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The Common Sense of Warfare


The Common Sense of Warfare

Sec. 1


I want to say as compactly as possible why I do not believe that
conscription would increase the military efficiency of this country, and
why I think it might be a disastrous step for this country to take.

By conscription I mean the compulsory enlistment for a term of service
in the Army of the whole manhood of the country. And I am writing now
from the point of view merely of military effectiveness. The educational
value of a universal national service, the idea which as a Socialist I
support very heartily, of making every citizen give a year or so of his
life to our public needs, are matters quite outside my present
discussion. What I am writing about now is this idea that the country
can be strengthened for war by making every man in it a bit of a

And I want the reader to be perfectly clear about the position I assume
with regard to war preparations generally. I am not pleading for peace
when there is no peace; this country has been constantly threatened
during the past decade, and is threatened now by gigantic hostile
preparations; it is our common interest to be and to keep at the maximum
of military efficiency possible to us. My case is not merely that
conscription will not contribute to that, but that it would be a
monstrous diversion of our energy and emotion and material resources
from the things that need urgently to be done. It would be like a boxer
filling his arms with empty boxing-gloves and then rushing--his face
protruding over the armful--into the fray.

Let me make my attack on this prevalent and increasing superstition of
the British need for conscription in two lines, one following the other.
For, firstly, it is true that Britain at the present time is no more
capable of creating such a conscript army as France or Germany possesses
in the next ten years than she is of covering her soil with a tropical
forest, and, secondly, it is equally true that if she had such an army
it would not be of the slightest use to her. For the conscript armies in
which Europe still so largely believes are only of use against conscript
armies and adversaries who will consent to play the rules of the German
war game; they are, if we chose to determine they shall be, if we chose
to deal with them as they should be dealt with, as out of date as a
Roman legion or a Zulu impi.

Now, first, as to the impossibility of getting our great army into
existence. All those people who write and talk so glibly in favour of
conscription seem to forget that to take a common man, and more
particularly a townsman, clap him into a uniform and put a rifle in his
hand does not make a soldier. He has to be taught not only the use of
his weapons, but the methods of a strange and unfamiliar life out of
doors; he has to be not simply drilled, but accustomed to the difficult
modern necessities of open order fighting, of taking cover, of
entrenchment, and he has to have created within him, so that it will
stand the shock of seeing men killed round about him, confidence in
himself, in his officers, and the methods and weapons of his side.
Body, mind, and imagination have all to be trained--and they need
trainers. The conversion of a thousand citizens into anything better
than a sheep-like militia demands the enthusiastic services of scores of
able and experienced instructors who know what war is; the creation of a
universal army demands the services of many scores of thousands of not
simply "old soldiers," but keen, expert, modern-minded _officers_.

Without these officers our citizen army would be a hydra without heads.
And we haven't these officers. We haven't a tithe of them.

We haven't these officers, and we can't make them in a hurry. It takes
at least five years to make an officer who knows his trade. It needs a
special gift, in addition to that knowledge, to make a man able to
impart it. And our Empire is at a peculiar disadvantage in the matter,
because India and our other vast areas of service and opportunity
overseas drain away a large proportion of just those able and educated
men who would in other countries gravitate towards the army. Such small
wealth of officers as we have--and I am quite prepared to believe that
the officers we have are among the very best in the world--are scarcely
enough to go round our present supply of private soldiers. And the best
and most brilliant among this scanty supply are being drawn upon more
and more for aerial work, and for all that increasing quantity of highly
specialised services which are manifestly destined to be the real
fighting forces of the future. We cannot spare the best of our officers
for training conscripts; we shall get the dismallest results from the
worst of them; and so even if it were a vital necessity for our country
to have an army of all its manhood now, we could not have it, and it
would be a mere last convulsion to attempt to make it with the means at
our disposal.

But that brings me to my second contention, which is that we do not want
such an army. I believe that the vast masses of men in uniform
maintained by the Continental Powers at the present time are enormously
overrated as fighting machines. I see Germany in the likeness of a boxer
with a mailed fist as big as and rather heavier than its body, and I am
convinced that when the moment comes for that mailed fist to be lifted,
the whole disproportionate system will topple over. The military
ascendancy of the future lies with the country that dares to experiment
most, that experiments best, and meanwhile keeps its actual fighting
force fit and admirable and small and flexible. The experience of war
during the last fifteen years has been to show repeatedly the enormous
defensive power of small, scientifically handled bodies of men. These
huge conscript armies are made up not of masses of military muscle, but
of a huge proportion of military fat. Their one way of fighting will be
to fall upon an antagonist with all their available weight, and if he is
mobile and dexterous enough to decline that issue of adiposity they will
become a mere embarrassment to their own people. Modern weapons and
modern contrivance are continually decreasing the number of men who can
be employed efficiently upon a length of front. I doubt if there is any
use for more than 400,000 men upon the whole Franco-Belgian frontier at
the present time. Such an army, properly supplied, could--so far as
terrestrial forces are concerned--hold that frontier against any number
of assailants. The bigger the forces brought against it the sooner the
exhaustion of the attacking power. Now, it is for employment upon that
frontier, and for no other conceivable purpose in the world, that Great
Britain is asked to create a gigantic conscript army.

And if too big an army is likely to be a mere encumbrance in war, it is
perhaps even a still graver blunder to maintain one during that conflict
of preparation which is at present the European substitute for actual
hostilities. It consumes. It produces nothing. It not only eats and
drinks and wears out its clothes and withdraws men from industry, but
under the stress of invention it needs constantly to be re-armed and
freshly equipped at an expenditure proportionate to its size. So long as
the conflict of preparation goes on, then the bigger the army your
adversary maintains under arms the bigger is his expenditure and the
less his earning power. The less the force you employ to keep your
adversary over-armed, and the longer you remain at peace with him while
he is over-armed, the greater is your advantage. There is only one
profitable use for any army, and that is victorious conflict. Every army
that is not engaged in victorious conflict is an organ of national
expenditure, an exhausting growth in the national body. And for Great
Britain an attempt to create a conscript army would involve the very
maximum of moral and material exhaustion with the minimum of military
efficiency. It would be a disastrous waste of resources that we need
most urgently for other things.

Sec. 2

In the popular imagination the Dreadnought is still the one instrument
of naval war. We count our strength in Dreadnoughts and
Super-Dreadnoughts, and so long as we are spending our national
resources upon them faster than any other country, if we sink at least
�160 for every �100 sunk in these obsolescent monsters by Germany, we
have a reassuring sense of keeping ahead and being thoroughly safe. This
confidence in big, very expensive battleships is, I believe and hope,
shared by the German Government and by Europe generally, but it is,
nevertheless, a very unreasonable confidence, and it may easily lead us
into the most tragic of national disillusionments.

We of the general public are led to suppose that the next naval war--if
ever we engage in another naval war--will begin with a decisive fleet
action. The plan of action is presented with an alluring simplicity. Our
adversary will come out to us, in a ratio of 10 to 16, or in some ratio
still more advantageous to us, according as our adversary happens to be
this Power or that Power, there will be some tremendous business with
guns and torpedoes, and our admirals will return victorious to discuss
the discipline and details of the battle and each other's little
weaknesses in the monthly magazines. This is a desirable but improbable
anticipation. No hostile Power is in the least likely to send out any
battleships at all against our invincible Dreadnoughts. They will
promenade the seas, always in the ratio of 16 or more to 10, looking for
fleets securely tucked away out of reach. They will not, of course, go
too near the enemy's coast, on account of mines, and, meanwhile, our
cruisers will hunt the enemy's commerce into port.

Then other things will happen.

The enemy we shall discover using unsportsmanlike devices against our
capital ships. Unless he is a lunatic, he will prove to be much stronger
in reality than he is on paper in the matter of submarines,
torpedo-boats, waterplanes and aeroplanes. These are things cheap to
make and easy to conceal. He will be richly stocked with ingenious
devices for getting explosives up to these two million pound triumphs of
our naval engineering. On the cloudy and foggy nights so frequent about
these islands he will have extraordinary chances, and sooner or later,
unless we beat him thoroughly in the air above and in the waters
beneath, for neither of which proceedings we are prepared, some of these
chances will come off, and we shall lose a Dreadnought.

It will be a poor consolation if an ill-advised and stranded Zeppelin or
so enlivens the quiet of the English countryside by coming down and
capitulating. It will be a trifling countershock to wing an aeroplane or
so, or blow a torpedo-boat out of the water. Our Dreadnoughts will cease
to be a source of unmitigated confidence A second battleship disaster
will excite the Press extremely. A third will probably lead to a
retirement of the battle fleet to some east coast harbour, a refuge
liable to aeroplanes, or to the west coast of Ireland--and the real
naval war, which, as I have argued in an earlier chapter, will be a war
of destroyers, submarines and hydroplanes, will begin. Incidentally a
commerce destroyer may take advantage of the retirement of our fleet to
raid our trade routes.

We shall then realise that the actual naval weapons are these smaller
weapons, and especially the destroyer, the submarine, and the
waterplane--the waterplane most of all, because of its possibilities of
a comparative bigness--in the hands of competent and daring men. And I
find myself, as a patriotic Englishman, more and more troubled by doubts
whether we are as certainly superior to any possible adversary in these
essential things as we are in the matter of Dreadnoughts. I find myself
awake at nights, after a day much agitated by a belligerent Press,
wondering whether the real Empire of the Sea may not even now have
slipped out of our hands while our attention has been fixed on our
stately procession of giant warships, while our country has been in a
dream, hypnotised by the Dreadnought idea.

For some years there seems to have been a complete arrest of the British
imagination in naval and military matters. That declining faculty, never
a very active or well-exercised one, staggered up to the conception of a
Dreadnought, and seems now to have sat down for good. Its reply to every
demand upon it has been "more Dreadnoughts." The future, as we British
seem to see it, is an avenue of Dreadnoughts and Super-Dreadnoughts and
Super-Super-Dreadnoughts, getting bigger and bigger in a kind of
inverted perspective. But the ascendancy of fleets of great battleships
in naval warfare, like the phase of huge conscript armies upon land,
draws to its close. The progress of invention makes both the big ship
and the army crowd more and more vulnerable and less and less effective.
A new phase of warfare opens beyond the vista of our current programmes.
Smaller, more numerous and various and mobile weapons and craft and
contrivances, manned by daring and highly skilled men, must ultimately
take the place of those massivenesses. We are entering upon a period in
which the invention of methods and material for war is likely to be more
rapid and diversified than it has ever been before, and the question of
what we have been doing behind the splendid line of our Dreadnoughts to
meet the demands of this new phase is one of supreme importance.
Knowing, as I do, the imaginative indolence of my countrymen, it is a
question I face with something very near to dismay.

But it is one that has to be faced. The question that should occupy our
directing minds now is no longer "How can we get more Dreadnoughts?" but
"What have we to follow the Dreadnought?"

To the Power that has most nearly guessed the answer to that riddle
belongs the future Empire of the Seas. It is interesting to guess for
oneself and to speculate upon the possibility of a kind of armoured
mother-ship for waterplanes and submarines and torpedo craft, but
necessarily that would be a mere journalistic and amateurish guessing. I
am not guessing, but asking urgent questions. What force, what council,
how many imaginative and inventive men has the country got at the
present time employed not casually but professionally in anticipating
the new strategy, the new tactics, the new material, the new training
that invention is so rapidly rendering necessary? I have the gravest
doubts whether we are doing anything systematic at all in this way.

Now, it is the tremendous seriousness of this deficiency to which I want
to call attention. Great Britain has in her armour a gap more dangerous
and vital than any mere numerical insufficiency of men or ships. She is
short of minds. Behind its strength of current armaments to-day, a
strength that begins to evaporate and grow obsolete from the very moment
it comes into being, a country needs more and more this profounder
strength of intellectual and creative activity.

This country most of all, which was left so far behind in the production
of submarines, airships and aeroplanes, must be made to realise the
folly of its trust in established things. Each new thing we take up more
belatedly and reluctantly than its predecessor. The time is not far
distant when we shall be "caught" lagging unless we change all this.

We need a new arm to our service; we need it urgently, and we shall need
it more and more, and that arm is Research. We need to place inquiry and
experiment upon a new footing altogether, to enlist for them and
organise them, to secure the pick of our young chemists and physicists
and engineers, and to get them to work systematically upon the
anticipation and preparation of our future war equipment. We need a
service of invention to recover our lost lead in these matters.

And it is because I feel so keenly the want of such a service, and the
want of great sums of money for it, that I deplore the disposition to
waste millions upon the hasty creation of a universal service army and
upon excessive Dreadnoughting. I am convinced that we are spending upon
the things of yesterday the money that is sorely needed for the things
of to-morrow.

With our eyes averted obstinately from the future we are backing towards

Sec. 3

In the present armament competition there are certain considerations
that appear to be almost universally overlooked, and which tend to
modify our views profoundly of what should be done. Ultimately they will
affect our entire expenditure upon war preparation.

Expenditure upon preparation for war falls, roughly, into two classes:
there is expenditure upon things that have a diminishing value, things
that grow old-fashioned and wear out, such as fortifications, ships,
guns, and ammunition, and expenditure upon things that have a permanent
and even growing value, such as organised technical research, military
and naval experiment, and the education and increase of a highly trained
class of war experts.

I want to suggest that we are spending too much money in the former and
not enough in the latter direction We are buying enormous quantities of
stuff that will be old iron in twenty years' time, and we are starving
ourselves of that which cannot be bought or made in a hurry, and upon
which the strength of nations ultimately rests altogether; we are
failing to get and maintain a sufficiency of highly educated and
developed men inspired by a tradition of service and efficiency.

No doubt we must be armed to-day, but every penny we divert from
men-making and knowledge-making to armament beyond the margin of bare
safety is a sacrifice of the future to the present. Every penny we
divert from national wealth-making to national weapons means so much
less in resources, so much more strain in the years ahead. But a great
system of laboratories and experimental stations, a systematic,
industrious increase of men of the officer-aviator type, of the
research student type, of the engineer type, of the naval-officer type,
of the skilled sergeant-instructor type, a methodical development of a
common sentiment and a common zeal among such a body of men, is an added
strength that grows greater from the moment you call it into being. In
our schools and military and naval colleges lies the proper field for
expenditure upon preparation for our ultimate triumph in war. All other
war preparation is temporary but that.

This would be obvious in any case, but what makes insistence upon it
peculiarly urgent is the manifestly temporary nature of the present
European situation and the fact that within quite a small number of
years our war front will be turned in a direction quite other than that
to which it faces now.

For a decade and more all Western Europe has been threatened by German
truculence; the German, inflamed by the victories of 1870 and 1871, has
poured out his energy in preparation for war by sea and land, and it has
been the difficult task of France and England to keep the peace with
him. The German has been the provocator and leader of all modern
armaments. But that is not going on. It is already more than half over.
If we can avert war with Germany for twenty years, we shall never have
to fight Germany. In twenty years' time we shall be talking no more of
sending troops to fight side by side on the frontier of France; we shall
be talking of sending troops to fight side by side with French and
Germans on the frontiers of Poland.

And the justification of that prophecy is a perfectly plain one. The
German has filled up his country, his birth-rate falls, and the very
vigour of his military and naval preparations, by raising the cost of
living, hurries it down. His birth-rate falls as ours and the
Frenchman's falls, because he is nearing his maximum of population It is
an inevitable consequence of his geographical conditions. But eastward
of him, from his eastern boundaries to the Pacific, is a country already
too populous to conquer, but with possibilities of further expansion
that are gigantic. The Slav will be free to increase and multiply for
another hundred years. Eastward and southward bristle the Slavs, and
behind the Slavs are the colossal possibilities of Asia.

Even German vanity, even the preposterous ambitions that spring from
that brief triumph of Sedan, must awaken at last to these manifest
facts, and on the day when Germany is fully awake we may count the
Western European Armageddon as "off" and turn our eyes to the greater
needs that will arise beyond Germany. The old game will be over and a
quite different new game will begin in international relations.

During these last few years of worry and bluster across the North Sea we
have a little forgotten India in our calculations. As Germany faces
round eastward again, as she must do before very long, we shall find
India resuming its former central position in our ideas of international
politics. With India we may pursue one of two policies: we may keep her
divided and inefficient for war, as she is at present, and hold her and
own her and defend her as a prize, or we may arm her and assist her
development into a group of quasi-independent English-speaking
States--in which case she will become our partner and possibly at last
even our senior partner. But that is by the way. What I am pointing out
now is that whether we fight Germany or not, a time is drawing near
when Germany will cease to be our war objective and we shall cease to be
Germany's war objective, and when there will have to be a complete
revision of our military and naval equipment in relation to those
remoter, vaster Asiatic possibilities.

Now that possible campaign away there, whatever its particular nature
may be, which will be shaping our military and naval policy in the year
1933 or thereabouts, will certainly be quite different in its conditions
from the possible campaign in Europe and the narrow seas which
determines all our preparations now. We cannot contemplate throwing an
army of a million British conscripts on to the North-West Frontier of
India, and a fleet of Super-Dreadnoughts will be ineffective either in
Thibet or the Baltic shallows. All our present stuff, indeed, will be on
the scrap-heap then. What will not be on the scrap-heap will be such
enterprise and special science and inventive power as we have got
together. That is versatile. That is good to have now and that will be
good to have then.

Everyone nowadays seems demanding increased expenditure upon war
preparation. I will follow the fashion. I will suggest that we have the
courage to restrain and even to curtail our monstrous outlay upon war
material and that we begin to spend lavishly upon military and naval
education and training, upon laboratories and experimental stations,
upon chemical and physical research and all that makes knowledge and
leading, and that we increase our expenditure upon these things as fast
as we can up to ten or twelve millions a year. At present we spend about
eighteen and a half millions a year upon education out of our national
funds, but fourteen and a half of this, supplemented by about as much
again from local sources, is consumed in merely elementary teaching. So
that we spend only about four millions a year of public money on every
sort of research and education above the simple democratic level. Nearly
thirty millions for the foundations and only a seventh for the edifice
of will and science! Is it any marvel that we are a badly organised
nation, a nation of very widely diffused intelligence and very
second-rate guidance and achievement? Is it any marvel that directly we
are tested by such a new development as that of aeroplanes or airships
we show ourselves in comparison with the more braced-up nations of the
Continent backward, unorganised unimaginative, unenterprising?

Our supreme want to-day, if we are to continue a belligerent people, is
a greater supply of able educated men, versatile men capable of engines,
of aviation, of invention, of leading and initiative. We need more
laboratories, more scholarships out of the general mass of elementary
scholars, a quasi-military discipline in our colleges and a great array
of new colleges, a much readier access to instruction in aviation and
military and naval practice. And if we are to have national service let
us begin with it where it is needed most and where it is least likely to
disorganise our social and economic life; let us begin at the top. Let
us begin with the educated and propertied classes and exact a couple of
years' service in a destroyer or a waterplane, or an airship, or a,
research laboratory, or a training camp, from the sons of everybody who,
let us say, pays income tax without deductions. Let us mix with these a
big proportion--a proportion we may increase steadily--of keen
scholarship men from the elementary schools. Such a braced-up class as
we should create in this way would give us the realities of military
power, which are enterprise, knowledge, and invention; and at the same
time it would add to and not subtract from the economic wealth of the
community Make men; that is the only sane, permanent preparation for
war. So we should develop a strength and create a tradition that would
not rust nor grow old-fashioned in all the years to come.