One’s Company: A Journey to China by Peter Fleming

one's comp

 

When a book opens with the author reading the London Time’s Agony Column, and the author is English I am pretty sure I am going to enjoy it. The Agony column, a favorite of Sherlock Holmes, was a sort of advice column mixed with miscellaneous random or statements

That is how Peter Fleming starts out One’s Company: A Journey to China, a journal of his trip to China in 1933 as a special correspondent of the London Times. The book is basically dividend into two segments. The first is about his departure from England, travel through Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway and his time in Japanese occupied Manchuria.

On his way to Manchuria he stops and visits his brother Ian Fleming, a reporter at that time just returning from Moscow where he was covering the Metro-Vickers Trial and who later working for the British Secret service and then authoring the James Bond books. His train trip is interrupted with a derailment but is relatively uneventful.

In Manchuria he visits cities and goes out on an anti-guerilla campaign with Japanese and local forces. I picked up a good deal of history from that era. It was an era of warlords and he meets people that served with or against many and drops names such as One-Arm Sutton, Chan Tso-Lin (Zhang Zuolin), Henry Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China and Feng Yu-hsiang (Feng Yuxiang) among others.

Leaving Northern China he heads south to where the Nationalists and Communists are at each other’s throats. He manages to get to the front lines twice, but just misses any action. He does however meet Chiang Kai-Shek, who was one of the few officials or officers to impress him.

chiang
Chiang Kai-shek

I love Fleming’s writing style and his ability to frame a scene. He does not go in for flashy language or overheated prose. Overall it is rather droll. He is constantly wishing for excitement, a fight with bandits, and battle with the Red Army, or anything. His one brush with danger is with a bounding boulder. His travels take him to areas in China that were at that time so remote and rarely visited by non-Chinese that in one case he is mistaken for being Japanese.

The book is just an enjoyable snapshot of a time prior to World War II where a huge part of the world was already at war and the West simply was not paying much attention.

brazil

Years ago I had read a previous book by Fleming, Brazilian Adventure, about his joining an expedition to find the lost explorer Percy Fawcett. The Lost City of Z is a recent movie about Fawcett. The trip failed but I loved the book. Sadly all I can really recall about the book is that I enjoyed it. An interesting note is that he is discussing the adventure with a fellow traveler in One’s Company when they find a scrap of newspaper that mentions another expedition has returned in failure after searching for the lost explorer.

Fleming was quite a traveler in his youth and it is interesting that he notes in the book that he dislikes sightseeing, does not describe scenes well and dislikes traveling with others, hence the title.

There are some odd things that I enjoyed about this specific version of the book. Inside was a cutout picture of the author from what appears to be a French magazine. He is looking over his shoulder wearing a fur lined parka and smoking his pipe, somewhere in the Far East. The cover has him playing what appears to be solitaire on a small trunk while also smoking his pipe. He looks very engrossed in the game.

On the inside of the cover is a bookplate that says “Ex Libris Mach and Mike Heimlich.” The version I have was printed in the U.K. and this has made me wonder who owned the book previously. I gave a quick attempt to track down the owners on line. A couple of hits but nothing I would hang my hat on. Then the book has a note written in red ink in the back saying to copy some pages for Judah B.

Two minor things I disliked about the book. The lack of maps is first and foremost. He visits a lot of small villages and towns and it is very hard to trace his steps. The second is the lack of photos. He talks a bit about taking numerous pictures; it would have been nice to see them.

One’s Company is a nice addition to my collection of travel books. I think I have always enjoyed this genre ever since I read a children’s version of Robinson Caruso as a young child. I know that technically it is not a real travel book but it is what ignited the flame.

 

The Crimean War by Orlando Figes

Crimean

Attacking my pile of decade old book purchases I came upon The Crimean War by Orlando Fige and decided that it was time for a change of pace in my reading habits. I am very glad I did so, it was an excellent read and filled in some interesting gaps in my understanding of world politics.

The book starts with a good introduction as to the causes that lead up to the war-the weakening of the Ottoman Empire, Russia’s determination to expand its influence in the Holy Land and Ottoman provinces and most of Europe’s’ distrust of Russia. It was eye opening to learn that in the Holy places in the Near East fights broke out among armed monks and others over which religion would have primacy.flash

Everything I thought that I knew about the Crimean War came from Flashman at the Charge by MacDonald Fraser. Not surprisingly since Fraser also wrote a good deal of history, the parts that he wrote about (aside from Harry Flashman) were very accurate. Included was the incompetence and disagreements of the leaders, the Thin Red Line, and the charges of both the Heavy and Light Brigades. However I had always carried the impression that the English were the primary power fighting and that their allies, primarily France, played a distinctive second fiddle.

Far from the truth. While the English, lead by Prime Minister Palmerston were advocates of a major war against Russian, primarily to defend English trade interests and possessions. However they were not really willing to put the resources into the effort, hoping to get allies to play a major part, which they did. The major victories of the war were achieved by France, and its leader Napoleon III ended up being shown as a shrewd negotiator. The overall ability and competence of the French really surprised me. All I really knew about Napoleon III was his invasion of Mexico and the disastrous war of 1870.

charge

I had forgotten about its successful invasion of Algeria and thus had an experience, battle harden core in its Zouaves. The military had portable canteens, bakeries, well planned out supply logistics and well staffed and intelligently laid out hospitals. The officers lived close to the men and capital punishment was mostly eliminated. Pretty much all of the opposite was true for the English. In combat they made most of the important gains and became the dominate partner in the allies.

The English, seemingly living off their reputation earned in the Napoleonic wars decades earlier, were to put it mildly, a mess. Corporal punishment was very common, the officers were distant from the men, both culturally and physically, living apart and enjoying a much better lifestyle in camp. Planning from the very senior level on down was almost entirely absent.

The Russians were also resting on their Napoleonic laurels and when faced with modern weapons and tactics failed. In part due to the backwardness of the country, couple with an autocratic leader who seemingly acted on a whim at times. Without a thought to the long term impact of his actions.

The Russians one true advantage was a huge numerical advantage, which was greatly offset by poor medical and logistical issues. Their casualties were between 400,000 and 600,00, compared to the English 28,000.  However they developed a method of battlefield triage that helped save lives that went above what Florence Nightingale did on the Allied side.

One issue that I would have liked was both better maps and have them presented throughout the book rather than at the start. It could be difficult to follow combat on specific days. Overall the Crimean War gives a very good overview of the causes of war, how it was fought, and the near term aftermath. It also shows the lasting impact that the war had on European relations that still affect the world today.