What can we learn from Haig’s Enemy?

I think we can learn at least seven things from seeing the war through Rupprecht’s eyes.

1) It would be easy, observing the commemorations of the past four years, to think that this was a British-only event. The fact that British soldiers fought alongside allies, most obviously the French, and against human enemies, most notably the Germans, is often skipped over, and we tend to look at the war from an exclusively British perspective. This is a mistake. It is clear from Rupprecht’s papers that, for the whole first half of the war, it was the French, not the British, who were perceived as the greater threat. Even when the BEF scaled up, from 1916 onwards, it was still the French army, not the British one, which scared the Germans most.

2) The German Army

Myth: The German army was a superb tactical instrument, a true meritocracy with a very flexible system of command which enabled fast responses and great flexibility. It learnt and adapted to the challenges of the new warfare with speed and skill, developing ‘stormtroop’ tactics in the attack, and elastic ‘defence in depth’ tactics when under threat, both of which underpin modern tactics even today.

Reality: The weaknesses within the German army contributed greatly to its defeat. The officer corps was riven with cliques and patronage. Senior commanders interfered all the time in the operations of their subordinates. It was overtaken in the race to innovate by the British and French, who created new ways of fighting by1918 to which the Germans could find no answer.

3) Arrogance

Just like the British in Blair’s Wars, the German military’s confidence in its ability to solve problems outran its capability. If the German army hadn’t presented the Schlieffen Plan as a workable military solution to Germany’s political problems, 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. The army’s failure to be honest with itself, or with its politicians, cost Germany dearly. Arrogance loses wars.

4) The French…

…were seen as more of a threat by the Germans than the British. Not only did the French carry the main brunt of the fighting on the Western Front for at least the first two years of the war, but right to the end of the war the Germans saw them as more skilled fighters than the British. The troops of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) were seen as brave but clumsily handled in battle, poor at coordinating attacks and exploiting success. On the other hand, politically, London was seen as the centre of gravity of the Entente. In March 1918, the Germany army launched its final desperate attempt to win the war with an attack on the BEF: partly because it felt the British were a softer target, and partly because they felt that knocking the British out of the war could cause the French to fold.

5) Learning and Adaptation

Myth: the war was a static, sterile stalemate where everyone just kept bashing away in the same unimaginative and futile manner.

Reality: it was a cockpit of furious innovation. Every time one side came up with some tactic or measure to give it an edge, the other raced to counter it. Brand new technologies such as the aeroplane and the tank were developed as weapons and built into radically different ways of fighting war which, by 1918, were almost unrecognisable to the soldiers of 1914. Learning and adaptation constituted another front in the war, one contested no less savagely than the physical fighting fronts.

6) Winners and Losers

Myth: This was the war no one won. Little changed, and nothing was solved. Domestic social and political change remained glacial. In international relations, it took a second, even more terrible, war, to resolve the German question.

Reality: Domestically, it is true, not much changed in Britain. There were no homes for heroes, and certainly few jobs. Some women got the vote, but they would probably have got it anyway. Politics went on much as before. In much of Europe, however, everything changed. Revolutions brought down the empires of Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Ottomans, and of Germany herself. They swept away monarchies and ruling classes which had endured for centuries. The tragedy, for Germany and the world, was that the Weimar republic which took over from the Kaiser was too weak to withstand the ravages of the Great Depression and the demonic force represented by Hitler and the Nazis.

7) Tsunami of modernity

It’s easy to see the aristocrats of middle Europe who were washed over or away by the tidal wave of change in the first half of the twentieth century as tragic victims of forces beyond their control. The same applies, indeed, to many of those killed or otherwise harmed during the two world wars. For many of these people, however, that would be a sentimental mistake. They saw themselves not merely as passive victims but as responsible agents, making decisions for themselves. Often, sadly, those decisions were poor ones. History, however, should seek to reconstruct their sense of themselves, not rob them of it.

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Who was Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, and why does he matter?

Under the 1871 constitution of the Second Reich, a number of independent kingdoms retained considerable autonomy within the empire of Germany. Prussia was the largest of these, but Bavaria was second biggest. So during the First World War Wilhelm II was Kaiser or Emperor of Germany and also King of Prussia, while in Munich Rupprecht’s father, King Ludwig III, ruled Bavaria and, in peacetime, had his own army. In wartime the Bavarian army became part of the German military, of which the Kaiser was Supreme Warlord. Rupprecht and his father were members of the Wittelsbach dynasty which had ruled Bavaria since the twelfth century. The most famous member of the dynasty is probably Mad King Ludwig II, the patron of Wagner and builder of castles so fairy tale that Walt Disney borrowed the silhouette of one for his Magic Castle.

Rupprecht himself was born in 1869, in Munich, the first of 13 children.  His name was a nod to Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the English Civil War cavalryman and  King Charles I’s nephew. In fact, Rupprecht was descended through his mother from Charles I and would become the Jacobite Pretender. He was educated at a public high school (the first in his family to be so) and at Munich and Berlin universities. He was also commissioned into the Bavarian army and spent time at the Bavarian War Academy where the high-fliers were hothoused for senior command. By 1900, at the age of 31, had been promoted to Major-General and given command of a division and although it’d be naive to argue that his promotions owed nothing to his status, the evidence is that he worked hard at being a soldier, or at least as hard as a royal prince of those days could be expected to work. He had to balance his profession with carrying out an increasing number of royal duties, and chose also to indulge a love of foreign travel and Italian Renaissance Art.  His love of nudes was not confined to the Botticellis, however, and he enjoyed a typically late Victorian/Edwardian royal playboy youth until in 1900 he settled down by marrying his cousin, Marie-Gabrielle, in the face of opposition from both her parents and his family. Tragically, of the five children they conceived, only one survived to adulthood, and Marie-Gabrielle herself died young, aged only 32, in 1912. After losing his wife, Rupprecht threw himself into his military career with redoubled energy and in 1913 he was promoted to a post which would give him command of the largely Bavarian Sixth Army in the event of war.

He fought his first battles against the French in Lorraine during August and September 1914 where he fought a campaign which is little known here, because the British were not involved, but proved highly controversial in Germany between the wars. When the front there slid into deadlock, he was sent north during the so-called Race to the Sea to try to outflank the Anglo-French forces first along the line of the River Somme, then around Arras, until finally in October he finally came up against the BEF during the First Battle of Ypres. Over the next 18 months Rupprecht commanded Sixth Army on the defensive in Artois repelling French and British assaults in a series of bloody battles. His role in the early months of 1916 was restricted to a watching brief during Verdun and the early months of the Battle of the Somme until, in August 1916 he was promoted one last time, to Field Marshal, and given command of an army group, well over a million men, covering the front roughly from Champagne to the Belgian border. This gave him responsibility for coordinating the defence during the still-terrible last months of the Somme battle, as well as for iconic battles of 1917 such as Arras, Third Ypres and Cambrai. In 1918, it was Rupprecht’s men who spearheaded the offensives of spring 1918 which represented Germany’s last throw of the dice, and again it was they who bore the brunt of the Allied counter-offensives carried out between August and November 1918 during the campaign known as the Hundred Days.

By the time the Armistice was signed, Rupprecht had lost not only a war but also his inheritance. His father fled a revolution which seized control of Munich and effectively abdicated. Rupprecht escaped into Holland under a false name. Increasing political violence meant he was not able to settle back in Bavaria for a year, and even then, the threat of an indictment for war crimes hung over his head, although the case was eventually dropped. I’ll finish the story of Rupprecht’s life after the First World War in a later post.

So Rupprecht had a huge and highly responsible role at the heart of the German army on the Western Front for the whole war. He wasn’t, frankly, a new Napoleon: the First World War didn’t make many of those. It did, however, destroy the reputations and careers of many generals on both sides and Rupprecht not only avoided that fate but was sufficiently highly thought of that he was promoted, and given more responsibility, rather than the opposite. Most importantly for our purposes, as a senior general he was at the heart of Germany’s military effort and, by virtue of his royal and political status, privy to many of the debates and disputes which roiled the supreme command during the war. Conveniently, he also kept a very full diary: in the Secret Royal Household Archive in Munich are lodged 4,197 handwritten foolscap pages, almost all of them written up with a few hours or days of the events they describe. Luckily, his handwriting is not too bad and in 1928 he published an edited version cut down to a slightly more manageable 1400 pages in three volumes. The bulk of his correspondence, likewise, survives. Very few German, and even fewer British,  historians have really mined these sources in detail… until now.

Looking at Rupprecht, therefore, can teach us all sorts of interesting things not only about how the German army operated, which is useful if we are to grasp the war in its proper context; but also it can help us better understand what was happening on the British side of the war. In a later post, I’ll discuss some of the lessons I think we can learn.

Why did I write ‘Haig’s Enemy’?

There are two answers to this: a long one, and a short one.

The short one is ‘because I was asked to.’ When a prestigious publisher such as Oxford University Press invites you to write a book for them, I suspect that most historians, especially those still in the early stages of their academic career, would leap like a salmon for the opportunity. Getting the chance, with a reasonably priced volume, to speak, not just to a coterie of other academics, but to a broader trade audience, while retaining the intellectual bite to satisfy the demands of my masters and the Research Excellence Framework was too good a career opportunity to overlook.

The longer and less flippant answer goes as follows. This year marks the last of the First World War’s centenary years. August 2014 already seems a long way away. For a historian interested in memory and narratives of the past, it has been fascinating to observe how we collectively have chosen to remember and commemorate it. There have been some major triumphs along the way. I’ll mention just two: the Poppies, first at the Tower and then on tour around the country, took us all by surprise and offered a kind of secular but still semi-sacred focus of pilgrimage; and we’ve seen fantastic engagement by local people all over the UK with the wartime history of their communities. Alongside the triumphs, however, as always there have been areas where I think we have fallen short. I don’t intend to go through them all here: perhaps I will in a later post. But one failing is particularly relevant to my book, Haig’s Enemy. The failing I have in mind is that we’ve been unable to break out of the habit of seeing the First World War as an almost purely British event. Rarely, in the course of the centenary commemorations, or in the popular memory of the conflict more broadly, have we been reminded that this was an international event, which saw not only British and Commonwealth, but French, German, Italian, Russian and Turkish families also ripped apart. The 888,000-odd poppies represented well the dead of the Empire but said nothing about the young men from France or America who never came home, to mention just 2 countries, never mind the German, Austrian or Turkish soldiers who fell, too. Even professional historians have tended to write the German history of the war, or the French history of the war, or, most often in this country, the British history of the war; but rarely have they put them together. I am a pretty simple bloke, but this always seemed a bit of a problem to me. There are two sides to every story, after all.

So, the first thing I wanted to try to do with this book was to see what the First World War would look like if you looked at it through German eyes, rather than those of Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen. And the best way of doing that, I thought, was to find a particular individual who was closely involved in as much of the war as possible and to follow his experience through. It needed to be somebody who hadn’t been much written about, especially in English, and so I settled on Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, Haig’s Enemy and the most famous general you’ve never heard of. I’d come across him when writing my previous book, Winning and Losing on the Western Front and thought he might be interesting. Anyone who has read much about the Generals of the First World War will know that they tend to be somewhat one-dimensional characters whose interests outside soldiering were limited to horses and golf, but Rupprecht was different: he had a real hinterland and lived a long and in some ways tragic life.

In later posts I’ll talk more about who Rupprecht was, why he was important and interesting, and will preview some of the things I think we can learn about the First World War, and indeed modern history more widely, from studying him.

The German Spring Offensives 1918: Corollary: Why the British weren’t (quite) so dumb after all

Although, as I argued in my blog of 5 March (see below), the German army’s offensives in the spring of 1918 were always likely to fail, they did enjoy some startling successes. The first few days of both Operation MICHAEL (which began on 21 March) and Operation GEORGETTE (9 April) strained the British army almost to breaking point. More British troops raised the white flag and went into captivity during the two weeks of MICHAEL than during the whole of the war on the Western Front up until then: 75,000, in all. This was less the result of a general loss of morale than a symptom of British defensive tactics being sometimes unable to withstand a German attack which was always extremely violent and sometimes deployed stormtroop tactics to great effect.

One reason commonly put forward, by historians such as Tim Travers and Martin Samuels, for the failure of the British defence was that the BEF was trying, but failing, to put into effect tactics of ‘elastic defence-in-depth’ which they had cribbed from the Germans. ‘Elastic defence-in-depth’ (EDID) is a system, echeloned back from a thinly held front line, whereby most of one’s strength was held back, out of enemy artillery range, in a series of zones up to ten miles deep, which would operate rather like the crumple zones on a car. When attacked, forward garrisons were to give ground until the enemy, channelled into natural killing zones and disordered by his advance, could be counter-attacked and defeated by reserves manoeuvring up from deep. There is no question that GHQ ordered the BEF to organise their defences along such lines. Nor is there any doubt implementation was patchy and inconsistent, and that, when the Germans struck, many of the new defences were not complete, especially in the sector of the overstretched British Fifth Army.

To some extent, the British failed for a lack of resources: the manpower and material required to develop successive defensive positions in zones deep into the rear simply did not exist. To some extent, however, it is also represented as a conceptual shortcoming: the British, it is argued, never truly understood the idea of EDID, because (implicitly) they were either too dumb to grasp how it was supposed to work, or never possessed the tactical flexibility required to make it do so.

There is, however, a hidden assumption in here: that EDID was the best way of resisting offensives in modern warfare. With hindsight, we know that to be true. But in 1918 it was much less clear. Considerable doctrinal debate was continuing within the German officer corps, where three views of the best way to organise a defence contended. First, there were still a few traditionalists who believed that the morale advantages of holding firmly on to the front line (‘crust defence’) outweighed the rigidity of such a scheme and its vulnerability to enemy artillery fire. Secondly, there were the adherents of EDID, as outlined above. And there was a third group who, when they talked of ‘defence-in-depth’, had in mind not an elastic scheme of manoeuvre but a series of tough fixed defences echeloned deep. During the Third Battle of Ypres (July-November 1917), all three had been tried at one stage or another. None proved successful all the time. EDID had proved unable to prevent the ‘bite-and-hold’ tactics General Plumer used in late September 1917, but the crust defence employed at the Battle of Broodseinde (4 October) was no better at stopping the British. Although Ludendorff ordered an immediate return to EDID, in the mud of the Passchendaele Ridge defences, although deep, became increasingly static. In any case weather, terrain and logistics robbed the British offensive of much more force than any German tactical genius.

In other words, the evidence of the last full-scale battle before spring 1918 was that there was no single defensive panacea on the Western Front (any more than a ‘silver bullet’ existed for the offence). If the Germans, who after all had several years of defensive experience on the Western Front, couldn’t make up their minds, why are we surprised that the British were caught in several minds? EDID was not some self-evident answer which the British were just too dumb to see.

Why, then, does the consensus think EDID was so obviously the solution? The answer begins, as it did in the case I discussed in my blog of 5 March, with the German official historians. To them, manoeuvrists to a man, EDID seemed the only possible way for an emasculated and outnumbered interwar Reichswehr to defend Germany against Poland or, heaven forbid, France.* Therefore, they played up EDID in their studies of the FWW, and so it entered the mainstream. The experience of the Wehrmacht during the Second World War, especially on the Eastern Front (and at least when Hitler wasn’t, ironically, insisting on ‘no retreat’), reinforced the apparent utility of EDID, and fed directly into US and NATO doctrine for the defence of Western Europe against the Warsaw Pact. So hindsight, and the agenda of the German official historians between the wars, have conspired to make the BEF look dumber than they probably would have done at the time.

* There is a final, intriguing possible hypothesis, which it would take much research to test, if it is possible at all to reconstruct what happened in sufficient detail. The final volume of Der Weltkrieg, Volume XIV, which deals with the events of 1918, was not finally compiled until probably about 1943 or even 1944, by which point Hitler had issued several ‘no retreat’ orders, in the face of opposition from his generals of the traditional Army. ‘No retreat’ has similarities with ‘crust defence’. Might the emphasis on EDID in the later volumes of the official history represent coded criticism of Hitler from the official historians? After all the Reichsarchiv was closely aligned with the old-school army and, indeed, had intimate ties with the plotters of July 1944….

 

 

The German Spring Offensives of 1918: Last Chance or Forlorn Hope?

In the March 2018 issue of BBC History magazine, my esteemed colleague and friend Professor Alexander Watson has contributed an excellent article on the German spring offensives on the Western Front in 1918: ‘Germany’s Final WW1 Gamble’. He argues that the offensives, which began on 21 March with Ludendorff’s onslaught on the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) around St Quentin, marked Germany’s last chance to win the war and that they blew their opportunity by failing to pay sufficient attention to the operational level of war. Specifically, he argues, Ludendorff diffused effort when he should have concentrated it, and never identified  the importance of logistics, and especially the rail hubs at Amiens and Hazebrouck, to the BEF and so to the Allied war effort. Fine tactical performance, in other words, was undermined by poor operational art.

This line of argument has a long history, dating back at least to the German Official History (Der Weltkrieg), written in 14 volumes between the 1920s and early 1940s, the last volume of which, dealing with 1918, was finally published only in 1956. Professor Watson is an exceptional scholar, to whom I will gladly defer on most things to do with the Central Powers, and on anything concerning the Eastern Front, during the First World War. His article is very much of a piece with the consensus, and reflects in particular reflects David Zabecki’s outstanding The German 1918 Offensives: A Case Study in the Operational Level of War (Routledge, 2006). On this, however, the consensus, Zabecki and Watson are wrong, and the reason they are wrong throws up interesting issues around the way the German high command conceived the war they were fighting, as well as how its history was constructed.

There is no doubt that Ludendorff made a number of mistakes during the spring of 1918. He should have delegated command to a single Army Group rather than try to keep control himself. He under-estimated both how quickly his assault troops would tire and the logistics required to maintain the offensive’s momentum. He certainly failed to set a single operational objective, preferring instead to follow an opportunist approach which led to eccentric, rather than concentric, attacks. And he probably did not attach sufficient importance to either Amiens or Hazebrouck.

To argue, however, as the consensus does, that operational errors undermined brilliant German tactics, is to subscribe to a hidden assumption that the Germans would have succeeded had they not made certain mistakes. This, I would argue, is false, for two reasons, the second of which tells us something very interesting about how the history of the war has been constructed.

First, it underestimates the seriousness of the situation in which Germany found herself. On paper, at the end of 1917, Germany had three options:

1) settle for a negotiated peace

2) sit on the defensive in the West while eliminating Russia and Italy

3) attack in the West to defeat Britain, France (or both).

In reality, her choices were much more limited. There was no possible peace deal on the table, and even if public opinion in all the combatant countries had not hardened beyond compromise as the war went on, no one was more intransigent than Ludendorff. He could not give up Belgium but, unless he did so, no peace deal was likely to be acceptable to the Entente. For him, any outcome less than total victory would count as defeat and threaten revolution at home.  Further, Britain, France and the USA were clearly determined to fight on, with or without Russia, so sitting on the defensive would achieve little, except give the Americans time to build up their strength in Europe and shift the balance further against Germany. In other words, if Germany did not attack, she’d be admitting defeat. The Spring Offensives were a desperate gamble by a man and a country who felt they had nothing to lose because they were doomed. The parallels with the Ardennes Offensive of 1944 are striking: Ludendorff shared some of Hitler’s nihilism, even if he did not take it to quite such murderous extremes (as Michael Geyer has argued).

Secondly, it would be a mistake to see German stormtroop assault tactics as brilliantly successful but undercut by poor operational art. Often lauded as foreshadowing Blitzkrieg and establishing a template for modern warfare, they were in fact were far from invincible.  Even on the first day of the offensive, 21 March, for all the stunning gains made in some sectors, the Germans were stopped five miles short of their objectives in others. The attack on 28 March (Operation Mars) proved a disastrous failure at least in part due to poor German artillery and infantry tactics. German success and failure, even at the tactical level, depended, as always, on terrain, weather and the strength or weakness of the Entente defence. The Allies also did some important things which contributed to the outcome, right, such as appointing Foch to supreme command to reduce potential Anglo-French friction, and accelerating the pace of American reinforcement.

Why do we see the Spring Offensives so completely through German eyes? Why do we automatically assume that this was Ludendorff’s battle to lose? The answer, I think, lies largely in the role of the Reichsarchiv in writing the German official history. Those who composed the Official History had the same benefit of hindsight we do. They could have seen that the Central Powers were in a hopeless position by spring 1918, and had been since at least the First Battle of the Marne (September 1914) if not before, had they chosen to focus on the political and strategic levels of war. Instead, they obsessed about the operational and tactical, and they did so for a very specific reason. The Reichsarchiv authors were mainly retired officers of the wartime German General Staff, trained before 1914 by Graf von Schlieffen and his acolytes. They had been chosen specifically to construct an Official History which would serve to educate the officers of the shrunken post-Versailles Reichswehr, to maintain the technical excellence and self-perceived political aloofness of the army, and to keep the manoeuvrist Schlieffenite flame alight against the day when it might be required once more. The two campaigns which attracted most of their attention were the two where the German army most obviously failed: those of August-September 1914 and of March-June 1918; and their emphasis throughout was on the German mistakes made, so that these could be put right next time. To admit that the enemy had been better would not only generate no useful tactical or operational lessons, but also undermine the German soldiers’ image of themselves as the best in the world and threaten morale. Nor did they have any interest in narratives of strategic hopelessness, because the idea that Germany should never again fight such a war was irrelevant to those who saw themselves as preparing her in case she must. Hence we’re left with the German Official History, the ultimate source for almost all the accounts of the Spring Offensive written since, as a very influential narrative of what might have been, if only… Whereas, in fact, the German attacks of March 1918 were the last forlorn hope of a bankrupt regime and their defeat was as inevitable as any event in History ever is.*

* And in Haig’s Enemy (OUP, 2018, available at all good bookshops…), I discuss in detail how and why the German military could not, or would not, face this fact until it was too late.

Haig’s Enemy: Crown Prince Rupprecht and Germany’s War on the Western Front

I’ve refreshed this website to celebrate the imminent publication of Haig’s Enemy: Crown Prince Rupprecht and Germany’s War on the Western Front by Oxford University Press. You can find out more about the book here: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/haigs-enemy-9780199670468?q=jonathan%20boff&lang=en&cc=gb

I intend to blog more about why and how I wrote this book over the next few weeks, but in the meantime, here’s the cover art (which I love):

9780199670468

Learning the Wrong Lessons from the Past

After a long hiatus, mainly the result of having to work flat out on my book about #Rupprecht, I’m hoping to get back in the blogging saddle here soon. In the meantime, here’s a link to a guest blog I did recently for the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London in the wake of a paper I gave there late last year and the very useful discussion which ensued. It’s about learning the wrong lessons from history. (There’s a link to my original paper within the KCL blog):

When Learning Goes Bad

Churchill’s advice on how to write

There is good advice here on how to make sentences and paragraphs work together. I hope it’s useful. I apologise in advance for any errors made as I transcribed it. This is intended only for student and academic use. Jonathan

Winston Churchill on Sentences and Paragraphs (My Early Life, Chapter XVI, Kindle loc. 3074-84)

On Writing The River War:

I affected a combination of the styles of Macaulay and Gibbon, the staccato antitheses of the former and the rolling sentences and genitival endings of the latter; and I stuck in a bit of my own from time to time. I began to see that writing, especially narrative, was not only an affair of sentences, but of paragraphs. Indeed I thought the paragraph no less important than the sentence. Macaulay is a master of paragraphing. Just as the sentence contains one idea in all its fullness, so the paragraph should embrace a distinct episode; and as sentences follow one another in harmonious sequence, so the paragraphs must fit on to one another like the automatic couplings of railway carriages. Chapterisation also began to dawn upon me. All the chapters should be of equal value and more or less of equal length. Some chapters define themselves naturally and obviously; but much more difficulty arises when a number of heterogeneous incidents none of which can be omitted have to be woven together into what looks like an integral theme. Finally the work must be surveyed as a whole and due proportion and strict order established…. I already realised that ‘good sense is the foundation of good writing.’… I repeated earnestly one of my best French quotations, ‘L’art d’ȇtre ennuyeux c’est de tout dire.’ I think I shall repeat it now.

 

(transcribed by JFB, e.&o.e.)

Mr Miliband in Mr Gladstone’s Boots? Scottish Independence and Irish Home Rule

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On ‘Newsnight’ last night (Monday 30 March 2015), Evan Davies drew parallels between the probable hung result of the current election and 1922-3. At the tactical level of immediate electoral mathematics and the formation of minority governments, of course, there are some interesting similarities. Inevitably, there are differences, too: not least that the uncertainties of 1922-23 arose from a major strategic political realignment as the Labour party rose and the Liberals were eclipsed. This doesn’t seem to be underway just now.
It could happen though. There’s a possible scenario which, at a very deep level, might echo the events of 1885-6 when Gladstone, to the surprise of most and despair of many, embraced the cause of Irish Home Rule. Ireland, the scene of growing anti-English unrest for decades, in the election of November-December 1885, saw, Irish nationalist candidates sweep the board in the south and win 86 seats, while unionists took the 17 on offer in the north. The Liberal party lost 15 seats and won none. Gladstone interpreted this – correctly – as an overwhelming vote for some form of Home Rule, which he now regarded as the inevitable end-state of the process. To his mind, coercion to maintain the Union was a viable option in neither the short nor medium term. If Home Rule was where things were heading anyway, best they headed there now.
When Parliament met after the election, no single party held an outright majority. In a 670-member House of Commons, the Liberals had 319 MPs, the Conservatives 247. But the Liberals, supported by Charles Parnell’s Irish nationalists, were strong enough to form a government and make Gladstone Prime Minister for the third time. The price of Parnell’s support, inevitably, was a bill giving an Irish assembly control over all but foreign and defence policy: the Government of Ireland Bill 1886 (often known as the First Home Rule Bill).
Large numbers of Liberals could not countenance a break-up of the Union and the party split. Eventually, 93 Liberal unionists voted against the bill in June 1886, helping to defeat both it, and Gladstone’s government, by 30 votes. Lord Salisbury’s Conservatives swept to power in the general election which followed. The Liberal party was so badly divided that, where it had dominated government for a generation, it won only one election in the next twenty years, until, in 1906, splits in the Tory party over protectionism themselves gifted power to the Liberal party for its last decade-long hurrah.
Personalities and events contributed to the depth and violence of the split but the central knot of the Home Rule problem, from a purely British political perspective, was that the Liberal party simultaneously wanted Home Rule and could not afford the loss of Irish nationalist support which would follow if a Bill passed and Irish members were excluded from Westminster.
This is precisely the position in which a Labour minority government might find itself after May. Imagine a world where the SNP did so well in the upcoming election that it further increases the legitimacy of the pro-independence movement. How long could the avowed unionism of both major parties be maintained in the face of growing ‘Yes’ momentum? For Ed Miliband – or one of his potential internal challengers – the point might come where another referendum on Scots independence, or greatly increased devolution, or even just full independence, becomes a price worth paying to win SNP support and keep the Conservatives out of government. The loss of Scots MPS from Westminster might be easier for Labour to bear if they have fewer of them. Once Scotland is lost to them anyway, the thinking might run, why not let it go altogether? The Labour split which would follow, one suspects, would be long and deep. Whatever the long-term political and economic effects on the United Kingdom, and whatever one’s views, the medium-term impact on the Labour party of such a move could vastly outweigh the short-run political gains and condemn Labour to opposition for a generation, as Gladstone found. One hopes that Mr Miliband, who has a PPE degree, knows his history well enough to avoid this trap. Do all his colleagues, though?

*** Apologies to any regulars: this post is indeed not about the First World War. I promise I won’t go off-piste like this very often. I just thought the comparison was striking. Also, I’m not trying to make a party-political point, here. (If I wanted to change the world, I’d be a politician, not a historian. In fact, I’d probably be Prime Minister!) The same thought process potentially applies to the Conservatives: but the ideological gap between them and the SNP is so immense that it’s much harder to see it working. Even if, had the SNP any sense, they’d see the quickest way to get a majority for independence in Scotland would be another Tory government in Westminster.

Coalition Dynamics and #ww1

Back in November 2014 I was lucky enough to take part in a conference at RMA Sandhurst as part of OPERATION REFLECT. This Franco-British operation aims to identify lessons for modern militaries from the First World War. It also included a conference at RUSI in July and a week-long staff ride to the Western Front in September. The November session sought to pull together the most important points arising from the work of the previous few months. One major theme running through the day was the nature of alliances and their impact on operations. As is often the way of these things, we had little time properly to define what we meant by ‘alliance’, much less to review the broad range of alliance relationships which existed at various times, even just between the British and French on the Western Front. In the months since November, events, most of them too tedious to rehearse here, have conspired to give me rather more time to think than usual and I thought it might be worthwhile to preview some thoughts on alliances and the First World War here.
First, some definitions and distinctions. From time to time, states come together to deter or fight others. Motivations for doing so vary. They may be negative (designed to avoid an outcome parties view as undesirable) or positive (aiming to progress towards either shared objectives or the promotion of shared values). They may be a mixture of both, and they may of course involve any number of compromises and trade-offs. In 1914-18, for instance, Britain and France were prepared to ally with Russia despite liberal distaste for Tsarist values. While a ‘coalition’ is ad hoc and relatively informal, an ‘alliance’ suggests a more formal relationship. It might be governed by a treaty which outlines the rights and duties applying to members: or might not. It probably possesses some mechanisms for shared decision-making, although these may be rudimentary or highly developed. It might be the product of peacetime diplomacy, or purely the outcome of wartime evolution.
Friction is inevitable in any coalition/alliance relationship, but the level of that friction varies according to four external variables. The more of each of these factors there is, ceteris paribus, the less friction results:
1) Homophily: the more closely two militaries, or the members thereof, resemble each other, the more closely they tend to be able to work. Shared language and culture obviously can enable easier working relationships, but won’t necessarily do so, as the case of Robert Nivelle in 1917 showed. Inter-operability can work in many other dimensions as well, of course. One is very unlikely to have time and space to improvise this in wartime.
2) Congruence of interests/objectives: the more alignment exists between partners in terms of desirable end-states towards which they are working, the more likely they are to be able to agree.
3) Urgency: the more critical it is that partners work together, the better. Petty frictions get overlooked and divergences are resolved most rapidly when the stakes are highest and time most pressing.
4) Integrated command: the more established the mechanism for reaching and disseminating coalition/alliance decisions, the more smoothly work gets done. The more ad hoc the decision-making process, the more opportunities exist for deliberate sabotage or by-pass, the less practice all involved have had of working together, and the less clarity there is around the chain of command.

If we look now at the operational level Franco-British relationship on the Western Front (and only there) in 1914-18, we can distinguish 5 main phases:
A) August-October 1914: The BEF and French army share a structure and approach to war but are socially very different in composition, often have no language in common and are thrown together into a war with a common enemy but no practice of working together and little opportunity for discussing and agreeing on common ends, ways and means. Distrust and confusion are rife. By the 4 September 1914 Declaration of London, GB, France and Russia agree ‘no separate peace’ but no provision is made for joint strategic direction, much less military command.
B) October-November 1914: First Battle of Ypres: Foch manages to achieve a remarkable feat of integration with British and French units fighting together as one army. This is achieved partly through Foch’s own qualities of leadership, largely because the threat is so overwhelming and urgent that there is no alternative. When the threat subsides, cooperation deteriorates and the relationship deteriorates into…
C) December 1914-June 1917: The BEF is very much junior partner in a coalition which shares fundamental values and vague objectives but has only limited ideas about how to achieve the latter. Although levels of goodwill fluctuate, the relationship is largely characterised by distrust and mutual lack of respect. Coordination of decision-making is ad hoc and the experiment of giving Nivelle authority as supreme commander is immediately undermined, first by Haig’s opposition, soon thereafter by defeat on the Chemin des Dames.
D) June 1917-March 1918: Failure of the Nivelle offensive and the rash of unrest, although quickly cleared up by Pétain, gives the British more weight in the coalition, which they use to launch the Ypres offensive. The Supreme War Council at Versailles (from autumn) offers a formal forum for joint decision-making but rarely moves beyond being a talking shop.
E) March-November 1918: The Spring Offensives come close enough to breaking the coalition apart that Foch is given the backing of national governments to act as supreme commander. He relies, however, on persuasion rather than giving orders to get his way. The accelerated arrival of the Americans (as soldiers of an Associated Power, note, not an Ally) makes for a stronger and more balanced effort which finally prevails over the (by now much weakened) enemy.
(You might feel that some of those phases correspond with stages in operations in Iraq or Afghanistan, but I couldn’t possibly comment.)

To summarise: the coalition worked most smoothly in phases: B, when the urgency was greatest; and E, when urgency was high, the objective clear and means most readily available. By 1918 both BEF and the French army had grown together and coalition had moved closer towards a tight formal alliance, even if it was still a long way short of the remarkable integration achieved under Eisenhower with SHAEF. Which was itself still far from frictionless, but that’s a story for another day…