Sunday, January 23, 2011

Fall of France, 9: Manpower, Part 3

Needless to say, I spent so much time talking about the manpower breakdowns in the British army because I think that they're centrally important. And, obviously, the outlines of the direct story are by now blindingly clear. The artillery, ordnance and former RE types staffing the United Kingdom's AA defences in May 1940 were not in France at the same time. It only stands to reason! Had they been reallocated to the needs of the Commonwealth expeditionary forces (once again, the Canadian can't forget that 1st Canadian Division should have been in the line), France might not have fallen in the first place.

But there are some pleasures, and perhaps some insights, in going at this the long way round.

1934 was a busy year for the Daily Telegraph's Captain Basil Liddell Hart (ret.). Having thoroughly involved himself in the ongoing controversy over the conduct of the First World War with his The Real War, published in 1930, he had brought out a revised edition in 1934, following on the publication of former Premier David Lloyd George's war memoirs in 1933. Hart famously supported the "Blood and mud" historical school, but his mind was probably on more technical issues when he arrived at the scene of the Tank Brigade's summer 1934 exercises. In one sense, "blood and mud" leads on from a very specific controversy that raged over reinforcements sent to the Middle East over the course of the last year-and-a-half of the First World War. Had it really been good strategy to deprive the Western Front of these troops?

There are many ways that you can answer this question. One way is by direct discussion of the issues and a dissection of the decisions. The fact that David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, two politicians significantly involved, did their best to obscure the decisions suggests to me that they were conscious that they had made a mistake. The question of whether "the other side," symbolised by Field-Marshal Earl Haig, was also wrong I'll leave to others. Because what matters here is that Hart took Lloyd George and Churchill's position in the most powerful possible way: by, as they say in the politics these days, "triangulating."

Specifically, in his Daily Telegraph series on the manoeuvres, Liddell Hart argued that in a future war, Britain's responsibility to France could be met by dispatching only the Tank Brigade to the Continent. You really  have to be up on various debates over the conduct of the First World War to see what this is a callback to, but callback it is. It's a contribution to the argument over the last war, and a clever move to salvage the reputations of some powerful politicians at the expense of some old generals.

Of course, there were those who disagreed. The obvious counterargument that the Tank Brigade was a rather smaller commitment than a 6 division BEF. Hart anticipated this objection with what I still think has to be one of the more extraordinary bits of moonshine even he ever produced. While his series is often represented as a breakthrough into a new era of armour-centric combined arms warfare, Hart is actually arguing that a force of 150 tanks could be a self-sufficient combat unit, equal in weight to the 6 divisions of infantry and horse cavalry that it replaced. In a fatuous exercise for which one must otherwise reach deep into the nether regions of military pseudo-science, Hart dilates on how the brigade's machine guns (and 3 pound cannons of the medium tanks) represent more firepower than an infantry division. Given that it is already a commonplace that tanks should be deployed as part of a combined arms force with infantry and artillery to defeat enemy antitank guns, Hart must account for this opposing force. He does so by suggesting that part of the brigade should charge the enemy antitank screen to fix it, while other elements should manoeuvre to its flank.

Now, you've either never read military  history, or you probably have the impression that Hart said, well, the opposite of all of this. Because that's the story that he pushed after the war. I have a pretty low opinion of Hart as a historian and political scientist as a result of shenanigans like this, but it is as well to remember that his behaviour at the time has a political context. That's why I can simultaneously take some pleasure in the takedown that was to be administered by a number of serving officers in the pages of the Army Quarterly over the next few months, and wonder just where Hart is actually coming from. The argument is pretty basic. The money should go to the air force and the navy.

But why? Fortunately, John Ruggiero has discussed the debate in the cabinet going forward. I'll follow it up to the point where Liddell Hart rejoins the discussion. Already in the initial discussions of rearmament, the point has been made. The army is understrength and nothing could be done about it. Thus the government needed to embrace limited liability and abandon its Locarno commitment to send an expeditionary force to the Continent in the event of war. The obvious answer (increased pay) was met with derision. This would just affect the labour situation and destabilise the economy. Having chosen not to rearm the army, the money could be spent elsewhere. Even reequipping the Territorial Army could be put off. Note that Chamberlain takes this cheesparing perspective against Treasury advice! In the 1936 White Paper on Defence, the committee urged young Britons to join up in the reserves. Interestingly, it also called for more young people to become apprentices in established trades. These sound like an oddly scattered set of concerns, but in March of 1936, Chamberlain arranged the appointment of Sir Thomas Inskip to the new position of Minister for the Coordination of Defence, a serious snub to Churchill, precisely so that he could coordinate the services' relations with industry.
The same month saw the Rhineland remilitarisation. The Cabinet considered and the army had its "I told you so moment," reporting that it could sent two partially-equipped divisions to the Continent. The Admiralty, outlandishly, sent its plate back to the kitchen with money on it. It would only be able to spend 3 million pounds that year. Duff Cooper, Secretary of War, took the moment to argue for his service.Another rising star, Anthony Eden, predicted that Britain would be humiliated in a few years by German military might. Chamberlain persisted with the argument that Britain needed planes and ships,  a striking force that no-one would care to trifle with. (60) Ernest Brown, Minister of Labour, interjected that now was the time to bring the Trades Union Congress on side in order to plan for a systematic expansion of skilled labour preparatory to large armaments orders, and was ignored until the predictable (and predicted by Lord Weir) labour shortage had actually emerged. Meetings with the Engineering Employer’s Federation led to the unsurprising discovery that they were worried about structural unemployment, especially in the distressed areas. Keeping skilled labour in places such as Liverpool was a recipe for underemployment. 

The Amagamated Engineering Union pointed out that compensation for relocation would cover this problem, but the government understandably baulked at the cost of moving vast work forces around the country --and at the prospect of largescale social engineering, and the electoral changes that might result? Notice that the "socialists" were far from an obstacle to rearmament. In September, the delegates voted in favour of rearmament for collective security at the annual TUC  meeting in Edinburgh. Given that delegates at such affairs tend to be well to the left of the membership, this suggests that the government was pushing at an open door. Even if the Spanish Civil War was an issue, so was employment. The Estimates, as they unfolded in October, were hair-raising. The Army and Navy wanted vast amounts of money, and Duff Cooper wanted 90 million for the army. Chamberlain won a reduced scale for the proposed rearmament, and put off discussion of Cooper's demands until April, and then again until December.

The argument was that  the nation had a national savings of 450 million, and an expected revenue of 1.1 billion over the next five years. Therefore, the nation could afford to raise 1.5 billion over the same period without setting off inflation. Science! (74). A fifth of that had to come from increased taxation (although there was advice from Treasury that more should be borrowed.) Hence the April 20 1937 announcement of the National Defence Contribution, a special tax on excess profits that was roundly defeated.

In spite of this, demand for rearmament money escalated. The Navy pushed for a mighty fleet of 20 battleships, while the air force panicked at the ever-increasing strength of the Luftwaffe and asked for 114,000 men, with planes to match. Fortunately, Duff Cooper had been promoted to the Admiralty, and there was a new Secretary of Star for War, young, pliable, Jewish: Leslie Hore Belisha, who proposed that the Maginot Line meant that the BEF was no longer needed. That was rather too much for anyone, but if the 1.5 billion limit were to be sustained, something had to give. “Finance was the fourth arm of defence.” 

But notice in all of this an even more spectacular victory for the Premier. There is only so much that governments can do to revise defence policy by stealth. If a government says that it is committed to sending an expeditionary force to Europe, and doesn't carry through with it, generals can resign. When the argument is that the government is restoring “fiscal sanity” by only borrowing an astronomically large amount of money, and not borrowing an astronomically large amount of money plus a little more for the army, one might think that the generals would be unimpressed, especially given that the debt was already at a net 8 billion. The real argument needed to be that the army did not need the money. And that would require new generals, and a new Secretary of State for War, both of which the Premier now got. But how do you make policy with a new Army Council and a new, inexperienced, Secretary of State for War. You lean on other advisors, perhaps more informal ones; you lean, famously, on Basil Henry Liddell Hart.

It's not my place to discuss this any further. At first glance, the decision to (briefly) abandon the BEF looks like a strategic choice, and at second glance the same. Better men than I have discussed it as military strategy. The Blackadder explanation is that it was all blood and mud and futility last time, so why do it again? What I want to point out is that we were talking about manpower, and then suddenly we were talking about money. I don't think that the premier is pulling the wool over our face to any great excess here. Chamberlain doesn't want to let the army grow because it would be bad for the economy, and bad for the deficit, in a way that letting the air force and the navy grow isn't. It's just that the reasons why it's a bad idea apparently have to be cunningly disguised. And that, more-or-less, is Liddell Hart's job. He has to triangulate his way to a new place where this all makes sense. He has argued that the BEF doesn't need to be big because tanks; because AA is more important; because defence is stronger than offence; and because amphibious expeditions are a better use for it. So many arguments suggest that the real one is unspoken.

 I don't begrudge the Premier his need, nor Liddell Hart his daily bread. What I begrudge is the military history profession letting Liddell Hart get away with spinning a new spin every five years or so, but only because no-one else has explored the Premier's consistent position that expanding the army would be bad for the economy by raising wages has a strategic argument behind it. (I take for granted that it has a self-interested logic behind it. It keeps wages down!) If someone else had done it, I wouldn't now face the prospect at looking at sectoral unemployment statistics and Census numbers, not my favourite reading. But having teased and teased, I guess that I should not proceed to do just that.

Next time!


  1. I'm hoping that that last 'not' is in fact a typo for 'now', Erik.

  2. Typo? Me? Yeah. I'm not describing my idea of a fun library day (week?), but it looks like I've talked myself into a corner.