In the eyes of a wartime God

It really does not matter what structures are in place to coordinate, direct, and execute strategic military aims; what matters is clarity of responsibility

Charles Vyvyan

The concept of “total war” and, sadly, its practice, is a phenomenon with which the world has become very familiar during the last hundred years; before 1914 it was largely unknown. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), General Sir William (Wully) Robertson, succinctly articulated its nature in his post-war memoirs, Soldiers and Statesmen 1914-1918: “The activities of war embrace every element of national life, and upon the cabinet devolves the responsibility for combining the whole military, naval, diplomatic, financial, and economic forces of the nation for the defeat of the enemy.” In this admirable book, Simon Heffer records how the Cabinet discharged this responsibility, and, in doing so, moved Britain “from being a Gladstonian nation of laissez-faire and individual freedom to one of total war, in which every man and woman became a commodity to be exploited by a government fighting for the salvation of the country and its empire.”

This book is ambitious in its scope, content, and approach. It is not for the fainthearted; it weighs over 3lbs and contains over 900 pages including an excellent index. It is the third in Heffer’s intended quartet of books charting and analysing the political and cultural history of England from 1838 to 1939. It depicts the many unanticipated issues which confronted first politicians, then the services, principally the army, then the institutions of the state, and finally the people as they started to comprehend the massive demands which the completely novel situation was making on their inherited structures and traditional activities. It tells “how, with speed and uncertainty, the British state suddenly mobilised in August 1914; how it created a vast army, restricted freedom of action and expression, and prevailed over a formidable enemy; and how the country emerged radically and irrevocably changed”.

The author’s narrative approach creates immediacy. His record of the diplomatic activity during July 1914, and particularly the inactivity of Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, is masterly. In damning him for his insouciance during the month—going fishing rather than visiting the chancelleries of Europe—it should be remembered that so unanticipated was the progress to war that Sergei Sazonov, the Russian foreign minister, together with General Yuri Danilov, the Quartermaster-General, spent a week away from their desks in the middle of July, and the Russian ambassadors to Paris, Vienna, and Berlin were similarly absent until the delivery of the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia on July 23. The Kaiser spent a large part of the month on his yacht in the Baltic, while the French president, Raymond Poincaré, and his prime minister, René Viviani, spent over a week, virtually incommunicado, from July 16-29 on a warship for a long-planned official visit to the Tsar in St Petersburg. In Britain the Cabinet was more concerned with the governance of Ireland and Home Rule than with the assassination of an unpopular Habsburg prince. And Heffer notes that The Times, on July 1, published advice on “the servant problem”, which, it stated, “is one of the most serious problems of the present day”.

This narrative approach can eclipse the strategic perspective. Heffer rightly identifies mobilisation as one of the fundamental issues affecting military readiness, but it needs a strategic context: Germany required 13 days, Austria-Hungary 16—but Russia 26. So to have any chance of an effective military capability in the event of a war, Russia had to start implementing its mobilisation plans well before its enemies. Indeed it had to do so in advance of their intentions being apparent; and of course such actions were not neutral—they did themselves suggest a declaration of war.

Heffer covers the political shenanigans of the Asquith administrations, both Liberal and coalition, with barely concealed disbelief. While supposedly running the country, Herbert Asquith could sit in his club in the afternoon reading a book, then play bridge throughout the evening while drinking an unusual amount of alcohol, and indulging his platonic passion for Venetia Stanley. It is hardly surprising that David Lloyd George told the press magnate Sir George Riddell that the prime minister “lacks initiative, and takes no steps to control or hold together the public departments, each of which goes its own way without criticism”. This was a government with 19th-century attitudes attempting to wage a 20th-century war.

It was only the appointment of Lloyd George in December 1916, following what Heffer describes as a “coup”, that the energy and focus required to win such a war were forthcoming. It was not just the politicians who were unprepared for the demands of total war; the press, the unions, the civil service, and particularly the Treasury, the agricultural sector and industry, all failed to understand, and were reluctant to embrace the changes. Heffer lays out clearly the competing demands for manpower: on the one hand of the army and navy for recruits, and on the other of industry, needing a skilled labour force to provide ordnance, and of the agricultural sector to maintain food production. He deals carefully and convincingly with the two big consequences: the enhanced role for women and compulsion/conscription. Where sector-specific directions were not appropriate, the Defence of the Realm Bill, passed on August 7, 1914, became the catch-all tool for the inexorable subordination of the individual to the needs of the state.

As its opening sentence makes clear, this book avoids consideration of the military operations on the Western, or any other overseas front; it is about the home front, which then, of course, included Ireland. Heffer’s understanding of the dynamics of the personalities and the issues is comprehensive. As when considering India after the Second World War, one is left with the impression that if Britain had not been so completely absorbed with the military conflict, it might have been able to devote more energy towards the achievement of a better settlement.

But obviously the conduct of the war, the strategies, and the personalities involved are integral components of the political dynamics of the Home Front. It was as true then as it is now that it really does not matter what structures are in place to coordinate, direct, and execute strategic military aims; what matters is clarity of responsibility, and mutual confidence between the principal actors. These requirements were absent in Britain during the First World War, and to a significant extent in the other European nations as well. The Haldane reforms, which had been introduced during the preceding 10 years, established a Committee of Imperial Defence, an Army Council, and a General Staff, reforms which could have provided an effective structure for first the identification of policy, then the development of the associated strategy and finally its necessary execution; in the event they did not, because the personalities involved were not prepared to use the structures for their intended purposes. 

Only gradually did Asquith recognise the need for a war cabinet; and even then Lord Kitchener, bizarrely appointed Minister of War, was not prepared to listen to any other advice than his own, nor indeed to disclose to others in the Cabinet his intelligence or his thinking. The appointment of General Sir William Robertson as CIGS in December 1915 at least brought some clarity to the process of waging the war, and to the respective responsibilities. But the personal rivalries and professional disagreements between Lloyd George, Robertson, and Douglas Haig, the Western Front commander, then negated what increased effectiveness these developments might have provided. The Haldane structures provided little help; it was the same 25 years later. The strategic successes of the Second World War stemmed not from cabinet and committee structures, but the personal chemistry between the CIGS, Alanbrooke, and Churchill. And despite the establishment of a permanent joint headquarters outside London, and of a National Security Council within Whitehall, it is still today the personal relationship between the prime minister and the Chief of the Defence Staff which will largely determine the effectiveness of any strategic deployments.

Heffer concludes with a brief review of the aftermath: the problems of how and when to demobilise, of how to revive a depleted economy, how to manage the unions and labour unrest, how to deal with the situation in Ireland, and how to negotiate a durable and acceptable peace at Versailles. These were significant issues and not all of them were successfully resolved. That they could be addressed at all is testament to the success with which Britain had confronted the changes required to prosecute total war—and prevailed. Heffer implies, but does not explicitly state, that it was these changes, which had wrenched apart so much of the traditional systems and modus operandi of the country during the First World War, that enabled it to confront more effectively the challenges of the second.


Staring at God: Britain in the Great War
By Simon Heffer
Cornerstone, 928pp, £30.00

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