Category Archives: Research

Africa and the First World War

In November I was lucky enough to be invited on to the Islam Channel to discuss the First World War in Africa.

As you can imagine, the African continent was shaped and influenced by the war in different ways, with campaigns being fought in the north, the south west, and in particular in the east in German East Africa.

It was great to be able to talk about the campaigns, the vital role that African soldiers played in the armies of the belligerents, as well as expand on some of the stories of other volunteers from the Commonwealth, such as those from the Caribbean.

Here’s the interview, hope you enjoy it!


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“No Doubt They’ll Soon Get Well”: Social Class and Shell Shock in the First World War

I recently gave a talk as part of the National Army Museum’s Lunchtime Lecture series on social class and shell shock in the First World War in the rather wonderful surroundings of the Army and Navy Club in Piccadilly, which you can watch below:

Hope you enjoy it!

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The Space Race in Soviet Propaganda

In the absence of direct conflict, the Cold War saw the United States and the Soviet Union compete across all fronts, including social, economic, artistic, and technological. Each triumph in these fields was celebrated as a triumph for the entire ideological system of the Soviet Union, a vindication of their success over capitalism.

Between 1958 and 1963, the Soviet Union was well ahead of the United States in the race to conquer space, as commemorated in some of the following posters, which first appeared as a list on Buzzfeed. The race to the stars, to master that environment and “claim” it, represented the cutting edge in technology, and real life developments directly influenced cultural expressions and public perceptions of what it was to explore space.

“We were born to make the fairy tale come true!”

"We were born to make the fairy tale come true!"

Many of these posters linked foreign exploration to the further expanse of Communism, part of the ideological principle laid out in Marxist dogma about spreading the revolution, breaking down national boundaries and uniting the global proletariat. The historical inevitability enshrined in Marxist ideology meant that logically this would be extended to the Communist exploration of space.

“We will open the distant worlds!”

"We will open the distant worlds!"

All of this endeavor, like all other aspects of Soviet public life, were used to glorify the state.

“Fatherland! You lighted the star of progress and peace. Glory to the science, glory to the labor! Glory to the Soviet regime!”

"Fatherland! You lighted the star of progress and peace. Glory to the science, glory to the labor! Glory to the Soviet regime!"

“Through the worlds and ages.”

"Through the worlds and ages."

As always, it was socialism that was the inspiration for these incredible feats

“Socialism is our launching pad”

"Socialism is our launching pad"

Even the legacy of Lenin, culturally so important, was used in these futuristic representations of the Soviet state, linking the past, present and future

“Glory to the workers of Soviet science and technology!”

"Glory to the workers of Soviet science and technology!"

“With Lenin’s name!”

"With Lenin’s name!"

Soviet propaganda was expressly linked to current events, pervasive, and dominant, used to glorify Communism and the ideals of the Soviet Union

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The Internet, Social Media and Propaganda: The Final Frontier?

Until the invention of the radio, the means of disseminating propaganda remained much the same throughout millennia. Monuments, public speeches, coins, and the growing use of the printed word, were all common forms of propaganda from the time of Alexander the Great to the reign of Queen Victoria. 

However, with the rapid technological change of the twentieth century, propaganda similarly underwent a massive change. The development of the radio – which Lenin called “a newspaper without paper… and without boundaries” – and in particular the moving image, first in cinemas, and then via televisions that ensured moving pictures could be brought into the home, gave propaganda even greater reach.

The growth of the internet, however, has transformed propaganda beyond anything those tasked with its production and spread in earlier generations could have imagined. The internet is a wilderness of information that is, unlike previous methods of disseminating propaganda, near impossible to regulate or officiate. What’s more, with the extent that we engage with this medium, and use it to share, spread and promote information, we have all become propagandists!

This thesis of course depends on the definition of propaganda. My preferred definition is that of the late Phil Taylor, who wrote that “essentially, propaganda is really no more than the communication of ideas designed to persuade people to think and behave in a desired way.” That means that, when engaging in social media, promoting ideas from politicians, intellectuals, friends, musicians or corporations through likes, shares, retweets and more, we are promoting that information and attempting to influence how people think about these things. How is that not engaging in the spread of propaganda?

Propaganda is not the insidious, deceptive, manipulative pattern of negatively influencing behaviour that many people consider it to be. While there’s no doubt it has been used for those purposes in the past, and continues to do so in the present, propaganda has also been used for good, in the spread of public health messaging, for example. Therefore, propaganda itself is an ethically neutral idea – it is the content that varies.

Due to the growth of the internet, and in particular the explosion of social media, the information-generating process has been democratised. Whenever we post an opinion on Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media site, we are issuing propaganda, a piece of information designed to make those who read it think about an issue or behave in a certain way conducive to what we want them to. Corporations have realised this, which is why they have such an active social media presence. Branding and advertising has become a major aspect of social media for all businesses, with a far greater personalisation to match the needs of consumers. By promoting brands, we are engaging in issuing propaganda on their behalf.

Social media has enormous potential, which is why China, for example, has its own social media site, Weibo. In the popular revolutions, uprisings and protests across the world in recent years, social media has played a major part in mobilising, informing and influencing public opinion and shaping consensus of events from around the world. Modern communications are utilised by both sides, and it is here that the modern propaganda and information war is fought, in front of a global audience.

However, such a tool is not without its weaknesses. Disinformation regularly occurs, with fake or doctored pictures being used. Social media has the potential to spread information rapidly around the world. The recent uprising in Egypt has seen such images, and as testament to the times it is through other social media that such falsehoods are exposed. However, due to the sheer nature of information being generated on social media sites, reactions are often instantaneous, without any deep analysis being given. In that way, many people are often unwilling propagandists, deceived by the speed at which information is generated that compels an instantaneous response. 

Social media also carries the potential for anonymity, and recently there have been several cases where accounts have been exposed as fake, or deliberately designed for political purposes. Such accounts operate very much in the black propaganda mold that was seen throughout the First and Second World Wars, deceptive propaganda that was issued under one guise but emanated from another source. This direct parallel demonstrates just how important social media is in the ongoing information war.   

Because of this, it means that you should never instantly believe everything you read, and that the same rules of scepticism and analysis need to be applied to digital propaganda as to any other, namely:

  • Who is producing the propaganda?
  • What they are saying?
  • Who is the propaganda directed at? Who are the intended audience?
  • Why?
  • With what effect?

By doing so, a critical engagement with information can be maintained.

Propaganda has always evolved along with communications technology. As new ways develop to spread information, so too will they be used to spread propaganda. That is what propaganda is! As such, the internet may currently be the final frontier, but there’s no reason not to think horizons will be extended further in future.

This blog was originally published on the British Library Social Sciences blog as part of my work there, before being reproduced here

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Research in National Media


I’m extremely delighted that my research into post-National Service recruitment was featured in The Times over the weekend.

Based on a talk I gave at the National Archives last month, I was contacted with a view to having this featured in the national press. I’m currently turning this research into an article, so will post it in more detail at a later date, but for now, here’s a link to the story by Tom Coglan. Some small copy errors but it’s a great boost to know my research is of interest to a wider public!

The article is behind The Times‘ online paywall, but can read here if you have access to it!


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‘The Battle of the Somme’ (1916) as Propaganda

Today marks the 97th anniversary of the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. For those of us who have grown up in the decades following the war, the harrowing day has been recreated through the testimony of those who survived, but also significantly through the 1916 film The Battle of the Somme. The images have been recycled and reproduced thousands of times and now represent the futility of the war, a leading component in the cultural memory of the First World War.

Yet this was never the intention. The Battle of the Somme was very much intended as a propaganda film, and presented a sanitised view of the war. In 1914 a new type of war and a new technology combined for the first time in Britain. As the historian Philip Taylor has noted, ‘the locomotive of historical change was set in full flight in 1914 for both warfare and propaganda.’ There were therefore initially considerable teething problems as the relationship between the two was established.

Despite initial censorship that suppressed any news in all media, the War Office recognised the necessity of showing the public actuality footage from the front and to make use of the cinema as a propaganda tool. The concept of frontline footage reached its zenith with the 1916 documentary, The Battle of the Somme. It was shot by two official cinematographers, Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell in early July 1916 just behind and at the front.

The War Office newsreel company, Topical Committee, decided to release it as single long film and it premiered in London on 10 August 1916. It was also shown in 34 cinemas in London simultaneously on 21 August 1916 when it was released to the wider public.

The film attracted enormous audiences and had a terrific impact. This was in part due to its graphic depiction of trench warfare, including showing dead and wounded British and German soldiers, as well as the fact that it opened whilst the battle was still very much raging and casualties were being taken.

The film received the highest praise from King George V himself, who said that: ‘The public should see these pictures that they may have some idea of what the army is doing and what it means’ (George V). The press likewise seized upon the film. The Manchester Guardian, previously sceptical of the war, described it as ‘The Real Thing at Last!’

But how effective was the film as propaganda? All films are sources that must be evaluated through the prism of their contemporary context. It was undoubtedly popular, attracting 20 million attendances in first 6 weeks, which was the majority of the domestic British population. It was later distributed in eighteen other countries and was so popular that is was followed shortly by The King Visits His Armies in the Great Advance (Oct 1916), The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (Jan 1917) and The German Retreat and the Battle of Arras (June 1917).

As the audience were told the footage was authentic, showing what conditions were really like, it was believed to be so. This, in combination with the vacuum that had existed before, can directly explain the film’s popularity. Here, at last, was ocular proof of what the war was really like, unlike all the posters, pamphlets and books – or so the British public believed.

But numbers alone can be misleading, and do not necessarily indicate the value of The Battle of the Somme as propaganda. The most enduring propaganda is that which retains its impact across the ages, and that is not limited purely to its contemporary context. In this regard, the film fails. The shapelessness and futility of the battle and terrible suffering of individual soldiers, both British and German, cannot be ignored. In critical terms, the images of the dead and wounded were extremely distressing for domestic viewers, and something that they had never seen before. That the battle was still waging is also self-defeating. How could it ever be presented as a glorious victory if the result still wasn’t decided? That the film was not replicated for subsequent campaigns speaks volumes of its effectiveness.

It is also a film were very little actually happens. The only real combat footage, the famous scene where troops go over the top and advance across No-Man’s Land, is faked. In addition, even as a documentary it was subjected to a selective editing and shooting process. It is not an impartial record of events, and should never be treated as such.                                  

What then are we to say about The Battle of the Somme? It endures in cultural memory, but as an example of the futility of World War I. This is directly counter to its intended contemporary purpose. It retains value as a historical source, but one that reveals early cinematic techniques, and an indicator of how the War Office wanted to present the First World War to a civilian audience that had no independent way of uncovering the truth.


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What Place For Naval History at the Military Table?

A very quick post this, just with a few comments on the lack of prominence of naval history in the wider military history field.

In recent decades, military history has seen a shift away from focusing extensively on the manoeuvres of battles or the decisions of generals, and instead looked to the individual soldier, sailor or airman, the agents ultimately responsible for the success or failure of battles. Whereas previous military history often recorded their participation for context, it rarely specifically analysed it in isolation. Recent military history, however, has diversified, in particular in the 21st Century, and there has been a renewed historical interest in the experience of such individuals. This renewed interest was begun by John Keegan’s seminal The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme, which helped bring the topic into the mainstream of military history. However, this trend had in fact originated much earlier, and as a concept the analysis of professional combat experience can be traced backed to Ardant du Picq’s Battle Studies: Ancient and Modern Battle, work interrupted by the author’s death in combat in 1870. After the Second World War, such an approach was revisited, most notably by S.L.A. Marshall in his pioneering study Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War.

Such renewed interest in the field of combat studies, and the well-publicised work of Marshall, has produced several excellent studies of the Second World War in recent years, most notably John Ellis’ The Sharp End of War: The Fighting Man in World War II and Paul Fussell’s Wartime: Understanding and Behaviour in the Second World War. While the preponderance for the study of the global conflicts is understandable given their cultural significance, it is unfortunate that the focus of this field remains predominately the era of the two World Wars. Even Bourke’s 1999 An Intimate History of Killing: Face to Face Killing in Twentieth Century Warfare focused on American, Australian, and British servicemen in the First and Second World Wars and the Vietnam conflict, a comparison Richard Holmes also made in Acts of War.

However, such the vast majority of such scholarship focussed on on the Army; there has been very little analysis of the other combat arenas of air and sea. In regards to naval warfare, Keegan’s The Price of Admiralty: War at Sea from Man-of-War to Submarines, Ronald Spector’s At War at Sea: Sailors and Naval Warfare in the Twentieth Century and The Face of Naval Battle: The Human Experience of Modern War at Sea, edited by John Reeve and David Stevens, are the only real meaningful contributions to this field. Indeed, Reeve himself has addressed the ‘veil of invisibility’ that is drawn over the face of naval battle due to a lack of scholarship into the many factors that distinguish it from other combat environments.

Why then is this the case? As Reeve has argued,

Sailors have traditionally lived in somewhat segregated coastal communities and, beyond these, on the seas and as transients in foreign lands; in other words, they dwell on the fringes of their domestic societies. They have not always gone to war in the same massed and demonstrable way as soldiers, nor have they always re-entered society in a similar fashion. Theirs is but a partially visible and somewhat distinct sub-community and society is conditioned to their regular absence. Unsurprisingly, their stories of war penetrate society less readily. (Reeve, Introduction, pp 8-9.)

The Royal Navy may have occupied the same physical space as the rest of society, but mentally they were very different. Even when on land, they were still very much all at sea, with land-based establishments labelled as if ships. The Royal Navy’s distinct way of life, culture and language were inclusive for those in the service, but exclusive for those beyond it, who could not penetrate the mentalities and jargon easily. A night on the town was known as a “run ashore,” telling a story “spinning a dit” and a host of other idiosyncratic terms.

Furthermore, because of the nature of naval service, men served in entire naval communities at sea, far away from the civilian environment. They were not based in the community in the same way the other services were, and were often away from the UK on extensive deployments lasting up to six months. As mentioned, even shore bases were, and still are, designated as ships and have the appearance of sealed communities due to armed guard, gates and other security measures. Additionally, the submarine service have a culture of secrecy that means they naturally aren’t open with members of the public. This means such barriers between the navy and the civilian world have not been broken down in the same way as the other services.

It is, however, salutary to see the MoD encouraging a greater rapport between the Royal navy and the public – the Battle of the Atlantic memorial events, and the visits of ships to major cities, such as HMS Illustrious to London last month. The UK has a long a proud naval tradition, and it is good to see that greater efforts are being made to help the public connect with that. This is an important first step, and one that will hopefully see greater academic rigour and study of the Royal Navy’s past and future role and strategy in UK defence.


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The Royal Navy and the Battle of San Carlos 21-25 May 1982: The Wrong Enemy in the Wrong Place

31 years ago, the Royal Navy was coming to the end of a pitched battle against the air assets of the Argentine Air Force and Navy in the Battle of San Carlos. They had been heavily engaged while supporting Operation Sutton, the amphibious landings to recapture the Falklands. Nicknamed “Bomb Alley” by the soldiers, the fighting in San Carlos Water highlighted the Royal Navy’s lack of flexibility, and was very much a case of fighting the wrong enemy, at the wrong time, and in the wrong place.

In fighting more akin to that which had taken place off Crete and Okinawa 40 years earlier, the Royal Navy was shown to be functionally underequipped and unsuited for such operations, despite the skill and commitment of its sailors.

Why was this the case? There are several reasons. The first is that the Royal Navy, as a result of extensive cuts since the end of the Second World War, had become a predominately anti-submarine force. The surface fleet had been shaped and designed for operations based around patrolling the North Atlantic whilst also providing escort duty for US Navy battle groups, and dealing with high-flying Russian bombers, along with minesweeping and other blue water roles.

This functional role had an impact on defensive armament. Missile systems that tracked high-flying bombers, such as Sea Slug, Sea Wolf or Sea Dart, were introduced as primary defensive systems, with the idea being that the ships could track air assets from long distances and lock on before firing. Even the air defence ships, the Type 42s, were unable to operate as effectively as hoped. San Carlos was the first time in history that a modern surface fleet armed with surface-to-air missiles defended itself against full-scale air strikes, and so it is understandable that there were problems with the technology and tactics.

However, when faced with repeated waves of low-level, close in aerial attacks, such systems could simply not cope. This meant that many of the ships that sailed south in 1982 did so with only hastily added close-in defences, such as General Purpose Machine Guns that were mounted on the bridge wings and operated by men of the Royal Marine detachments aboard. Other ships had quickly taken Bofors or Oerlikon guns from storage and mounted them. When the Argentine aircraft penetrated this now ineffective defensive screen, the thin-hulled ships were incredibly exposed to their low-tech iron bombs which caused considerable damage. HMS Coventry, for example, was struck by three 1,000lb bombs on 25th May, and within twenty minutes was upside down, ‘her keel horizontal a few feet above the sea.’ One Electronic Warfare Officer aboard Coventry recalled that his role was rendered virtually useless by this low-tech assault: ‘Anti-ship missile defence is what I was trained to do against the Soviets. So whilst the procedures are sound, the weapons we were now expecting weren’t things we trained against. We were back against iron bombs; there’s no radar on those, so there’s no electronic warfare detection of those.’ Had the Argentines set their fuses accordingly, the losses would have been far higher; British ships were struck by thirteen bombs that failed to explode.

The Royal Navy was also hampered by ship design in this era. Whereas previous generations of warship had been designed to be able to survive a great number of hits from the big guns of battleships, or fitted with armoured decks to resist air attack, many of the ships sent south in 1982 were thin-hulled. The Falklands War revealed that ships constructed principally of aluminium, and filled with flammable materials such as electronic cables and wiring, were no longer able to withstand a multitude of hits, but were far more vulnerable. HMS Sheffield, for example was crippled and had to be abandoned after being struck by an Exocet missile that did not even explode on 4th May.

Soviet-centric strategic thinking in Whitehall had also led to a lack of Airborne Early Warning and a reduced fix wing aerial capability. The two carriers sent south, HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible, were too small to launch AEW aircraft, and could only carry a small number of Sea Harrier and GR3 Harriers in comparison to their larger predecessors, such as HMS Ark Royal. Decommissioned in 1979, she had also been able to launch Phantom and Buccaneer aircraft via a catapult system, larger aircraft that could remain airborne for longer in comparison to the smaller Sea Harrier. As a consequence, the fleet sent south in 1982 had less time to prepare for attacks as they were deprived of eyes in the sky, which the Argentines exploited to drop into the channel of San Carlos Water before missile systems could lock on. The Royal Navy also had less air cover due to an inability of the Sea Harrier to maintain an effective combat air patrol.

The Royal Navy engaged in tough fighting against the brave Argentine pilots, and showed excellent adaptability in finding solutions to ongoing problems. However, many sailors were killed and both HMS Ardent and HMS Antelope were lost in Bomb Alley what was a risky gamble from the British government, with mnay other ships suffering severe damage. MV Atlantic Conveyor, and its precious cargo of Chinook helicopters, was also lost to an Exocet attack, which prolonged the ground campaign. There was no margin for error, and had more ships been lost, particularly one of the carriers, it would not only have led to the failure of the landings, but also had severe consequences on Britain’s NATO commitments in the Northern Hemisphere.

The impact of Bomb Alley and the Falklands campaign on a whole cannot be understated. Despite the leaning trend for missile systems that had taken place in the preceding years, following the conflict most warships from navies around the world were retrofitted with close-in weapon systems and guns for self-defence as extra safe-guards and to ensure greater defensive flexibility.


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Thoughts on Researching an Exhibition for the British Library

Here’s a link to a blog post I’ve just had published over on the British Library website about the freelance research and writing I did for their new exhibition, Propaganda: Power and Persuasion that opens on 17th May.

You can check out my thoughts on what I uncovered, and some of the amazing stories surrounding the exhibits, by following the link below:


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Revolution and Reform: Problems with British Infantry Training in the Second World War


Please forgive the length of this post but there are some fairly complicated issues at work. As always comments are welcome!

When the Wehrmacht had thrown the BEF off the continent in 1940 with seemingly comparative ease, senior British commanders began to realise that perhaps, unthinkably, their troops were simply not as good as their German enemies. Training in the British Army remained ad hoc, and combat training was barely adequate. As often occurs in war, crises at the Front resulted in reinforcements being despatched with less and less training. According to Field Marshal Montgomery, the Eighth Army had in 1942 ‘suffered some 80,000 casualties since it was formed, and little time had been spent in training the replacements.’[1] For example, in September 1942, of 860 reinforcements posted to the 50th Division, Eighth Army, only one quarter had done any field firing at all, seven had never previously fired a rifle, nine had never fired a Bren gun, 131 had never thrown a live grenade and 138 had never fired a Thompson submachine gun![2] It was a similar case elsewhere within the army, Brigadier Money recognising that ‘the individual skill-at-arms of the average soldier is low and must be improved.’[3]

As part of the drive to improve training, and from 1941 new recruits still stationed in England were taught the new battle drill. The main aim of this was ‘infusing some of the realities of the modern battlefield into what many discerning commanders call the outworn pageantry of the parade ground.’[4] Officers and men embarked upon several exercises, including an assault course in full kit with loaded weapons. According to the desires for realism, live ammunition was fired at and around recruits as they went through manoeuvres for the first time. Firing live ammunition over the heads of trainees encouraged them to keep their heads down, and to keep themselves concealed. Another exercise was the ‘haunted-house’, designed to teach house-to-house fighting. A party of recruits was despatched with loaded weapons and live ammunition into a building filled with smoke as to reduce visibility. Figure targets of Germans popped up at the small squads of men as they made their way through the dim interior of the building, the object being to test reactions and fire-control, as it would be more than possible to hit an accompanying squad-mate in the confusion. These exercises were effectively drill under fire and duress, the exact conditions the soldiers would face in combat, and tested their skill and endurance levels, as well as creating a greater sense of comradeship.

The desire for realism also gave rise to the Divisional Battle Schools, set up by Lieutenant General Paget, Commander-in-Chief of Home Forces, in early 1942. However, rather than the individual soldiers who learnt the new battle drill, it was regimental leaders who went to divisional battle schools. They would then instruct those under their command with what they had learned, ‘for it is for the students to return to their units and spread the gospel.’[5] While this was the same, previously maligned, method as had been in place during the inter-war period, it was believed that now the students were being taught the correct message, it was an appropriate form of ensuring that the Army adopted that message at all levels. However, there was the potential for serious problems as no two schools were alike in their ‘personality and methods’[6] for teaching battle drill.

However, the new battle drill and Battle Schools obviously failed to revolutionise the Army immediately. When Brigadier Money attended a Battle School with several, though significantly not all, companies of his brigade, he found that ‘throughout the first camp and at the commencement of the second… an atmosphere of urgency, determination and reality was absent.’[7] Furthermore, the lessons of the Battle Schools were available only for those divisions fortunate enough to still be in Britain. Those on active service overseas persevered in their outdated, and inferior, training techniques. For Neil McCullum, fighting with the Eighth Army in North Africa, his training between combat comprised of re-learning petty drill such as correct posture when talking to superiors, or the correct way to fold a blanket, and ultimately surrendering the individuality the soldiers had lost at basic training but regained in combat.[8] Similarly, the War Diary of the 6th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, contains the ‘Training Programme for Week Ending 10th January 1942’ when it was stationed in Palestine, which reveals the predominance of ‘digging.’ For all four rifle companies, miscellaneous, unspecified digging was the primary training activity, interspersed with a few live action exercises, such as field firing for the mortar platoon and ‘mountain warfare’ for the rifle companies.[9] That the ‘Training Programme for Week Ending 18th January 1942’ was exactly the same suggests this was the normal course of events. While it would no doubt have been difficult to impart the lessons of the new battle drill to troops already overseas, the contrast between the lessons learnt at Battle Schools and those in Palestine with the 6th DLI demonstrates a marked change in how the Army approached infantry training in 1941-2.

There were also criticisms surrounding the sense of realism incorporated in the new battle drill. For example, when bayoneting dummies students were spattered in sheep’s blood. Recruits were also shown images of German atrocities, or attended lectures on such atrocities committed in conquered countries, such as Poland, by a member of that country’s embassy.[10] But most sinister of all, when carrying out exercises, students were actively encouraged to hate their enemy. One group completed an assault course, complete with bayoneting dummies and shooting targets while ‘a chant of “hate” superimposed on the sound track of the German film War in the West blared out.’[11] At another school, whilst on a march, a group of students were followed by ‘a burly subaltern of the London Irish who, his shirt torn to ribbons and brandishing a fighting knife at the heels of the pack, conducted a private hate campaign. “Hate! Hate!” he yelled – once in the faces of two solitary cows; and there was no doubting from their curses that the students’ blood was up.’[12] Recruits were, effectively, being whipped into a frenzy of blood lust. The sinister, and rather ludicrous nature, of such hate training was recognised by Montgomery, who severely disapproved. In an official memorandum, circulated to all senior officers, and therefore trainers, under his command, Montgomery stated that ‘any attempts to create an artificial blood-lust or hate training is worse than futile. Such an attitude of hate is foreign to the British temperament and attempts to produce it by artificial stimulus during training are bound to fail.’[13] In future, ‘officers and N.C.O.s must be made to realise the difference between this artificial hate, and the building of a true offensive spirit combined with the will-power which will not recognise defeat.’[14]

While hate training was eliminated from the infantry’s programme of training, one place it remained, and indeed intensified, was the Home Guard. Some members of the Home Guard, particularly those who had served in the Great War, but whose services were no longer required by the Government, took training the Home Guard very seriously. While the popular view today of the Home Guard is that espoused by the television show Dad’s Army, the Home Guard of the early 1940s was very different. In the case of invasion, the Home Guard would, its more vocal supporters argued, become a guerrilla force capable of terrorising the invader. Major Armour was one such supporter. He argued that ‘the Home Guard at night should be a terror to the enemy’[15] He also asserted that there were men in the force ‘who get a “kick” out of crawling up on sentries in the dark and “pig-sticking” them.’[16] Armour’s guerrilla force would operate by the simple rule of ‘get your enemy by any means but – GET HIM.’[17] For Armour, suitable training for such ruthless methods should include men of the Home Guard visiting the local slaughterhouse ‘and practice sticking their knives into carcasses to get used to the resistance which meets the knife: to rub blood on their hands and faces and get used to this, and to generally harden themselves.’[18]

It would be easy to dismiss Armour as an over-eager and bloodthirsty armchair general, but he was not alone. Indeed, Edward Hulton, owner of the Picture Post founded his own Home Guard School at Osterley Park, with the co-operation of the landowner Lord Jersey, as early as July 1940 in order to train the Home Guard in irregular warfare. It was early September 1940 when the War Office recognised the value of such a school and took over its running. In defence of Osterley and the philosophy of warfare it taught, Tom Wintringham, one of its ‘instructors’, wrote, shortly before the War Office took over the school, that ‘any weapon is good enough to kill Germans with, if you know its value and limitations,’ and called for the Home Guard to be enlarged to four million men by 1941.[19] It is easy to understand the extreme views put across by both Armour and Wintringham; when they wrote, Britain faced the threat of invasion, where any man who could would be called upon to try and repel the Nazi invader. The extreme consequences of a successful Nazi landing in Britain called forth extreme means to repel them, something Armour and Wintringham advocated teaching from an early stage.

Thus, the British Army struggled enormously with how best to prepare their men for combat. But was blood and hate training truly ridiculous? It ‘surely sprang from the fear that troops were being given no real preparation for the horrors of the battlefield.’[20] It was an extreme reaction to the under prepared and inadequate nature of pre-war training. The desire to create realism provided an image of war so distasteful, so accurate, that Whitehall superiors felt seriously threatened that the men of the British Army were becoming similar to their German enemy in more than one way; they were at risk of taking on the ‘cold, diagrammatic, pedantic, unimaginative, and thoroughly sinister’ nature with which the German soldier was described; he was human, whereas the Japanese were ‘animals of an especially dwarfish but vicious species’, but a perverse type of humanity.[21]

[1] Bernard Law Montgomery of Alamein, The Memoirs of Field Marshal Montgomery (London, 1958), p. 119.

[2] PRO WO 201/2590 Major-General J. S. Nicols, ‘State of Training of Reinforcements’, 21 September 1942.

[3] IWM 72/14/1 Papers of Brigadier H. D. K. Money, ‘Lessons from Training Camps and Advance Guard Exercises – 2 October 1942’, p. 4.

[4] ‘The New Battle Drill: A Conquest of Tradition in Training’, The Times (Tuesday, November 25, 1941), p. 5.

[5] ‘Realism in Training: New Methods at a Battle School’, The Times (Monday, April 27, 1942), p. 2.

[6] Ibid., p. 2.

[7] IWM 72/14/1 Papers of Brigadier H. D. K. Money, ‘Lessons from Training Camps and Advance Guard Exercises – 2 October 1942’, p. 1.

[8] McCullum, Journey, p. 117.

[9] PRO WO 169/5007 War Diary, 6th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, January – April 1942.

[10] ‘Realism in Training’, p. 2.

[11] Ibid., p. 2.

[12] ‘The New Battle Drill’, p. 5.

[13] IWM 72/14/1 Papers of Brigadier H. D. K. Money, ‘Memorandum on Battle Drill.’

[14] Ibid.

[15] Armour, Total War Training, p. 36.

[16] Ibid., p. 44.

[17] Ibid., p. 46.

[18] Ibid., p. 46.

[19] Tom Wintringham, ‘The Home Guard Can Fight’, Picture Post, Vol. 8, No. 12 (September 21, 1940).

[20] Timothy Harrison Place, Military Training in the British Army, 1940 – 44: From Dunkirk to D-Day (London, 2000), p. 57.

[21] Paul Fussell, Wartime: Understanding and Behaviour in the Second World War (New York, 1989), p. 120.


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