Britain in the World Wars

Robin Prior

It was only towards the end of the Second World War that the British stumbled upon the ideal combination of general and politician.
The Battle of Passchendaele, 1917.
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Three aspects of Britain in the world wars stand out. The first was the reluctance with which Britain entered both wars but then the implacable nature in which it fought them. In the First World War Britain was the last of the Great Powers to enter the war; in the Second, Chamberlain was notoriously reluctant to enter at all. But once in the wars, Britain was the only Great Power to fight in both conflicts from beginning to end.

It is sometimes said that only a strict censorship kept the country fighting – if Britons had been aware of what was transpiring on the Western front in particular, they would have insisted that the war be brought to an end. The fact is however that they did know. The casualty figures were published in the press, as were maps which indicated that Berlin or even the German frontier were a long way off. And in the First World War when the government was not seen to be making a fist of the war a more resolute government was installed to fight the war to a finish – in the words of the New Prime Minister, Lloyd George, ‘to a knockout blow’. And having fought one world war, in 1939 Britain embarked on another. It is often said that ‘appeasement’ demonstrated that the British people were through with war. But when, after Munich, appeasement was seen to be futile in the face of Hitler’s demands and increasingly tinged with dishonour, the overwhelming attitude of the public was for war. And in this war when the appeasement government were seen to be inadequate for the task, a government whose only policy was victory – even ‘in spite of all terror’ was installed.

The second matter of note was the importance of civilian control in wartime. In the First World War the civilians attempted a strategy that was all their own at Gallipoli. When it failed however they rather ceded control to the military. What this meant was that offensives of unparalleled ferocity and results that fell far short of predictions (the Somme, Arras, Passchendaele) were embarked on and allowed to run their course while the civilians looked on and wrung their hands. Only in 1918 did Lloyd George, in a period of much peril, reassert civilian control to the great benefit of his country and as it happened the shape of subsequent military operations.

In the Second World War the arrival of Churchill assured civilian control. When the Chiefs of Staff wobbled in their advice whether to fight on in 1940, Churchill merely ignored it until he got the advice he was looking for.  When he was dissatisfied with the way the war was being conducted, in short order commanders found themselves sidelined or retired. And Churchill went on sacking until he had chosen generals who could win. And when questions were raised about the most implacable of the British offensives, the strategic bombing campaign against Germany, Churchill decided that it should continue and indeed be intensified. Whether this was the correct decision is not the point here. What it demonstrates is a determination to wage war to the utmost.

The third point also deals with civilian control but in a little-recognised area. In a liberal or democratic state such as Britain, it is the civilians who ensure that the economy is mobilised and that appropriate weapons are provided for their armies, navies and air forces. The question of how those weapons will be used is one however, given the complexities of modern war, that only the generals can decide.

In 1916, as Minister of Munitions, Lloyd George was asked by his Cabinet colleagues about the chances of success in the forthcoming Battle of the Somme. He assured them that success was likely because he had supplied Haig’s armies with unprecedented numbers of guns. What he could not know was that Haig, in attempting to capture as much ground as possible, had spread the gun fire over such a wide area as to dilute its effectiveness and thus to ensure failure.

In the Second World War Churchill railed against his desert generals in 1941 and 1942 without grasping that they too were dispersing the fire power that he had provided, in the form of tanks and guns, into small columns that Rommel was picking off one at a time. When at the end of 1942 he chose General Gott to command the Eighth Army he failed to realise that he was choosing a general also guilty of the same failed tactic of firepower dispersal. When Gott was tragically killed, his successor, Montgomery, was not really Churchill’s type of general at all. Monty was a centraliser whose basic modus operandi was to fight battles of attrition but ones that were quite different from those fought by Haig, in that they attritted the enemy army at a much faster rate than his own. What Montgomery provided was however victory at reasonable cost and with that Churchill, who despite bursts of impatience with his general and perhaps without ever understanding what Monty was up to, remained satisfied.

World wars are complex matters and in democracies the interplay of civilians and the military is crucial. It pays to pick competent generals but without competent politicians the results can be disastrous.

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