What are you working on?

Though I still am working on many projects, I enjoyed reading through a few old blog posts and appreciating the knowledge and contributions made by various commenters. Combining this with the idea of sharing information with fellow EMEMHians (in this post), I figured the least I could do was start a thread dedicated to people interested in sharing their current research projects on EMEMH topics. If it’s popular, it could become a semi-regular feature of the blog. If not, I’ll delete any evidence that this post ever existed.

As of July 2015, I’m working on several projects (I’ll leave out the shamefully-late book reviews I need to complete). If you’ve been a faithful skulker, you shouldn’t be surprised at the topics:

  1. Finishing up final revisions to a chapter on the War of the Spanish Succession for an iBook textbook. It’s targeted for the undergraduate cadets taking the first half of West Point’s History of Warfare course, and provides a broad overview of the war (all theaters, with operational/strategic focus), maybe 2800 words of text and 43 maps and illustrations. Hopefully my chapter will be available for sale to the general public someday, but they already have some sample chapters available here.
    Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 3.56.13 PM
  2. Writing a book chapter for a collection, The World of the Siege (tentative title). My chapter explores contemporary portrayals of sieges as sites of honor and dishonor. It focuses on the challenges defining what an “honorable” defense was by illustrating how both participants and observers during the WSS crafted and contested claims to honor during a siege. Capitulations play a large role. Hopefully the edited collection will be published by Brill next year (2017 at the latest) – Anke Fischer-Kattner is the main editor, and I’m co-editor.
  3. Working on a paper for a conference this November on how the French viewed field battles during the WSS. The exact focus is somewhat amorphous at this point, because I need to finish reading a very detailed French thesis on the subject before I can figure out what exact angle I’ll take.
  4. My recent shift back to Louis XIV’s France has put my book on the English cult of battle on the back burner for the time being, though the French projects are natural outgrowths of the same themes I’m addressing in the Marlborough book. I continue to amass more sources, quotes, and ideas for the book, but it looks like next summer will be the summer of Marlborough. Funny how invitations to contribute to other projects make you reprioritize your research…

So what are you up to? Try to keep your summaries to a few sentences for each major project. And feel free to query any projects people post.

Waterloo schmaterloo

Apparently people have been talking about some big event that happened long ago.

Miscellaneous links illustrating the continued resonance of big battles and larger-than-life personalities:

  • Business Insider photos of Waterloo 2015 reenactment, some 5,000-6,000 strong. But only 170 horse? I thought reenactors were gunning for verisimilitude?
  • New issue of the new British Journal of Military History, an open-access journal (read: free to download PDFs). This issue is dedicated to the Napoleonic wars: Waterloo, Wellington and Women.
  • Waterloo Being Used for Political Purposes I: Is there room for a celebratory Waterloo Euro in the European Union? Numerous accounts about the kerfuffle over France’s veto of a Belgian Waterloo-commemorative euro coin are available online, but this short piece provides a good photo of the custom coin that’s now available.

    And you're complaining about a coin?

    And you’re complaining about a coin?

  • Waterloo Being Used for Political Purposes II: Please don’t go! French op-ed (in English) warning England that a Brexit from the EU would be a reverse Waterloo. Or something.

More substantive posts to come… maybe even one on Waterloo.

Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 11.42.21 AM


My, my, at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender
Oh yeah, and I have met my destiny in quite a similar way
The history book on the shelf
Is always repeating itself

Archive Lessons Learned

Back from my month in Paris, almost twenty years after my last trip to the SHD war archives at Vincennes. Over the past month I spent 17 days in the archives – four potential research days were wasted because I overestimated how long it would take me to go through the volumes – damn me and my efficiency! Those interested in what I learned (and relearned) can read the Little and Big Pictures below. Read More…

Ad hoc Oudenarde meet up

For those interested, frequent skulker Andy Tumath invites anyone in the area of Oudenarde/Oudenaarde/Audenarde (Belgium) on Friday 19 June for a “battlefield beer.” I won’t be there, since I’ll be flying back to the States this Saturday, wrapping up my month-long research trip (equalling 17 days in the archives). But what’s your excuse?

For anyone in attendance, be sure to buy Andy a beer for his transcription efforts.

You can contact him at http://www.anewhistorypodcast.com/content/portal.php

Pistols into Chandeliers

I’ve heard of swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2:3-4), but this is ridiculous:


(In one of the Administration buildings at the château de Vincennes, home of France’s Service historique de la Défense.)

Talk about your sword of Damocles…


Guess what I’m doing this May

Short update as I’m in France on a one-month research trip.

Last time I was researching at Vincennes (SHD, or the Archives de Guerre) was back in January 1998, a mere 17 years ago. They’ve switched buildings within the Vincennes complex since then, and now have online ordering of documents. The current reading room is appropriately named the salle de Louis XIV (in the Pavillon du Roi), and the room’s large paintings of the Sun King’s martial endeavors set the appropriate tone of Baroque seriousness. (If you want gaiety, you can check out the Château de Vincenne’s donjon right next door, where the Marquis de Sade, the Grand Condé, the Duc d’Enghein and many other political prisoners spent time.) In Louis’ salle you can see a large version of this painting that you’ve probably already seen, one of the few which bothers to show the view of a siege from the trenches:

No animals were harmed in the filming of this propaganda piece?

No animals were harmed in the filming of this propaganda piece? Alert PETA!

The registration and consultation process at Vincennes is pretty similar to the other archives I’ve been to: go fill out a form with appropriate ID, get your photo taken for the ID card and receive said card, put your things in a locker (including the obligatory 1 euro coin for the locker key), go up to the 2nd floor (3rd for Americans), get assigned a seat, go to the window to pick up your documents (or see the président de salle if for some reason some of your volumes are ‘special’), then read them. Send back those you finish, and place the rest en réserve to consult the next day. Repeat as necessary.

Since the archive is open through the lunch hour, I try to eat some breakfast and just steal a quick snack so I don’t waste an hour going for lunch. Ideally this could give you 3-4 more hours per week consulting documents (a full extra day over the course of a month), though I recognize this hyper-efficiency is an insult to the French way of life. But since you’re limited to 5 volumes per day (ordered 2 weeks ahead of time), it’s hard to be efficient, particularly in the first weeks when you don’t really know how quickly you’ll be able to get through volumes. What this really means is that your rate of consultation is locked in for the first three weeks, since any increase in document orders will take two weeks to get to your desk, after you realize how it’s going at the end of your first week. Ah, lag time. So as it turns out I didn’t have anything to look at on Thursday and also today (Saturday), because I overestimated how long it would take to get through the volumes I’d ordered for that week. But that did allow more time to meet with some French military historians of Louis XIV’s reign. Yes, they actually exist!

Most of the volumes I’ve consulted have been microfilm, and since the SHD has old microfilm readers (4 of the giant hooded kind, and 4-5 of the not-quite-newish microfilm printers, but NOT scanners), and since you’re not allowed tripods of any kind, you need to figure out a way to take mediocre-quality photos of the mediocre-quality microfilm images, so you can read the authors’ mediocre-quality handwriting.

Like this, but the reels on the top and they at least have mechanized forward/reverse buttons

Like this, but the reels on the top and with mechanized forward/reverse buttons

First, make sure you use a reader that actually works fully, e.g. you can move the image on the screen both left/right and up/down, that you can rotate the image, zoom and focus appropriately (e.g. the machine has the appropriate zoom magnification lens), etc. Check each machine till you find one with all these necessary qualities. Ideally that same machine will also be away from bright lights, whether windows or overhead – “glare’s a bitch,” as they say. And then after you figure out whether the machine is loaded overhand or underhand, you’ll figure out a way to zoom in on the image and focus, then decenter the page image to one side of the screen so you can steady your hand on the frame without blocking the light or the image and still have your camera pointing straight down (or at a very slight angle). Even with all that – I’m not knowledgeable or patient enough to play around with many of my digital camera settings – I’m lucky if I get a photo this good:

Now if only I could read Chamlay's handwriting...

Now if only I could read Chamlay’s handwriting. Or is it the poor photo quality? Hard to tell…

Pretty standard archival fare, in other words.

So like any self-respecting Taylorite, I went back over my old musings on my British Library experience from three years ago and compared it with Vincennes. The accommodations and food are, of course, much better in France than England (but we already knew they would be). Rereading my old BL post, I’m surprised at how much I complained about the time lost waiting for 70 minutes for five volumes to be delivered. And yet I feel slightly less anxious here at Vincennes, where I’m limited to five volumes at a time ordered two weeks in advance. Admittedly I have a whole month here in Paris instead of the 2.5 weeks in London, but there are far more volumes to consult here in France than there were in London, and ordering copies of documents is far easier with the BL than SHD. So what gives?

I think the difference is how the archives organize the volumes. In the BL, almost all the volumes are organized according to the author or the recipient: Marlborough’s papers from Opdam in a single volume, Robert Harley’s papers, etc. But unless you are working on a biography of that individual, or that individual is only a military actor, many of the documents in each volume won’t be relevant to your particular project. Hence the need to consult a LOT of volumes (in order to find only a few relevant documents) just to piece together several different accounts of the same event. On the other hand, Vincennes has two advantages, three really, that all come down to distillation and focus. First, as befits the origins of the archive, the documents are overwhelmingly on military subjects, which is exactly the subject I’m researching. So every document is relevant for me in some sense (or could easily be), whereas in the BL some of the personal papers dealt with personal financial matters, family affairs, and the like. Second, the SHD has further organized the vast majority of its papers not just by individual provenance per se – generally they are all letters received by the Secretary of State for War, though some others sneak in occasionally. They are further concentrated by the most logical scheme for war historians, by time and theater (when written and where written from/where written about). So A1 1968 consists of 600+ pieces of  correspondence (from a few dozen authors) just on administrative military matters, pertaining to Italy, for the year 1705. And there are altogether separate volumes that focus on the operational correspondence about 1705 in Italy: one volume includes all the letters written during January-March, another volume April-July, and so on. That is an incredible amount of  information, pre-selected into concentrated gold. And yet all this concentration doesn’t come at the cost of volume, at least as far as the War of the Spanish Succession is concerned. As I estimated before, there are probably 2 million pages of documents just in the AG A1 series dealing with this war. So when contrasted with the average British Library volume, each Vincennes volume is so much larger; each volume probably has 1000+ pages, with literally hundreds of individual documents, all focused on a specific geographical region ranging (usually) across mere months. Contrast that with the Blenheim Papers, where you would need to consult 75 different volumes (just a guess) in order to see all the letters Marlborough received in a similar time frame, talking about the same subject(s). Since the volumes are organized by place/period instead of by author/recipient, and each volume is concentrated and therefore almost completely relevant, 5 volumes per day at Vincennes is more than enough. And that’s with the ability to take photos.

At the same time, these voluminous Vincennes volumes are also far more manageable than most of the volumes in, say, the Blenheim Papers, even with the published Blenheim Papers catalogue and index. The pièce de la résistance is that each AG volume also has an incredibly helpful table of contents which lists each letter (hundreds per volume), its date, the author and recipient, and a brief summary of its contents. They usually also include the standard separate index of all the authors in the volume. I don’t want to even imagine how many 19C-20C French archivists gave their lives (or at least their eyesight) describing every single letter at the individual document-level. A moment of silence for those brave archivistes


Now if only we could get all those tables of contents online, French military history would rule the world!

Other random travel research reminders to myself: renting a small apartment (with wifi, toilet, shower, clothes washing machine and full kitchenette including fridge/freezer and microwave), that’s a nice 5-10 minute walk from the archives (with the Bois de Vincennes visible from the apartment window) is so much better than my grad student experience was: a 30 minute commute on the Métro every day, while staying at a cheap cheap hotel with a toilette à la turque shared by the whole floor, and paying extra for each douche. Admittedly twenty years ago the Internet barely existed, and ten years ago France was barely on le World Wide Web (ah, but Minitel!), and I could never get the hotel’s wifi to work anyway. Oh yeah, and I had no money either. Nor was I getting reimbursed. So, yeah, things have improved. Even compared to when I was in London a few years back.

Proximity to the archives also has its advantages if, say, hypothetically of course, there’s a transportation strike, or maintenance that would force you to double your commute time, or, least pleasant of all, your train is delayed half-and-hour due to a malade voyageur.

Screenshot 2015-05-23 12.27.50

And since I’m not a morning person, a very short commute means I’m more likely to actually get there soon after the archives open, rather than straggle in an hour or more late.

Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Vincennes is a very nice neighborhood with plenty of chocolatiers, boulangeries/patisseries, brasseries, not to mention several supermarchés (though the not-too-distant Hyper Cacher that was besieged during the Charlie Hebdo attacks is still closed).

My biggest regret so far? That I don’t have the full Adobe Acrobat on my MacBook Air, which means I can’t really combine the archive photos into documents until I get home. (I know you can do it with an Automator script, but that increases the size of the resulting file at least 2x-3x larger than if you did it within Adobe.)

One week down, three to go!

Help identifying things

I’m finishing up my edits for the final version of my West Point History of Warfare iBook chapter on the War of the Spanish Succession. Eventually they’ll release it beyond those lucky cadets who get to read it for their course.

Among other tweaks, it was suggested I incorporate the following image and include various hotspots. Here’s a low-res version of the whole thing:


The image is available from the Rijksmuseum to view and download in all its gory and glorious detail (once you register). All rights belong to them, of course.

I’ve spoken about the bombardment of Gelder before, and will have plenty to say about it for this image. One of the features of the chapter, however, is to give the reader a sense of the nitty-gritty reality of war. And since I’ve personally participated in at least thirteen early modern sieges (and have the wounds to show for it), I’m obviously the expert who can explain what all of these things are.

And yet, somehow, I don’t know everything. In fact, there are a few things in this panorama of a bombardment battery that I don’t know. A few others, I have speculations. But we certainly can’t let the West Point cadets rely on guesswork.

Since I’m leaving for France in the morning, I don’t have time to look through my Saint-Rémy and various other artillery manuals right now. Thus I’m hoping someone already knows what these things are, and is looking to impress. (Bonus points if you can cite a source or point to other examples.)

To help contextualize, recall that this depiction of a battery is only a bombardment of a poorly-garrisoned town, not a full-blown siege, which means there aren’t approach trenches or saps, and the bombarding side likely isn’t expecting sallying troops to charge all the way to the battery across all that open ground. (See the appendix in my Vauban under Siege if you’re still unclear on the difference between a bombardment and a siege.)

Let the quiz begin.

First up, what are these bucket-like objects resting on the parapet in the guard trench in front of the battery? What were they used for? And please don’t say they’re helmets. (And I sure hope they’re not airing out their chamber pots either.)

Bombardement de Guelder 1703 buckets

Next up, I’m thinking this might be a mechanical planer of some sort (given the boards, possibly a rough pre-board in the back and an after-planing straight board in the front). Can anyone confirm?

Bombardement de Guelder 1703 planer

And what are these things on the ground at the bottom, which look like a metal container with some black cloth attached to their tops?

Bombardement de Guelder 1703 possible funnels

I’m guessing they might be funnels: I’d speculate the pliable cloth opening is pushed into whatever-size hole and then you tip up the container and gunpowder goes in – either down a muzzle or in a bomb. The other staff-like objects are for loading and cleaning cannon obviously.

Next question: What goodies do these little huts hold?

Bombardement de Guelder 1703 powder sheds

Less-likely speculation: are these fascine-topped huts gunpowder storage? In the entire image, there’s surprisingly little gunpowder that I can see, apart from (possibly) a few pony kegs. Admittedly, one would rather not have gunpowder lying around willy-nilly, but this strikes me as a very clean battery. There’s a solid-looking red shed on the far left that would be a logical place to store gunpowder barrels, but you’d think they’d have more illustration of gunpowder being transported to the different guns (unless maybe those funnel-like containers are actually gunpowder carrying case + funnel. Which might make sense now that I think about it).

More-likely speculation: Or perhaps the fascine-roofed sheds store pre-filled mortar bombs? I don’t see any obvious equipment (other than possibly the funnels) that indicates that they are filling the gunpowder-filled bombs on-site, so possibly they were delivered to the battery already full, or filled all at once, and then placed in the shelters for some minimal protection. The fact that these fascine sheds are directly behind the mortars, whereas the grates heating the red-hot shot are behind the cannon, might support this idea.

Final question: Who’s a brave doggie?

Bombardement de Guelder 1703 doggie

You are!


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