History as Allegory

It is traditional at this time of year to emulate the Roman god Janus, looking forward, whilst looking back.  2018 promises to be an interesting year for the British Army as it grapples with inelastic budgets, aging equipment, and developing doctrine.  Whilst wary of drawing inaccurate historical parallels, I present the following as an allegory from which, I believe, much can be gleaned:

General Lord Kitchener was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the British Indian Army following the end of the Second Boer War in 1902.  The South African War had proven to be a bruising experience for the British Army, which although victorious, had often been humbled by a small, well-equipped, and mobile force of irregulars.  In addition to struggling with an asymmetrical campaign, the British Army had lost the information war, the media, and international opinion.   Lord Kitchener inherited a force which was little more than an imperial gendarmerie, equipped and indoctrinated for ‘Small Wars’, but largely incapable of fighting a modern conventional war.  In essence, the British Indian Army had become so finely adapted to fighting tribesmen in the Hindu Kush, and on the North East Frontier, that it had lost the necessary physical and conceptual attributes to prosecute conventional war.

Lord Kitchener set about a series of reforms which aimed to maintain the expertise of the Army in counter-insurgency, whilst preparing it to fight a future conventional war. As one might expect, Kitchener met with considerable internal opposition as he drove his reforms through, but the biggest problem Kitchener faced was not from his critics within the Army, but rather from the British Indian government both in India and in Whitehall.  Whilst accepting the urgent need for reform, political priorities at home and in India did not include expensive Indian Army reform; the Indian Army thus lost out to the Royal Navy’s expensive capital ship programme, spending on education and social spending in India, and the fiscal parsimony of government in both countries.  There were politicians, like Lord Morley, who recognised the danger of failing to reform the Indian Army, but who could not bring themselves to spend the necessary treasure.  As a result the Indian Army was still re-equipping, re-training, and learning when war broke out in 1914.  The Indian Army sent Expeditionary Forces to France, British East Africa, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Gallipoli.  In each case, the undoubted bravery of the Indian troops was undermined by the lack of preparedness of the Expeditionary Force, the inadequate equipment, and inexperience of commanders.  All these lacunae were highlighted by the Mesopotamia Commission of 1917, but had been foreseen by politicians in the UK and India as early as 1906.  The Indian Army was thus sent to fight a war which politicians and commanders were aware it was ill-equipped to fight; we can only imagine what difference could have been achieved if Kitchener’s reforms had been fully supported between 1902-09.

I hope you enjoyed your bedtime story and have perhaps taken something from its simple message. Let’s hope that those in a position heed the warnings of the Ghosts of Christmas Past and prioritise Defence today and in the future.

Merry Christmas and Best Wishes,



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