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The play’s the thing but blood is its trumpet

[resuscitated by Lynn C. Rees]

A book review of Max Hastings’ book Winston’s War: Churchill, 1940-1945:

John F. Kennedy said that in 1940 Churchill mobilized the English language and sent it to battle. But that was the problem. Churchill saw war in rhetorical terms, as pageantry and drama, as though eloquence alone were enough.

At the beginning of the war Evelyn Waugh joined a new unit of the Royal Marines, for which Churchill, when he was first lord of the Admiralty, was responsible. As Waugh dryly put it in a letter, he was “now in a very fine force which Winston is raising in order to provide himself with material for his broadcasts.” Rhetorical was what these forces and their derring-­do often were.

What Churchill quite failed to grasp was the importance of sheer mass in modern war, as opposed to “The British Way in Warfare.” That was the title of a book published in November 1942 by Capt. B. H. Liddell Hart, the self-appointed, and sometimes self-important, military oracle, in which he returned to his pet theme: England’s greatness had formerly rested on indirect attack and limited aims, a policy tragically forgotten in 1914.

In a fascinating review that Hastings might have quoted, George Orwell summarized this “traditional strategy” favored by Hart, not to say by Churchill: “You attack your enemy chiefly by means of blockade, privateering and seaborne ‘commando’ raids. You avoid raising a mass army and leave the land fighting as far as possible to continental allies.” What few people seemed to have noticed, Orwell went on, was that for the past three years we had “waged the kind of war that Captain Liddell Hart advocated,” and yet neither he “nor anyone else would argue that this war has gone well for us.”

I once leafed through Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn at a local bookstore. I put it down in disgust: Atkinson’s introduction fawned over the World War II-era British Army. Even by our low national standards, glorification of the World War II-era British Army is a silly exercise in American self-loathing. The British Army started the war badly, fought the war badly, and ended the war badly. Its leaders occasionally rose to adequacy but were almost uniformly terrible. Two British generals, Harold Alexander and His Serene Highness Prince Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas “Chainsaw” von Battenberg Mountbatten were selected for theater command more for their agreeable temperament than their military talent. The one World War II-era British general of any stature among the Great Captains of History was frowned upon by Churchill and exiled to a military backwater.

While American military leaders insisted on a cross-channel invasion in 1942 and 1943 (which would have failed) and incompetent Soviet military leadership killed uncounted millions of Russian soldiers and civilians, they were right on the big picture: the war in Europe would not end until enough military force was brought to bear on the North European Plain to break the Wehrmacht and destroy the Nazi regime.

Churchill’s indirect approach fantasy was built on the proposition that penny packets of American Allied forces landed in small isolated pockets in Italy or the Balkans would somehow drain away significant amounts of German strength. This drainage would occur despite how indirectly approaching Germany from its “soft” Mediterranean underbelly involved directly and repeatedly banging the American’s Allies’ head against the southern face of the Alps. When Italy tried this same indirection during World War I, it worked so well that they went on to make ten sequels.

In contrast, Churchill vehemently opposed an Allied landing in Provence, the Mediterranean gateway to the only significant gap in the mountain ranges guarding southern Europe. He must have instinctively found its strategic rationality offensive. The Allied landing there in 1944, two months after the Normandy landings, was an outstanding victory (as Churchill, to his credit, gracefully admitted).

Churchill was a brilliant scribbler and weaver of narrative but a mediocre to utterly pathetic strategist. While he rightly recognized the core need for an energizing plot line in underscoring any successful war effort, this was not a unique insight or skill among Allied leaders: FDR and Stalin were also masters of story telling. Consider the opening to Stalin’s famous (in Russia) July 3rd, 1941 speech:

Comrades! Citizens! Brothers and sisters! Men of our army and navy! I am addressing  you, my friends!

This is not “never surrender” “finest hour” “owed by so many to so few” “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” inspirational to Western ears, but it was the first and last time Stalin’s rhetoric was personal. Starved for love from their Little Father for so long, Soviet subjects citizens responded to Stalin’s genocidal terror wooden brand of charisma with alacrity. The difference between Churchill and the other Big Two was that FDR and Stalin remembered that, while a strong strategic story is crucial in war, it is not sufficient unto itself. The Carl observes:

Essentially war is fighting, for fighting is the only effective  principle in the manifold activities generally designated as war.  Fighting, in turn, is a trial of moral and physical forces through the  medium of the latter. Naturally moral strength must not be excluded, for  psychological forces exert a decisive influence on the elements  involved in war.

And reiterates:

Kind-hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way  to disarm or defeat an enemy without too much bloodshed, and might  imagine this is the true goal of the art of war. Pleasant as it sounds,  it is a fallacy that must be exposed: war is such a dangerous business  that the mistakes that come from kindness are the very worst. The  maximum use of force is in no way incompatible with the simultaneous use  of the intellect. If one side uses force without compunction,  undeterred by the bloodshed it involves, while the other side refrains,  the first will gain the upper hand.

The rationale behind Churchill, Brooke, Fuller, Liddell Hart, and Bernard Law Montgomery’s desire to limit British casualties is understandable: there wasn’t enough white Britons to fight the way the Russians and Americans fought. But the message of war is nothing without its medium: bloodshed. Liddell Hart and fellow advocates of “the British way of warfare” willfully ignored this. Both Fuller and Liddell Hart conjured up an undead and unholy Clausewitz roaming the Somme and Passchendaele battlefields, killing off the best British military talent of the next generation while whispering sweet nothings in Field Marshal Haig’s ear. On Flanders field, the “Mahdi of Mass” sucked the lifeblood out of the British Empire. From where they stood, Clausewitz, a lidless Prussian eye wreathed in flames, could even be the original model for J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sauron (Tolkien fought at the Somme).

But Britain, as Orwell points out, was saturated in Liddell Hart thought. And how did this mindset work in practice?


Churchill’s obsession with striking on the periphery following Liddell Hart’s indirect prescription and “the British Way of Warfare” condemned British soldiers to slaughter in small, inconsequential driblets like Greece, Dieppe, or the Dodecanese. While this may be more emotionally tolerable to the large consequential massacres of World War I, it doesn’t bring you any closer to the Ruhr and so it doesn’t bring you any closer to victory.

The British Army didn’t display much flair for the indirect approach either. The most successful British-only operation of the European theater, El Alamein, was a methodical set-piece battle focused more on boring attrition than splendid maneuver. Eighth Army’s pursuit of the remnants of Panzerarmee Afrika afterward was more dogged than dashing. Slim’s 1945 campaign in Burma was an exception to this general mediocrity but then Slim was exceptional among British commanders in not being a mediocre general. When the British Army really tried something like the indirect approach, the result was usually more Arnhem than Mandalay. A British general could be adequate when you drew a line on a map and ordered them to hold it. Scenarios that relied on maneuver and initiative were doomed.

Material trumps spirit. Material wedded to spirit trumps spirit doubly. The Huns and Japanese emphasized fighting spirit to make up for deficiencies in material. They portrayed Americans as soft paper tigers who relied on fighting the Materialschlacht (battle of material). Yet this propaganda was simplistic, as befitting a Fascist regime. America effectively wed narrative to mass in World War II. FDR, for all his flaws, was a great showman. He peddled an American story that sold well at home, at the front, and overseas.

If FDR had relied on rhetoric or clever indirect approaches alone, as Churchill advocated, the Russians would have ended up in Paris. War is more than shock and awe and the sowing of confusion and disorder in enemy ranks. It is more than a gentle wooing of enemy populations with compelling stories. Confusion wears off and love is fickle but death (from a strictly military perspective) is forever. A critical part of war is making the other fellow die for his country, tribe, or non-state actors guild or, at least, persuasively convincing him that there’s a strong possibility thereof.

If you ignore the physical forces in war, you get the opening phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom. If you ignore the moral forces in war, you get Vietnam. In Vietnam, the U.S. Army killed Vietnamese a plenty but lost the contest of moral forces (the North Vietnamese had the good sense to liquidate their media lackeys and hippies when they got uppity). In the opening phase of OIF, there was a lot of emphasis on psychological effect but not enough emphasis put on physically locking down Iraqi forces. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a master of shock, speed, and maneuver, had two parts to his strategy. A Churchillian war of eloquence may deliver the first part, put the scare into ’em, but it may fail to deliver the second: and keep it on. Iraqi forces certainly fled and eventually disappeared but no control was exercised over these wandering soldiers. They were allowed to wander off. Large parts of the country were left un-Americaned for too long. The scare was put into them but it wasn’t kept on. Eventually shock and awe, however much there really was, wore off and it was open season on American soldiers. Contrast this with Germany and Japan after World War II. The scare was put on and if it wore off, there were still American troops with guns patrolling the streets to put it back on. And, if the Americans annoyed you, they could always go home and leave you to the tender mercies of the Russians.

The implicit threat of Muscovite hordes may have done more to keep the fear on the Germans and Japanese than anything the Americans did. After all, the Russians had the most effective mix of narrative and mass of the second World War. Marxist-Leninist-Stalinism had the strategic advantage of integrating Clausewitz at its inception. This helped Stalin demonstrate a masterful grasp of mixing politicking and warfare under the direction of politics. If people thought Americans could be bled into disengagement, they were under no illusions that they could do the same to the Russians. If the Russians came, they would break you. They had the narrative of communism to inspire fellow travelers and useful idiots (the first to go into the GULAG when Soviet troops actually arrived) and they had a well-earned reputation for brutality to inspire everyone else. This narrative was backed by masses of tanks, artillery, planes, trains, automobiles, millions of Russian soldiers, and generals who weren’t afraid to use them to the last man.

If today’s Americans need a Churchill to seek strategic inspiration from, especially in wedding story with mass, they’ll have more luck with John Churchill than his loquacious great-great-great-great grandson.

3 Responses to “The play’s the thing but blood is its trumpet”

  1. larrydunbar Says:

    True enough, but the sound of the trumpet is usually only short and sweat.

    The play of British military, at the time of the second Churchill, represented a structure that was both wide and deep.

    Perhaps it was a structure we needed, even if the sound of it was one that was not wanted. 

  2. Graham Says:

    Well said, on the whole and especially toward the end.

    It’s a pity about WW2 Britain, but I think they really only had the one mass land war in them.

    I am not wholly convinced that the dichotomy is between UK on the one hand and US/USSR approaches on the other. Cast the way you have done, it makes sense, but your comments toward the end lean more in the direction I would go myself- which is to argue that the Americans of that time were doing something somewhere in between what the British were doing and what the Russians were doing.

    By Soviet standards, the Americans were putting a lot more emphasis on narrative, an indirect approach at the strategic and operational levels, and casualty aversion. The heavy and direct element was more in the use of materiel where the Soviets could go big on both materiel and manpower. America wasn’t capable of fighting that kind of war. There weren’t even enough Americans to do that, at least not at casualty rates America would tolerate.

    As a matter of broader speculation, I always considered all of the “big 3” vital.

    The UK was ultimately vital mainly as a supporting player and launch platform in NW Europe, but more vital for being the only one in the war between June 1940 and June 1941, a year with the Soviets on the wrong side of neutrality and 18 months with the US not formally involved. If Britain had already been out, would the US have come into the ETO at all, let alone at the same time and with the same advantages?

    The USSR was indisputably vital as the only one able and willing to both take and give that kind of punishment against Germany. No one was going to win without that, unless and until the US could bring atomic weapons to bear. The US alone wasn’t going to defeat Germany by conventional means.

    On the other hand, I don’t know quite enough to be sure but despite Soviet capacity and undoubted success with their war industry, they took a lot of vehicles, aircraft, food and other support from the Allies. It seems briefly to have been near run enough that perhaps they would not have won alone either.

    The US, arguably, is the only one that could have won alone, but likely only with atomic weapons and it is highly debatable whether they would have been able or willing to do that enough times to have the desired effect, in the absence of being part of a war coalition as above. Especially if the scenario doesn’t involve Germany already being put on the ropes by conventional means by combined forces.

    Just discovered this site, by the way, by series of links to specific posts put up by The Scholar’s Stage. I am really enjoying this material, yours and your colleagues.

  3. Grurray Says:

    “If Britain had already been out, would the US have come into the ETO at all, let alone at the same time and with the same advantages?”

    Good point.
    A lot of people like to think that, had Hitler not declared war on the US, we would never have entered the European war.
    The fact is we were financially and materially supporting Britain and France as early as 1939. FDR would have had us fighting much earlier, but he was prevented from doing so by Americans’ implicit and explicit isolationism.
    There was a strong public distaste for supporting a losing cause in Europe, but the tide in public opinion turned after the Battle of Britain and when German forces were proven to be beatable. England not only fought off Germany but convinced us to join the fight.
    Could Americans have tolerated millions killed?
    There were severe restrictions and censoring on any news and information. No one knew what was really going on and didn’t find out about any news or casualties until well after the fact.
    The sad fact is it probably wasn’t necessary. There was a total civil commitment to the war effort.
    Kids lied about their age to join up.
    Men committed suicide out of despair and guilt if they were labeled 4F.
    People really thought that if Hitler overan Europe he was just going to keep going and come across the Atlantic.
    If Americans had used the same operations plans and strategy as the Soviets –

    i.e.   inexperienced junior officers in command because of political purges
            with dilapidated equipment made from the backwards industrial system
            made by recently freed gulag prisoners
            manned by untrained Asian reserves that were shot if they retreated
            and used as cannon fodder for luring Wermacht divisions around in circles
    then, yes, we probably wouldn’t have done too well.
    On the other hand, if we had faced forces personally commanded by Hitler, who decided how to dispatch his panzer divisions depending on whether he was in a good mood that morning, and finally decided to attack a city with no strategic value but surrounded by the Red Army,
    then maybe we wouldn’t have done so badly. 
    In other words, the question may not be whether or not the American GI could be deployed in sufficient numbers or tolerate a land war in Asia.
    The correct question may be
    how much sooner would we have won and how much less Russian bloodshed would there have been
    had our amphibious landings been across the Black Sea instead of the English Channel?

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