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.

Liddell Hart completed his apprenticeship to Fuller and became the most widely influential advocate of radical reform in the British Army, its armoured department especially, which for a few interwar years led the world in experimentation and practice. New, utterly un-Somme-like ways of waging war promised to bring campaigns to an end more quickly and decisively. His articles and books were read with interest but little engagement by most of his compatriots. The British Army between the wars was small potatoes compared to the Navy, and a lot less exciting than the RAF; in any case, all the Armed Services were on short commons until the late Thirties. He had a more attentive readership in Germany and the German Army’s use of tanks and mechanised infantry in the blitzkriegs of the Second World War was to some extent (an extent he characteristically exaggerated) inspired and fashioned by the English captain’s writings. Heinz Guderian and others subsequently proclaimed themselves his disciples. Here was fame indeed, though of an unusual kind.

Ideas about the proper use of tanks were not by any means Liddell Hart’s only contribution to the study of strategy and warfare. A cluster of his concepts continues to be taught in military academies. The most familiar is ‘the strategy of indirect approach’. But even if that expression goes on being used, ordinarily intelligent military men (and women, nowadays – something that would have appalled him) would most probably have reached the same conclusion without it. An indirect approach can only work if geography allows it, and it won’t be much use against an opponent with a preference and enough power for a more direct attack. Holden Reid has less faith than Danchev in the longevity and pervasiveness of Liddell Hart’s influence. He also points out that both Liddell Hart and Fuller might have been listened to more carefully had they not been so persistently dismissive of professional men’s intelligence. Not every regular was a Blimp, as several of Liddell Hart’s contacts reminded him.

His influence has not been confined to his writing: more remarkably, it has been personal, even priestly. Through the Fifties and Sixties he became the acknowledged sage of Anglo-American war studies, always ready to help young researchers and delighting in the homage implied by requests to consult him. Danchev cites an extraordinary number of scholars and soldiers who admit a debt to him. I would probably be on the list myself had I had the sense to accept the offer of an introduction at the end of the Sixties. By the time I realised how eminent Liddell Hart was, he was dead.

After years of preaching in what seemed to be the wilderness, he had a short-lived moment of glory in 1937-38. For 12 busy months, he had what he had long coveted: the confidence of a reforming Secretary of State for War. The Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, realising that the Blimps needed shock treatment, cannily and even mischievously arranged for it to come in the form of Leslie Hore-Belisha, patron saint of road safety. This unlikeliest of all holders of the office was, Danchev writes, ‘outré, perfervid and Jewish; a celibate sensualist, a congenital iconoclast and a National Liberal. He dined off black plates and dreamed of Disraeli. His friends thought that he needed a wife or a God, or possibly both. In middle life he acquired one of the former, and continued to seek the latter on periodic retreats.’ To most right-thinking regular officers such a man was an abomination, and in due course a gang of them destroyed him. For the time being they had to put up with him – and with Liddell Hart, the other half of the package.

Tanks were only one of the many items on Liddell Hart’s shopping list, which actually existed and is printed by Danchev as an appendix – requirements down one side of the paper and, down the other, notes as to whether they had been satisfied. Many were, but the good times lasted only a year. The captain who taught war ministers was (as tactfully as possible) dropped, and that rejection seems to have initiated in him, or been accompanied by, overpowering depression about the approach of war and Britain’s unpreparedness, as well as some degree of doubt as to whether Britain ought to get involved. That the country’s most conspicuous and influential military correspondent, a veteran of the previous war and an undoubted patriot, should have withdrawn into depression, defeatism and self-pitying uselessness as soon as the war started was curious, but Danchev withholds judgment. Others may not feel so well disposed.

A chill wind blew over Liddell Hart’s reputation again just after the war, when he had recovered his spirits and, through the happy chance of a close relative being in charge of a nearby prisoner-of-war camp, had become acquainted with a number of captive German generals, almost all of them willing to answer his questions and to tell their stories. From these encounters, and from reading such German memoirs as had begun to appear, came his 1948 book The Other Side of the Hill (a quotation from the Duke of Wellington, who told John Wilson Croker that he had ‘spent all his life guessing what was on the other side of the hill’). This was military history from the opposing army’s perspective and with the politics and ethics left out. General Sir Percy Hobart, the most cussed of the original tank mafia, thought Liddell Hart had been conned. The German generals had ‘put the Nazis in’, he snorted. ‘They supported them: were obsequious and complaisant to every villainy. Now of course they bite the hand that fed them. What lackeys.’ Danchev quotes from Richard Crossman’s shrewd review: ‘The Other Side of the Hill is not the war seen through German military spectacles, but the war seen through the spectacles of defeated officers in captivity, which is a very different thing.’

Crossman and many others noted the air of hero-worship which scented the pages of technical appreciation and wondered about the naivety of the man who had swallowed so much and queried so little. Liddell Hart, for his part, was unrepentant. Not known as an anti-semite, he nevertheless observed that those of his reviewers who were Jews naturally couldn’t see the German generals objectively. But how objective was Liddell Hart? He seems never to have taken into account the ever-accumulating mass of evidence that most of his admired German generals were party to the horrors of the Nazi invasion and occupation of Eastern Europe and Russia, and his History of the Second World War (1970) said virtually nothing about the Holocaust.

Liddell Hart’s bestselling book in the Twenties was not a military work but The Lawn Tennis Masters Unveiled. Even before the Great War he had published many letters about tennis in papers and periodicals, and as soon as his war was over, he became English correspondent of the leading magazine of the time, American Lawn Tennis. ‘I elected myself their representative and obtained a seat in the press box, which afforded me an excellent view daily free, as well as tea.’ Soon he was also writing for the Manchester Guardian, the Observer and the Westminster Gazette. Liddell Hart’s main influence in this pursuit was the well-known prewar tennis writer A. Wallis Myers, but while conceding that Liddell Hart’s tennis writings may have been ‘apprentice work’, Danchev insists that ‘they were wholly, ineffaceably, his. The most remarkable of them was his stirring coverage of the Davis Cup without attending a single match ... the trick lay not in stealing Wallis Myers’s clothes, but in knowing how to wear them.’

Liddell Hart’s other enthusiasm was what he called ‘fashion and habit’; he had, in Danchev’s words, ‘an extravagant array of interests and obsessions concerning what might be called the sociology of shape and form – female shape and form’. Very tall and very thin, he was himself a considerable dandy, always perfectly suited, and with remarkable sartorial requirements. Danchev cites a letter to his Duke Street tailors accompanying the return of two lightweight suits, requiring that the number of pockets in each of them be increased to the 15 he had ordered, instead of the 11 he had been given. (He needed all these pockets to maintain his meticulous system of notes and files.) The exterior man was rather splendid. But the interior man was worth a look, too. He had a thing about corsets. He wore some sort of corset himself, and liked nothing better than the idea and practice of tightlacing. His first wife, a robust Gloucestershire girl with whom his not very happy marriage petered out at the end of the Thirties, got her waist down to 19 inches for a fancy-dress ball in 1931. He made notes about such things. His second wife, a widow with two youngish daughters, whom he met in 1939, and with whom he lived happily for the remainder of his life, was in her turn the object of his intense sartorial concern. She seems to have had no difficulty in going along with it. Trouble broke out, however, when her girls returned from their wartime evacuation to the United States, and resisted the corsets and high heels he strove to get them into.

The history and practice of women’s dress was something he took trouble to learn about (this time James Laver was the inspirational figure in the background). Indeed, he went in for some grand theorising about the relation between waists and civilisation. Given the simplicity and, presumably, un-corsetedness of wartime Utility clothing, he got a peculiar thrill when Dior’s New Look hit London late in 1947. Not long afterwards, it was chosen to be the subject of a Foyle’s Literary Luncheon at the Dorchester, with Liddell Hart genially in the chair. Quite a change from what he had been doing only a few weeks earlier: along with his wife and elder daughter (the latter, by now in full New Look fig), he had taken Generals Dittmar, Heinrici, Seidel, Senger and Weckmann out to lunch at the Blue Bird Café in Bridgend.

Liddell Hart liked to see himself in picture and print. He was ambitious, vain, self-absorbed. He was also gentlemanly, hard-working, conscientious, entertaining, kindly, hospitable. He sought higher honours than he got: a KCB at the age of 69 wasn’t much of a prize for a man who had been seeking it for thirty years and who thought he was worth an OM. Among his friends were T.E. Lawrence and Robert Graves. He had the patriarchal scholar’s satisfaction of receiving a festschrift, organised by Sir Michael Howard, but never achieved the university distinction his attainments probably merited. When in 1946 Swinton at last relinquished what Danchev calls his ‘limpet grip’ on the Oxford History of War Chair in which he had lazed since 1925, Liddell Hart was pipped at the post by Cyril Falls, presumably seen as less of a problem by academic Blimps (and perhaps with a Second World War record more favourably regarded).

Liddell Hart went on working to the very end. Early in 1970, he went, with the widely-loved Kathleen to London to see his specialist and do some shopping: suits, silk waistcoat and red silk pyjamas. After some days at a friend’s in Bournemouth, they drove back to Medmenham on 26 January. Three days later, according to Kathleen, ‘he went to his study early and then came up for breakfast, as usual, to our room. He reached out to take up one of the five daily newspapers, but his hand dropped. He tried to say something to me, and then there was silence.’