As the centenary commemorations of the First World War come to an end with this month’s marking of the signing of the Versailles Treaty, it is timely to reflect on the parallel debates in academic and military circles as to how far history can inform current policy. Military history has been part of the internal education of the armed services ever since their nineteenth century professionalisation. However, there have always been those sceptical of its value in preparing for the future, and this constituency has grown as technology has driven ever more rapid changes in the character of conflict. Nevertheless, the British Army has recently recommitted itself to learning from history as it addresses the challenges posed by new capabilities and changes in the strategic context in which it must operate. The creation of a new internal think tank which privileges the study of history has been central to the British Army’s quest to become a ‘learning organisation’. One hundred years on from the carnage of the trenches, and a failed peace that paved the way to another world war, it is worth examining why the Army has renewed its faith in the instructive value of past experience.
The military instinct to learn from history has ancient roots, but owes most to Carl von Clausewitz and Antoine-Henri Jomini, whose studies of Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaigns produced the first ‘modern’ theories on warfare and which became staples in the war colleges established in the nineteenth century. The application of history as a vehicle for military instruction reflected the positivist philosophies that underpinned the simultaneous professionalisation of learning. War, no less than science, was seen as subject to immutable laws that could be mastered through study. However, over-emphasis on history appeared to blind armies to changes in the character of warfare being driven by technology. Even in 1900, military staffs promoted the ‘moral force’ of the attack as applied by Napoleon, despite more recent experience that the technical power of the defence was increasingly dominant on the battlefield. The prescient warnings of Jan Bloch of ‘zones of fire across which no living thing could pass’ were dismissed by one general as ‘all that trash’.
The failure of military establishments to devise new ‘ways’ to complement new ‘means’, obliged armies to adapt rapidly during the First World War. For the British Army, this drove change not merely in scale but also in ethos. By 1918 it had transformed from a small professional imperial gendarmerie governed by a conformist bureaucratic culture, into a mass citizen army that embraced the innovation and adaptation required to fight a modern war. Post-1919, the role of history in creating a pre-war culture inimical to adaptation seemed clear and was reflected in Basil Liddell Hart’s aphorism that ‘the only thing harder than getting a new idea into a military mind is to get an old idea out.’ The defeats of 1940-1941 owed more to budgetary constraint than to military conservatism, but the notion was taking root that culturally the British Army was more disposed to refight its last war than the next. It was not alone. In France, the defeats of 1870, 1914 and 1939 all came to be attributed to a military obsession with historical precedent.
After 1945, academics worried that history was too complex and subjective to be applied successfully by the military. Meanwhile, many in the military concluded simply that the past was a less effective guide to future war than rigorously analysing modern means of warfare, a conviction that grew as technology changed the character of conflict at an ever-greater rate. History was subsumed within a broader military syllabus that focused increasingly on technology and the role of war in the contemporary world. It remained also in its most parochial form, that of the tribal mythologies and traditions of regimental history, which retained the clear military purpose of helping to inspire modern soldiers to emulate the courage and stoicism of their forebears.
It is natural that every generation of soldiers believes ‘their war’ to be unique, but seldom is that justified by the historical record.
However, scepticism that military history should inform anything beyond martial tradition has itself led to erroneous conclusions. Some have become convinced that technology has created a new form of warfare for which there is no precedent. This has been fed by ahistorical beliefs that prominent features of contemporary conflict, such as ‘war among the people’, ‘information operations’, private military contractors and ‘hybrid warfare’, are novel phenomena simply because they have been given new labels. It is natural that every generation of soldiers believes ‘their war’ to be unique, but seldom is that justified by the historical record. Some have even gone so far as to claim that human agency in war is being eclipsed and that future wars may be conducted between autonomous weapons and artificial intelligence. This is inconsistent with Clausewitz’s definition of war as a duel, ‘an act of force to compel our adversary to do our will’, which emphasises war as an unequivocally human interaction. Nevertheless, it is a view that retains influential adherents.
So, with scepticism of history’s contemporary utility at least partly justified, and technology predominant in defining the character of war, how does the British Army perceive that a better understanding of history can inform its preparations for wars to come?
A key reason for armed services studying past experience is that they spend so little time fulfilling their primary purpose of fighting. Most armies enter wars lacking experience of combat in general and, more specifically, of the particular demands of the war in prospect. Consequently, they rely on training and education to ensure that soldiers are prepared for the unchanging nature of warfare, the most likely character of the next war and the context in which it might be fought. History has a role, but no monopoly, in informing each of these:
- Nature: History is most powerful in underlining the unchanging nature of war as a violent, contested and uncertain human activity. Human responses to the physical and mental stresses of combat are constant, as are the roles of leadership, team cohesion, individual resilience and ethical conduct in sustaining human will to fight. Realistic training is essential to instilling these qualities, but history underlines how fundamental human factors remain despite the profound impact of technology.
- Character: As the character of war changes constantly, history cannot recall perfect models for future contingencies, but it can dispel notions of novelty and illustrate how armies have managed changes in warfare. The First World War saw leaps in military technology comparable to those being experienced today. While the technologies have changed, understanding the cultural changes required to enable armies to exploit new capabilities effectively has helped to shape the modern Army’s approach to its transformation.
- Context: Every war has a distinct political and cultural context, in which the history of the region and its people can be important contributing factors. In most of the human world history still matters and helps inform current attitudes. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, Britain fought in countries in which it had shared military history. Greater appreciation of that history would not have prescribed a design for success in either case, but it might have suggested some obvious political and cultural pitfalls to have avoided from the outset.
The obvious point is that neither history nor analysis of the modern world can alone predict the character of future wars. But when combined they can ensure that military doctrine, capability and training are at least well-founded and mutually coherent. This interaction has been likened to aiming a rifle: historical understanding provides the ‘back-sight’, which when aligned with the ‘fore-sight’ provided by current knowledge should orientate the Army in broadly the right direction. Given Sir Michael Howard’s observation that doctrine must be not so far wrong that it cannot be got ‘right quickly when the moment arrives’, this simile suggests a modest ambition that is both pragmatic and sufficient.
The obvious point is that neither history nor analysis of the modern world can alone predict the character of future wars. But when combined they can ensure that military doctrine, capability and training are at least well-founded and mutually coherent.
In 2015 the British Army was replete with experience of countering insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its role in the years since then, however, has shifted to deterring use of conventional and irregular forces by revisionist states who aspire to challenging world order. This has required it to refocus upon capabilities not routinely rehearsed for over a decade as part of a deterrent posture not applied since 1990. However, it has not been sufficient to dust off the doctrines of the Cold War. War has moved on, so old approaches must be reviewed and reconciled with new capabilities and priorities to produce a military instrument fit to meet the nation’s future security needs.
To help guide its reorientation, the British Army created the Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research (CHACR) to conduct and commission research and analysis into the enduring nature and changing character of conflict on land, and to be an active hub for scholarship within the army. Working with military staff, academics and international partners, the CHACR is helping the Army to apply history meaningfully within a multi-disciplinary effort to define its role in deterring and resolving future conflicts. Part of this activity has been a campaign to commemorate the First World War while also learning from it. As the centenary of Versailles brings this to an end, reflection could usefully turn to the messy world order after 1919, which was characterised by revolution, civil war, nationalism, mass migrations, ethnic cleansing, and powers testing established international norms. All of these have parallels in the security challenges that Britain, its armed forces and allies are likely to face in the near future.
This article was made possible due to the kind support of the Engelsberg Programme for Applied History, Grand Strategy and Geopolitics at the Forum on Geopolitics, supported by the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit.