Every club in the bag

Michael Howard

  • The Chiefs: The Story of the United Kingdom Chiefs of Staff by Bill Jackson and Dwin Bramall
    Brassey, 508 pp, £29.95, April 1992, ISBN 0 08 040370 0

Although most people, however reluctantly, take some interest in war, precious few bother their heads about organising for war in peacetime. It is a subject, like dental care, both dull and mildly repellent. Until the beginning of this century, few Englishmen thought it necessary at all. The Navy, so it was hoped, would defend our shores (probably against the French) and the Army would police, and where necessary extend, the Empire. Both Services went their own ways to general public approval, so long as they made minimal demands on the taxpayer. Then the humiliations suffered by the Army in the Boer War, and the near-simultaneous naval threat from Germany, made it clear that in the 20th century national defence would require more sustained attention than during the 19th, and that it was now too serious a matter to be left to the generals. But how it should be handled, and who should handle it, has been a matter of bitter contention, both in war and in peace-time, from that day to this.

Now we have two generals writing a big book about it. With trained military skill they camouflage their identity on the dust-jacket: Bill Jackson and Dwin Bramall they call themselves, for all the world as if they were just reporters on the sunday Times. Then on the title-page they unmask their batteries, and we find that we are actually in the hands of General Sir William Jackson, GBE KCB MC MA, and Field Marshal Lord Bramall KG GCB OBE MC JP (JP indeed!). No artillery comes heavier than that. The title is also a little misleading: our generals tell the story, not just of ‘the United Kingdom Chiefs of Staff’, as they claim, but of higher defence organisation as a whole, which necessarily extends beyond the uniformed heads of the Armed Forces to include politicians and, increasingly, civil servants. Indeed, the story they have to tell could almost be summarised as that of the battles fought by heads of the Armed Services trying to defend their turf against the civilians, and usually losing.

Almost, but not quite. The reason the civilians have usually won is that for most of their existence the Chiefs of Staff have been engaged in acrimonious internecine conflict among themselves, and their inability to reach agreed decisions meant that their political masters had to make up their minds for them. It all began when at the beginning of the century A.J. Balfour tried to create at least a framework for the making of a common defence policy by setting up the Committee for Imperial Defence. The Navy ignored it, and went ahead with plans for a war against Germany so totally at variance with those of the Army that the issue had to be settled by the politicians in Cabinet (in favour of the Army).

When war came, the two Services went their separate ways: ways which so exasperated the political leadership that in 1917 Lloyd George intervened to change them, compelling the Navy to introduce convoys before the country starved, and the Army to suspend its offensives in Flanders before it bled to death. All that remained of Balfour’s grandiose Committee of Imperial Defence was its secretary Maurice Hankey, indispensable and ubiquitous, with a secretariat that attempted to impose some order on the conduct of the war and to persuade naval, military and political leaders at least to talk to each other.

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