Second World War

The First Victory…


The last few years have witnessed a feverish period of remembering Britain’s military and the battles it and others fought during the Great War (what I recall increasingly vaguely as having been referred to at school more commonly as the First World War). A centenary is a historical marker worthy of reflection, particularly for a conflict which involved such horrendous levels of personal sacrifice, human cost and social change. Its place in the psyche of global historians past, present and future is beyond question; for Woodrow Wilson it was “the war to end all wars”, an argument and descriptive term that continues to generate a literature and passionate level of debate all of its own such as can be found in a recent article in The New York Times and Hew Strachan’s 2003 review essay. It certainly led to the fall of kings and ended empires and changed political systems whilst also altering the way conflict was discussed and understood both at the time and still today during the current continuing period of reflection ( has carried on its pages a series of excellent discussions about various aspects of this war which have left this reader much better informed about the catalyst for what followed).

The extended period of recollection which has dominated recent years has rather crowded out a public appetite for discussion of the war that followed. This is a pity as there are still veterans – albeit in ever small numbers – who remain to offer first-hand accounts. The announcement in January 2014 that the Normandy Veterans’ Association was to disband was one of many during recent years as memberships dwindle but there remain men and women with powerful and urgent stories to tell of the Second World War. A range of seventy-fifth anniversary events, defining moments in Britain’s military and cultural psyche such as Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, have passed by with only the briefest of popular reference.

It is fortunate, however, that there remains a considerable academic interest in the second global conflict of the twentieth century. There are various reasons expounded for why there was a Second World War. I have never really seen the ‘controversy’ in A.J.P. Taylor’s 1961 “revisionist argument” in which he “reconnected the First and Second World Wars and drew attention back to Versailles” and simply offered an entirely logical examination of events that continues to underpin our understanding of why Europe once again slid into a second, and even more brutal and destructive war. Explicit to his thesis was an exhausting earlier conflict which resulted in a poorly considered and triumphalist peace. This in turn helped produce an increasingly reflective body of domestic opinion which challenged the merits of an internationalist approach, military intervention and, more generally, the use of force as a lever of national power. It sounds familiar – indeed the replay of more recent events seems difficult to escape – but the degree to which there remained, even after the war had begun, an apathy amongst leading elements of British society for what was viewed as an ill-considered moral crusade against Nazi Germany can easily be forgotten. In this context Lord Owen’s fascinating new account (‘Cabinet’s Finest Hour’) is particularly timely as it attempts to re-focus attention to the political drama of May 1940, albeit whilst in its epilogue also musing on more recent Westminster dramas.

The focus for many historians and the public at large may have been fixed somewhere between 1914 and 1918 but as the recent most welcomed additions to the literature have demonstrated (notably including the first volume of Dan Todman’s hugely impressive ‘Britain’s War’), there certainly still remains considerable opportunities to scrutinise the war that followed the twenty-year peace and the themes and events that contributed to its structural foundations. To this end, in my latest book, The First Victory: The Second World War and the East Africa Campaign, published this week by Yale University Press, I have attempted to explore one of the many gaps and look at what has been viewed by many as a peripheral military campaign. I previously had the opportunity to introduce to the Joint Services Command and Staff College this almost entirely overlooked strand of the Second World War as a case study for examination. In the supporting instructor notes I summarised it then with the following paragraph:

Fighting began in early July 1940 and ended in November 1941; the principal Allied offensive actually began in the January. Just eleven months later the 70,000 strong British-led force had succeeded in defeating an Italian army of nearly 300,000 men, in the process capturing 50,000 prisoners and occupying 360,000 square miles all at a cost of 500 casualties and just 150 men killed. It was a varied and wide-ranging conflict that witnessed many different types of military operations. These ranged from commando raids to long mechanised pursuits, mountain assaults and a protracted attritional battle. Added to this was an often decisive use of airpower, a triumphal amphibious landing and a generally incredible feat of logistical planning. In the process Mussolini’s East African Empire had been destroyed and the British Empire had secured its first significant wartime victory.

Having now had the opportunity to study in considerable depth the battles fought in British and Italian Somaliland, Ethiopia and Eritrea drawing upon primary sources from Britain, Kenya, South Africa, the United States and (even) Australia, this remains a reasonable description. Thanks to a bold and imaginative publisher who was willing to take a risk with what might have seemed too obscure an event to attract popular attention and a fantastic editor, I have been hugely fortunate to be able to see another book made available for public scrutiny and I hope they will accept my contention that there was huge operational and strategic significance in the crushing victory secured by British and Commonwealth forces that fought in East Africa. But at the same time – and just as importantly – in so doing I hope I will also have highlighted that there still remain a great many gaps in our knowledge of the Second World War which I and many of my colleagues in the department are actively doing our best to tackle.

[An addition to this blog will be published in November 2016 at marking the anniversary of the campaign’s end]

Images taken from ‘The War Weekly incorporating War Pictorial’.

Balancing past and present: Edward Mead Earle and Makers of Modern Strategy


This post is based on my article which appears in the most recent issue of The Journal of Military History.

It might be considered that in producing a significant contribution to scholarship, a scholar ensures his or her own reputation. Yet this is not always the case. Edward Mead Earle, Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton for twenty years from 1934, has long languished in obscurity. This is despite the fact that his 1943 edited volume Makers of Modern Strategy: Military Thought from Machiavelli to Hitler proved to be a seminal text, read by a multitude of scholars – as well as soldiers – in the years following his premature death in 1954. Notable amongst this cohort was Sir Michael Howard, who recounts in his autobiography that when preparing to take a lectureship at the War Studies Department of King’s College London, UK he was advised to read Makers. ‘By following up its references’, he writes, ‘I started to build up a corpus of knowledge […] The history of war, I came to realize, was more than the operational history of armed forces. It was the study of entire societies.’

For decades almost nothing was written about Earle. In recent years, however, this situation has changed. For example, Patrick Porter has noted Earle’s part in bringing the concept of ‘national security’ to the mainstream of public and academic debate, underlining the enlarged concept of strategy that Earle brought to his work. David Ekbladh, meanwhile, has offered a sustained analysis of Earle’s career, arguing that Earle should be considered as an unheralded depression-era pioneer of security studies in the USA.

My own contribution in The Journal of Military History emphasizes Earle’s role as a historian through an investigation into the creation of Makers of Modern Strategy and Earle’s subsequent attempt to work towards a revised second edition of the volume. By focusing on the genesis of Makers, Earle’s concerns as a historian come to the fore. In line with his approach to historical study, the Makers project saw Earle attempt to connect the past to the present in an effort to enhance both military and public understanding of military thought, war and strategy, in the service of the ongoing Second World War and for the future of American power. In short, Earle was keen to turn history to practical use and to engage in contemporary debates using the historical mode of study.

Nevertheless, the book project itself always existed in an uncomfortable space between a settled past and a rapidly changing present. Whilst early efforts towards the volume that would become Makers were more concerned with exploring the foundations of military thought, as the work progressed through 1942 and 1943 the course of the Second World War came to weigh more heavily on the tome. No doubt this served to enhance the appeal of the work, and gave it a degree of contemporary urgency which helped account for the immediate success of the volume, both in a critical and a commercial sense. Yet at the same time, the need to account for the near past also enticed Earle towards revising the book. Earle began to make plans for the second edition as early as 1944, knowing that even in the short time since the book went into production the events of the Second World War had underlined certain deficiencies. These related notably to air and sea power, which had assumed prominent roles in shaping the course of the war, and to which Makers did not fully do justice.

Earle’s attempt to remake Makers failed, however. In part, this was down to bad luck. Some potential contributors were uninterested in the project, for others age and infirmity stood in the way. Meanwhile, for many of the academics previously involved in the project, war service had now become all-consuming. Yet this was not just a question of chance. It seemed that the Second World War had become too big for a scholarly project to handle: events were simply moving too fast. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 only compounded matters. Not only did the advent of the nuclear age broaden the potential scope of any new edition, it even brought into question the future relevance of the Second World War experience. Although Earle still harboured hopes for a second edition as late as 1947, the chances of accomplishing his goal diminished with each passing year. The result was that the original Makers – already outdated in some respects at the time of its publication – remained in print, and indeed in use, with a successor volume only appearing in the mid-1980s.

It might be tempting, then, to view Earle as something of a failure as well. Indeed, even in the early 1940s Earle felt that his own scholarly output was somewhat meagre. Not all academic activity consists in writing, however, and as an organiser, an editor, a speaker and an adviser to military and government, Earle made his mark. Moreover, Makers of Modern Strategy achieved a certain longevity in spite of its flaws. That was no mean feat, and in a sense the magnitude of this achievement was underscored by the difficulties Earle encountered in trying to revise the work. In this manner, the story of Earle’s Makers tells us something about the problems and pitfalls that abound in any attempt to balance past and present in an attempt to capture the changing character of war.


Image: IAS, Princeton. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Dunkirk evacuation and the German ‘halt’ order


Sometimes academics are confronted by arguments with which we disagree, vehemently.  Most have something to be said for them or, at the very least, it is possible to appreciate where those proposing it are coming from and why they might believe it.  There are exceptions, which deserve nothing other than a good intellectual kicking.  For me, there is one particularly egregious example which simply refuses to lie down and die, coming back again and again like the baddie in a cheap horror movie.  I encountered this old foe once again recently when I was editing a Naval Staff Battle Summary on Operation Dynamo, the evacuation from Dunkirk.  Historians generally acknowledge that one vital factor in allowing the British and French forces to retreat, escaping the threatened encirclement to reach Dunkirk and then to establish a rudimentary defensive perimeter there, was the German decision to halt the advance of the Panzers for three days.  This let-off has given rise to the bizarre idea that it was a deliberate decision by Hitler to provide a ‘golden bridge’ for Britain, consciously choosing not to utterly humiliate his opponent in the hope of reaching a negotiated peace.

There is no denying the importance of this pause.  It was not the only factor contributing to the successful evacuation but it was significant.  The Allied armies had fallen, or rather leaped headlong, into the trap laid by Germany.  The invasion of the Low Countries by German Army Group B, launched on 10 May 1940, presented France and Britain with precisely what they expected to see and what they had planned to counter.  They therefore advanced into Belgium to meet the threat.  The main German effort, of course, came well to the south as Army Group A, with the bulk of the Panzers, passed through the ‘impassable’ Ardennes.  They crossed the Meuse, notably near Sedan on 14 May, broke through the second-line French units defending there and dashed for the coast.  By 21 May they reached it and turned north to encircle the British and French armies that were engaged with the forces advancing through Belgium.  On 23 May the Germans were closer to Dunkirk than most of the British Expeditionary Force; yet that evening, the Panzers were ordered to halt their advance.  They were ordered to resume on 26 May but by then, the Allies had been gifted priceless time to retreat towards Dunkirk and to establish defences that would buy them further time.  When the Germans finally took Dunkirk, the commanders wrote in their diaries, ‘The town and the coast are in our hands!’… yet they added, ‘British and French troops gone’.  No fewer than 338,226 Allied troops had been evacuated, rescued from the closing trap.  Lord Gort’s brave decision to withdraw to the coast deserves huge credit, as does the professionalism of the British Expeditionary Force (and their French allies) in conducting a hugely difficult fighting withdrawal; yet without the German pause, it is most doubtful that these would have been enough.

How could the most formidable military machine on the planet at this time, which was on the verge of shattering what had previously been seen as the greatest military power in Europe, have made such an elementary mistake?  Why would it voluntarily choose to leave the trap open, allowing the prey to escape?  It must have been a deliberate decision… hence the golden bridge theory.  This was initially propagated by Hitler to explain how he let strategic victory against Britain slip through his fingers; the refrain was eagerly taken up after the war by some surviving German generals who were quite happy to shift responsibility on to the conveniently dead führer – and was spread by Basil Liddell Hart, who was perhaps a little too inclined to take the word of captured German officers, especially when they talked up the influence upon them of his interwar ideas.  Nonetheless, the idea really is the most ridiculous nonsense.

First, even on its own terms, it does not make any sense.  While there is room to doubt the coherence of Hitler’s strategy towards Britain in 1940, it is not implausible to suggest that he would have welcomed a negotiated peace.  His prospects of achieving this would have been immeasurably improved by the additional bargaining chip of a quarter of a million British prisoners, to say nothing of the psychological blow to Britain of losing the best-trained part of her small army.

Second, the theory does not fit the facts.  If the Germans really were trying to allow the British Expeditionary Force to escape, then they displayed an unusual level of incompetence: only Army Group A actually paused – and only in part, as it still captured Calais and Boulogne – and only for three days before continuing. Army Group B and also the Luftwaffe continued to attack the Allies with all of their strength.  This hardly amounts to a free pass or allowing the British to slip away.

Third, there is a perfectly good explanation available that does not require a far-fetched conspiracy theory – and which, incidentally, is whole-heartedly accepted by every serious work on the subject that uses German sources.  Many senior German officers were nervous from the outset about the bold changes made to the original, more traditional plan for the attack on France, and in particular about the envisaged rapid advance of the Panzers that would involve outpacing their infantry, artillery and logistic support.  This bold vision was undoubtedly risky; the advancing armour could have faced a serious defeat if the Allies had been able to launch a coherent counter-attack against its flanks or rear.  We now know that the German offensive had precisely the effect it was designed to in paralysing the Allied high command, shattering its will and ability to devise and execute an effective counter stroke; but this was not known to the Germans in May 1940.  Moreover, there had been a warning sign of precisely what some of the more cautious German commanders feared when the British launched a small-scale counter-attack near Arras on 21 May.  This limited and short-lived success played into a growing sense of unease among those German officers inclined to worry that their success was too good to be true, and wary of pushing their attack beyond its culminating point.  The Arras counter-attack achieved only local tactical success, but it exerted a decisive influence on a debate that was already underway in the German high command.

The Panzers badly needed a pause to rest, repair and reconstitute, and to bring forward support and supplies.  There was no need to risk them in unfavourable terrain, when there was a perfectly good alternative in the form of Army Group B and also the Luftwaffe, whose leadership (not least the influential Göring) were keen to seize their place in the sun – a rare case where the overclaiming of air power enthusiasts was to the benefit of the Allies.  The tanks would be needed for the rest of the campaign and the push to Paris, taking on the bulk of the French Army, which still comprised a large and powerful force.  The Allied armies in the north had been defeated, were nearly encircled and only needed to be mopped up.  Why take a risk in rushing these closing moves of the first stage of the operation?

This last question suggests an important point about the whole debate: there is actually far less of a puzzle here than has been suggested.  Why on earth would it occur to a continental power that evacuation on any significant scale was possible?  After all, even the British Admiralty believed at the outset of the operation that at best, maybe 45,000 men could be rescued.  There is no mystery in the fact that Germany was not alert to this possibility.  The British were trapped and there was no reason for the Germans to suspect that their fate would be anything other than what would, three years later, befall Axis forces after their defeat in North Africa: without a Navy that was willing and able to go to such lengths to rescue them, 230,000 Axis troops were captured and only a few hundred escaped.  It is only hindsight and the knowledge it presents of the stunning success of the Allied evacuation that raises the question in the first place with respect to Dunkirk.  Considered in this light, the apparent mystery simply melts away.

Image: British soldiers wade out to a waiting destroyer off Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo, via the Imperial War Museum.

The role of the capital ship in naval strategy


It is remarkable how often the role of the capital ship in naval warfare is misunderstood or even ignored. Too often it is dismissed as an expensive and vulnerable luxury, which exists only to flatter the egos of Admirals. Such comments display a striking lack of awareness about naval warfare and how it differs from fighting on land – in particular, the different ways in which it contributes to the military and political goals of strategy more broadly. My chapter in the recently published festschrift to Professor John Hattendorf considered this subject, looking in particular at the Royal Navy during the period from the Second World War to the early 1950s.

Not all of the coverage of the recent centenary of the Battle of Jutland displayed a strong grasp of what capital ships were for. One particularly egregious piece in the Times by a retired Army officer even made the remarkable claim that Germany drew lessons from the First World War that led it not to build battleships for the Second, only pocket battleships. It is a little surprising that the good Brigadier is unaware of the Bismarck, Tirpitz, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau – or, apparently, of how British strategy countered them.

Up to the Second World War (when it began to broaden with the emergence of the aircraft carrier) the role of the capital ship in naval strategy was the fundamental one of countering the capital ships of the enemy. Doing so would ideally take the form of sinking them but since the enemy often declined to cooperate by giving battle in unfavourable circumstances, it tended to require a blockade to neutralise them – which might in itself help to provoke a series of engagements that would cumulatively have a decisive effect. But countering the enemy fleet was never an end in its own right, or a campaign with solely naval implications; it was a means to the broader objective of securing the ability to use the sea for whatever military, economic or diplomatic purposes that national strategy might require. Neutralising the enemy battlefleet established the conditions for other, smaller and less powerful vessels to perform their respective roles in defending and interdicting trade, and conducting or preventing amphibious operations. The flotilla could not operate without the capital ships.

During the two world wars, the escort vessels protecting merchant shipping against U-boat attack were able to do so only because the Grand Fleet and then the Home Fleet were ensuring that they did not also have to face German capital ships. In the First World War, the lack of a major naval battle after Jutland was itself an indication of the success of the Grand Fleet in achieving its strategic aim; the German High Sea Fleet was prevented both from interfering with British shipping and also, simultaneously, from challenging the British blockade that was strangling Germany’s ability to sustain the war. Operating in the North Sea, or ready in its bases, the Grand Fleet was providing cover for every convoy and merchant ship at sea, as well as for every cruiser enforcing the blockade. It was thereby providing hugely influential, albeit indirect and distant, support for the forces fighting on the continent.

Much the same was true in the Second World War. The struggle to protect shipping was the longest and arguably the most challenging campaign for the Allies, as well as being fundamental to their ability to conduct any other campaign at sea, or on land or in the air. It involved not only defending convoys against U-boats and air attack, but also preventing the powerful German surface fleet from getting out into the Atlantic, where it would overwhelm the escorts. Once again, this key requisite for Allied use of the sea, which was itself the precondition for pretty much anything else they wanted to do (which the Bomber Barons, among others, were wont to overlook), was achieved by capital ships. It was primarily battleships and aircraft carriers working together, the new capital ship team, that countered the powerful German surface fleet. Without them, neither escorts nor land-based aircraft would have been able to make their own enormous and essential contribution to the Battle of the Atlantic.

A debate to be held at a forthcoming history festival on the subject of ‘who sunk the Tirpitz?’ will no doubt be fascinating. However, from the strategic perspective, the question of precisely which RAF squadron finally put this crippled, marginalised warship out of its misery in the closing months of the war is less significant than how it was contained and neutralised over the previous three and a half years. The answer here is, first and foremost, capital ships: Germany perceived the threat from the combination of British battleships and carriers as so serious – understandably, since it had sunk Bismarck – that following a narrow escape by Tirpitz from a Fleet Air Arm strike in March 1942, Hitler prohibited her from going to sea if a British carrier was known to be at large. This key asset subsequently undertook only three more operational sorties. Challenging as the Battle of the Atlantic was, it would have become impossible had Germany’s fast capital ships been able to join in – as demonstrated by the fate of the Britain-to-Russia convoy PQ17: fearing the proximity of a German battleship that would overwhelm the light forces escorting the convoy, it was ordered to scatter, resulting in the merchant ships being picked off by U-boats and air attack.

What applied particularly to the protection of shipping was also true for defence against invasion, and for supporting amphibious operations. It is sometimes suggested that the Royal Navy would have struggled to defend Britain against German invasion in 1940 because of the purported vulnerability of capital ships to air attack. Leaving aside that the Luftwaffe had little ability to attack moving warships in summer 1940, this argument overlooks the fact that the defence would have been conducted by destroyers and other smaller vessels. The role of the capital ships would have been to hold off their German counterparts, creating the space for lighter British forces to wipe out the German transports. When the boot was on the other foot, with Operation Neptune in June 1944, capital ships again had a pivotal role. While several battleships were performing their secondary role of providing fire support for the assault and carriers had a range of roles in direct or indirect support of the operation, the German surface fleet remained a key consideration. It could potentially have put to sea a force including one battleship, two pocket battleships and two heavy cruisers, supported by light cruisers and destroyers. If such a force had steamed for the Channel, it would have been countered by Operation Hermetic, with a force comprising the battleships and cruisers providing fire support off the Normandy beaches. Alternatively, if it had headed for the Atlantic to disrupt shipping, it would have been intercepted by the British Home Fleet, including two fleet carriers and three battleships, based at Scapa Flow. They thereby provided distant cover for the forces conducting the D-Day landings, while also supporting the deception campaign and attacking enemy shipping.

In each of these cases, in both world wars, the activities of destroyers and corvettes protecting shipping, cruisers maintaining an economic blockade, and amphibious vessels conducting a landing, were only possible because of the conditions created by capital ships. This interdependence is apt to be misunderstood, and a false dichotomy drawn between capital ships and smaller warships, because their activities are often separated by far greater distance or time than is the case with land or air operations. The activities of the different components of naval power are closely inter-connected and mutually supporting even though they might be operating half an ocean away from each other or several months apart. Suggesting that escorts or corvettes suffice without the backing of capital ships thereby quite fails to grasp the realities of naval warfare. Commentators who make such arguments would no doubt object to any suggestion that infantry could do without armour, artillery or air support; the error would be much the same – although in land warfare, the different elements of the combined arms team operate in closer proximity both geographically and chronologically. Some critics of the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers might ponder this before proposing that the Navy should be limited to some kind of ‘snatch corvette’. No doubt these alone could conduct some useful activities but they could not do all that is required of naval power any more than light infantry alone could accomplish every role in the land environment.

The role of capital ships is often to prevent something unfavourable happening, which makes it easy to overlook their importance. This role has broadened considerably from the Second World War onwards, not least with the strike capability of carriers giving them huge direct impact ashore. However, their key purpose is much the same today as it was in Nelson’s time and in the two world wars: they ensure conditions that permit other naval (and, indeed, land and air) forces to perform their respective roles. Capital ships secure the use of the sea, other forces exploit it.

Image: HMS Invincible returning to Portsmouth after the Falklands War, via wikimedia commons.

1940-1942: THE FULCRUM OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY? ‘Halfway Out of National Danger’: Chiang, Stalin and the Chinese Reaction to Barbarossa

This is the fifth in a series of posts connected to the King’s College Second World War Research Group’s ‘1940-1942: Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century Conference’, held at the JSCSC on June 1st. 


Traditionally Chiang Kai-shek has been treated in western historiography as a failure: the man who presided over the epic loss of China. In recent years, however, he has been the subject of more balanced assessments, and nuances have appeared, leaving space for remarks such as this: “Sometimes, Chiang Kai-shek was more farsighted than either Roosevelt or Churchill.” The words belong to his American advisor Owen Lattimore. Are they an exaggeration? A look at Chiang’s reaction to Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, may help the reader decide for themselves.

China had precise advance information about the German plans for an attack. In the spring of 1941, Vasilii Chuikov, a Soviet advisor to the Chinese Army, was warned by General Zhang Chong, the head of Chinese intelligence, that a German assault could be expected in June of that year, or July at the latest. As the date of the German offensive approached, Chiang Kai-shek exhibited almost uncanny premonition. When he was informed of the conclusion of the German-Turkish Non-Aggression Treaty of June 18, 1941, he guessed rightly what Germany was doing. “It will be just a few days before Germany attacks the Soviet Union,” he wrote in his diary the following day.

When Barbarossa did indeed happen, Chiang’s immediate reaction was one of rekindled hope for the future. “Japan can no longer concentrate on defeating China, nor can it any longer assume that by beating China it will reach its objective of dominating East Asia,” he wrote in his diary on June 24. “The combined forces of the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union are now containing Japan… This means that China is already halfway out of its national danger”.

The new situation was only of any real advantage to Chiang if the Soviet Union agreed to go to war with Germany’s Axis partner Japan. However, persuading Stalin to do so was a formidable task at a time when the Soviet dictator found himself in a life-and-death struggle with Germany, and could rest reasonably assured that Japan would refrain from attacking from the east, since Moscow and Tokyo had signed a non-aggression treaty in April of that year.

Even so, Chiang tried his best. On July 2, for example, he informed Lauchlin Currie, the chief US representative in Chongqing, of reliable intelligence that Japan had decided to abrogate the non-aggression treaty and shortly afterwards declare war on the Soviet Union. The intention was probably for the United States to pass on the information to the Soviet Union and that in the best-case scenario it would launch a pre-emptive attack against Japan.

The sources suggest that Chiang himself had no expectations of an imminent Japanese assault on the Soviet Union. According to Lattimore, his American advisor, the Chinese leader “was convinced, even in the first week of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, that as the Soviets would eventually defeat the Germans, the Japanese would not honor the Berlin-Tokyo axis and attack Siberia from the east to help the Germans in the west.”

Chiang was exactly right. Only a minority of decision makers in Japan supported the idea of accommodating the German ally by attacking the Soviet Union from the east. Chiang had an advantage few if any of the other Allied leaders had in World War Two. He understood his primary enemy intimately, speaking the Japanese language and having attended military academy in Japan

While the sources suggest that Chiang considered a Japanese attack on the Soviet Union unlikely, they do not say what he thought about the likelihood of a Soviet attack on Japan, but he ought to have known that it was probably not going to happen. After all, every previous attempt at dragging the Soviet Union into the war had failed, even under circumstances that were vastly more advantageous to the Soviet side.

In the fall and winter of 1937, China had tried repeatedly to pull the Soviet Union into the war with Japan, but had been rebuffed every single time, as Stalin had argued intervention would be counterproductive by rallying Japanese society behind the war effort and putting the Soviet Union in the role of the aggressor. In fact, in 1937 the Soviet Union welcomed Japan’s Chinese quagmire, understanding that it weakened the danger Japan posed to its eastern border.

Even though Chiang must have considered a Soviet-Japanese war improbable in 1941, he undertook steps which later historians have interpreted as designed to lure Stalin into action.

His government, located in the wartime capital of Chongqing in China’s interior, decided on July 2 to cut off ties with Germany and Italy. This has been described by historians as aimed a speedily realigning ties with the Soviet Union, while only “ostensibly” being in retaliation for a decision by Berlin and Rome to establish formal ties with the rival pro-Japanese regime in Nanjing, led by Wang Jingwei.

The significance of this move has probably been somewhat overstated in the literature so far. Finland and Denmark are the only two other instances in 1941 of countries that opened formal ties with the Nanjing regime despite existing ties with the Chongqing government. In both Nordic cases, Chiang reacted by severing ties. In other words, this was the normal way of reacting to this type of development.

Moreover, the actual implications of cutting ties with Japan’s European Allies were limited. In the 1930s, Germany had been China’s primary source of foreign weaponry, and German advisors had been deeply involved in attempts to modernize the Chinese Army. As Germany had gradually shifted its sympathies in favor of Japan, the utility of maintaining formal ties with Berlin had been radically diminished, and by the summer of 1941 there was no advantage left in the partnership as far as China was concerned.

At the same time, the German recognition of the rival regime in Nanjing was a direct existential challenge to Chiang. The Japanese-backed government in Nanjing was set up as the legitimate government of all China, and its leaders depicted themselves as the rightful heirs to the Nationalist revolution that had ushered in a modern republic. It was impossible for Chiang’s regime to allow Germany to maintain ties with both Chinas. Breaking off diplomatic relations had little to do with making the Soviet Union happy, and everything to do with maintaining legitimacy.

After the futile appeals for Soviet participation in the war against Japan in 1941 the issue was put on the backburner until the fall of 1943, when Soviet victory over Germany was assured. On the surface, therefore, the appeals to the Soviet Union seemed to be a diplomatic failure. But if one is allowed to speculate a little, Chiang may not have been aiming only for a short-term gain, but also for a longer-term Soviet commitment.

There were other instances where Chiang attempted to exert long-term pressure on potential future Allies. He fought long and tenaciously in Shanghai in 1937, some might say too long, and one theory is he wished to garner sympathy with the American and British public and decision-making elites. In the words of his biographer Jay Taylor, he was “building sympathy for the future”.

So the question is: if appealing to Stalin did not work in the short run, did it work in the long run? While the struggle at Shanghai may have been effective with parts of the political establishment in the United States, the pressure Chiang exerted on the Soviet Union to enter the war against Japan made no visible difference to the Soviets. When the Soviet Union finally attacked in August 1945, the Kremlin was motivated by narrow self-interest, not by the accumulated effect of Chiang’s rhetoric over the preceding years.

One can also ask if it was a wise policy to keep bombarding Stalin with requests for intervention in the war. Some Chinese historians tend to think that Chiang’s continued appeals to the Soviet Union to go to war with Japan showed little appreciation of the desperate Soviet struggle with its German enemy and that it caused ties between Chongqing and Moscow to deteriorate.

But to complete the picture, failure must also be measured against the cost one has incurred. And specifically in this case the cost paid by Chiang in the summer of 1941 was limited. His expenditures were in the form of rhetorical support, a fair amount of misinformation, and one concrete move: the end of formal diplomatic ties with Germany. It seems that Chiang’s tactic was to take maximum advantage of the new situation, at a minimum of cost.

How does Chiang emerge from this? We see the outlines of leader who had a clear idea of where the strategic situation was headed, also clearer than most of his compatriots or allies in other countries. From the moment Barbarossa was unleashed, he understood that the end result would be German defeat, and he also predicted rightly that Japan would remain passive rather than launch an assault across the Soviet Union’s eastern borders.

If he had one shortcoming, it was a failure to see the collateral costs of too insistent diplomacy. By repeatedly urging the Russians to intervene against Japan, even at a time when they were fighting for their lives, he came across as being self-centered and insensitive. It’s a mixed picture. Perhaps he should be described as a leader with high IQ but moderate EQ.

Image: Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, Mr Roosevelt and Mr Churchill in the grounds of Roosevelt’s villa in Cairo, November 1943, via the Imperial War Museum.

1940-1942: THE FULCRUM OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY? Missing in History: Britain’s offer of Irish unity in 1940

This is the fourth in a series of posts connected to the King’s College Second World War Research Group’s ‘1940-1942: Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century Conference’, held at the JSCSC on June 1st. 


Sifting through the voluminous histories of Britain’s 1940 stand against Nazi Germany, it is remarkable that, with a few notable exceptions, one story often is left untold: the secret Anglo-Irish negotiations to reunify Ireland and bring the south, or Éire as it was then known, into the war. This oversight may be explained in part by the fact that few of the main actors come out of this episode looking very good. Their biographers have tended to downplay or to ignore the negotiations; in one official biography, a wholly inaccurate, not to say misleading summary dismisses this story in less than a page.

Unlike all of the other self-governing Dominions, Éire refused to join Britain when the latter declared on Germany in 1939. Southern Ireland’s neutrality had been made possible by a decision taken less than a year earlier. In an attempt to smooth relations between London and Dublin, Neville Chamberlain returned three military installations that had been retained by the British in the Treaty granting Ireland’s independence in 1921. Chamberlain believed he had an assurance from his counterpart, Eamon de Valera, that the Irish would allow British forces access to these ‘Treaty ports’ during any future conflict. According to Robert Fisk’s In Time of War, use of the bases could have extended the protective cover to Allied convoys across 500 miles of the Atlantic Ocean. But, crucially, the assurance Chamberlain relied on was never put in writing. When war came, de Valera, by denying the British access to the bases, was able to maneuver his country away from taking part in the conflict.

Crucial as the Treaty ports were, they were only one of several reasons for believing that Ireland would be targeted by Adolf Hitler after the fall of France. Even before then, Fisk claims that from May 1940 ‘the security of Ireland . . . began to dominate proceedings at Downing Street’. Yet, these discussions are wholly missing from accounts such as Five Days in London: May 1940, by John Lukacs. Archival documents in London, Dublin, and Belfast tell a different story. All three governments were convinced the Nazis had a network of spies throughout Ireland which was working closely with the outlawed Irish Republican Army. Other reports indicated that German U-boats were being supplied by villagers on Ireland’s west coast. Most worrying was the prospect that the Germans might stage a landing in southern Ireland to mount a backdoor invasion of mainland Britain. Taken together, these concerns prompted the British government, now led by Winston Churchill, to broach the idea of creating a framework for Irish unity in return for an Irish declaration of war. What is perhaps most surprising is that the driving force behind this proposal was not the new prime minister, but his predecessor – Chamberlain.

Chamberlain’s willingness to guarantee Irish unity in return for an Irish alliance is evident in the letters he wrote to his two sisters, Hilda and Ida, during the remaining months of his life. So, too, is his frustration with de Valera. Despite repeated warnings that having British forces in Ireland was necessary to ward off the expected German invasion, the Irish prime minister refused even to consider the idea. ‘I am still at him’, Chamberlain confided in one letter, ‘but fear he wont [sic] be moved till the Germans are in Dublin’. Robert Self, the editor of Chamberlain’s four-volume Diary Letters, followed up this massive work with a biography of the controversial British leader. Unfortunately, he deals with what might be called Chamberlain’s last major foreign policy battle in an epilogue, and then only briefly. It is also is wholly absent from Graham Stewart’s account of the Churchill-Chamberlain rivalry, Burying Caesar.

One of Chamberlain’s unlikely allies in this cause was Labour’s Ernest Bevin, another member of Churchill’s War Cabinet. According to Paul Canning’s comprehensive British Policy Towards Ireland, Bevin’s ‘first-hand knowledge of Ireland exceeded that of any other man in the Government’. The problem that neither Bevin, Chamberlain, nor any of their colleagues could ignore was that de Valera’s stance on neutrality was not the main hurdle blocking an Anglo-Irish front against the Nazis. As Chamberlain plainly stated at one War Cabinet meeting, ‘the main, and perhaps the sole, obstacle to such collaboration was the partition question’.

While the Ulster dimension of this story is ably told by both Canning and Fisk, it is given surprisingly short shrift elsewhere. There are tantalizing hints that at least two leading members of Northern Ireland’s Cabinet were prepared to accept an accommodation with the southern Irish if the latter were willing to join the Allied cause. ‘[L]oyalty to King and empire and the defeat of the Axis powers’, the historian Brian Barton has written, ‘transcended their commitment to the maintenance of the Union’. But in his chapter for The Northern Ireland Question in British Politics, edited by Peter Catterall and Sean McDougall, Barton did not pursue this angle. In any case, when it came to setting policy in Northern Ireland, only one man’s opinion really counted: its prime minister, James Craig.

Even with the course of the war hanging in the balance, Craig was as stubborn in his dealings with the British as was de Valera. By ruling out tripartite talks between the London, Dublin, and Belfast governments unless the southern Irish, first, joined the Allied cause and, second, dropped their goal of reunification, he foreclosed any chance of wartime cooperation. After the war, his official biographer, St John Ervine wrote that ‘Ulster was the bribe’ used in the attempt to win over de Valera and that responsibility for this treachery rested on one man’s shoulders: Chamberlain, who by then conveniently was dead. It is true that Chamberlain was prepared to force the Ulster Unionists to make concessions, while Churchill drew the line at persuasion.

Thanks to his own memoir of the war, Churchill’s part in this story largely has been obscured. According to David Reynolds, when Churchill wrote his multi-volume Second World War the Foreign Office advised that some wartime diplomatic issues ‘were still sensitive’; Ireland was one of them. This explains why Churchill did not even mention the Cabinet’s discussions about partition in his drafts of Their Finest Hour although, Reynolds points out, a reference to the issue is buried deep in a letter to Franklin Roosevelt quoted in the volume. Harder to explain is Martin Gilbert’s treatment of this story in Churchill’s official biography. Inexplicably, Gilbert suggests that Bevin alone was responsible for suggesting that partition be abandoned in exchange for the south’s declaration of war on Germany.

De Valera’s refusal to consider the British offer to end partition has been the subject of intense debate among historians. Characteristically, his authorized biographers are sympathetic to de Valera’s claim that abandoning neutrality would have sparked a second Irish civil war in the south. Others, notably John Bowman, Tim Pat Coogan, and T. Ryle Dwyer, are harsher when assessing de Valera’s motives. ‘Staying out of the war’, Dwyer writes, was ‘more important to de Valera than ending partition’. All three agree that in the summer of 1940, the Irish prime minister was sure that Britain was defeated. If that were so, why not wait to make terms with the winner in Berlin?

On the night of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Churchill was in touch with the leaders of only two other governments. The first, unsurprisingly, was Franklin Roosevelt. The other was de Valera. ‘Now is your chance’, his telegram to the Irish prime minister began. ‘Now or never. A Nation once again.’ Yet even America’s imminent entry into the war was not enough to entice de Valera to join the Allies. Earlier that same year, Churchill predicted that if de Valera persisted with neutrality to the end of the war ‘a gulf will have opened between Northern and Southern Ireland, which it will be impossible to bridge in this generation’. Churchill, not for the last time, was better at predicting the future than de Valera.

Image: Vickers machine-gun team of 2/8th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, man their weapon on a clifftop in Northern Ireland, 15 July 1941, via the Imperial War Museum.



1940-1942: The Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century? The Will to Win: British Strategy, Propaganda and Public Opinion 1940-1942

This is the third in a series of posts connected to the King’s College Second World War Research Group’s ‘1940-1942: Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century Conference’, held at the JSCSC on June 1st. 


Stephen Badsey PhD MA (Cantab.) FRHistS is Professor of Conflict Studies in the Department of History, Politics and War Studies at the University of Wolverhampton. He was educated at Cambridge University, made a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1995, and joined the University of Wolverhampton in 2007. Prof Badsey is an internationally acknowledged specialist on military-media issues since the middle 19th Century, including the uses of propaganda. His other research interests include land and air-land warfare since the start of the 19th Century, military thought since the middle 18th Century, the British Army since the middle 19th Century, and the wars of the British Empire and its successors including counterinsurgency. He has published over 100 books and articles on military and media subjects, including counterfactual history and the portrayal of warfare by films and television. He appears frequently on television and in other media as a historian and commentator.

From the Fall of France to the Second Battle of Alamein, it was apparent to Churchill and the British leadership that both immediate British survival and eventual victory would depend on the political and popular will to continue the war in a period when military victories would be scarce, of which the motivation of British troops in battle was only a part. Between June 1940 and May 1941 a cross-Channel invasion was still possible, and the Blitz was in progress. Thereafter, the British faced a severe crisis in the Battle of the Atlantic; the Japanese threat in the Far East became real with the fall of Singapore; and their sole means of attacking Germany directly, the night bomber offensive, was shown to be largely ineffective. The Royal Navy’s domination of the Mediterranean was severely challenged by Axis airpower, including the debacle on Crete and the siege of Malta, while in the Western Desert, after December 1940 the British Army was dogged by a pattern of unsuccessful attacks and repeated defeats. This was also the first British war in which the concerns of a civilian population about loved ones among the troops sent overseas were reciprocated on a large scale by anxieties among the troops over enemy bombing and submarine attacks on civilians.

It is a neglected aspect of the most radical inter-war British military theories that they were based on an assumption of the extreme vulnerability of the mass of the urban working-class to psychological as much as to physical attack. These theories were the central tenet of air warfare in the form of strategic bombing theories, and in land warfare were extended to include a belief that the morale of a mass conscript army would be fragile when compared to a smaller but professionalised and mechanised military elite, and that a country’s civilian morale could be undermined by propaganda as a preliminary to a military invasion. This military lack of faith in the mass of the people was only one aspect of a larger mistrust held by political and social elites in democracy. The experience of mass propaganda in the First World War, the inter-war rise of the demagogues, the radio as a new form of influencing public opinion, and the growth of commercial advertising, all suggested a mass population, whether in uniform or not, that was vulnerable to propaganda and psychological manipulation. For the British, all these beliefs found their apparent final proof in the almost inexplicable collapse of France in 1940.

The Chamberlain government had at first emphasised security, secrecy, and the concealment of bad news, and its principal concern about the BEF in France was that its morale would be undermined before it got a chance to fight. Despite lacking any surviving First World War records, British propagandists in 1940 had personal experience of being propagandised when younger, and the expansion of the franchise in 1918 and 1928 had given ministers and civil servants a better feel for a mass electorate. The BBC had since 1922 developed a relationship with its radio listeners which gave it a realistic sense of public attitudes. Also, the establishment of Mass Observation in 1937 had shown the value of opinion polling techniques and population sampling.

The British government was also determined to avoid the highly triumphalist style of propaganda used by the Germans. British methods of propaganda rapidly became very close to those of the First World War: the government controlled and censored the content of news, while leaving packaging, commentary and opinion to the existing media outlets: chiefly radio, newspapers, and newsreel films. Measurable public debates did take place during the war on major changes in British strategy, most notably the progressive switch 1940-1943 to night-time city bombing. But these debates took place after the policy had been introduced, and the consequences had been reported and made public. British propaganda campaigns around the Empire were largely bilateral: some Dominion reporters and cameramen worked for their own forces, others as part of an international or imperial fraternity. As in the First World War, the principal British overseas target was the neutrality of the United States. Through a series of Neutrality Acts passed in the late 1930s, the United States had made it illegal for belligerents to conduct propaganda on America soil. The British response to this was a propaganda campaign to influence American opinion that was so sophisticated as to be almost invisible, including the propaganda presentation of the Battle of Britain and the subsequent Blitz.

The chief concern remained British civilian morale. From June 1941 onwards the Minister of Information, Brendan Bracken, presented to the War Cabinet a monthly report, based on assessments which consistently placed British public morale in the lower half of a 20-point scale, other than for three brief peaks: in summer 1941 when the Blitz ended and the Soviet Union entered the war; at the end of the year with the relief of Tobruk and the entry of the United States; and again in May 1942 at the start of the Gazala battles. In early 1942 these figures were sufficiently worrying for the Ministry of Information to adopt briefly a style of deliberate exhortation. Most British public discontent reflected political and public frustration at a failure to prosecute the war more effectively. The British public were generally more bellicose than their government, providing a mandate for future escalation. This also led the Ministry of Information to conclude that emphasising German war crimes or atrocities as a propaganda motif was unnecessary, so promoting the myth of the early part of the Second World War as a ‘clean war’ for the British.

After the Fall of France the British propaganda approach to victories was usually cautious, prompted by a strong sense that with repeated defeats the British people were not only more bellicose than their government, but also more cynical. However, the progressive shift in the grand strategic balance during early 1942 led to the perceived need for a decisive British victory on land in political and propaganda as well as military terms. The symbolism of the Second Battle of Alamein, very important at the time, was as the last great land battle in the West of the British Empire. But the public response remained cynical and cautious, as Bracken told that War Cabinet, ‘now as suspicious as the ancient Greeks of any exultation that seems to challenge fate’. Nevertheless, after November 1942, Bracken discontinued his monthly reports on public morale, seeing them as no longer needed. Over the next three months public morale and support for the government rose to above 70 per cent, and stayed in that region for the rest of the war.

Image: A War Savings posters around the base of Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square. The lions at the base of the Column can also be seen, as can a flock of pigeons, flying overhead. The poster tells citizens ‘It’s up to ‘U’ to buy War Savings’, via the Imperial War Museum.

1940-42 The Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century: “THE BARTHOLOMEW COMMITTEE: AN OPPORTUNITY LOST?”

This is the second in a series of posts connected to the King’s College Second World War Research Group’s ‘1940-1942: Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century Conference’, held at the JSCSC on June 1st. 


After the conclusion of Operation Dynamo on 3 June 1940, the War Office reacted quickly to form a committee to look into the reasons for the defeat in France and any changes which could be made quickly in the face of the threat of invasion.   Although expectations had been exceeded in terms of the number of men rescued from the Continent, losses of heavy equipment necessary to defend the British mainland had been particularly severe. The forming of the Committee took place in the knowledge that 150,000 British troops remained in France, south of the Somme. Sir Alan Brooke, returned to France only a few days after escaping with orders to co-ordinate a defence. He quickly realised that this was a lost cause and urged a second evacuation – meaning he would be unavailable to testify.

Sir George Bartholomew, recently retired as General Officer Commanding Northern Command, was appointed to chair the committee.   On paper his credentials were good; a former Commandant of the Imperial Defence College, Chief of the General Staff (India) and Director of Military Intelligence – some considered him one of the best minds on the General Staff. Others were less convinced, thinking of him as a typical conservative with a profound dislike of the Royal Air Force.   Three other senior members of the Committee had served in France.   Thirty seven officers gave evidence while the committee was in session, a mixture of senior BEF personnel down to battalion commanders – and a sole representative of the RAF.   The Committee sat for six days, taking evidence only on four.  An initial draft was ready in early July; after a General Staff conference in late July and discussion by the Army Council in September,   its findings were eventually published in October, belying the initial haste spurred by fear of invasion.

The committee made a number of recommendations for urgent change in the Army, including increased mechanisation of artillery, reconnaissance and liaison elements, improved artillery provision and co-ordination of air support. It also proposed making the operational “building block” of the Army the Brigade, or independent Brigade Group. However, many of its findings were gradually watered down as the draft passed through the bureaucracy; Sir John Dill, the CIGS, also gave Lord Gort, the former CinC of the BEF (who did not give evidence) a categorical reassurance that the report would not result in fundamental change in the structure of the Army.

Some of the recommendations were impeded by loss of equipment in France. In particular for purposes of defence against invasion, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns were in short supply thus making proposals for increased and reorganised provision of them at Division and Brigade level somewhat moot. This also meant that weapons that were obsolescent or which had underperformed were kept in production both to make up losses and to postpone the disruption to supply and training which would be caused by retooling and issue to the Army at a time of high threat.

Although the British soldier was held to be the equal of the German, the report criticised steadfastness in defence, tactical shortcomings and issues of discipline. Command and communications were considered extremely rigid. Despite the 1935 Field Service Regulations stating that orders should not be excessively prescriptive and should not prevent subordinate commanders from carrying out their mission in the face of better local knowledge or on their own initiative, experience in France showed that some senior commanders still insisted on the following of written orders, despite the fast pace of operations outstripping the ability to transmit them. There are many examples in the literature of orders to hold positions when they had fallen, or been surrendered long since. Command rigidity was criticised by senior witnesses. The report highlighted shortcomings in discipline and “fighting spirit”; however, rather than propose innovative solutions it concluded that these problems could be solved by more close order drill and time on the range.

One of the successes of the campaign was the use of “carriers” – small, fast tracked vehicles.   Until the battle of France these had been viewed predominantly as tractors or logistic vehicles; the report recommended their wider use across the Army, and their fitting with anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons as standard. Although this latter point was not completely adopted, the wider use of such vehicles – which had impressed the Germans – was one of the successful recommendations from the report.

The other primary recommendation was the operational building block of the Army should now be the Brigade, and the independent Brigade Group, rather than the Division. Reorganisation of divisional assets to allow Brigades to have organic artillery, anti-tank, anti-aircraft and reconnaissance support was proposed, but equipment shortages and the delay in introducing better weapons led to these ideals being diluted. Experience in home exercises in 1941-42 highlighted flaws in the concept where equipment was inadequate either in numbers or performance and the Division returned to prominence; however early success of the concept in the Western Desert against inferior opposition led to later failures against the Germans.

The need for quick and achievable change driven by the threat of invasion makes some of the curtailing of the Bartholomew report’s proposals excusable to some extent. However, the opportunity genuinely to innovate in other areas was lost due to equipment shortages and a lack of willingness to review concepts of command. Change would come eventually, but more gradually than may have been the case had senior officers not watered down the committee’s recommendations as it passed through the War Office bureaucracy.

Image: British anti-aircraft guns lie abandoned at Dunkirk in 1940, via wikimedia commons.


Conference Report: 1940-1942: The Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century?


On 1 June, the Second World War Research Group held a highly successful day-long event hosted by the Defence Studies Department at the JSCSC. It was inspired in a broad sense by the desire to examine the largest war the world has ever seen and to place it within its broader context. More directly, the conference theme drew from concepts advanced by several senior modern historians about the place the war occupies in terms of the century as a whole. In a 1990 article, David Reynolds termed the fall of France in 1940 as the ‘fulcrum of the twentieth century’. Taking a similar yet subtly different view, John Darwin has claimed that the events of 1940-1942 represented the ‘great crisis of empire’ specifically for Britain, and exposed its vulnerabilities in such a manner that it was never able to recover fully after the war. For Darwin, such events thus caused a fundamental change in the international system.

The event was designed to bring together scholars to critically examine these ideas, as well as to focus in on more specialised areas of the war to assess whether or not such ‘fulcrums’, ‘turning points’ or similar concepts can legitimately be identified. We were extremely fortunate to receive a fantastic set of highly stimulating papers in this regard. Themes that were covered included tactical and operational failures by the BEF in France 1940, case studies in resistance and irregular warfare, propaganda, morale in and relations between the British and Commonwealth armies, and the Chinese response to the German invasion of the USSR, among others. Delegates were also treated to a keynote address from Niall Barr, examining Anglo-American alliance warfare during the conflict, and placing it within the broader context of twentieth century relations between the two states. The day closed with an engaging roundtable discussion on the subject of whether the retrospective identification of a ‘fulcrum’ is a legitimate exercise for historians, or if it simply represents the instrumentalisation of history to fit a desired theory.

Several presenters from the conference have graciously agreed to write posts for this blog based on their papers, and these will be published over the coming weeks. Podcasts of many of the papers from the event will also soon be made available on the Group website. This event was the second such one held by the Group, as part of its aim to bring together scholars in annual events focused on aspects of the war and its legacy. It also holds regular research seminars from individual speakers. If you would like to be involved in the Group in some manner, please use the contact form on the website, and also follow it on twitter (@SWWresearch). In the meantime, enjoy the coming posts!

Image: Stocks of rubber, held by a factory on a rubber plantation in Malaya, are burnt during the British retreat to Singapore, via the Imperial War Museum.

The History of Conflict in 2016

Dr Geraint Hughes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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