In 1914, France and Germany had built up huge conscript armies, directed by generals who planned and (when the time came) executed war on the grand scale. But Britain is an island. For centuries, the Navy had always been our first line of defence. Our Navy was very strong and there was never any danger of the German Army gaining a foothold here. Britain had emerged victorious from the war against Napoleon without creating a major continental army, and might well have done so in 1914-18.
Only one member of the cabinet had any experience of war – the young Winston Churchill. But the main principle by which the War would have to be waged did not require Staff College training – merely an elementary knowledge of English history and geography. Nevertheless Asquith’s first move was to look for an expert whom he could put in charge of the War. He appointed the man who appeared to him best qualified – Kitchener. Kitchener was a soldier, not a sailor. He informed the cabinet that the War would require an army on the continental scale. The Prime Minister supported him and he commenced recruitment immediately. Volunteers flooded in. There was never any problem about numbers.
The holocaust which followed was the combined result of Kitchener’s appointment, War Office expansionism and the misplaced patriotic enthusiasm of the young men of Britain. For wars cannot be fought and won by numbers alone. British experience in Africa had already shown that all the valour and discipline of a Zulu impi was powerless against a single machine gun. The Kitchener army had to be formed within the framework of the existing professional army. The professional army was at a low ebb. It had been neglected for a century or longer. Apart from one or two guards and cavalry regiments, it had no social prestige and It was seldom a chosen career for young men with suitable talents. It was quite unable to make good use of the thousands of new would-be solders who joined it. When they were sent to France, they died as the Zulus had died, but on a far greater scale. Their young lives were wasted. Since those who died were so easily replaced by new volunteers, the terrible casualties were of little military significance and there was no change of policy.
In the early months of the war, the Germans had advanced successfully, so that the German side of the line of trenches included large areas of France. German policy from then onwards was mainly defensive; they held on to what they had conquered. To resolve the impasse, the Allies needed to force the Germans back. This they attempted to do over and over again. The generals could not devise any more subtle strategy than simply to order their infantry, equipped with rifles and bayonets, to go out into no-man’s-land and attempt to capture the opposing German trench.
It has become customary to blame the generals for what happened. And it is true that they seldom went into the trenches to see the situation for themselves. But the main problem was that they had been promoted too quickly. Men scarcely fit to command battalions had been put in charge of armies. And perhaps they were presented with an almost impossible task. The fault lay with Asquith’s government, which created an unnecessary and ineffectual army which wasted men’s lives. It was unnecessary because Britain has no land frontier to defend and had the greatest navy in the world. It was ineffectual and wasted men’s lives because it contained no one who was competent to make wise strategic use of the human resources which became available. It is true that all those young men volunteered too easily – conscription came only later in the war. But it is the responsibility of government in war time to restrain the ardour of youth and direct it into useful channels.
At the end of the War, Britain was left an empty and disillusioned country. Casualties were always highest among the junior officers and almost a whole generation of educated young men had lost their lives. Those who had survived were often those who, lacking patriotism had not volunteered and subsequently had evaded conscription by finding the right niche job or knowing the right person in authority. Among those who had fought, thousands had been blinded, gassed or otherwise disabled. If their bodies had survived intact, their minds had often been affected instead. Of many it was said “He’s never been the same since the War”.
The next generation – men of Edward Heath’s generation – grew up in a Britain which no longer believed in itself. Many of them looked for something else to believe in. Some, like Philby, embraced Communism and betrayed their country. Others hoped to find the solution in a united Europe.
The effect of the War was not only to destroy countless patriotic young men, but to bring the very concept of patriotism into disrepute. For patriotism is based on trust. Loyalty is only due to wise governments who can be trusted not to abuse it. That trust was lost in Britain after 1918 and it has not yet been recovered.