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Bruno Mugnai
ARRSE Rating
3 Mushroom Heads
This book describes in considerable detail one of the least-known wars of the seventeenth century: the campaign waged by the expansionist Islamic Ottoman Empire to gain control of Crete, which Venice had owned since 1211. Crete had great economic and strategic importance; once it was in Ottoman hands, Turkish control of the Eastern Mediterranean would be assured. However a Turkish victory was not certain; the campaign could have gone either way. At one stage Venetian ships appeared in the Turkish Straits and threatened Constantinople itself.

Had the European powers, instead of quarrelling among themselves, promptly united to support Venice, the outcome could have been different. As it was, other Italian, French, Dutch, Danish, and even English ships and men would become involved in the campaign on the Venetian side. Turkey drew its soldiers from all over its empire, including Arabia and Africa. Slavs and Greeks fought on both sides. A parallel campaign was waged in Dalmatia (the eastern shore of the Adriatic), with Venice and Turkey seizing islands and enclaves from each other.

Military historians like to discuss which was “the first modern war”. Much depends upon which criteria you choose to apply: the American Civil War, with its trenches, economic warfare and industrial input, is a favourite candidate. Bruno Mugnai proposes the Cretan War because:

  • It was waged for the most part far from the home territory of the involved Great Powers;
  • It therefore involved long supply-lines, whose maintenance was vital to the outcome of the campaign;
  • Men from all over Europe, as well as Asia and Africa, took part. It was a major European war;
  • Military technology evolved rapidly in response to the challenges of the campaign. This included modifications to armaments, equipment and clothing;
  • There was likewise a fast evolution of strategy and combat tactics.
The end result was that Venice lost Crete and began a fast decline from Great Power status. It had already lost Cyprus and the Morea to the Turks. All that remained of the once-extensive Venetian Empire were the Ionian Islands, parts of Dalmatia and the terrafirma possessions in Italy. In 1798 Napoleon would deliver the coup de grace and abolish the Venetian State. By that time Venice had become what it is today; a tourist attraction. Meanwhile the Turks were emboldened by their success to expand further into Europe, occupying Hungary and besieging Vienna in 1683. Had Vienna fallen, Turkish flags could have been flying over Calais soon afterwards. It did not, because a mainly German army led by King John of Poland arrived in the nick of time. One of the German commanders who distinguished themselves was the future King George I of Great Britain.

On the positive side, The Cretan War 1645-1671uncovers an important and interesting conflict about which I – and I suspect many other ARRSE-ers – previously knew almost nothing. Yet this little-known campaign altered the balance of power in Europe. The book is copiously illustrated with excellent maps and illustrations; many never published before.

I have however to award it a low score because of the deficiencies of the text. No-one is given credit for the translation from Italian to English, which leads me to suspect that the author or his publisher decided to economise by using a computer to do the job. Speaking from experience, this is an unwise thing to do. It results in translated observations like:

“The logistical effort for supply an Ottoman army required an operative staff of relevant dimension.”

I sort-of know what he means, but trying to make sense of this kind of obscure and ungrammatical sentence is both annoying and challenging. Sometimes the poor translation can be positively misleading. The word “kingdom” is repeatedly used as a translation of the Italian terms for “State” and also “province” or “colony”. The fact is that Venice was a republic; it had no king but an elected Doge. The Venetian Duke of Crete was a colonial governor; he did not preside over a kingdom, either. By the time I finished reading this book, I was ready to throw it across the room. Had I been an Italian scholar, able to read it easily in the original language, I suspect that I would have enjoyed it and have learned a lot more.

Finally, although there are excellent Notes and a Select Bibliography, there is no Index; a serious deficiency in any work of history.

Metellus Cimber II

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