Conquer We Must: a military history of Britain 1914-1945


Strategic history may seem dry or even daunting to some, but Robin Prior has broken new ground here. Not only has he tackled a huge subject in a different way, but he has presented his material in a deft and engaging manner. These 700 pages will fly past.

An Australian academic and writer, Professor Prior has a string of mainly First World War books to his credit. Conquer We Must includes extensive footnotes, mapping, photographs, a bibliography, and an index, underlining the depth of research undertaken. This is a serious read and an important contribution to our knowledge of this area.

The approach is new in that this is the first time the story of Britain’s prosecution of the two great wars of the 20th century has been set out in a single volume. AJP Taylor covered much of the same ground, but his subject was broader. Here we are concerned solely with military history. Other matters intrude only to the extent that they impact on that.

The key focus of the book is the political-military nexus. It describes how British political and military leaders worked together to forge the strategies that would ultimately secure victory in both of these existential struggles. But this is not a bureaucratic account.

The military campaigns are well covered, forming the setting and the challenges with which those leaders had to contend. Indeed, Prior’s insights into the relationships between campaigns, tactics, technologies, resources, and politics are one of the book’s great strengths.

That said, the book may not work for those whose primary interest lies in the human experience of war at the sharp end. It does not dwell on trench raiding, or what it was like to fly a Spitfire. It also pre-supposes a broad knowledge of the events in question. It is presumed that the reader will know what Ultra was, or the Treaty of Brest-Litvosk.

It is a book about the British experience, which needs to be borne in mind. Therefore, we read nothing of Germany’s war against Russia between 1914 and 1917, and nothing of the United States’ efforts in the Pacific during the Second World War, save where they bear directly on British involvement.

In terms of structure, the book is essentially chronological, dividing into three sections, covering the two world wars and the intervening 20 years in turn. Within the two major conflicts, the need to address specific regions or campaigns in detail can mean that the account steps out of this sequence, which is where an overall knowledge of events will help the reader find his or her bearings.

The book concludes with an intriguing attempt to step back and provide an answer to the question: what does all of this tell us?

An examination of tactical problems

As a straightforward narrative of Britain’s role in these wars, at times the book can feel broad brush. There is simply no space to dwell on the 1942 invasion of Madagascar, or the role of the British troops in Italy during the First World War.

Other more minor conflicts (for Britain), such as the Russian Civil War, are omitted completely. This seems entirely right, given the book’s strategic emphasis. Yet when important themes call for it, the author does not hesitate to evidence his case by way of more detailed descriptions.

Thus the tactical problems the British experienced on the Western Front during the First World War are meticulously examined. We learn about the evolution of artillery technologies and tactics, and how those were (or were not) dovetailed with the infantry assault. For Prior, the British fumbled their way towards a ‘bite and hold’ operational technique during this period, forced due to a shortage of manpower to settle for the more modest territorial gains that this implied. In order to examine how that actually worked, the 1917 Battle of Arras is presented, with an account at the divisional level. It is compelling stuff.

Other examples pepper the book. The evolution of British tactics in the desert (1940-1943) is one, from the ‘brigade boxes’ of Gazala to Montgomery’s insistence on reverting to divisional deployments at El Alamein. In each case, the author has thought hard about the military situation both from the top down and bottom up.

Convincingly, he tells the story of how a given strategy was arrived at and provides his own analysis as to its strengths and weaknesses. The entire edifice, from weapons and tactics, through operational planning to strategic priorities and plans, is thus described as a single system.

Air and sea power are not neglected either. There is an astute analysis of the battle of Jutland, linking the British success there with the subsequent increase in U-boat warfare. The British strategic bomber offensive of the Second World War receives its own chapter, in which Prior examines military and political attitudes to this controversial arm, what was actually achieved, and why so many resources were expended on this campaign.

Much of the writing covering the 1939-1945 period deals with Anglo-American relationships. The Roosevelt-Churchill correspondence will be familiar to many, as will some of the more prominent Anglo-American debates, such as that concerning the Mediterranean policy. Others are less well known. The extremely heated discussions concerning the bombing strategy prior to D-Day might be one example. Churchill lost the argument, with the result that the Allied air forces prioritised the French railway system.

As ever, Prior fits this in to the bigger picture, reminding us that it was the United States – the coming power – that was now in the driving seat. He makes the same point about the ‘broad front / narrow front’ debate during the campaign in France.

British troops in trenches at Arras, 1917. On the Western Front, heavy losses of manpower forced the British to settle for modest territorial gains. Image: WIPL

Critical decisions

Political history is therefore an important component of the book. Indeed, it opens with a fascinating account of the role of British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey during the prelude to World War One. This is vital context, explaining how it was that Britain entered the conflict and the convoluted diplomatic efforts that were made to avoid it. As war becomes imminent, Winston Churchill (then the navy minister) finds the political space to mobilise the fleet – a critical decision. Prior has such a facility with language and structure that he manages to convey the tension of a thriller.

And there are many other nail-biting accounts of the super-charged backroom meetings that characterised the management of Britain at war. This is the political-military relationship in action, at the most strategic level. War is politics by other means, and the remit of the book requires that considerable attention be given to the exercise of political power. For all of those with an interest in this aspect of military history, it will be engrossing.

History is also about people, and the big personalities who shaped these events are well drawn. None comes bigger than Churchill, inevitably the most prominent of the dramatis personae. It is clear that Prior holds Churchill in high regard, particularly for his motivational skills, his offensive spirit, and his sustained interest in military affairs. Yet he is critical, too, of Churchill’s role in the Gallipoli campaign, the Norway campaign, and during other episodes.

The portrait that emerges is therefore nuanced and well argued, whatever one’s own views. This is another strength of the book, with similarly astute remarks about such controversial characters as Haig and Montgomery serving to bring the story to life. Some character descriptions are more blunt: we are told that Chamberlain was ‘strategically illiterate’. Prior’s judgements on these figures are never dull.

The author’s views on the events, characters, but especially the military strategy and tactics during the two world wars are fascinating and sometimes surprising. In the chapter on the Battle of the Atlantic, for example, the reader is presented with an analysis that ranges from naval technology and tactics through improved port-handling systems, shipbuilding capacity, Anglo-American relationships, and the role of Churchill.

He stitches these components together to assemble an overview of a dynamic situation that feeds back on itself and evolves through the period in question. Anyone interested in the variables of military history will have a lot to get their teeth into.

Conquer We Must closes with a brief discussion of what one might term ‘lessons learnt’. Prior pulls together his views on the two conflicts in question rather neatly, and then draws out a few ideas for the management of conflict by liberal democracies. This is no place for spoilers, but suffice it to say these are thoughtful and relevant. Indeed, he seems to nod to current events at several places in the book. He is also witty: ‘they eventually drove a stake through the heart of (Operation) Dracula’.

For all its weight and length, Prior’s engaging style ensures that this book feels like a light read. It is not for those without a strong interest in modern British history, politics, and the complexities of strategy and tactics. But those with this particular affliction will be up all night.

Conquer We Must: a military history of Britain 1914-1945
Robin Prior
Yale University Press, £30 (hbk)
ISBN 978-0300233407