Four Past & Present Battlefield Histories And Pictorial Guides from Casemate – Review by Mark Barnes


I’ve had a few books awaiting my attention while I dealt with one someone else will have to review when it eventually appears. We’ve never worried about this unduly here at WHO because the old adage that any publicity is good publicity seems to apply to the stuff we share with you.

The guys responsible for the books we have here are no strangers to this corner of the Internet. They have produced consistently good battlefield histories that rely to a great extent on carefully considered imagery, especially the use of aerial photography.  I’m a sucker for battlefield guides and they come in all shapes and sizes, these days.  This time round large format hardbacks have given way to A4 sized softbacks. The books are, in some respects, like bite size versions of previous books, but there is no duplication. These books stand up well and I’m of the opinion moving to this format was a sensible idea.

‘Write what you know’ is a piece of advice in the publishing world that is true today as it has always been and the authors don’t mess about by going off piste. They stick to safe ground looking at aspects of the North-West Europe campaign of 1944-45 from Normandy to the Ardennes Offensive and I am sure this Past & Present range will grow into an extensive series over time.

First up we have 82nd Airborne – Normandy 1944 by Steven Smith. With a title like that you know exactly what you are getting. There isn’t much in the way of ‘unseen’ photography, but the aforementioned use of modern day imagery combines with the archive stuff to present a succinct but entertaining picture of the division’s experience on D-Day and thereafter. I like the way specific locations are picked out and given the past and present treatment. This is not a new concept by any means, but it always works for me if done well and we can have no concerns about this product. The general story is well-known and possibly not as done to death as that of the 101st and there is plenty to enjoy here.

The Falaise Gap Battles – Normandy 1944 by Simon Forty and Leo Marriott offers up all that is appealing about battlefield touring in France. You see the history and all the joys of being in a country I happen to love travelling in a great deal. This particular volume has the added bonus of taking the reader through a real mixture of locations and events that go some way to explaining why that corner of France is such a glorious place to visit.  Once again, the archive stuff offers all the usual ingredients and the storytelling opens up a wealth of possibilities for further reading.

1st Airborne – Market Garden 1944 by Simon Forty and Tom Timmermans does solid work for its format and the reader will be left with a taster of exploring a battlefield that remains sacred ground.  Once again, I find myself recalling happy times touring around with my WHO colleague Joris and our mates a few years ago and the book reminds me that I have to go back. Battlefield guides tap into much more than just the history and the result is to make me want to break out my photographs from that trip, but this applies to the books we saw previously as well. Great stuff.

Last up is a guide to part of a battlefield I haven’t visited yet. Leibstandart – Ardennes 1944 looks at the operations of this well-known SS division during the Battle of the Bulge and doesn’t shy away from the grizzly stuff.  The book’s format requires brevity in accounting for the excesses of the SS and it has the effect of making the telling quite powerful.  It is difficult to recount those events without looking at the leading personalities and many of the best-known images of Joachim Peiper appear here. None of what we see is new ground, but the presentation works well.

This series of books have been planned and executed by Casemate with panache and I would welcome the chance to review more. They would make ideal Christmas presents for younger history buffs because each volume offers just about enough in a single sitting. I cannot fault them.

Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online.

Normandy 1944
By Steven Smith
ISBN: 978 1 61200 536 2

Normandy 1944
By Simon Forty & Leo Marriott
ISBN: 978 1 61200 538 6

Market Garden 1944
By Simon Forty & Tom Timmermans
ISBN: 978 1 61200 540 9

Ardennes 1944
By Steven Smith
ISBN: 978 1 61200 542 3