Conquer We Must, by Robin Prior

A highly readable account of Britain's military history incorporating both world wars.
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This is a superb and highly readable account of the development of the often tumultuous relationships between Britain’s political and military leaders over 31-years, starting with Sarajevo in 1914 and ending with Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.  Britain and its empire was at war for nine years of these three decades. In addition to the extraordinary story of the two world wars, intrinsically fascinating in and of itself, is the story, at the heart of Prior’s engaging account, of how Britain’s government on the one hand and its armed forces on the other engaged with each other – at both the ‘grand strategic’ and the ‘military strategic’ levels of war – to fight, and to plan how to fight. Georges Clemenceau warned us that war is too important to be left to the generals. He was right. The successful prosecution of war in a democracy requires a partnership between politicians and soldiers. What is required is a way of working together, secured through negotiation, debate and the systems and structures of power adapted from their peacetime uses to achieve wartime purposes. Both the political legislative and the military executive need to work out how to rub along, so as to achieve the outcomes of which both are desirous. As Prior brilliantly emphasises, in a democracy the story of these often fractious relationships – think Lloyd George v. Haig over manpower in 1917/18 and Churchill v. Wavell in 1940/41 over the strategy for the Middle East – was of how the two sides negotiated with each other to plan for, and secure, victory.

The final sentence in this quite excellent book is that ‘Democracies at war can be fearsome.’ Yet that fearsomeness could look very bloody. Unanimity with regard to the question of ‘how should we fight?’ took several years to achieve in the Second World War (and arguably was never achieved in the Great War) and many mistakes were made (some very stupid indeed), and lives lost, along the way. What was achieved, nevertheless, was a modus vivendi of sorts that allowed the politicians and the soldiers to work together, reasonably amicably, to achieve an agreed outcome – in the case of the Second World War, final victory over Germany, Italy and Japan. In the early years of the Second,  the soldiers had to give way to political needs, and do what it could in the circumstances. One example was the political determination to send troops from North Africa to support Greece in 1941, to the extent of making Cyrenaica extremely vulnerable to German attack. The armed forces, stretched as they were, accepted the need to make a political gesture even at the same time as recognising that from a purely military perspective it was sheer folly. And so it proved. At the same time, the politicians were forced to recognise that as the result of long years of political neglect and economic parsimony the British Army was far from ready for war in 1939, and required several years and as many defeats (and American equipment) to get its act together.

The story that Prior superbly weaves is one in which the daily negotiations between politicians and generals – akin to squabbling parents who otherwise are determined to do the best for their children – was ever changing, the engagement involving competing visions of what was required to fight and to win; competing conceptions of strategy; competing appreciations of what could be achieved by the use of military force; competing personalities and, let it be said, the clash of some titanic personalities. All of this needed to be undertaken in the absence, in both 1914-16 and 1939-1942 of any clear view by soldiers of how to fight the type of war they were being confronted with. In both cases, 1914 and 1939, the type of war into which the British Army was thrown was unexpected. This was discombobulating, both for soldiers and politicians. The soldiers, egregiously ill-prepared for both wars, were shocked when the enemy out-smarted them in battle. The politicians, with notoriously short memories, couldn’t understand why it was that with vast sums of money now spent on the army, it wasn’t able to achieve the results it so desired. The answer, as Prior explains, was that it needed to learn how to fight. This takes time. It was only with the methodical though unflamboyant approach of Montgomery at the Second Battle of El Alamein in November 1942, mirroring exactly the techniques developed in the Hundred Days battles of late 1918, that the tide began to turn.

During the Great War the challenge of finding a way of managing the generals in the field was never satisfactorily solved. In the Second World War the answer was found in the creation of an effective relationship between the Chiefs of Staff and the Prime Minister and his War Cabinet.  In the Great War the role of CIGS in the Army (Robertson and then Wilson) played nothing like that exercised by General Alan Brooke in the Second World War when the entire apparatus of planning for, and executing war became far more systematised and sophisticated. The relationship was always dynamic. In the Great War the politicians decided it was the army in the field and its commander (French and then Haig) who by their execution of military strategy forced a response from London about grand strategy. The tail wagged the dog, in other words. Because a decisive victory in France appeared unlikely in 1915, for example, alternative grand strategies were dreamt up to compensate. Gallipoli was one result. Something of a modus vivendi between her political and her military leaders was created in the Second, where at the grand strategic level an effective dialogue (which isn’t to say that they got everything right) was maintained. It needs to be remembered too that in the Second World War these political-military relationships were coloured by a dimension that did not exist in the First, namely the need to align Britain’s strategic interests, purpose and actions with those of the United States and, to a lesser extent, the USSR.

That Britain ultimately made an effective and successful partnership between politicians and soldiers, seen most explicitly in the personalities of Churchill and Brooke, lies at the heart of this engaging book.

At 696 pages of text one might think that this is a ‘big book’, but think of it another way: with 31 years to consider, it amounts to just over 22 pages a year, so it’s not very long at all. I couldn’t put it down, and neither will you.

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

Robert Lyman is the author of A War of Empires.