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Army, Empire, and Cold War

The British Army and Military Policy, 1945-1971


David French


Oxford: University Press, 2012

Hardcover. x+335 p. ISBN 978-0199548231. £67.00


Reviewed by Jonathan Boff

University of Birmingham



David French needs little introduction as the leading historian of British strategic and military policy in the twentieth century. No student can afford to ignore his work on British planning and war aims before and during the First World War, or indeed his seminal study Raising Churchill’s Army : The British Army and the War against Germany, 1919-45 (Oxford: University Press, 2001). In 2011 and 2012 Professor French treated us to not one but two volumes carrying the story of the British army forward after 1945. The first of these volumes, The British Way in Counter-Insurgency, 1945-67 (Oxford: University Press, 2011) attracted widespread attention of a kind unusual for a publication primarily aimed at a scholarly audience and priced accordingly. The subtlety, scholarship and detachment with which French analysed postwar British counterinsurgency [COIN] policy, and undercut many of the myths which surround it, had immediate resonance with the problems exposed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The book under review here did not capture the popular imagination to quite the same extent, but it deserves to, since it raises deep questions of broader significance, some of which get to the heart of the role of the military in a modern democracy and brightly illuminate how British government works.

Army, Empire, and Cold War begins with an Introduction which, correctly but surprisingly, points out that the history of the British Army in the second half of the twentieth century remains at best fragmented. Individual operations, such as Malaya or Kenya, have been explored (sometimes with more heat than light, especially in the latter case), but the Army’s largest and arguably most important commitment, to the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR), has not been studied at all. The historiography sometimes seems to consist of little more than tales of Special Air Service derring-do. Little effort has been made to see the Army in full context of Britain’s wider strategic culture and to analyse its ability to generate fighting power and achieve the missions it was set by government. French sets himself the task of providing a holistic analysis of the Army over the generation after May 1945, looking not only at the operational, but also the social, history, all within the context of British strategic, colonial and foreign policy.

He delineates three phases to that history. The first saw Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery in 1946 draw up a template for a ‘New Model Army’ which would build a reserve of trained soldiers to man a mass army capable of deterring, or if necessary fighting, the Soviet Union in Western Europe at a date not before 1957. This was deemed the first date at which the USSR might be ready to provoke a major war. (Shades of the interwar Ten Year Rule?) Secondly, though, with the intensification of the Cold War from 1948 and especially after the outbreak of the Korean War, it increasingly seemed that the West might not have the luxury of years to prepare. This helped to drive a re-allocation of resources away from reservists and towards the acquisition of more active capability. The third phase saw economic pressures, the advent of the first tactical nuclear weapons, and a series of debacles such as Suez in 1956, prompt a fundamental re-think in the Sandys Defence White paper of 1957. The result was the end of conscription and the establishment of an all-professional force. This was the army which oversaw the final withdrawal from east of Suez.

French’s central conclusion is that this was consistently, and increasingly, a ‘Potemkin’ army. The façade it presented to the world was sufficiently robust to deter rivals and reassure allies, but probably had little capacity to deliver on its promises in case of need. This was the result of several factors. First, money was always tight, with defence spending in secular decline as a share of GDP from 11.2 per cent in 1952 to 5.8 per cent in 1971. Political pressure to reduce world-record levels of indebtedness and maintain the strength of Sterling in the face of periodic balance of payments crises was intense. While the Army occasionally managed successfully to use international threats to argue against cuts (as in the early 1950s), the direction of travel in real-terms defence estimates remained downward. The strategic coat was being cut from ever-shrinking cloth. In this environment, it became ever harder to fulfil all three of the key post-war missions: contributing to the NATO conventional deterrence of the Soviet Union in Europe; maintaining order in the colonies; and retaining the ability to undertake expeditionary operations as required. The last of these had the lowest priority and Suez showed that already by 1956 British ability to project large scale force depended on all the stars aligning most favourably. By 1966-1968, it was becoming increasingly clear that Britain could not only no longer afford to maintain garrisons in Aden, the Persian Gulf and Singapore, but also that the costs of doing so in international goodwill far outweighed any possible benefit of strategic reach. The final pull-out from east of Suez in 1971 left most of the Army back home, or in West Germany – or increasingly getting sucked in to new problems on the streets of Northern Ireland.

As French tells this story, he draws in other important themes, some of which reinforce existing perceptions of the British Army as an institution, while adding important nuance. For instance, he discusses at length the recurrent struggles the Army faced in recruitment and retention of the right calibre of manpower in the face of ‘full employment’, rising living standards and expectations. Efforts to improve terms and conditions of service and become a ‘good employer’ were well-meaning and progressive, but never sufficient. In other respects, such as officer selection, conservative values remained entrenched and attempts to ‘democratise’ the officer corps enjoyed only limited success. Between 1947 and 1967 the proportion of cadets from top-drawer public schools such as Eton fell from 26.4 to 9.9 per cent but public schoolboys overall still made up 45.7 per cent of the Sandhurst intake (down from 65.1 per cent). An ex-public school boy was nearly three times more likely to be accepted than a young man from a State school [61].

Others, however, subvert or overturn the standard narrative. One good example is the way French shatters the myth that the British Army never outgrew the operational and tactical methods, centred on overwhelming firepower and attrition, which had brought it success in 1944-5 and that it was (is?) an unthinking institution incapable, at least until the 1980s, of building the intellectual capital necessary to generate intelligent doctrine. On the contrary, he shows, the BAOR was a hotbed of doctrinal thought from which evolved ideas of manoeuvre battle and decentralised command which, on paper at least, offered the best chance of halting the Soviet juggernaut. (Whether, in practice, BAOR logistics, communications, command and control procedures were sufficiently robust to withstand such an onslaught for any sustained period, however, remained thankfully untested.) Another case is French’s demolition of the idea that British COIN methods were successful because they relied on the rule of law, the use of minimum force and the winning of hearts and minds. On the contrary, soldiers were perfectly capable of savagery and the frameworks set up by the authorities, while not deliberately ordering atrocities, certainly increased the likelihood of extreme violence being used.

With this book, Professor French has produced an outstanding single-volume history of the British Army between 1945 and 1971. The breadth and depth of his research, the clarity of his argument and the common sense of his judgement will make this book essential reading for military historians for generations to come. He never loses sight of the forest for the trees. Further, it will be invaluable to students of the end of the British Empire, or indeed of how Whitehall and Westminster make policy in general. He is too good a scholar to ram conclusions down the reader’s throat, but one of the themes of all his work has been that British policy generally emerges in reaction to the pressure of events, rather than from proactive planning in the abstract. This book left me thinking at least two things. First, that we badly need a similar study of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. Secondly, that modern soldiers and politicians who look back to a ‘golden age’ when planners sat down, rationally drew up a list of strategic priorities, and then built the military required to meet those commitments, are in search of a chimera. In a democracy like Great Britain, strategic policy has always emerged through political process and been the result of messy and contingent decisions, as French has shown. With the benefit of hindsight, moreover, it is clear that, however ‘Potemkin’ the British Army was, it did get its most important job done: it contributed to preventing a war which no one could win. And it did so without allowing the ‘military-industrial complex’ to hijack government or without bankrupting the state. The British way of defence is not the neatest, most efficient or most rational approach. It may have run dangerous risks during the Cold War. Nonetheless, it still seems to have been better than the alternatives.


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