Losses due to lack of preparedness at the Somme
As the memory fades of the details and the titanic nature of the struggle associated with both World Wars, today in the West, we only remember our victories. However, we should not forget how those wars started, and how unprepared we were to fight them. In WW1, while our navy was ready for the task in almost every way, we had neglected a critical component of our national defence: the regular army that was only seven divisions rather than the 70 we finished with in 1918. As a result, we lost hundreds of thousands of soldiers while learning harsh lessons in building a mass continental army and it took almost four years before the desperate struggle turned in our favour at the Battle of Amiens in August 1918.
An unprepared nation saved by one man
By 1940, the political will of the nation to resist Hitler was almost negligable having suffered a horrendous defeat in the Battle of France. Without the iron will of Churchill at the helm, Britian's war would have stopped then and there. Instead, he decided to fight on. However, as history had demonstrated so poignantly in WW1, the BEF although extremely well equipped and totally mechanised, without an equally comptetent French army at its side could not resist a modern mobile Blitzkrieg advance, despite of having invented this mode of land warfare itself.
Meanwhile, the Navy was barely up to the task, especially being short of convoy escorts. Our airmen flew into war in outdated Fairly Battles and were almost shot down to a man, and the Fleet Air Arm was appallingly equipped; its main strike arm comprised of Fairly Swordfish biplanes that were more suited to the last war. The only arm that was just about ready, was the RAF Fighter Command, due to the vision of men like Lord Dowding and Lord Beaverbrook. But even the great victory of the Battle of Britain relied on the Luftwaffe making the mistake of diverting strategic bombing missions from the crippling attacks on Fighter Command’s airfields to the cities, without which they would have been successful. It was the victory of the Battle of Britain along with the German attack on Russia that gave Britain the time to rearm and build its war machine. But even then, it was not until later in 1941 that the war turned in Britain’s favour. If we were to ask any politician or leader from that time, as to what lessons we could learn from their experience, I am sure that top of the list would be to ensure that the nation would never again be caught so unprepared. Even in the last decade, we sent out armies into Afghanistan without the right equipment to protect against IEDs with devastating consequences. It would be both appropriate and reassuring to see some degree of remorse from current politicians and a determination to not repeat such mistakes.
The sad reality is that war is a blight that has not receded into the history books, but one that we continue to live with today. With the 100th aniversary of WW1 and the annual Poppy Remembrance Day services, should we not engender a national culture amongst our leaders that encourages them to examine and better understand why these World Wars started and how they might be avoided in the future, so that past lessons can be applied to current situations? Additionally, to not just understand how a war broke out, but also, the manner in which they were won and how close we were to losing in both WW1 and WW2 at certain points of each conflict. Most importantly, politicians should understand the capability of modern weapons and how the next war might be fought. However, recognising that such study might be considered superfluous by our current Western leadership, I shall attempt to condense the three key lessons from past British actions:
1. Although Germany started WW1 in a bid for global dominance, the war might well have been averted if Britain had removed the ambiguity over its alliance with France and had clearly stated that it would join the war if Germany attacked France. Additionally, Britain should have backed its words with actions and even though it was not prepared to match the massive standing armies of France and Germany, it should have made clear plans that if war broke out, it would immediately raise an army of continental proportions to influence the war's outcome. Instead, it took two years to put the inexperienced Kitchener’s Army in the field who then fought against a battle-hardened enemy. The inevitable consequence was the disaster at the Battle of the Somme, by which time the French armies were exhausted and thus the Germans fought the French and then the British armies in series, which then prolonged the war. Notably, the problem was compounded as the BEF was relatively small compared to the other continental armies, at 150,000 strong. However, the BEF was highly experienced and could have been described as the most professional army in the world at the time. The high casualties that it endured in the opening stages of the war caused it to lose the core of its experienced soldiers. Soldiers, that would have been invaluable as the core of the new much expanded Kitchener’s Army. Their absence was to cost the BEF dearly.
2. The collective British political denial of Hitler’s aggressive intentions in the build-up to 1939 must have only emboldened his actions. The result was that Britain was unprepared for war on the continent and the BEF was ejected from France leaving its equipment behind which then made us vulnerable to a subsequent German invasion in the form of Operation Sea Lion. It is remarkable how similarly Britain responded to Germany in the build-up to WW2, even after the experience of WW1 when deterrence had failed.
3. The Cold War was, however, very different as deterrence triumphed thanks to Regan and Thatcher, who ensured that NATO was stronger than ever at a time when the USSR was in economic collapse and might well have been drawn into military adventurism. In this case, the USSR perceived both military capabilities in its adversary and the intention to use it as demonstrated in the Falklands War. Historical documents in the Kremlin show that Britain’s determination to defend its interests 8000 miles away came as a surprise and from that point in time, capitalist nations were no longer automatically considered by the USSR as weak-willed.
In summary, all major wars start with an expansive nation that seeks to challenge for power using military force. If deterrence fails, war succeeds. Although considered expensive at the time, deterrence is always cheaper than the war itself and the consequences of failure, or indeed winning. However, it only works if there is a very high chance that an aggressor nation perceives that it will fail if it declares war, due to a combination of military defensive and offensive capability and the political will to use force to protect national interests. So, the key to preventing wars does not seem to be to run down one's armed forces, but rather to ensure to be strong and capable and able to deter an enemy from aggression. Today the stance Britain chooses to take on its defence can influence positively other European NATO members who might follow its lead.
This blog has been extracted from my recent paper "A New Model for Britain's Defence Forces", and if you would like a free copy, please contact email@example.com.