war on the rocks

Crouching Lion, Weary Titan: Lessons from World War I and British Grand Strategy

February 7, 2018

David Morgan-Owen, The Fear of Invasion: Strategy, Politics, and British War Planning, 1880-1914 (Oxford, 2017)

It was in 1902 that Halford Mackinder, the Oxford geographer and so-called father of geopolitics, remarked that geography had given Britain “a unique part in the world’s drama,” allowing it to become the “mistress of the seas” by amassing immense naval power. By the opening of the 20th century, however, a growing number of Britons were concerned that the world’s dramas might be visited upon British shores in the form of a hostile army running amok through England’s green and pleasant lands. The seemingly impregnable self-confidence of Victorian Britain began to ebb, replaced by a growing feeling of vulnerability in an increasingly hostile world.

It is hard to read David Morgan-Owen’s The Fear of Invasion: Strategy, Politics and British War Planning, 1880-1914 without an eye to some of the current debates about national security priorities on both sides of the Atlantic. The United Kingdom is in the grip of a fierce political fight about defense spending, as the country seeks to put some meat on the bones on its post-Brexit “Global Britain” foreign policy.

Britain’s military hierarchy is worried about the creep of complacency regarding the threat posed by Russia and other adversaries: In a Jan. 22 speech, Gen. Sir Nick Carter, the chief of the general staff, warned: “The risk we run in not defining this clearly, and acting accordingly, is that rather like a chronic contagious disease it will creep up on us, and our ability to act will be markedly constrained — and we’ll be the losers of this competition.” He compared the situation with that before World War I, when some of the principal protagonists were guilty of “sleepwalking” into conflict.

Carter’s intervention had the desired effect, though it is not quite clear how long the dam will hold. While the Ministry of Defence has won a temporary reprieve from the latest round of cuts, it is inevitable that some efficiency savings will follow in the coming months. The sword of Damocles hovers, though it is as yet unclear where it will fall. There are rumors of threats to the Royal Marines and of a reduction in the size of the British Army to one not seen since the days before the Napoleonic War.

It is, of course, axiomatic to observe that decisive action on national defense requires tough choices between different types of capabilities. But the lessons of history also suggest that the right path is only clear in hindsight. Morgan-Owen’s important book reminds us of the fundamental importance of civilian political leadership to strategy making and war-planning. He offers a study of the failure of this leadership in the years leading up to World War I, and a timely lesson about the dangers of a strategy based on fear of new threats, rather than on an appreciation of one’s own strengths.

Morgan-Owen goes light on the term “grand strategy,” which — as authors in these pages have recently pointed out — does not always enlighten such debates. Even at the height of their empire, the British largely eschewed the temptation to commit any great grand strategic principles to parchment, the way American national security strategies did during the Cold War. Yet nor was it strictly true, as the late Victorian historian John Robert Seeley famously remarked, that “we seem, as it were, to have conquered half the world in a fit of absence of mind.” The British did indeed develop clear strategic habits for most of the 19th century when it came to projecting their influence and securing their interests abroad. Specifically, Morgan-Owen writes, the key to British military strategy during this time lay in “the aggregate of quasi-independent naval and military efforts which could interact in both complementary and contradictory fashions depending of the circumstances and context.” In fact, to this reviewer, one of the successes of this book is precisely that it combines detail with what might be called a “grand strategic perspective.” Morgan-Owen not only talks about the balance between land forces and the navy, but also shows a deep appreciation of the domestic and international political context in which they operated.

The book opens with what is, broadly speaking, a matter of historical consensus. It is that the British made a number of damaging missteps in terms of military planning in the period before World War I, which put them at a severe disadvantage by the time full hostilities began. Of these, the most damaging were the failure to prepare effectively for a great power conflict or to coordinate the strengths of the navy and the army to maximum effect. More precisely, the way in which Britain chose to fight the war — concentrating large land forces in the battlefields and trenches of the European continent — arose from a gradual shift in British strategic habits that was not sufficiently debated or robustly tested before it became the new commonplace.

The main driver for this was fear. Morgan-Owen describes how a growing sense of threat to the British Isles in the late 19th century (first from the French, then Germans, and for H.G. Wells fans, even Martians) seeped into the public consciousness through alarmist newspaper reporting and popular culture. This, in turn, began to unduly influence British diplomacy and military planning. Heightened concern about the vulnerability of the homeland clouded judgement and began to corrode the offensive capabilities by which Britain had gained an advantage so many times in the past. Thus, the weary titan came to adopt an increasingly defensive crouch.

Ultimately, Morgan-Owen’s work is a study of failure in strategic leadership at the political level, and his critique gathers force as it enters the countdown of the ten years before 1914. The receding influence of the Admiralty becomes an ever more important theme. The navy’s primary role in any future conflict was to be the protection of the south and east coast from enemy invasion. Thus, the main part of the fleet would sit in the English Channel and North Sea to compensate for the expeditionary force likely to be sent to the Continent (leaving home soil insufficiently protected). In this way, British war strategy saw one of its traditional strengths — the use of the navy to strike a blow in other theatres on the “periphery” of British influence – severely blunted by 1914.

There was much to be said for building a bigger army given the much larger land forces of other major European powers. Morgan-Owen’s point, however, is that the defensive focus became lopsided. It meant, in effect, that Britain was already committed to fighting a certain type of war of attrition — literally stuck in the mud in the trenches — before the war began. By the first year of the war, the consequences of this approach were becoming increasingly clear in the bloody stalemate in which Britain found itself on the Continent.

It was the same frustration about the nature of the battle on the Western front that led Winston Churchill, as Lord of the Admiralty, to try to break the stalemate with his Gallipoli campaign. Gallipoli was a disaster, which cost Churchill his place in the cabinet. But his reputation as a strategist somehow survived. This was because many continued to believe that the strategic conception of the mission had been sound, and that those sent to the beaches at Gallipoli were let down by poor planning by the generals. Among those who served there was Clement Attlee, who later became Churchill’s deputy in World War II. “I have always believed that Mr. Churchill was right in his strategic appreciation which found expression in the Dardanelles campaign,” Attlee later remarked, “and I still think that the slogging tactics of [Field Marshall Lord Douglas] Haig on the Western Front were wrong.”

For many since, Haig, as the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, has been blamed for his stubbornness in persisting with the failed tactics on the Western front. Yet Morgan-Owen provides important context here. Haig was no dogmatist about prioritizing the army over the navy as the primary instrument of British power. In fact, as Haig himself recognized as a major-general in 1906, and as Morgan-Owen quotes, “To be successful in any way we must as our first objective win command of the sea…in order to reap the fruits of sea power we must apply military force at some decisive point on land.” The truth of all British war planning was, for Haig, that “command of the sea and control of the shore are closely connected.”

It was in maintaining the equilibrium between these two dimensions where the true challenge resided — and on this, coherent political leadership was lacking. “Viewing military and naval strategy as independent forces competing for political endorsement also plays down the agency of politicians in shaping the plans of the two services,” writes Morgan-Owen. The culprits-in-chief are the members of Asquith’s Liberal Government, who enjoyed a large majority after the landside of 1906. But even before that, the author points out, it was the Unionist government of Arthur Balfour that encouraged the War Office down the path of planning for expeditionary warfare against another great power. Morgan-Owen goes as far to say that “Britain’s political leadership did not articulate or endorse a coherent vision for how it envisaged bringing a future Great Power conflict to a conclusion before the outbreak of the First World War,” due in part to a cautious and status quo mindset (on the domestic and international fronts). The Committee of Imperial Defence, formed in 1902, was the “only forum in which issues of combined naval and military strategy could be discussed in detail between military professionals and the senior decision makers in the Cabinet.” Decisions were taken on a case-by-case basis, with no “coherent top-down attempt at coordination,” meaning each tactical maneuver became a set-piece debate, leading to polarization.

That is not to say that the War Office and Admiralty did not make mistakes or engage in political skulduggery to support their own agendas. But it was the job of the politicians, with whom ultimate decision-making power rested, to mediate more effectively between the services. An effective grand strategy, in other words, would have not only considered the different components of British hard power but linked this to the search for diplomatic alliances that characterized the years before 1914.

One thing that could have featured more in The Fear of Invasion is the increased competition that the British Empire felt on every front, as the Pax Britannica made way to an era of great power competition. Here, with the story of a weary titan of a century ago, American ears may perk up. It was as supremacy slipped from British hands that fear for the homeland increased, the reliability of allies was doubted, the costs of empire were questioned, politicians became consumed with the reversal of national decline, and treacherous forks in the road approached where once the path had seemed smooth.

There may also be lessons for today’s Britain too, against the backdrop of the ongoing political struggle over defense spending. Lord Peter Hennessey, one of the foremost historians of U.K. foreign policy, describes Brexit as one of the great strategic shifts in Britain’s place in the world since 1945, comparable to the dismantling of the empire or the Suez crisis of 1956. “Never in our peacetime history have so many dials been reset,” he said shortly after the 2016 referendum. Wherever one stands on that debate, there are likely to be real costs as the United Kingdom seeks to counter the impression that it is somehow in retreat or stuck on a path to further decline. The foreign policy of Brexit Britain is neither doomed to failure nor fated to succeed. But it requires leaders to take on a greater decision-making burden, and accompanying risk, than British foreign policymakers have grown used to in an era defined by the hegemony of their closest ally.


John Bew is Professor of History and Foreign Policy in the War Studies Department at King’s College London and is a leading a project on Britain’s place in the world for the think tank Policy Exchange.

Image: Imperial War Museum