Esher and the Continental Army (1908)

Lord Esher wrote in his journal, October 2nd 1908:

“Haldane suggested this morning that I should explain to the King the great change which has occurred, over the last two years, in the constitution and readiness for war of the Regular Army. It is exceedingly difficult, as I told him, to do this without tabulated figures. The net result is, no doubt, that the King has in Great Britain, a force of 200,000 men which could be ready in 3 weeks, and possibly 18 days, to fight on the line of the Meuse.

“There is no previous period in the history of this country when such a feat was within measurable distance.”

The establishment of this British Expeditionary Force that would fit onto the French left in a future war against Germany is further evidence of England’s intentions in the decade before its Great War.

Richard Haldane’s autobiography reveals that immediately after the Liberal Government came to office in 1906 he was instructed to go into the question of providing British troops for continental service. This was contingent upon “the assistance of Russian pressure on the eastern frontier” of Germany for a war in which France, Russia and England were going to engage. A complete reconstitution of the British Army was then affected, not only in Great Britain but in her self-governing Dominions.

Haldane at the War Office introduced something which had not existed before – the organisation of the British army on a specific war plan for a particular situation so that there was no necessity to change its organisation on the occasion of war. It was a contingency which had never previously been required by Britain, used as it was, to fighting colonial wars in different areas of the world, that demanded a great deal of improvisation. Britain’s military machine was always designed as a fighting force required for use in conjunction with its interests across the globe, and not for the European mainland.

It was always its spare capacity which took on any European intervention that might be required. Now it directed its main effort towards creating a British war machine to fulfill a specifically continental objective – the defeat of Germany alongside its French and Russian allies.

Under Haldane’s supervision, Sir Henry Wilson, Director of Military Operations on the General Staff, and Commandant Foch, of the French Army, organised the military preparations over a period of eight years, which, when war broke out in Europe enabled the British Expeditionary Force to be put on the left flank of the French army in prearranged positions within two weeks of the declaration of war. Wilson prepared for this war by going over the ground on which it was to be fought over and over again on his bicycle.

Esher recorded the following in his Journal, on November 9th 1908:

“Huguet – French Military Attache – came to Orchard Lea yesterday. The French have no hope of support from Russia. The utmost they hope for, in the present state of Russia (the Slav emotion, the weakness of finances, and weakness of Western frontier forces in material) is that she would mobilise her Polish forces, and so, possibly, neutralise 3 or 4 German Army Corps.

“The French position is that in Staff and Armament they are at least equal, if not superior, to Germany… The plan is to hold lightly the frontier – nearly 300 miles – with their reserves in rear, ready to deliver a strong counter-attack. They calculate that the Germans can only advance through the “gap,” or by violating the neutrality of Luxembourg and Belgium. They propose to wait on the defensive. They want our troops to be placed under the French Generalissimo. They would form part of the reserve. The idea that an English contingent is wanted for its “moral effect,” which is an idea prevalent here, is scouted by the French. They want the additional force at the decisive point.

“I am confident that great difficulties would arise if this proposal was known in certain quarters. The placing of the whole of our Army under French Generals is such a wholly new departure. There is no precedent for it at all. Certainly alternative plans will have to be prepared.”

That gives the reason why, despite the numerous scares from 1906 to 1914 the Great War did not come earlier. For some years both Russia and England were unprepared. By 1908 England was nearly there but Russia was not. It took 3 years of the War itself for the British to put their army under the command of a French Generalissimo, Marshal Foch – something that General Henry Wilson advised.

As Esher reveals the smallness of the British Expeditionary Force was beside the point. Its main purpose was one of morale and of convincing the French that England had warlike intentions to the extent that it would demonstrate a commitment to continental warfare that it had never done before. After engaging with the French in military conversations Britain had to convince its new ally that it would play its part in a continental war on Germany and not just leave them to do the fighting.

Haldane did not just create a fighting force for France, he created military structures in Britain to back up that force and provide for its expansion. A great propaganda campaign was launched to win recruits and popular discussion of military affairs was fostered outside of the British Army for the first time in English history. As part of this general popularising of military affairs, Colonel Repington organised a series of lectures to the Aldershot Military Society that were published in popular format in the Aldershot Military Society Pamphlet series.

The notion of an “armed nation” had first been floated by Lord Salisbury to the Primrose League during the South African War when the British Army was coming out second best to the hardy Boers. Haldane, the Liberal Imperialist, took it up and the Regular Army began to take on the character of a cadre force which, when the occasion arose, was able to shape large quantities of enthusiastic recruits into the ranks. The Territorial Army that Haldane set up was not a home defence force, meant to repel an invasion, as Esher noted. It was, as Haldane said in the Commons on 8 March 1906, “a skeleton organisation… behind the strike force with the certainty of the power of expansion.”

Haldane encouraged private individuals to join in military training and organisation. There was the rapid establishment and growth of the Home Counties Gun Clubs and an effort to develop the military abilities of the masses. A collection of voluntary organisations founded and funded by the middle and upper classes, with patrons and subscribers from right across the Party spectrum, former proconsuls, and senior Army and Navy officers, directed and paid for a formidable propaganda machine, and worked on the lower orders. Baden-Powell, the hero of Mafeking, established his Boy Scouts in 1908 to “harden the nation” and build up a “self reliant, energetic manhood” to populate and defend the Empire, so that it would not go the way of Rome. They got uniforms, with bush hats and bandannas, modeled on Cecil Rhodes troopers in South Africa, and had 100,000 members by 1910. There were also the Boys Brigade and the Girl Guides as adjuncts to this popular militarisation.

Before these innovations the aristocracy and gentry would not have judged it expedient to encourage the English masses in the arts of war. England had chosen to fight its many wars with mercenaries, both native and foreign, and with foreign as well as British armies. But in 1906 it was clear that the masses were trustworthy enough to be trained in things military – having been won over from class conflict by being given a stake in the project of Greater Britain and having been convinced that their social lot was bound up with the fortunes of the expansionist Imperialist state.

But despite Haldane’s revolution many prominent Unionists believed this was not enough for a war on Germany. The principles on which the British military system stood began to be publicly challenged by advocates of a conscripted national army, particularly by Lord Robert’s 35,000 strong National Service League. Lord Robert’s book ‘A Nation In Arms’, published in 1907, was a national bestseller. Lord Esher sympathised with this campaign but knew conscription could only be brought about with difficulty in Liberal England.

The British state had a long-standing prejudice against conscription and the formation of a national army – something which was very much the norm in continental Europe. It was believed that the country had done very well without the necessity of a conscript army; it had no land frontiers to protect and the most powerful navy in the world to defend its island; it had a reserve army of labour amongst the unemployed which provided cannon-fodder on the cheap and native armies who were moulded into Imperial forces by English officers; and it made allies with those who possessed powerful armies and who could be got to do most of the fighting. And, of course, there was the traditional affectation of British moral superiority over the continental states, which came from making do with its non-conscript army.

Esher wrote to Lord Roberts about his campaign for Conscription on June 6th 1909 suggesting to him that the voluntary principle had had its advantages and should be maintained for the present. Esher suggested that compulsion would weaken Britain’s sea power, the basis of its power in the world, as Governments would economise to fund the larger Home Army. The larger Army would not make any difference to England’s security if the Fleet could not command the seas. Esher also warned that compulsion “would probably weaken the power of our people to take the offensive in war, upon which hitherto our Imperial position has largely rested.” This was because as the cost of the Home Army increased its “Imperial policing” would have to be cut.

Haldane knew that the Liberal dominated Parliament would not give him the money required to fund a conscript army. And the General Staff themselves, advised by Esher, rejected the idea when they considered the merits of it against having a smaller professional body. Haldane’s way of making up the military deficit proved the only acceptable means in the circumstances.

The result of the popularising of the military spirit in English society was that in 1914 Britain was able to sustain a war effort on an unprecedented scale for two years without having to resort to conscription. There was no question of Britain being unprepared for the war it had been organising, planning and making provision for diplomatically, socially and militarily for the best part of a decade.

It is suggested by some historians that the smallness of the British Army showed the unpreparedness for the war (and a lack of responsibility for it). However, the point is that the size of the British Expeditionary Force was beside the point. The purpose of the Great War was to secure the demise of a growing commercial rival at the greatest advantage to Britain and the least cost to it. The French and Russians were to do the continental fighting as part of the encirclement of Germany: If they suffered in performing this role all the better for England. It was they whom Britain had to deal with once Germany was destroyed. That was the nature of the Balance of Power and it is shown by what Britain did to France after it had won the war.

Britain provided its Navy, the greatest military force in the world, to the encirclement and destruction of Germany. Its Navy could capture trade and markets that armies could not. Through it Britain secured the maximum gains at the least cost to blood and treasure.

Britain could grab territory around the world while the French and Russians had to defend their frontiers if things went wrong. In the worse case Britain could abandon the continent if it had a smallish military commitment (as it did in 1940). It could fight on with its Navy and conclude a peace if necessary leaving its allies in the lurch.

But three things went wrong with this traditional approach: The Germans were more resilient and resourceful than was anticipated; The Liberals (and Redmondites) made the Balance of Power war into a moral crusade to justify their moral collapse; and Asquith appointed Kitchener to the War Office with the result that those who held the Conscriptionist position favouring a large war of attrition controlled the waging of the war. And so the small British Eexpeditionary Force of the Liberal Imperialist war plan became a massive continental commitment of millions of men.


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