- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 24, 2002

When Byron Farwell died in 1999, devotees of military history lost one of the most knowledgeable and skillful writers of his time. Although he was American born and a graduate of the University of Chicago, Farwell served with British forces in the Mediterranean during World War II, and there developed a lifelong interest in the British military. Over the years he came to be known for his books dealing with Victorian England. Biographies of explorers Henry M. Stanley and Richard Burton were followed by two splendid books on military subjects, "Queen Victoria's Little Wars" and "Mr. Kipling's Army." He demonstrated his versatility in 1992 with a fine biography of Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson.
This posthumous volume is the vehicle into which Farwell distilled his remarkable knowledge of 19th-century warfare. There are definitions of forgotten terms. The khanda, for instance, is a broad battle sword native to India. A machicoulis is a projecting gallery that permits a building's defenders to fire down on attackers. Farwell offers 11 definitions of the word charge, nine as a noun, two as a verb.
But the charm of this volume derives from its essays on topics that Farwell found of particular interest. In his discussion of guerrilla warfare he quotes Confederate partisan leader John S. Mosby as saying, "It is as legitimate to fight an enemy in the rear as in the front. The only difference is in the danger." In his biographic sketch of Wellington's ally, Marshal Gebhard Blucher, he quotes the marshal's reaction on seeing London: "What a place to plunder!"
Farwell's biographic essays are more than listings of promotions and battles; they often provide special insights into his subjects. In discussing the German general Helmuth von Moltke, the author notes that von Moltke once agreed to translate Edward Gibbon's massive "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" into German for 75 pounds because he wanted to buy a horse. Von Moltke had completed nine of the 12 volumes when the publisher canceled the project.
On occasion, Farwell allows his own sentiments to show, as in this passage from his essay on Robert E. Lee:
"Lee has been charged with being too bloody-minded, of fighting on even when he must have known that his cause was lost. Viewed realistically, this was certainly true, but what the mind knows the heart cannot always accept."
Part of the charm of this book is the offbeat subjects that draw the author's attention. There is a section devoted to hair in which the Farwell notes that "for reasons not always discernable or sensible … the length of hair has been persistently regulated" in the world's armies. In 1805, Tennessee militiamen protested to the U.S. Senate an order regulating the length of their hair.
Looting, the author explains, is robbery in wartime, the word derived from the Indian word lootie, meaning a gang of robbers. He notes that looting is sometimes frowned upon but often condoned, as in China during the Boxer Rebellion, when the looting of the Winter Palace was led by officers of the French and British forces.
In his entry under mistresses, Farwell notes that the taking of mistresses was a logical outcome when officers were stationed far from home. He adds that the taking of mistresses by British officers in remote corners of the empire "was thought to facilitate the learning of the local language and to give the officers a closer appreciation of the local mores." He quotes Confederate Gen. Richard S. Ewell as saying that in the American West, "Many officers have Cherokee Mistresses."
My wife and I once visited the Farwells in their home in Hillsboro, Va. where, in our host's words, "the crime rate hovers around zero." Their house was narrow but seemingly endless in depth, with the study behind the house chockablock with books and historical artifacts. I achieved my immediate goal that day to sign up Byron to lecture on a tour of Civil War battlefields but recalled his remarking that he was hard at work on an encyclopedia of land warfare.
The result of his labors is a remarkable book, one that resists easy classification. He set out to write a book for both the scholar and the general reader, and he succeeded. The book's imaginative illustrations make it more than a library reference. While you will not wish to take it with you on your next flight it weighs in at about six pounds many devotees of military history will find a place for this book on their coffee tables.
After all, not everyone knows that dung is a traditional Tibetan spear.

John M. Taylor is the author of a number of works in history and biography, including "Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E. Lee and His Critics."

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