It’s Life, Jim, but not as we know it.

Star Trek

Regular readers of this Blog will know that each Quarter I write a retrospective article covering my activities beyond my work in the Headquarters of the British Army. This blog post, the latest in that vein, will cover the period since the return from Christmas Leave. While I don’t intend for this post to be dominated by Covid-19, it would be crass in any review of the first three months of 2020 to ignore its effects. Indeed, as a result of the global pandemic, this year is likely to become one of those few of us will ever forget. Our language and behaviour have been overwhelmed by the phenomenon, a plethora of new words and phrases – Covidiot, self-isolation, and social distancing – have spread like the virus with which they are connected and may, perhaps, disappear just as precipitously. In closing this blog, I will add some words, perhaps controversially, on the positives and false positives which may flow from the current crisis.

January began with a series of talking engagements in the United Kingdom and Europe. The first trip took me to Palace Barracks in Belfast and a leadership development day at the First Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland. I spoke, amidst some really excellent presentations from others, on the subject of Adaptability. It was very pleasing to be the recipient of some very kind words by the Commander of the Specialised Infantry Group, a meeting which has borne fruit subsequently, with an invitation to speak to the Group in May 2020. After a weekend at home, I headed to Prague to the annual FINABEL Conference. There, in that splendid Bohemian capital, I spoke to the Council of Permanent Military Experts on the Fallacy of Presentism, a subject I would revisit at my next Talk at Army Headquarters. That Talk, part of Army Education’s Learning Lunches initiative, led to several further invitations to speak including to Land Warfare Centre, the Infantry Training Centre, Catterick and Leeds University Officer Training Corps in April 2020. Next, I was pleased to speak to Salisbury Air Cadets on the subject of the Western Front in the First World War and finally, at the end of January, I travelled to Catterick Garrison to speak to the Headquarters of 4th Infantry Brigade once again on the subject of Adaptability, all this before the end of January.

The first three months of 2020 also saw an increasing number of invitations to attend and guide Battlefield Studies for units from across the Army. I was due to guide studies in such varied places as France, Belgium, Holland, Croatia, Crete, Israel, and South Africa, but coronavirus has unfortunately put paid to those. I was, however, fortunate to guide one of the last trips in the University College of London’s Schoolchildren’s Centenary Battlefield Tours programme run by the inspirational Mr Simon Bendry. This scheme has delivered a battlefield experience for over 8,500 students and staff and, in the guise of Project110, a public history initiative, more than fifteen million people have benefited from the knowledge gained on those trips. The Programme, for which I have been a vocal advocate for the last six years, was terminated prematurely, and understandably, by Covid-19, but perhaps less so by the Department for Education by whom it was felt to have achieved it’s aim. I was due to have attended a final tour in March which would have been a satisfying final fling only to have it cancelled 24 hours in advance, a deeply saddening end to a wonderful project.

It is important to note that the temporary lockdowns are not forever and I hope that in good time the battlefield studies to which I was previously invited may run again in the future. Battlefield studies, staff rides, historical concentrations or whatever else with which one wishes to label them are vital to improving soldiers’ understanding of their profession. It makes knowledge three dimensional and is the only way in which the boundless experience of war can be translated without intellectual boundary. In the absence of these invaluable trips and resultant from greater free time, I have been able to write a little more. I was over the moon to have my article, Tempus Fugit: Using Time for Cognitive Advantage, published by Grounded Curiosity the prestigious Australian think-tank.¬† Watch out for further articles in the coming months! Additionally, and thankfully, not all the battlefield studies have been postponed, and I am pleased to have been asked to take part in the British Army’s Exercise Urban Bear II in Berlin in the Autumn. This exercise will examine the Battle of Berlin in 1945 and begin to think about¬† the development of future warfare in the middle of the 21st century and what that will mean for cities and mega-cities.

Many of you will know that I run the War Talks initiative, the Seventh Season of which has also been significantly disrupted. Although I managed to organise and deliver four Talks on such diverse topics as the use of Unmanned Ground Vehicles and the German declaration of war against the United States in the Second World War, sadly it has proved impossible to deliver the final two talks in the Season. I have already organised the Eighth Season of Talks, but will wait until the current situation is a little clearer to announce dates and times, and indeed the means of communication through which they will be promulgated. The Talks are a labour of love and a valuable source of informal professional military education and I am determined to have them delivered by whatever means possible, even if that is virtually by podcast and You Tube video recorded without an audience. In addition to the Talks, I have also been pleased to organise the British Army Military Book of the YearPrize for a third year, the shortlisted books are exceptional; I do not envy the judges, drawn from across the Army who will have to choose an excellent and deserving winner!

In all the sadness surrounding Covid-19, there are already those who, quite rightly from my perspective, are prepared to look forward to what comes next. The Wavell Room has begun a Call for papers on this very subject and I would encourage everyone to submit their thoughts, I certainly intend so to do. My thoughts are still forming but are essentially threefold: first, we must realise that mostly things will return to normal, even with the economic and social damage which will have been caused. In terms of the Army, the adaptability being displayed currently will atrophy rapidly as the conservative culture claws back that which has been lost to elastic ideas and processes. Secondly, benefits which we are imagining are not wholly beneficial. We may believe that remote- working and lower economic and industrial production are beneficial to the environment, and indeed they are, but social isolation and dependence on vulnerable networks also present problems for society. Connected to that is my third thought; the country has, in the main, displayed incredible discipline during the Pandemic, but we are neither robust or resilient at the societal and strategic levels, questions over the sustainability of just in time logistics, globalism (particularly our relationship with China), and our ability to absorb strategic shocks must be addressed urgently. Life will return to a normality, but will it be life as we knew it before 2020?

Stay at home, protect the NHS, and save lives,

All the very best, speak soon,

Barney