1940? 1914? Why History Matters

The Real Reason Historical Analogies are Interesting

The Queen’s address to the nation last night was shot through with imagery and language evoking the Second World War. She concluded with an almost direct quote from one of the most iconic songs of the era: ‘We will meet again.’ The Queen, of course, is one of the daily decreasing band of people old enough to remember what we still call ‘the war’. But being too young to have lived through it has not stopped politicians and commentators from drawing parallels between now and, especially, 1940. We need, we are told, a bit of the spirit that carried the nation through Dunkirk and the Blitz.

Here are a few examples (sorry if some of these are behind a paywall):

Mail on Sunday https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8112779/Top-psychologist-says-Britons-rediscover-Blitz-spirit-cope-self-isolation.html ; Guardian Editorial, 15 March 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/15/the-guardian-view-on-the-uks-covid-19-response-confused-and-hesitant ; Jamie Johnson, Daily Telegraph, 17 March 2020 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/03/17/coronavirus-blitz-spirit-uks-sanctions-compare-second-world/; Jonathan Ford, Financial Times, 25 March 2020 https://www.ft.com/content/5945c61a-6dc7-11ea-89df-41bea055720b

Inevitably, some of the big guns of Second World War history responded by pointing out the many differences between 2020 and 1940: Richard Overy, Guardian, 19 March 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/19/myth-blitz-spirit-model-coronavirus ; David Edgerton, New Statesman, 3 April 2020 https://www.newstatesman.com/science-tech/2020/04/why-coronavirus-crisis-should-not-be-compared-second-world-war

Another eminent professor, Adam Tooze, went further in the Washington Post on 25 March 2020, pointing out that historical analogies only take us so far and that much of the current crisis is brand new: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/03/25/weve-never-been-here-before/

Now, frankly, to me the current crisis looks to have more similarities with 1914 than with 1940. To mention just a few:

The First World War, rather like today’s pandemic, had been widely predicted for years, but had been the subject of relatively little preparation, certainly compared with the Second World War. By September 1939, the outbreak of hostilities came after years of rising tension. As early as 1936, the underwriters of the Lloyds of London insurance market, world-leading experts in calculating risk, refused to insure property against war damage. Governments around the world were staffed by a generation who had themselves lived and fought through 1914-18, who knew exactly what to do, and did it. The Emergency Powers (Defence) Act of 1939, which granted government sweeping powers to prosecute the war, was a direct descendant of 1914’s Defence of the Realm Act. Of course, not everything went right at first in 1939-40; of course, there was a lot of improvisation and muddle. But the idea that nothing went right until Winston Churchill became premier in May 1940 and blew a dynamic wind of change through the war effort is a product primarily of Churchill telling the story the way he wanted it told, first. No subsequent historian has yet been really able to overturn the paradigm he established.

The financial crisis of 1914 saw the whole UK banking system on the verge of collapse. It was only saved by a massive injection of liquidity, a widespread moratorium on debts which lasted for months, and a complete suspension of the stock exchange for nearly half a year. Nothing so dramatic ensued in 1939, or even when Britain herself was under threat of invasion in 1940. Parallels have often been drawn between 1914 and the crash of 2008, but actually there is a much closer analogy with 2020. 2008 was a typical cyclical financial crisis, with roots essentially in banks lending too much against ever weaker collateral until the bubble burst. In 1914 and 2020 the banks were/are not themselves to blame: real-world events, over which they had no control, pose(d) the threat to their liquidity. Until now, the interventions of governments around the world have insulated the banks from the worst of the crisis, the seemingly inevitable rash of emerging markets defaults now seems likely to test them again.

In 1914, famously, Britain saw a ‘rush to the colours’. On 6 August 1914 Lord Kitchener appealed for volunteers to join the army. Within a little over a month, nearly half a million had stepped forward, most of them after the gravity of the situation in France became clear. The scale of the influx completely overwhelmed the state’s ability to absorb them. Uniforms, weapons, accommodation: all were lacking. Many had to be sent straight home again. It took months to untangle the mess. The inrush of 750,000 ‘NHS Volunteers’ within a few days has clearly far exceeded expectations, and the ability of the RVS to process them. So far the media has (thankfully) refrained from criticising the chaos presumably reigning behind the scenes. But their restraint won’t last for ever, just as it didn’t in 1914. In any case, there was, thanks to the spring 1939 adoption of conscription, no similar ‘rush to the colours’ during the Second World War.

Those are just three areas where 1914 seems to me a closer analogy than 1940. But, frankly, I’m not really interested in which parallel best fits the situation we find ourselves in. No fit will be perfect, and the point of history is not to provide a check-list to tick off as we navigate through the storms of life, but to teach us how to analyse the kinds of problems we may face.

The more interesting question, it seems to me, is ‘Why are we reaching for 1940? What does that tell us about ourselves?’

It’s clearly a normal human reaction, when faced with a new situation, to try to fit it into some previous pattern. That’s how our cognition works. The question, though, is why 1940?

The first answer is, that it’s quick and easy. The Second World War remains an important reference point in our culture. Many of us grew up hearing about it from grandparents. How many wet Sunday afternoons were spent watching old black-and-white movies of derring-do, stiff upper lip and roll-neck sweaters? Or, for generations younger than mine, having your own WWII adventures in computer games such as Call of Duty? Even those who’ve never read a book about the war have absorbed more knowledge than they realise by sheer osmosis. In 2017 Christopher Nolan could make a war film and name it simply ‘Dunkirk’, confident in the audience’s ability to recognise at once what it was about. The same, even after the recent centenary, simply does not apply to the First World War, or, indeed, to any other historical event. The only exception reinforces the rule: every time we need to stand up to a dictator, the analogy is always to Appeasement and Munich: precisely because it’s part of the same Second World War cultural capital.

If we pull the 1940 analogy apart a bit, more interesting answers emerge, too. The imagery 1940/Blitz Spirit/Dunkirk calls to mind is of a terrible existential threat to us all. To face it down will require us to pull together as never before, to bear sacrifices we’d never imagined, and to keep up our morale through it all. We are all in it together. We have nothing to offer but blood, sweat, toil and tears.

There are three important but subtle subtexts at work, too. First, this is not our fault. We didn’t start this fight. The Nazis (virus) are to blame. So we are innocent victims and right is on our side. Secondly, things will probably get worse before they get better. And, thirdly: but we will, eventually, win. In that sense, 1940 is a reassuring parallel to draw: we’ve done it before, and we can do it again. That, after all, is what the Queen was saying.

There are two other important aspects, too. One is, I think, potentially dangerous. It is a common misreading of 1940 that after the fall of France, Britain stood alone against Germany. That’s historical nonsense, but it’s widely believed. It recently formed part of the Brexit narrative, for instance. The idea that Britain can somehow defeat the COVID-19 virus on her own is patently childish: but at points over the next few weeks and months, no doubt nationalist voices will see British pluck behind every victory, and foreign backsliding behind every setback.

The other is that victory in the Second World War, according to the progressive version of events, resulted not merely in a restoration of the status quo, but in the foundations being laid for a better world. The Beveridge Report, the Butler Education Act, and eventually the establishment of the National Health Service are all typically seen as the fruits of victory. There will come a time when we will need to start thinking about what we want the post-virus world to look like. We’re not going to be content with going back to things as they were before, even if we could.

By contrast, the way we remember 1914 offers neither such danger nor such hope. Although I’d argue that the threat posed by Imperial Germany was little less existential than that of Hitler, the British home front never came under obvious direct attack in 1914-18 in the same way as it did in 1939-45, so there was less need for ‘Blitz spirit’. The origins of the First World War remain hard to understand, so it’s less obviously a Manichean struggle between light and dark, as the Second sometimes seems. And it’s less clear, in the popular myth at least, who won, or indeed that any long term good emerged from it all.

I’m not saying that the characterisation of either war is accurate. But that is how they are seen in the public mind, and that, I think, is why we’d much rather see ourselves reliving the experience of 1940 than 1914. We’d like it to be a ‘finest hour’, which not only saves the world from ‘the abyss of a new dark age’ and leads it into ‘broad, sunlit uplands’, but which does so, as our grandparents did not always have the luxury of doing, while preserving our civilisation and humanity.



Crisis Management for Beginners III: How to Use Experts

Crisis Management for Beginners III: Listening to Experts

Britain and Civil-Military Relations

We need experts. When crises like the current Coronavirus pandemic strike, it is reassuring to see scientists and medics of the calibre of Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Chris Whitty at the heart of the government’s response. Science may not in reality be factual, objective and black-and-white, but it sounds like it to those of us who don’t understand it. We want to trust those who do. Science is certainly something government ministers and spokesmen have been happy to cite repeatedly as justification for the actions they’re taking.

How much power should we let such experts have, though? Should we leave them to get on with it? This piece explores the government’s use of military experts in recent history and argues that policy can and should incorporate expert advice. Government needs, though, to steer between the Scylla of ignoring the experts, and the Charybdis of trusting them too much.

Historically, the British state has an excellent track record of pulling in the expertise it needs in times of crisis. In both world wars, for instance, the government was quick to involve outside experts in decisions across a huge range of fields, from logistics and chemistry to propaganda and code-breaking. The most important group of experts, of course, were the generals and admirals whose men and machines would be doing the fighting.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, the last comparable war Britain had fought had been against Napoleon. No template existed for how statesmen and generals should work together in the modern democracy Britain had become over the intervening century. The result was considerable friction in both world wars between the brass-hats and the politicians. Expectations on both sides were unrealistic. In their memoirs, both David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill made no secret of the frustration they felt at the lack of imagination of generals who seemed fixated on bulling their way forwards through the mud of the Western Front. ‘Are there not other alternatives than sending our armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders?’, asked Churchill. There was not, as generals such as Sir Douglas Haig understood. On the other hand, the ‘brass-hats’ who demanded unconditional government support, free of interference from the men in ‘frock-coats’, did not know the politicians they were dealing with. ‘War’, as the French prime minister Georges Clemenceau famously said, ‘is too important to be left to the generals.’

Eventually, amidst much acrimony, Britain evolved a way of integrating expert advice without ceding democratic control: and won the war. The experience of 1914-18 was put immediately to work with the establishment of an alphabet soup of committees to produce joined-up strategy during the 1920s and 1930s. They didn’t all work well. Some of them, as with so many committees, marked attempts to shelve difficult decisions, not to resolve them. Others, including the increasingly influential Chiefs of Staff Committee set up in 1923, were actually born out of shabby compromises designed to force the three services to agree on specific issues (in this case, policy towards Turkey). Nonetheless, much of the machinery proved vital during the Second World War and was rapidly copied by the USA. Some of it, such as the Joint Intelligence Committee, in fact survives today.

These mechanisms for formulating expert policy did not guarantee smooth civil-military relations in 1939-45. Mistakes, inevitably, were made. Churchill and his leading military adviser, Alan Brooke, enjoyed an often tempestuous relationship. Out of their clashes and arguments, however, ‘effective compromises were forged’ as Professor Sir Hew Strachan points out, and a strategy was shaped which enabled Britain to play her part in the defeat of the Axis.

If the Second World War was the high-water mark for effective team work between democratic politicians and military experts in Britain, the record has been more patchy since. Subordination of the military to political direction came to be interpreted in very narrow terms, with an exaggerated and inappropriate demarcation of roles between the two. Policy became seen as something politicians designed, with the task of the military being only to fulfil the objectives set for them. As David Cameron reportedly told the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards: ‘you do the fighting, I’ll do the talking.’

The failures in both Iraq and Afghanistan can both be traced, at least in part, to breakdowns of the civil-military interface. In so far as there was any strategy, it was cobbled together without due regard for expert advice. This was sometimes the politicians’ fault: Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush actively ignored advice they did not like; Tony Blair cared little for the opinions of the service chiefs; and Gordon Brown wanted little to do with them. Sometimes the generals were to blame: too often they didn’t voice their concerns about the courses of action under discussion.

Underlying the problem, however, was a more fundamental failure to understand the nature of modern war and politics, and the relationship between the two. When, famously, Clausewitz described war as ‘the continuation of politics by other means’, he didn’t mean that there was a point where politics stopped and war began, and so a place where politicians hand over to the warriors. Instead, he meant that the two were completely intertwined. Political and military leaders must, therefore, work closely together to formulate policy and strategy. This is not always a comfortable position for either group. Successful strategic leadership, however, as Peter Gray has demonstrated, is about embracing the ambiguities of the situation, hammering out joint decisions, and then taking responsibility for them.

The lessons for the use of medical and scientific experts during the current crisis are clear. Experts are not there to tell politicians what to do, much less to shield them from the criticism of voters. Advice must be properly integrated into the policy, strategy and planning of government at all levels. The record of civil-military relations over the last hundred years shows that this is not easy, but that when it works well, the rewards are great. Equally, though, the consequences of getting it wrong are immense.

Further reading:

Hew Strachan, The Direction of Strategy

Eliot Cohen, Supreme Command

Samuel Huntington, The Soldier and the State

Peter W. Gray, The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945

Crisis Management for Beginners II: Lessons from Two World Wars

Economies in Crisis: Maynard Keynes, 1914 and 1940 

On Tuesday 17 March we heard Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak lay out the beginnings of a plan to minimise the economic hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic. We have been here before, of course: in both 1914 and 1939 the economy faced a massive external shock – the outbreak of war – which threatened considerable dislocation. In both wars, one of the outside experts the government called in to help them manage the economic consequences was the Cambridge economics don, John Maynard Keynes, and his experience throws up interesting parallels with today.

Keynes was first called to the treasury on Sunday 2 August 1914. He arrived at the Treasury, wind-blown and dusty after the breakneck ride in his brother-in-law’s motorbike sidecar, just in time to play a central role in defusing a financial crisis which required unprecedented government intervention. The onset of war threatened to set off a string of bank runs and failures as the international payments system ground to a halt. A week of bank holidays bought time for a huge injection of liquidity, wide-ranging guarantees for the money market, and a debt moratorium for businesses and individuals. Panic was avoided. Those thrown out of work by the disruption of international trade soon found employment within the war effort, and within months the system stabilised. The government may even have ended up making money on the bailout. Keynes spent most of the rest of the war at the Treasury, where he gained first-hand experience of how to manage an economy in wartime.

He put that experience to good use when the second war came around. In February 1940 he published a pamphlet called How to Pay for the War, incorporating and updating three articles he had written for The Times the previous November. Despite the title, Keynes was confident that the money would be found: his concern was more where it would come from. The war effort would receive top priority, financed in the first place by higher taxes and a compulsory savings scheme, while dislocation of ordinary people’s lives would – as far as possible –.be minimised. By this time, although he had built a reputation as one of the world’s leading economists, and had established a high public profile, he had not yet been given a government job. How to Pay for the War was, in a sense, his audition piece, and it proved immensely influential.

Keynes believed that two conditions must apply for any policy to command public support. First, people need to understand the problem, and what measures are proposed to solve it. Secondly, they must be shown that their sacrifice would be both fairly distributed and lead to a better future. He had been disappointed that the First World War had not been used to create a new world, and was determined not to let the Second end the same way. But the first essential was clear thought and communication. ‘We lack,’ Keynes explained, ‘not material resources but lucidity and courage. Courage will be forthcoming if the leaders of opinion in all parties will summon… enough lucidity of mind to understand for themselves and to explain to the public what is required; and then propose a plan conceived in a spirit of social justice, a plan which uses a time of general sacrifice, not as an excuse for postponing desirable reforms, but as an opportunity for moving further than we have moved hitherto towards reducing inequalities.’

How to Pay for the War put forward a package of measures. To raise the money needed for the war, and reduce inflation, taxes would rise and a compulsory savings scheme would be set up. Workers would receive their deferred pay after the war to offset the slump expected on demobilisation, while the increased government debt would be paid off with a capital levy (a one-off wealth tax). At the same time, every family in the country would receive both a cash allowance, and ‘a cheap ration of necessaries’. There would be no means-testing and possible stigma: the new ‘family allowance’ was a universal benefit. The poor would thus maintain a standard of living at or near what they had survived on in peacetime. Meanwhile, inflation would be kept under control without resort to the draconian controls and intrusive rationing of a full ‘command economy’. Keynes sought to preserve, not restrict, consumer choice and the market, while accepting that short-run changes must be made for the long-run good.

To those who might object to the family allowance, Keynes replied: ‘at first sight it is paradoxical to propose in time of war an expensive social reform which we have not thought ourselves able to afford in time of peace. But in truth the need for this reform is so much greater in such times that it may provide the most appropriate occasion for it.’

How to Pay for the War proved an extremely influential document. This was not particularly because Keynes’s specific prescriptions found their way into policy. Family allowances, for instance, did not pass into law until June 1945. Likewise, in the famous April 1941 budget, which set the course of British economic policy for winning the Second World War, the Chancellor, Kingsley Wood, picked up on Keynes’s idea of deferred pay, but watered it down considerably. The real importance of Keynes’s plan was twofold. First, it helped ease him back into the Treasury, where he went on not only to advise on domestic policy, but also to lead the negotiations for American support without which Britain would have lost the war. Secondly, it helped establish a link between fiscal policy and social objectives which we take for granted today. Budgets and government policy, in Keynes’s view, were for doing good and pointing the way to a better world.

For all the ‘we are at war’ analogies going the rounds, there are huge differences between the situation we face now and that of 1940. There’s no danger of inflation, for one thing. We will need to find ways to stimulate consumption, not depress it. There is no visible enemy against whom we can unite, for another, so it will be even more important to find ways to bring us together and offer us the hope of a better future. Keynes teaches us how lucidity, courage, and a willingness to use crisis to reform, can help do that.

Further Reading:

Richard Roberts, Saving the City: The Great Financial Crisis of 1914

Daniel Todman, Britain’s War: Into Battle 1917-1941

Robert Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes (3 vols; abridged single volume edition also available)

John Maynard Keynes, ‘How to Pay for the War’, Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes Volume IX Essays in Persuasion

Alan Allport, Britain at Bay (Vol I forthcoming)

Crisis Management for Beginners: Lessons from two World Wars

Jonathan Boff, 13 March 2020

We are all, no doubt, reassured to learn that the British government is following expert scientific advice when calibrating its response to the COVID-19 Coronavirus outbreak. We are fortunate to have medics and scientists who lead the world in public health management. Controlling crisis responses, however, is not just about science. There are limits to how far even the best behavioural scientists and psychologists can predict how the public will react in a crisis of this nature. History, this piece argues, may help us fill in the blanks. In particular, the two world wars offer three lessons that Mr Johnson and his colleagues are currently ignoring. It is particularly ironic that the Prime Minister, author of a very popular biography of Winston Churchill, is overlooking points central to the career of his hero. The consequences of neglecting history in this way might be devastating, not only for the current government’s political future, but also for the success of the public health measures currently underway.

I’m in no way qualified to judge the correctness of the British medical experts’ advice and make no attempt to do so. I, like many, however, am struck by the contrast between the speed and aggression of the public health response in near neighbours such as France, Ireland and Germany, and the more measured approach adopted in Great Britain. The latter contains three particular dangers.

First, governments which, confronted by a threat, say words of the effect of ‘trust us’, risk losing that trust, not because they do anything wrong themselves, but because public perception of the scale of the threat can change extremely rapidly. Herbert Asquith was forced from power in 1916, largely because of popular disquiet at an approach which seemed too much like ‘business as usual’, in the face of a threat he didn’t seem to fathom the severity of. In the aftermath of Munich in late 1938, it was primarily public pressure, driven by a growing realisation that Hitler could not be trusted, which led to Neville Chamberlain’s shift away from appeasement and toward rearmament. In May 1940, Chamberlain was driven from office largely because his attempt to wage a limited war seemed not to answer the danger Nazi Germany posed. Churchill got the job because he embodied the total war approach which now seemed necessary. Ordinary voters are not only quite good at estimating the threats they face: their patience for being told by ‘experts’ that they’re not (i.e., that they are stupid or ignorant) is also limited, as the success of the Brexit campaign showed.

A second lesson of the world wars is that experts tend to under-estimate the resilience of the population as a whole. Interwar scientists and public health professionals (everywhere, not just in Britain) expected aerial bombing to be much more destructive and lethal than it turned out to be in the early years of the Second World War, and were convinced that morale would immediately collapse. In fact, morale in both blitzed Britain, and even in Germany, hit by the much heavier bomber offensive of 1943-5, confounded expectations by holding up, as we know, remarkably well. Today’s epidemiologists might well be right when they say that locking down the country too soon will lead to fatigue and a breakdown of quarantine discipline later; but equally they might have too low an opinion of public resilience and caution. (And arguing that there’s no point in cancelling football matches because people will just go to the pub instead is deeply patronising and, I suspect, supported by uncharacteristically little evidence).

Popular willingness to hold out in the face of a crisis out is crucially tied up with a third lesson: the need to equalise sacrifice across the population. During both world wars, individuals submitted to remarkable restriction of their choices. They tolerated taxation at punitive levels, controls on what they could eat and drink, forced labour in the shape of conscription, and of course the death of loved ones. But their consent was highly conditional. Sacrifice could be borne as long as it was felt to be fair, as Adrian Gregory showed in his The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War. People were prepared to put up with a surprising amount, if everyone was in the same boat. If injustice crept in, however, compliance fell rapidly away. David Lloyd George, prime minister from 1916, understood not only that, but also that the government was the only agent capable of maintaining equality of sacrifice. Compulsion might be unwelcome, but it was at least fair, and so it worked. By 1939 the lesson had been well learnt: the state stepped in at once to ensure fair goes all around, with the trades unionist Ernest Bevin at the heart of government representing the new concordat. We can all agree that, if the schools were closed, teachers should still receive their salaries. But who will support a self-isolating taxi driver? Again, the UK government’s current response to the virus seems closer to Asquith’s voluntarism than to the radical unlimited national effort of 1917-18 and 1940-45.

So overall, it’s Emmanuel Macron and Leo Varadkar who are taking a Churchillian line, while Boris Johnson, meanwhile, may ironically end up looking more like Asquith or Chamberlain. Let us hope that appealing to people’s good nature, and hoping that the current crisis passes quickly enough for a free-market approach to remain sustainable, works. If it doesn’t, there is more at risk, from what will look with hindsight like complacency and a lack of concern with equal sacrifice, than Mr Johnson’s political future.

Further reading:

Adrian Gregory,  The Last Great War

Daniel Todman, Britain’s War (Vols I and II)

Alan Allport, Britain at Bay (forthcoming); Browned-off and Bloody-minded

Jonathan Fennell, Fighting the People’s War

Blood and Treasure: The Social and Cultural History of Money during the First World War

This is a summary of my new research project, to be funded by the AHRC, about which I’m very excited:

This research project will study the social and cultural life of money in wartime, informed by diverse disciplines such as economics, sociology, anthropology and philosophy and history. The main question it seeks to answer is: How does the way money is used and perceived change during wartime, and what do any changes teach us about the views of ordinary people, rich and poor, about government and state, the war, society, and, indeed, each other?

In times of peace, money serves as a tool which we use often without a second thought. We tend to spend, save, and use it keep count, without a second thought to the value of the notes and coins we handle. Money works, rather like a language does, because everyone tacitly agrees to let it do so. War, however, can threaten or shatter that consensus. Money can no longer be taken for granted in the same way and it starts to behave, and people start to behave towards it, in unusual ways. For example, materiality suddenly has value: gold and silver coins become more attractive than coppers or paper banknotes. The value of fiat currencies fluctuates with the legitimacy and effectiveness of the governments which back them and with the level of trust within society. Indeed, the utility of money fluctuates, with commodities such as cigarettes sometimes emerging as alternative means of exchange and stores of value. At the extreme, trust collapses and barter replaces the money economy. Hierarchies of value flex, with money sometimes losing priority relative to other intangible or tangible goods such as courage or a new coat. Attitudes to rich and poor change, with profiteers and conspicuous consumers attracting suspicion, opprobrium, or worse. Money can offer a unifying focus for patriotism or, for populations under enemy occupation, serve as a daily sign of foreign oppression. Saving can become an expression of patriotism and confidence in ultimate victory, or an unwelcome duty driven by peer pressure.

This research project will explore such themes via two strands. The first is a historical research project, applying the question above specifically to money during the First World War, drawing on archival resources and museum collections to explore the ‘functional instability’ of money in wartime and thus investigate themes of societal trust, government legitimacy and patriotism from a new perspective which complements and goes beyond the excellent works of economic and financial history which already exist.

The second strand involves constructing an international and interdisciplinary network to address the problems of money in wartime more generally, building capacity to explore its history and apply that history to present-day challenges by involving academics, heritage professionals and policy-makers involved in present-day security and conflict.

Both strands will involve close collaboration with the Imperial War Museum: partnership with the IWM is an integral and vital part of this project.

Outputs will include: a monograph from a leading university press and one or more  journal article(s) in major academic journals; an interdisciplinary, international research network of academics and heritage professionals; a two-day research workshop for network members and a one-day ‘Implications and Impact’ workshop with policymakers and security professionals; a public programme of lectures and articles in popular history journals.


‘Culture Clash: British and German Military Innovation at War, 1914-18’

(This is an edited version of a paper delivered to a high-powered military audience in Washington DC a couple of months ago)

Today I’d like to do three things: 1) provide some context of how the character of war changed between 1914 and 1918; 2) explore how the British and German armies adapted to the changes they experienced; and 3) discuss how the military cultures of the two sides drove and shaped that adaptation and what their experiences might mean for militaries today. I want to leave you with three main points: 1) It isn’t all about mass and technology. It’s also about force employment and, unless you have 20/20 foresight, that means adaptation, which means you need to be able to learn. Learning is a fighting front as important as any other 2) Successful learning and adaptation requires the right culture to enable you to do so. But 3) there is no single ‘right’ culture to facilitate the flexibility and agility required of modern militaries. Instead, what is essential to successful adaptation is working with the cultural grain of your institution, not across it, and that demands a cold-eyed understanding of that culture – which is far from easy to achieve.

(Change/adaptation/transformation/learning: I’m going to use these words interchangeably, although academic pedants can tie themselves in terrible knots drawing distinctions between them – but we all kinda know what we mean, right?)

By 1918 the character of the war was vastly different from what it had been in 1914. Somewhere in the middle of the First World War warfare moved away from the old linear battlefield and began to fight in three dimensions, based around artillery and the aeroplane. If Napoleon had ridden on to the battlefields of 1914, he would have known at once how to fight. That was no longer true even in 1915. On the other hand, a Foch, a Haig or a Pershing, comfortable on the battlefields of 1918, could have grasped the fundamentals of Gulf War I. The template of heavy metal first-division warfare in the developed world, laid down during the First World War, defined a century and how we all think about war today. In many ways, that makes sense: it’s materiel- and technology-intensive and its plays to the strengths of the society we inhabit. Many problems can indeed be solved by adding more stuff and/or better stuff. To see war primarily in material terms, has at least three problems, however. First, it risks under-estimating the importance of the ‘genius’ leg of the Clausewitzian trinity, under-rating the importance of force employment, ‘friction’ and the role luck can play. Secondly, and closely related, it can cause us to overlook the importance of the human factor even in heavy-metal warfare. And thirdly, it leaves us at a loss when forced to fight in ways – or against opponents – which don’t fit the heavy-metal NATO model, especially when they privilege the spiritual or ideological over the material. We need to be able to transform how we employ force, and that’s going to mean we need to manage change.

Let’s think in more detail about the change undergone between 1914 and 1918, then. At a political and ethical level, the violence of the war had started intensely and escalated with increasing brutalisation and desperation. At the technical and military level which is our main concern today, the combination of terrain, technology and force-to-space ratios created two fundamental problems, one tactical and the other operational. The tactical one was how an attacker was to cross No Man’s Land in the face of the enemy’s firepower and  break in to his defences. It took the British longer than the French to work this out, but they learnt the hard way during the battle of the Somme (July-Nov 1916) and developed new doctrine incorporating the lessons picked up. The three fundamentals for a successful attack were: 1) greater articulation with small-unit dispersed manoeuvre: the platoon became ‘an army in miniature, the Lewis guns supplying the covering machine gun fire; the rifle grenadiers acting as artillery; and the riflemen making the infantry assault’[1]; 2) maximum possible delegation of initiative to ‘the man on the spot’; and 3) best possible integration of available technology into combined arms ‘weapons systems’. There was no single static solution: the exact mix deployed varied from time to time, from country to country, and, indeed, sometimes, even from formation to formation. As the measure/counter-measure race continued the details of how to break-in to the enemy’s defences evolved, and there were many false starts and disasters in 1917-18. But those three broad principles persisted.

Restoring mobility required more than new weapons and new tactics, however. It also depended on the solution to an even trickier operational problem: how to sustain any assault over days, weeks and months. This problem had two aspects. First, keeping any offensive supplied with matériel was a significant logistic challenge. The immense resource demands of the methodical ‘step-by-step’ or ‘bite-and-hold’ approach only exacerbated this. Both the British and French transportation networks nearly collapsed under the strain in autumn 1916. Root and branch reform followed and by 1918 both armies had logistics systems in place which allowed a much higher tempo of operations. On 26 September 1918, after only three weeks preparation, Marshal Foch unleashed a series of offensives all along the Western Front by no fewer than ten armies and probably more men even than the Soviets used to attack Berlin in 1945. Secondly, the defender could reinforce his lines more quickly than the attacker was able to feed in reserves. The slow tempo of a methodical advance gave the Germans ample time to prepare new defence lines. By the autumn of 1918, Foch and Haig had learnt that the solution lay not in trying ever harder to exploit in depth once the culminating point had been reached, but in switching over to lateral exploitation instead, and in broadening the attack, rather than deepening it.

By 1918, the use of new weapons in new ways, and the new and more sustainable operational approach the Allies pursued, were important factors in breaking the trench stalemate and restoring mobility to the battlefield. We must not get carried away by this. This was no Blitzkrieg. Neither the German offensives of spring 1918 nor the Allied one of the Hundred Days were as fluid as the campaigns of 1939-41, nor even those of the early months of the fighting in 1914. A much better analogy would be the grinding, rolling attrition of June to mid-August 1944 in Normandy. Nonetheless, in the course of three months in the late summer and autumn of 1918, the allies advanced up to eighty miles and broke the back of the German army, capturing 385,000 German prisoners, almost as many men as the German army’s total casualties at Stalingrad. Learning had made a direct and observable contribution to improved force employment and victory. Learning was a whole new fighting front of the First World War, one where the scientists and military intellectuals of both sides competed to develop measures and counter-measures with all the effort and determination displayed in later famous measure/counter-measure races such as the Battle of the Atlantic: and the simple fact of the matter is that the Germans lost.

Why was this? Some of it comes down to things the Allies were doing right, of course, but some of it also down to things the Germans were doing wrong. There were three of these: 1) centralised control 2) poor information flow and so bad decisions 3) a fundamental misconception running through the German army. Let’s take these in turn.

1) Centralised control. The German army has a reputation for flexibility based in a system of decentralised command, known as Auftragstaktik or, in modern jargon, ‘mission command’. This is unmerited. In fact, a very high degree of central control was a feature of German command throughout almost all the First World War. Only during the war’s first weeks, when Moltke the Younger was so far out of his depth that he exercised no grip at all, and for a few months’ honeymoon period in the second half of 1916, as Ludendorff acclimatised to conditions on the Western Front, did anything approaching mission command operate at intermediate and senior levels. Otherwise, it was OHL which not only dominated decision-making but also collated and sifted lessons learnt reports and generated and disseminated new doctrine. Any attempt on the part of subordinate formations to produce new best practice was stamped upon. And as the situation deteriorated, command only grew yet more sclerotic, with ideas of delegated command evaporating. Ludendorff set the tone. He was a notorious micro-manager. Quick to blame and slow to praise, he treated his subordinates with increasing disdain and aggression, eroding their confidence and initiative. This was partly a function of Ludendorff’s personality. But also important was a command system rotten from the head down where the Chief of the General Staff owed his position entirely to the goodwill of a flaky Kaiser. The insecurity this generated transmitted itself down through the ranks of command and spread fear through a structure of already inherent instability.

This, in turn, contributed to 2) the second reason: poor information flow. As the news got worse, after-action reports too often told the boss what he wanted, not what he needed, to hear. In particular, staff officers were unwilling to admit the weakness of the German army to Ludendorff.[2] As a result, inconvenient truths remained untold, objectivity fell away, and decisions became made on the basis of increasingly flawed information. Failure to analyse experience honestly led to the wrong problems being identified, the wrong lessons being learnt and the wrong solutions put forward.

3) A third factor was also at work. The German army, like most armies, was a ‘can-do’ institution which saw itself as able to solve problems. It identified, correctly, that its comparative advantage vis a vis the Allies lay at the tactical, rather than the operational or strategic levels of war. Germany could not hope to win a drawn-out war of economies and industries, but on the battlefield, German soldiers might be able to out-think and out-manoeuvre their enemies and offset enemy mass with agility. Consequently the tactical level was where it concentrated its efforts. Even where tactical innovation seemed successful, as in the case of stormtroop tactics and the early gains made during the German offensives of spring 1918, the failure to see that they were heading into a strategic blind alley cost Germany dearly. Seeking to address operational, and sometimes even strategic, problems with tactical solutions, was doomed to failure. The strategic tide could not be turned by tactics alone. Tactical obsession meant that the Germans missed three salient facts: first, that they had already been defeated at the political and strategic levels of war; secondly, that their immediate problem was the operational one of matching allied tempo and resources; and, thirdly, that British tactical improvement had shifted the battlefield terms of trade against the German troops such that more was required than just ironing out their mistakes. When the disease was being misdiagnosed, there was little chance of a cure.


This misconception of the army’s role and capacity led to two further tragedies. First, rather like the British army in Blair’s Wars, its confidence in its ability to solve problems outran its capability. This caused immense problems at the strategic level. If the German army hadn’t presented the Schlieffen Plan as a workable military solution to Germany’s political problems, after all, the war might never have started. Once war broke out and the Schlieffen Plan had failed, the high command continued to believe that it could find tactical answers to the impossible strategic situation Germany had created for herself, and so refused to consider any kind of climb-down and negotiated peace (even had one been possible). Secondly, once war had begun, the Germans still kept looking for tactical answers when it would have been better for all to accept the strategic logic of the situation. If there is a lesson for today, it is surely that the military needs to be ruthlessly honest, both with itself and with its political masters, about what it can and cannot achieve.

As for the British: some historians talk about how the British climbed ‘a learning curve’, and certainly the British army had learnt, not only how to fight in new ways, but also how to learn. It evolved a process to capture lessons learned, distil the most important and revise best practice through new doctrine. Sometimes, the new approaches were codified and published in widely disseminated doctrine publications and taught in a wide variety of schools and courses on subjects from sniping to staff work. Sometimes, they were spread through the many informal channels of communication which linked the army within and between theatres scattered all over the world.[3] The army managed to construct a highly flexible and effective system of learning systems, operating simultaneously down multiple different channels, each characterised by varying degrees of formality and central control, to spread the word and ensure innovation and adaptation was as effective and efficient as possible. Whether this happened by design or fortunate accident, frankly still remains unclear. What is certain, though, is that implementation remained extremely patchy: right up until the end of the war, for all the units and formations which did a good job of employing the latest methods, there were others which never got the hang of it. The BEF did not always either fully internalize or implement the lessons it had learnt. The efficiency with which information was disseminated varied widely and some units seem to have been unable to process new information sufficiently well to change their approach. The British Army of 1914-18 appears as a very imperfect learning organization incapable of generating uniform change in any systematic fashion, very haphazard next to the French and, especially, German armies, both of which employed a more centralised process within which the centre played a much more active role in promoting adaptation.

This, however, is to misunderstand the culture of the British army of the time, and to look through today’s spectacles at yesterday’s institution. Modern Anglo-American military analysts have become accustomed to seeing innovation implemented in a centralised and process-heavy way due to the very particular requirements of NATO interoperability, where innovation has often led by the (very large) US military, and where clarity and uniformity are essential if troops from many different countries are to work together in mutually predictable ways. Of course the British army of the First World War can seem amateurish by such standards. Such standards are inappropriate, however. The British army had a long tradition of laissez-faire. Pre-1914, within broad and generally accepted principles of war, it preferred to leave as much latitude as possible to commanding officers to train the men they would lead into action, rather than impose centrally-devised programmes. The flexibility this engendered seemed better suited to the wide range of environments British soldiers were likely to find themselves operating in, all over the world, than the uniformity instilled in conscript armies almost exclusively designed to fight on the continent. This also fed into the way British officers tended to perceive themselves as pragmatists and skilled improvisers. In a distaste for theory and prescriptive rules they saw one of the features which set themselves apart from their French and German counterparts, who seemed in contrast keen on abstract ideas, elaborate doctrine and programmatic solutions.[4] Between 1914 and 1918 the BEF tended to allow more free play to the periphery than its allies or enemy and there were times, in 1918 at least when operations became more mobile and the importance of synchronised fires shrank relative to that of manoeuvre, where this helped, rather than hindered, operations. As a result, the British proved a sometimes unpredictable opponent. The Germans, in contrast, were not. Indeed, British ‘bite and hold’ tactics were designed precisely to chew up the German counter attacks which were bound to come in as soon as ground was lost.

We are confronted, therefore, with a contrast between two militaries with very different approaches to innovation and adaptation: the Germans centralised, programmatic and uniform, the British devolved, unsystematic and ad hoc. The British approach demonstrably won out. Just because that was the outcome on the Western Front in 1918 doesn’t mean that the organic, pragmatic British model is inherently better than the systematic German one in all contexts, of course. Indeed, the example of the French army – the approach of which was much closer to that of the Germans than the British – suggests that programmatic approaches could work on the Western Front. In other words, it wasn’t the learning culture itself which was decisive, but something about how the institutions worked with those cultures.

The big difference is that the British clearly understood the laissez-faire spirit of their military and worked with the cultural grain, facilitating change and enhancing effectiveness even at the expense, sometimes, of uniformity. The German army, by contrast, thought it was flexible but actually wasn’t. Under pressure, the agility it believed it possessed became arthritis. The conflict between devolved authority and central control caused significant disruption to its attempts to change, with the drive for one-size-fits-all solutions actually undermining effectiveness. Knowing how to drive change, even revolutionary change, requires acute sensitivity to organisational culture: the British had it and the Germans didn’t. The lasting lesson of the First World War for modern militaries is not that they should fight in this way or that, but that they need to understand the culture within which they have to work and create a culture which enables them to respond flexibly and creatively to the situations they find themselves in. There are, of course, three complicating factors: 1) understanding the ethos of any organisation, even one in which one has worked for 30 years, is not straightforward. Indeed, for most militaries, it might not make much sense to talk a single culture even at the level of the single service.  This is obviously the case for the British army, with its distinct and very diverse regiments; and I know it’s applied in the past in the USA, too: think of the difference between black-shoe and brown-shoe admirals in the USN during World War Two, for instance. 2) no individual can hope to effect much observable change during a 2 or 4-year posting: one has to be prepared to play a much longer game and accept that results might not make themselves properly felt for a generation.  And 3), change might look relatively easy to effect in a crisis, such as the greatest war ever fought to date: it might appear much harder in peacetime. Certainly, the pressure of war can reduce or remove resource constraints. Lead times shrink radically. Necessity can also help override cultural barriers – sometimes. That’s the good news for change managers in wartime. The bad news, of course, is that someone’s shooting at you. No Harvard MBA hotshot ever had to deal with an opposition that was actively trying to prevent them adapting, nor face a situation where the consequences of failure could be so disastrous.

The leadership of the British and German militaries faced situations of that kind daily during the First World War. They dealt with them in very different ways, which played directly into the outcome of the war. To sum up, the British understood three things better than the Germans: 1) the importance of force employment and learning 2) the difficulty of learning and so 3) the importance of identifying what kind of change your organisation needs and can tolerate, and of working out how to use that culture, not fight it, to drive, shape and lead transformation. The British were not perfect at any of this stuff, but they were better at it than their enemy, and that, after all, was all that was required


[1] Quoted in Robbins, Simon (2005), British Generalship on the Western Front 1914-18: Defeat into Victory  (London: Frank Cass), p. 98

[2] Albrecht von Thaer, Generalstabsdienst an der Front und in der O.H.L. (Siegfried A. Kaehler, ed.), (Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1958), pp. 187-8

[3] See Aimée Fox, Learning to Fight: Military Innovation and Change in the British Army, 1914-1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017)

[4] Mark Connelly, Steady the Buffs! A Regiment, a Region, and the Great War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 225-6; David French, ‘Doctrine and Organization in the British Army, 1919-1932’, Historical Journal 44:2 (June 2001), pp. 497-515: p. 514.

The Battle of Amiens (8-11 August 1918): Some (Old) Thoughts

This is the conclusion to my MA dissertation on the Battle of Amiens. I wrote it in 2006 and there are many things I would rework if I were to write it today. But it challenges some lazy stereotypes and, given the anniversary today, may at least amuse…

This dissertation has questioned the view that Amiens was an ‘all-arms deep battle’ won by a modern-style combined arms weapons system.[1] We have seen that tanks, aircraft and combined arms method were less important in deciding victory than the combination of 1917 infantry and artillery techniques with co-ordinated assaults.

Indeed, the ‘modernity’ of Amiens has tended to be exaggerated. It is, of course, possible to find similarities between Amiens and later battles, such as El Alamein. Bernard Freyberg, on seeing the plans for Operation Lightfoot, for example, commented that ‘this operation approximates to the battles fought in 1918’.  In the stress on counter-battery fire, the use of coloured phase lines (and the lack of a plan for exploiting success!), so it was.[2] One must, however, beware the attempt to squeeze 1918 battles into a later template, as Jonathan Bailey, for example, does. According to Bailey, the battles of 1918 are representative of a ‘modern style of warfare’:

‘The new style employed three dimensions and a psychological aspect. The object was not to flank, envelope [sic] and annihilate, but rather to break through from the front while simultaneously devastating the full depth of the enemy rear’.[3]

In the misuse of the RAF, and failure systematically to attack German command networks, this paper has shown that there were considerable limits to the British concept of battle as three-dimensional, and to their understanding of the psychological element. The theory of Soviet-style ‘deep battle’ lay yet in the future.

The other side of this coin is that continuity between Amiens and earlier battles of the First World War has been underplayed by historians. There is no space here to go into this in depth. Two examples will have to suffice.

First, the similarities between the battles of Amiens and Cambrai, nine months earlier, are striking. The BOH volume on Cambrai ascribes the early successes to three factors: the ‘secret concentration of the striking force’; the surprise gained by the use of unregistered artillery fire; and the use of tanks to break down wire, reducing the need for an artillery bombardment prejudicial to surprise and freeing the guns for counter-battery work. The failure to exploit success is explained by a lack of infantry training and equipment for open warfare; by staffs stuck in a trench warfare mentality; by a lack of tank reserves; and by the failure of cavalry.[4] We might add that exploitation was, in any case, compromised by the choice of a battlefield backed by a major obstacle. All of these points apply equally to Amiens. The infantry and artillery tactics of Amiens were generally those of Cambrai. The tactical innovations at Amiens, such as the attempted use of Mark V* tanks as armoured personnel carriers, and the use of Whippets with cavalry, mainly failed.

Secondly, Simon Robbins identifies seven major failings at the tactical level in the attack of 24th Brigade at Contalmaison on 7th July 1916:

1) insufficient preliminary  reconnaissance;

2) lack of co-ordination with neighbours;

3) poor liaison between units;

4) bombing along trenches in isolation rather than a simultaneous attack well-supported across open ground;

5) lack of good artillery support;

6) poor situation reports;

7) Brigade HQ too far back and out of touch.[5]

Almost all featured in the attacks of, for example, 32nd Division on 10th and 11th August.[6]

The need for co-ordinated attacks is a lesson of combat as old as warfare itself. The failure of the piecemeal attacks of late July and August 1916 on the Somme, for example, had caused Haig to send Rawlinson what Prior and Wilson describe as a ‘boys’-own-guide on how to command an Army’ including the prescription that ‘the [next] attack must be a general one, engaging the enemy simultaneously along the whole front to be captured…’[7]

The thesis that 1917-1918 constituted a ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’, it appears, requires further investigation.

Similarly, this paper suggests that the ‘learning curve’ concept requires further refinement and development, fully to understand the relative contributions of tactical method and operational art to the victories of 1918.

If we wish to understand why the British were victorious on the battlefield in 1918, we must be able to explain what had changed since earlier years. They possessed no new war-winning technology. Their generals had largely the same names. The men of 1918 were of no better quality than their predecessors, and might, as a mixture of comb-outs and young conscripts, have been worse. There clearly was a ‘learning curve’ of sorts: the army of 1918 was so different from that of 1914 that of course something must have changed. The progress made since the Somme was clearly considerable. If the tactics of 1918 were broadly the same as those of 1917, however, two possible explanations remain. Both require further research, only the possible outlines of which can be sketched here. First, perhaps German opposition was weaker by the late summer of 1918. It is certainly striking that the Germans were able to launch no large-scale counter-attack at Amiens, as they had with success at Cambrai.

Alternatively, perhaps the British were displaying increased operational flexibility. Certainly, planning and preparation times were greatly reduced. Three weeks separated conception and execution in the cases of both Amiens and Cambrai: a big improvement over the months required for Third Ypres, Arras and the Somme. Simpson argues that general decentralization increased command flexibility and quickened tempo.[8] We have seen that this was not a notably successful aspect of the British at Amiens. The change of artillery objective from destruction to neutralization, and the use of tanks to cut wire, however, undoubtedly lightened the logistic burden. Improvements in the supply system, according to Brown, also contributed:

‘Administrative excellence allowed Haig far greater flexibility in his strategic decision making than he had enjoyed previously. By the summer, he could launch simultaneous offensives or sequential ones on widely separated fronts – something that had been unthinkable before 1918’.[9]

Goya argues that increased artillery mobility and flexibility were a major factor in French successes. 42nd Division’s artillery, for example, supported no less than four different divisions on 11th August.[10] To what extent is the same true of the British?

The achievement of greater operational flexibility and tempo, however, requires more than just the necessary tools.  Also crucial are the ability and willingness to think on the operational plane and to see a particular battle as part of a larger undertaking. The record of Haig and Rawlinson at Amiens in this regard is mixed. On one hand, lack of clarity at the planning stage caused confusion and prejudiced the exploitation of early success. On the other hand, they displayed considerable mental agility in suspending the operation as soon as it became clear it was bogging down. This decision had three main causes. First, it was largely a negative reaction to stiffening resistance. Secondly, Foch must be credited with sensing the vulnerability of the Germans to ‘lateral exploitation of success’ by ‘a series of co-ordinated and concentric blows’, and with managing to impart this strategic vision to his allies.[11] Lastly, Haig estimated correctly the new ability of the British army to pursue such an approach. It is telling that Haig was transferring his focus to Third Army’s attack on Bapaume on the morning of the 11th, before the decision had been taken to halt the offensive of Fourth Army.[12]

To see whether the British Army achieved, and how it employed, greater operational flexibility and tempo requires further research on a larger canvas than a single battle. If the key to British defeat of the Germans was indeed operational, however, the irony of the Battle of Amiens may be that their own operational failings, by causing the offensive to stall, helped give the British that key.  In this sense at least, perhaps, Amiens was ‘a battle unlike any other’.









[1] Sheffield and Bourne (2005), p.1; Prior and Wilson (1992), p. 309

[2] Barr (2005), pp. 261, 288, 314, 342

[3] Bailey (2001), pp. 132, 151

[4] BOH 1917 Volume III, pp. iii-iv, 278-288

[5] Robbins (2005), p. 23

[6] See above, p. XXXX

[7] GHQ to Fourth Army (OAD 123), 24th August 1916; quoted in Prior and Wilson (1992) pp. 222-223

[8] Simpson (2006), p. 224

[9] Brown (1998), p. 179

[10] Goya (2004), pp. 390, 409

[11] Philpott (2000), pp. 38-46

[12] BOH, p. 150

‘Sleepwalking to War? Britain in 1914 and 1939’

This is a talk I gave at the Hay Literary Festival in 2014:

When I was asked to speak here today, I was asked to talk about the lessons Great Britain learned from the First World War and how she applied them in the second. I think this topic gives a chance to show something which I think we historians, in our enthusiasm to jump on the centenary bandwagon, are in danger of losing sight of during these centenary commemorations of the First World War. One danger we run, I believe, is to see the Great War as a special case, in some way divorced from history rather than part of its warp and weft. Paul Fussell famously argued the war was a discontinuity in time, an event so unique that traditional methods of expression and understanding break down, and the war can only be made sense of via the study of individual experience. I’m a historian. You wouldn’t expect me to agree with that. But we’re not doing a terribly good job, so far this year at least, of showcasing history at its best. Too much of the public history has been very old-fashioned. It’s been British and overwhelmingly Western Front, when it was called a World War, surely, for a reason? We’ve been fighting old battles, such as ‘was it all Germany’s fault, or no-one’s?’, which tend to dribble away into  rather crude Agatha Christie style-body-in-the-library-search-for-whodunnits. Or we’ve been debating stale old 1960s clichés of futility: in other words, on ground of the enemy’s choosing. Now, I’m not going to pretend that what I say is completely Right-on with all the latest methodologies and approaches to the history of the Great War. People who wear sports jackets and chinos aren’t generally too down with the kids. But what I would like to do today is to take one aspect of the First World War and put that back into the longer history of Great Britain in the twentieth century. There are, in essence, two histories of Great Britain the twentieth century. The first concerns the decline and fall of Britain as a great power in international politics. You see it in the work of historians such as Corelli Barnett and Paul Kennedy but actually it was originally and brilliantly nailed by Sellars and Yeatman in 1066 and All That. It is the story of how Britain stopped being Top Nation and history came to a . A crucial part of that story involves the stupidity of a ruling class which was unable to adapt – either quickly enough or in some cases at all – to the realities of the modern world. Lack of preparedness for the two world wars is seen as a very good example of exactly such failings, and indeed the whole ‘lions led by donkeys’ myth is, I think, a symptom of just such thinking. The second history was foreshadowed by A.J.P. Taylor in 1965 when he talked of the Second World War: ‘Imperial greatness was on the way out; the welfare state was on the way in.’ It centres on the social progress made domestically in Britain during the twentieth century: the way life got infinitely better for most people over those hundred years. The redoubtable Arthur Marwick saw this clearly. Now, for at least the last couple of generations, history has disintegrated into specialisms which sometimes seem at least to be speaking ever less to each other, when they’re not actively at war. But one of the points I hope to make is that we need to see the two together.

The third reason I think this topic is worth talking about is that it opens up questions of lasting importance to do with the appropriate relationship between civilian government and the military, and if we have time I might finish up with a few thoughts on that.

I’m sure you’re familiar with Christopher Clark’s recent book. This argues that the nations of Europe sleepwalked into war in 1914. In many ways it’s a brilliant book. It’s proved remarkably popular in Germany, where it’s been seized on as startling new evidence that here at least was one war that wasn’t the Germans’ fault. I’m not sure that’s quite what he’s saying, or that it’s as original as it seems, and I’m far from convinced he’s quite seen the problem in the round, as I just hinted, but I don’t want to get too bogged down in discussing his argument. We can do that in questions later, if you like. Instead, I’d like to pick up on his sleepwalking metaphor and discuss it in particular with regard to Great Britain. Especially I’d like to compare British preparedness for the two world wars. Certainly the popular perception, I think, would be that Great Britain was tragically unready in both 1914 and 1939.

I’d like to argue something rather different. I want to argue, in fact, that Great Britain, far from lagging the class in adaptation and innovation, was leading it. Recently, Professor David Edgerton has argued against ‘declinism’ in books like Warfare State and Britain’s War Machine. As those of you who know his work will see, I’m about to take a very different approach from Edgerton, whose work I think displays a few weaknesses. As befits a historian of science and technology at Imperial College, his focus is on hardware, while mine is on software. We end up in similar places, though. I’d like to suggest that, during the First World War, Britain invented a radical new way of organising for and waging war. She refined and applied this method again a generation later, and exported it to the United States, to help win a Second World War, and in fact to establish the framework which enabled the West to outlast the Cold War. She managed to square the historical circle which had confounded states since Pericles led Athens: how to resolve the conflicting demands of democracy for ever more butter with those of the military for guns. She did it by taking the love child of politics and economics, political economy, and crossing that with military strategy to open up a whole new level of warfare: Grand Strategy: the mobilisation and direction of all the nation’s resources to further national objectives. The two world wars demanded nothing less.

For almost other major twentieth century power, the choice turned out to be stark: go down in defeat. Or go over to the dark side, turn your back on democracy, and embrace the evil creeds for whom men and women were mere means, rather than ends: fascism or communism. Only Britain and the USA avoided that trap.

By the way, I don’t mean to argue this in any triumphalist fashion. I don’t think this means Britain is the best country in the history of the universe. Although I think it is an achievement of which I believe the British can be proud. I just don’t think such hit parades mean much or are even very interesting.

I’d like to take this argument in four steps. First, I’ll discuss briefly where the idea that Britain was unready for war in 1914 and 1939 comes from. Then, I’ll look at 1914 and suggest, in essence, that we under-estimate how prepared she was because we tend to look at it with hindsight as a narrow army problem, when in fact the right way to see it is as from a broader, partly naval, perspective. Thirdly, I’ll look at how decision-making mechanisms evolved after 1914 which enabled Britain to conceptualise and formulate Grand Strategy, and at some of the changes which took place in practice. Fourthly, I’ll argue that the Great War saw a shift in Britain’s psychological preparedness which proved vital in 1939-45.

So, let’s start with this idea that Britain was unready for war in 1914 and 1939 and see where it comes from. I think we can identify three sources. First, in both world wars, there was a diplomatic and political imperative to argue that ‘it was the other bloke what started it’. Any evidence which emphasised British unpreparedness helped here. Secondly, our perception of both wars displays the same pattern: early war effort at first confused and uneven – at best – until new regime takes over, solves all the problems and wins the war. In the first war, after a wobbly start from the Asquith government, Lloyd George comes to power and wins the war. In the second war, of course, the seed of victory is sown when Churchill replaces Chamberlain. This narrative, it goes without saying, has largely been formed by members of that new regime, those who won the political arguments at the time and who made damned sure history recorded their version of events. David Lloyd George’s door-stopping War Memoirs published 1936-8, were as shy and retiring as the man himself and best sellers. But it was Winston Churchill who led the charge here. His The World Crisis, telling the story of the Great War, was famously described by Arthur Balfour as ‘Winston’s brilliant autobiography, disguised as a history of the universe’. By the time it came to the Second World War, Churchill was even more determined that history should be kind to him, as David Reynolds’s breathtaking account makes clear. He had the advantage, of course, not only of being extremely closely identified with survival and then victory, but also of being able to say ‘I saw all this coming and no-one else did’. Churchill set the agenda for the historiography of both world wars, and no-one yet has been able to break out of the framework he set.

But there is also a third factor at work, I reckon, which is that there seems to be something deep in the national psyche which sees improvisation as an essentially British talent, especially when contrasted with Germanic mechanical efficiency. The well-known author J.B. Priestley gave a series of famous radio talks in June-October 1940, ‘Postscripts’ to the Nine O’clock News. In one of his most famous postscripts, he described the Dunkirk evacuation, brilliantly juxtaposing the pleasure cruisers and Isle of Wight passenger steamers, symbols of bucket-and-spade holiday innocence, still redolent of egg-and-cress sandwiches, with the epic of their role in the evacuation. Only the British, he argued, could have ‘snatched glory out of defeat’ thus, for ‘This is not the German way’. We simply seem to like thinking ‘everything will be all right on the night’. It’s a central part of our national myth that, even as the Armada bore down on Plymouth Hoe, Sir Francis Drake was happier playing bowls than drilling his men. If military professionalism meant Oliver Cromwell and the death of liberty, or Louis XIV and papist absolutism, perhaps a bit of old-fashioned British amateurism was preferable? The rationalism of the continental Enlightenment was midwife to the guillotine, so it seemed healthier all around to privilege the empirical over theory and induction over the a priori. Such deep-seated strains of thought were then reinforced by Victorian concepts of what it was to be a gentleman, of which amateurISM (but not, note amateurISHNESS) was key.

The second step in my argument concerns Great Britain in 1914. Clearly, she was not prepared for war in the sense that she saw it coming and actively got ready by stockpiling grain or armaments. It is perfectly clear that Britain was behind the curve throughout the July Crisis. As late as 18 July, nearly three weeks after the assassination in Sarajevo, the Royal Navy invited the German fleet over for Cowes Week in August. I like to think about the warmth of welcome they might have received if they’d carried through on the invite. There were war books to share out responsibilities for government departments, and mobilization schedules. There were contingency plans to turn, for instance, the brand new buildings of the University of Birmingham into a hospital. But there was no full set of carefully worked out military plans for taking a million men to Europe and fighting a major war there. Britain never built and had no intention of building an army fit for a multi-million-man land war. The only way to do build a continental-scale army was to take the politically suicidal step of introducing conscription, doubling income tax or cutting all social spending – so central to the government’s programme – to zero. Instead, the size and composition of the BEF remained fixed as it had been since 1907: six infantry and one cavalry divisions. It was a global strategic reserve to be sent at short notice wherever in the world it was needed, not necessarily to France.

Britain, after all, had global commitments on an immense scale. At first sight, the more one looks at British strategic planning before 1914, the less strategy – let alone planning – one sees there. Strategy could mean little more than reacting to the latest crisis. That was the logic of the geopolitical situation before 1914. But there was always a political dynamic at work, too. It’s hard to credit it today, but there was a time when politicians were wary of committing themselves to expensive plans for hypothetical situations which might never happen and could only tie their hands if there is a real need for action. Thank goodness nothing like that happens any more!

That is, at least if one sees the world as we tend to today, through the khaki lenses of the army. Pick up naval binoculars, however, and the world looks rather different. In particular, we can see people in and around the Admiralty who are identifying Britain’s national interests, sketching out policy objectives, calculating and procuring and deploying the means required to achieve them. Brilliant men like Julian Corbett, the barrister turned novelist turned historian and strategic genius, and Admiral ‘Jacky’ Fisher, turned theory into planning. While the precise use of the Army remained unspecified, and the orders given to Field Marshal Sir John French were vague in the extreme, the Royal Navy existed for four very clear purposes, clearly laid out in the instructions of his naval counterpart, Admiral Jellicoe.[1]

The Royal Navy was able to see the bigger picture, as the War Office could not, because it benefitted from four legacies. First, Britain had built up long experience under Marlborough, the two Pitts and Castlereagh of how to use the navy to conduct strategy on a global scale. It had long been a worldwide force which had to see things globally, like it or not. Secondly, the Royal Navy was the first, last and only defender of not only the formal Empire but also the – I sometimes think more important – informal commercial empire which flourished under seas kept safe for Free Trade. Thirdly, and this is closely related, Commerce, Trade and the Navy had already lived symbiotically together for hundreds of years. The Admiralty understood full well that maritime strategy was about more than just naval fighting and could also include also an important economic warfare dimension. Lastly, in the decade or so before 1913 the Admiralty had direct and extremely important experience in mobilising popular opinion, finance and industry to compete with and comprehensively defeat Germany in a naval arms race. This offered a template for the kind of integrated effort required in 1914-18. It later offered a prototype for arms races of the Cold War.

Thus, during the last week of July 1914, while at Aldershot the army played polo in the summer sun, the navy was already at work. It concentrated its strength at its battle stations at Scapa Flow and around the world. This was a clever move which might work in one of two ways. Either it would signal to Germany that Britain meant business and deter conflict. It was widely and purposely reported in the press. Or, if that failed, it would make sure the navy was ready for war. As soon as fighting broke out, all undersea cable communications were cut, isolating Berlin from her colonies. Then the navy, backed by a formidable intelligence effort, began to sweep the seven seas clear of German shipping both naval and merchant.

This leads on to step 3 of my argument. We’ve seen that there was a historic tradition of a form of Grand Strategic thinking in Britain, and indeed that there were at least some people around whose minds were working in those terms. But pre-war attempts to establish a proper forum for such discussions in the newly created Committee of Imperial Defence (1903) foundered on mutual mistrust between generals, admirals and politicians as much as on policy differences. One of its standing sub-committees drew up the War Books I just mentioned, but it never had executive power. In any case, it was a peacetime organisation. It was put on ice and did not meet once either war had begun. During the first war itself, there were significant obstacles to joined-up government. These included Asquith’s lack of dynamism; Kitchener’s personality quirks; thereafter, Lloyd George’s distrust of the brass hats echoes down the century. Neither Asquith nor Lloyd George ever developed a civil-military partnership such as Churchill finally established with Alanbrooke during the second half of the Second World War. These two were greatly helped by the growth of a defence bureaucracy during the interwar period. I won’t bore you with the full history, but an alphabet soup of committees were set up in the 20s and 30s. Much of the machinery, such as the Joint Intelligence Committee, in fact survives today. Some of the committees, especially in the 1930s, were not helpful. They marked attempts to shelve difficult decisions, not to resolve them. And even some of the most important, such as the increasingly influential Chiefs of Staff Committee set up in 1923, might look like attempts to produce joined-up strategy but in fact represented shabby compromises designed to force army, navy and air force to agree on specific issues (in this case, policy towards Turkey in the Chanak crisis).

Nonetheless, the net effect was three things. First, and it’s important to remember this because it’s easy to forget: throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Great Britain remained in the absolute front rank of world military powers. She had the world’s largest navy, the strongest aviation industry and the most mechanised army. On the eve of war she was building more tanks than Germany did panzers. Secondly, the right decisions were taken at the right time to ensure that, when war came, Britain was defended by the most modern and lethal air defence system available; and it met the test of the Battle of Britain. Thirdly, the strategy-making machine was so effective during the Second World War that, in the first months after American entry into the war and right up to the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, British negotiators were able to run rings around their US counterparts. They continued to do so until the USA imitated them and set up the Joint Chiefs of Staff committee, which then worked mostly hand in glove with the British as the Combined Chiefs of Staff.

There were other, more tangible, steps made toward greater coherence in Grand Strategy during the first war. One can see this in attempts at a scientific Manpower policy, for instance. It was clear to all that, during the Great War, uncontrolled voluntary recruiting to the army had stripped even vital industries of necessary labour. By May 1915, 23.8% of (highly skilled) munitions workers had joined up, for instance. Conscription never really solved this problem: in the Potteries and mining town of Burslem, miners were being sent off to join the army well into 1918. But in April 1939, five months before Hitler’s invasion of Poland, conscription was brought back not only to equalise sacrifice and send a message to Germany, but also to avoid such inefficiencies second time around. Reserved occupations were established early and strictly enforced. Women were eventually conscripted, a step even Hitler never took.

Economic mobilisation and state intervention in the economy on a scale inconceivable before 1914, for instance, was an important theme. As the historians who wrote the Official History of the War Economy in the Second World War wrote, ‘If in imagination one looks forward from August 1914 to November 1918, one is impressed by the utter strangeness of the economic country into which the nation had marched – or been marched- during those four years.’ For instance, the government took over running the railways. The Ministry of Munitions, set up in 1915, had expanded by 1918 to encompass 65,000 employees in 50 departments, managing 250 government factories directly & supervising 20,000 more. In essential industries such as the Jute trade, the government set price and output at every step of the supply chain from the growers in Bengal through the millers and stitchers in Dundee through to the finished sandbag on the Western Front. Between 1911 and 1921 the number of central government employees doubled. In the Second World War it nearly doubled again. The war effort second time around was run by key individuals, many of whom had come to prominence in the First World War. One such was Sir John Anderson. In 1917 he had been trusted, at the age of only 34, with setting up the civil service of the crucial new Ministry of Shipping. Brought into government as a technocrat during World War Two, he served as Home Secretary and Lord President of the Council, in essence acting as an apolitical ‘home Prime Minister’ while Churchill fought the war. William Beveridge, author of the 1942 report which laid the foundations of the welfare state, played a series of senior civil service roles in the ministries of Munitions, the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Food. Alongside such rarefied mandarins, however, the little-educated Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour in Churchill’s government and a remarkable man, first came to the fore as national organiser of the Dockers’ Union in 1914-18. The consequence, as Sir Stafford Cripps put it in 1942, was ‘perhaps the most revolutionary element in our war experience is [the] revelation of an almost unlimited capacity for production’. Even in the first half of the war, when Britain was supposedly left so vulnerable by Chamberlain & Co’s failure to prepare, she produced more aircraft, warships, merchant ships, tanks, bombs and light artillery guns than Germany ever managed.

Less tangible, but more important, is the fourth step of my argument: the psychological shift which: identified that a major modern war was likely to require the total mobilisation of all national resources; was prepared to trust the state to take the lead on that, confident in the knowledge that any suspension of democratic rights was only temporary The rise of Big Government began before 1914 but it was greatly accelerated by both world wars and became not just a welcome guest but an everyday companion. Also – and this is a key lesson learnt from the First World War and applied in the Second- realised that restoring the status quo afterwards was no longer enough. When Britain went to war again, it must be for a better world, not just the same old one. One can overstate this – and many historians have – but certainly a part of the appeal which Labour rode to victory in the 1945 election was precisely this idea that this had been a ‘People’s War’ for a ‘New Jerusalem’. Consider this quotation:

‘If we speak of democracy, we do not mean a democracy which maintains the right to vote but forgets the right to work and the right to live. If we speak of freedom, we do not mean a rugged individualism which excludes social organization and economic planning. If we speak of equality, we do not mean a political equality nullified by social and economic privilege. If we speak of economic reconstruction, we think less of maximum production… than of equitable distribution…. The European house cannot be put in order unless we put our own house in order first. The new order cannot be based on the preservation of privilege, whether the privilege be that of a country, of a class, or of an individual.’

It’s pretty radical stuff, isn’t it? Does anyone want to guess who wrote it? In a sense that’s less interesting than where it was published. The author was E.H. Carr, certainly in fairness an admirer of much on the left. It was a leader in The Times on 1 July 1940. Not the obvious place for this kind of stuff. We do need a caveat here: the results, even in the birth of the Welfare State, were much less radical than at first sight and involved the usual quota of shabby compromises and backroom deals of any political process. It wasn’t all an idealistic march to the new City on a Hill, but that’s something else we’ll have to leave for questions.

So, what I hope I’ve shown so far is that Britain, far from being poor at catching up with the real modern world, was actually rather good at it. Britain alone, because of her global imperial experience, had the mental equipment that enabled her to forge the tools required to meet the challenge of twentieth century so-called ‘Total War’. When she applied this toolkit in the first war against Germany, she began to develop something we can call Grand Strategy. This enabled her, as few of her partners and none of her rivals could, to mobilise resources to the maximum possible extent such that she could a) survive and b) play a major part eventually in victory, in two world wars. It also equipped Britain and her Western Allies for the long hard slog of the Cold War.

But not only did she invent a new, in-the-round approach called Grand Strategy, she even managed to fashion a socially progressive programme from it. Guns today could not just mean more guns tomorrow for ever. There had to be some butter somewhere, even if it was in the future. This was a lesson that the USSR forgot during the Cold War. Britain didn’t stop Being Top Nation because she did everything wrong (although of course, nor did she do everything right) but because the economic costs of remaining a global superpower expanded beyond her ability to pay them AND – and this is the important point – she took the political decision not to make endless and open-ended sacrifices on the social front to preserve her geopolitical position.  And even during the Cold War, when the threat at times seemed very real, imminent and overwhelming, still Britain politicians managed to ignore the shrill demands of the military professionals for ever more treasure and resources. Despite the most doom-laden prognostications of retired generals and admirals, Britain  – unlike, I would argue, to some extent, the USA – never lost control of the defence establishment and managed always to maintain a balance between spending on guns – and on butter. All the while she made sure that the warriors always remained subject to democratic checks, that war always remained what Clausewitz said it should be: a means to achieve political ends, rather than an end in itself: the continuation, famously, of politics by other means.  In hindsight, she made, on the whole, the right choices, not the wrong ones.

My purpose in arguing this is not to be triumphalist, to argue that Great Britain is the best country ever in the history of the world. (Although I do think it’s an impressive achievement of which the British can feel proud). But I hope I have shown two things. First, that it is possible to look at British history in the twentieth century and not see it purely in terms of decline and disaster. Secondly, that actually, if we are fully to understand the history of GB in the C20th we have to integrate her military and social histories, not treat them as separate or even inimical to each other, as historians have tended to do: they are intimately intertwined.


[1] 1. To ensure for British ships the unimpeded use of the sea, this being vital to the existence of an island nation, particularly one which is not self-supporting in regard to food.

  1. In the event of war, to bring steady economic pressure to bear on our adversary by denying to him the use of the sea, thus compelling him to accept peace.
  2. Similarly in the event of war, to cover the passage and assist any army sent over seas, and to protect its communications and supplies.
  3. To prevent invasion of this country and its overseas Dominions by enemy forces.


“No plan survives contact with the enemy”: How everything went wrong for everybody on the Western Front in 1914

I’m going to post here, from time to time, texts of papers I’ve given at various times on topics related to the First World War. They don’t always have a full (or indeed, sometimes, any) critical apparatus, and they were read out or improvised from, so please excuse any conversational touches, rough edges, etc. In some cases, they may overlap each other or other things I have written; in others, I may not even agree with them now. But I hope you find them interesting. Comments welcome.

“No plan survives contact with the enemy”: How everything went wrong for everybody on the Western Front in 1914

Jonathan Boff

Paper delivered to Surrey Branch, Western Front Association,  June 2014

Copyright: Jonathan Boff

One hundred years ago, pretty much to the minute, Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and sparked off a chain of events which led to the war we’ll be commemorating over the next four years. The war that resulted certainly confounded the expectations of many. There’s a common view that the armies which went to war in August 1914 misunderstood the nature and lethality of modern war. Their officers, the story goes, were hidebound conservatives who despised technology and wilfully ignored the tactical lessons, of recent campaigns dating back to the American Civil War, of the difficulty of attacking in the face of withering modern firepower and the effectiveness of trenches. They therefore expected a short sharp conflict with a couple of decisive battles and home before the leaves fall. We now know that’s not true, that militaries studied, for instance, the Russo-Japanese War almost obsessively, and that senior figures on both sides in the run up to battle were anticipating  a long drawn-out conflict. In Britain, these included Kitchener and Haig; in Germany, the two Moltkes and Schlieffen’s quartermaster.

I was asked the other day, at an event similar to this, if there was any way it could have been a short war. ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘but only if Germany won.’ She needed a crushing victory over France in the first six weeks, as the famous Schlieffen plan intended. So if we want to understand how the stalemate developed, we have to explain why Germany didn’t win that victory. (I realise now that there was another way: if Russia captured Berlin. But this is not the Eastern Front Association, is it?)

This is well-trodden ground. As Professor Sir Hew Strachan has written, ‘probably no single episode in the military history of the First World War attracted so much controversy in the inter-war years as the events of the first six weeks on the western front.’  For between the wars the German army picked the scab of their failures in August and September with an almost frantic obsession, in a debate encompassing literally hundreds of publications and the best military brains in the country. What I’d like to argue today, however, is that all this brainpower was bound up in a mental strait-jacket of arrogance so deep that it was unable to face the real facts. Far from being a surprising outcome caused by the mistakes of a few individuals, the failure of the Schlieffen Plan was one of the most over-determined events in history. I will argue that the stalemate was not the result of tactical difficulties: these affected all sides more or less evenly. Instead, it was based in fundamental German weaknesses at both the operational and strategic levels which both contradict views of the German army as extraordinarily dangerous and shed light on the nature of warfare in 1914-18.

I’m not going to review all the literature generated by the controversy. We’d be here all night. And I’m going to ignore the Terence Zuber debate. Zuber has many weaknesses which include being catastrophically wrong about the Schlieffen plan. But it is worth highlighting some of the many ‘what-if’ questions which surround this campaign as a result.

What if Germany had not violated Belgian neutrality? Would Britain still have entered the war?

What if Moltke had stuck more closely to Schlieffen’s intentions and kept his left wing very weak?

What if Moltke had not sent 2 corps in East Prussia in late August?

What if Hentsch’s view that they should retreat from the Marne had not prevailed?

What if Kluck had turned Maunoury’s flank NE of Paris on the River Ourcq?

That’s a long list of questions, and I don’t intend to run through each now. We can talk about them if you like in questions later. But notice there are 2 common threads running through them all. First, none of them admit that the French might have been any good. Which of course they were. One of the most striking facts about 1914 is the skill with which Joffre used his interior railway lines to shift men from his right flank to the threatened left. Another is the resilience of the French soldiers who, even after ten days of defeats and retreats could still attack so desperately on the Marne. And secondly, they are all about the ‘wrong’ decisions of German individuals. Of course, individuals did make bad choices during the campaign. But notice that there’s no room for the idea that there might be something institutionally wrong with the German army. The presumption is that it was the Germans’ campaign to lose. And that, I think, is a mistake. Here’s why.

I’d like to talk about one particular aspect of the German army in 1914: command and control. Now, this is frequently seen as a particular strength of German armies of the twentieth century, the idea being that superior command systems and individuals enabled her to punch above her weight in both the world wars. In particular, the Allies are often criticised for having a restrictive, centralised system of command which made them ponderous and inflexible, while the Germans enjoyed a much more devolved and decentralised approach, known as Auftragsataktik or ‘Mission Command’, which left much more room for initiative on the part of the man on the spot and enabled high tempo, together with superior training and motivation, to offset inferiority in manpower and materiel. Now, the applicability of this concept to the army of 1914-18 has been questioned by those (Condell & Zabecki) who see it more as a product of the Freikorps experience. Others have seen it as representing a longer tradition of aristocratic independence under the King/Kaiser which left generals free to act as they saw fit (Citino). Elsewhere, I have argued that, if it ever existed at all, it broke down in 1918 under the pressure of events and Ludendorff’s personality. What I’d like to do today is to look at 1914, and particularly the experience of the commander of Sixth Army, Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, to see what Auftragstaktik meant in 1914, and to offer a provocation or two of my own as to whether it makes sense to speak of a command system  in 1914.

Rupprecht, as a royal prince, is a particularly interesting case study for two reasons. First, he straddled two worlds: as heir to the throne of the second most important state in Germany he had political access and clout of his own, as well as privileged sources of information, such as the Bavarian Military Plenipotentiary at the Kaiser’s GHQ, General Karl von Wenninger. And yet he was also as close as any royal heir could come to a professional soldier, and had as his Chief of Staff the extremely professional and talented Konrad Krafft von Dellmensingen. Their biographers disagree about who took the lead in this relationship in 1914, but they clearly worked well together as a team and for present purposes I’m going to treat them as a unit. Secondly, the conduct of this pair, especially in Lorraine in August and September 1914, has generated an impressive paper trail. We all know how obsessively the German army picked over the bones of the Schlieffen Plan between the wars, but we tend to remember only the controversies about what went wrong on the right wing, up to and during the Battle of the Marne. At the time, there was almost as much argument – some of it vicious – about what went on in Alsace and Lorraine. At least 20 publications argued back and fore before the outbreak of the next war closed the debate down. Markus Pöhlmann has written an extremely interesting study of this debate in his book on the writing of the German official histories.

There isn’t time today to fill in the narrative of the fighting on the southern half of the front. The fullest treatment so far, for those who are interested, is Dieter Storz’s in the Schlieffen Plan book published by the MGFA. Instead, I’ll concentrate on Rupprecht’s interactions with OHL at four key decision nodes, each of which displays a different model of command. Taken together, these suggest to me that thinking about German command in terms of where it sits along a continuum of Auftragstaktik is wrong and that another model altogether is a better fit for how decision were made. I’ll argue later that this model is the Kaiser’s court, but let’s leave that for now.

The first interaction I want to discuss occurred on Tuesday 18 August 1914. This was the fifth day of a retreat Rupprecht was carrying out, in accordance with the Schlieffen Plan, designed to draw French forces into a pocket in Lorraine where they could be at least fixed to prevent them being shipped north to oppose Kluck and Bülow, and ideally destroyed. Intelligence was poor, partly due to wishful thinking. At first, OHL identified this as the main French thrust, involving up to 80% of Joffre’s active corps but Rupprecht was more sceptical, and by 17 August it was clear that the true figure was no more than half that. In any case, the French advance was far from the reckless onrush of myth but in fact was extremely cautious, averaging only some 5-8 km per day. Right from the start, Rupprecht had argued that if he were to tie down French troops in the south he needed to attack and gain the initiative. This would also help maintain the morale of his troops. In a series of fraught meetings and ‘phone calls with ever different members of OHL (Tappen, Dommes, Stein), Rupprecht became increasingly frustrated that Moltke’s staff were tying his hands.  Finally, during the afternoon of 18 August, Krafft spoke again with QMG Stein, who told him that OHL would not forbid an attack, that Sixth Army must do what it considered right, and ‘you must bear the responsibility.’ The decision was that Sixth and Seventh armies would attack on 20 August.[1] The official history summarises it thus: ‘after a lively debate with OHL Crown Prince Rupprecht had decided, despite Generaloberst von Moltke’s previously advocated plans for a further retreat of Sixth  Army, to go over to the offensive on 20 August to clarify the situation. OHL had delegated freedom of action, along with full responsibility, to AOK 6.’[2] As it happens, the attack, despite heavy casualties on both sides, was a major success, throwing the French back to where they had started within 48 hours. Moltke was moved to tears by Rupprecht’s success. The Kaiser awarded Rupprecht the Iron Cross both Second and First Class and was only dissuaded with difficulty from visiting him in person to congratulate him.[3] Only later did controversy arise, with Rupprecht accused of having attacked too soon in contravention of Moltke’s wishes and Schlieffen’s master-plan, and then of having pushed too far. Let’s ignore that for now. Instead, I would suggest, this is not a case of an empowered subordinate, as the ‘man on the spot’, feeling free to react as he feels right within the broad outlines of the mission he’s been given by his superior. Rather, this seems closer to an abdication of responsibility by an increasingly exasperated OHL.

Moltke’s command was famously dysfunctional and he didn’t last long, being shoved sideways soon after defeat on the Marne. Two things are striking about his replacement, Erich von Falkenhayn, however. First, he changed few of the personnel within his immediate staff. Secondly, .he brought no radical new idea, instead trying to stage Schlieffen II. To that end, Sixth Army was shifted up from Lorraine to try to outflank the French who would, it was hoped, be pinned along the River Oise. On 18 September Rupprecht and Krafft met Falkenhayn (and Moltke!) to receive their orders. These were to use his three (later four) corps to force a decision on the right wing and to secure the army’s flank. Communications were a problem, however. Everything needed for First, Second, Seventh and now Sixth armies was having to travel along just one railway line via Brussels and Valenciennes and Rupprecht’s corps would unload days apart and then be faced with approach marches of up to 100 miles. The question was whether they had time to wait, concentrate Sixth Army and strike in strength in a few days; or must advance as soon as possible with whatever was to hand. To Rupprecht, Krafft and Moltke, the first course of action was clearly preferable. Falkenhayn, however, insisted on a piecemeal deployment. His reasons for this were twofold. First, there were already signs of French pressure on Kluck’s open and vulnerable flank which must be protected as soon as possible. Secondly, the Germans, as so often in both wars, underestimated enemy resistance and exaggerated their own strength. One more push and the French would collapse…[4] Although Falkenhayn promised Rupprecht a free hand, it is hard to see what that could possibly mean when he was committed to such a piecemeal deployment. The predictable result was a series of indecisive encounter battles in the last week of September and first half of October from the Somme up to Lens, which achieved little beyond an extension of the stalemate northwards.

The change of command at the top eased command relationships between Sixth Army and OHL only temporarily. The diaries of Rupprecht and Krafft, for instance, are full of complaints not only of Prussian disdain for the Bavarians but of a ‘dilettantisch’ approach. Rupprecht’s response to new orders on 14 October – the third node – is revealing of how poorly the system was operating. Sixth Army was to hold on the defensive from La Bassée through Armentières to Menin to lure the British into a trap which the new Fourth Army would close. ‘The mission we’ve been given is analogous to that we had at the beginning of the campaign and it remains as questionable as before, whether the enemy will run into the trap. This return to Schlieffen’s ideas, under very different circumstances, seems to me very doubtful. We’re ceding the initiative completely to the enemy.’[5] Three times Rupprecht asked to be permitted to take the offensive; three times, Falkenhayn refused to let him do so. Falkenhayn allegedly told Wenninger ‘Even if the Crown Prince of Bavaria stands on his head, he may not attack!’[6] When Krafft and Rupprecht discussed protesting to OHL, however, they decided that they should not since it was OHL’s idea and their responsibility: a toxic reaction which speaks volumes.[7]

In the last few days of October, relations between OHL and Sixth Army deteriorated even further and offer us a fourth case. Rumours began circulating that Falkenhayn was criticising Rupprecht’s leadership behind his back. OHL bypassed Rupprecht by setting up a quasi-independent command under General Fabeck, partly using divisions from Sixth Army, for the ‘decisive’ attack up the Menin Road. This forced Rupprecht to cancel an assault planned for 27 October after he’d issued an order of the day calling for energetic attacks, thus making him look stupid. Rupprecht was furious: ‘Either I command the army, or I resign. This cannot go on. Falkenhayn lets himself be influenced by every Chinese whisper and jumps to conclusions which are in every way damaging, which weaken the offensive spirit of the men and undermine their trust in their superiors. If only Falkenhayn would be replaced by Gen. Oberst von Bülow or one of the senior generals. On the one hand army commands are kept too much in the dark about the general situation, on the other OHL interferes in their business, instead of contenting itself, in the manner of the great Moltke, with issuing general directives and leaving the armies to carry out the missions they’ve been assigned.’[8] Note the appeal to myth. He threatened to drive to see the Kaiser to complain, although there is no evidence he did so, nor that he raised the matter when the Kaiser next visited army HQ on 31 October – 1 November. What is certain, however, is that from now on Rupprecht and Falkenhayn were enemies. The prince formed part of the Hindenburg Fronde which sought to unseat Falkenhayn in early 1915. Falkenhayn continued to try to bypass Rupprecht in the chain of command all the way through the Artois battles of the spring, until at last the Prince was moved to complain to the Kaiser in May 1915. Falkenhayn was forced to apologise but took his revenge by transferring Krafft away to command the Alpenkorps and installing a Prussian colonel as Sixth Army Chief of Staff.

So, we’ve seen four different manifestations of command friction between OHL and Rupprecht. On 18 August, OHL apparently devolved decision-making but in fact abdicated responsibility. One month later, OHL again in theory gave Rupprecht a free hand but in practice did not. On 14 October OHL’s direct intervention was met by the Bavarian royal equivalent of the modern teenager’s ‘whatever’. And 27 October saw a final breakdown which led to both Rupprecht and Falkenhayn trying to find ways to work around the formal chain of command.

I’m not going to argue that either side was consistently right in the decisions made. Four factors put sand in the Vaseline. First, to a large extent friction arose precisely because the pressure of events threw up situations where, even if intelligence had been perfect, there was no single correct answer. And intelligence was very far from perfect. Secondly, command facilities and especially communications were consistently poor. For instance, at Sixth Army headquarters, the operations staff was crammed into two rooms (one of which doubled as Krafft’s bedroom) with only one telephone between them all.[9] Things weren’t much better at OHL in Luxembourg: there was no gas or electric light and the office of the Chief of Operations, Tappen, was in a cupboard.[10]  Thirdly, personalities played a role. Moltke was evidently in the throes of a nervous collapse of some kind; Rupprecht was a prickly character, full of amour-propre and keen to uphold the rights and privileges not only of himself as a Prince but also of Bavaria herself.[11]

The fourth and most important factor, however, was the nature of the command set-up itself. Two-dimensional models, which see decision authority going up and down the chain of command, require everyone to know which way is up. But the German system was less clear. As long as generals like Rupprecht thought they could bypass the chain of command and go straight to the Kaiser through the Immediatsystem, they were less likely to do as the Chief of the General Staff told them. This undermined the Chief of the General Staff’s authority, which was in any case weakened by the fact he that he knew he held his appointment only at the whim (I use the word advisedly) of Wilhelm II. As early as 10 August the head of his Military Cabinet was openly asking around whether Moltke was up to the job and Falkenhayn knew he was far from the army’s candidate for the job. The need to manage the Kaiser as well as the war was quite clearly too much for Moltke, and must have proved a serious distraction for his successor, too. More insidiously still however, the monarch-courtier dynamic characterised not just the relationship between Kaiser and CGS, but also that between the CGS and his immediate collaborators, whose future and career depended on him. Men of the so-called ‘camarilla’ like Tappen, Hentsch and Dommes were lucky to survive Moltke’s fall and knew it. The importance of their views, and the seriousness with which men like Rupprecht had to take what they said, inevitably waxed and waned with their influence, injecting yet more uncertainty into the relationship between OHL and subordinate commands.

In other words, it was Wilhelm II’s influence which allowed such a confusing and uncertain system to continue and indeed to replicate itself as thoroughly as it did in the higher ranks of the army. This created a culture of command so far from rational models of Auftragstaktik or its opposite that they seem almost irrelevant and, it appears, the word ‘system’ can hardly be applied. The more one looks at German command in 1914, the more apt Dr Johnson’s comment about a dog walking on its hind legs becomes: it was not done well, but it is surprising to find it done at all.

I’ve been putting the jackboot into the German army. But these problems of command and control were common to all armies and, given the difficulties of communication on the twentieth century battlefield, probably insuperable. In 1912 Foch said: ‘the armies have outgrown the brains of the people who direct them. I do not believe there is any man living big enough to control these millions. They will stumble about, and then sit down helplessly in front of each other thinking only of their means of communication to supply these vast hordes who must eat.’ This seems a pretty accurate prophecy of the first couple of years of the war, as the generals struggled with managerial problems on an unprecedented scale as well as the minor matter of how to fight their enemies. The railways had enabled the building of million-man armies and had transported them to the battlefield but as soon as the soldiers got off the train, although the weapons were new, they might as well have been campaigning a hundred or two hundred years before, otherwise. It was a combination of too many men blundering around in too small a space, armed with too much firepower which set up the stalemate. Nonetheless, soon in 1915 armies on both sides began to learn how to break in to the enemy’s defences, as the British showed at Neuve Chapelle, the Germans at Second Ypres and the French at Second Artois. But while communications remained too poor to enable exploitation and the conversion of break-in into break-out, and there was no effective arm for exploiting any breakthrough, little could change.

In other words, while there are certainly tactical aspects to the stalemate which creeps up the front between August and November 1914, I think the biggest influence is operational. As Bavarian military historian Dieter Storz has suggested, ‘Without doubt the German army of 1914 did least well where before 1914 it had been most confident and had trained itself well through staff rides and wargames: in the sphere of higher command.’  We haven’t even discussed logistics, but of course they are crucial too.

I’d like to finish up by thinking a little about strategy and how it applies here. If we restrict our analysis to the tactical and operational problems of the Schlieffen Plan, we are falling into the same trap the German army fell into in the 1920s: assuming it should have worked and then trying to work out why it didn’t. That’s an assumption which needs questioning, which means looking at the strategic coherence of the plan in the first place. The idea that France could be defeated in six weeks at first sight doesn’t seem stupid. After all, that’s exactly what happened in 1940 and, while Hitler’s army was more mechanised than Kaiser Bill’s, most of its soldiers still marched to war just as their fathers had done.  In 1940 French command was paralysed and the morale of the troops collapsed, but both might have happened in 1914 as well. In another case, Napoleon III lost the Battle of Sedan and his throne six weeks after the outbreak of war. (The defence of France in 1814 by his uncle, universally acknowledged to be one of the greatest generals who ever lived, lasted only two months.) In fact, though, it was more complicated than that. It was the war of 1870-1, of course, which resonated in the minds of Moltke the Younger and his colleagues, who were well aware that Sedan had changed the regime in Paris and the character of the war, but had not ended it. Instead, the new Third Republic had displayed an apparently inexhaustible ability to generate new armies and to inspire armed civilian resistance from franc-tireurs insurgents. The Schlieffen Plan had no political component at all, either to forestall such a possibility or to deal with it. Rather like the invasion of 1870, and some recent examples we can all think of, no provision had been made for establishing a new regime with whom a peace could be signed. So we can’t tell what German intentions were, in the event of them crushing the French army. Nor can we guess what French reactions would have been. All we know is that the German army was petrified of a rerun of the 9-months’ ‘Volkskrieg’ which followed Sedan and was determined to avoid it. That, after all, is one of the major reasons they massacred over 6,000 French and Belgian civilians in the opening months of the war: to indicate they were prepared to brook no resistance. If France had continued fighting, even after the fall of Paris, there’s no telling how many German divisions might have been tied down and so unable to attack Russia in the east. Nor, of course, is there any guarantee that Russia would be defeated anyway. Russia’s a big place.

In other words, I suspect that, even if the Schlieffen Plan had worked, it wouldn’t have worked. If you see what I mean. Operational success, even including the fall of Paris on timetable and decisive defeat of the French army (the BEF is a strategic flea on the bull’s back in the 1914 context) would not have brought the strategic benefits intended.

Which raises the obvious question: why do it? One of the first lessons one learns as a historian is that, when you come across someone in the past doing something which seems irrational, that probably means you haven’t worked hard enough to understand their reasoning. True loonies are thankfully rare in history; most people are rational most of the time by their own lights: you just have to understand what those lights are. In the minds of Moltke & co and the Schlieffen Plan, there seem to have been several factors at play:

1) a genuine paranoia about encirclement, underpinned by a Social Darwninist view whereby empires which didn’t grow must die

2) a very real sense that Germany stood for a unique culture and set of spiritual values which was under threat from, especially, British materialism

3) a feeling that, however remote the possibility it worked, the Schlieffen Plan offered the best chance of success. In fairness, militarily, this was probably the correct judgement, once the decision for war had been made.

4)  a deep-seated, belief that man for man and unit for unit the German army was better than its enemies. This arrogance takes us back to where we came in. One of the tragedies of 1914 is that the German military either could not tell the difference between a conclusive result – with the Battle of the Marne was not – and a decisive one – which it certainly was. Or, if it could, it was not prepared to accept the decision. Nor did it learn the lesson that they did not have the best army in the world. Even the next three years of bloodshed was not enough for them to pick up that lesson. It would take another five and a half years of an even more terrible war to learn it properly.

[1] Rupprecht, Crown Prince of Bavaria, Mein Kriegstagebuch (Eugen von Frauenholz, ed.) Volume I (Munich: Deutscher National Verlag, 1929), pp. 6-21. The account in the published diary follows the MS closely, omitting only the flustering of Dommes.  See also Krafft von Delmensingen, Die Führung des Kronprinzen Rupprecht von Bayern auf dem linken deutschen Heeresflügel bis zur Schlacht in Lothringen im August 1914 (Berlin: E.S. Mittler & Sohn, 1925), pp. 17-21

[2] Reichsarchiv, Der Weltkrieg 1914 bis 1918: Band I Die Grenzschlachten im Westen (Berlin: E.S. Mittler & Sohn, 1925), p. 256. See also pp. 208, 210-11.

[3] Rupprecht, Crown Prince of Bavaria, Mein Kriegstagebuch (Eugen von Frauenholz, ed.) Volume I (Munich: Deutscher National Verlag, 1929), pp. 36, 41

[4] Rupprecht, Mein Kriegstagebuch Volume I, pp. 126-7; Diary entry 18 September 1914, pp. 1a-2a, BKA NL Krafft 48 Tagebuch 18.9.-27.10.1914; Robert T. Foley, German Strategy and the path to Verdun: Erich von Falkenhayn and the Development of Attrition, 1870-1916 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 99-102

[5] Italics only in unpublished diary

[6] Rupprecht, Mein Kriegstagebuch Volume I, p. 236

[7] Krafft Diary entry 14 October, p. 87a, BKA NL Krafft 48 Tagebuch 18.9.-27.10.1914

[8] Sentence in italics only in unpublished diary.

[9] Rudolf von Xylander,, Deutsche Führung in Lothringen 1914: Wahrheit und Kriegsgeschichte (Berlin: Junker und Dünnhaupt Verlag, 1935), p. 22

[10] Holger H. Herwig, The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle that Changed the World (New York: Random House, 2009), p. 171

[11] Wenninger noted on 6 September that ‘my first week in our new headquarters as the only Bavarian was as miserable as that in Koblenz was enjoyable. The thermometer rises and falls with the performance of our troops on the battlefield.’

Writing Tips: A Model History PhD Introduction

I’ve been tweeting occasional Writing Tips via @jonathanboff but this is too long for a Tweet, so I thought I’d post these notes on how to write a PhD introduction here. Note that this is UK- and History-specific. Different traditions might have different requirements and I give no reps and warrants for the utility of this in other contexts. The underlying ‘So What?’ question is, I believe, applicable to writing the intro to any piece of written work, but UK History PhDs tend to meet a very formal, stylised set of expectations which this aims to help satisfy:

There is a template which the successful PhD Intro conforms to:

1) Brief para explaining broad area of interest

2) Detailed secondary literature review of works relevant to that theme (important: thematic, not book by book), from which it becomes evident either that there’s a gap or a debate in the historiography which you are going to fill/contribute to by…

3) Answering this Research Question (one sentence only, analytic not descriptive).

4) This question is important not only because it answers the issues raised in 2) but also because it relates to these broader debates (whatever you can think of)

5) To answer this question this dissertation will ask these 4-6 (?)  sub-questions , each one of which not-so-coincidentally occupies one chapter

6) and the sources used, which have these strengths and weaknesses, are X, Y and Z.

The question at the back of your mind when writing the Intro will be the same one pre-occupying the reader: So What? Why should I bother to read this thesis?

Hope this helps. Any comments gratefully received.