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Before the War By Viscount R. B. Haldane Haldane Characters: 33596

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


When more time has passed and heads have become cooler the critics will have to decide whether Great Britain was as fully prepared as she ought to have been for the possibility of the great struggle into which she had to enter in August, 1914. Hundreds of speeches have been made, and still more articles have been written, to demonstrate that she was caught wholly unready. On the other hand authoritative writers in Germany have made the counter-assertion that she had prepared copiously, not merely to defend herself, but to join in encircling and crushing Germany.

I shall venture to submit some reasons for saying that neither of these views is the true one. During the whole of the period between the commencement of 1906 and the autumn of 1914 I sat on the Committee of Imperial Defense and took an active part in its deliberations. For over six of these eight years I was Minister for War, and I was in continuous co-operation with the colleagues who were, like myself, engaged in carrying into execution the methods which we had gradually worked out. Such as the plans were, the preparations which they required were completed before the war. As to the bulk of these preparations I speak from direct knowledge.

The Expeditionary Force, the Territorial Force, and the Special Reserve had been organized under my own eye, by soldiers who had studied modern war upon what was in this country a wholly new principle. Before they took matters in hand not only was there no divisional organization, but hardly a brigade could have been sent to the Continent without being recast. For there used to be a peace organization that was different from the organization that was required for war, and to convert the former into the latter meant a delay that would have been deadly. Swift mobilization, like that of the Germans even in 1870, was in these older days impracticable.

All this had been changed for the Regular Army at home by the end of 1908, and it was after that year easy to mobilize. Other changes, also of a sweeping character, had been made to complete the new structure. On August 4, 1914, Lord Kitchener took delivery of an army in being, small, but not inferior in quality to the best that the enemy possessed. With the creation of the new armies, for which the Expeditionary Force was the pattern-and, indeed, with the general management of the war-I had very little to do. But I saw a good deal of Lord Kitchener, enough to impress me from the day when he became War Minister with his extraordinary individuality and his remarkable courage and energy, and to make me feel what an invaluable asset his personality was for putting heart into the British nation.

I have referred to my own and earlier part in the matter only to make plain that I do not speak about it from mere hearsay. And to say this has been necessary, because I shall have to submit some observations which, if true, do not harmonize with assertions made by some of the critics of the successive Governments which were at work on the business of preparation for possible contingencies between 1906 and 1914. I will, however, begin by making these critics a present of a definite admission. We never intended to create an army capable of invading or encircling Germany, and we should, in our own view, have found ourselves unable to do so even had we desired any such thing.

Our purpose was quite a different one. It was purely defensive. We knew how high a level of military organization had been attained in France. She had a large army, an army not so large as that of Germany, but comparable with it in quality. Her ally, Russia, also had a large army on the other side of Germany, altho one not so perfectly organized as that of France. By adding to the French military defensive forces a comparatively small British Expeditionary Force of very high quality, organized as far as possible on the principle about which von der Goltz, in the introduction to his famous book, "The Nation in Arms," had written, we could provide what that eminent writer had suggested would be formidable, could it be properly organized, even against the German masses of troops. In the introduction to his "Nation in Arms" he had declared that, "Looking forward into the future we seem to feel the coming of a time when the armed millions of the present will have played out their part. A new Alexander will arise who, with a small body of well-equipped and skilled warriors, will drive the impotent hordes before him, when, in their eagerness to multiply, they shall have overstepped all proper bounds, have lost internal cohesion, and, like the green-banner army of China, have become transformed into a numberless but effete host of Philistines."

This, of course, did not mean that the little Expeditionary Force could by itself cope with the admirably organized and enormous German Army, but it did point to the growing importance in these times of high morale and quality, and to the value that even a small force, if sufficiently long and closely trained, might prove to have, if placed in a proper position alongside the excellent soldiers of France. A careful study had made us think that the addition of even a small force of such quality to those of France and Russia would provide the combined armies with a good chance of defeating any German attempt at the invasion and dismemberment of France.

But in addition to and apart from all this, the British Navy had been raised before 1914 to a strength unexampled in its history, and Mr. Churchill had for the first time introduced in the autumn of 1911 the valuable principle of a war staff, fashioned with a view to the systematic study of modern naval war in co-operation with the forces on land.

These naval reforms had helped to confer the fresh power which took shape in the blockade which was in the end to prove decisive in the struggle. The heads of the newly organized Military General Staff met the representatives of the Admiralty War Staff at systematically held meetings of the Committee of Imperial Defense, under the presidency of the successive Prime Ministers-first of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman and then of Mr. Asquith. Not only were the Ministers at the head of the Admiralty and the War Office present to listen to what their experts had to say and to assist in arriving at conclusions on the questions discussed at these meetings, but other Ministers (including Lord Crewe, Sir Edward Grey, Lord Morley, Mr. Lloyd George, and Lord Harcourt) attended regularly. The function of this committee was to consider strategical difficulties with which the nation might conceivably find itself confronted, and to work out the solutions. It was a committee the members of which were selected and summoned by the Prime Minister, to whom it was advisory. He determined the subjects to be investigated. Secrecy was of course essential, excepting so far as the Cabinet was concerned. The presence of the non-military Ministers to whom I have referred was a proper guarantee that from the Cabinet there was no desire to withhold information. Possible operations on the Continent of our army occupied much of the time of the committee. About the propriety of the conversations which took place between members of the General Staffs of France and England questions have been raised. But these conversations were concerned with purely technical matters, and doubts as to their justification will hardly arise in the minds of people who are aware what modern war implies in the way of preliminary inquiries as to its conditions.

We were not engaging in any secret undertaking. We were merely providing what modern military requirements had rendered essential. Without study beforehand by a General Staff military operations in these days are bound to fail. If at any time we had, by any chance whatever, to operate in France it was essential that our generals should possess long in advance the knowledge that was requisite, and this could only be obtained with the assistance of the General Staff of France itself. We committed ourselves to no undertaking of any kind, and it was from the first put in writing that we could not do so. The conversations were just the natural and informal outcome of our close friendship with France.

The French had said that if it was to be regarded as even possible that we should come to their assistance in resisting an attack, which might, moreover, result if successful in great prejudice to our own security in the Channel, we should find this study vital. Our General Staff took the same view, and at the request of Sir Edward Grey, who had written to him, I saw Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman at his house in London in January, 1906. He was a very cautious man, but he was also an old War Minister. He at once saw the point, and he gave me authority for directing the Staff at the War Office to take the necessary steps. He naturally laid down that the study proposed was to be carefully guarded, so far as any possible claim of commitment was concerned, that it was not to go beyond the limits of purely General Staff work, and further that it should not be talked about. The inquiry into conditions thus set on foot was conducted by the three successive generals who occupied the position of Director of Military Operations-the late General Grierson, General Ewart, and General Wilson. Each of these distinguished soldiers from time to time explained the progress made in working out conceivable plans for using the Expeditionary Force in France and in more distant regions, to the full Committee of Imperial Defense, and obtained its provisional approval.

I should like to say how much the Committee of Imperial Defense, which was originally a very valuable contribution made by Mr. Balfour, when Prime Minister, to the organization of our preparedness for war, owed to its secretaries. To such men as Admiral Sir Charles Ottley and, after his time, to Colonel Sir Maurice Hankey, the nation is under a great debt, and it was the least that could be done to include the latter in the thanks of Parliament to the sailors and soldiers to whom our actual success was due. It was he who, assisted by a brilliant staff on which the late Colonel Grant Duff was prominent, planned and prepared that remarkable War Book, which was completed in excellent time before the outbreak of hostilities, and which contained full instructions for every department of Government which could be called on to assist if war broke out. Not only the drafts of the necessary orders, but those of the necessary telegrams, were written out in advance under Sir Maurice Hankey's instructions. He and Sir Charles Ottley, themselves sailors, formed real links between the navy and the army, and did an enormous amount of work in co-ordinating war objectives.

Of the Navy I need say nothing, for its preparations are well understood. Nor need I say much of the details in the reorganization of the army. The general principle of this was to complete the Cardwell system by shaping the home battalions into six great divisions, and so providing them with transport, munitions, stores, and medical and other equipment, as to make them instantly ready for war. The characteristic of the old British Army, as it was up to 1907, was, as I have already observed, that it lived in peace formations only, in small and detached units which would have to be refashioned into quite different formations before they could be ready to be sent to fight.

This state of things involved much delay in mobilization. A careful inquiry made in 1906 disclosed that in order to put even 80,000 men on the Continent, a period which might be well over two months was the minimum required. Besides this great difficulty, the other items to which I have referred as required for the six divisions were not there in any shape even approaching sufficiency. The artillery too was deficient.

There is no more amusing myth than the one according to which the horse and field artillery were reduced. The batteries which could be made instantly effective for war were, in fact, raised from forty-two to eighty-one. The personnel of this artillery was increased by a third for mobilization. For the first time the horse and field artillery was given the modern organization which Cardwell had not been able to give it. The establishments had been merely peace establishments. There were ninety-nine batteries which could parade about on ceremonial occasions, but if war had broken out they would have had to be rolled up, and the personnel of fifty-seven of them taken to produce the mobilized forty-two which were all that could be put into the field. The difficulty was got over by the organization of eighteen of the ninety-nine into training brigades, and the additional men needed for the mobilization of eighty-one fighting batteries were thus obtained. No doubt some of the artillery officers did not like being set to training work, and complained that they were being reduced. But it was a reduction from unreal work of parade in order to double fighting efficiency. Not a man or a gun of the regular horse and field artillery was ever reduced in any shape or form, and not only were the effective batteries largely increased, but over 150 serviceable batteries were created and made part of the Second Line, or Territorial, Army. This was a force which could be used either for home defense or for expansion of an expeditionary force of Regulars. The Militia, which was not under obligation to serve abroad, was abolished, and its substance was converted into third regular battalions, organized for the purpose of training and providing drafts to meet the wastage of war in the first and second regular battalions of their regiments. Some of those third battalions are said to have trained and sent out as many as twelve thousand men apiece in the course of the war.

All these things were done under the direction of such young and modern soldiers as Sir Douglas Haig on the General Staff side, and as Sir John Cowans on the administrative side. Both of these officers were brought home from India for the purpose. Sir Herbert Miles, as Quartermaster-General, and Sir Stanley von Donop, as Master-General of the Ordnance also rendered much help. The newly organized General Staff thought the plans out under the direction, first of Sir Neville Lyttelton, and then of Sir William Nicholson, its successive chiefs. The latter and Sir Douglas Haig in addition worked out, in consultation with the representatives of the Dominions, the organization of their troops in units and with staffs and weapons corresponding as nearly as was practicable to our own. Systematic conferences between the British and Dominion War and other Ministers prepared the ground for this. Sir Wilfrid Laurier and General Botha and others of the Dominion Ministers came to London and co-operated.

It is sometimes said that all these things were very well, but that we should have at once raised a much larger army, as in the course of the war we ultimately had to do. The answer is that in a time of peace we could not possibly have raised a large army on the Continental scale. If we had tried to we should have made a miserable and possibly disastrous failure. The utmost we could do toward it was to provide the organization in which the comparatively small force which was all we could create might be expanded after a war broke out.

How this nucleus organization, on the basis of which the later expansions took place, was fashioned so as to afford a general pattern, anyone may see who chooses to expend a shilling on the purchase of the little volume called "Field Service Regulations, Part II." This piece of work took nearly three years to prepare. With the organization of which I have spoken, which was made in accordance with its principles, the whole of the task of recasting the British Army was performed by 1911.

What we had by that time attained was the power to send an army of, not 100,000 men, which was all that had originally been suggested, but of 160,000, to a place of concentration opposite the Belgian frontier, and to have it concentrated there within a time which was fifteen days in 1911, but was a little later reduced to twelve. No German army could mobilize and concentrate at such a distance more rapidly. So far as I know none of the necessary details were overlooked, and the timetables and arrangements for the concentration worked out, when the moment for their use came, without a hitch. What had been done was to take the old-fashioned British Army and to rid it of superfluous fat, to develop muscle in place of mere flesh, and to put the whole force into proper training. If the

warrior looked slender he was at least as well prepared for the ring as science could make him.

It is said that this army ought to have been provided from the first with more heavy artillery. But the reason why its artillery, and that of the French armies also, were of a comparatively light pattern was not due to any notion of economy or to civilian interference. We had enough money, even in those difficult days, for every necessary purpose.

The real reason was that the General Staffs of both the French and the British Armies had advised that the campaign would probably be one in which swiftness in moving troops would prove the determining factor. Heavy artillery, and even any large number of the ponderous machine-guns of that period (the Lewis gun had not yet appeared), would have been a serious impediment to such mobility. What was anticipated was a series of great battles. "It was supposed by certain soldiers," says a well-informed military critic (Colonel A'Court Repington, at page 276 of his "Vestigia"), "that the war against Germany would be decided by the fighting of some seven great battles en rase campagne, where heavies would be a positive encumbrance."

So far the staffs proved to be right, for in the early period of the war mobility did count for a very great deal, and it was not until later that trench warfare became the dominant factor, a stage for which even the Germans themselves, as we now know, from the memoirs of Admiral Tirpitz and other books, were not adequately prepared in point of guns, or of shells and powder, either.

It is said that we in Great Britain ought, before entering on the Entente, to have provided an army, not of 160,000, but of 2,000,000 men. And it is remarked that this is what we had to do in the end. This suggestion does not, however, bear scrutiny. No doubt it would have been a great advantage if, in addition to our tremendous navy, we could have produced, at the outbreak of the war, 2,000,000 men, so trained as to be the equals in this respect of German troops, and properly fashioned into the great divisions that were necessary, with full equipment and auxiliary services. But to train the recruits, and to command such an army when fashioned, would have required a very great corps of professional officers of high military education, many times as large as we had actually raised. How were these to have been got?

I sometimes read speeches, made even by officers who have served with distinction at the head of their men in the field, which express regret that the British nation was so shortsighted as not to have provided such an army before the war. They point to the effort it made later on with such success during the war. But to raise armies under the stress of war, when the people submit cheerfully to compulsion, and when highly intelligent civilian men of business readily quit their occupations to be trained as rapidly as possible for the work of every kind of officer, is one thing. To do it in peace time is quite another. I doubt whether more was possible in this direction than, in the days prior to the war, to organize the Officers' Training Corps, which contained over twenty thousand partially prepared young men, and began at once to expand to yet larger dimensions from the day when war broke out. For the corps of matured officers, required to train recruits and to command them in war when organized in their units, would have had to consist of soldiers, themselves highly trained in military organization, who had devoted their lives to this work as a profession. It takes many years in peace time to train such officers. Because they must be professional, they can only be recruited under a voluntary system.

Now, before the war it was difficult enough to recruit even so many as the number we then had got, a number totally inadequate for any army larger than the small one we actually put into shape at home. Every source had been tried in my time by the able administrative generals who were working under me at the War Office. I say "administrative generals," for here comes in the source of the confusion which at times leads not a few-including some whose military training has been exclusively in the leading of troops and in strategy and tactics-to miss the point.

Under the modern military principle, which is the secret of rapidity and efficiency in mobilization, duties are carefully defined and divided. The General Staff does not administer, and is not trained in the business of administration. This kind of military business is entrusted to the administrative side of the army, the officers of which receive a different kind of training. The General Staff says what is necessary. The administrative side provides it as far as it can. And among the exclusive functions of the administrative side of the War Office is the recruiting of personnel by the Adjutant-General and the Military Secretary. It is true that the Director of Military Training, who supervises the training of the young officer when obtained, belongs to the General Staff. That is because his work is educational. With obtaining the young officer it is only accidentally that he is at all concerned.

When, therefore, even distinguished commanders in the field express regret at the want of foresight of the British nation in not having prepared a much larger army before 1914, I would respectfully ask them how they imagine it could have been done.

To raise a great corps of officers who have voluntarily selected the career of an officer as an exclusive and absorbing profession has been possible in Germany and in France. But it has only become possible there after generations of effort and under pressure of a long-standing tradition, extending from decade to decade, under which a nation, armed for the defense of its land frontiers, has expended its money and its spirit in creating such an officer caste.

Now, the British nation has put its money and its fighting spirit primarily into its Navy and its oversea forces. Why? Because, just as the Continental tradition had its genesis in the necessity for instant readiness to defend land frontiers, so our tradition has had its genesis in the vital necessity of always commanding the sea.

Possibly if, just after the war of 1870, we had endeavored to enter on a new tradition, and to develop a great army, we might have succeeded in doing so. With forty years' time devoted to the task and a very large expenditure we might conceivably have succeeded. But I think that had we done so we should have been very foolish. Our navy would inevitably have been diminished and deteriorated. You can not ride two horses at once, and no more can you possess in their integrity two great conflicting military traditions.

But what I am saying does not rest on my own conclusions alone. In the year 1912 the then Chief of the General Staff told me that he and the General Staff would like to investigate, as a purely military problem, the question whether we could or could not raise a great army. I thought this a reasonable inquiry and sanctioned and found money for it, only stipulating that they should consult with the Administrative Staffs when assembling the materials for the investigation. The outcome was embodied in a report made to me by Lord Nicholson, himself a soldier who had a strong desire for compulsory service and a large army. He reported, as the result of a prolonged and careful investigation, that, alike as regarded officers and as regarded buildings and equipment, the conclusion of the General Staff was that it would be in a high degree unwise to try, during a period of unrest on the Continent, to commence a new military system. It could not be built up excepting after much unavoidable delay. We might at once experience a falling off in voluntary recruiting, and so become seriously weaker before we had a chance of becoming stronger. And the temptation to a foreign General Staff to make an early end of what it might insist on interpreting as preparation for aggression on our part would be too strong to be risked. What we should get might prove to be a mob in place of an army. I quite agreed, and not the less because it was highly improbable that the country would have looked at anything of the sort.

What we actually could produce in the form of an army had to be estimated, not as if we were standing alone, but as being an adjunct to what was possessed by France and Russia. They had large armies and small navies. We had a large navy and a small army. When these were considered in conjunction, I do not think that the hope of some of our best military authorities, that an aggressive attempt by the Central Powers could be made abortive, was an over-sanguine one.

Much of what we did owe for the excellence of the Expeditionary Force, such as it was in point of size, and much of what we have since owed for the excellence of the great armies that we subsequently raised, was due to the unbroken work of the fine Administrative Staff, developed in those days, to which I have already referred. I often regret that when the nation gave its thanks through Parliament to the army, the splendid contribution made by those who prepared the administrative services was not adequately recognized. But this arose from the old British tradition under which fighting and administration were not distinguished as being quite separate and yet equally essential for fighting. The public had not got into its head the reality of the process of defining the two different functions with precision, and of confiding them to different sets of officers differently trained.

The principle was a novel one in the army itself, and why one set of officers should be trained at the Staff College and another at the London School of Economics was not a question the answer to which was quite familiar, even to all soldiers.

It is, I think, certain that for purely military reasons, even if, in view of political (including diplomatic) difficulties any party in the State had felt itself able to undertake the task of raising a great army under compulsory service, and to set itself to accomplish it, say, within the ten years before the war, the fulfilment of the undertaking could not have been accomplished, and failure in it would have made us much weaker than we were when the war broke out. The only course really open was to make use of the existing voluntary system, and bring its organization for war up to the modern requirements, of which they were in 1906 far short. It is true that the voluntary system could not give us a substantially larger army, or more than a better one in point of quality. The stream of voluntary recruits was limited. When the 156 battalions of the line which existed on paper in 1906 were in that year nominally reduced to 148, there was no real reduction, altho some money was saved which was required for some other essential military purposes. For the remaining battalions were short of their proper strength, and it took all the recruits set free by the so-called reductions to bring the 148-some of which were badly short of officers and men alike-to the proper establishment required for the six new divisions of the Expeditionary Force.

I remember well the then Adjutant-General, Sir Charles Douglas, one of the ablest men of business who ever filled that position in this country, informing me at that time that he could not raise a single further division to be added to the six at home.

But if the voluntary system had disadvantages, it also presented us with advantages. The professional and therefore voluntary nature of our army, which, because it was professional, was always ready for sending overseas on expeditions, was in reality made necessary by our position as the island center of a great and scattered Empire. We had increased that Empire enormously by the possession of a voluntarily serving army. Whether this vast increase of the Empire has been always defensible I am not discussing. What I am saying is that we owe the actual increases largely to this, that we were the only Power in the world that was ready to step in at short notice and occupy vacant territory. We always had a much larger Expeditionary Force available for this special purpose than Germany or any other country. That has been our tradition, as contrasted with the tradition of other nations who have been limited in this kind of capacity by the necessity of putting their military forces on a compulsory basis and keeping them at home for the protection of their land frontiers. Ours was the method in which we had been schooled by experience.

It is for such reasons as I have now submitted that I am wholly unable to assent to the suggestion that we did not look ahead, or considered within the years just before the war whether we were preparing to make the sort of contribution that our own interests and our friendships alike required. Sea power was for us then, as always before in our history, the dominant element in military policy. I have little doubt that we made mistakes over details. That is inherent in human and therefore finite effort. But I believe that we did in the main the best we could for the fulfilment of our only purpose, which was to preserve the peace of the world and avoid contributing to its disturbance, and also to prepare to defend ourselves and our friends against aggression. Talk to the public we could not, for it would have hindered and not helped us to do so. A "preventive war," which the Entente Powers would not have been so ready to meet as they became later on, might well have been the result. Rhetorical declarations on platforms would have been wholly out of place. But we could think, and to the best of such abilities as we and our expert advisers possessed, we did try to think.

A curious legend which had its origin in Berlin, in October, 1914, has obtained such currency that it is worth while to make an end of it. The legend is that the British Military Attaché at Brussels, the late General Barnardiston, had informed the Chief of the Belgian General Staff of secret plans, prepared at the War Office in London, to invade Belgium, and if necessary to violate her neutrality, in order to make an expedition, the purpose of which was to attack Germany through that country. The story appears to have emanated from Baron Greindl, who was the Belgian Minister at Berlin in 1911. He had been completely misinformed, no doubt in that capital, and there is no truth whatever in what he had been told about what he called the "perfidious and na?f revelations" of the British Military Attaché at Brussels. Him the story represents as having said that his Minister (by whom I presume myself, as the then Secretary of State for War, to have been intended) and the British General Staff were the only persons in the secret. I have to observe, in the first place, that I never during my tenure of office, either suggested any such plan, or heard of anyone else suggesting it. When the story was brought to my knowledge, which was not until November, 1914, I inquired at once of General Barnardiston and of his successor, Colonel Bridges, whether there was any foundation for it. The reply from each of these distinguished officers was that there was none.

We were among the guarantors of Belgian neutrality, and it was of course conceivable that, if she called on us to do so, we might have had to defend her. It would be part of the duty of our Military Attaché to remember this, and, if opportunity offered, to ascertain in informal conversation the view of the Belgian General Staff as to what form of help they would be likely to ask us for. This he doubtless did, and indeed it appears from what the Chief of the Belgian General Staff wrote to the Belgian War Minister that the former had discussed the contingency of Belgium desiring our help with General Barnardiston, and had done so gladly. But even so the conversation must have been very informal, for in the account of it by the Chief of the Belgian General Staff there are errors about the composition of the possible British Force which indicate that either he took no notes, or else that Colonel Barnardiston had not thought it an occasion which required him to obtain details from London. At all events, such talk as there was appears to have had relation only to what we ought to do, if requested by Belgium to help, in case of her being invaded by another Power.

The documents will be found in the volume of Collected Diplomatic Documents relating to the outbreak of the war, presented to Parliament in May, 1915 (Cd. 7860). This volume includes a vigorous denial by Sir Edward Grey of the insinuation.

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