Review of “The British Way in Warfare” by B. H. Liddell Hart

New Statesman and Nation, 21 November 1942
B. H. Liddell Hart (1895-1970)

B. H. Liddell Hart was an English soldier, military historian and leading inter-war theorist.

This collection of revised and reprinted essays written from about 1932 onwards, is largely a history of the development of the British army in the years between the two wars. Its opening chapters, however, contain a survey of Britain’s “traditional grand strategy” which is the most interesting and provocative part of the book and the most important at this moment. The battle for mechanization has been won, at any rate on paper, but the controversy over the Second Front is still raging, and Captain Liddell Hart’s theories are extremely relevant to it.

What is the “traditional strategy” which we have abandoned and which Captain Liddell Hart implies that we should return to? Briefly, the strategy of indirect attack and limited aims. It was practised with great success in Britain’s predatory wars of the eighteenth century and only dropped in the decade before 1914, when Britain entered into an all-in alliance with France. Its technique is essentially commercial. You attack your enemy chiefly by means of blockade, privateering, and sea-borne “commando” raids. You avoid raising a mass army and leave the land fighting as far as possible to continental allies whom you keep going by means of subsidies. While your allies are doing your fighting for you you capture your enemy’s overseas trade and occupy his outlying colonies. At the first suitable moment you make peace, either retaining the territories you have captured or using them as bargaining counters. This was, in fact, Britain’s characteristic strategy for something like two hundred years, and the term perfide Albion was thoroughly justified except in so far as the behaviour of other States was morally similar. The wars of the eighteenth century were waged in a spirit so mercenary that the normal process is reversed, and they seem more “ideological” to posterity than they did to the people who fought in them. But in any case the “limited aims” strategy is not likely to be successful unless you are willing to betray your allies whenever it pays to do so.

In 1914-18, as is well known, we broke with our past, subordinated our strategy to that of an ally, and lost a million dead. Commenting on this Captain Liddell Hart says: “I can find in the conditions of the war no satisfying explanation of our change. . . . No fundamental cause for a change of historic policy seems to appear. Hence one is inclined to find it in a change of fashion — in the military mode of thought inspired by Clausewitz.” Clausewitz is the evil genius of military thought. He taught, or is supposed to have taught, that the proper strategy is to attack your strongest enemy, that nothing is solved except by battle, and that “blood is the price of victory”. Fascinated by this theory, Britain “made her navy a subsidiary weapon, and grasped the glittering sword of continental manufacture”.

Now there is something unsatisfactory in tracing an historical change to an individual theorist, because a theory does not gain ground unless material conditions favour it. If Britain ceased, at any rate for four years, from being perfide Albion, there were deeper reasons than Sir Henry Wilson’s tie-up with the French General Staff. To begin with it is very doubtful whether our “traditional” strategy is workable any longer. In the past it really depended on the balance of power, more and more precarious from 1870 onwards, and on geographical advantages which modern technical developments have lessened. After 1890 Britain was no longer the only naval power, and moreover the whole scope of naval warfare had diminished. With the abandonment of sail navies became less mobile, the inland seas were inaccessible after the invention of the marine mine, and blockade lost part of its power owing to the science of substitutes and the mechanization of agriculture. After the rise of modern Germany it was hardly possible for us to dispense with European alliances, and one of the things allies are apt to insist on is that you do your fair share of the fighting. Money subsidies have no meaning when war involves the total effort of every belligerent nation.

The real shortcoming of these stimulating essays, however, lies in Captain Liddell Hart’s unwillingness to admit that war has changed its character. “Limited aims” strategy implies that your enemy is very much the same kind of person as yourself; you want to get the better of him, but it is not necessary for your safety to annihilate him or even to interfere with his internal politics. These conditions existed in the eighteenth century and even in the later phases of the Napoleonic wars, but have disappeared in the atomized world in which we are now living. Writing in 1932 or thereabouts, Captain Liddell Hart is able to say, “Has there ever been such a thing as absolute war since nations ceased to exterminate or enslave the defeated?” The trouble is that they haven’t ceased. Slavery, which seemed as remote as cannibalism in 1932, is visibly returning in 1942, and in such circumstances it is impossible to wage the old style of limited profit-making war, intent only on “safeguarding British interests” and making peace at the first opportune moment. As Mussolini has truly said, democracy and totalitarianism cannot exist side by side. It is a curious fact, not much remarked on, that in the present war Britain has, up to date, waged the kind of war that Captain Liddell Hart advocates. We have fought no large-scale continental campaign, we have used up one ally after another, and we have acquired territories far larger and, potentially, far richer than those we have lost. Yet neither Captain Liddell Hart nor anyone else would argue from this that the war has gone well for us. Nobody advocates that we should simply wipe up the remaining French and Italian colonies and then make a negotiated peace with Germany because even the most ignorant person sees that such a peace would not be final. Our survival depends on the destruction of the present German political system, which implies the destruction of the German army. It is difficult not to feel that Clausewitz was right in teaching that “you must concentrate against the main enemy, who must be overthrown first”, and that “the armed forces form the true objective”, at least in any war where there is a genuine ideological issue.

To some extent Captain Liddell Hart’s tactical theories are separable from his strategic ones, and here his prophecies have been all too well justified by events. No military writer in our time has done more to enlighten public opinion. But his justified war with the Blimps has perhaps overcoloured his judgement. The people who scoffed at mechanization and still labour to reduce military training to a routine of barking and stamping are also in favour of mass armies, frontal attacks, bayonet charges and, in general, meaningless bloodshed. Disgusted by the spectacle of Passchendaele, Captain Liddell Hart seems to have ended by believing that wars can be won on the defensive or without fighting — and even, indeed, that a war is better half-won than won outright. That holds good only when your enemy thinks likewise, a state of affairs which disappeared when Europe ceased to be ruled by an aristocracy.

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Source: CEJL2-40

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