Britain’s War Machine
by David Edgerton
Penguin, 2012, 442 pages, $27.95
Warfare State: Britain, 1920–1970
by David Edgerton
Cambridge University Press, 2006, 364 pages, $82.95
The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900
by David Edgerton
Oxford University Press, 2008, 288 pages, $48.99
These three books, by the Hans Rausing Professor of Imperial College, London, are a detailed argument that many will dismiss as heresy. With the current intense debate over Britain’s sovereignty and future role in the world, they are of more than usual importance. One of their underlying themes is that Britain has been far more powerful in recent history than it has been given, or has given itself, credit for.
These books make a strong case for an independent Britain in the world, probably in close association with Canada, Australia, New Zealand and some other culturally similar and developed Anglosphere countries such as Singapore. The idea of a CANZUK union has been making itself heard recently.
Edgerton says it is a myth that Britain in the twentieth century was weak, militarily and industrially backward, punching above its weight in European conflicts and only saved in the Second World War by American production and Russian blood. In fact, at the time of the Second World War Britain and the empire were extremely powerful and geared for war.
Two cartoons from the darkest part of the war are printed together. One is the famous cartoon by David Low (who according to Edgerton’s thesis was consistently wrong-headed) of Britain as a soldier after Dunkirk on an embattled rock raising a defiant fist—“Very well, alone”. Another from about the same time is of two soldiers overlooking a calm sea: “So our poor old Empire is all alone,” says one. The other replies, “Aye, we are—the whole five hundred million of us.”
That “five hundred million of us” was worth saying at the time, when the British Empire needed all the morale-boosters it could get. But many of those five hundred million were Indian and other indigenous peasants and little use to the war effort.
The introduction to Britain’s War Machine is forthright:
Britain won the Second World War … Defeat in 1942 masked Britain’s strength in machines. It was already the greatest producer of arms in the world … in some key sectors, efficiency of production was the same as in the USA.
Edgerton claims it is a myth which, for different reasons, both Left and Right have subscribed to, that Britain was “punching above its weight” in twentieth-century European conflicts. He credits Britain with the pre-eminence in technological warfare more usually attributed to Germany: “Remarkable as it now seems, in 1939 and even in 1940 and 1941 Britain’s leaders were confident of victory …”
Britain was, he argues, far more powerful than it appeared because it was supported not only by the Empire but also by all manner of other assets. “Churchill’s decision to fight on in 1940 was hardly irrational, reckless or even heroic …”
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. The empire contained liabilities as well as assets, and Britain had to disperse forces to garrison it. Those close to Churchill have said he did not know how victory could be achieved apart from America coming into the war. Edgerton says:
The British elite believed Britain would win not because of its martial and militant qualities, but because of its industrial and economic strength … From 1940 to the end of the war it had the most tank-intensive army of the period … The warfare state was run by a wartime British government full of experts, of scientists and economists and businessmen.
A diagram shows the tonnage of bombs Britain dropped on Germany each year of the war, from a pin-prick in 1939 to a colossal avalanche in 1945.
There were differences of military philosophy and of strategic and tactical doctrine which make comparisons even more difficult than when one is merely considering weapons and weapons production. The German 88-millimetre and the British 3.7-inch anti-aircraft guns were very similar and comparable in performance, but the British for some reason never thought of using the 3.7 as an anti-tank gun, a role in which the 88 excelled. German tanks were generally superior to British and American ones, but took much longer to build. Even with defence expenditure one is not comparing like with like, because defence budgets may reflect differing pay-rates and pensions.
Between the wars the British built a bigger tonnage of aircraft-carriers than either the US or Japan, but they carried fewer aircraft. How does one compare them?
The Shock of the Old argues that innovative technology has often proved more expensive than it has been worth.
British policy in war, like that of all other nations, is largely a matter of will. That will enabled it to defy Philip of Spain, Louis the Sun King, Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler, and under Margaret Thatcher to play a major part in winning the Cold War. Historically Britain has largely led the world in science and technology. Yet in post-1945 Britain at least this often heroic purpose was often accompanied by a kind of doppelganger of feebleness and retreat.
Edgerton lists A Shropshire Lad and the works of E.M. Forster and, a little oddly, Beatrix Potter, as creating an image of a Edwardian England in the process of being overtaken by Germany’s technocratic culture. Against this he mentions H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle as writers of technological modernity, but strikingly omits Kipling (“Lord, send a man like Robbie Burns to sing the Song of Steam!”), still the only great English poet (there are some American ones) of machinery and technology.
It cannot be denied that, at the end of the nineteenth century, Britain was being overtaken in the wholesale application of technology by Germany and the US. This failure to take advantage of the opportunities for technological transfer appears to have happened in Britain vis-à-vis Germany on a massive scale and with a whole range of technologies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
One of the culprits was a system of industrial relations that remained largely adversarial instead of, as in Bismarck’s Germany, largely co-operative. While British factory employees might have a “works outing” to some chilly beach once a year, German employees had overseas cruises in dedicated ships.
Another of the culprits was probably British taxation policies. It was not until 1907 that Britain recognised the concept of depreciation of machinery. In the labour-intensive textile industry the tax system was favourable to repair costs, not replacement costs. In his book The First Industrial Nation, Peter Mathias has pointed out that the British government found to its alarm in 1914 that all the magnetos in use in the country came from Stuttgart, as did all the khaki dye for troop uniforms, despite the fact that modern dyes had been largely developed in Britain by William Perkin and others:
Britain had virtually missed out on the new technology of coal chemistry, the raw material of which formed the tap root of British industrial prosperity and resources. Nor could this be explained by the absence of a market for the products in Britain, or a less favourable demand structure, because Britain possessed the largest textile industry in the world which offered the largest dye-stuffs market in the world, a fact which was demonstrated by the extent of dyes being imported … Britain had little to do with innovations in petroleum technology at this time … Where chemistry was concerned Britain was virtually an underdeveloped country open to the economic invasion and exploitation of a higher culture [that is, Germany].
Britain’s failure to modernise its technology had many disastrous consequences in the First World War, when it found itself competing with the huge and modern German technological industries in chemicals, optical glass, iron and steel production and a host of other matters. The British Grand Fleet performed disappointingly at the Battle of Jutland, losing nearly three times as many men as the German High Seas Fleet and more major ships, partly because of bad luck, but also because complacency arising from its glorious heritage, and the idea that “we can, or need, do no more”, had left it with a number of antiquated and inadequate methods and practices in areas ranging from communication and ammunition-handling to damage-control.
Mathias continues, contra Edgerton, on the attitude which apparently prevailed in Britain, which may be seen as aversion to capitalism’s “creative destruction” and to “disruptive technology” (the fact that such traits of national culture seem very hard to measure does not mean they are not real):
Why scrap a perfectly good machine that was superbly made, lovingly maintained and for which the machine-makers still possessed a complete stock of all its parts? At least six engines in breweries which were installed before 1800 still worked a century later. How long these machines lasted was one of the finest tributes to British engineers and one of the worst indictments of British industrialists … In 1872 only 12 persons were reading for the natural science tripos at Cambridge, most of them training to be doctors of medicine. Yet by then 11 technical universities and 20 other universities existed in Germany.
Corelli Barnett, in The Collapse of British Power, has written that British industry by 1914 had in many ways become no better than a working museum of industrial archaeology:
Here clanked on tirelessly not only the actual machines, but also, not so tirelessly, the techniques and outlooks of 1815–1850—marvels of inventiveness and progress in their epoch but transformed by the passage of time into quaint memorials of the original Industrial Revolution.
For readers familiar with these and many similar writers, Edgerton’s arguments that Britain was a military superpower and technological leader in the twentieth century will seem strange. And it remains a fact that, though well-supplied with tanks for its size, the small British Army in 1940 was forced to retreat to Dunkirk and only saved from being annihilated or captured by Hitler’s inexplicable “halt” order when the Wehrmacht had it at its mercy.
Britain, it was calculated, could, by straining every nerve, raise an army of fifty-five divisions. Germany could, and did, raise more than 200. Britain, of course, needed to maintain a powerful navy to protect its supply lines, while for Germany in both world wars a navy was a luxury—a ruinously stupid one in the First World War, draining off assets the army would need and arousing Britain’s fear and hostility for no good reason.
In The Shock of the Old, Edgerton argues that the iconic wonder weapons of the Second World War—the German V-rockets and the atomic bomb—cost more than they were worth. Indeed, he claims rockets and atomic power are likely to have made the world poorer rather than richer once all the costs and benefits were calculated.
One problem with this, of course, is that all the costs and benefits can’t be calculated. He claims that railways only improved US production in the 1890s by an insignificant amount. Again, it is hard to know how this can be proved.
Certainly this proposition that the cost of new technology frequently outweighs the benefits seems true of the German V1 and V2 missiles. They were expensive and inaccurate, unable to hit targets much smaller than London, and the same resources would have been better put into conventional aircraft, which would also have been re-usable. They were weapons of desperation. On the other hand the V2, reaching up to seventy miles into space, did prove space-flight was possible, leading to weather and communications satellites and a host of other advances. Columbus’s voyage to America and Captain Phillip’s founding of Sydney also made no economic sense, but that was not the end of the story.
It is hard to put a monetary price on the value of the atomic bombs, which shortened the Second World War, which was estimated to be costing 2000 lives a day, by months, resulted in the freeing of natives and allied prisoners from murderous Japanese overlordship, and allowed resources to be diverted to the rebuilding of Europe before the Red Army moved in.
One case in which the “old” proved its worth in the Second World War was the battleship. In the First World War great fleets of British and German battleships were tied up in harbour for almost the whole war, only clashing once briefly at Jutland. In the Second World War the few British battleships which had survived post-1918 economies proved potent veterans—continually at sea and in action. The great 15-inch naval guns built as the First World War approached would have their real use in the Second World War.
The American 16-inch-gunned Iowa-class indeed remained in action until the dawn of the twenty-first century and would today still be valuable for shore-bombardment or long-range missile launching. Their giant armoured hulls offered the space for copious electronics outfits.
Edgerton points out that in both Korea and Vietnam the US was fought to a standstill by countries with very inferior weapons—“the bicycles of the Ho Chi Minh Trail defeated the B52s”. This ignores the fact that the US in both cases, and for different reasons, was not really trying to win, as under the defeatist Obama administration it has not really tried to win against the revolting savages of ISIS. Moreover, the US did win in Vietnam in purely military terms. The North Vietnamese were only able to invade and conquer the South after the US had disengaged and the Democrat-controlled Congress betrayed it. Edgerton is right, however, in that Vietnam “revealed the need to return to older military thinking rather than an engineers’ quantitative approach to war”. In other words a return to will, guts and a military command structure predicated much more on the order, “Follow me!” I recall many years ago seeing a Time magazine cover on the new Joint Chiefs of Staff, captioned, “Thinkers and Managers Replace the Heroes” and feeling not optimism about future victories but a chill down my spine.
The radical thesis these books puts forward is worthy of a more searching elucidation and debate than space permits here. I shall review Edgerton’s fourth book, England and the Aeroplane: Militarism, Modernity and Machines (2013), separately.
Hal G.P. Colebatch is the author of Fragile Flame: The Uniqueness and Vulnerability of Scientific and Technological Civilization, published by Acashic.