Air University Review, March-April 1967
Dr. Theodore Ropp
The first volume of Sir Basil II. Liddell Hart’s Memoirs has been brilliantly reviewed in these pages by Major Ray L. Bowers.1 It deals with Liddell Hart’s first forty-two years and the development of his military ideas. Volume II of the Memoirs, * curiously subtitled “The Later Years,” covers the three years from Neville Chamberlain’s appointment as Prime Minister, 28 May 1937, to the fall of France. The first three chapters, nearly half the book, center on the nine months before July 1938 when “The Captain Who Teaches Generals,” to use the title of Jay Luvaas’s study of his work,2 was the informal, confidential adviser of Chamberlain’s reforming Secretary of State for War, Leslie Hore-Belisha. As military correspondent of the Establishment’s newspaper, The Times, to which he had moved from the Daily Telegraph in 1935, Liddell Hart had been close to Hore-Belisha’s predecessor, Alfred Duff Cooper. But Hore-Belisha also consulted him on the military appointments needed to carry out his “Suggestions on the Reorganisation of the Army to meet modern conditions, with a view primarily to the role of Imperial Defence,” to use the title of the second of two memorandums that he sent Hore-Belisha after their first meeting at Duff Cooper’s club on 7 June 1938.
While Liddell Hart admits Major General J. F. C. Fuller’s primacy in the
development of the theory of armored war, he was himself already widely known,
as Luvaas puts it, as “a brilliant and prolific journalist, an unselfish and
aggressive advocate of army reform, and an historian of commanding stature and
integrity.” The son of a clergyman, he had had one year at
Like everyone who writes for a living without breaking into the movies, Liddell Hart has written too much, though his works are not as repetitious as those of Fuller or Jomini, who also wrote for a living. Liddell Hart is a better historian than Fuller and his equal in stylistic power. The personal warmth that made him the informal teacher of a whole generation of younger soldiers and historians has made him equally charitable toward the opponents of his ideas, the Colonel Blimps who managed war so badly in his few months in the trenches. These same characteristics—stylistic brilliance, historical honesty, and personal charity—come out with particular clarity in this account of his brief period in the corridors of power.
Hore-Belisha was just Liddell Hart’s age, a veteran of the trenches, and a wealthy lawyer who had entered Parliament as a Liberal in 1923. He had helped to bring the National Liberals into the coalition Government of 1931. His debating power and financial competence had been rewarded by the Ministry of Transport in 1934. A well-publicized campaign to reduce traffic accidents showed that he could get things done. Chamberlain knew that the army was “the Cinderella” of the services, and he knew the “obstinacy of some of the Army heads in sticking to obsolete methods”; but the former Chancellor of the Exchequer was determined not “to follow Winston’s advice and sacrifice our commerce to the manufacture of arms.”3 Hore-Belisha had ability, drive, and some public following, but he was also comparatively “young,” a Jew, and a former Liberal with little influence at the top of the Conservative Establishment. Liddell Hart was a retired captain who had turned to journalism. Even the picture of “the partnership” shows as unlikely a pair of reformers as the War Office has had in its long history.
In the few personal glimpses he gives of his chief, Liddell Hart comments on
his ingenuousness, poor health, and devotion to his mother. He knew little
about military affairs. Liddell Hart supplied him with ideas about both policy
and personalities. The amazing thing is that they accomplished as much as they
did, before increasing publicity about their relationship and the basic
weaknesses of Hore-Belisha’s political position led to a break in July 1938,
which “set me free to criticise publicly, with more pungency, the slow pace and
inadequate measure of the steps that were being taken to meet the growing
danger of war with Nazi Germany.” In poor health and with his marriage breaking
up, Liddell Hart also broke with The Times over its support of
appeasement. His contract was finally ended at the end of November 1939.
Hore-Belisha was forced out in January 1940, for his criticism of the high
command’s defenses “in the gap between the Maginot Line and the sea.” While he
was never in a personal position to recover his old role, Liddell Hart was
consulted by Hore-Belisha on personalities in 1939. Their accounts of these
difficult years do great credit to both men. Liddell Hart feels that Churchill
did not use Hore-Belisha in 1940 because he was still “his main competitor in
popular appeal.” He did make him Minister of National Insurance in 1945, when
he was trying to stem the Labour tide that swept him from power during the
Potsdam Conference. Hore-Belisha lost his own seat, but Churchill made him a
peer in 1954. He died during a speech at
Overseas readers may not find this volume as interesting as the first one. Many of its details are primarily of interest to historians of the Chamberlain era. With the Government bent on limited rearmament, the partners were limited to getting the right weapons and commanders for an army in which many older officers were still thinking of the largest possible number of infantry divisions. The depth of the opposition to Hore-Belisha comes out in Field Marshal Lord Ironside’s diaries.4 Though he is not even mentioned in Ironside’s index, Liddell Hart regarded Ironside as a good man, but not for his post as Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Most of Liddell Hart’s personal assessments seem remarkably sound. What they show is how well he knew many younger officers and the extent to which many of them had already been converted to mechanization.
The Prime Minister made it clear to Hore-Belisha after the first discussion
of his proposed reforms “that the needs of home and imperial defence must
receive first consideration. . . . Any large increase in expenditure and in
forces was ruled out.” All that the partners could propose for the army was to
double “antiaircraft forces” for home defense, to create “regional strategic
reserves” for the Middle and
The three chapters of the second half of the book deal with
On conscription, an issue on which he was on the losing side, Liddell Hart
stresses the Government’s weakness in the face of public opinion. In the
bomber-fighter controversy, in which he supported the Government, we may
legitimately ask if public opinion did not play a larger role than he now sees
for it. He had always opposed gas and terror bombing as inhumane and
counterproductive, but the immediate practical problem was not to provoke
German bombing and to safeguard
From the safe hindsight of a generation, a historian’s only criticism of
this second volume of memoirs is that it may not support Liddell Hart’s
insistence that “the collapse of the West in 1940 was a world-shaking disaster
which changed the course of history for the worse. Yet never was a great
disaster more easily preventible.” (Italics mine) Liddell Hart’s whole
account of conscription, for example, rests on the assumption that an
all-armored British Expeditionary Force would not have been driven into the sea
and on still other assumptions of basic changes in French, German, and Russian
political and military policies. The whole work accurately reflects British
concerns during these critical years. Like many similar recent accounts, it
indirectly gives too much credit to British appeasers. Another example of this
is Liddell Hart’s hope in September 1939, after the partition of
In the classified list of Liddell Hart’s works in which this last bit of
information appears, the only “general” work is Why Don’t We Learn from
History? (1944). This makes it possible for a reviewer to ask, What are the
main “lessons” of this volume by one of the greatest military theorists of this
century? One, which he stresses repeatedly, is the difficulty of rearming
without precipitating the very attack which rearmament was meant to deter. “It
was a habit with us,” he noted after a talk with Group Captain L. L. MacLean of
Bomber Command in December 1938, “to assume that the date when our rearmament
programme was completed was the date when war might come, and that the Germans
would wait for it—whereas the Germans were disciples of Clausewitz who had
taught that the right time . . . was not necessarily when you were most ready
but when your. . . readiness was best in relation to your opponent’s.” This
unhistorical jab at Clausewitz stemmed from Liddell Hart’s The Ghost of
Napoleon (1933) and was to be substantially revised in his Strategy –The
Indirect Approach (1954).7 An equally important lesson, though
it must be subsumed from his account of his partnership with Hore-Belisha, is
that no single political or military reformer can force a major military policy
change in the modern state unless he has real political power over a
comparatively long period of time (as was the case with Lord Haldane and Elihu
Root or Admirals Mahan, Tirpitz, and Fisher) and substantial support from at
least part of the military establishment. Hore-Belisha’s political power was
too limited, but Fuller and Liddell Hart had converted many younger army
officers to armor. One notes, finally, the lack of any index reference to “public
opinion.” Here again this volume accurately reflects its time. In
Only since 1945, as Professor Peter Paret has noted, have we become aware of how difficult it is in peacetime to move the “many wheels” of the modern industrial state in time for effective action.8 All our advances in communications, political intelligence, and propaganda may be canceled by ever longer research, development, and industrial lead times and the danger of a far more devastating surprise by an aggressor alarmed by his victim’s awakening. Here one of the most significant changes in Liddell Hart’s Strategy (his Decisive Wars of History  updated) is his realization that “the indirect approach is closely related to all problems of the influence of mind upon mind—the most influential factor in human history.”9 This sentence is one reason why one puts this volume down with the hope of an eventual sequel. This Protean strategist is always learning, always expanding his vision and deepening his insights. He was neither embittered nor discouraged by his brief period of power, which he must now see as one of great accomplishment in a strictly limited area. And since 1940 he has produced a number of fundamental works on both war and policy.
Strategy is surely one of these. Another was The Revolution in Warfare (1946). His greatest historical work may be The Tanks (1959), despite its misleading subtitle and concluding ten-page summary of the whole history of armored warfare. Though his History of the Second World War raises great expectations, the last essays in his Deterrent or Defence: A Fresh Look at the West’s Military Position date from 1960. The only other survivors among the great military theorists of his generation, Mao Tse-tung and Charles de Gaulle, are no longer writing on military topics. So we must hope that Liddell Hart’s reflections on his real “later years” may be even more memorable than these first two volumes.10
*Basil H. Liddell Hart, The Liddell Hart Memoirs, The Later Year, Vol.II (New York, G, P. Putmam’s Sons, 1966, $7.50),334 pp.
1. Major Ray L. Bowers. “The Peril of Misplaced Loyalties,”
2. Jay Luvaas, The Education of an Army, British Military Thought 1815-1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), pp. 376-424. The quotation is on p. 376.
3. R. J. Minney, The Private Papers of Hore-Belisha (London: Collins, 1960), p. 36, quoting Keith Feiling’s Life of Neville Chamberlain (London: Macmillan, 1946).
4. Colonel Roderick Macleod and Denis Kelly (eds.), Time Unguarded, The Ironside Diaries 1937-1940 (New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1962).
5. Robin Higham, Armed Forces in Peacetime,
6. To be published by Cassell. This list of Liddell Hart’s works contains thirty books to Fuller’s more than forty. Liddell Hart has also edited three others.
7. Why Don’t We Learn from History? was published. by Allen &
Unwin in 1942, The Ghost of Napoleon by Faber in 1933 from his
Lees-Knowles Lectures, and Strategy—The Indirect Approach by Faber in
1954, as an enlargement of The Decisive Wars of History, 1929. The
American edition, in both hardback and paper, is by Frederick A. Praeger,
8. Peter Paret, Innovation and Reform in Warfare, The Harmon Memorial Lectures in Military History, Number Eight (Colorado Springs: United States Air Force Academy, 1966), pp. 6-7. The quotation is from the Hanoverian military reformer, Friedrich von der Decken, in a work on the professional soldier and the state, published in 1800. The real obstacle to reform, Decken felt was the failure to realize that “a close relationship exists among the separate components of the military estate, which in turn is bound up so intimately with the state as a whole, that in order to achieve anything many wheels must be set in motion that often seem far removed from each other.” Though we often feel that these wheels are harder to move in a peacetime democracy, the processes of totalitarian state planning may introduce almost equal rigidities in their industrial preparations for war.
9. Strategy, pp. 18-19.
10. The Revolution in Warfare is here listed as published by Faber in
1946: The American edition was published by Yale University Press,
Dr. Theodore Ropp (Ph.D.,
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this
document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression,
academic environment of
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