Mistakes

Geoffrey Best

  • British Military Policy between the Two World Wars by Brian Bond
    Oxford, 419 pp, £16.00, October 1980, ISBN 0 19 822464 8

The astounding story told in these pages is of how the country which came victoriously out of the First World War, ‘that bloody and ill-managed conflict’, with nearly two million soldiers in Belgium and France, a more than adequate industrial backing for them, and a growing habit of victory, at the start of the Second could send there only a thinly-backed 160,000. It is the story primarily of the British Army, but it is presented within a broad framework of references familiar to all who know anything about British inter-war history: ‘Locarno’, Disarmament, Depression and ‘Munich’; Baldwin and Chamberlain, Gandhi and Mussolini, ‘Boney’ Fuller, Liddell Hart and – though he is hardly welcomed to the feast – ‘Colonel Blimp’. It is founded on so much systematic research in Cabinet and War Office papers, let alone other military archives, that it must at once become a prime resource for fellow scholars: yet it is written with so much force, directness, wisdom and wry humour that it would be instructive and agreeable reading for anyone concerned to understand in depth the decline of British power – not least because of its worrying speculation in conclusion, as to whether the country might not now be repeating mistakes made then. It is not a cheering book, but it is a strong and wholesome one, which fortifies Mr Bond’s place in the very top rank of the military-historical hierarchy.

Britain, he firmly reminds us, meant, for its army, the British Empire and Commonwealth. It was Imperial, not Continental service that the Army’s basic organisation and recruiting method had in view, and most soldiers liked it that way. India was the part of the Empire chiefly on their mind: nearly 60,000 British troops there in the Twenties, most of the officers of the 190,000-strong Indian Army British, North-West Frontier fights unceasing and growing civil disorder. Active involvement in Ireland ceased in 1921 (to the young Monty’s relief: ‘such a war is thoroughly bad for officers and men; it tends to lower their standards of decency and chivalry ...’), but Palestine, ‘the one potentially explosive area which defied all political and military attempts to muddle through’, became increasingly a problem after 1929, and the whole of the Middle East, with most of Britain’s oil in it and the sea-route to India and the East going through it, was naturally a permanent preoccupation, introducing into the story the Beachcomber-like characters of Nadir Shah and the Fakir of Ipi. Mussolini’s muscle-flexing in Libya placed special importance on the defence of Egypt. So super-sensitive were Cabinet and Chiefs of Staff about Mussolini that even through much of 1939, Mr Bond tells us, they kept thinking about how to deal with Italy when they ought to have been facing up to the infinitely worse problem of dealing with Germany.

In this was some sheer escapism: but it was much more a chapter in the long tale of British vacillation over Continental commitments. Travelling in this part of his argument along the main line already famously laid down by Professor Michael Howard (The Continental Commitment, 1972) and followed by the official historian (Gibbs, 1976), Mr Bond fills in some of the gaps, remarking that although some generals did not want to accept such a commitment, most politicians were desperate to avoid one, and purblind in not seeing the necessity for one. There can be no doubt as to which of the two species of men had the more sensible ideas about how to prepare for it if it had to be.

Politicians cut a poor figure in military histories, because generals tend to dislike them and civilians writing about generals usually pick up their prejudices. Mr Bond is above that sort of thing, but even he, an austere exemplar of fair and balanced judgment, can scarcely contain himself when he gets into the later Thirties. The penny-pinching of the Twenties, when the Army became ‘the Cinderella service’, does not so much upset him. The ‘ten-years rule’ – the assumption in framing Estimates, from 1919 to 1932, ‘that the British Empire will not be engaged in any great war during the next ten years’ – was not of the Services’ making, nor apparently were they consulted about it at first: but it was not positively stupid in the pacifistic aftermath of war and through the ragtime years. The Treasury’s tentacle within the War Office, its financial branch, was extraordinarily Scroogian, but Mr Bond allows that the Treasury was not wholly stupid in respect of defence matters when its attitude became of crucial importance after the financial crisis of 1931. ‘With good reason the Treasury was worried by the balance of payments situation, and feared that if large-scale rearmament were attempted too quickly the country might be exhausted before war began.’

Meanwhile Europe was becoming a much riskier place even for an off-shore island to be near, the National Government’s Cabinet ought to have been more aware of this, and ought to have come up with some good ideas as to what ought to be done. Mr Bond has no doubt that this could only have meant frank acceptance of the Continental commitment – ‘Britain’s frontier is along the Rhine,’ etc – and adequate expenditure to meet it; some of the generals, at any rate, having a shrewd idea of what was needed. Few Cabinet Ministers were prepared to see things in this disagreeable light. ‘British governments in the middle and later 1930s allowed wishful thinking to blind them to strategic reality.’ Rehabilitators of the reputation of Neville Chamberlain will get no help from these pages. Opinionated, obstinate, conceited and ignorant, he gets the worst report of all, though Halifax and Hoare do almost as badly. Mr Bond’s research drives him to conclude that, in the Munich crisis, Chamberlain was ‘more concerned to achieve a lasting agreement with Hitler by “appeasing” his supposedly specific and limited claims, rather than to buy time through a more or less cynical deal ... At no point during the crisis did either the Cabinet or the Chiefs of Staff try to draw up a balance-sheet on an issue which was to be much discussed afterwards: whether it was better to fight Germany in 1938 in order to gain the considerable asset of the Czech army ... and air force and to try to deny these forces, together with ... the Skoda armaments complex, to Germany.’ Why was reality once more so determinedly dodged? Partly because of that unfounded, uncritical fear of aerial bombardment which is such a giant unanswered question in inter-war history generally, partly because Chamberlain, more than most British Conservatives, could not bring himself seriously to contemplate military co-operation with the USSR. ‘When every allowance is made for Britain’s military and political unpreparedness for war, the fact remains that a weak hand was played with crass ineptitude.’

But the Army’s weaknesses by 1939 were not wholly the fault of the politicians and their public. In what some readers will find the most interesting and unusual chapter, Mr Bond scrutinises the Army’s ‘character and ethos’, to discover what it was that determined, not just what it did with the equipment, tasks and opportunities given to it, but also what equipment, tasks and opportunities it independently sought. Enter Colonel Blimp, and others. The others included some of the most enterprising and scientific soldiers of their age – this army, like the C of E, certainly had room for its eccentrics and modernists, persecution of whom normally stopped short of expulsion – but this on the whole was a contentedly self-regarding officer corps recruited mainly from the so-called public schools, entirely at one with their cult of ‘character’ and sportiness and with the ‘county’s’ cult of horsemanship (see especially the general on page 66 ‘whose admiration for the horse bordered on the mystical’), profoundly conservative in its politics, suspicious of cleverness, and socially exclusive. To some extent, then, it was itself responsible for what actually became of it. To some officers, however – even senior ones – these defects were clear enough: to C-in-C, India, for instance, who let off steam in his farewell address to the Staff College at Quetta in 1934. But ‘senior officers like Chetwode, Romer, Wavell and Ironside were the exception rather than the rule.’

The branch of the service in which exceptional officers were most likely to be interested was the mechanised one. Mr Bond gives two chapters to tanks. The author of a study of the military thought of Basil Liddell Hart (1977), he is uniquely qualified to reappraise the tank part of the story, for Liddell Hart, the celebrated military publicist, journalist and (not to put too fine a point upon it) intriguer, was keen on tanks and had very precise and, as his German admirers would soon demonstrate, sensible views on how they should be used. For him, as for Fuller and the rest of the enthusiasts (the palm is awarded to ‘Hobo’ Hobart), the important thing was not just to mechanise but to do it in concentration and to learn a completely new style of dashing, penetrating warfare – to wit. Blitzkrieg. For a few middle years, this seemed to be happening. In its materially modest way, the British Army led the world. Then in the mid-Thirties the heavy hand of infantry orthodoxy and the professional self-protectiveness of the cavalry men turned that radical promise into something much less exciting: a gradual motorisation and mechanisation of the whole Army, go-ahead in its way but missing the Panzer point.

In no part of the book are Mr Bond’s thoroughness and fairness more evident. The War Office hierarchs were, in the last resort, culpable – not least in their near-persecution of Hobart. Yet Mr Bond acknowledges that Hobart was a bit of a fanatic, that he and the other tank experts did not always agree among themselves, that Liddell Hart, so right about tanks, was dreadfully wrong about Continental non-commitment. His insight into the future at that stage was hardly any better than – what is the worst one can say? – Chamberlain’s, or Colonel Blimp’s.