Picture credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images
Artillery Row

British defence must be renewed

War may not be imminent but Britain must still be secure

As I put pen to paper, I notice it is Candlemas. With hints of stained glass, beeswax, incense and stone-flagged floors, it is a festival fast-drifting into Middle England’s quaintness and obscurity, along with Vespers and village inns, blacksmiths and branch lines, Homburg hats, telephone boxes and toast racks, fish knives and anchovy paste, cottage hospitals, crumpets, cake forks and multitudinous other celebrations and objects once praised by the late John Betjeman, that have not quite established themselves in the twenty-first century.

Originally the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ, the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or of the Holy Encounter, Candlemas was one of the earliest Christian festivals. Based on events retold in the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel, when the infant Jesus was first taken to the Temple in Jerusalem and recognised by Simeon and Anna, it was a moment full of prophesy. The occasion entered the lore of the young church, and probably borrowing some now-lost pagan feast day, possibly Roman Lupercalia (after Lupercus, the god of fertility and shepherds), it became a religious observance falling on the fortieth day after Christmas (yes, already), and marking the precise midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox. Or every 2 February in new money, when the Christian world got around to the business of the modern calendar.

Soon morphing into the quaintly-named Candlemas Day, it became a time when church elders blessed candles needed for the rest of winter and distributed them to the people. Prompted by devout superstition and St Luke, the moment was accompanied by an air of prediction: if the climate was sunny and clear, the congregation could expect the rest of the season to be hellishly long and tortuous, a second winter in fact. However, if the sky was cloudy, then divinely warm weather was forecast to be lurking around the corner. The mediaeval church also held that Christmas crib scenes should be kept out until Candlemas, when a clear sky was also held to portend a bountiful year for any roving guilds of beekeepers. It thus evolved into a day of honied pancakes, crêpes and beeswax candles, all courtesy of our beekeeping brethren. The rounded shape and golden colour of the fry-ups, reminiscent of the sun, allegedly hinted at the return of spring after the dark and cold of winter. As La Chandeleur, the pancake-eating orgy became a Franco-Belgian tradition, a Gallic excuse for Asterix and Co. to indulge in a post-Christmas nosh-up, with other forms of merry-making thrown in.

Candlemas was one of the few Roman Catholic observances to make it intact through the Protestant Reformation, becoming Lichtmesse in the Northern German states and Dutch provinces, Liichtmëssdag in Luxembourg, with equivalents scattered generously through the Nordic realms. Presumably having partaken of too much honied mead, our Germanic brethren then did something very odd. They introduced a hedgehog into the mix. Each 2 February also became Der Tag des Igels — Day of the Hedgehog (a good title for a novel if ever there was one). As well as waving candle-lit lanterns and crêpes around in nocturnal processions during the freezing weather, the North Europeans also expanded the prediction business. Incised in gall-ink on vellum are very precise instructions that if the sun appeared over Mrs Tiggy-Winkle first emerging from her burrow on the morn of the second day of the second month, and that creature reacted to her shadow by swiftly scampering back into hibernation, there would be six more weeks of bad weather. 

Within a couple of hundred years many of those hedgehog-loving, God-fearing German and Dutch Lutherans had high-tailed it to the New World, taking their feasts, seasons, candles and Erinaceinae celebrations with them. Finding our spikey little friends thin on the ground, the settlers of what would become Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania substituted the indigenous groundhog, a large squirrel that sits out each winter in a burrow, to emerge Hobbit-like each February to sniff the air. In search of tradition, nowadays huge crowds of North Americans, having replaced their beeswax candles with flashlights, wait patiently for a fat rodent to struggle out of its Beatrix Potter lair, remove its spectacles, blink furiously and look for its shadow. 

The 1980s and 90s were not generally kind to old customs, but in 1993 Bill Murray’s hit movie Groundhog Day came to the rescue of what had once been genteel Candlemas. Ever since 1887 and now live-streamed, in Punxsutawney, Jefferson County, Pennsylvania (population 5,962), groundhog-watching each 2 February is the only show in town. The local hedgehog stand-in, a Mr Punxsutawney Phil, shuffles out of his earthen home in a place pleasingly called Gobbler’s Knob (I am not lying) about 2 miles outside town. If he is startled by his own shadow and returns to further snoozing and contemplation in his subterranean condominium, he has predicted (with a freakishly uncanny 40 percent accuracy over 137 years) six more weeks of freezing weather. Groundhog Day thus poses the question, “Will it be more of the same for the next few weeks, or will the morrow bring an abrupt change in fortune?”

Yes, whether caused by gospel, impossibly aged rat or beeswax candle, there are these moments in long hard winters that still induce us to speculate, often eccentrically, on the year ahead. Thus, I was only mildly surprised to encounter a frontpage headline in the Daily Telegraph on 19 January, “NATO warns of war with Russia in the next 20 years”, a story widely reported in other media. Within 4 days, to the light of my beeswax candle, this story had become “Army Chief: public face call-up if UK goes to war” in the same organ, with ripples echoing like a distant hedgehog’s mutterings through much of the rest of Europe’s print and online media. Most journals have emerged, groundhog-like, to tackle the issue, heralded by clickbait titles such as “Will Britain lose World War Three?”. I have been asked my opinion on the coming war with Moscow, on “irreversible” escalation in the Gulf and how a new generation of Britons would react to conscription. 

As several home defence-related stories are merging into one, let me grab some groundhog-induced Candlemas illumination and over a glass or two of mead and some crêpes, explain what is going on here. Close reading of the Telegraph story reveals the subtext has little to do with the headline. The “war in 20 years” prediction did not originate with the British Army’s head, General Sir Patrick Sanders, but comes from Admiral Rob Bauer, the Dutch head of all the NATO military chiefs of staff, who was trying to bang heads together to get his nations to spend more on defence. With Vladimir Putin spending 6 percent of his GDP on defence, much of it fruitlessly in Ukraine, his NATO near-neighbours, and those about to join such as Sweden, fear that he or his successors (hence the otherwise eccentric 20-year spectrum), suitably replenished by China, North Korea and Iran, will switch target to some other more easily digestible victim. Those on the receiving end, stated Admiral Bauer quite rationally, “will need to find more people if it comes to war” and consider “mobilisation, reservists or conscription”. General Sanders, near the end of his tenure as army chief, was also building on Grant Shapps’ 15 January speech, that Britain was in a “1937 pre-war moment” vis-à-vis Russia and that all three services are experiencing a recruitment crisis, with the Army directed to reduce to a strength of 72,500.

It appears to be an open secret that our “prime minister does not do defence”

This is at a time when Iran, North Korea and China are sabre-rattling, though none really wants a direct confrontation with the West. The Tehran and Pyongyang regimes would face annihilation in any war, but enjoy the place on the world stage their warlike rhetoric currently brings them. China, with a faltering economy and a navy in transition is in no fit stage to fight at present. However, it is right that Bauer, Sanders, Shapps and Co. should put defence on the political agenda when much of the globe, totalling half of the world’s population, will hold elections in 2024. With Taiwan’s complete and the foregone result of Russia’s, in addition, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Pakistan, the United Kingdom, United States and 38 other nations are set to follow with parliamentary or presidential battles at the ballot box this year. It appears to be an open secret that our “prime minister does not do defence”, but the real truth of the matter, as I outlined here, is that neither party in the United Kingdom has paid any proper attention to defence for over thirty years. 

The headlines in the UK press seem to be the result of NATO’s Admiral Bauer having said to each of his NATO comrades, “now go home and shake your politicians out of their complacency”. However, our UK debate on defence needs to be conducted intelligently. To be shunted down the rabbit hole of conscription, as I explored here, is to do great disservice to perhaps the paramount issue of our epoch. Conscription, which would involve most of the fully-trained educating to middling standard a vast force of the untrained, is an irrelevance to the twenty-first century. Let us be frank. We are in no immediate threat of invasion ourselves, but some of our NATO allies are. Under Article Five of the alliance (“an attack on one is considered an attack on all”), we would be duty-bound to wade in and help with all our military assets. 

The widely-reported remarks of General Sanders and many of his less verbose comrades need to be seen in the context of flagging up the need for a vastly increased defence budget, a national strategy of defence manufacturing capabilities and stockpiling, of modern housing for our personnel and a meaningful and permanent uptick in regular and reservist recruitment. Failure to do so will be interpreted by our friends and enemies as weakness, a refusal to engage and an invitation to aggressor states to do their worst. There is nothing new in the position in which we now find ourselves. It is a very British tradition to prophesy military catastrophe when the war drums are beating and our politicians appear to be deaf to the threats. 

The disconnect exists for a very good reason. Maintaining a larger navy (and these days, a medium-sized air force), but a small army, the UK has always been vulnerable to fears of hostile invasion, providing the fiendish continental opponent — whether French, German or Russian – could cross the Channel. George Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking (1871) began a peculiarly Anglophile genre of invasion literature, itself an important precursor of science fiction. Chesney wrote in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, and narrated as memoir the invasion and occupation of Britain by a country that was clearly Germany, but referred to as the “Other Power”. 

Thereafter an astonishing 60 works of fiction describing invasions of Great Britain had been published by 1914, of which the best-known were William Le Queux’s 1894 novel The Great War in England in 1897, outlining a French assault; Erskine Childers’ fast-paced The Riddle of the Sands (1903); and John Buchan’s page-turning The Thirty-Nine Steps, written just prior to the outbreak of the First World War but published in 1915. To these, we should add Herbert George Wells’ Martian invaders landing by rocket on Horsell Common, near Woking, Surrey, in his seminal and sensational The War of the Worlds, which has never been out of print since first appearing in serial form in 1897. All of these have held up remarkably well and compete with the best of Ken Follett or Bernard Cornwell.

Oft-overlooked, these fictions collectively added to the febrile anti-German atmosphere of the pre-1914 United Kingdom, and in 1909 were cited as the reason for founding Britain’s first Secret Service Bureau, forerunner of MI5 and MI6. Historians today debate their true influence, with Prime Minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman at the time observing the genre was “calculated to inflame public opinion abroad and alarm the more ignorant public at home”. There was relatively little repetition in the inter-war years because Britain had no wish for a re-run of the carnage of 1914-18, although Orson Welles famously repurposed War of The Worlds into a radio play with huge impact when broadcast live from New York in 1938. 

The tradition re-emerged in the Cold War through a scattergun of novels portraying dastardly Soviet attacks on Western Europe, including General Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War (1978), which unfortunately eclipsed Brigadier Shelford Bidwell’s equally good World War 3: A Military Projection Founded on Today’s Facts of the same year; Bob Forrest-Webb’s 1982 novel Chieftains, billed as the “documentary novel of a World War 3 tank commander”; Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising (1986); and General Sir Richard Shirreff’s prophetic 2017: War with Russia: An Urgent Warning (2016). Having once marked and praised an undergraduate thesis on NATO going to war with Microsoft, I note that two novels, 2034 and 2054, concerning a US-China clash and a US-AI confrontation, by the duo of Elliott Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis, have just thudded through my letterbox for review. 

None were fanciful, all were relevant and like their predecessors, well researched and written with authority and authenticity, almost exclusively by former military men. They gained enormous traction in the popular imagination because behind-the-scenes lobbying, letter-writing and journalism on the parlous state of Britain’s defences had fallen on deaf ears. This is the situation in which General Sanders now finds himself. He is an honourable man, certainly no warmonger. But, frustrated with the size of our army in an era of the greatest threats since 1945, and irrespective of the implications of a second Trump presidency, he has added his voice to those fearing the worst if we do not buck up our defences. And it is not just the general. The House of Commons cross-party Defence Committee, chaired by Sir Jeremy Quin MP, have likewise just concluded that the UK’s warfighting ability and strategic readiness to fight a high-intensity war have been fatally undermined. 

the defences of this country are in real crisis

It’s all there in their compelling, non-partisan report, Ready For War?, based on evidence collected last November and published on 4 February. Its 72 pages, freely downloadable, conclude that “more people are leaving the Forces than joining them” and that “ammunition stockpiles sent to Ukraine have not been replaced.” They observe that “retired equipment even halfway viable for regeneration” should be retained and a “thriving, home-grown military industrial capacity has to be built”, rather than defence procurement made abroad with the lowest bidder. The Committee was critical, too, of being hampered by a “lack of Government transparency to the data they needed, that was available a decade ago”. So far, HMG’s response to General Sanders and the Committee has been complacency. While claiming currently to “meet all operational requirements”, it is falling back on the old formula of “we will do more when we can”. Nevertheless, the defences of this country are in real crisis. The wise words of Sanders, Quin and Co. need to be heard and heeded throughout this UK election year, and not just when the candles burn long and the hedgehogs roam.

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