Robin Prior on Conquer We Must

Robin Prior

The distinguished historian discusses the relationship between generals and politicians in the first half of the 20th century.
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In the First World War mass casualties were suffered in the sluggish trench warfare of the Western Front. Did we see enough involvement by the politicians to attempt to limit those losses?

HH Asquith

During the First World War British politicians made various but only sporadic attempts to limit the casualties on the Western Front. The most spectacular example of this was the civilian-inspired attempt to shift the main action from the Western front to Gallipoli. As we know this failed to achieve their aims but it remains the only attempt by civilians in either world war to shift the main front to somewhere thought more congenial. In 1916 the politicians were assured by Lloyd George that he had provided sufficient guns to Haig to ensure success at the Somme. What he could not know was that Haig’s use of these guns was far from optimal with results we all know. This led to a gap when civilians abdicated responsibility to the military. The results were disastrous until Lloyd George (now Prime Minister) reasserted civilian control through restricting manpower allocation to the generals.

The British Army was at near mutiny in 1914 with the Curragh Incident. Did this have an impact on the army’s relationship with politicians early on in the Great War?

It seems reasonable to assume that the Liberal government of Asquith entered the war with a low opinion of the military. The obverse was also probably the case. Nevertheless, no British general acted or even attempted to act unconstitutionally during the war. Relations were often fraught but never improper.

Did Winston Churchill learn from his experience of Gallipoli in the First World War, and apply that knowledge to the Second?

The main lesson that Churchill learnt from his Gallipoli experience was never to push through military operations against the wishes of his main military advisers. During the Second World War differences often arose – over operations in South-East Asia, the Western Desert and in the Mediterranean. Despite these differences Churchill never pushed a major operation through against the advice of especially the CIGS. Arguments between General Alan Brooke and Churchill were endemic throughout the war but Brooke was in fact never overruled by Churchill on a strictly military matter.

In the First World War, to what extend did the top brass patronise politicians, and continue on their merry way?

Sir John French

It was not a matter of the military patronising the politicians but the fact that the military thought they knew better than the civilians about military matters. The constitutional right of the War Cabinet to direct the military was never questioned by either Sir John French or Haig. During 1916 and 1917 however the politicians wrung their hands as disasters such as the Somme and the Third Battle of Ypres unfolded yet refused to assert their constitutional right to either change the command or (more reasonably) order the command to stop these costly and barren offensives.

Was there a ‘light-touch’ from the politicians vis a vis the military in the inter-war period?

No, there was rather a heavy-handed approach. The politicians allocated stringent sums to the military, often despite the recommendations of the various committees set up to examine re-armament. The air force and the navy fared slightly better in these parsimonious times because the Chamberlain Government in particular reasoned that the defence of the Island came first and overseas commitments a bad second. It was the army that bore the brunt of this policy which goes some way to explaining the reverses it suffered in the early years of the war.

Of all the PMs between ’14 and ’45 one assumes Churchill had the most influence on the military, and was the most successful. Is that right, and did any other PM come close?

Yes, Churchill was certainly the most influential or in the military’s terms, interfering. However in 1918 Lloyd George, by restricting Haig’s requests for manpower forced him to fight smarter, a factor which led to a revolution in British military operations in the latter part of the year. Churchill intervened more often than Lloyd George but was never able to any great extent influence the way in which his generals fought.

By the end of the First World War, the British Army had evolved into an efficient fighting force. Was it the lack of war that caused the army in the inter-war period to regress so that the BEF in 1940 was trounced by the German Army without too much trouble?

The setbacks suffered by the BEF in 1940-1942 had a number of causes. One was the inability of the inter-war governments to decide what the BEF was for. Was its main task Empire defence? Or defence of the home island? Or was it to intervene as in 1914 in European conflicts. This was never resolved before the Second World War. The decision to mechanise the cavalry rather than create a distinct armoured force also had a doleful effect as did the lack of money allocated to the army in the 1930s. In 1939 the BEF was reasonably well-equipped, fully motorised but lacked doctrine, armour and was too small.

Having studied conflicts post-1945, Sir Lawrence Freedman has stated that it is the personalities of both politicians and the military that are often the deciding factor of whether a command structure is successful. How much is this true in the British Army 1914-1945?

It seems to me that this is always true. Asquith and Chamberlain had a much more distant relationship with the military than Lloyd George and particularly Churchill. Lloyd George was an interventionist Prime Minister but weak on military matters and uncomfortable with the military. Churchill was much mor familiar with the military and a healthy scepticism about their desires and wants. He was superior to Lloyd George in picking his military advisers and stuck with them even though they opposed many of his schemes. The combination of Churchill and Brooke was as near perfect as military/civilian relations get.

Is there an ideal model, or best practice, during the period in your book, with civilian and military leadership?

There is no ideal. Every military/civilian relationship must be worked through according to the personalities involved at the time. It seems to me useful that politicians who deal with the military have some grasp of military matters and a basic understanding of strategy or at least of the strategic interests of their own country.

Are there lessons to be drawn by today’s military and politicians from those years between 1914 and 1945?

For the politicians certainly. They should never take what military advice they are given without the most rigorous examination. It is the politicians who should have the broader picture of the national interest, the strengths and weaknesses of the economy and the wishes of the people firmly in view. The military by necessity take a narrower view, and in our period, when that view prevailed it resulted in disasters such as the Somme and Passchendaele. The military must be kept on a tight rein but then allowed to fight as professionals. If they do not meet civilian requirements they must be replaced by those who do, remembering that ultimately in democracies civilians must take overall responsibility for the results of conflict.

Robin Prior is the author of Conquer We Must: A Military History of Britain 1914-1945, published by Yale University Press.