Victory to Defeat: The British Army 1918-40


Few recent military books can have been quite as timely as this one. For while conceived several years ago, Richard Dannatt and Robert Lyman’s study of the British Army brings us right up to date and represents a powerful argument for change. The authors will be familiar to many and are well qualified to take this subject on: Lord Dannatt was Chief of the General Staff from 2006 to 2009 and Dr Lyman is a prolific historian of the Second World War. Between them, they have more than 50 years’ service in the British Army. They contend that the army was a war-winning organisation in 1918, lost its way between the wars, and consequently failed in 1940. Overtly, they argue that Britain in particular should spend much more on defence, especially on its army. And they mean right now.

The book is therefore polemical, but rooted in military history. It is structured chronologically, although not intended as an exhaustive account. Rather, the history is used to develop the argument. Thus the section on the First World War presents detailed analyses of the Somme, the German 1918 offensive, and the Hundred Days Offensive. The tactical and operational evolution that these events triggered are then examined.

The narrative moves on to chart the inter-war period, carefully describing the political, economic, and social trends in Britain and how they interacted with military planning. This is a fresh and intriguing account. There is not that much material available with this kind of focus and, in a sense, this part of the book is its heart. For it endeavours to identify what went wrong. We are reminded of the accompanying military history, too, with useful sections covering the Irish War of Independence and the more distant colonial flashpoints with which the army was involved.

As World War Two erupts, the authors examine Norway, but more particularly the Battle of France, before discussing the improvements in British military performance that became evident by the time of El Alamein in late 1942. Intriguingly, while acknowledging these, the authors do not feel that the British have fully mastered modern manoeuvre warfare at this stage.

The book continues with a description of the doctrine and evolution of the British Army of the Rhine, together with post-Cold War developments. The authors conclude by restating their case in summary form, applying it to the violent and volatile situation we now face in Europe.

The security of continental Europe, and the proposition that Britain should play a major role in it, is central to the authors’ case. As is the idea that a sizeable and capable army must be a part of that. Such views exemplify the robust arguments that the authors advance throughout the work, from the tactical to the strategic and indeed political. Of course, these are contestable.

To take one example, the contribution of new tactical and operational techniques to the defeat of Germany in 1918 feels slightly overstated. More might have been said, as well, about parallel debates in the United States and France during the same period. Naval advocates might disagree about the wisdom of a large British army, either in 1914-1918 or now. The book will therefore be a provocative one, particularly in Britain. Most of us will find ourselves quibbling with this point or that; yet we will read on.

For this book will be a real pleasure to anyone interested in modern British military history and especially those with an appetite for argument. It is a lively and accessible read throughout. A lot of its appeal derives from the authors’ deft ability to move seamlessly from the battlefield to discuss the tactical, operational, and doctrinal questions that arise.

However, while the book may be entertaining for armchair generals, its purpose is deadly serious. One might hope that policymakers take note.

Victory to Defeat: The British Army 1918-40, Richard Dannatt and Robert Lyman, Osprey Publishing, hbk (ÂŁ25), ISBN 978-1472860866