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A stimulating interpretation of British strategy in the First World War

British Strategy & War Aims, 1914-1916 - David French

Discussions of British strategy during the First World War usually frame it in terms of a debate between “Westerners,” or the politicians and generals who wanted to focus British military efforts on the fighting in France and Belgium, and “Easterners,” or the ones who sought to open up fronts elsewhere in the hope of breaking the grinding stalemate. In this book, the first of two volumes he wrote examining the development of British war aims and the ways British leaders sought to achieve them, David French rejects this framing as a distorted product of postwar memoirs from the major figures involved. Instead he frames the debates as less a matter of “where” and more a question of “how”: namely, how the British could best accomplish their goals of maintaining the Entente and defeating Germany while ensuring that Britain would emerge from the war as the strongest of the belligerents. The hope was that by achieving these aims, Britain would maintain be in a position to dictate the terms of the peace and maintain their position as the dominant power in the world.

 

To argue his case, French begins his book by examining prewar British policy and the main people involved in making it. Here his focus is on the Liberal government of H. H. Asquith, though he also notes the important role played by the civil servants in the Foreign Office in influencing what were at times sharp disagreements on how best to advance British interests in an increasingly polarized international environment. These debates were unresolved when the war broke out in August 1914, forcing policymakers to take decisions based more on the course of events. Here the figure of Lord Kitchener looms large, as French sees his advocacy of the New Armies as key. Not only did this undermine the “business as usual” approach involving a war waged with the Royal Navy and financial subsidies that was favored by many politicians, but with the British army only reaching its maximum strength by early 1917 it would, Kitchener believed, leave Britain in a decisive position to dictate terms to the exhausted participants on both sides of the struggle. Until then, it was a matter of playing for time to achieve this position.

 

After establishing Britain’s underlying approach to the war, French then examines the response of policymakers to events as they unfolded over the next two years. Here his focus is predominantly on the high politics and the strategic views of the major actors, addressing their interpretation of developments from the standpoint of British interests and their overall goals in the war. What emerges in these chapters is the gradual shift away from prewar strategies and assumptions, which were driven by the demands of a war increasingly different from the one the British expected to fight. Yet for all the numerous ad hoc adjustments, policy deviations, and failed efforts that the British undertook during this period, their strategic goals remained the same, serving as the lodestar guiding British decisions throughout the early years of the conflict.

 

Though French’s book covers ground that has long been trod upon by other scholars, the author succeeds in providing a provocatively fresh interpretation as to how British policymakers approached the war. While it suffers to a degree from a too-rigid exclusion of consideration of domestic considerations, such as home-front politics and morale, it’s easy to see why his book and his follow-up volume have become the starting point for anyone seeking to understand the development of British strategy in the First World War. Even if one disagrees with some of French’s conclusions, it’s a book no one interested in the subject can afford to ignore.