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Gordon Corrigan's Review of Victory to Defeat
(A longer version than that which is being published by Aspects of History)
Just in case you hadn’t noticed, General Lord Dannatt's and my new book on the sad demise of the British Army between the wars has hit the shops, and the reviews are coming in. The fabulous historian Gordon Corrigan has written one for Aspects of History and, because its slightly longer than the editor will allow for the magazine, has given me permission to publish the full 1,500 words here, for your reading enjoyment.
Before we get to that, here’s a snippet from a longer interview with Richard Dannatt about our book. There are six separate such snippets that I’ll drop over the next few weeks.
Gordon has described our book as “one of the most important works to be published this year.” Enjoy!
VICTORY TO DEFEAT: The British army 1918 – 1940. Richard Dannatt and Robert Lyman. Osprey Publishing. 325 pp. 33 plates. 3 maps. IBSN HB 9781472860866
The British Army ended the First World War well trained, well led, well equipped and capable of engaging in all arms intensive warfare. Of all the players, on both sides, this army was unquestionably the most capable of deployment against a first class enemy anywhere in the world. Twenty years later it found itself with very much the same equipment, but with very much less of it, and devoid of either the ability or the means to fight a war in Europe against an enemy which had absorbed the lessons of 1918 but which the British had forgotten. It was the British Army that had invented blitzkrieg (although of course they did not call it that, a term coined by the French press very much later) and used it during the Battle of Amiens and on into the ‘Hundred Days’ that saw the defeat of the German Army on the battlefield, and whatever German myth later averred, it was the British Army that forced that victory on the Western Front, not the French and not the Americans. And yet, in 1939 and 1940 the British were roundly defeated in France and Belgium, in Greece, in Crete and in North Africa. In this important – and to this reviewer almost heart rending – book the authors describe how and why the victors of 1918 were allowed to become incapable of fighting intensive warfare a mere two decades later.
In the first part of the book the authors describe the build up to the First War, and their explanation of the so called ‘Curragh Mutiny’ is much more accurate than many accounts by others (although the officers did not threaten to disobey orders, only to resign, and while Carson’s Ulster Volunteers were indeed incorporated into the British Army as the 36th Ulster Division, so were Redmond’s National Volunteers, into the 16th Irish Division). The authors then go on to show how the British government had, albeit reluctantly, accepted a continental commitment in 1914 and had despatched an expeditionary force to Belgium, described then and later as the finest body of troops ever to leave these shores. Fine they certainly were, well trained, well led and well equipped, but the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of professional regular soldiers was pitifully small, and with experience of imperial policing and not of war against a first class enemy. With the need to expand enormously and rapidly, this army had to adapt to a theatre where massed artillery, machine guns and barbed wire made any attempt to manoeuvre almost impossible. The book shows how by trial and error, by analysis of operations and by a gradually developing doctrine the British learned to use a combination of all arms to break through German defences and eventually to defeat them. With the infantry, the artillery, the armour, the engineers and increasingly the air all working together to get inside the enemy’s decision making circle, to get him on the back foot and keep him there, these were the elements of blitzkrieg, but it was the defeated Germans who were to absorb those principles and perfect them until twenty years after their defeat they were the most competent army in Europe.
After an excellent account of the British journey from an imperial gendarmerie to a practitioner of intensive war, the next part of the book shows how and why by the time the Second World War came along the British were incapable, not only of deterring war, but of fighting it. The ‘ten year rule’; the reluctance of governments to spend on defence; the political refusal to contemplate another war in Europe and the reluctance of the public to contemplate another bloodletting like that of the Frist War; the inability to experiment or to develop tanks and armoured vehicles; the seeming impossibility of reconciling the twin requirements of imperial policing and any commitment to land operations in Europe with the assets available; the myth of the ‘bomber will always get through’ and the absence of any consistent war fighting doctrine, all are lucidly explained. Much of the fault is shown to lie with politicians, and surely the most disgraceful example of political interference was the sacking of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), the professional head of the army, by the leaving of a note on his desk by the very dubious Secretary of State for War, Hore-Belisha. The generals are not spared, however. Despite restrictions on funding and refusal by governments to accept that another war was looming generals could have spoken out, although it does have to be recognised that in a democracy the civil power is paramount.
As the possibilities of war became more apparent, the book charts the course of appeasement and gives the lie to the oft stated mantra that Chamberlain’s purpose was to buy time for rearmament. It describes the eventual realisation that war was indeed inevitable and the too late and too little efforts to prepare for it. Even in August 1939 there were many who thought (hoped) war would not come, although the odds of 5/4 against war offered by the CIGS, Gort, would, if offered about a racehorse, indicate that the animal was firm favourite to win. Once war began the disasters and incompetence of Norway, Calais, the battle of France and the (pre Alamein) Western Desert are well charted as is the slow progression to eventual victory of a sort in 1945, even if this was achieved more by attrition than by adopting the doctrine so successfully practised by the German army. Some might aver that Germany was defeated in the Second War not by superior military prowess but by the Russian steam roller, the factories of Detroit and the fact that however competent her military machine she could not take on the British Empire, the USSR and the USA all at the same time, factors of geography, population, economics and industrial base.
It is a hackneyed old aphorism that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it, and in the last part of the book the authors sound a salutary warning. From 1918 defence was neglected and its funding drained. The possibility of another war in Europe denied, all the lessons so painfully learned between 1914 and 1918 forgotten with the result that in 1939 survival as a nation was in doubt. Then, from the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 successive British governments have seized on the supposed opportunities offered by the ‘Peace Dividend’ and an assumption that war in Europe had been banished for ever. Policies such as ‘An army smaller but better’ (or smaller but bitter as we who were in it said), ‘Front Line First’, stripping out the logistic units without which no army can hope to fight, and similar fatuous cries have left today’s British Army unable to field more than a single division and that for only a limited time. Many of our tanks are to be mothballed, we have no replacement vehicle readily available for armoured infantry, and the Chief of the General Staff has been sacked for suggesting that yet another reduction in the size of the army is unwise. Now another war in Europe has arrived. We are at war by proxy and if Ukraine does not win her war then we may have to fight it ourselves – and unless there is a very rapid – and expensive – uplift in our military capacity we may be doomed to watch a Russian victory parade down Whitehall.
This is a most timely book. The authors may have been a little too kind to Montgomery, adept at taking other men’s plans and claiming them as his own, and while Churchill did indeed oppose appeasement eventually it was he as a member of Lloyd George’s government who proposed the making of the ten year rule a rolling assumption, and who as Chancellor of the Exchequer reduced the naval estimates. It was Churchill too who as First Lord of the Admiralty was personally responsible for the Norwegian debacle which then propelled him to power. These are minor quibbles and this book should be read by every student at the Staff College, who will of course already be the converted. More importantly it should be compulsory reading by every politician.
Gordon Corrigan is a prolific commentator on subjects of war and conflict over millennia. His best-selling books include Mud, Blood and Poppycock: Britain and the First World War; The Second World War, A Military history; Waterloo, A New History of the Battle and its Armies and many others.
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