History

When Learning Goes Bad

DR JONATHAN BOFF

Jonathan is a Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Birmingham. His first book, Winning and Losing on the Western Front: The British Third Army and the Defeat of Germany in 1918 was published by Cambridge University Press in 2012. An audio recording of a paper detailing some of his new research on German command on the Western Front can be found here.

On the Western Front in September and October 1917, during the Third Battle of Ypres, the British army employed a new operational approach known as ‘bite and hold’. Rather than trying to drive deep into the German defences and break through, the BEF sought instead to limit any advance to the range of its artillery cover, driving a thousand yards or a mile into the enemy trenches, digging in quickly and then defeating the inevitable German counter attack. This approach posed a significant challenge to the German defenders. Based on new research into the papers of the army group commander opposite, Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, this article explores how they adapted to the new British method. It demonstrates three points relevant to modern commanders:

  • Find solutions which address the real problems you face, not those which you best know how to fix;
  • Don’t assume that a solution exists, much less that you’re the person to find it;
  • Intellectual honesty about the past is crucial to the integrity of ‘lessons learned’ processes. Infection by present-day concerns risks misrepresenting the past and drawing the wrong conclusions.

In late September 1917 the Third Battle of Ypres burst back into life with a series of resource-intensive, limited-objective British attacks. In the battles of the Menin Road Ridge and Polygon Wood (20 and 26 September, respectively), troops of the British Second Army used ‘bite and hold’ tactics to chew their way through the enemy defences. The Germans, practising an elastic defence in depth, seemingly had no answer. Their forward garrisons were too weak to beat off the first assault. And poor communications and the difficulty of movement across a devastated and lethal battlefield made it impossible to launch counter attacks to regain lost ground in time. For the first time in the Flanders campaign, Rupprecht needed to call in reinforcements. The search for counter-measures began.

According to the German Official History, the defensive expert, Fritz von Loßberg, proposed moving away from defence in depth and increasing the strength of the forward crust to prevent any initial British break-in. This was adopted on 30 September but did nothing to prevent another defeat in the Battle of Broodseinde (4 October). Consequently the Germans reverted to a (slightly reformed) elastic defence on 7 October. Within two weeks, then, they had been able to operate three different styles of defence: an impressive level of flexibility.

This narrative was false in three particulars. First, Loßberg’s was merely one of several senior voices, including some at Supreme Command (OHL), advocating a crust defence. Secondly, whatever the orders, it is far from clear that every front line unit was able to adjust their tactics in time. Some could but many could not. The 119th Infantry Division, for instance, which was at the front for 67 straight days from 11 August to 18 October, pointed out that new orders incorporating the latest lessons learnt were of only limited use with no opportunity to train. Thirdly, there were far simpler and more traditional explanations for the problems the Germans were facing, which spoke far more to the operational level of war than the tactical. The cumulative effect of attrition was beginning to make itself felt, with both the quantity and quality of replacements slipping. Poor leadership was another concern.

Nonetheless, the Official History narrative held considerable attractions for the German military writers who constructed it. First, by attaching responsibility for mistakes to Loßberg, it deflected blame from OHL and the General Staff more widely. Secondly, it simultaneously emphasised how flexible, rational and systematic the German approach usually was. Thirdly, it reinforced the case for elastic defence, which was an important tenet of German military thought between the wars. It is no accident that the Official History was compiled by former officers of the German General Staff, many of them who had served at OHL during the war. When the Treaty of Versailles demanded the abolition of the General Staff, the army transferred its finest doctrinal thinkers, steeped in the manoeuvrist approach of Schlieffen and Moltke the Elder, to the apparently civilian Reichsarchiv. There they were to keep the General Staff flame alive and produce a history designed to help train and teach the army’s officer cadre.

As a matter of fact, the revised elastic defence brought in after Broodseinde was never really tested. Continued British attacks at Ypres in autumn 1917 were handicapped more by weather and logistics than by German resistance. Thereafter there was little opportunity to try elastic defence until the Allied offensives of July-November 1918. It failed. But, since the German army was much weaker by then, and Allied attacks much stronger, comparisons with 1917 are tricky.

The lessons of this episode are threefold. First, the German general staff sought tactical solutions to what was in fact the operational challenge of ‘bite and hold’ and attrition. Culturally they were, like most militaries, ‘can-do’ institutions and natural problem solvers; but they were more comfortable offering tactical tweaks than in confronting operational reality. The tendency of the German army to offset operational weakness with tactical brilliance and to seek military solutions to political problems is a recurring theme in its history from Schlieffen to Stalingrad. Secondly, the experience of Flanders highlights the intellectual arrogance of its commanders. Men such as Erich Ludendorff and his entourage at OHL were convinced not only that a single solution to their difficulties existed but also that they could find it. This blinded them to the possibility that there might be no panacea, and that different situations might require different responses. It also meant that doctrine formulation became increasingly centralised and dogmatic, restricting the initiative of subordinate commanders and rendering the Germans predictable to their enemies. Rupprecht criticised this tendency, pointing out that ‘there is no cure-all. A pattern is harmful. The situation must be dealt with sometimes one way, sometimes another.’ Thirdly, the interwar German army’s prime mechanism for lesson-learning was distorted by official historians pursuing their own agenda. By misrepresenting the process of adaptation in contact during the Third Battle of Ypres they encouraged a fascination with tactical detail which helped distract the Wehrmacht from the strategic and political horrors it was soon to face. Their example reminds us that more history is not necessarily the answer. But better history may be.

Image: The view from a captured German pill-box, showing the burst of a shell of the German barrage searching British reserve trenches as part of the Battle of Polygon Wood within the Battle of Passchendaele. Taken near the Wieltje-Grafenstafel Road (Rat Farm), 27th September 1917, via the Imperial War Museum.

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

ASHLEY GARBER

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

DR AIMÉE FOX-GODDEN & DR DAVID MORGAN-OWEN

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.

Sea Power, Alliances, and Diplomacy: British Naval Supremacy in the Great War Era

LOUIS HALEWOOD

Louis is a current DPhil student at the University of Oxford. He holds an MA in History from the University of Calgary. Louis is co-organiser of the upcoming ‘Economic Warfare and the Sea’ Conference, to be held at All SoulS College in July 2017.

A recording of the talk this post is drawn from is available here.

President Donald Trump’s statements over the continued viability of NATO has raised questions about the relevance and utility of alliances in 21st century international politics. Who gains most from alliance structures and collective security? What are the benefits for a global power in leading alliances? These questions appear particularly pertinent with the end of the ‘American moment’ and the return to a degree of multipolarity in world affairs, where the rise of China and its aspirations of a blue water navy and an emboldened Russia are challenging the status quo with increasing regularity.

Fresh as they may appear, many of these issues have a long historical antecedence. At the start of the 20th century the British Empire faced a changing global environment – with rising powers on the Continent, in the Americas and in Asia – which forced statesmen to confront the dilemma of how to guarantee the security of Britain’s maritime empire without overstraining public finances on defence expenditure. The supremacy of the Royal Navy had ensured the safety of Britain’s dominions and colonies both through its physical might and as a symbol of prestige throughout the 19th century. However, with the rise of new naval powers, chiefly Imperial Germany across the North Sea, seeking local dominance in all theatres simultaneously would be needlessly expensive. Maintaining a policy of ‘splendid isolation’ might leave Britain vulnerable in secondary theatres as it was forced to out-build the German navy so to command home waters. Consequently, British statesmen turned to diplomacy to underwrite maritime security elsewhere, developing alliances and strategic alignment to tilt local balances in Britain’s favour, neutralising potential threats in the process.

The first move towards this was the alliance with Japan, first struck in 1902, and renewed in 1905 and 1911. This settled concerns in Whitehall over the threat to British possessions in the Far East, with Japan turning from potential danger to guardian of these interests. This was an important embarkation point as British statesmen began to explore the opportunities that such agreements presented.

Pressure to find a similar solution in European waters began to mount as the costs of winning the Anglo-German naval race soared. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty from 1911, argued that Britain must prioritise a ratio of 60% superiority over the German High Seas Fleet, leaving little in the naval estimates for a Mediterranean fleet to protect this key imperial artery. The solution advanced was an accord with France (with whom ties had strengthened following the Anglo-French Entente, signed in 1904). The French navy could, with the support of a diminished British force, control the Mediterranean against a combination of Austria-Hungary and Italy, while the bulk of the Royal Navy took on the German navy in the North Sea.

Churchill’s predecessor at the Admiralty, Reginald McKenna had argued that Britain must spend whatever was necessary to give it domination in both seas without having to rely on France. However, this would require cuts to social programmes at home, which a Liberal government committed to welfare reform could not countenance. The Anglo-French naval agreement, signed in 1913, was therefore a means for securing British interests in the Mediterranean at minimal cost. It was not a sign of weakness: Britain was the senior partner in the agreement, giving little in return for the security of the Mediterranean (not least because it was not bound to supporting France in the event of war with Germany). Paris raised concerns over this imbalance, but made little headway.

When war broke out in the summer of 1914, these arrangements came into play, and proved largely effective at safeguarding British maritime interests in the Far East and Mediterranean. The July Crisis demonstrated the limits of what British diplomacy and sea power could achieve: it was not able to prevent war from breaking out. Nevertheless, they did put Britain in a commanding position to wage war at sea: containing the battle fleets of the Central Powers, protecting British shipping, and enabling blockade to begin.

From 1914, Britain used its status as the world’s leading naval power to dominate the naval coalition, directing the maritime elements of the Entente’s strategy. It left the smaller issue of the Austro-Hungarian navy to France (joined by Italy in the Adriatic from spring 1915), while focusing on the more potent German threats in the North Sea and Atlantic. However, when Germany carried its underwater guerre de course into the Mediterranean as 1915 progressed, the Admiralty sought to develop an operational leadership role in this theatre too; partly for reasons of prestige, primarily to address the exigencies of war. Yet the Mediterranean was important to Paris and Rome for reasons of prestige as well – the source of many Franco-Italian disagreements – and their naval establishments prevented the Royal Navy from taking the reins entirely.

The United States Navy, on the other hand, was more content to act as an auxiliary in European waters once the U-boats had forced American entry into the war in 1917. While the White House was keen to work closely with the Admiralty at the operational level, however, there were problems when it came to long-term grand strategy. President Woodrow Wilson had wanted to avoid becoming embroiled in the conflict; now that this was unavoidable he sought to maintain independence from London and Paris by becoming an associated, rather than allied, power. Moreover, the United States was engaged in a large programme of naval construction, which would produce a powerful battle fleet that might rival the Royal Navy. David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, wanted this suspended so that American shipyards could be directed to the construction of smaller craft suitable for anti-submarine warfare. Yet American leaders feared this would leave them vulnerable in the post-war world, so refused. Arthur Balfour, the Foreign Secretary, came up with a solution: a general naval alliance in which Britain would guarantee American security at sea while capital ship construction caught up. Moreover, Balfour worked on plans which would bring together the Allied navies (including France, Italy, Russia, and Japan) with the US under an umbrella agreement of mutual assistance against maritime attack lasting for four years after the conclusion of the war.

This was anathema to the White House, with Wilson unwilling to bind his hands. Nevertheless, this episode demonstrates the evolution of British strategic thinking on alliances and their utility. With Britain at the centre of a web of mutually supporting navies, of which the Royal Navy would be the greatest, its partners could help to extend the security of the empire, affording London potential auxiliaries in war and neutralising possible rivals. Of such future challengers, the United States – poised to assume second place in the naval rankings if Germany was defeated and disarmed – was the greatest. The prospect of an Anglo-American rivalry gathered pace as the U-boat threat receded and the Americans increased the pace of capital ship construction. Yet neither side wanted a costly naval arms race, and following victory in 1918 they soon found renewed common cause in the League of Nations project. The prospect of a post-war strategic alignment (if not a formal alliance) was on the table at Versailles in 1919. British and American diplomats managed to suppress the nascent competition between their sailors, with Robert Cecil of the Foreign Office and Colonel Edward M. House, Wilson’s chief lieutenant, reaching a compromise through which Britain could carefully manage the US’ rise as a naval power via bilateral talks. Meanwhile, Wilson was prepared to make a guarantee of French security with the British. A new world order was set to emerge, with an Anglo-American alignment at its centre (a dream which seemingly still resonates in Whitehall a century later).

Yet the gentleman’s agreement struck in Paris collapsed in Washington later that year. The result was that in 1921 the Lloyd George government had to negotiate in a multilateral environment at the Washington Naval Conference. While the decisions reached there allowed an Anglo-American agreement on the naval balance of power to be reached, the proposed strategic alignment could not be covered, and it was at a higher price than the one to be paid if the Cecil-House understanding had been implemented. One such cost was the end of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The potential benefits of that agreement was driven home two decades later when the Japanese ran riot across British possessions in the Fat East, dealing an irreversible blow to the integrity of the British Empire. Coming after two years of war against Nazi Germany, this defeat left Britain beleaguered and appeared to leave India open to the Japanese. Yet for the period 1939-41, the US had refrained from active military support for Britain. Alliances and strategic alignments, then, can offer significant benefits to global powers. To reject or lose them can have repercussions. Certainly, isolation rarely is a better alternative – a point worth remembering in the 21st century.

Featured image: A Middleweight bout at the Grand Fleet Boxing Tournament in 1918 between Chief Carpenter’s Mate Gartner (US Navy) and Leading Stoker Roberts (Royal Navy), via the Imperial War Museum

Conference Report: International Society for First World War Studies conference, ‘War Time’

Hanna Smyth (with Adam Luptak & Louis Halewood)

– War Time co-organisers, Globalising and Localising the Great War, University of Oxford.

The 9th conference of the International Society for First World War Studies was held at the University of Oxford on 9-11 November. Each year a different theme is chosen (such as ‘Landscapes’ and ‘Other Fronts, Other Wars’), but each ISFWWS conference aims to uphold the same tone of encouraging collegiality established by ISFWWS co-founders Jenny Macleod and Pierre Purseigle.

‘War Time’ was held at the Maison Française d’Oxford and organised by a team of PhD students and postdocs from Oxford’s Globalising and Localising the Great War research network. 2016, as the midpoint of the First World War formal centenary period, marked a significant opportunity to re-examine and reflect upon the ways that time has been conceptualised both during the war itself and in the hundred years of scholarship that have followed. The conference sought to reveal and contextualise new chronologies, pursued along flexible and multiple timelines, and particularly encouraged transnational and comparative work.

The conference welcomed 85 First World War academics from 11 countries, beginning with a drinks reception on 9th November followed by two days of conference proceedings and then an affiliated public engagement day on the 12th.

One of the most striking features about this conference was its format, which was inherited from the ISFWWS. No conference papers were given during the event: instead the 18 conference papers were circulated more than a month in advance. All 18 were written by PhD students and early-career researchers. 18 more senior academics were handpicked to be matched to these 18 junior paper authors to provide invited commentaries at the conference. During the event, each panel consisted of commentary and discussion on a pair of papers: each ten-minute commentary was followed by an opportunity for the paper author to respond to their commentator’s remarks, and then the floor was opened to discussion.

The encouragement and generosity of the invited commentators towards the beginning researchers they were paired with was a standout feature of the conference, praised by many. Their commentaries were incisive, full of questions and directions to explore further, and it was an interesting role-reversal to have senior academics giving précis of their junior colleagues’ work as part of their comments.

ISFWWS conferences aim to encourage interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity, and War Time was no exception. The nine conference panels were titled:

  • Aerial Time
  • Endgame
  • Medical Time
  • Soundscapes of Time
  • Ideological Timelines
  • Personal Memories and Experiences
  • Materiality on the Home Front
  • Discursive Time
  • Anticipation

 

The full program can be accessed on the conference website here.

‘War Time’ was opened and closed by three keynote speakers: Professor Sir Hew Strachan (University of St Andrews), Professor John Horne (Trinity College Dublin / University of Oxford), and Professor Margaret MacMillan (University of Oxford), speaking on strategic planning, time-frames of the war, and moving from war to peace, respectively. These keynotes were recorded by the University of Oxford’s recording team and will be available online shortly.

At the end of the first day, the winner and runner-up of the “WWI Research Competition” were announced. This was a competition run by The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH), unaffiliated with the conference and with an entirely separate selection committee. It was open to all students, staff and faculty at the University of Oxford who had original ideas for engaging and accessible research projects relating to the conflict. Coincidentally, the winner of the prize was War Time conference committee member Dr. Alice Kelly (currently Harmsworth Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute), for her podcast ‘Remembering before the end: death and the Great War’ which can be accessed here. Runner-up was JC Niala, a Creative Writing masters student, for her podcast ‘African Soldiers in WWI: Forgotten in a global war’ which can be accessed here.

During the concluding remarks of the conference another prize was announced: the Gail Braybon Prize for Best Postgraduate Paper. This was selected by the conference committee with input from an ISFWWS representative, and was open to those of the 18 conference papers whose authors do not already have their doctorates. The winning paper was “‘It is at night-time that we notice most of the changes in our life caused by the war’: Zeppelins, Time and Space in Great War London”, by Assaf Mond of Tel Aviv University. Assaf’s paper also sparked excellent discussion during the conference, particularly on his innovative analysis of ‘child time’ versus ‘adult time’ during war.

Three of the Defense Studies Department’s researchers attended the conference in invited capacities. Dr. Helen McCartney was asked to serve as commentator for Ashley Garber’s paper ‘Age, Generations and the Life Cycle in Comradeship after the Great War’ on the Personal Memories and Experiences panel; Dr. David Morgan-Owen was asked to serve as chair for the keynote address given by Professor Sir Hew Strachan; and Dr. Aimee Fox-Godden was asked to serve as chair for the keynote address given by Professor John Horne. Dr. Fox-Godden also contributed by joining the conference team and a few other attendees in prolifically live-tweeting the proceedings to make them accessible to a wider audience, in what one academic following from a distance called “the best twitter coverage of a conference ever”. A Storify from the conference is available here.

Following the conference on 12th November was a public engagement day, for which the conference partnered with Oxford’s Academic IT department to run a ‘Community Collection Day’ as part of the Europeana14-18 initiative. Twenty conference delegates and organisers spent the day as part of the volunteer team staffing the event. Members of the public brought in FWW-related documents and artefacts; they were interviewed about their contributions by conference volunteers, before their items were digitised by further conference volunteers under the supervision of Academic IT digitization specialists. The event also featured a series of short talks by conference delegates and community representatives, including Liz Woolley (66 Men of Grandpont project), Sarah Wearne (Epitaphs of the Great War: The Somme author), and Alison Patron (National Trust: Sandham Memorial Chapel). Volunteers from the Museum of Oxford were also on hand providing FWW-related craft activities for children.

The rationale for the public engagement day was that, although it was fantastic to bring an international cohort of 85 FWW specialists together for the conference, it was also quite exclusive and inaccessible to other interested parties; especially since this event was fully booked with a waiting list more than three months beforehand. It would have been unfortunate to have such a concentrated pool of expertise visiting Oxford and not find ways to share that with the conference’s host community, and so the organisers were very grateful for the generosity of those delegates who made time to engage with the public on the 12th.

If you would like to become a member of the ISFWWS, membership information is available at http://www.firstworldwarstudies.org/membership.php. Locations and details for the 2017 and 2018 ISFWWS conferences are still pending. The organisers of ‘War Time’ intend to publish the proceedings in due course.

On behalf of the conference organising committee, many thanks to the paper authors, keynotes, commentators, chairs, and delegates who filled War Time with such an abundance of fruitful and dynamic discussions.

Image courtesy of St Agnes Museum.

The Significance of Suez 1956: A Reference Point and Turning Point?

This is the third in a series of posts drawn from an event to mark the 60th anniversary of the Suez Crisis which the Defence Studies Department Strategy and Defence Policy Research Centre hosted on November 7th, 2016. Recordings of the papers will be posted shortly to the Department soundcloud.

DR KATE UTTING

From a British perspective 60 years after the crisis, Suez has an almost iconic status, often used as a short hand for everything ‘wrong’ in foreign policy and decision making. It is said to be the moment when Britain’s status and reputation as a global power ended and with it a decline of British moral power and prestige, the ultimate exemplar of Albion’s perfidy. In this way ‘Suez’ evokes a specific response which intends to tap into a shared meaning that is still used today.

For example, in the context of the Brexit debate, Matthew Parris wrote in The Times on 15 0ctober: ‘As in a bad dream, I have the sensation of falling. We British are on our way to making the biggest screw-up since Suez and, somewhere deep down, the new governing class know it. We are heading for national humiliation, nobody’s in charge, and nobody knows what to do. This Brexit thing is out of control’.

In Britain and the Suez Crisis, the historian David Carlton argued that ‘No event in the post-war period has so divided the nation as the Suez crisis; in none has the government so adamantly obscured the truth, and there has been much controversy as to its effect on Britain’s standing in the world. In consequence, many will see 1956 as one of the turning points in Britain’s post-war history’.

In these ways then Suez is both a reference point and a turning point.

 

Background to the Suez Crisis

So what was the crisis about? What was at stake that produced what Enoch Powell later called ‘a national nervous breakdown’?

First of all, it was not about the Canal Zone or the Suez Canal Company and if it had been it could have been solved peacefully, through the UN. Instead it was a multi-crisis at the international, regional and state levels, and only Nasser’s removal would resolve the crises because he was perceived to be at the centre of them all.

But was it really mainly about prestige? We are used to arguments that suggest Britain’s interests in the Middle East and the maintenance of her informal empire was linked primarily to the control of important resources and the security of essential military facilities. Britain did not seek to retain its military presence in the Middle East to protect oil. In 1956 there were 16 plans for unilateral British action in the region. Fifteen plans were for national evacuation operations and only one was for a conventional war: to support Jordan against Israel. Neither did Britain seek to remain in Egypt because of the importance of her military facilities. This may have been the case in the Second World War and the early post-war period, but by 1956 the Suez base was considered to be of no military importance in peacetime. Yet the British still refused to meet Egyptian demands for evacuation because, significantly, they feared this would be seen as being forced out and, therefore, as damaging to their prestige and influence in the rest of the Middle East.

Traditional accounts of Britain and the causes of Suez highlight British defence of her longstanding interests and influence in the Middle East dating back to the 1870s to protect the vital trade and communications route through the Suez Canal to the remainder of the British Empire in the Far East. In these versions, the main threats to British influence were the lack of resolution to Arab-Israeli dispute, the rise of Arab nationalism and the threat of communism.

When Nasser became President of Egypt he seen as positive and treated as a client of the west and key to a number of British and American policies in the Middle East. For example, Egypt was central to Anglo-American Cold War strategy in the Middle East which aimed to create a Middle East defence organisation along the lines of NATO. For the United States this would act as a bulwark against Soviet penetration in the region. For Britain it would have the added advantage of formalising Britain’s bi-lateral arrangements in the region and become an umbrella collective defence organisation of existing British defence interests with Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. Britain and the United States also sought a resolution to the Arab-Israeli dispute, through plan ALPHA, essentially an early version of a land for peace deal: territorial compromises and an agreement to recognise borders.

But in 1953 American policy was re-evaluated. John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State toured the region and concluded that the British role in Middle East defence and Anglo-Egyptian relations hindered rather than served Western interests. He believed that the lack of settlement on the Suez Canal base undermined potential Arab unity and alignment with the west.

Nasser was increasingly perceived to be a threat to western interests. While the 1954 Anglo-Egyptian agreement gave Britain 20 months to withdraw their troops from the Canal zone and the right to reactivate the base if the freedom of the Canal was threatened by external powers seemed to indicate a resolution to the problem of the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian treaty, Nasser undermined the British sponsored Middle East defence organisation the Baghdad Pact, by pressuring Jordan not to join.

Nasser’s opposition to Israel threatened to renew the armed conflict in the Middle East. As a result his requests for military equipment from the west were refused. In July 1955 he turned instead to the Eastern bloc with an agreement with Czechoslovakia. Crucially, however, while there was western agreement that Nasser had to go, it was for very different reasons. For the United States it was because Nasser stood in the way of Middle Eastern unity in opposition to the USSR and Britain because Nasser was undermining Britain’s position in the region and the rest of the British empire. Opposition to Nasser’s policies led to Britain and the US withdrawing their promised finances of the Aswan High Dam in mid-July 1956. Nasser found an alternative source of income in his nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company on 26 July.

That evening when the news came in Eden was having dinner with the King and Prime Minister of Iraq and said Nasser had to go because he could not be allowed to ‘have his hand on our windpipe’ and ‘knock him off his perch’. But this was not going to happen quickly or decisively due to problems with military capabilities and readiness.

In private preparations were made for the use of force, including collusion with Israel and France for a pretext for the use of force which led to the Sevres Protocol on 22 October. In public, however, Britain pursued a diplomatic settlement thorough negotiation: a Maritime Conference of 22 Nations in August and the American sponsored Suez Canal Users’ Association in September.

The military operation ended abruptly when the UN called for a cease-fire on 2 November. The conflict led to a run on the pound and a sudden decline in Britain’s gold reserves. Although loans from the IMF would have eased the pressure, American backing for this was essential and so Britain had to bow to Washington’s demand for a ceasefire. The British had miscalculated, holding faulty perceptions of US policy: believed they would support or at least be indifferent, hoping at least for benign neutrality. Eisenhower summed up when he addressed the National Security Council on 1 November “How could we possibly support Britain and France and in doing so we lose the whole Arab world?”

 

Results of the Suez Crisis: a Turning Point?

The crisis led to a change to the regional balance of power for while the Egyptian air force destroyed, Nasser emerged as the only Arab leader capable of challenging the west. Israel gained for although did not depose Nasser, the UNEF guaranteed freedom of shipping in the Gulf of Aqaba and this gave Israel a Red Sea port. France applied her lessons when de Gaulle became President 18 months later with a European focus to French foreign policy. Part of de Gaulle’s veto British entry into the EEC can be explained by the Suez experience, not allowing Britain to be a Trojan horse of American interests. France withdrew from the military structure of NATO and refused to support American policy in Lebanon and Vietnam.

Globally it can be argued that the crisis formalised the dominance of the two superpowers and established a balance of power that remained effective until the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Some see Suez as confirmation that Britain was hopelessly overstretched, that if a global role was to be retained it would have to be subordinate to superpower interests. The limits of post-war British power were demonstrated and the further British decline as an imperial power in Middle East, Africa and South East Asia was presaged. Others look at the relationship between Suez and the British decision to join the EEC, as if that decision was a result of Britain acknowledging and adjusting to a new reality – where it had lost an empire and was seeking a new role.

Margaret Thatcher certainly saw Suez as both a turning point and reference point. She believed the impact of Suez on British policy making thereafter, a “Suez syndrome”, was negative: ‘having previously exaggerated our power, we now exaggerated our impotence’. And she drew on Suez to enhance her foreign policy achievements: “The significance of the Falklands War was enormous, both for Britain’s self-confidence and for our standing in the world. Since the Suez fiasco in 1956, British foreign policy had been one long retreat”. (The Downing Street Years).

It is also important to remember that at the time British policy assumptions remained the same. Britain still saw itself as a great power and still aimed to maintain global influence. And while Britain continued to exercise influence globally, on decisive issues it would do so only in close consultation with the US. In this way Britain continued to exercise its influence and remained active in the Middle East. British power may have diminished, but her interests remained the same. Britain remained concerned about Arab nationalism, communism and the Arab-Israeli dispute. Britain used military force in 1958 to intervene in support of Jordan and Kuwait in 1961, counterinsurgency campaigns were fought in Aden and Dhofar and Britain remained active and engaged even after the East Suez decision down to 1991 and beyond.

Whether or not Suez is a turning point or a reference point, it magnified British unpreparedness to undertake a limited war and the incoherency of British ends, ways and means. The fear that a failure to tackle Nasser would be disastrous for British prestige ended in disaster and ignominy. And in this way Antony Nutting was surely right to suggest that enduring significance of the crisis is its No End of a Lesson.

Image: Smoke rises from oil tanks beside the Suez Canal hit during the initial Anglo-French assault on Port Said, 5 November 1956, via the Imperial War Museum.

SUEZ SIXTY YEARS ON: THE LAND WAR

This is the first in a series of posts drawn from an event to mark the 60th anniversary of the Suez Crisis which the Defence Studies Department Strategy and Defence Policy Research Centre hosted on November 7th, 2016. Recordings of the papers will be posted shortly to the Department soundcloud.

DR GERAINT HUGHES

An analysis of land operations for both Operations Kadesh (the Israeli Defence Force’s onslaught into the Sinai from 29th October 1956) and Musketeer (the Anglo-French invasion from 5th November) needs firstly to recognise the significance of joint operations, not least because of the use of airborne and amphibious forces. Secondly, it is worth bearing in mind that only one of the campaigns – Kadesh – actually succeeded, as the Anglo-French assault on Port Said was halted by international diplomatic opposition (and more importantly, American financial pressure on the UK). This blog post will summarise key points about the land war from the perspectives of the four belligerents concerned.

A fair assessment of the Egyptian performance should acknowledge that Egypt was a victim of aggression, and was the subject of an unprovoked attack (certainly as far as Britain and France was concerned). The sense of shock felt by its President and military commanders is reflected in Jamal Abdel Nasser’s telephone conversation to his confidante Mohammed Heikal on 29th October, in which the former exclaimed: ‘Something very strange is happening. The Israelis are in the Sinai and they seem to be fighting the sands’. In combat against the IDF (notably with the battles of Abu Agheila and Rafah) and the British and French in Port Said Egyptian soldiers and volunteers fought with considerable courage and tenacity (as was the case in 1967 and 1973), but they were poorly served by a command structure presided over by Nasser’s crony, Field Marshal Hakim Amer. Amer’s utter unsuitability for high command was exposed by Suez, but he remained as Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian armed forces until the catastrophe of the Six Day War of June 1967.

The assault on the Sinai was a test for the manoeuvrist (to use an anachronistic term) doctrine the Israeli armed forces developed after 1948. The War of Independence (or the Nabka, depending on your perspective) had been an existential struggle for the nascent state. Egypt’s acquisition of Soviet bloc arms, Nasser’s belligerent rhetoric, the blockade of the Straits of Tiran, and Cairo’s support for the Palestinian fedayeen were all necessary and sufficient causes of a pre-emptive attack as far as the Israelis were concerned. As was the case with the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars the mobilisation of the citizen soldiers of the IDF was a headache for the country’s civilian and military leaders. 60% of the vehicles requisitioned for the IDF’s use were found to be unserviceable, and the 1956 conflict was as much of a ‘come as you are’ war as the 1948 war.

Nonetheless, the IDF benefited from a war-fighting concept which emphasised initiative and audacity, as exemplified by the seizure of the Mitla Pass by Ariel Sharon’s force of 395 paratroopers, and indeed the overrunning of the Sinai by its armoured columns over the course of eight days. The IDF took heavy casualties in the process, with 231 soldiers killed and 899 wounded in action, but Kadesh was nonetheless a precursor to the more crushing victory won against Egypt in 1967.

The French had extensive experience of expeditionary operations in Indochina, and were also involved in the struggle against the ALN in Algeria. With Musketeer Guy Mollet’s government and France’s high command accepted subordination to the British, but in a striking parallel with Anglo-American tensions over Normandy in 1944 commanders like Generals Andre Beaufre (the deputy to the Land Force commander General Hugh Stockwell) and Jean Gilles felt that their British counterparts were too cautious and timid in the planning and execution of Musketeer. General Jacques Massu’s proposals for airborne landings on Ismailia and Kantara were vetoed by Stockwell, and Gilles – a salty para of Indochina fame – never concealed his disdain for any of his peers who weren’t (a) French and/or (b) wearing airborne wings. A contrast between British and French air drops on 5th November showed that les Paras had better kit and weaponry, and were also more practiced in the intricacies of command and control, as demonstrated by Gilles’ use of a Nordatlas transport plane as an aerial command post.

The British were hampered by the fact that the Army in particular was positioning itself for a nuclear conflict alongside NATO allies against the Soviet bloc, while also fighting insurgencies in a shrinking overseas empire. The UK’s involvement in the Korean War (1950-1953) was treated by the Chiefs of Staff as an anomaly, and in the aftermath of Normandy and Walcheren the expertise in and capabilities for amphibious operations so painstakingly acquired in WWII was simply forgotten. The late 1940s and early 1950s saw the Royal Marines’ (RM) 3 Commando Brigade (3 Cdo) chasing Communist guerrillas in Malaya, while at the time Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal (26th July 1956) the Parachute Regiment was on anti-EOKA duties in Cyprus. To use the analogy Field-Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery employed a year after Suez, the British armed forces were prepared for a ‘test match’ (WWIII), but were unprepared for ‘village cricket’ (intervention operations against state-based adversaries).

At the time of Suez the UK’s armed forces had a Strategic Reserve set aside from NATO that nominally consisted of 3 Cdo, the 16th Independent Airborne Brigade (16AB) and the 3rd Infantry Division (3 Div). However, as early as the Abadan Crisis of 1951 it became clear that Britain lacked the capability for a combat air assault involving 16AB; the RAF lacked the transport aircraft needed for another Arnhem, and by the autumn of 1956 it only had sufficient capacity to drop a battalion of paratroopers into battle (with 3PARA on Gamil Airfield on the night of the 5th November). It also took time for the British to muster the air and maritime assets needed to position forces for intervention following Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal, which meant that a military fait accompli (which the Americans may have tacitly accepted) was impossible to achieve.

The mobilisation of 27,000 reservists and the retention of 6,200 national servicemen also contributed to a morale crisis within the Army, albeit not one as grave as that suffered by the French in Algeria or the Americans over Vietnam. In this respect, the decision to abolish National Service taken with the Sandys Review of 1957 represented a pragmatic recognition by Harold Macmillan’s government that overseas interventions could only be conducted with an all-volunteer force.

With Musketeer the original plan was to seize Alexandria on 15th September 1956 with the Special Boat Service in the vanguard of an air and amphibious assault, conducted by 3 Div, 10th Armoured Division, the 7th Light Armoured Division (French) and the 2nd Infantry Division. The use of the latter formation required its transferral from the British Army of the Rhine, and it was also politically impossible to use the 10th Armoured Division which was stationed in Libya, thanks to basing rights agreed with the regime of King Idris (subsequently overthrown by Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s coup in 1969). Musketeer Revise made Port Said the focus of the Anglo-French landing, which would be Phase 3 in an operation preceded by Phases 1 (the destruction of the Egyptian Air Force) and 2 (the ‘aero-psychological campaign’).

The air drop of 600 British and 487 French paratroopers on the night of the 5th was followed by the landing of 40 and 42 RM Cdo at 0615 on the 6th. One important innovation involved the heliborne landing of 500 marines from 45 Cdo from HMS Ocean and Theseus in Port Said, and British marines and paratroopers also relied on improvised close air support with the RAF in the fighting that followed. By the time of the ceasefire at 0000 on 6th November 2PARA and the 6th Royal Tank Regiment were at El Cap, 23 miles from Port Said. The British had lost 20 dead and 65 wounded, while the French had 8 killed and 65 injured. Egypt’s loses are estimated as 1,600-3,000 military fatalities on both fronts, and 1,000 civilians.

Operations ended due to international pressure for a ceasefire, and in order to ensure Anglo-French and Israeli disengagement the UN deployed its first ‘blue helmet’ peacekeeping mission, the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF). For the belligerents, the outcome of the war had varying effects on the evolution of their land forces. The Egyptian armed forces remained under Amer’s command despite the fact that he was a liability, and its rank and file paid a high price for this in June 1967. Kadesh epitomised the Israeli trait of employing military force pre-emptively to offset the lack of strategic depth, regional isolation, and the political and economic impossibility of mobilising the IDF over a prolonged period of time.

The French refined the use of heliborne manoeuvre in Algeria (1954-1962), and also conducted a parachute drop under combat conditions during the Kolwezi crisis in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1978. In this respect, France maintained a two-tier land forces that consisted of crack units capable of expeditionary operations (paratroopers, Troupes de Marine and the Foreign Legion) and a conscript mass confined to France and Germany, although the mixed performance of French units sent to Bosnia in the early 1990s contributed to the adoption of an all-volunteer military after 1997.

In Britain’s case, Suez led the Army and Royal Marines to prepare for ‘village cricket’, most notably with the ‘Commando Carriers’ which would provide the UK with a quick means of intervention ‘East of Suez’, to be backed by sea-borne armoured/mechanised units if necessary. In reality, interventions like Operation Vantage in Kuwait in 1961 and conflicts like the Falklands War of 1982 turned out to be ‘close-run things’. With Kuwait there was a critical week where British troops lacked the anti-tank weapons needed to resist any Iraqi invasion, while with Operation Corporate their counterparts fighting at Goose Green, Longdon and Tumbledown found themselves faced by incompetently-led and demoralised draftees. British land forces avoided a Dien Bien Phu because they were lucky with the enemies they confronted.

With Operation Telic in 2003 – another politically-contentious and internationally unpopular Middle Eastern intervention – 1st UK Armoured Division and 3 Cdo were hampered by equipment shortages and kit failures just as their counterparts were with Musketeer, and the requirement of soldiers and Royal Marines to beg or scavenge to make up deficiencies led their American allies to nickname them ‘the borrowers’. The men of 3PARA cursing stoppages in their Stens and their faulty radios during the firefight for Gamil airfield would perhaps have seen some grim humour in the similarities between their plight, and those of their future counterparts sent into battle in Iraq in March 2003.

Above the tactical level, however, the enforced halt of Musketeer and the deployment of UNEF arguably saved British and French land forces the quagmire that would in all likelihood have ensued had Nasser been overthrown. The war-fighting phase of Telic/Operation Iraqi Freedom was the easy part; it was the replacement of Baathist totalitarianism with a new order that led to the prolonged occupation which cost the USA 4,491 lives, 318 Coalition fatalities (including 179 British lives lost), and over 100,000 estimated Iraqi dead. Breaking the historian’s rules about counter-factual speculation, it is hard to imagine a pro-Western successor to Nasser being able to survive in power in Egypt without British and French bayonets and tanks to back him up, with all the consequences that would have entailed.

Image courtesy of the Department of History, United States Military Academy.

The Better Angels of America’s Nature: Hate, Hope and the 2016 US presidential election

DR ELLEN HALLAMS

Like many people, I began this year dismissing the possibility that we could end the year with the UK having left the European Union and Donald Trump in the White House. I, like many others, have been blind to the very real fears and anxieties that saw a political earthquake shake the British political and intellectual establishment in June, and which may yet unleash another one on the other side of the Atlantic tomorrow. For those of us for whom the unthinkable – Donald Trump in the White House – has become frighteningly possible, we are faced with trying to understand how so many people not only support his candidacy, but in the process are so venomously hostile to his opponent, Hillary Clinton. The US stands on the verge of electing its first female president yet instead of celebrating the possibility of shattering the greatest glass ceiling of all, the narrative that has dominated Clinton’s path to the White House is of a power-hungry, corrupt woman ruthless in her ambition to occupy the Oval Office. This has been a campaign of hate, violence, smears, lies, and levels of xenophobia and misogyny unseen in the modern era. The prospects for America have never looked bleaker; that is not hyperbole – in the 20 years I have been studying the US never has the country stood so divided over what America stands for, what America is.

So how did it get to this? Trump, it has been argued, represents the latest incarnation of American populism, a political movement that emerged in the late 19th century but whose legacy lives on, through the fears and anxieties of predominantly white working-class Americans who increasingly reject a political establishment that no longer speaks to their needs and concerns. The issues and ideals that inspired the populist movement of the 19th and early 20th century were often genuinely progressive, hailing the cause of the ‘common man’ and seeking to defend the interests of the hard-working farmers and labourers from the greed and corruption of government, industry and big business in America’s ‘Gilded Age.’ But it has always been a more complex political movement, tainted by the shadow of racism and xenophobia, and its advocates – from Theodore Roosevelt to William Jennings Bryan and even Franklin Roosevelt – have themselves often fallen prey to the corruption and scandal they sought to oppose.

One of the most iconic embodiments of progressive populism was not a real-life inhabitant of the White House, but a fictional representation: Jefferson Smith, in Frank Capra’s famous, glorious movie Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939). James Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, leader of the Montana Boy Rangers, who unexpectedly finds himself appointed a US Senator and winds up in Washington. There, his youthful idealism encounters the realities of a corrupt US political system that seeks to destroy his plan for a bill that would create a national boys camp. Demoralised, but not defeated, Mr Smith fights on; in the film’s climax, Smith takes to the floor of the US Senate and in one of the most famous filibusters in American history, gives an impassioned defence of liberty and democracy. Jefferson Smith was perhaps director Frank Capra’s most iconic populist hero. Capra was writing at a time of enormous unease and uncertainty, amidst the tumult and turmoil of the Great Depression at home and mounting fears over war in Europe. By his own admission, Capra wanted to make films that gave hope to the American people in an era dominated by fear, hatred and anxiety over the future, to capture the hopes and fears of the ‘hard-pressed Smiths and Joneses.’

Trump is no Jefferson Smith, but does he give voice to the ‘hard-pressed Smiths and Joneses’ for whom the political establishment has become the embodiment of all that is wrong in 21st-century America? Trump certainly appeals to many for whom the government and political classes are seen as the problem, not the solution. He is not afraid to stand up, to ‘think and to speak’ many of the fears and worries that are at the roots of populism’s rage. Trump professes to embody the fears and beliefs that dare not be spoken, to voice what thousands of people in America’s heartlands – that great swathe of rural America beyond the Beltway – think and feel but which have for too long, in their view, been dismissed as politically incorrect by the liberal intelligentsia. Although they appeal to difference audiences, explicitly distancing themselves from the philosopher-king intellectualism of Barack Obama – which has proved such a turn-off for many Americans – has been an important source of legitimacy both for Trump, and left-wing populists like Bernie Sanders.

But Trump’s populism is of the most dangerous kind, far removed from the moral idealism of Jefferson Smith. Trump’s appropriates the language of freedom and democracy to mask an authoritarianism that seeks to take America back to a simpler, ‘purer’ (read: whiter) past, one untainted by multiculturalism, equality and pluralism. His candidacy is not the first to do this. As Michael Kazin notes in his article on Trump and Populism for Foreign Affairs, as populism evolved in the 20th century it became increasingly intertwined with racism and xenophobic nationalism; even in the 1880s, parts of the movement sought to ban imported Chinese and Japanese labourers resulting in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Although the Populist Party led by William Jennings Bryan collapsed and never saw the inside of the White House, populism as a political force lived on. By the 1920s, the Klu Klux Klan had become the most visible and extreme manifestation of the socio-cultural populism that increasingly demonised the ‘other’ – from Japanese-Americans interned during WWII, to African-Americans denied the rights fought for during the Civil War, to annual quotas on immigrants. It found its voice in the campaigns of George Wallace and Barry Goldwater in the 1960s who fought for states’ rights and to overturn the hard-won gains of the Civil Rights movement, and in Pat Buchanan in the 1990s with his isolationist platform for the presidency that sought to build a ‘sea wall’ to stop immigrants from ‘sweeping over our southern borders.’ Sound familiar?

If Bernie Sanders represents a more traditional, economic populism, then Trump is the manifestation of its worst, and most dangerous excesses. Yet never has this strain of American populism come so perilously close to the White House. Lyndon Johnson succeeded in defeating Republican challenger Barry Goldwater largely by branding him as a dangerous extremist; Hillary Clinton’s attempts to do the same appear to be floundering. Why? Clinton, for all her qualities as a champion of women and children’s rights, is the archetypal Washington insider, the very embodiment of a political establishment and personal dynasty that is feared and loathed by so many. Trump has undoubtedly used lies and manipulation to smear and tarnish Hillary, but allegations of corruption have followed the Clintons from Arkansas to Washington. The email scandal that has tainted her campaign was, for many, just the latest scandal in a sordid Clinton-family saga of power and corruption. Many, myself included, will celebrate her victory if she does indeed become America’s first female candidate but, like Barack Obama, her triumph may expose more wounds than it heals.

As a recent study showed, feminism and women’s equality is a seen as a threat to many white, working-class males, living in a post-industrial economy which poses challenges to traditional gender roles and Trump has tapped into this angst with frightening ease. While many Republicans have come out to vociferously oppose the sexism and misogyny at the heart of Trump’s campaign, hostility towards women is, sadly, one of the strongest predictors of support for Trump. A defeat for Trump may send him packing from Washington, but the sentiments he has manipulated and exploited will remain long after he has gone. A Clinton presidency – through policies designed to help close the gender pay gap, provide for affordable childcare and paid leave, and increase the minimum wage – may go some way towards the ‘unfinished business’ of greater equality and opportunities for women Clinton’s former advisor Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote about. But as Slaughter herself recognised, many of the problems facing women in America today are ones shared by their male counterparts who have parental and caring responsibilities and who face many of the same challenges in navigating the personal and the professional in the 21st-century. This helps explain, in part, why Hillary has strong support amongst college-educated white males; non-educated white males, however, have shown overwhelming support for Trump. She may not need their votes to gain the White House, or to stay there, but neither can she dismiss the needs and fears of the ‘angry white men’ who feel left behind by the advances in feminism, multiculturalism and civil rights of the last few decades.

Where then, will America be left on November 9th? Polling suggests that Clinton will likely prevail in the electoral college (this is a process whereby each state has a certain number of electors appointed, reflecting the number of members in that state’s congressional delegation – both House and Senate – so the larger and more populous a state, the more votes are up for grabs. Each state bar Maine and Nebraska adopts a winner-take-all approach, and to win the presidency you must win 270 electoral college votes). But, as Brexit reminded us, polls can be fickle things and there are a number of key ‘swing states’ crucial for any president to win the electoral college – Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia – that remain up for grabs. Early voting is showing strong support for Clinton yet her overall poll-lead over Trump has declined from 14-points prior to the FBI’s recent decision to re-open the investigation into Hillary’s emails, to a mere two points in the last few days.

Whatever happens, America’s wounds will not heal easily. It may seem naive to hope that a modern-day Jefferson Smith can rise from the ashes of this campaign and fight for the ‘Smiths and the Joneses’ without recourse to the demagoguery, racism, sexism and violence that Trump embodies. The problem for America is that, as many have pointed out, this is where America is in 2016. It is a nation where demagoguery, lies, hatred, racism, sexism, xenophobia and even violence have found a home and a voice. And Americans are having to live this election and all that is represents; as one social media user commented: ‘To the bystanders who think this election is a train wreck. We. Are. On. The. Train.’ But this is also an election that is bearing witness to the extraordinary belief that America is better than this, that America remains a country where pluralism, diversity, inclusivity, tolerance and hope can and do thrive; to cite one of Barack Obama’s favourite quotes from Martin Luther King, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.’

Fearing the fall-out from making a film so critical of the US political system at a time when the nation’s political leaders were facing momentous challenges, Frank Capra questioned whether he ought to even make Mr Smith Goes to Washington, but concluded that ‘the more uncertain are the people of the world…the more they need a ringing statement of America’s democratic ideals…It is never untimely to yank the rope of freedom’s bell.’ If ever there was a time to reclaim all that is great and good about America and its democratic ideals, that time is now. As America stands poised on the brink of one of its most vitriolic and consequential elections in modern history, we should be reminded of one of America’s most beloved and revered presidents, Abraham Lincoln who, in his first inaugural address, spoke to a nation divided: ‘We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’

Image: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during United States presidential election 2016 via wikimedia commons.

 

Trafalgar Day, History Rhymes, and Russians in the Channel

DR DAVID MORGAN-OWEN

The Battle of Trafalgar holds a special place in British history. The victory of 21st October 1805 is wound into the fabric of the nation: visitors to central London cannot help but awe at Nelson’s column and the surrounding square built in honour of his greatest achievement.

The importance of the Battle and the manner of the victory also holds a special place in the minds of British naval officers, for whom Trafalgar Day remains a source of pride and a connection with their service’s glorious past. This was true as much a century ago as it is today, particularly for one of the titans of the Edwardian Navy: Admiral Sir John Fisher.

Familiar to history for his ‘ruthless, relentless, remorseless’ reform of the Royal Navy and his championing of new weapons such as the submarine and HMS Dreadnought, Fisher was also acutely aware of the tradition in which he followed. He was fond of reminding friends and colleagues that he had been nominated as a candidate for entry to the Navy by Admiral Sir William Parker – the last officer to have been a captain under Nelson himself. This sense of history led Fisher to ensure that, when he learned that he would assume the office of First Sea Lord in the autumn of 1904, the date of his appointment was made for October 21st. Fisher relished this connection with the past, writing to supporters in anticipation of ‘our opening day on Trafalgar day’.

It is often remarked that Fisher was not a fighting Admiral – he last saw combat in 1882 during the siege of Alexandria and, despite a string of fleet commands, never led a force into battle. Yet his administration of the Admiralty began with an incident that very nearly pitched the Navy and the country into war, and one which will witness an uncomfortable parallel this week.

The year 1904 was one of rapid change in the international scene. After decades of tensions, Britain and France has signed the Entente Cordiale in April, bringing to a close twenty years of animosity and suspicion between the two in the colonial sphere. This rapprochement was threatened from the outset, however, by a war between Britain and France’s respective allies in Asia: Japan and Russia. The two Asian powers had been embroiled in a conflict for regional supremacy since February 1904, during which time London and Paris had worked hard to avoid being drawn in to the fighting in honour of their alliance commitments (to Tokyo and St. Petersburg respectively). This uneasy state of affairs was put to the test the day after Fisher arrived at the Admiralty, when Russian attempts to reinforce their faltering Pacific Fleet precipitated a crisis in the North Sea.

The Russians had faired poorly in the Far East during the course of 1904. The Japanese had caught the Tsar’s Pacific Fleet at anchor at Port Arthur and disabled several capital ships with a surprise torpedo attack in February, whereafter the Russian’s had struggled to regain the initiative against a modern, effective adversary. In an effort to redress the balance, Tsar Nicholas II dispatched his Baltic Fleet on the long journey to reinforce the beleagured Russian squadron in the east. British naval intelligence had long been sceptical as to the Russian Fleet’s efficiency, discipline, and fighting capacity, but the passage of the squadron through British waters remained a source of diplomatic tension. Relations between Britain and Russia had been strained for over a decade as the Tsar’s forces agitated along the North-West Frontier of India and the government was in no mind to aid the Russian passage. The British Fleet was thus on high alert as the Russian’s made their journey south towards the Channel.

The detail of what followed remains unclear, but it appears that the jittery Russian crews mistook a crowd of British fishing vessels off the Dogger Bank for a swarm of hostile torpedo boats and, fearful of the fate which had befallen their comrades in the Pacific, opened fire. The result was chaos. Russian ships fired upon each other, reported phantom torpedo hits, and let loose hundreds of shells at the unsuspecting fishermen. That none of the fishing vessels were sunk bore testament to the accuracy of naval intelligence’s appreciation of the Russian’s fighting capabilities, but at a time of great international uncertainty the affair very nearly escalated into a major crisis. The British Prime Minister, Arthur Baflour, was incandescent and initially inclined to unleash the might of the combined British Fleets upon the unsuspecting Russians. Admiral Fisher reported to his wife that ‘it has very nearly been war again. Very near indeed…’ The Russians obdurately refused to accept responsibility, Balfour’s brother lamenting ‘their inveterate habit of trying to take back in detail what they have conceded in the gross’. This intransigence obliged the British, who were unwilling start a war over the episode, to concede to international arbitration over the issue. In the meantime, the government closed the Suez Canal to the Russian ships, forcing them to take the Cape route to Port Arthur. The delay only postponed their fate: the Russian fleet suffered a decisive defeat at the Battle of Tsushima in May 1905. The Japanese victory was so complete that the Admiralty larconically described it as ‘equivalent to Trafalgar.’

A little over two centuries since Nelson triumphed over the Franco-Spanish Fleet and some 112 years after Britain and Russia almost went to war over the Dogger Bank incident, Russian warships will again visit British waters this week. The venerable Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and a number of escorts departed from Severomorsk and ports in the Baltic late last week, bound for the eastern Mediterranean. The Royal Navy and its NATO partners are preparing to escort the Russian armada on its highly provocative passage through the English Channel, which may indeed occur on the anniversary of Trafalgar itself.

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HMS Dragon with Russian Aircraft Carrier ‘Admiral Kuzetsov’ in 2014 via flickr.

The US are also keeping a close eye on the Russian flagship, not least due to the risk of her long-running history of mechanical problems resulting in her needing assistance during her voyage. Fishermen in the vicinity of the Dogger Bank may also be advised to keep a weather eye on the Russian ships, if history is any guide.

The Kuznetsov will add relatively little to Russian military capability in the eastern Mediterranean. Experts on Russian military affairs highlight the chronic shortage of pilots trained to operate from her and point out that her lack of catapult launchers will preclude planes taking off with a full payload of weapons. A tacit acknowledgement of her ongoing shortcomings is the fact that she will undergo a full refit upon return from the deployment in 2017.

Nevertheless, her deployment reminds us that, as Hew Strachan commented, ‘geography provides strategy with an underlying continuity.’ Britain’s position off the north-west coast of Europe means places her, as it has done for centuries, astride the key lines of maritime communication between Europe and the rest of the world. Just as she acted as a ‘breakwater’ obstructing German ambitions to world power in Admiral Fisher’s era, geography and capability make her the European country best placed to patrol NATO’s maritime flank in the event of Russian hostility. Her will to accept this role is less clear. With the arrival of the new aircraft carriers drawing closer these are exciting times for the Royal Navy, but the government has still yet to answer the vexed question of how many escorts will accompany them. Without the necessary support, the carriers may indeed become ‘exquisite capabilities’ or worse, critical vulnerabilities for an over-stretched Fleet.

The Russian’s will demonstrate the symbolic value of a carrier when they pass through the Straits of Dover this week. Nelson, Fisher, and today’s Royal Navy will be hoping that the Queen Elizabeths will afford Britain both prestige and military power.

Image: Lord Nelson atop Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square via wikimedia commons.

 

Do we need international history?

Defence-in-Depth is pleased to welcome Prof Joe Maiolo – Director of the Sir Michael Howard Centre for the History of War, and Professor of International History – to the blog. If you would be interested to contribute a guest post please contact the editors: Dr Amir Kamel and Dr David Morgan-Owen

PROFESSOR JOE MAIOLO

International history is not in vogue. Ambitious doctoral students gravitate to international relations theory, or, to one of the more fashionable historical research themes such as transnational or global history. While the study of how transnational processes such as migration, the diffusion of ideas or trade shaped contemporary life is important, the neglect of international history is certainly regrettable and perhaps even dangerous.

It is worth reflecting on when and why the field took shape to appreciate its values and purpose. The study of diplomacy dated back to the renaissance and nineteenth century historians such as Leopold von Ranke brought rigor to the study of foreign policy making. But the study of international politics as a whole, or more precisely the inner workings of the system of states, only began with the outbreak of the First World War.

In Britain, a group of liberal intellectuals met regularly to discuss how future great wars could be prevented by establishing a new global order. At a time when the popular press and propaganda blamed Germany and its allies for the war, these progressive thinkers, many of whom became leading lights in the League of Nations movement, took a different tack. They saw the origins of the great war not in the policies or actions of any one state, but in what the philosopher Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson described in the title of his 1917 book as The European Anarchy. For Dickinson and others of his intellectual circle, the unbridled pursuit by the great powers of their selfish policies generated the forces of nationalism, imperialism, and militarism, which conspired in the summer of 1914 to cause a great war.

After the war, liberal internationalist benefactors such as the Welsh industrialist David Davies and the Scottish philanthropists Daniel Stevenson invested in the ‘scientific’ study of international relations to combat the chauvinistic nationalism prevalent in public debates about international affairs, which included professorships in international history. As Stevenson put it, the kind of jingoistic national history that had been typically taught across Europe before the war had created ‘among the peoples from childhood onwards a spirit of antipathy, ill-will and even hatred of other peoples … [he was] convinced that the teaching of history internationally and as far as practicable without bias would tend to substitute for this spirit a spirit of international co-operation, peace and good will …’.

While Stevenson overestimated the capacity of a cosmopolitan education to promote international cooperation, the idea that a dispassionate and systematic analysis of international events from multiple national archives and perspectives could offer fresh insight was vindicated in the debate about German ‘war guilt’.

To counter the claim that Berlin had deliberately launched the war in the summer of 1914, the German foreign ministry began to publish its pre-war diplomatic documents. Other countries followed the German example to absolve themselves from responsibility and to blame on others for the war. For the burgeoning field of international history, this ‘battle of books’ of the 1920s was a tremendous boost. Suddenly historians had access to the secret diplomatic papers of most of the major powers and with them they could piece together how national foreign policies and actions interacted with each other, and appreciate the way in which misperception and miscalculations engendered mutual mistrust and fear in the decade before 1914. The upshot was that revisionist historians in the 1930s concluded that war had come not as the result of a premeditated plan hatched in Berlin, but inadvertently in the midst of a great power crisis that had spun out of control.

The debate about 1914 continues to this day, but the quality of that debate and our understanding of the causes of the other big wars that have blighted Europe and the world since the fifteenth century increased markedly with the multi-archival methods and systemic approach of international history. The field moved from the narrow assigning of blame to answering profound questions about causation and the nature of world politics.

The premise of international history is that states are not autonomous units, but are parts of an interconnected states system. The structure of system shapes state behaviour and the interaction of states can produce forces and outcomes that are beyond anyone’s control or intent. Understanding why the nineteenth century and Cold War were, for example, periods of relative long peace and stability, and why the eighteenth century and first half of the twentieth century were war prone, demands that historians grasp the structure, the sources of power and ideas that prevail in international politics. The documents from multiple national archives about foreign policy making only make sense in that systemic context. This is the approach of the best works in the field, most notably Paul W. Schroeder’s masterpiece The Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848 (Oxford, 1994).

With the end of the Cold War, however, the study of international history fell into decline, and was widely regarded by the profession as a relic of a state-centric historiography that could be safely neglected. The threat great wars appeared to recede as the forces of globalisation fashioned a new borderless world. Historians thus turned their attention to transnational phenomena such as migration, political activism, social and cultural movements, the creation of intellectual networks, cultural clashes and the expansion of world trade and finance, and the proliferation of non-governmental organisations and the development of human rights norms and practices. All of this work is important. In the last two decades we have learned a lot about how non-state interactions and exchanges have shaped the modern world, more so than any analysis of state-to-state relations would have revealed. In fact the founders of international history would have welcomed this effort to transcend the narrow national/state perspective in historical research.

However, the elaboration of transnational and global history did not mean that the states system and the horrific violence that it could produce was in any way less important than we had previously thought. Indeed, the dark side of globalisation – one that global and transnational historians neglect – has been the escalating lethality, speed, and global reach of the nation-state’s means of destruction, a development that has not ceased since the explosion of the first atomic bombs over Japan in 1945. Since the 1990s some historians appear to have forgotten that the great expansion of the transnational sphere from the 1970s onwards occurred in the shadow of a strategic nuclear deadlock between the superpowers.

New areas of research and developing fresh approaches is the lifeblood of academic disciplines, but scholars have an unfortunate tendency to foreclose on the insights, goals and values of previous generations in their rush to stake out claims to originality and importance. International history began a century ago in an effort to understand the cause of war and the conditions of peace. Conflict in the Ukraine, endemic war in the Middle East, maritime disputes in Southeast Asia, the rise of nationalist-authoritarian politics all over the world and global arms rivalry are all ominous reminders that the imperatives and ideals that inspired the foundation of international history a century ago are as pertinent today as they were then.

For a fuller treatment of these issues, see my essay ‘Systems and Boundaries in International History’, The International History Review (2016).

Image: A Kuwaiti oil field set afire by retreating Iraqi troops burns in the distance beyond an abandoned Iraqi T-55A tank following Operation Desert Storm, via wikimedia commons.