FROM CONQUEST TO COLLAPSE: European Empires from 1815-1960 by V. G. Kiernan
Kirkus Star

FROM CONQUEST TO COLLAPSE: European Empires from 1815-1960

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A fresh, sophisticated treatment of a largely untouched subject: the military aspects of Empire ""from conquest to collapse."" In the course of surveying the period, British historian Kiernan (Emeritus, Edinburgh U.) provides a wealth of information on the tactics employed in colonial wars from Afghanistan to China to southern Africa; on European attitudes toward their enemies, allies, and subjects; on the recruitment and training of native troops. For the last, the pivotal event was the 1857 Indian Mutiny, which left the British fearful of their subject-soldiers and served as a lesson to other colonial powers. Though British imperial adventures predominate--including also the Boer War (in which both sides tacitly agreed not to employ black troops) and the 1950s Mau-Mau uprising in Kenya--Kiernan covers, as well, the Russian conquest of Central Asia, French colonialism in North Africa and Indochina (culminating in French antiguerrilla warfare in Algeria and Vietnam), and the one great example of colonial cooperation for mutual benefit: the suppression of the Boxer rebellion. The colonialists were able to prevail as long as they faced a fragmented Third World made up of many tribes and fiefdoms, and as long as non-European troops clung to makeshift tactics and panicked at a bayonet charge, the most gruesome and disciplined type of warfare. But once nationalism and military acumen combined, the empires were doomed. A prime example is Indochina--where the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu was ""the first victory over the West, except by Japan, in a battle fought by the two sides with equal weapons and on the same highly professional lines."" Kiernan's account of the rise and decline presumes some historical background, and can be heavy going even so: what to make of cryptic lines like ""when Burnaby was in Orenburg in the course of his venturesome trip to Khiva in 1975. . .""? But as a military history of imperialism, the book is unusual and often fascinating.

Pub Date: Sept. 13th, 1982
Publisher: Pantheon