When it comes to national defence, never take your eye off the ball. This is a lesson we can and must learn from history. Because the disturbing fact is that this country did just that in the 1920s and 1930s in the aftermath of the First World War, and the result very nearly cost us our freedom as Hitler’s forces threatened our shores.
Britain won the war in 1918 but shamefully lost the peace as our army was allowed to atrophy.
It is often forgotten how professional the British Army had become by 1918 – able to pull off a stunning battlefield victory over the Germans in northern France thanks to the ‘Hundred Days’ offensive which ended the war.
The victory had been a long time coming, after years of static trench warfare and no decisive breakthrough, just massive loss of life in the bloodbaths at Ypres, Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele.
Finally, at the Battle of Amiens, British commanders – often wrongly caricatured as donkeys leading lions – demonstrated that they were able to master the intricacies of the modern battlefield.
‘It is often forgotten how professional the British Army had become by 1918 – able to pull off a stunning battlefield victory over the Germans in northern France thanks to the ‘Hundred Days’ offensive which ended the war.’ (Pictured: A carrier pigeon being released from a British Mark V tank during the Battle of Amiens)
Lord Dannatt, former head of the British Army and co-author of Victory To Defeat: The British Army 1918-1940
Dr Robert Lyman, elected fellow of the Royal Historical Society and co-author of Victory To Defeat: The British Army 1918-1940
With their sophisticated co-ordination of all elements of combat power – infantry, artillery, air power and armoured vehicles – the stalemate was broken as the Germans admitted defeat and sued for peace.
Yet little more than 20 years later, the boot was on the other foot when the next generation of German soldiers poured into France and beat the Allies in a lightning campaign that ended with British troops fleeing the beaches of Dunkirk.
How had victory in 1918 turned so quickly to humiliating defeat in 1940?
The answer is that it was the policy of successive British governments to downgrade the Army.
Spending on defence was dramatically slashed because of a misguided assumption that the ‘war to end all wars’ had done its job and there was no need to consider or plan for a future one.
Instead, everything was an issue of money as budgets were decided by Treasury civil servants, with no military advice.
In other words, the principal reason the Army was so unprepared for war in 1939 was that the British government, through its faulty defence planning and financing in the previous two decades, had made it so.
These are mistakes we must learn from today – especially as, with the appointment of Grant Shapps, we have a new Defence Secretary who knows little about the brief.
Significantly, in the 1920s and 30s, there was all-party consensus on the Army cuts.
With economic recession to contend with, the Conservative, Liberal and Labour parties were all reluctant to argue for more expenditure on defence. Nor was there any popular outcry.
If a country became less warlike, the argument suggested, potential threats would simply disappear into an ether of goodwill. It was a potent virus made up of wishful thinking and naivety.
So it was that the British Army fell asleep at the wheel, slipping back into being an imperial policeman whose job involved relatively simple weapons and equipment.
‘It is, perhaps, little wonder that Vladimir Putin sensed that the West, united during the years of the Cold War, was ripe for challenge as its military capability was allowed to atrophy in Europe and diverted elsewhere into forays against militant Islamist movements in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa.’ (Pictured: Vladimir Putin)
‘In the 1930s, the liberal democracies set their faces against rearmament and chose negotiation and appeasement as their response to Hitler’s Germany.’ (Pictured: British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain meeting Adolf Hitler in 1938)
However, if a government takes the security of the nation seriously, its duty – then as now – is to imagine the unimaginable and prepare for it. In January 2022, for example, a war in Europe was unimaginable, but it became a reality when, the following month, Russia attacked Ukraine.
It is, perhaps, little wonder that Vladimir Putin sensed that the West, united during the years of the Cold War, was ripe for challenge as its military capability was allowed to atrophy in Europe and diverted elsewhere into forays against militant Islamist movements in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa.
Putin may also have taken comfort from the West’s eventual disappointments in Iraq and Afghanistan – and was undoubtedly emboldened by the US and Nato’s precipitate and undignified exit from Kabul in August 2021.
This is where recent events uncomfortably mirror the failings in defence policy between the First and Second World Wars.
In the 1930s, the liberal democracies set their faces against rearmament and chose negotiation and appeasement as their response to Hitler’s Germany.
The Ukraine War represents another moment when Western leaders, and those of Britain in particular, are faced with a similar dilemma. They can bury their heads in a way reminiscent of the appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938, or they can embrace difficult and expensive choices – perhaps not popular in the short term but likely to be a sound investment in future security.
While accepting that Ukraine was not a member of Nato, and therefore that they were not legally bound to protect it, Western states have nevertheless stood solidly in support of the country as it fights to protect its independence, sovereignty and preferred way of life.
‘The Ukraine War represents another moment when Western leaders, and those of Britain in particular, are faced with a similar dilemma. They can bury their heads in a way reminiscent of the appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938, or they can embrace difficult and expensive choices.’ (Pictured: A Ukrainian soldier)
The Challenger 3 tank modernisation programme should be accelerated, and the numbers significantly increased from the paltry plan of refitting just 148 of them
But should it have come to this? Had the cautionary tale of the past not been heeded? Had the absence of an appropriate response to the rise of a dictator in Europe in the last century been mirrored by the hesitant response to the rise of a dictator in this one?
This is the challenge to Western governments – and especially to Britain if it wishes to prove itself a major player on the world stage in the years to come. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, the UK surely cannot duck these responsibilities – but rising to them comes at a price.
In March 2021, the Government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy proposed tilting Britain’s defence strategy towards the Indo-Pacific region. It also gave priority to new technologies and new ways of warfare. However, Putin’s brutal land assault in Ukraine has proved a rude wake-up call, taking war back to its bloody basics.
So what should be the response of the British Government in the face of current events?
For a start, defence spending should rise from two per cent of GDP to nearer three per cent. And much of it needs to be spent on a major investment in the UK’s land power capability.
Planned cuts to the size of the Army should be questioned, as should decisions to reduce helicopter and tactical air-lift capabilities.
The Challenger 3 tank modernisation programme should be accelerated, and the numbers significantly increased from the paltry plan of refitting just 148 of them.
The removal from service of the Warrior infantry fighting vehicle should also be stopped and a full modernisation programme embarked upon.
Moreover, as the war in Ukraine has shown, rocket and tube artillery numbers need to be dramatically increased. So does air defence capability, to meet the new weapon of armed drones, along with conventional aerial threats.
Underpinning all this must be a modern, secure communications system supported by robust logistics and adequate holdings of ammunition and other combat supplies.
Without these enhancements and more, we will be unable to play our part in the future deterrence of further aggression from a newly aggressive Russia.
The 1930s showed the folly of not acting in a timely manner, while the draining away of the UK’s military capabilities since the Cold War shows a remarkable tendency to let history repeat itself.
Wishful thinking does not buy peace – hard power does.
Defence expenditure is the insurance premium that any responsible government must pay to protect its interests, its people and the security of its territory.
The premium may have just gone up, but the alternative is a disaster.
Ukraine is Europe’s wake-up call. We must listen and act.
We might not be given a second chance – again.
Lord Dannatt, the head of the Army from 2006 to 2009, and military historian Dr Robert Lyman are the authors of Victory To Defeat: The British Army 1918-1940, published by Bloomsbury. To order a copy for £22.50 (offer valid to 01/10/2023; UK p&p free on orders over £25) go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.