The Path to War: America and the First World War a Century On

Michael Neiberg is the inaugural Chair of War Studies at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and the author, most recently, of Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America (Oxford University Press). You can hear Mike discuss the new book here and here. The views expressed herein are his alone and do not represent those of the United States Government or any part thereof.           

People have often asked me over the past few months what I thought the United States was going to do to mark the centenary of American entry into World War I. I used to reply only half-jokingly that I figured that we would do what we did 100 years ago: we would wake up, realize there is a crisis, throw a lot of effort into it, declare victory, and then forget it ever happened.

But now that we are getting closer and closer to the event, I realize I was wrong. Nothing of the kind has happened. There have been a few conferences, terrific museum exhibits, and some efforts at the local level, but very little at the national level. The World War I Centennial Commission even failed to get any federal funding for its modest goal of building a small memorial on the long forgotten Pershing Park near the White House. I have done a few media interviews over the last few years, but the unpleasant truth is that more European media outlets have contacted me than American ones.

Why? It is certainly true that we have been more than a bit distracted here by the recent election and change of presidential administrations, but that strikes me as an insufficient explanation. There are always crises at home to discuss. If the war had been sufficiently important to Americans, they would have discussed it no matter the domestic context, and maybe even made its memory a political topic, as has happened in England and Ireland.

World War I does raise some uncomfortable questions for modern America. It is the moment when the United States directly entered the bloody game of European power politics and then tried to rewrite the rules of that game at great cost. The debates about the wisdom of that approach still echo today, most notably in the current debate about the value of international institutions to American national security.

Some people argue that the United States has a particular national amnesia about World War I. In the 1920s, Americans made an intensive effort to remember the war. Every American city and town has a major monument to World War I. They include prominent places citizens often use like Soldier Field in Chicago, the Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, and the Boulevard of the Allies in Pittsburgh. These living memorials were designed to force people to consider the war every time they went to a football game, an opera, or simply drove home.

America also has thousands of more traditional memorials to the war. New York City alone has more than 120. Art historian Mark Levitch is attempting to document them all, and I send him a photo when I come across one. They are everywhere, from plaques in New York City skyscrapers memorializing employees of a major bank to a small marker in a local college chapel to the list of the dead on a metal sign on the town square where I live.

Still, since the Great Depression, the United States has largely turned its attention away from the war. This problem of amnesia is easiest to see in Washington. The nation’s capital features an enormous, quite over-the-top memorial to World War II in a prominent place on the National Mall. It draws throngs of visitors and has become one of the most visited sites in a city full of first-class museums and memorials. It stands, of course, in stark contrast to the somber, dark symbolism of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial just a short walk away, as I imagine it was always supposed to.

But it also stands in stark contrast to the World War I memorial on the National Mall, a small marble dome dedicated to the veterans from Washington, DC. For years, it was the victim of a bureaucratic squabble. The National Parks Service, on whose land the memorial sits, refused to care for a memorial dedicated to the city, and the city claimed that it had no resources to clean and maintain it. They finally reached a deal but only after volunteers raised private money to clean it, in part so that it would not mar the view of the new Martin Luther King Memorial close by.

Americans, it would seem, have forgotten this war. Clearly, they do not hold it in their minds the way they do the Civil War that proceeded it or World War II that followed it. In part, I suspect that the frustrations Americans had with this war began quite early. Americans went to war to remove the German threat to their homeland, a threat that had been building and finally burst with the German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare and the release of the Zimmerman Telegram.

When the Germans laid down their arms on November 11, 1918, most Americans thought the job was done. They therefore demanded the immediate return of their loved ones from France. But their president had a much more expansive vision of reshaping the world in America’s image. To him, the military phase of the war was only one part. That vision proved to be too much for most of his countrymen. The United States Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles and with it Woodrow Wilson’s beloved League of Nations.

Thus, even though Americans remembered the men who fought, they rejected the war’s purpose, or at least the purpose as their president presented it. American war memorials are frequently a simple doughboy statue, symbolically recognizing those who sacrificed without saying anything about the cause itself. Also for this reason, we commemorate the war (as Europeans also do) on the day of the armistice, not the day of the peace treaty.

It is also true, however, that we Americans are not particularly good at anniversaries. My colleagues who study the Civil War were disappointed with the lack of introspection and serious discussion during the sesquicentennial of that major event. The 50th anniversary of many important Vietnam War events has also failed to generate much serious discussion, although the New York Times has run an excellent series on the subject. Notably, it has not run a similar series on World War I.

The problem may be amnesia on this side of the Atlantic, but my European friends have not been entirely satisfied with anniversary coverage on their side, either. Gary Sheffield found himself in a debate with the BBC over what he charged was overly simplistic treatment of a complex subject. Sir Richard Evans also sparred with Education Minister Michael Gove over the political ramifications of historical memory. These debates confirm my own view that for most people history is as much about confirming their own ideological beliefs as it is about a serious engagement with the past in all its complexity.

I fear that this anniversary will come and go in the United States without opening a space for us to debate issues of substance. We might have used the centenary to talk about America’s role in the war and how it changed in 1917; why the nation fights wars and how it seeks to end them; or how Americans have used their power to pursue both national interests and international ambitions. But I fear we will miss this opportunity. I had hoped for debates like the ones Gary Sheffield and others have had in Europe, but we will not get them. My hopes for a declaration of victory were premature.

Image: J. M. Flagg‘s 1917 poster based on the original British Lord Kitchener poster of three years earlier, via Wikimedia commons


Legacies of the Great War: the Experiences of the British and American Legions during the Second World War


Ashely is a DPhil student in the Globalizing & Localising the Great War programme at the University of Oxford. You can here a recording of the talk associated with this post here.

The year 2017 marks the centenary of American involvement in the First World War, but it is unlikely to draw the same level of public attention as the 2014 anniversary has in Britain. The Great War does not hold such prominence in the American national consciousness, a reality which is often attributed to its more limited role in the conflict. The United States entered the war three years into the fighting and lost approximately 53,400 men killed in combat (although including influenza deaths among servicemen raises the tally of American dead to more than 115,000). Britain, by comparison, suffered more than 700,000 dead during the conflict. It could be argued that such figures explain why the First World War has receded in American public memory while it retains such prominence in Britain, but it is significant to note that this was not the case in the years immediately following the war. As scholars such as Jennifer Keene, G. Kurt Piehler, Mark Snell, and Stephen Trout have argued, the war left a considerable mark upon America and a culture of commemoration developed in the post-war years just as it did in Britain and other former belligerents. So when – and how – did these memory trajectories come to diverge so markedly?

Naturally, our thoughts turn to subsequent historical developments for this answer, and particularly to the Second World War, which is the predominant twentieth-century war remembered in the United States. How this latter conflict came to affect the memory of its predecessor is an intriguing question into which ex-servicemen’s organisations such as the British and American Legions can provide unique insights.

The Legions’ shared characteristics provide a baseline for comparison that may help illuminate the unique national contexts in which they were situated. The membership, leadership, structure, and relationship to the state of both groups mirrored one another – as prior work by Niall Barr, Graham Wootton, William Pencak, Thomas Rumer, and Stephen Ortiz has demonstrated. Former officers and the upper classes were over-represented among the national leaderships of both groups, while white middle-class men of small towns dominated the rank-and-file membership. Hierarchically structured with local, regional, and national outposts, both groups enjoyed close working relationships with their respective states, thanks to conservative political agendas. Perhaps the most significant similarity, however, is their common mission to perpetuate the memory of the First World War. This agenda came to inform their political and cultural engagements in Britain and America throughout the interwar period.

Yet despite the similarities in demographic and cultural terms, and the shared background and aims of these groups, in-depth research comparing the two is lacking. This is due in part to the differing national contexts mentioned earlier, but also because of important distinctions between the organisations themselves. The American Legion was considerably larger and more powerful politically than its British counterpart, claiming between 15-25% of all Americans mobilised for World War I as members and enjoying support from political elites such as Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. The British Legion, in contrast, represented 10% of British veterans at most during its interwar peak. Its national presence was felt more through its annual Poppy Day appeal rather than its influence on official policies.

Yet these differences only make the question of divergent memory trajectories even more pronounced, since it is in the United States – with its larger and more politically influential Legion – where the memory of the Great War subsides most. Perhaps the answer can be found in the differing national experiences of the Second World War?

That the Second World War delivered a blow to such groups so firmly anchored in the Great War is unsurprising. The onset of another global conflict forced both organisations to re-evaluate the legacy of the preceding war. Comparing the First World War with the Second thus became a frequent theme in British and American Legion discourses – especially early on in each nation’s war effort. Placing Great War veterans in relation to those being mobilised for the new fight was particularly important for the groups, whose membership rolls might increase via these future ex-servicemen later on.

At the heart of wartime discussion was a debate about comradeship – which my paper to the First World War Research Group at the Joint Services Command and Staff College on 14 February 2017 (available here) analysed in detail. Participation in the First World War served as a cornerstone in the collective identities of the British and the American Legions. Incorporating ex-servicemen who had not experienced the Great War challenged existing ideas of who could be considered a “comrade in arms.” Deviating too far from past views might jeopardise the memory of the First World War, both in terms of upholding its broader historical significance and as well as its personal import. At the same time, recruiting Second World War ex-servicemen offered the chance to secure their futures as organisations. Discussions, therefore, needed to appeal to this generation, too.

Deciding who belonged and who did not boiled down to a much larger question with significant implications: why did the service of veterans from both the First and Second World Wars matter?

Examining discussions among Great War ex-servicemen in America and Britain offers a helpful case study demonstrating how the Second World War impacted narratives of the First within these differing national contexts. The extent to which the Legions continued to uphold the Great War as significant raises interesting questions about wider developments in national memory discourses. Understanding the conflict’s place in British or American national consciousness in 2017 is not only a matter of grasping these state’s respective war experiences, but of discovering how subsequent events served to shape its narratives as well.

Image: Crowd at an American Legion convention in New Orleans, 1922, via wikimedia commons. 

Conference Report: Commemorating the Centenary of the First World War


This post reflects upon an event held on January 12th in the River Room at King’s College London. The symposium featured contributions from Prof Jay Winter, Dr Helen McCartney, Prof Annika Mombauer, Hanna Smyth, Dr Jenny Macleod, Dr Heather Jones, and Dr Catriona Pennell. Recordings of all of the days proceedings are available online and can be found by clicking on the name of the individual participant.

How the conflict which subsequently became known as the First World War ought to be interpreted, understood, and given meaning became a hotly contest topic almost immediately after the outbreak of hostilities in the summer of 1914. Debates over what the War meant displayed, and continue to display, a multiplicity of interpretations, attitudes, and agendas – which often reveal far more about those who formed them than the events they aim to discuss. The centenary of the conflict – and the accompanying raft of commemorative activities and spike in public interest – has presented a unique set of challenges to historians, but also a valuable opportunity to reflect upon the relationship between their craft and broader society. This event, held at King’s College London on January 12th, brought together scholars from a range of backgrounds to discuss the varying national approaches to the centenary, and what these might tell us about how the First World War is perceived and understood in the twenty first century.

 (Contested) Identities of Remembrance

What is the future of identities in the process of commemoration? Jay Winter’s provocation proved a key theme that ran through the event’s proceedings. With the aftermath of Brexit and the increasingly pluralised nature of identities in the modern age, participants were invited to consider how these identities might become contested and fluid, rather than temporally fixed. Vladimir Putin’s use of the ‘sacred memory’ of the First World War as a way of rehabilitating the Russian Empire and providing a ‘militarist narrative for popular consumption’ is just one example of the slippery way in which identities can be mobilised for political gain. Other speakers tapped into this pervasive theme. Hanna Smyth touched on these contested identities when speaking about the work of the Vimy Foundation. For Canada, national and imperial identities of remembrance were not binary. The idea of a Canadian national identity can be broken down further: how does Newfoundland – a separate dominion during the war, but now part of Canada – remember the First World War? What about the Quebecois? What about those from the First Nations? These contested identities are further compounded by the problematic narrative of ‘brave soldiers’ who died for freedom – a narrative that is by no means unique to Canada. In the case of Ireland, the tense, often divisive, nature of identities of remembrance has supposedly been tackled head on during the centenary commemorations. Catriona Pennell spoke of the ‘de-orangification’ of the First World War narrative, and the move towards equality of sacrifice in Ireland’s commemoration. As historians, we need to be mindful of the inherent complexity associated with the construction and presentation of national identities; the centenary has certainly reminded us of this.

Silences of commemoration

Despite the high level of commemorative activity across many of the main belligerents, there remain obvious silences of commemoration. Refugees and the reconfiguration of imperialism offer just two, broad examples. While attempts have been made to uncover and reintegrate the story of the Canadian First Nations, and Indigenous Australians into national commemorative narratives, there is still a continuing problem of visibility. Heather Jones spoke of the removal and muting of the ‘national’ narrative from France’s commemorative activity. While the international and the European has been a key focus of France’s commemoration, the continuing trauma of the nation’s colonial legacy and the often white, male face of commemoration has – unwittingly or not – proved another means of silencing complicated aspects of France’s past. From a British perspective, the focus on 1 July 1916 as a key focal point in the Somme commemoration is just one of the silences apparent in British commemorations. Cherry picking certain operations or campaigns, for commemoration, particularly those dominated by the army, is problematic. We are faced with similar problems when looking at the contributions of the army’s sister services. The British war in the air has been sidelined. In spite of its ubiquity, it will be commemorated in April 1918, aligning with the birth of the RAF. The war at sea has been both marginalised and militarised, overlooking the important contributions made by the Merchant Navy to the war effort. In many respects, commemoration activity in Britain runs the risk of distorting our own popular perceptions of the conflict, particularly in terms of who fought and their relative contribution. What happens then when we widen our view to look beyond the national to the international? What implications does this cleft between historical reality and remembrance have both during and beyond the centenary?

The Historian and the Centenary & Democratisation of commemoration

The complex relationship between historical accuracy and commemorative activity, and thus between the historian and the centenary, was also evident in the participants discussion of the democratization evident in the activities undertaken since 2014. Quite naturally the speakers welcomed initiatives intended to encourage broader participation in the centenary and engagement with the First World War. Schemes such as the ‘We’re here because we’re here’ and the poppy display at the Tower of London attracted widespread public interest, however questions remain over the extent to which they prompted people to reflect upon the conflict and its meaning. Helen McCartney highlighted how programmes such as Letter to an Unknown Soldier produced a degree of engagement with the historical detail that suggests a greater level of engagement with the record than critics might fear, however there is good reason to doubt the extent to which the centenary has genuinely changed the well-established narratives about the War evident prior to 2014. As Annika Mombauer highlighted in relation to Germany, even scholarship that penetrates into the popular domain – as Chris Clarke’s Sleepwalkers has done – tends to be simplified to the point of gross reductionism in popular debates, which are as much about the realities of the present as they are about the lost world of the past.

This all begs the question – what is the role of the historian during the centenary? Hanna Smyth observed that there is an implicit tension in those studying commemorative practice and centenary being involved in shaping its conduct. What effect does this have on the scholarship of those involved? And, in turn, ought the academic study of commemorative practice to play a role shaping how we commemorate? If the centenary is as much about the future as the past, what claim can historians make to inform a debate about events yet to pass?

Power & modern agendas – government, organizations, & the centenary

Ultimately, how we commemorate the First World War will always be determined by the needs of the moment. The iconic image of François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl standing hand in hand in the pouring rain before the memorial at Verdun is one of the most powerful encapsulations of European Unity and of a future devoid of conflict on the continent. Moments such as these are as much about power and political narrative as they are about historical accuracy, yet by attempting to mobilize the past for the needs of the present they also speak to the never ending debate as to what history is, and ought to be ‘for’. Indeed, the laudable inclusion of German and French representatives – alongside the British, Irish, and Commonwealth forces – at the centenary service for the Battle of the Somme at Thiepval – mirrored the move towards increasingly transnational, inclusive approaches within the discipline of history itself.


The timing of the UK’s referendum on its membership of the European Union – coming as it did days before the July 1st service – underlined how far we still are from a common narrative or understanding of the conflict. The War was mobilized in support of both the leave and remain arguments, often with precious little care for historical realities. Historians have no claim over this process, but do have an obligation to engage with it and to work against the crude instrumentalisation of the past for the needs of the political moment. This process is ongoing, and will be the subject of further discussion by the First World War Research Group as we approach the culmination of the centenary cycle in 2018-19.

Image: Poppies At The Tower Of London 23-8-2014 via Flickr.

Identities Set in Stone? The Delville Wood and Vimy Memorials As Sites of Hybridity


Are memorials set in stone? It seems an obvious question. Yes, of course they are, and the Delville Wood and Vimy memorials are two stunningly evocative examples, set in stone as perennial testaments to those who died, those who missed them, and the emerging nations who lost them.

Yet in the complex new era of war remembrance which followed the First World War, these two national monuments could not represent a singular cohesive national identity of their respective dominions: there wasn’t one. Both Canada and South Africa encompassed multiple identities, which were not at all ‘set in stone’, unlike the memorials that embodied them. To comprehend the various meanings ascribed to these sites, they must be understood as sites of hybridity. They are intersections of multiple narratives, both personal and collective, and as such have been perceived through the lens of many differing identities over time.

When the First World War’s hostilities ended with the armistice on 11th November 1918, life could not immediately resume even a semblance of normality. Thousands of bodies had to be buried, memorials had to be erected, and societies worldwide were left reeling from the impact of an unprecedented conflict. The war was a critical point in the history of the British empire: it complicated the relationship between Britain and her dominions, leaving them to navigate new aspects of their national identities and their connections to the metropole.

South Africa and Canada, through their national memorials in France, present a particularly interesting twinned set of case studies with which to explore this phenomenon. South Africa’s Delville Wood Memorial and Canada’s Vimy Memorial were unveiled in 1926 and 1936 respectively.

It’s tempting to view the relationship between dominion and imperial identity as a dichotomy wherein the expression of one assumes a suppression of the other. However, affinities to Britain were often incorporated within, not repudiated by, the national identities newly asserted by the dominions. There was also tension and overlap between three types of identity forged by the war: unifying national identity, identity based on shared experiences of the war’s personal impact, and factional identities based on internal divisions.

Image 2

South Africa’s Delville Wood Memorial, via Wikimedia Commons.


Delville Wood, South Africa’s national monument, is located at the site of one of the first major engagements of South African forces on the Western Front. It was a pyrrhic victory: in four days of fighting during the Battle of the Somme 75% of the South Africans involved were either killed or injured. This monument is unusual in two distinctive ways, which warrant particular attention as reflections of South African identities in relation to Britain.

First, unique among colonial memorials on the Western Front, this one bears no names. The South African missing are commemorated individually by name on British memorials, instead of on their separate national monument. Considering the recent history of the preceding Second Anglo-Boer War, this unusual decision calls particular attention to the question of South African agency vis-à-vis British control over decisions concerning remembrance.

Second, the arch is crowned by a sculpture of two men and a horse, created by British artist Alfred Turner. The official description states that the sculpture depicts Castor and Pollux, as a “symbol of all the peoples of South Africa who are united in their determination to defend their common ideals”.

Castor and Pollux were Greek mythological twins, and their twinship here was stated to represent equality between the two ‘white races’ of the South African Union. In addition to the blatant omission of Black South Africans from this symbolism, also conveniently omitted from the official description is the fact that despite being twins, in mythology Castor and Pollux had different fathers: this meant that Pollux was half-divine, while Castor was only mortal.

Approached with this knowledge, the figures don’t seem quite so equal after all, and based on the circumstances it is interesting to consider it as a subtle assertion of British superiority. The demarcation between dominion and imperial identity is less distinct here, since Britishness is being portrayed as an integral part of South African identity, rather than an opposing force to react against.

Image 3

The Vimy Memorial and the Canadian flag. Photo taken by the author, 2016.

Unlike Delville Wood, Canada’s national memorial at Vimy does have names of the missing: more than 11,000 of them. The victory at Vimy is seen as a potent symbol of Canadian identity. The memorial was originally submitted by Walter Allward in a competition to select a design that would be repeated at eight Canadian battlefields; but its arresting nature and originality quickly gave rise to its selection for a single site, which became Canada’s sole national war memorial on the Western Front.

The largest individual sculpture on the monument highlights specifically Canada’s sorrow: the 30-tonne Mother Canada mourning her fallen sons stands in perpetual grief overlooking the empty tomb on the monument. However, alongside this display of a unified conception of Canada, there’s a multitude of allegorical sculptures on the monument representing Canada’s shared identity with Britain and France based on common values and experiences. These demonstrate the degree to which Canada’s newly asserted national identity was still proudly founded on its ties to Britain.

Image 4

Mother Canada and the empty tomb on the Vimy Memorial. Photo taken by the author, 2016.

Despite their unchanging nature, the way that people understood these monuments was not as static: each individual perception of these sites was shaped by an intersection of personal and collective narratives, and it is to these we must turn to gain an understanding of the aspects of identity through which conceptions of these sites were filtered.

An enduring social issue extending from the war into decades of aftermath was the search for meaning and justification. When the war began, loyalty and debt to Britain were trumpeted as the dominions’ rationale for engaging, but as the war dragged on, this rhetoric of justification grew to include the defense of civilization and of fundamental principles. After the initial surge of volunteers had faded and conscription became a pressing issue, the catastrophic casualties already suffered were used to justify the need for more men: more were needed for victory, and if victory were not achieved, then the losses already suffered would be in vain.

Although unveilings and pilgrimages drew significant attendance to these memorials from the dominions, the bleak truth remained that these memorials would still never be seen by most people to whom they were important. Instead, these monuments, and at Vimy specifically the individual names carved in stone, lived large in people’s imaginations as fixed and tangible focuses for their grief.

In her novel about the Vimy memorial’s construction, Jane Urquhart underscores how these names could serve as lodestones for personal mourning: “There is absolutely nothing like the carving of names. Nothing like committing to stone this record of someone who is utterly lost.”

Distance was only one aspect which helped to forge cohesive national identities during the war and its aftermath. Common loss created another shared experience which served as a fundamental aspect of each country’s identity. In the dominions, loss was tempered by a strong sense of achievement: the war was seen as a test successfully passed. These newfound dominion identities were not reactions against Britain; national unity did not negate loyalty to empire, but rather reduced the degree of subordination in the relationship.

Respect for the soldiers and their sacrifices helped knit together national identity, but could not dissipate internal divisions which fragmented ideals of national unity- along linguistic, cultural, racial, and experiential lines. Less contentious, but significantly impacting self-perceptions, were identity groups which crossed national borders, and arose based on shared wartime experience. The concept of a ‘lost generation’ was prevalent; although most soldiers actually did survive the war, they were ‘lost’ in another way, in that for many, their experiences had alienated them from their home front society.

Changes in memory and perceptions of the war from 1939 to the present significantly impacted how people understood the war, remembrance, and the memorials themselves. As WWII erupted, it was realized with sinking hearts that WWI had not been the ‘war to end all wars’ after all, and this threw the sacrifices of the dead, and thus the consolation of the bereaved, into a very different light.

Each generation since 1914 has had a distinct set of shared experiences and learned narratives which have shaped their relationship to the war. As time created more distance between WWI and the present, individual experience was subsumed to a degree within a more collective memory of the war, and yet there is an ongoing fascination with individual stories and deaths. Annual commemorative events at these memorials also reflect the enduring significance attached to national remembrance.

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Canadian students reflect at the Vimy Memorial on the anniversary of the battle, April 9th 2016. Photo taken by the author, 2016.


These two monuments allow a more complicated and nuanced understanding of these dominions’ identities as shaped by the First World War, including their relationships to imperial identity. Not always a dichotomy, Canada and South Africa often incorporated elements of their British identity within their newfound national self-conceptions. However, behind this projected unity lay disjunctions in dominion identities caused by the war, either through differing experiences of it or based on internal divisions over war-related issues.

This meant that these monuments were significant representations of multiple identities, with complex and shifting relationships. They held varying meanings, reflecting different aspects of grief, memory, and experience for each person; to comprehend how they were perceived through time, we must understand these memorials as sites of hybridity, at which a mix of identities- personal and collective, dominion and imperial- intersected.

Featured image: Some of the 11,000+ names of Canada’s missing inscribed on the Vimy Memorial. Photo taken by the author, 2016.

The First World War in 2016


If 1915 was the ‘forgotten year‘ of the First World War, the same cannot be said of 1916. The year 1916 has been well remembered for a range of reasons, most of which will be reflected in a myriad of centenary commemorations planned for 2016. If strategists still believed the war could be over quickly in 1915, the same cannot be said for 1916. The year 1916 was a year marked by hitherto unseen and unforeseen battles of material, and this had importance consequences. In many respects, 1916 can be seen as the year in which the First World War became ‘total’ war, as all belligerents were forced to introduce political and cultural changes to feed the insatiable demands of the battlefields. The year also saw important changes within both coalitions, with Great Britain growing in significance in the formulation of Entente strategy, particularly on the Western Front, and Germany taking even more control over operations on the Eastern Front.

These changes can be seen early in 1916. In February, the German army launched its first major offensive on the Western Front since November 1914. The German offensive against the French army at Verdun, explored by Dr Robert Foley in his book, German Strategy and the Path to Verdun, began the longest battle of the entire First World War. Before the battle drew to a close around Christmas, three-quarters of the French army and a large portion of the German army cycled through the ‘hell of Verdun,’ fighting over the capture or loss of meters of ground. Indeed, for most Germans and Frenchmen today, this battle continues to be a symbol of the futility of the First World War. While events in 2016 may not have the same impact as the famous ‘reconciliation‘ of France and then West Germany in 1984 epitomized by President Francois Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s holding hands, Verdun in 2016 will witness considerable activity and commemoration.

If the year 1916 is most remembered by the French and the Germans today for the battle of Verdun, for Britain and its former colonies, the year is remembered for the battle of the Somme. This battle saw the first major British participation in the war on the Continent, and with the French army battered and deeply engaged at Verdun, the battle is often seen as primarily a British battle. The social and cultural impact of the high British casualties of the offensive’s first day have not only been largely overestimated, they also overshadowed the important developments in tactics and techniques that were apparent to the German defenders throughout the rest of the battle. While recent research has contextualized British participation in the battle, as well as the broader impact of the battle, for many today this is still seen as the iconic British battle of the war. Given this, it is understandable if the Somme 2016 commemorations are some of the most prominent events of the centenary.

The year 2016 will witness the main centennial commemorations of the war at sea in Britain. The decision to concentrate upon the maritime aspects of the conflict in the year of the anniversary of the battle of Jutland was an understandable one, yet as discussed in this recent post, it poses a series of significant challenges for the organisers. Events concentrated around the Jutland centenary itself risk becoming conflated with the more numerous and extensive activities associated with the battle of the Somme, which will begin shortly thereafter. Moreover, whilst memorials to the Battle of Jutland itself will doubtless be a moving and fitting tribute to those who gave their lives in the fighting of May 31st-June 1st, the prominence they will enjoy compared to the wider war at Sea remains problematic. The partisan and highly technical debates about the Battle render Jutland inaccessible to the majority of the public, who understandably struggle to relate to something so far removed from their own experience. At a broader level, whether it is appropriate or representative to focus attention on the War at Sea around a Battle is also open to question. Battle was the exception, not the norm in the maritime sphere, and the importance of seaborne communications – the security of which was the ultimate objective of British strategy – should arguably receive more attention than the means used to secure them. The role of maritime power could thus be discussed in a range of other contexts; the economic war against the Central Powers, the movement of Allied and Imperial forces by Sea or the vital role the British merchant fleet played in supplying and financing the war effort, for instance. The failure of recent scholarship on the war as a whole and Britain’s contribution in particular to pay due heed to the maritime elements of the conflict has been striking and unfortunate. The centenary may serve to entrench these trends.

Recognition of maritime aspects of the conflict will hopefully be provided by a recently announced lecture series and by the National Maritime Museum’s ‘The First World War at Sea’ conference. The proceedings of a recent event on Britain’s War at Sea promises to integrate maritime affairs more effectively into their diplomatic, political, economic and international context. A fresh approach to Jutland itself, not attempted since Andrew Gordon’s Rules of the Game in 1996, could also shed new light onto old controversies about the fighting itself. Perhaps the most appropriate means of presenting a more holistic treatment would be for the Somme commemorations to acknowledge the fact that the battle would not have been possible were it not for Britain’s maritime strength. Presenting the War as a whole in this way would offer a more satisfactory impression for the public and historians alike. A shift away from battles and categories of analysis like ‘the war at sea’ would be a welcome legacy of the centenary.

The King’s College London First World War Research Group members will be very busy marking the centenary of these events. Some of the highlights for 2016 include:

In February, Dr Helen McCartney will present a keynote address ‘The First World War in 2014-15: New Commemoration Projects, New Public Narratives?’ at the First World War: Commemoration and Memory symposium at the Imperial War Museum North.

In April, the Bundeswehr’s Zentrum für Militärgeschichte und Sozialwissenschaften der Bundeswehr (ZMSBw, Potsdam) and the French armed forces’ Service Historique de la Défense (SHD, Vincennes) will be hosting ‘Great Battles 1916‘ in Trier, Germany, which will explore the battles of material of 1916. Dr Robert Foley will be presenting a keynote address at this conference.

Members will also be support the British Army’s Somme 2016 programme, which will include a number of conferences and battlefield tours involving serving British, French, German, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, and Belgian officers.

The First World War Research Group lunchtime seminars in 2016 will continue to be recorded and made available via the Defence Studies Department’s YouTube channel and SoundCloud account. Additionally, the Group will soon be launching its ‘First World War in Brief’ website, which will provide podcasts and short articles on the war. See the Group’s webpage for the latest developments and events.

Finally, stay tuned to Defence-in-Depth for series on the major events of 1916, including the battles of Verdun, Jutland, and the Somme.

Image: Canadian troops practicing for the Somme offensive in 1916. Photo taken by Canadian official photographer Ivor Castle via Wikimedia Commons.

The History of Conflict in 2016

Dr Geraint Hughes

The advantage I have as director of the Research Centre for History of Conflict is that I can look back, rather than forward, and like many historians I really do not enjoy making predictions. From an RCHC perspective, there will be plenty for us to commemorate and debate.

2016  will mark the centenary anniversaries for the battles of Jutland (the definitive history of this clash between the Grand and High Seas Fleets, being that written by Andrew Gordon) Verdun and the Somme. The latter will no doubt assume a high profile with the British public, mainly because of the disastrous losses the British Army suffered on the first day (60,000 casualties, 20,000 killed). While military historians debate whether the Somme marked the beginning of a learning curve for the Army, the human cost of 1st July 1916 and the fate of the ‘Pals’ battalions still shapes popular perceptions of the battle and the war itself. I would expect the Verdun commemorations to be characterised in the spirit of Franco-German reconciliation, as exemplified by Francois Mitterand and Helmut Kohl’s symbolic holding of hands at Douaumont Ossuary in September 1984.

For Ireland, the centenary of the Easter Rising will be an important public event, soured the controversy over Sinn Fein’s politicisation of the rebellion against British rule. Irish historians and the general public have started to rediscover World War One, and whatever the retrospective significance of the Easter Rising Republicans do not like to be reminded that it was the struggle against Germany – rather than the botched rising by Patrick Pearse and his comrades – which preoccupied the majority of Irishmen and women, not least with the sacrifices made by the 16th and 36th Divisions of the British Army on the Somme. Easter 1916 will still have historical resonance, although its commemoration will symbolise the normalisation of Irish-British relations.

But there are other anniversaries too. From a Second World War perspective, it is 75 years since the East African campaign, the second Anglo-Iraqi war (with the overthrow of Rashid Ali’s pro-Axis regime) and the ‘small war’ in Lebanon between Vichy France and the British empire and the Gaullists, the Nazi conquest of Greece and the British-Allied defeat at Crete, the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran, Operation Barbarossa and the outbreak of the Pacific War.

As for the post-war era, this year will be the sixtieth for Suez, and aside from the usual commentary about the ‘end’ of British imperialism in the Middle East, we may also get a discussion on the other legacies of the Suez conflict – the rise of Israel as a regional military power, the origins of the USA’s engagement with the Arab world in the form of the ‘Eisenhower doctrine’, the impact on the ‘special relationship’, and also the rise and fall of the secular pan-Arabist nationalism exemplified by Jamal Abdel Nasser. The aftermath of Suez also saw the deployment of the first United Nations peacekeeping mission, with the UN Emergency Force. The sixty years of blue beret/blue helmet missions will be the subject of a forthcoming volume by the Round Table, the Commonwealth journal of international affairs.

2016 will also mark the sixtieth anniversary of the Hungarian revolution against Communist rule, which itself may be problematic for the Fidesz government of Viktor Orban. On the one hand, the rising in Hungary is a significant event for the national psyche; during a visit to Budapest nine years ago I noticed that the Soviet war memorial was fenced off to prevent it from being vandalised. However, Orban’s Putinophilia and the Russian connections of the extreme-right Jobbik party suggests that there are opportunities for embarrassment here. As Prime Minister five years ago, Vladimir Putin readily participated in the seventieth anniversary commemoration of another painful episode in Russian and East European history, namely the Katyn massacre. However, the Russian President’s interest in glorifying his country’s Soviet past and whitewashing it is such that I will find it surprising if he demonstrates the same magnanimity over the rising of ’56.

There are two other landmark events to be remembered this year. April 2016 will mark forty years since the Soweto rising in South Africa, which in retrospect can be seen as one of the first acts in the downfall of apartheid. The ANC government of Jacob Zuma may regard this as a mixed blessing. Ironically enough, Soweto demonstrated how marginal the ANC and the armed struggle of its military wing – Mkhonto we Sizwe – was in the anti-apartheid struggle – the real battles were fought by the residents of the townships in repeated demonstrations, strikes, riots and other acts of civil disobedience. Zuma is also dealing with a ‘born free’ generation of South Africans who have no memories of the evils of apartheid, or indeed the liberation struggle against white rule, and therefore less instinctive loyalty and gratitude towards the ANC than their parents.

Then there is the thirtieth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster (28th April 1986), a symbol of the dangers of the atom for Greenpeace, but also the callousness and stupidity of the Soviet elite, demonstrated by its desperate attempts to cover up this catastrophe. Chernobyl revived the Ukrainian nationalist cause, and in this respect the reactor’s meltdown helped precipitate the dissolution of the USSR five years later. Another anniversary for the Kremlin to forget, perhaps.

Image: Battlefield remains at Sidi Regez, Western Desert, 1941, via wikimedia commons.

Commemorating the First World War at Sea


Last week the Culture Secretary announced the government’s plans for the centenary commemorations of the Battle of Jutland. In addition to remembering the sacrifice of those sailors who lost their lives in the Battle itself, he described the anniversary as an opportunity to remember ‘the pivotal role that the Royal Navy played in the war effort’ more generally. The First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir George Zambellas, echoed this sentiment, referring to the need to place the Navy more prominently within the popular narrative of the War. ‘The First World War remains characterised by imagery of the trenches of the Western Front’, he claimed, ‘yet the sea was Britain’s lifeline and the supremacy of the Royal Navy was crucial to national survival.’ Whilst the Navy’s desire to emphasize its role in the conflict is understandable in the context of a forthcoming SDSR, the Admiral’s words are no less legitimate for that. In a speech made during his unsuccessful bid to regain the premiership in late-1918 Herbert Asquith, under whose leadership Britain had entered the War four years earlier, communicated a similar message, informing his audience that ‘this war has been won by sea power.’

Yet despite its undoubted importance, the role sea power played in the First World War has proven difficult to capture satisfactorily within the centenary commemorations. Both the Imperial War Museum and the National Maritime Museum (NMM) have placed commendable emphasis upon the maritime aspects of the War as a whole in their galleries. However, targeting specific events has been more problematic.

The summer of 2014 saw some allusion to the strategic significance of the sea to Britain, with the revival of the debate over whether the government was right to intervene in what might have remained a primarily continental war. As more insular-minded observers at the time argued, Britain could have stood aside, relying upon its naval, maritime and economic strength to sustain itself in a position of neutrality. Linked to this idea is the suggestion that Britain might have supported France from a distance, eschewing direct military involvement on the Continent. After all, many within the Navy itself supported precisely such a ‘traditional’ strategy of economic pressure and amphibious landings; the First Sea Lord, Sir John Fisher, famously dismissed direct military support to France as ‘the thin end of the insidious wedge’. Scholars have long acknowledged that, regardless of whether the 6 divisions of the British Expeditionary Force went to France or not, the government remained wedded to a primarily maritime strategy: ‘business as usual’, in Asquith’s phrase. However the centrality of the Navy to British strategy in 1914-15 has been far more difficult to convey to the public than the valour of the ‘Old Contemptibles’ in France and Belgium in the same period.

Much will rightly be made over the course of the next several years of the vital contribution Commonwealth troops made to the Entente war effort. The United States’ role in sustaining Anglo-French finances and to the offensives of 1918 will also be celebrated. Yet in neither case will vital importance of seaborne communications, which enabled the movement of the men, munitions and supplies required to achieve success in the primary theatre, be obvious from these events. Individual governments will finance comprehensive programmes of commemoration for Imperial and Commonwealth forces, yet no similar degree of support will be possible for the Navy or merchant marine, when Britain has its own military sacrifice to acknowledge.

The direct contribution of British, Allied and Associated sea power to victory in 1918 also defines ready encapsulation. The ‘hunger blockade’ of Germany aroused much debate at the time and remains a sensitive issue. Yet, whilst accurate estimates of the number of civilian deaths caused by the restriction of imports to Germany remains problematic, recent research has tended to stress the affect economic dislocation had upon the Central Powers in military, social and psychological terms. The fact that the ‘blockade’ remained in force after the cessation of hostilities and the lack of an obvious date upon which to focus attention on it are further barriers to effective commemoration.

These factors have all led to an understandable, if unsatisfactory, tendency towards focusing remembrance activities around the anniversary of the Battle of Jutland. The National Museum of the Royal Navy will open a gallery, 36 Hours: Jutland 1916, The Battle That Won the War in time for the anniversary. Restoration of HMS Caroline, the last survivor of the Battle, is also anticipated to be complete in the spring of 2016. As the ‘main event’ of the War at sea, Jutland has inevitably acted as a focal point in the centenary process. However, this approach is not without its risks, both for understanding the Battle itself and the War at sea as a whole. Research on the conduct of the Battle is necessarily complex and the intricacies of ship-handling, fire control and fleet command will be difficult to translate effectively to a general audience. Problematically for the Navy, the centenary of an at best inconclusive engagement will be difficult to align with the First Sea Lord’s broader message that ‘today, the strategic effect of navies are just as relevant across oceans and onto the land.’ On a broader level, placing the commemoration of the War at sea so soon before the anniversary of the first day of the Somme, which promises to be the central event of the entire four year period in Britain, risks it being overshadowed by the extensive programme associated with events in France. In many ways this may be appropriate, as casualties on the Somme dwarfed those suffered at sea, however the tension between remembrance and understanding remains. Situating discussions of the War at sea in its totality around the commemoration of an Anglo-German engagement in European waters creates further difficulties in conveying the truly global nature of the maritime conflict and risks minimizing its non-military aspects. Focusing the acknowledgement of the maritime War as a whole around the anniversary of a battle also threatens to convey a misleading impression of the maritime War and of conveying undue significance to Jutland itself.

The NMM has sought to bridge this gap by running a major conference on the War at sea timed to coincide with the Jutland centenary. This is a welcome development, as considerable shortcomings still exist in our understanding of the maritime aspects of the War. Some of the latest work on the Royal Navy in the conflict will appear this month in a special edition of the Journal of Strategic Studies, ‘New Interpretations of the Royal Navy in the ‘Fisher Era’’, which seeks to showcase new approaches to the topic. However, much more is required if we are to present a holistic treatment even of Britain’s War at sea, to say nothing of the many transnational questions inevitably raised by the worldwide shipping and financial network.

In his retirement, Lord Fisher fulminated that ‘the original English Expeditionary Force was but a drop in the Ocean as compared with the German and French millions, and the value, though not the gallantry of its exploits, has been greatly over-rated.’ ‘The British Fleet won the War, and the British Fleet didn’t get a single thing it ought to have’, he claimed. Such partisan outbursts were characteristic of the man and simplistic judgments about who or what ‘won the War’ offer little insight into the conflict. Nevertheless, the fact remains that without the security afforded by the Grand Fleet there would have been no British Army on the Western Front and that without the merchant marine it would have had no food or supplies to sustain it. To that extent, the British sea power certainly did play a key role in winning the War. It is to be hoped that 2016 will be an opportunity to acknowledge this aspect of the British Empire’s War effort.

Image: Nov. 9, 1914: The SYDNEY [I] – EMDEN [I] battle, painted by Phil Belbin, via flickr.

India and the First World War


The Great War inhabits an elusive space in India today. Not entirely forgotten nor actively remembered, it oscillates between memory and oblivion. However, the buzz surrounding the Centenary celebrations in India raised some important questions about how we remember our past and forget it at the same time. The First World War is a relatively unnoticed event in an otherwise historic timeline of Indian events.

At one level, there has been a gap in our understanding of the Great War and its wide ranging socio-political impact on India. Unbeknownst to many, it was one of the starting points for many constitutional changes that were introduced in India at this time. The devolution of powers to the provinces and the widening of representative elective bodies in the subcontinent (known as the Montague-Chelmsford Reforms of 1919) was a direct result of British recognition of India’s war effort. Even before that, India’s participation in the War brought forth the question of her place in the colonial framework in a decisive way. Indian participation could no longer be taken for granted as in previous expeditions to China and Africa, and the present engagement in Europe would have to be argued through constitutional offerings being promised for the future. This ‘future’ is now better remembered through the vocabulary of the national movement leading up to independence in 1947, but its provenance lies in the years after 1914 when the colony resolutely pursued questions of Indian representation in government and armed forces.

At another level, First World War amnesia obscures a larger unawareness of India’s military history. The Great War is only the most recently recovered memory from a catalogue of past engagements- the Boer War and the Boxer rebellion to cite a few. However, the World War, aside from its global reach and coverage, has managed to produce a dialogue between the past and present- particularly so for India. The Centenary celebrations that took place in India was the first time that India’s contribution came to be nationally recognised.

Although organised on a modest scale, the commemorations have highlighted the still widely felt unease associated with India’s role in the War. In large part, this tension has arisen from the fact that India raised the largest volunteer force of any British dependency, one which fought with distinction in pursuit of wider imperial interests in Europe and the Middle East. This association with British colonialism jars with India’s post-independence sense of identity. However, marking the first national recognition of India’s war effort throws up interesting questions about how our contemporary sense of security and position in the world has compelled us to sit up and evoke a presence that was left unseen for a hundred years. It also reflects institutional memories. Regiments and units of the Indian Army, some of which saw action in the Great War have had a long tradition of remembering and commemorating their role in the conflict but this has never been matched by any interest shown by successive governments. Interestingly, the Indian National Army (INA)- a revolutionary force that fought with the Japanese against the British in the Burma and Eastern India during the Second World War commands a greater public audience than the Indian army that fought and remained as steadfast in its responsibilities and loyalty to the British crown.

First World War memory in India has also been evoked by the current Prime Minister’s overseas visits. The prime minister’s visits to national memorials in France and Australia and the ceremonial laying of wreaths at iconic cemeteries like Neuve Chapelle has created spaces of inquiry and interest into this part of India’s history. Yet, misperception about India’s role in the conflict remains. Each year in January the Indian President lays a wreath at the India Gate in New Delhi to honour the Indian soldiers who have died in battle. Yet, its only now that a large number of people have realized that the India Gate was commissioned as a war memorial to honour the martyrs of the First World War and the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1921, just around the time the Cenotaph was unveiled in London. Thus the current regeneration of interest in India’s role in the Great War is a puzzle.

This could partly be explained, as was recently opined in an article, by India’s need to project an image- that ‘of a historical role as a keeper of international peace- a net security provider’. Acknowledgment of the previous century’s events seems to speak to 21st century’s concerns about India’s place in the UN or in its engagements with the EU. So, if by invoking a past form of collaboration, India is able to forge stronger relations with major powers who also fought the War alongside Britain, then it makes sense as to why the government has taken note of the centenary. However, there are limits to this strategy as pointed out in the above article. Would this commemoration be possible in Japan, Germany, or even China? – Countries that India engages with deeply on a bilateral level and who share an uneasy legacy of these global wars.

Part of the puzzle surrounding the interest in India’s role in the War is explained by the patterns of history writing. The decades after independence saw a surge in nationalist writings which focussed on the role played by individuals and political institutions in the run up to independence. This was tempered with the emergence of the ‘subaltern school’ in the 1980s that sought to reconfigure Indian history through non-elitist sources and which shifted the narrative away from statist, personality driven accounts to a more layered and complicated understanding of events. Other approaches to history writing in India derived from the Marxian style of analysis and others which looked at networks of local interest and patronage as drivers of history (the ‘Cambridge school’). However, the dominant theme of the narrative remained political and actual ‘subalterns’ received scant attention.

The acknowledgment of the military and soldiers as social actors in history is quite recent. The ‘social turn’ in the fortunes of military history has had an impact on the way the Indian Army has come to be written about. The search for a new narrative of India’s past has led to a discovery of the role the Army played in the social, political and economic life of the early 20th century. The addition of this new element is poised to reframe our conceptions of India’s past. This could partly explain the faint rumblings that the centenary has produced in India on a public, literary and historical level.

The centenary has been marked by a remarkable outpouring of historical works on the subjects of the Indian Army. Foremost among them is the 2011 published book on South Asian POWs in World War I Germany (When the War Began…Several Kings, eds. Roy, Liebau, Ahuja: Social Science Press, 2011). Making extensive use of German sources, including oral recordings and a substantial audio archive (the book includes a CD of some of the recordings) at Humboldt resulting from the Royal Prussian Phonographic Commission- the book has widened the approach to understanding the experience of Indian soldiers in Europe. Also notable is Gajendra Singh’s book that dwells on the letters and ‘testimonies’ of sepoys through the two world wars (2014). Shifting away from the traditional battle-centric accounts and exegesis on doctrine, these new books have highlighted the new fronts on which research is now being carried out. Another important book has been Daniel Marston’s latest on the Indian Army during the last days of the Raj (The Indian Army and the End of the Raj, Cambridge 2014) and which sheds light on the organisational integrity of the force during the subcontinent’s partition. Marston’s work is steeped in rigorous archival work but also alludes to themes that are central to the contemporary policy discourse on the Indian military. It gives a historical account of why and how an Army stays united in crisis situations- clearly a topic that is as relevant as it was a hundred years ago. Thus, academically, the centenary has managed to sustain the dialogue between the past and the present.

Two new books on the role of the Indian troops in the Great War make a more visual impact. These are by Santanu Das and Vedica Kant (‘If I die here, who will remember me?’ India and the First World War, Vedica Kant, 2014; 1914-1918: Indian Troops in Europe, Santanu Das, 2015). Both carry a large number of photographic illustrations and graphics designed to present a vivid account of the experience of the troops in Europe- social, medical and cultural. These books mark a shift away from a more textual and determinedly archival tradition that has been associated with the writing about the Indian army. At a popular level, the writings will also be helpful in trying to make the memories about the War more mainstream than was earlier possible.

The centenary has created a context that will foster a deeper public-personal, historical and academic engagement with the subject of India’s role in the War. It also confirms the widely held belief that all of history is essentially the present. This is because, were it not for India’s contemporary anxieties about its role in the world today, would we still have bothered to look back at our past? To raise another question- is it not the current gap in our historical understanding that has compelled historians to look for answers in the forgotten military episodes from 1914-1918 to arrive at newer conclusions about this century in India’s contemporary history? The ‘success’ of the centenary, morbid as it may sound, has been its ability to put First World Studies on a firm footing in the larger network of South Asian Studies. For India though, a hundred years of remembering may have only just begun.

Image: A Benet-Mercier machine gun section of 2nd Rajput Light Infantry in action in Flanders, during the winter of 1914-15 via Wikimedia Commons.

Why was Waterloo important?


200 years ago, almost to the hour, the battle of Waterloo commenced. The dramatic final showdown of 22 years of war, Waterloo had all the makings of a swashbuckling drama. It was the only occasion when Wellington and Napoleon encountered each other. Having escaped from the tiny Mediterranean island of Elba in March, Napoleon gambled everything to restore himself to the glory he had lost when abdicated the year before. Wellington, as the allied commander, represented a union of the Great Powers that had sworn to remain in the field until Napoleon was permanently exiled.

This great battle has been feted by history as one of Britain’s greatest military victories. Napoleon’s attack on Wellington’s line on the ridge of Mont St Jean near the village of Waterloo on 18 June 1815 was indeed a close run thing. On several occasions, the ‘thin red line’ nearly buckled. But Wellington, commanding a melange of veterans and raw recruits drawn from armies across Europe, held firm until Blücher’s Prussian Army arrived on Napoleon’s right flank. Outnumbered and outflanked, a final assault by the Imperial Guard failed for a final time to break Wellington’s line, and the French Army, once the conquerer of Europe, collapsed.

But for all that, to a dispassionate (and believe me it is hard to be dispassionate) military historian, Waterloo is something of an anticlimax. Wellington himself commented shortly after the battle that ‘Napoleon did not manoeuvre at all. He just moved forward in the old style, in columns, and was driven off in the old style.’

Indeed, Napoleon’s tactical decisions at Waterloo are highly questionable. Why commit so many troops (some 13,000 throughout the day) to capturing the farmhouse of Hougoumont on Wellington’s right flank? Napoleon’s original plan was to force Wellington to reinforce his right flank and so weaken his centre. Napoleon would then launch a major assault on this weakened part of the British line. Wellington, though, saw through the deception, did not reinforce Hougoumont and instead Napoleon pumped more and more men into the Hougoumont vicinity in an effort to take the farm.

Similarly, later in the day, why did the French launch repeated cavalry charges without infantry or artillery support? The initial charge is understandable. Marshal Ney mistook a reorientation of Wellington’s position to be a sign of retreat. Believing he was on the brink of destroying Wellington’s army, Ney launched a cavalry attack. Instead, the French cavalry met some 36 well-disciplined infantry squares which successfully repulsed the French charge. But why follow this up with a further 12 charges, and waste the cavalry in such a fashion. Napoleon had previously illustrated his prowess for combined arms battle, but Waterloo represents the failure of combined arms, at least on the French part.

Finally, why, when he ordered the final attack by the Imperial Guard, did Napoleon distribute the attack en echelon, thereby dissipating its lethal power along the British line? Why not concentrate the attack in one place, the weakest point of Wellington’s position after the fall of the central farmhouse of La Haye Sainte? As it was, each battalion of the Imperial Guard encountered a strongly defended position, and were repulsed.

Waterloo, then, is a story of Wellington holding firm with a sub-optimal army, and Napoleon blundering badly on at least three occasions. And yet it is this battle that we collectively remember as Britain’s greatest military triumph. Of course, the odds were long, and the stakes high, but in reality, even if Napoleon had beat Wellington at Waterloo, he would have eventually faced a Austro-Russian army numbering in the region of 400,000, when he himself would have had by that stage fewer than 100,000 troops.

Wellington himself did not view Waterloo as his greatest victory. In later life, he referred to his first battle in command of an army in India – the battle of Assaye – and the battle of the Nivelle – a Peninsular War battle in the foothills of the Pyrenees – as his greatest battles. And it is easy to see why. Assaye was a fraught battle, fought in extreme conditions, in which the young Arthur Wellesley, a newly promoted General, demonstrated extraordinary courage and tactical skill. The Nivelle, meanwhile, is an illustration of a great practitioner of operational art at the height of his powers. Waterloo was neither of these. You can read more about these battles in an article published today in the British Journal of Military History, along with several other great pieces of historical research on the Peninsular War, Wellington, Napoleon and the Battle of Waterloo.

Why, then, was Waterloo important? It was important because it secured the peace the allies had fought so hard for the previous year. The map of Europe had been re-drawn and Waterloo prevented another war that would tear it up. On 20 November 1815, Louis XVIII of France signed the second peace of Paris, which reaffirmed the accords decided on in Vienna, and added in a new concept – the Concert of Europe, which would hold the peace of Europe for the next century. All of these things were possible because Napoleon was stopped at Waterloo.

The Battle of Waterloo and its strategic context


The Battle of Waterloo is a military victory well worth commemorating, even celebrating. The brilliant generalship of the Duke of Wellington and the fighting skill of his coalition army (with its German, Belgian and Dutch as well as British troops) together with their Prussian allies achieved a famous victory. It deserves its place in the historical memory of the Army and the country, as well as providing a fine example of multinational European cooperation. The events of 18 June 1815 and the few days preceding it provided a fitting finale for the Napoleonic Wars. There is always a need, however, to combine attention to individual battles with awareness of the wider war within which they had their context. For Britain, the Battle of Waterloo was the culmination of a successful maritime strategy – indeed, the road to Waterloo went through Trafalgar.

British strategy in the Napoleonic wars, like most wars before and some since, was maritime rather than continental. Britain could not plausibly seek to replicate the large armies of the great continental powers such as France, Prussia or Russia – and because of the priceless advantage of the Channel, she did not need to. Rather she could embrace what Julian Corbett took care to stress was a maritime strategy, not purely a naval strategy. This approach represented the judicious combination of naval and land operations, with each other and also, crucially, with the diplomatic and economic instruments of power. These last two were central, not least in underpinning British naval power and the coalitions in which allies provided mass land power.

The Royal Navy was at the heart of this strategy. It ensured that Britain could not be invaded, thus denying the continental enemy the swift victory that was his only hope of strategic success (and also making a large, expensive army unnecessary). It defended the trade that provided the vital economic foundations for strategy, while at the same time attacking that of the enemy to weaken the sinews of his wealth and hence his military power. It also provided the ability to use Britain’s Army, relatively small by the standards of the continental powers, in such a way that it achieved returns disproportionate to its size. While this was initially a strategically defensive stance, it involved offensive action at sea and in peripheral theatres – if limited action in the latter proved unsuccessful, it could be ended without major strategic damage, while if it succeeded, it could be reinforced. Crucially, however, this approach laid the ground for the shift to the strategic offensive by keeping Britain in the war and wealthy enough to fund coalitions, by wearing away the enemy’s strength, and by tempting him into errors that could then be exploited. Clearly this strategy depended on having continental allies. Yet any would-be hegemon was likely to alarm the other European great powers as much as it did the British, making such coalitions a realistic prospect. The maritime strategy then made these alliances possible, preventing Britain from being knocked out of the war and ensuring that she had the wealth to subsidise her allies.

Viewed from this broader perspective, the truly decisive British battle in the Napoleonic Wars was not Waterloo but Trafalgar. The strategic impact of the latter is often misunderstood and underrated, due largely to the failure to appreciate that the effect of naval battles on the wider war tends to be slow to become apparent: those who overlook its impact suffer from the common strategic affliction of a short attention span. The British victory in October 1805 did not entirely end the threat that Britain faced at sea and further campaigns and engagements were necessary to keep in check France’s still formidable navy. Yet the physical, and even more the moral advantage that it provided had a number of vital long-term effects. First, it meant Britain would not be forced out of the war by invasion as the continental powers could be and repeatedly were; she would remain a formidable thorn in Napoleon’s side. Second, the naval superiority the victory ensured gave Britain an increasing advantage in the ability to fund her war effort and that of her allies, while undermining that of the enemy. Third, it allowed Britain to take advantage of any strategic errors that Napoleon might commit thereafter – and also, crucially, pushed him into committing some huge ones in search of a way to defeat Britain now that he could not invade. The first of these was the Peninsular campaign, aiming to firm up the ‘continental system’ of economic warfare against Britain. It presented the British with a peripheral theatre in which her army could be deployed to its best advantage – inserted, withdrawn and reinserted, then supplied and supported by the Royal Navy, in exactly the sort of campaign level partnership that the maritime strategy envisaged. The result for France was ‘the bleeding ulcer’ of a long, costly campaign. The second great strategic error committed by Napoleon was the invasion of Russia, again seeking to defeat Britain indirectly by weakening her diplomatically and economically. The casualties suffered against Russian geography, climate and land power were too great even for France to absorb and replace.

In the subsequent land campaign, the latest powerful coalition gradually closed the net around Napoleon; despite winning several victories in individual battles, mere tactical success could not save him and he was defeated and deposed in 1814. He was undermined above all by a flawed strategy which sought to achieve hugely ambitious aims that France simply could not sustain – not least because they repeatedly stirred the other European great powers to pick themselves up after a defeat and return to the fray against him and alongside Britain. Napoleon was undoubtedly a military genius but his methods could be emulated by his opponents. Moreover, he proved quite unable to defeat those who declined to play the game as he understood it, whether that was the hybrid campaign in the Iberian Peninsula, the resilience of an invaded Russia, or, crucially, British sea power.

Napoleon’s continued hold over the hearts and minds of many Frenchmen was amply demonstrated in his last encore of the Hundred Days. Yet the military power that the Seventh Coalition amassed against him was too great even for him to master. Even if he had won at Waterloo, the outcome of the war would not have been any different; a bloodied, weakened Napoleon would sooner or later have been run to ground by the other approaching armies. The tactical victory at Waterloo formalised the defeat of Napoleon that was achieved by broader and longer-term strategy.

British maritime strategy is often misinterpreted, not least the straw man version sometimes presented that portrays it as an isolationist, blue water delusion, or when it is stretched past all plausibility to suggest an alternative to deploying troops at all. It was a maritime, not a naval strategy, that did commit land forces but did so selectively and in a way that Britain’s relatively small army could exert disproportionate strategic leverage. At its heart were limited objectives – essentially the negative aim of preventing a hostile great power from dominating the continent. It would not have sufficed for a more aggressive aim of British dominance of Europe but as an island power with its gaze turned overseas, this was not necessary. Of course, the scale of commitment on land required to ensure success would vary depending on the threat. British involvement in the First World War can be seen through this lens, since the ‘minimum necessary’ land commitment, as the only alternative to a disastrous strategic defeat, was of a hitherto unprecedented scale. This continental commitment, of course, applied on the only continent where involvement is not discretionary for Britain. When the early years of the 21st century have seen a dalliance with a continental strategy far overseas, where such commitment is a matter of choice, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we might usefully revive this judicious maritime strategy, based on restrained ends to avoid the need for means we cannot afford or ways we cannot sustain.

So, while Waterloo is deservedly marked this week, it is highly appropriate that when the defeated Napoleon finally surrendered, he did so on a British warship, HMS Bellerophon, one of Mahan’s ‘far distant, storm beaten ships upon which the Grand Army never looked, [but] stood between it and the dominion of the world’. The Battle of Waterloo may or may not have been won on the playing fields of Eton, but the winning strategy for the war was put in place ten years earlier, in the waters off Cape Trafalgar.

Image: The Battle of Trafalgar, October 21st, 1805 by Bernard Finnigan Gribble from the collection of the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom.