The last few years have witnessed a feverish period of remembering Britain’s military and the battles it and others fought during the Great War (what I recall increasingly vaguely as having been referred to at school more commonly as the First World War). A centenary is a historical marker worthy of reflection, particularly for a conflict which involved such horrendous levels of personal sacrifice, human cost and social change. Its place in the psyche of global historians past, present and future is beyond question; for Woodrow Wilson it was “the war to end all wars”, an argument and descriptive term that continues to generate a literature and passionate level of debate all of its own such as can be found in a recent article in The New York Times and Hew Strachan’s 2003 review essay. It certainly led to the fall of kings and ended empires and changed political systems whilst also altering the way conflict was discussed and understood both at the time and still today during the current continuing period of reflection (DefenceInDepth.co has carried on its pages a series of excellent discussions about various aspects of this war which have left this reader much better informed about the catalyst for what followed).
The extended period of recollection which has dominated recent years has rather crowded out a public appetite for discussion of the war that followed. This is a pity as there are still veterans – albeit in ever small numbers – who remain to offer first-hand accounts. The announcement in January 2014 that the Normandy Veterans’ Association was to disband was one of many during recent years as memberships dwindle but there remain men and women with powerful and urgent stories to tell of the Second World War. A range of seventy-fifth anniversary events, defining moments in Britain’s military and cultural psyche such as Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, have passed by with only the briefest of popular reference.
It is fortunate, however, that there remains a considerable academic interest in the second global conflict of the twentieth century. There are various reasons expounded for why there was a Second World War. I have never really seen the ‘controversy’ in A.J.P. Taylor’s 1961 “revisionist argument” in which he “reconnected the First and Second World Wars and drew attention back to Versailles” and simply offered an entirely logical examination of events that continues to underpin our understanding of why Europe once again slid into a second, and even more brutal and destructive war. Explicit to his thesis was an exhausting earlier conflict which resulted in a poorly considered and triumphalist peace. This in turn helped produce an increasingly reflective body of domestic opinion which challenged the merits of an internationalist approach, military intervention and, more generally, the use of force as a lever of national power. It sounds familiar – indeed the replay of more recent events seems difficult to escape – but the degree to which there remained, even after the war had begun, an apathy amongst leading elements of British society for what was viewed as an ill-considered moral crusade against Nazi Germany can easily be forgotten. In this context Lord Owen’s fascinating new account (‘Cabinet’s Finest Hour’) is particularly timely as it attempts to re-focus attention to the political drama of May 1940, albeit whilst in its epilogue also musing on more recent Westminster dramas.
The focus for many historians and the public at large may have been fixed somewhere between 1914 and 1918 but as the recent most welcomed additions to the literature have demonstrated (notably including the first volume of Dan Todman’s hugely impressive ‘Britain’s War’), there certainly still remains considerable opportunities to scrutinise the war that followed the twenty-year peace and the themes and events that contributed to its structural foundations. To this end, in my latest book, The First Victory: The Second World War and the East Africa Campaign, published this week by Yale University Press, I have attempted to explore one of the many gaps and look at what has been viewed by many as a peripheral military campaign. I previously had the opportunity to introduce to the Joint Services Command and Staff College this almost entirely overlooked strand of the Second World War as a case study for examination. In the supporting instructor notes I summarised it then with the following paragraph:
Fighting began in early July 1940 and ended in November 1941; the principal Allied offensive actually began in the January. Just eleven months later the 70,000 strong British-led force had succeeded in defeating an Italian army of nearly 300,000 men, in the process capturing 50,000 prisoners and occupying 360,000 square miles all at a cost of 500 casualties and just 150 men killed. It was a varied and wide-ranging conflict that witnessed many different types of military operations. These ranged from commando raids to long mechanised pursuits, mountain assaults and a protracted attritional battle. Added to this was an often decisive use of airpower, a triumphal amphibious landing and a generally incredible feat of logistical planning. In the process Mussolini’s East African Empire had been destroyed and the British Empire had secured its first significant wartime victory.
Having now had the opportunity to study in considerable depth the battles fought in British and Italian Somaliland, Ethiopia and Eritrea drawing upon primary sources from Britain, Kenya, South Africa, the United States and (even) Australia, this remains a reasonable description. Thanks to a bold and imaginative publisher who was willing to take a risk with what might have seemed too obscure an event to attract popular attention and a fantastic editor, I have been hugely fortunate to be able to see another book made available for public scrutiny and I hope they will accept my contention that there was huge operational and strategic significance in the crushing victory secured by British and Commonwealth forces that fought in East Africa. But at the same time – and just as importantly – in so doing I hope I will also have highlighted that there still remain a great many gaps in our knowledge of the Second World War which I and many of my colleagues in the department are actively doing our best to tackle.
[An addition to this blog will be published in November 2016 at http://yalebooksblog.co.uk/ marking the anniversary of the campaign’s end]
Images taken from ‘The War Weekly incorporating War Pictorial’.