British Army soldiers patrolling Nationalist West Belfast in May, 1973

Military history is set to repeat itself

In a recession-ridden Britain, another European war seemed unthinkable

This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In June last year General Sir Patrick Sanders, the Chief of the General Staff, told an audience, “This is our 1937 moment … We must, therefore, meet strength with strength from the outset and be unequivocally prepared to fight … ” Just a few months later, our already tiny army was slashed by another 10,000 troops whilst its garrison in Estonia — our only troops directly confronting President Putin’s Russia — was reduced by half. Indeed, the comparison with 1937 was stark.

It all seemed rather like the title of Robert Lyman’s latest volume, for which he has teamed up with Lord Dannatt, a former Chief of the General Staff: Victory to Defeat. This is a detailed and lucid study of how Britain’s remodelled army of 1917–18 first expanded, then developed tactics for outmanoeuvring the German armies on the Western Front which had so nearly broken through British defences in March 1918.

The authors do not duck the fact that combining infantry, artillery, armour and aircraft was made easier by the exhausted state of the Germans. Only then would tactics of fire and movement (adapted from those of the enemy) allow the campaign of the “Hundred Days” utterly to defeat the Germans and lead to the armistice of November.

Victory to Defeat: The British Army 1918-40, Richard Dannatt and Robert Lyman (Osprey, £25)

The meat of this book looks at the squandering of the very lessons that delivered victory. The central argument is that Britain, having learnt the hard way in 1918, failed to prepare herself for another European war: but was that really the greatest threat facing the Empire? With the gift of hindsight, another world war seemed inevitable but, as the authors say, 1914–18 had been the “war to end all wars”.

Meanwhile, there was a pressing need to deal with the endless brushfire wars that beset Britain’s overseas possessions, but with an army that had been ruthlessly pruned of manpower once the Great War had ended. Whilst the authors rightly criticise the lack of tactical doctrine which should have flowed from the “Hundred Days”, they make little mention of the mistakes made in Ireland in 1919–22, which were heeded and which led to a coherent set of principles for the fighting in other, persistent hotspots.

In a war-weary and recession-ridden Britain of the 1920s and 1930s, another European war seemed unthinkable. Certainly, thought and planning needed to be given to that possibility, but resources were scarce and had to be used where British troops were confronting the Empire’s enemies every day.

Seen from today’s perspective, the litany of campaigns Britain fought between the World Wars seems unimportant. Yet disasters such as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar in April 1919, and the depredations of the Auxiliaries or Black and Tans in Ireland at much the same time, imperilled imperial strategy. Victory to Defeat underlines the actions of relatively small numbers of troops which threatened to unhinge whole campaigns. It makes the perfect counterpoint to Huw Bennett’s Uncivil War, which covers the opening years of the crisis in Northern Ireland in meticulous detail.

Bennett looks at operations in Northern Ireland only up until 1975 — arguably the most intense period — with a promise of further volumes to follow. This is the first, comprehensive attempt to deal in parallel with the political aspects of the campaign as well as the purely military ones. Although densely written, Uncivil War gives a very readable account of the first of three decades of conflict which dominated the everyday life of most of the combat arms of the Army. It now seems ironic, though, that Ulster was always treated as something of a sideshow when compared with the “real soldiering” of deterring the Soviets in Germany.

Central to Bennett’s book is the debacle of “Bloody Sunday” in January 1972, when paratroopers ran amok in Londonderry at a point of the campaign when the IRA was exhausted and finding it almost impossible to recruit. Politically, there might have been a breakthrough; militarily the terrorists were teetering on collapse, but one black sheep unit and the ham-fisted response by the chain of command galvanised the IRA. With a rifle’s crack, they guaranteed bloodshed for years to come.

Uncivil War: The British Army and the Troubles, Huw Bennett (Cambridge University Press, £25)

If ever a victory was turned into defeat in modern times, this was it. Bennett pulls no punches in pointing that out. The interesting contrast with Lyman and Dannatt’s work is that no matter how much had been learnt from the Second World War, the doctrine that emerged could only be tested by blank firing exercises in Germany. Whilst the highly unlikely possibility of a war in Europe was constantly analysed, very little strategic thinking was put into the grinding, long-term campaign in Ulster that was actually killing people.

Certainly there were political initiatives and the intelligence machinery was constantly evolving, but the many battalions and regiments who were charged with everyday deterrence and occasional attrition wandered the streets with little imagination or flair, often only seeming to provide targets for the terrorists. If war against the Soviets was remote, bombs, snipers and ambushes in Ulster were certain. By contrast, the Field Service Pocket Book (India) of 1930 laid out clear advice and principles for operations on the North-West Frontier. In Ulster, we just blundered on.

If the lessons of 1918 were neglected, those that led to victory in 1945 were carefully studied, although any coherent tactical doctrine took until the 1980s to be published. Perversely, the operations that followed both world wars were much the same: small, far-flung, post-imperial scuffles which owed little to “conventional” fighting. Indeed, it might be argued that the real lessons that the Army needed to heed after 1945 were not those of a European war, but those which might have prepared it for long years in Northern Ireland or the former colonies.

Bennett’s excellent conclusion points to his next volumes, where the campaign in Ulster continued to grind on, but Lyman and Dannatt’s work really comes alive in its short epilogue. It feels as if the whole book has been a precursor to these 16 energetic pages, which scamper through the later years of the Second World War, glide over the Cold War before nodding to the campaigns in Ulster, the Falklands and the Gulf.

In the epilogue, Lord Dannatt’s involvement in the failed strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan is invaluable. Yet again, the “conventional” (despite the threatened use of chemical and nuclear weapons) war for which Britain had been preparing was precisely the one which did not happen. Instead, a series of internal and post-colonial scraps proved too high a blood price for governments of all stripes to pay.

With numbing regularity over the years, the names of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan were announced by Prime Ministers from the despatch box, causing a clear reluctance to be involved in such politically risky adventures ever again. This growing timidity caused the armed forces to be cut to the bone; it was not a “peace dividend” once the Soviets had imploded, but gutlessness from those in Westminster. They had seen Tony Blair unseated and humbled by his decision to go to war in Iraq. They took the easier, less obvious option of making the Armed Forces simply incapable of foreign interventions.

By emasculating our troops, difficult but honourable political decisions not to get involved, and tricky but principled decisions not to abet our powerful allies, could be avoided rather than confronted. As a result, despite all the signs since at least 2014 that a crisis between Russia and Ukraine was looming, Britain was unprepared.

Now, once more, a ruinous European war beckons, which might, perhaps, spread from the Middle East into another world war. Lyman and Dannatt suggest:

The history of the 1930s showed the folly of not acting in a timely manner, whilst the draining away of the United Kingdom’s military capabilities since the end of the Cold War shows a remarkable tendency to allow history to repeat itself.

The authors are correct except for one, crucial point: it is not just our military capabilities that have been drained; it is our very willingness to shed blood in a noble cause. Look no further than the shameful withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 and ask whether this has not set a disastrous precedent that can only embolden our enemies.

General Sanders is right. This is our 1937 moment, and history looks likely to repeat itself with one, vital difference. In the conflict that is coming I doubt that we are “unequivocally prepared to fight”. The mistaken expeditions of the recent past and a corporate nervousness seem to have robbed us of our mettle.

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