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Posted on Dec 28, 2009 in Books and Movies

The Immortals – Book Review

By Richard N Story

The Immortals: History’s Fighting Elites. By Nigel Cawthorne. Zenith Press, 2009. 224 pages, hardcover. $30.

One thing the author really should be commended on was not exaggerating the skills and "powers" of the ninja.

The term elite brings to mind somebody who stands out from the crowd. Elites are people with special skills, training and élan. The elite units in military history also bring forth certain connotations: espirit de corps, special skills and an honorable battlefield record. Nigel Cawthorne, author of over 13 books on military history and science, takes readers on a survey of units worthy of being deemed elite in The Immortals: History’s Fighting Elites.


The book is broken up into five major sections along with an introduction, glossary, further reading section and index. Each major section is subdivided into four-page chapters, each of which follows the same format. Each chapter has a heading, usually the name of the unit; an identifying phrase and a short paragraph describing why this unit was elite; a (usually) full-page illustration; a history of the unit; a "notable" quotation about the unit; and two sidebars. One of the sidebars is always a unit timeline. The other consists of something of interest that ties into the chapter, such as a brief biography of a commander, controversies surrounding the unit, or, in some cases, archaeological evidence that supports the belief such a unit existed.

The first section deals with the ancient world and covers the Persian Immortals, Spartans, Amazons, Sacred Band of Thebes, Alexander the Great’s Companion Cavalry, Roman Praetorian Guard, and the Sacred Band of Carthage. Only the Amazons seem incongruous, more mythic then legendary, but the author felt that since the ancient Greeks believed them to be both historical and in some cases contemporary they were worthy of inclusion. The author’s sidebar for the Amazons indicates some archaeological evidence supports a possible tribe of Amazons in Eurasia.

The second major section covers the medieval world, including Ninjas, Ottoman Janissaries, Ivan the Terrible’s Strelstsy, the bowmen of England, Knights Hospitaller and the Knights Templar, and the Mongol Hordes of Genghis Khan. One thing the author really should be commended on was not exaggerating the skills and "powers" of the ninja. In our popular culture the ninja’s abilities and "powers" have been greatly exaggerated to the point that they have taken on mythic proportions. The author showed the ninja to be exactly what they were: special forces (based on clans) specialized in espionage and assassination.

The remaining three chapters cover the Napoleonic period, World War One and Two, and the modern era. The good in these chapters is very, very good. For example, I was very pleased to see listings for the WWI-era British Expeditionary Force. When most of the continental European armies had large drafts of conscripts the wholly professional BEF qualifies as an elite force. Naturally, such units as SOE (Special Operations Executive, responsible for training and coordinating partisan activities), OSS (Office of Strategic Services, the American version of the SOE), SAS (Special Air Service), SBS (Special Boat Squadron), and Allied parachute units (1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment and 101st Airborne Division) are featured prominently. Some others chosen for inclusion are Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, the Stonewall Brigade from the American Civil War, and the German GSG 9 (Bundes Grenschutzegruppe 9, the counterterrorism group). The GSG 9 is considered an elite unit, but they have successfully drawn the veil of secrecy around themselves so that the inclusion in this book was most welcomed. Some of the surprising units to see mentioned here are the Wild Geese (Irish mercenaries fighting in exile), Chiricahua Apache, Zulu Impis, Poland’s GROM (Grupa Reagowania Operacyjno Manewrowego, the Operational Maneuver Response Group and which coincidentally also means "Thunderbolt" in Polish) and the French GIGN (Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale).

Unfortunately, one of the selections falls short both as an elite force (when considered in its totality) and with problems in the write-up by the author: the Waffen-SS. If the author had limited the selection to the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH) or Das Reich or Wiking there would have been no question of these being elite troops. But the vast majority of Waffen-SS troops were no better and in many cases worse than their counterparts in the Heer (Army) or Allied armies. It is hard to stretch the definition of elite to cover the entire Waffen-SS. Also there are problems in the interpretation of some of the facts by the author that mars this section. For example he translates Waffen-SS into Weapon-SS. While weapon IS one of the possible translations for Waffen, but the term Waffen is almost always translated in this context as meaning armed. Hitler referred to the Waffen-SS as the "Politically Armed SS" to prevent the Waffen SS from falling under the aegis of the German Armed Forces High Command (Oberkommando des Wehrmacht), so Armed-SS is the best translation.

Also, the author errs in implying that all the Waffen-SS wore the Totenkopf (death’s head) emblem. In fact, the Totenkopf was originated by German Hussar cavalry prior to World War One, and the German tank forces, both Army and Waffen-SS, wore the death’s-head emblem on the cap. The only field force to wear the Totenkopf was the 3rd Panzer Division SS Totenkopf that used the emblem instead of the Sig rune. This stemmed from the fact that the Totenkopf division was initially manned by a cadre from the Totenkopf SS or Concentration Camp SS. While the author comments on how the SS Division Nordland died in Berlin in the last days of the war, but he fails to mention that the French SS division Charlemagne also died in Berlin.

This was the only section in which I had major doubts about the suitability or errors in interpretation of the history. The author should be applauded, however, for not hiding the dirty side of the Waffen-SS. The sidebar for this section recounts the atrocities and war crimes they committed. This is particularly refreshing as some authors who place the Waffen-SS on a high pedestal either ignore the dark side of these units or actively deny any such events took place.

Technically speaking, the writing is crisp and easy to read. It is free of typographical errors or any errors in grammar and punctuation. The illustrations are numerous, with many being full color and all crisp with the only hints of blurring being action shots or photos blurred to preserve the identity of active elite forces members. The publisher has put out a high-quality product.

There was one major problem, particularly for anybody attempting to use the book in an academic setting, and that is the absence of a bibliography. The suggested reading section provided fails to denote the sources the author used. It only refers to those books he thinks the reader would find useful. It would be wrong to say that the text feels like it was pulled out of thin air; to the contrary, it seems well researched, but without a bibliography it is impossible to tell exactly how well researched it was. Highly recommended.

About the author:

Richard Story, son of WWII, Korea and Vietnam vet Joseph Franklin Story Jr, has a BS Political Sciences (Honors) from Kennesaw State University and a Masters of Public Administration from Kennesaw State University. Disabled and not currently working, Richard volunteers as a Moderator at the Armchair General Forums. Current interests: American Civil War, WWII and tracking weapons sales worldwide.  

1 Comment

  1. Hello from New Zealand.
    Came across your site while searching for “Richard Story” born in Portsmouth England 1828, parents Oliver and Amelia Story. Oliver was invalided out of the Army in 1839, and Richard joined up later on. Can’t find a lot so far, but thought I’d say ‘Hello’ to you in my journey. Should you be related that would just be a shot in the dark.
    Been to America, have relations there, just love the place, and saving up to go back.
    Best wishes from Moira.