Sunday Salon – Review of “The War Chronicles: From Flintlocks to Machine Guns” by Joseph Cummins

The Sunday

Note: My husband and I collaborated on this review, and are in rare agreement on all of its points, including liking the book in spite of its problems.

This second volume in the The War Chronicles series (Volume One covered “From Chariots to Flintlocks”) would make a nice Christmas present for students or adults, at least if some revisions are made.


This large book contains short sections on wars throughout the world from the French Revolution in 1783 to the Iran-Iraq War of 1988. For each conflict, the following elements are included:

  • a quick-reference summary
  • a timeline
  • essays on its principal commanders
  • an overview of the war
  • a series of short features on particular aspects of the conflict
  • a narrative account of a pivotal battle

  • In our own library, we have approximately 150 books on wars, many of them covering the most minute aspects of very complicated issues. So we were pleased to discover that overall Cummins does a good job of referencing complexity in his introductory summaries. He also peaks your interest to do more reading, while satisfying the need to know the basics of the battles.

    Alas, the book seems to have been rushed into print. There are some significant factual errors that mar the value of the book. Take just the section on World War I. In the introduction to that section, the author states that “Austria-Hungary wanted to quash Baltic nationalism…” Unfortunately, the word should be Balkan, not Baltic: two very different regions!

    The Balkans

    The Balkans

    The Baltic Area

    The Baltic Area

    In the same section, in describing how General Moltke of Germany vitiated the war strategy known as the Schlieffen Plan, Cummins maintains that Moltke “fatally weakened the thrust by depleting the armies sweeping through Belgium to strengthen Germany’s western defense position.” Moltke did indeed fatally weaken the Schlieffen Plan’s thrust, but it was in order to strengthen the eastern position, not the western.

    Further, Cummins cites zeppelins as having “top speeds of more than 100 miles … an hour” but in fact the zeppelins’ top speed was closer to 100-130 kilometers an hour (or 62 to 81 miles per hour).

    Besides problems with facts, we also have some criticisms of the emphases of the book.

    Cummins has a lot of wars to cover. But devoting only thirty pages or so each to World War I and II seems to us to evince a lack in a sense of proportion.

    The section on World War I devotes a whole page (valuable real estate in this book!) to Lawrence of Arabia, who is famous largely because of the movie that was based upon Lawrence’s somewhat fantastical report, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, not always adhering to the facts. Yet there is no print devoted to the Battle of Gallipoli, with its half a million casualties, and its profound repercussions. In Turkey, the battle is perceived as a defining moment in the history of the Turkish people and the Ottoman Empire. In Australia and New Zealand, the campaign was the first major battle undertaken by a joint military formation, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), and is often considered to mark the birth of national consciousness in both of these countries. And in Britain, the loss not only extended the war but knocked Churchill out of the war cabinet, a fairly momentous occurrence.

    Map Showing Gallipoli's Important Strategic Position

    Map Showing Gallipoli's Important Strategic Position

    The section on World War II is superficial and Americo-centric. Indeed many histories of the war written in the West tend to give short shrift to the role of the Eastern front, but this account falls further short than most. For example, D-Day is listed as the turning point of the War, when in fact Stalingrad, two years earlier (July 1942-February 1943), was far more crucial. The battle was the bloodiest in the history of warfare, with combined casualties estimated at nearly two million. By the time the Americans landed in Normandy it was clear the Russians would win.

    The Battle of Kursk in the East (July – August, 1943), also critical, is not mentioned. Kursk was the largest tank battle of all time. It was the last strategic offensive the Germans were able to mount in the East. The resulting decisive Soviet victory gave the Red Army the strategic initiative for the rest of the war. While Americans like to read about the battles in which they fought, a history of the war should be more balanced and accurate.

    Soviet T-34 tanks with infantry at Kursk

    Soviet T-34 tanks with infantry at Kursk

    The account of World War II also lists George S. Patton as a principal commander but there is not one mention of George C. Marshall, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff. Once noted as the “organizer of victory” by Winston Churchill for his leadership of the Allied victory in World War II, Marshall also served as the chief military adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. (After the war, as Secretary of State, his name was given to the Marshall Plan, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953.)

    And then there is Vietnam. It is a conflict perhaps too close for comfort for Cummins, who avers that “After North Vietnamese patrol boats clashed with a U.S. intelligence-gathering destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964, Johnson secured the approval of Congress to send U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam and begin bombing North Vietnam.” Historians have since concluded openly, at least four years before this book’s publication, that National Security Agency information on the attacks was exaggerated and in part falsified in order to persuade Congress to authorize broad military action in Vietnam. (The findings were intially published in 2002 but not made public until 2005, out of fear that they “might prompt uncomfortable comparisons with the flawed intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq,” according to the New York Times.) Again, historical accuracy, not politics, should be Cummins’ first priority.

    Evaluation: In spite of the errors and lack of proportion in covering the World Wars, we still like this book – or the idea of this book, at any rate! Properly edited and vetted for facts, this book has potential as a welcome reference source for students, and a satisfying soupçon of war essentials for adults.

    Rating: 3/5

    Published by Fair Winds Press, 2009


    About rhapsodyinbooks

    We're into reading, politics, and intellectual exchanges.
    This entry was posted in Book Review, Sunday Salon and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

    15 Responses to Sunday Salon – Review of “The War Chronicles: From Flintlocks to Machine Guns” by Joseph Cummins

    1. Julie P. says:

      So very cool that you guys reviewed a book together. My husband and I don’t read the same books at all!

    2. Marie says:

      Sounds like you’re almost saying it would be better if it was a different book. 🙂

    3. Marie Burton says:

      Definitely would be a valuable book if not for your very credible criticisms. I wish editors & authors would take the extra time to verify the facts before publication.

    4. Oops!

      Please forgive me! I left a wrong link!


    5. debnance says:

      As I librarian, I find that so many boys love to read about war. We do not seem to have enough books about war.

    6. Julie,

      My husband rarely will read “chick” books but I (obviously the superiorly eclectic partner) occasionally make forays into his book choices.

      Marie AND Marie,

      Yes, it should be a different book! :–)


      I guess it’s not shocking that many females like to read about romance and many males like to read about war, but I think both sides miss out! :–)

    7. diane says:

      Amazing that you and your husband reviewed the same book, and agreed on the salient points as well. It sounds like some heavy discussion took place. Thanks for the great review.

    8. Staci says:

      You should be an editor!! I know some middle school boys who would love this one!

    9. Toni says:

      Fantastic collaboration. Man oh man.. I always feel a bit uneducated when I come here, but I always leave all the wiser. Great job in the review and being about to spot the “errors and lack of proportion..” I so couldn’t do that. I leave this blog continually inspired.

    10. I come from a generation that believed if it was in a book it was true. This post points out the error of that belief. Of course, I think it should be true, especially a history book. What’s the point of having a reference book if you can’t trust it? Thanks for pointing out the errors and showing us a good book in spite of that. I guess the lesson is to read with an open mind and to question the truth of all facts.

    11. Allan says:

      Great review. As an Aussie I have to say: WWI without the Gallipoli campaign, are you fair dinkum?
      Also, it is not at all unusual for the USSR’s part in the defeat of Germany to be underplayed in the west. But, for any serious history it is an unforgivable error. Agreed don’t downplay D-Day, it was critical in the West. But to minimize Stalingrad, Kursk, or Operation Bagration well…
      Again, thanks for the review. Tthat is one book I needn’t bother with.

    12. Margot,

      The more history we read the more we find that there are quite a few “reference” and “history” books that don’t give the whole story or even like this one, that have some egregious factual errors. What we liked was the idea of having a big compendium in which you could get quick data on any war, and which might serve as a guide for further reading. But I would hate for students to have this one unless it came out in a second, emended edition!

    13. Dawn says:

      Ugh, I can’t believe these errors made it past a copy editor!

      When I saw the title of the book I thought of a mixed drink at our local Colonial Inn. It was off the menu for years (too much drink and not enough mixer, I think!), but has been brought back.

      Here’s a fun piece of transcribed oral history that mentions it:

    14. Alyce says:

      Baltic/Balkan, east/west …. yeah, those are kind of important differentiations. Hopefully someone will fix those and reprint it.

    15. nolly says:

      Does anyone know what countries were involved in the battle of gallipoli? (war at gallipoli)
      These are all l know:
      -New Zealand

    Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

    You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

    Connecting to %s

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.