Dr. Chis Champion argued, well, that the Scots are an English invention. Paul’s equally tongue-in-cheek rebuttal can be seen in the second issue of the magazine which is now out. The article, which also includes essays by Canadian columnist John Ivison and London-based writer Hugo Rifkind, is available on line at
Scottish Military Disasters has been launched as an e-book. And it’s now improved.
Preparing the book in e-book format offered the chance to correct some minor errors.
“I wouldn’t say it’s worth someone who has the print version going out and buying the e-book,” said author Paul Cowan.
“But in preparing the e-book we’ve corrected a couple of little irritating misprints and one mistake that probably only annoys me and a couple of my relatives.”
The book is one of the first from the Neil Wilson Publishing catalogue to be released as an e-book.
“Neil’s stable of authors includes such giants as Nigel Tranter, so this is a real honour for me,” said Cowan.
“This will make the book far more accessible to readers in Scotland and around the World – and also in certain countries far more affordable.
“I’ve found where it is reasonably priced overseas, it’s been selling like hotcakes.”
Glasgow-based Neil Wilson said the move into e-books was as a result of public demand.
Wilson teamed up with the respected e-book team at the Faber Factory for the conversion to the new format which will make Scottish Military Disasters available on a variety of devices, including most e-readers and mobile phones.
“We will also go online with Apple soon,” he added.
For details of how to buy the e-book version –
The debate over whether Scotland produces some of the finest fighting men in the World could go on for ever. What is certain is that pride in the military is woven into the Scottish psyche and that that pride has been ruthlessly exploited by the British Establishment.
In the popular imagination the Scottish soldier is a kilted infantryman. The infantry are the men who go through the meat grinder in almost every war and Scotland has provided the British Empire with more than its fair share of infantry. In the fighting after D-Day in 1944 a British study suggested that although the infantry made up only 25% of the troops involved; they suffered 71% of the casualties.
(While I can’t put my hand on my heart and say my research for Scottish Military Disasters points to the Scots having the worse military record in Europe, for most of recorded history it hasn’t been very spectacular. People remember Bannockburn because it is one of the few battles against the English that the Scots won. Even when the English were heavily outnumbered, at battles such as Flodden in 1513 and Dunbar in 1650, they still managed to win. Many English, and Irish and Welsh soldiers for that matter, regard their Scots counterparts as a bunch of blowhards who write cheques with their mouths that their battlefield performance fails to honour. The counter-argument goes that the Scots go that extra mile to back up their boasting.)
But where does this Scottish martial pride which encouraged so many young Scots into the infantry during two world wars come from?