Military History

suez

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.

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Why Islamic State is wrong: Sykes-Picot is not responsible for controversial borders in the Middle East – but the British military is (Part 2)

This is Part Two of a two part series on the topic by Dr. Rod Thornton.

Dr Rod Thornton

Throughout Ottoman times and from probably much earlier, it was the agricultural produce of the Mosul vilayet that fed the people of the less fertile vilayets of Baghdad and Basra. Finished-goods trade went the other way. The three vilayets were thus an economic unit (hence they were referred to as the collective of Al Iraq). Therefore when Anglo-Indian troops seized Baghdad in March 1917 they had compounded a problem that had begun with their initial capture of Basra in 1914. If Mosul vilayet and its grain were still in Ottoman hands then how were these two cities and the rest of British-occupied Mesopotamia to be fed? Bringing in the necessary supplies through Basra port could only ever be a temporary expedient. This issue was adding to the general economic dislocation created already by the exigencies of war. There was the very real possibility of mass starvation and certainly of unrest caused by shortages. Lt.-Gen. William Marshall, commanding the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force, and Arnold Wilson, the civil administrator there, realised that if they were ever to effectively control not just occupied Mesopotamia, but also any post-war Al Iraq that was designed to emerge from the war, then the ‘granary’ that was Mosul vilayet had to be seized from the Ottomans; and it had to be seized as quickly as possible.

Marshall and Wilson also wanted to have British troops occupying Mosul vilayet in order that its Christian minority stayed in place. If the vilayet was not occupied by British forces when the war ended then there would very likely be a mass exodus of these Christians south into those areas of Mesopotamia that the British had already occupied. Christian refugees had, throughout the war, been fleeing Ottoman excesses and moving down from Anatolia through neutral Persia and into British-held Mesopotamia. A vast refugee camp to house these refugees had been set up at Baquba. To keep these refugees fed even British troops had to go short of rations. Thus what Marshall and Wilson could not afford was another influx of Christians – fearing Turkish reprisals – as British forces closed in on Mosul. The whole vilayet had to be seized and, again, swiftly, in order to keep these Christians in situ.

Linking these two above rationales to occupy this vilayet was the important fact that it was predominantly the Christians who farmed the land of Mosul vilayet. Thus if they did flee, or if they had been massacred in Turkish reprisals, then who would grow the food that was vital in maintaining order in Baghdad, Basra, Najaf, Kerbala, et al? If British troops were in occupation of the whole of the Mosul vilayet, and not just the city, then the Christians would not only stay there but they would also keep farming and the situation could be saved.

For these above reasons, Marshall, was desperate to push on Mosul in October 1918. He was not, however, ordered to take the city, let alone its whole vilayet. He was actually told by the War Office in London to go in two directions – towards Aleppo and also (and merely) ‘up the Tigris’ (on which river Mosul sits).

Marshall convinced higher authorities in London that transport difficulties prevented him from moving towards Aleppo, but he could advance on Mosul. This was accepted by the War Office. So the aim now was to take Mosul in order, as Marshall himself put it in a letter home, that ‘the great granary of the Turks, i.e. Erbil district, would come under our control’. But his forces were being stretched and Marshall was moving on a city that he had no specific orders to take. He was thus sticking his neck out on two fronts. As he wrote to his brother on 30 October 1918, ‘there must be supplies in Mosul and we must risk the venture’.

The ‘whistle blew’ the next day, at midday on 31 October 1918. The Turks had finally sued for peace and the Armistice of Mudros had been signed. The negotiations for this agreement had been left in the hands of Royal Navy officers. The terms they produced were confusing and open to interpretation. At that time, Marshall’s troops were still some 12 miles short of Mosul city. According to the Turks, these troops should have maintained their position as per the armistice agreement. However, after a series of discussions between British and Turkish commanders and the application of force majeure, British troops went on to move in and occupy the city on 8 November. This was galling enough for the Ottoman high command but then, during the first two weeks of November, British forces went on to take possession of the whole of the rest of Mosul vilayet as well. They went right up to the rough line that constituted the northern border of Mosul vilayet (i.e. where Turkish-majority areas began). This line is almost exactly the border today between Iraq and Turkey. Marshall and his men had thus created ‘facts on the ground’ which were in his and Wilson’s interests rather than being the result of direct orders from London.

The Turks felt that they had been cheated by the British out of the Mosul vilayet. In 1920, the Ottoman parliament declared the Misak-i-milli (National Pact). This was a statement about the nature of the post-war boundaries of the new Turkish state that was still then being formed from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. This Pact had originally been proposed by Kemal Ataturk, who was soon to lead his revolution and become president of Turkey. The first stipulation of the six-point Pact covered the controversy over Mosul’s seizure (although without mentioning the region). ‘The future of the territories’, it stated, ‘inhabited by an Arab majority at the time of the signing of the Armistice of Mudros will be determined by a referendum. On the other hand, the territories which were not occupied at that time and inhabited by a Turkish majority are the homeland of the Turkish nation’. The crucial phrase here is ‘at the time of the signing of the Armistice of Mudros’. At that point, of course, British troops were still 12 miles short of Mosul – a city with an ‘Arab majority’. A referendum to decide the city’s future never happened. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, this Pact appears to be claiming most of the Mosul vilayet as part of the ‘Turkish homeland’. This is because the Kurds – forming the majority of the vilayet’s population – were then known by the Turkish state merely as ‘Mountain Turks’, and not as a separate ethnic group. Again, by this logic the large measure of the vilayet not occupied by British forces at the time of Mudros should still therefore be part of Turkey given that it was populated by ‘Mountain Turks’.

According to many in today’s Turkish body politic – one now suffused, thanks to President Recep Erdogan, with neo-Ottomanist sentiment – there should be no border between Turkey and what amounts to today’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). It is the KRG which currently controls all of what may be seen as the old Mosul vilayet; bar, at the time of writing, Mosul city itself (in the hands of IS). In the future, there is always the danger that Ankara may, for a variety of reasons, feel that it has the right to ‘re-incorporate’ the KRG ‘back’ into the Turkish state with all the dangers that entails in terms of regional geo-politics.

 

Image: Wider strategic map showing the offensive in relation to the Northwestern offensive, as well as including the potential objectives of Kafriya and Al-Fu’ah. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Why Islamic State is wrong: Sykes-Picot is not responsible for controversial borders in the Middle East – but the British military is (Part 1)

This is Part One of a two part series on Sykes-Picot and the controversial borders of the Middle East.

Dr Rod Thornton

The Sykes-Picot Agreement, reached during the First World War by Britain and France, has recently been given renewed prominence. This has come about with the claim by Islamic State (IS) that this accord created the current borders of the Middle East – borders which are preventing IS from forming a region-wide Islamic Caliphate. IS, though, is wrong. Sykes-Picot is not to ‘blame’. It had actually been, quote, ‘rescinded’ by the British in October 1917, a year before the war ended. Sykes-Picot thus played no part in the setting up of any post-war borders in the Middle East.

These borders were, in fact, set primarily by the demands of the British military. It was ‘facts on the ground’ created by the advances, sometimes without orders, of British and Imperial troops during the war that ultimately shaped the map of the Middle East, not international agreements such as Sykes-Picot. These British advances (with intermittent retreats) were made northwards during the war from both Egypt and Basra (seized in November 1914) until the war in the Middle East ended in October 1918. They were made against an Ottoman opponent occupying, beyond Turkey itself, what is today’s Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel/Palestine, Iraq and most of the Arabian peninsular.

The fundamental rationales behind the forward momentum of British troops, and thus behind the setting of today’s borders, were, in essence, and to borrow from Lord Ismay, to keep the French out; the Turks down, and the Christians in. My work concentrates specifically on the controversial establishing by British troops of one particular border as a ‘fact on the ground’. This border is that between today’s Turkey and Iraq. There are, currently, many in Turkey who claim that this border should not be there; that it was illegally set by British troops at the end of the war and that today’s Iraqi Kurdish region and the area around the city of Mosul are rightfully Turkish. Thus, according to this logic, and at the very least, Turkish troops today have the perfect right to cross over into Iraqi territory in pursuit of state interests or even to occupy northern Iraq.

Let’s deal with Sykes-Picot first. It was originally a Russian idea. It began to take shape when, in February 1915, Tsarist Foreign Minister Sergei Sazanov came to the British and French with a suggestion for how the three allies – confident of eventual victory over the forces of a decaying Ottoman empire – could carve up that defeated empire. The British MP, Mark Sykes, and a French diplomat, Francois Georges-Picot, negotiated on behalf of their governments. It was initially agreed that the Russians would occupy Constantinople, the Dardanelles and eastern Anatolia. Sykes and Georges-Picot then came to establish how their own countries would create their respective post-war ‘spheres of influence’ in the Levant, Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia. It was accepted by Britain that the French, given their historical ties in terms of trade and as the self-proclaimed ‘protector’ of the Christian communities across the region, would be granted control of, or influence in, what is now Lebanon and Syria and a good deal of today’s Turkey. This was despite France having hardly any troops in the Middle East to help deliver any outcomes. The British, meanwhile, who would do all the fighting to gain the territories in question, would hold post-war sway in what is now Jordan, much of Palestine (bar an ‘international zone’ around Jerusalem) and the area around Baghdad and Basra. The remainder of most of the Arabian peninsular was to be left basically to its own devices. This was because of the need, in British Foreign Office-speak at the time, to avoid in that region ‘any entanglement with the Wahhabees’.

What was crucial in this whole Sykes-Picot project was that any putative British ‘sphere of influence’ did not abut against the area of Anatolia assigned to Russia – Britain’s traditional enemy in this part of the world. This would have occurred had the British taken control of the area around Mosul. Thus the French – long-term allies of the Russians – were, as part of Sykes-Picot, also to be allotted what was referred to as a ‘wedge’ or ‘lozenge’ of territory that ran from the Euphrates to the Persian border across what is today’s northern Iraq. This French area would act as a buffer between the Russians and British. It basically comprised the Ottoman vilayet (administrative region) of Mosul. The British were thus ‘claiming’ – of the three vilayets that together were even then known as Al Iraq – only those of Basra and Baghdad and not Mosul.

Sykes-Picot, ultimately signed in secret in May 1916, did not set any actual borders. The only forms of demarcation it had were some vague ‘partition lines’ drawn in thick lines on a very large-scale map. Boundary commissions, however, could sort out all the details later. These Sykes-Picot ‘lines’ were not totally arbitrary. In large part, they can be seen to be following the vilayet boundaries set by the Ottomans themselves. These boundaries thus must have been authorised by the Sultan himself – a man who was also the leader of the world’s Muslims; that is, he also acted as Caliph. Sykes-Picot can therefore be looked upon, and as a point of irony, as being at least in part based on boundary lines set by the Caliphate itself!

Sykes-Picot, however, was to run into trouble. In March 1917, a revolution in Russia brought to power Alexander Kerensky’s Provisional Government. Liberal in make-up, it felt no need to occupy anyone else’s territory. Petrograd thus told the British and French governments that Russia no longer had any post-war claims on any part of Turkish territory. (It was thus Kerensky’s government that pulled out of Sykes-Picot and not, as generally advertised, the later Bolshevik administration.) This meant, in particular, that if the Russians were reneging then there would no longer be any need for the British to have their buffer of the Mosul ‘wedge’. Thus if the British, later in the war, eventually come to occupy Mosul vilayet then they would not need to hand it over to the French. The Sykes-Picot plan needed to change. As a consequence, and according to a Foreign Office report of 22 October 1917, Sykes-Picot was now ‘no longer applicable’ and would have to be ‘rescinded’.

It actually took some time before the French were officially informed by the British that they would no longer be working towards implementing the agreement. It was only on 14 October 1918 that the British War Cabinet eventually approved the sending of a letter to the French Foreign Minister saying that Sykes-Picot was ‘out of date’. There was now, said the British, a need for ‘fresh conversations’ about the issue of the future of the Middle East.

Sykes-Picot as an agreement was thus to play no further part in the post-war shaping of the political make-up of the Middle East. Yes, French regional interests still had to be accommodated by the British – but not under the banner of Sykes-Picot.

While Sykes-Picot did very little to generate the current borders of the Middle East, another actor did considerably more. This was the British military. It was the demands of this military that ultimately created the facts on the ground which formed the basis for the majority of today’s borders. And while those created by British forces across other parts of the Middle East have their critics, the most controversial is undoubtedly the current border between Turkey and Iraq.

At the time of the Russian withdrawal from their part of the agreement, Anglo-Indian troops in Mesopotamia were still making their slow grind up from Basra and were just about to capture Baghdad (in April 1917). They were thus still some 400kms south of Mosul. But the eventual occupation of this city and its vilayet could, from this time, be treated as a distinctly British war aim and one no longer to be achieved merely in order to hand it over to the French.

But what were British war aims in Mesopotamia? The Anglo-Indian army there was given little in the way of firm direction as to what its goals should actually be. The primary role seemed to be to do nothing more than provide occasional victories against the Ottomans which would boost morale back in Britain. The public in Britain, however, picked up on this aimlessness and questions were being asked about why troops were being wasted in what seemed a pointless enterprise. Rudyard Kipling, indeed, was to write a suitably scathing poem in 1917 about this campaign called Mesopotamia.

By 1918, these troops in Mesopotamia were being diverted to provide support to the rather quixotic detachment of British forces – Dunsterforce – which was operating around Baku. Once this adventure had been concluded in September 1918, all that seemed to be demanded of British forces in Mesopotamia was that their advance northwards kept pace with that being conducted in the far more important campaign in Greater Syria. This was in case Ottoman forces took advantage of any possible flanking opportunities.

It has been suggested in a raft of literature both in the 1920s and also far more recently, that this movement north of British forces towards Mosul vilayet during the war was actually driven by the need to seize the region’s then supposed oil assets. There is, though, no evidence to support this contention. The movement towards Mosul was actually driven by a local need to gain another commodity far more important than oil – food.

 

Image: Map of Sykes–Picot Agreement showing Eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria and Western Persia, and areas of control and influence agreed between the British and the French. Royal Geographical Society, 1910-15. Signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, 8 May 1916. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Research Dispatch from Sydney: New Directions in War and History

by Dr Huw J. Davies 
Today is the penultimate day of my research trip to Sydney (with Canberra and Wellington thrown in). The trip has been what I now call a harvest. I’ve photographed literally thousands of documents, unsure whether they are useful. I’m deferring the actual process of research until a later date. Still, like the many thousands of tourists on Sydney Harbour, I have occasionally looked up from the screen of my digital camera to glimpse what I’m actually taking photographs of.

The man whose papers I have come to see, Lachlan Macquarie, before becoming Governor of New South Wales, served in India for decades, visited China, and journeyed overland from India through Iran and Russia in 1807. I didn’t know that. Moreover, his correspondence from Sydney in the 1810s clearly indicates that his decision-making was influenced by his past experiences.

So often, though, when undertaking research in a library, one stumbles upon other useful little nuggets. Probably my most surprising find was a series of sketch-maps, by Thomas Livingston Mitchell, of Spain in 1813. Mitchell was a Rifleman, but also an excellent draughtsman, so was seconded to the quartermaster general’s department to identify possible routes along which the army could march. One of the maps was on calfskin, and though so finely detailed as to be unreadable, I practically skipped over to the curator’s desk and said, wide-eyed and excitedly, ‘look, it’s an illegible map of Spain… From 1813… On calfskin!’ The curator seemed mildly interested, though I imagine her finger was hovering over a button marked ‘Security’.

Mitchell, though, was more than a mapmaker. In another notebook, I found a set of military maxims derived from the classics, and contemporary military theorists such as Guibert and Henry Lloyd, of whom I have written previously here. For a historian who is dealing mainly with circumstantial and speculative links between theorist and practitioner, direct evidence like this is both rare and pant-wettingly exciting when it crops up – particularly in the most unexpected of places.

All of this at least serves to prove that my research on the development of military thinking and innovation in the eighteenth and nineteenth century has some legs. The subject of military innovation was also a major theme of a conference on New Directions in War and History which I attended at the Australian National University in Canberra.

The study of military history has diversified considerably in recent years: a more appropriate term for the discipline might be ‘history of the military’ or ‘war and society’, as one speaker at this excellent conference highlighted. Despite an everlasting fear that the discipline is under siege from more popular and fashionable genres, military history endures, and like Madonna, regularly reinvents herself.

Traditional operational history – the study of buttons and bullets and blobs on a map – has declined but remains important, as important insights can be offered into the mentality and psychology of human decision-makers under intense pressure. This decline has nevertheless created the impetus for a broader range of study and debate, encompassing other genres, some traditional, and some radically new.

Social history, cultural history, economic history, political history, art history, literary history, media history, gender history, class and religious history, sexuality history, and myth and memory. All were represented with a particular focus on the study of the military. As the keynote speaker, Professor Jeffrey Grey, argued, ‘we take out opportunities where we can’.

As a result of this conference, the study of military history, seems to me to be re-invigorated. The military is closely linked with other aspects of society, and it is impossible, indeed a disservice, to separate these elements from one another. The same currents and challenges that drive adaptation and change in wider society, wields important effects on the military. To study the military in isolation from these undermines our understanding of it as an institution.

Two days after this conference, I flew to Wellington, New Zealand to meet with Professor Charlotte MacDonald and Dr Rebecca Lenihan at Victoria University Wellington, who are studying the social and cultural impact of the garrison state in New Zealand between 1840 and 1870 – the period of the brutal Anglo-Maori Wars.

The communication of ideas, information and knowledge within the military was subject to the same social and cultural currents and upheaval that other parts of society was. The enlightenment of the eighteenth century exerted important influences on the way those in the military thought about their profession, the impact of which continued to be felt well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

From my own perspective, the outcome of this conference confirms for me that the study of military history by the military remains vitally important. Not only does military history offer and opportunity to investigate and analyse command decisions, both successful and unsuccessful, but the subject offers a real opportunity to understand the impact of the military on society and vice versa.

The military frequently feels outpaced by societal developments over which it has no control: this is not a symptom of the Twitter generation, but has always been the case. The military has frequently been caught up in social and political movements and contests, and study of this under-examined aspect of military history can yield important and useful lessons for dealing with different challenges faced today.

You can see the programme from the conference here.

My paper, entitled ‘The Evolution of the British Army’s Use of its History’ is available for download here.

Read about the Soldiers of Empire project at Victoria University Wellington here.

And check out a podcast I recorded when I was in Canberra for The Dead Prussian on Wellington, strategic culture and military innovation.

Image: Reading Room at the Mitchell Wing, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. As always, no research would take place without the help and support of librarians, archivists and curators. Those at the Mitchell have been extraordinarily helpful in meeting my requests over the last two weeks.