How the British Army’s First World War Shaped its Second

More than three-and-a-half million men served in the British Army during the Second World War, the vast majority of them civilians who had never expected to become soldiers and had little idea what military life, with all its strange rituals, discomforts and dangers, might entail. Alan Allport, author of Browned Off and Bloody-Minded: The British Soldier Goes to War 1939-1945, chronicles how soldiers responded to and were shaped by their years with the British Army, and how that army, however reluctantly, had to accommodate itself to them. This piece describes how the First World War, ironically called ‘the war to end all wars’, preempted the Second World War.

 How the British Army’s First World War Shaped its Second

By Alan Allport

This Armistice Day differs from all that have preceded it,” wrote the Times on 11 November, 1939. “There will be no stately gathering at the Cenotaph, no prescribed minutes of silence to hush the land.” What the Times called “unhappy circumstances” had required the cancellation of the usual commemorative events. Those unhappy circumstances were, of course, the outbreak of a second war against Germany: a war which had barely begun in November 1939, but which over the course of the next five and a half years would cause the deaths of over 450,000 Britons and – even more than the first war had done – would transform Britain’s political, economic and social foundations, as well as its place in the world.

Throughout 2014 we have been commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, quite properly recognizing it as one of the benchmarks of modern global history. But while to us the events of 1914-1918 have receded into a past recallable only through the surviving detritus of memory – poems, memoirs, photographs – for Britons living in the 1920s and 1930s the First World War was a vivid lived experience only recently ended, a trauma still raw in its pain and grief. Inevitably, the way in which the survivors and witnesses of that earlier, so-called ‘great’ war remembered what had happened to them was going to have a profound effect on the way in which the Second World War against Germany would be fought. It would shape Britain’s entire grand strategy from 1939 to 1945, and especially its attitude towards its chief instrument of land power – its army. Indeed, the development of the British Army in the years leading up to the Second World War had been decisively influenced by its experiences in the First, and the memory of what its soldiers had undergone in the trenches of the Western Front had left even its own generals deeply ambivalent about what role, if any, it should play in another great conflict with the Germans.

The First World War had been the Army’s greatest ever military engagement. During its four and a half years of struggle, it had expanded from a force of just 247,000 officers and men – trifling by the standards of the continental powers – to a vast conscript levee of more than four million soldiers organized into over 70 divisions. Its contribution to defeating the Kaiser’s army had been second to none. But the cost had been terrible. All told, over 673,000 of its soldiers had been killed or had died of wounds or disease on active service, vastly exceeding the losses experienced by the other armed services or the civilian population back home. No family in Britain had been untouched by this national tragedy. And though the experience itself was solemnly memorialized in the years that had followed the end of the war, the decision to raise a large continental-style army in the first place was widely viewed by the 1930s to have been an appalling mistake. As the Times put it on November 11, 1939, Armistice Day was not just a commemoration of heroism, but a reminder of “disappointment and disillusion … frustrated hopes and wasted sacrifice” as well.

This suspicion of a ‘continental commitment’ to any European ally would shape national defence policy throughout the 1920s and 1930s. After its demobilization in 1919, the Army returned to its traditional role as a small constabulary force scattered about the British Empire. The hope was that Britain would avoid any further military entanglements in Europe altogether. But if that proved to be impossible – and the rise of the fascist dictators in the 1930s made the prospect of a permanent peace seem increasingly unlikely – then at the very least Britain would fight its enemies by the so-called ‘indirect approach,’ using technological ingenuity, financial muscle and strategic guile, rather than resigning itself to a bloody head-on clash with their armies. The RAF’s bomber squadrons would provide Britain’s first line of attack, overflying the enemy’s land forces entirely to assault its industrial workforce and so bring its war economy grinding to a halt. Naval blockade and small, peripheral amphibious operations would do the rest. There would be no need to raise more great armies, no need to refight the vast and devastating land battles of the First World War such as the Somme or Passchendaele.

In the event, for the sake of maintaining his alliance with France, Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had no choice in 1939 but to reintroduce conscription and send a second (albeit small) Expeditionary Force across the Channel. But neither he nor his successor Winston Churchill ever saw this renewed continental commitment as anything other than a regrettable expediency. And once the BEF (which had been ill-trained and ill-equipped for continental warfare after 20 years of neglecting the prospect) was evacuated home from Dunkirk in June 1940, there was little enthusiasm for resending British soldiers back to France. Churchill’s grand strategy for defeating Nazi Germany returned to the principles of the indirect approach. As he told Lord Beaverbrook, “when I look round to see how we can win the war I see that there is only one sure path. We have no continental army which can defeat the German military power. The blockade is broken … but there is one thing that will bring [Hitler] down, and that is an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers.” And sure enough, during the years that followed, Britain allotted a huge proportion of its industrial production capacity and military manpower to the creation of a large, expensive, and lavishly equipped force of strategic bombers. The army was comparatively sidelined. Though still overall the largest of the three services, its size was capped at between two and three million men only. Its demands for more and better weapons and vehicles took second place to the competing needs of RAF Bomber Command. It could only watch in disappointment as the most promising recruits from the conscript pool were siphoned away by the Air Force and the Navy.

Wartime events would facilitate, but also in the end frustrate, Churchill’s wish to fight a war by the indirect approach. Germany’s attack on the USSR in June 1941 meant that for the rest of the conflict the bulk of Hitler’s army would be committed to a titanic struggle on the Eastern Front; only a fraction of his land forces would ever be available again to match the British, or (from December 1941 onwards) the Americans in the West. But the Soviet Union, like France in 1939, was not willing to absorb all the effort of the ground war alone. Stalin was unimpressed by Britain’s war in the Mediterranean, which, though strategically important, never tied down more than a few German divisions. Nor was he satisfied with the bombing offensive against Germany’s cities. Terrible though its human cost would be (for both sides: Bomber Command aircrew experienced a 44 percent death-rate), bombing alone was unable to critically threaten the Third Reich’s ability to continue fighting. The Soviet leader never deviated from his primary demand: that the Western Allies launch a ‘second front’ against Germany in northwestern Europe. And the Americans, who had never shared the British enthusiasm for the indirect approach in the first place, agreed. The result was the offensive that Churchill had pledged in 1940 would not, and ought not to, ever happen: Operation OVERLORD, the assault on Hitler’s ‘Fortress Europa’ in Normandy.

OVERLORD began a campaign that would see British soldiers march from Normandy’s SWORD and GOLD beaches all the way to Lüneburg Heath in Lower Saxony, where, on 4 May, 1945, Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg would unconditionally surrender all German forces in the west to Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery. It was, without question, a triumph for the British Army. But it was also a campaign fought very much in opposition to the spirit which had guided British strategic thought since 1939, and indeed since 1919. And this was reflected in the Army’s alarming poverty of manpower throughout the advance from the Orne to the Elbe. Even before the campaign began, Montgomery had to frankly admit to his Anglo-American colleagues that Britain was at the end of its manpower supply; heavy casualties in France would not only be undesirable for their own sake, but also catastrophic for his ability to keep a British expeditionary force in the field. Monty managed as it turned out, but barely: as the Anglo-American army advanced on the German frontier in the autumn of 1944 he was reduced to cannibalizing some of his precious handful of infantry divisions simply in order to sustain the rest of them. By the German surrender, the British Army was spent so far as manpower was concerned; it had scraped the barrel clean. Montgomery had not been granted a force half the size that his predecessor Field Marshal Haig had enjoyed in 1918. Yet he had been required to fulfill much the same task with it all the same.

Britain’s aversion to fighting the Second World War in the manner of the First had not, in the end, prevented the need for another continental commitment. It had, however, made the task for the soldiers involved altogether more difficult than it might otherwise have been.

Allan Allport is the Assistant Professor of modern British history at Syracuse University in New York and the author of Browned Off and Bloody-Minded, published in March 2015.

For a book trailer containing original letters and journals written by a range of conscripts see the video below:


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