THE FIRST TO LAND: By Douglas Reeman


I am such a research nerd that I can not read a historical novel with out a handful of reference books by my side and my iPad warmed up on stand by.  So right from the star I had problems with this book. The Plot is based on actual events that took place in China around the turn of the century, the 1900 Boxer Rebellion; a virulent anti-foreign and anti-christian movement. Anyone foreign or christian, including Chinese christians were in grave danger of being slaughtered. Enter the Royal Marines to the rescue, more or less.

The Hero of the story Captain David Blackwood, must embark on a ridiculous mission that really makes no sense, except in a cheesy Romance novel sort of way. He is ordered to escort a beautiful German Countess (naturally she’s beautiful) into dangerous Boxer occupied territory. I know that this is necessary to the story, but Historically the German Navy had its own Marines (the Sea Battalion) who should have been tasked with this mission. To be fair they were mentioned in the book. but I really doubt if the  British government would be willing to put a foreign dignitary into to harms way so haphazardly, just because the Germans weren’t there on time.

The next stumbling block for me in this novel, was the Hoshun river. In order to get a handle on what area the book was referring to, I decided to google it more specifically google earth.  What I found was some very interesting restaurants, one of them in New Orleans and one near me in Minnesota, but I found no reference to an actual river called the Hoshun.  So I checked my atlas, several books and wiki and nowhere did I find any river or even a creek named the Hoshun. Well this wasted about twenty minutes to a half hour for me so I abandoned my search and got back to reading. I really have nothing against making up fictitious places in fiction novels, but historical fiction should be about details especially places.  For example the fine historical novel of the battle of Gettysburg, The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara is very specific about every part of the battlefield especially place names. Now I know that it is slightly unfair to compare a pulitzer prize winning novel with a hack action series, but you get the point.  The characters don’t have to be actual people, but the places should be real places.

So putting the presumably fictional Hoshun river aside, I trudged on and hit another obstacle to enjoyment, the tactics employed by Captain Blackwood a Victoria Cross winner and a supposedly competent officer.  The primary mission of the Marines of this era, was that of ship’s security and if necessary landing parties. On their way to the German trading mission, the little Coastal steamer Bajamar (a civilian ship employed for the journey) stops for the night, because of river hazards, that make the river unnavigable in the dark.  Captain Blackwood for some inexplicable reason deploys pickets ashore in the dark. He has limited manpower to start with, and he decides to put them in an untenable position, deep in enemy territory where they can be picked off piecemeal. This tactical blunder predictably cost the life of a young Subaltern who is captured tortured and beheaded. Any Marine worth his salt should have known, that the best way to protect the ship is to double the watch and have everyone on board ready to defend against boarders. This was an especially stupid move because he had not reconnoitered the area first so he was flying blind.

When they finally arrive at their destination, the trading mission has been abandoned and evidence of heavy fighting is unmistakeable. The poor Countess who was supposed to meet her husband at the mission, has been put in danger for nothing and the steamer and the Marines must turn around and beat a hasty retreat back to HMS Mediator, fighting for their lives, their objective a failure. This isn’t where the story ends though, Captain Blackwood and his company is now tasked with being the vanguard of the Seymour Expedition, the famous but failed relief of Peking. This part of the book really had me scratching my head. Having read a lot of  military history books about this period in history I know when something doesn’t sound right. First of all I tried to reconcile the action in the book with the actual path of the Seymour expedition. It caused me a lot of consternation because somehow Blackwood’s vanguard ends up behind Seymour’s multinational force,which is holed up in the Xigu Arsenal .  Blackwood’s company ends up in the besieged city of Tientsin Where once again he encounters the beautiful Countess and of course they make whoopee.

The last part of the book is actually pretty good and fits into the category of Ripping Yarns.  The action is detailed and fast paced and the descriptions of violence are graphic and horrifying. All through out the book the action is exciting and engaging, it draws you in as Reeman examines the thought processes of the characters involved. We discover that although outwardly Captain Blackwood has the typical stiff upper lip and nerves of steel of a Royal Marine, on the inside he is as frightened as any green recruit.

While in the midst of all this action Captain Blackwood has to contend with a stodgy commanding officer (an Army guy) and a petulant snobbish younger cousin named Ralf under his command. Cousin Ralf is not what you would call a stellar officer like the rest of the Blackwood clan, he is an unlikable weasel that likes to torment his older cousin. He hates the men under him, refuses to listen to the wisdom of his Platoon sergeant and shows bad judgement and a lack of a backbone. In the opening chapters of the book Cousin Ralfie is packed off to China by Mean old uncle, general Blackwood.  He is a gambler and an unrepentant skirt chaser, and the general hopes to bring him into tow by exiling him to the far east. In the last part of the book Ralf redeems himself showing bravado and moxie but I fear he has learned nothing.

It is a fun read and the action sequences are excellent. You are drawn into the thoughts and fears of men engaged in combat very realistically. The descriptions of action and violence are graphic and taut with anxiety for the hero, as he fights for his life, repelling wave after wave of fanatical Chinese warriors. The price of empire is paid for by it’s soldiers, with blood spilt on foreign soil. and no one knows this better than Captain David Blackwood. This book is definitely one of my Guilty pleasures.