A century ago today saw the formal end of the First Battle of Ypres, what was essentially the First World War’s introduction to what the Western Front was going to become. Five weeks of combat produced almost 210,000 casualties among the Belgians, British, French and Germans who fought there, but gave very little advantage to either side.

Some 56,000 of those casualties were British, and First Ypres was the last in a succession of meat grinders that chewed up the veteran soldiers of the British Army. Unlike the legend of the Kindermord (the supposed massacre of a disproportionate green German teenaged conscripts, when in reality only about a third of Germany’s casualties matched that description), the death of Britain’s old professional infantry is largely true. Yet this was not the only slaughter of professionals that year.

Britain and Russia: Europe’s Professional Soldiers
Following the experience of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, armies in Europe had by and large adopted the Prussian system of using the standing army as a training school to churn out legions of reservists who could be mobilized in wartime. Terms of service were typically two or three years. The only notable exceptions were Britain, which retained a volunteer, professional army, and Russia, which kept its conscripts in uniform so long as to make them professional soldiers.

Tsarist Russia had fed its army using conscription since at least the days of Peter the Great, and for a long time being tapped for the Tsar’s army was for life. Villages would send off conscripts with a ritual that strongly resembled a funeral, because for all intents and purposes the drafted man was never coming back, lost to the community whether he lived or died. By 1914 the term of military service had been reduced to six years plus nine years in the reserves, twice as long as in any other country at the time and longer than modern volunteer military contracts as well. For all intents and purposes, the 1914 Tsarist army was a professional force, but not a volunteer one.

The “Old Contemptibles” of the pre-war British Army were all-volunteer, something that gave them the reputation of recruiting from the dregs of British society. Despite this, the British Army had a proud tradition of producing tough, well-trained infantry. A Napoleonic marshal was once quoted as saying “The British infantryman is the best in the world, and thankfully there aren’t that many of them.” In 1914, His Majesty’s riflemen could get off 20 to 30 shots per minute with their Lee-Enfield rifles, and at the Battle of Mons the Germans thought they were opposed by massed machine guns and not infantry armed with bolt-action rifles.

The Meatgrinder
Whereas the relatively small British Expeditionary Force of regulars and reservists was chewed up by its experiences in France and Belgium, the Tsar’s force of six-year soldiers had been annihilated in battles with Austria and by the twin disasters of Tannenberg and the Marsurian Lakes.

The thing about highly trained professional warriors is that they are hard to replace, something both the British and the Russians found out. The British attempted to retain its all-volunteer ways for a time, but even so their salty cadres of rankers and sergeants was gone, and with it went the skill base of their army. The best infantrymen in the world were gone, and many have written, both then and now, that the British Army never quite got back that which went with them.

For the Tsar, the slaughter of his professional soldiers in a matter of months meant something more than the loss of skills, experience and effectiveness. Those conscripts were the bulwark of his regime, their devotion to his dynasty and the Orthodox Church reinforced by years of indoctrination. While the abominable treatment of the common Russian soldier during the war would have guaranteed the eventual alienation of even this Pillar of Tsarism in time, 1914 knocked it out all at once.

Most of the changes reflect casualties, sackings and promotions due to the action in Stonewall Goes West. The one change that might strike even those who have read Mother Earth, Bloody Ground as strange, and therefore demands a comment here, is Patrick Cleburne’s promotion to Brevet Lieutenant General.

In the Old U.S. Army, brevet rank was given as a reward and was a de facto temporary promotion, effective only in the current assignment and without the accompanying raise in pay. It was quite common in the Old Army, what with its many small and far flung postings, because the need for field officers was high but the number of them was kept low by law. So a lieutenant or captain might find himself bumped up to brevet major and put in charge of a frontier post. During the Mexican War, many officers were given brevet promotions for meritorious service as well.

The Union Army continued to use brevet rank during the Civil War, following its Old Army antecedents. The Confederate Army had the provision for brevet rank on the books, as their 1861 Articles of War and C.S. Army regulations, both of which were virtually copies of their older U.S. counterparts.

However, the Confederates never used brevet ranks, and even passed a law creating “temporary general” rank (meaning full or “four-star” general) rather than use brevet general rank instead. This was despite the fact that the two amounted to practically the same thing.

Cleburne became, insofar as my story is concerned, the Confederacy’s first and only brevet lieutenant general as part of an elegant solution to a thorny problem, a solution devised by Judah Benjamin. To find out the details, you will need to read the book, but I thought some detailed explanation of this part of army regulations was in order.

Overall Commander and Field Commander, Army of Tennessee: Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, Department of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi

Polk’s Corps
Commanding: Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk

French’s Division

  • Ector’s Brigade
  • Cockrell’s Brigade
  • Sears’s Brigade
  • Cantey’s Brigade

Maney’s Division

  • Featherston’s Brigade
  • Quarles’s Brigade
  • Lowry’s Brigade (no relation to Mark Lowery of Polk’s Division)
  • Scott’s Brigade

Stewart’s Corps
Commanding: Lt. Gen. A.P. Stewart

Stevenson’s Division

  • Brown’s Brigade
  • Cumming’s Brigade
  • Reynold’s Brigade
  • Pettus’s Brigade

Clayton’s Division

  • Stovall’s Brigade
  • Holtzclaw’s Brigade
  • Gibson’s Brigade
  • Baker’s Brigade

Cleburne’s Corps
Commanding: Brevet Lt. Gen. Patrick Cleburne

Cheatham’s Division

  • Strahl’s Brigade
  • Wright’s Brigade
  • Vaughn”s Brigade
  • Walker’s Brigade (home of the 41st TN Infantry and the Grimes Brothers)

Polk’s Division (Lucius Polk)

  • Govan’s Brigade
  • Lowery’s Brigade
  • Granbury’s Brigade
  • Smith’s Brigade

Forrest’s Cavalry Corps
Commanding: Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest

“Red” Jackson’s Division (three brigades)
Buford’s Division (three brigades)Rucker’s Brigade (independent)

A lot of authors, including myself, fret over bad reviews. The usual advice for such things is to try to learn what you can from them and otherwise grow a thicker skin, but to that I can add something new: sometimes your bad reviews are the sign of a good thing, if they are Amazon reader reviews that is.

Even Excellent Books Are Read By Morons
Take a look at the reader reviews for a book that inspired my own in some ways, Gettysburg by Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen. The book was a bestseller, and in my opinion the trilogy of which it is a part are the best alternate history novels of the last quarter century, and they are among the best Civil War novels for the same period. Yet the overall star rating is only 4.1, less than that of my own novel.

Gettysburg has a merely four-star rating precisely because it is a bestselling novel. The simple fact that it reached a large audience guaranteed that it would get bad reader reviews, because reaching a large audience means reaching idiots who can read.

I know that sounds harsh, but look at the bad reviews for Gettysburg. A big chunk of them came from people who complain that they didn’t know the book was an alternate history, and were expecting straight historical fiction. In other words, they were from readers who were too stupid to read and understand the plot synopsis posted front and center on the Amazon page and printed on the back of the book!

Look up any great book you would care to name on Amazon, and it will have reviews written by trolls, cretinous wannabe critics and dimwits. The simple truth is that having a healthy number of stupid reader reviews is part and parcel of reaching a larger audience. It is a sign of success.

Sales, Fakes And Hitting The Target
One of the things I have done since Stonewall Goes West came out a year and a half ago is keep a casual eye on authors who publish books in my genre. Based on that, I have a fair idea of how well those books have sold, and one thing I have gleaned from that is more evidence that stupid reviews are a sign of reaching a larger audience, because most of them didn’t sell well and don’t have several stupid reviews.

This is not to say that a book without a decent helping of stupid reviews hasn’t sold well. I can think of one good example where that is not the case, that being a sign of an author who really managed to hit the nail on the head and satisfy everyone, the discriminating and the lame-brained alike. I believe that because my observation suggests the book sold better than my own, and yet it doesn’t have that many dumb reviews.

On the other hand, I know of a dozen books that sold much, much worse than my own, yet have 4 1/2 star ratings with dozens of reader reviews, almost all of them positive. My guess is that most of those reviews are fakes written by family, friends, and members of the author’s writers club. In fact, in once instance I’ve had the author of one of those books contact me and then boast about doing that very thing. I have previously discussed this problem of fake reviews here.

But What About Bad Books?
The obvious problem with this theory is using it as a tool to evaluate books you want to buy, as opposed to drawing comfort from it as an author. Tons of bad reviews aren’t a paradox that points to a good book, or even a book with good sales.

That points to a caveat in the theory: bad reviews are a sign of reaching a larger audience only up to a certain point, and the reviews in question need to be stupid to count. Don’t discount all criticism by saying “it’s just a sign that I reached dumb asses too.”

In my own reader reviews, the one consistent criticism that rings true is that my books don’t have maps in them. That was due to budget constraints, and frankly there is nothing I could or can do about that for this trilogy. Still, it’s a valid complaint and one I understood from the very beginning, which is why I attempted to bridge the gap with maps I made myself and published on the internet.

So the maps complaint is basically sound, because it’s true and for some readers it hampers or even spoils their enjoyment of the book. Sometimes I think the complaint is taken to an unfair degree, but that makes it harsh rather than stupid. I would be a fool not to listen to it and try to incorporate maps into my next project, and you would be a fool to assess all bad criticism as stupid merely because it’s bad.