Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Reference "Bites"

Scene After the Battle of Waterloo

Large reference works that try to cover a particular area over a long period of time have a big task before them in terms of trying to be accurate everywhere. It’s a tall order and sometimes the effort falls flat in places. Here I’ll examine one particular book. In this case The Encyclopedia of Military History.1

The book contains some errors of fact and some errors of interpretation that illustrate the pitfalls in relying on such omnibus works. As the title suggests the work is an encyclopedic look at world wide military history arranged chronologically. It contains a great deal of useful and interesting material unfortunately it also contains misinformation and error.
For example:
Abel er-Rahman led a Moslem army of unknown strength (probably about 50,000) into Aquitaine. slipping past the western flank of the Pyrenees at Irun.2
Well our authors should have quit when they were ahead with “unknown strength”, the figure is absurd for a raiding, cavalry army of that time period 5,000 or less is more reasonable.3 Simply put finding fodder for such a horde of horses would have impossible at that place and time. The passage then goes on to talk about it being a decisive battle of the world, at Poitiers. One of the usual “Western” army defeats “Oriental” horde type battles that are a perennial of western historical literature since the Greeks fought the Persians. The implication being that somehow the “Oriental” horde, (which always hugely outnumbers the gallant “Western” army), represents the forces of darkness.

Contemporary accounts would seem to indicate that it was the defeat of a large raiding party and nothing earth shaking. Unlike the siege of Constantinople in 717-718, a vastly more important event. But going against centuries of Occidental wisdom was a bit too difficult I guess.4

Some distortions are less innocent however:
1890, December 20, Battle of Wounded Knee. Leadership of the Sioux now devolved on Chief Big Foot, he was defeated by the 7th Cavalry, which thus gained revenge for its defeat on the Little Big Horn (see p. 906) This was the last major Indian conflict.5
Lets see Chief Big Foot was extremely ill and on a stretcher, unarmed and was riddled with bullets has he lay there in the camp which was surrounded by the 7th cavalry. Over 200 at least and probably 300 Sioux men, women and children were killed. The great majority of 7th cavalry dead and wounded were caused by their own bullets and artillery. This is why virtually everyone calls Wounded Knee a massacre. But then to some people it is required to save the honour of the American Army that this sordid episode be called a battle.6

The previous pages also contain similar distortions about the Indian wars. For example:
The refusal of the Northern Sioux tribes to go onto their assigned reservations led to the most serious Indian uprising since that of Tecumseh.7
Well first of all it was not the most serious Indian uprising since Tecumseh, the Seminole Indian war, 1835-1842, was worst for one. Secondly Tecumseh was leading not an uprising but resistance against invasion. The Indian tribes did not for one accept that they were subjects of the United States so they were not revolting against the authority of the United States. Thirdly the cause of Sioux was not simply a refusal to go back onto the reservations, which many could not do and was an illegal order that they were not bound to obey anyway. Finally this remark ignores the real issue the attempt by the U.S. government to seize the Black hills over the opposition of the Sioux.8

On the next page we read:
1876, June 17, Battle of the Rosebud. Crook again caught up with Crazy Horse, who had now assembled a force of 4000 – 6000 warriors. Against odds of at least 5-1 Crook fought a bitterly contested drawn battle.9
Well first of all Crazy Horse was just one of a number of war chiefs. At most the Indians at the Rosebud had 1200 warriors and the actual number was probably c. 1000. Crook had c. 1300 men. If anything he outnumbered the Indians. Yes the battle was a tactical draw but Crook retired afterwards and did not move for a month. So if anything he lost. But then I suppose it is necessary to beef up the reputation of the American military for what is frankly an embarrassing result.10

One the next page we read:
Comment. Chief Joseph must be ranked among the great American military leaders.11
Chief Joseph was not a military chief, he left that to others. Military decisions were made by a collective of military chiefs among the Nez Perce Indians not by one paramount leader.12

In a few pages we have quite a collection of mistakes. Some like the one about Chief Joseph indicate simple ignorance. The others seem to be based on a desire to save the reputation of the U.S. government and army and are thus examples of official received wisdom.

Another relatively innocent error is:
1391-1399. Ottoman Siege of Constantinople.13
Well the siege was actually 1394-1402. After Tamerlane defeated the Ottoman Turks in the battle of Angora the siege was lifted. In fairness many books have these years for the siege.14

On another by page we read: “Syria never recovered from Tamerlane’s devastation”.15 Sorry to say this but Syria rapidly recovered. The phrase is simple puffery.

On one page we read:
1423, September-October. Ziska's invasion of Hungary. This failed, despite initial success.16
This is simply wrong Ziska did not invade Hungary, although there was a Hussite invasion of Hungary in 1431, which Ziska was not involved with Ziska having died in 1424. It appears that the 1431 invasion was back dated to 1423.17

An example of compound error is:
1213-1226. Conclusion of the Crusade. Muret was the last important engagement of the crusade, but the heretics persisted for more than a decade while the crusaders systematically seized one fortified stronghold after another and ruthlessly put most of the heretics to the sword. Simon was killed during a siege of a stronghold near Toulouse (1222). But his successors carried on; the last embers of heresy were stamped out (1226).18
The above is a farrago of error. Well to go in order. Muret was not the last important engagement of the Crusade. The main opposition to Simon and the Crusaders was local thoroughly Catholic nobility and people who resented Simon and his Crusaders attempt to use a Crusade has a precept to dispossess them. Resistance did not just persist for a decade, (actually 16 years) after Muret but was successful in driving out the Crusaders. Simon was killed in besieging Toulouse, not a stronghold nearby, which had revolted against him. Simon was killed in 1218 not 1222. His successors did indeed carry on and were defeated. Simon’s son gave up all his “rights” to the French king. The French King intervened in 1226 and finally after severe fighting forced the submission of Languedoc in 1229, (not 1226). And it took about a century to stamp out “heresy” in Languedoc after 1226.19

Some times the text contradicts itself and in this case on the same page!
Supported by Nadir Kuli Beg, an obscure Khorasan chieftain, Tahmasp conquered Meshed and Heart (1728).
1730. Conquest of Meshed. Nadir marched on Meshed where an independent Afghan chieftain, Malik Mahmud, had established himself (1722) and now refused to submit to the new shah. Nadir defeated Malik outside the city, which he then captured through treachery.
With Nadir occupied in the west, there were outbreaks in Khorasan, largely inspired and exploited by the Abdali Afghans of Heart. Nadir raised the siege of Eviran, marched 1,400 miles east, defeated the Abdalis, invested and captured Herat (1732).20
Well what happened was it 1728 or 1730 / 1732? Just how did the editor miss that one?

And there is of course the old “Oriental” horde cliche. For example we read that Xerxes assembled an army of 200,000 men in 480 B.C.E., that there were 50,000 Persians at Marathon and 100,000 at Plataea.21 All those figures can be dismissed without more ado as nonsense. In the same spirit we have the old cliche of the Ottoman Turkish horde for example 200,000 at the siege of Rhodes (1522). 70-80,000 at the battle of Mohacs (1526).22 Of course that is only some of the “Oriental” horde exaggerations that exist throughout the book. In fact it appears that the size of Ottoman Turk armies are almost always exaggerated in the book.

The stereotype of the small European army fighting the huge “oriental” army is a cliche with a long tradition in the west. It probably is related to ideas of innate western superiority and the desire to inflate western accomplishments but it still annoying to see a reference work peddle this sort of nonsense.

The book also when it comes to more recent time periods is marred by a rather obvious political / ideological bias. For example:
All ethical standards of western civilization were scorned by the Communists.23
Really? One doesn’t have to approve of the very bad Chinese / North Korean treatment of prisoners to realize that this statement is simply agitation propaganda. One could of course discuss some of the standards of “Western Civilization” to realize that things are not quite so Manichean or to realize perhaps it would have been better to say, “many of the standards of civilized treatment of prisoners of war were violated by the Communists” i.e., the Geneva Conventions, which is true but doesn’t have quite the same Manichean sense of the original phrase.24

The section on the Vietnam war,25 manages to state in a particularly concise manner the common shibboleth that the U.S. had won the war by the middle of 1972 and that they were deprived of victory through treachery and being stabbed in the back. The similarity of this fantasy with the old German legend of being stabbed in the back and therefore losing the First World War is interesting and it is of course of equal validity.26

The book also suffers from an excessive concentration of the west in terms of history that leads to a very distorted idea of the importance of events elsewhere. For example the amount of attention devoted to the American Civil war (37 pages) as against the Taiping Rebellion in China (less than a page).27

So the conclusion is that this particular reference work should be used with great care and its facts double checked if you are going to rely on them. Also very unfortunately these sorts of errors of fact and interpretation are far too common is such works.

1. Dupuy, R. Ernest & Dupuy, Trevor N., The Encyclopedia of Military History, Revised Edition, Harper and Row Pub., New York, 1977.

2. Ibid. p. 204.

3. Kennedy, Hugh, The Great Arab Conquests, Orion Books Ltd., London, 2007, pp. 319-322, and Lewis, Bernard, The Muslim Discovery of Europe, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1982, pp. 18-20.

4. Ibid. Lewis, Kennedy, pp. 330-332.

5. Dupuy & Dupuy, p. 907.

6. Brown, Dee, Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, Bantam Books, New York, 1971, pp. 389-419.

7. Dupuy and Dupuy, p. 905.

8. Brown, pp. 261-296, Gray, John S., Centennial Campaign, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman OK., 1976, pp. 9-34.

9. Dupuy & Dupuy,. p. 906.

10. Gray, pp. 119-138, gives a figure of 750 warriors at p. 120, Sarf, Wayne Michael, The Little Big Horn Campaign, Combined Pub., Conshohocken PENN., 1993, pp. 87-115, gives a figure of 1500 on page 90, which however includes all the warriors in the camp not just those who had gone to fight Crook.

11. Dupuy & Dupuy, p. 907.

12. Beal, Merrill D., “I Will Fight No More Forever”, Ballantine Books, New York, 1963, pp. 277-280.

13. Dupuy & Dupuy,. p. 388.

14. Nicol, Donald M., The Last Centuries of Byzantium, Second Edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993, pp. 302-317.

15. Dupuy & Dupuy, p. 390.

16. Dupuy & Dupuy, p. 433.

17. Dupuy & Dupuy, p. 368.

18. Fudge, Thomas A., The Crusade against Heretics in Bohemia, 1418-1437, Ashgate Pub. Ltd., Aldershot, England, 2002, p. 336.

19. O’Shea, Stephen, The Perfect Heresy, Douglas & McIntyre, Toronto, 2000, pp. 157-190, Oldenbourg, Zoe, Massacre at Montsegur, Phoenix Press, London, 1961, pp. 177-253.

20. Dupuy & Dupuy, p. 649.

21. Dupuy & Dupuy, p. 25, 23, 27. for a critique of these figures see Delbrück, Hans, Warfare in Antiquity: History of the Art of War, Volume I, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln NB., 1990.

22. Dupuy & Dupuy. p. 496, 497. Turkish Chronicles give a maximum of 46,000 for Mohacs for example, see Lamb, Harold, Suleiman The Magnificent, Bantam Books, 1951, p. 87.

23. Dupuy& Dupuy, p. 1251.

24. See Hastings, Max, Korean War, Simon and Shuster, New York, 1988.

25. Dupuy & Dupuy, p. 1209-1221.

26. For a version of this stab in the back mythos see Colby, William, McCargar, James, Lost Victory, Contemporary Books, New York, 1989. For an altogether more accurate view see Bergerud, Eric M., The Dynamics of Defeat, Westview Press, Oxford, 1991. For a review of the role of the media, and refutation of the myth of the “Liberal” media stabbing in the back see Hallin, Daniel, The “Uncensored War”, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA., 1986.

27. Dupuy & Dupuy, p. 868-905, The Taiping Rebellion in pieces over the following pages 862-864.

Pierre Cloutier

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