Educating the Blimps

Geoffrey Best

  • Alchemist of War: The Life of Basil Liddell Hart by Alex Danchev
    Weidenfeld, 369 pp, £25.00, September 1998, ISBN 0 297 81621 7
  • Studies in British Military Thought: Debates with Fuller and Liddell Hart by Brian Holden Reid
    Nebraska, 287 pp, £30.00, October 1998, ISBN 0 8032 3927 0

Basil Liddell Hart was ‘the captain who taught generals’. His active participation in fighting was limited to three brief bursts during the First World War, the last and by far the worst ending with a nightmarish experience of panic and gas in Mametz Wood, on the Somme, which left him unfit for further front-line service. In proportion as the Army’s hold on him weakened, his critical interest in its mentality and methods increased. He began to write about training and tactics and at once was noted for the clarity and confidence of his prose and the originality of his ideas. His appointment as military correspondent of the Morning Post in 1924 gave him non-professional readers for the first time. He moved to the Daily Telegraph in 1925, where he stayed until climbing to what was then the top of the newspaper tree, the Times, in 1934.

The mission Liddell Hart set himself was the modernisation of the British Army. This meant, for him, the development of the tank and the rapid-movement warfare to go with it. He wasn’t the only one to agitate for the serious study of mechanised warfare, however. In the game with him was an awkward squad of officers, all noted in military history for prescience and eccentricity: the most important by far was the formidably intellectual, misanthropic and ultimately fascistic J.F.C. Fuller – ‘Boney’ Fuller to his fellows-in-arms, because of his inexhaustible enthusiasm for that unattractive warlord. Fuller was the first in the field and always the more powerful exponent, but he and Liddell Hart hunted together for many years until temperamental differences – Fuller disliking humankind and liking Fascism, while Liddell Hart disliked Fascism and liked his own kind – pulled them apart in the later Thirties.

The relationship of these two ‘revolutionaries’ is explored by Brian Holden Reid, a senior member of the famous Department of War Studies at King’s College, London, and the author of a standard work on Fuller’s military thinking. He describes the likenesses between the two men very well:

Fundamentally Fuller and Liddell Hart were Late Victorian and Edwardian rationalists who found much to appal them in the conduct of human affairs. They were dedicated to the belief that the First World War had been a catastrophic event in world history and had been conducted ineptly. They argued that the instruments that could transform the nature of war ... were at hand if only soldiers had the wit to use them. Both believed that harnessing the weapons thrown up by the mechanical, electrical and chemical phases of the Industrial Revolution would restore generalship as an art. War could then be used to fulfil rational and clear-cut objectives, and its propensity towards sheer destruction restricted.

Acknowledging that Liddell Hart was the more various and likable man, Holden Reid believes that it is ‘high time’ his life ‘was treated within the context of the times in which he lived’: ‘his skill as a journalist and publicist, and his nurturing of military history and what would come to be called strategic studies in a culture deeply inimical to both, are just some of the subjects that demand attention.’ Alex Danchev has given him a lot of what he wanted.

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