I apologize in advance to those of my readers who find military history uninteresting. The next part of the story I’m exploring just now, the story of the British Empire’s fall and its replacement by today’s American empire, can’t be understood without a sense of the military realities that drove that process, and the decline and fall of the American empire, the central theme of this series of posts, also has a crucial military dimension.
That dimension starts out, oddly enough, not with defeat but with victory. It’s too rarely realized that an unbroken string of victorious wars is one of the most dangerous things that can happen to a nation. Plenty of things could have clobbered the British Empire, and plenty of things contributed, but a strong case can be made that the blowback from too much success was the thing that finally tipped Britain over the edge into imperial collapse.
You can trace that effect at work all through the nineteenth century in the steady drumbeat of bungled crises and minor disasters that called forth one brutally efficient response after another from Britain’s immense military machine but never quite taught it to rethink any of its mistakes. A rebellion in India or the Sudan, a war in South Africa or Afghanistan, or whatever else, wherever else, generally began with a series of disastrous reverses for the British side. Usually, though not quite always, this was the doing of the army, the red-coated stepchild of Britain’s military establishment—you’ll notice that it’s the Royal Navy and, nowadays, the Royal Air Force, but not the Royal Army—whose officer corps for generations was where England’s noble families parked their incompetent younger sons.
So a regiment or an army would get slaughtered, a city or a province end up temporarily under the control of the people who lived there, and the British press would start baying for blood; Parliament would bicker decorously, and then immense military force would converge on whatever corner of the planet was to be taught a lesson; meanwhile the British army would work its way down through the list of available commanders, throwing them a few at a time into the crisis, until it finally found one who could figure out how to use overwhelming military and technological superiority to win a war. Once the natives were machine-gunned into submission, in turn, the successful general would head home to London and a peerage, the others would be quietly pensioned off, and every lesson that might prevent the next disaster was promptly forgotten. It was all so far away from London, and each generation of officers in training dutifully read Clausewitz and daydreamed of Waterloo and forgot to notice how fast the world was changing around them.
Not even the First World War managed to shake the serene confidence of Britain’s imperial elite that what worked in the past would continue to work in the future. That time, it wasn’t so far away from London, and the army on the other side wasn’t outnumbered, outgunned, and out of its league.in technological terms. Germany in 1914 was one of the world’s major industrial nations, with a large and extremely competent army. Ironically enough, that army was nearly as hampered by a string of successes as Britain’s was, and tried to repeat its 1870 triumph over France without paying attention to the possibility that the French might be expecting that. They were; the German offensive ground to a halt along a ragged line across northern France and Belgium; Parliament bickered decorously, and then Britain tried the usual trick of overwhelming its enemy with the massed forces of its empire – and that’s when things went haywire, because throwing massed forces against an entrenched enemy equipped with machine guns and modern artillery simply meant that whole regiments were annihilated to gain a few yards of bloodsoaked mud.
Worse, the British army failed to follow its usual practice of cashiering one general after another until it found one who could figure out how to fight. Instead, the same handful of top commanders kept on using the same tactics straight through the war, even when those tactics consistently failed and cost tens or hundreds of thousands of British lives – as they did. The war on the western front turned into a struggle of sheer attrition, which the Allies won because the United States threw its resources, its wealth, and finally its soldiers into the balance. When the victory celebrations were over and the top British commander retired with the traditional peerage, it was all too easy to forget that without a tsunami of American aid, Britain might well have lost the war.
As it was, the First World War very nearly bankrupted the British Empire. The wealth pump had been running too hard for too long, stripping wealth from existing colonies, and the expansion of British economic interests into central Europe couldn’t make up the difference because the war had very nearly bled central Europe dry. Ireland’s successful war of independence in 1919-1921 showed which way the wind was blowing. England had crushed numerous Irish rebellions down through the years, but in the wake of the First World War that was no longer an option; after two years of bitter fighting, British prime minister David Lloyd George, scrambling to stave off full Irish independence, used threats of escalating violence to pressure the Irish provisional government into accepting self-rule under nominal British authority. That turned out to be a stopgap, and a weak one at that Over the next three decades, as Ireland cut its remaining ties with the British Empire, politicians in London merely grumbled and looked away; the resources to do anything else couldn’t be spared from other, more urgent needs. Those of my readers who are keeping track of the larger trajectory being traced in these posts will want to take note: when an empire can no longer afford to maintain control over its oldest and closest subject nations, that empire is circling the drain.
Meanwhile, on the far side of the North Sea, a far more serious challenge was building. Britain’s secondhand victory in the First World War had spared it the need to learn the lessons the war had to teach; Germany’s defeat made those lessons impossible to ignore, and the Versailles Treaty that ended the war fed far too much of Germany’s remaining wealth into the wealth pumps of Britain and France, adding the insult of impoverishment to the injury of defeat. (Since Britain and France both ended the war with huge debts to banks in the United States, quite a bit of that wealth flowed promptly across the Atlantic, where it helped put the roar into the Roaring Twenties.) Through the 1920s, when the German army remained bound by the sharp limits imposed at Versailles, young officers whose names would become famous a few years later talked late into the night about how the war could have been won, and what kind of an army could win it. When they got the chance to build that army – courtesy of a little man with a Charlie Chaplin mustache, whom the foreign press by and large dismissed as a Mussolini wannabe – a frighteningly different mode of making war began to take shape.
What these officers realized, or partly realized, was that the petroleum-powered internal combustion engine had completely redefined the potential shape of war. Britain had converted its fleet from coal to oil in the years just before the First World War, to be sure, and equipped its armies with tanks, trucks, and aircraft, but the strategic vision that directed all these things remained mired in the 19th century. In the minds of military planners in Britian and France – as well, to be fair, as most other countries – the nature of war remained what it had been for centuries: two opposing armies form up, march toward each other, jockey for position, and then fight a battle, and the army that withdraws from the battlefield first has lost; rinse and repeat, until the army, the government, or the nation of one side gives way. The new way of war Germany’s young officers began to sketch out no longer followed those rules. It’s going to be necessary to take an extended look at that difference, partly because the current American way of war is wholly based on the principles those German officers developed, and partly – well, we’ll get to that as we proceed.
Some weeks ago, in a post discussing the American Civil War, I mentioned that the European military attachés who followed the armies and witnessed the battles of that war almost uniformly learned the wrong lesson from it. That’s because they paid attention to the two most famous generals of that war, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, and to the part of the war that was closest to Washington DC and the port cities of the eastern seaboard, a rough triangle of of eastern Virginia whose points were at Washington, Richmond, and the sea. The battles fought there after Grant took command of the Army of the Potomac were a close first approximation to the useless slaughter of the western front in the First World War, with one crucial difference: they weren’t useless, from Grant’s and the Union’s perspective, because they formed one part of a broader strategy.
Grant is said to have described that strategy in the homely language he preferred: “I’m going to hold the cat down, and Sherman is going to skin him.” That was exactly what happened, too. Grant’s job was to pin down Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, respectively the Confederacy’s best general and its toughest army, so that neither one could be spared to the more vulnerable western front. Meanwhile Grant’s opposite number, Gen. William T. Sherman, marched an army from Tennessee through Georgia to the sea, and then north through the Carolinas toward Virginia; his job was to shatter the Confederacy’s economic and agricultural systems, cripple its ability to feed and supply its armies, and make it impossible for the South to keep fighting. That was why Sherman’s “bummers” stripped the country bare, leaving behind memories that are still bitter today, and it also explains a detail that rarely gets mentioned in any but the most technical histories of the Civil War: in the course of a months-long campaign that took him through the heartland of the Confederacy, Sherman fought only two significant battles.
Grant got the glory, and earned it fairly, but Sherman may have been the 19th century’s most innovative military thinker. When he came face to face with a Confederate army, whenever the strategic situation allowed, he evaded it, slipped past it, got behind it, and threatened its lines of communication and supply, forcing it to retreat in disarray. Long before anyone else, he grasped that it’s not necessary to fight a pitched battle to win a war, and that a force that can move fast, get behind its enemy, and target the vulnerable territory behind the lines can cripple the ability of the other side to wage war at all. Most of a century later, that approach to war came to be called “blitzkrieg;” today it’s the basis of the Airland Battle Doctrine, the core of American military strategy.
I’ve come to think that those German officers who talked late into the night in the 1920s may have remembered Sherman, and realized that what he did with infantry on foot could be done far more effectively with tanks, airplanes, and infantry loaded into trucks. When 1940 came and a rearmed Germany set out to even the score with Britain and France, certainly, the strategy the German high command chose was for all practical purposes the same one that Grant and Sherman used to shatter the Confederacy. The British and French set out to refight the First World War, moving their armies into northern France to contain an expected German thrust through Belgium. The Germans made that thrust with part of their force, pinning down the Allied armies – holding the cat, in Grant’s metaphor. Then, once the Allies were fully engaged, the rest of the German force drove through the rugged Ardennes hills, got behind the Allied lines, and proceeded to skin the cat with aplomb. Less than two months later, France had surrendered, and the British forces had suffered a humiliating defeat, fleeing across the Channel from Dunkirk and leaving their tanks, artillery, and everything else behind.
Meanwhile, around the same time that those young German officers were sitting up late at night and talking strategy, another coterie of young officers on the other side of the Eurasian continent was doing much the same thing, with equally dramatic results. Japan didn’t have the advantage of a recent defeat to draw on, but the humiliating events of 1854, when American gunboats had forced Japan to open its ports to American merchants and reverse a centuries-old policy of economic localization, left a lasting scar on Japanese memories. Aware that the alternative was subjugation by one of the existing imperial powers, Japan’s leaders frantically built up a modern military and the industrial economy that was necessary to give it teeth; a short and successful war with the Russian Empire, in which the Japanese fleet crushed its Russian rivals in two flawlessly executed naval battles, duly followed; but the young officers of the Imperial Navy recognized soon after the First World War that the day of the battleship was over, and embraced the possibilities of naval air power at a time when most other nations with navies still thought that aircraft carriers were a waste of time.
My American readers doubtless remember how these preparations affected the United States on December 7, 1941 and the days that followed, but they may not be aware that British forces in the Pacific suffered a series of equally disastrous and humiliating defeats. Once again, the cause was simply that Japan had noticed and embraced the new military possibilities that petroleum and the internal combustion engine made possible, and Britain had not. Fortified naval bases that were essential to British strategy in the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, and were considered invulnerable in London, fell into Japanese hands like ripe fruit. Perhaps the best display of the mismatch, though, was the doomed voyage of the battleship Prince of Wales and the cruiser Repulse, the two most powerful British naval vessels in the southwestern Pacific, which sailed from Singapore the day after Pearl Harbor to attack a Japanese landing force up the Malay coast. It was a move straight out of Alfred Thayer Mahan, but the Japanese were no longer playing Mahan’s game; the ships were promptly spotted and sunk by Japanese torpedo bombers.
The war that followed is usually called the Second World War, but it might more usefully be given a different name: the Gasoline War. That’s partly because the stunning initial victories of the two Axis powers that counted came from a grasp of what gasoline engines could do in war – Mussolini’s Italy never did figure out the revolution in warfare that petroleum made possible, and so got the stuffing pounded out of it early and often. It’s partly, also, because a great deal of the strategy of the war on all sides focused on access to petroleum – the two Allied powers that counted, the United States and the Soviet Union, had immense petroleum reserves, while the Axis had none, and the attempts of the latter to seize oilfields and the former to prevent that from happening shaped much of the war. Finally, it’s because victory in that war went to those who were able to bring the most petroleum-based energy to bear on the battlefield. While Germany and Japan could manage that, they remained in the ascendant; once the United States and Soviet Union applied the same methods using their much more abundant oil supplies, the Axis was doomed.
And the British Empire? It’s considered utterly impolite to talk about what happened to it in straightforward terms, but a thought experiment may be useful.
Imagine, then, that the twists and turns of history that brought the United States into two world wars on Britain’s side had gone the other way. Perhaps it was the Venezuela crisis of 1895, mentioned in last week’s post, or one of the other flashpoints in British-American relations that were successfully dodged by statesmen on both sides. It really doesn’t matter; the key detail is that in 1914 and thereafter, in this alternate history, the Anglophobes rather than the Anglophiles defined America’s response to the coming of war in Europe, and Britain was left twisting in the wind. Imagine that Germany won in 1918, and that a later German leader – let’s suppose it was the young Kaiser Wilhelm III, son of the conqueror of France – went to war in 1939 against a crippled British Empire and forced Britain to surrender. What would have happened then?
The potential war aims of any of Britain’s early 20th century rivals are easy enough to imagine or, for that matter, to look up. First, the British Empire would have been dismantled, such portions of it as the conquering nation wanted would have been seized, other parts would have been allowed self-government under the overall control of the new imperial power, and a few token colonies would be left under British control where that suited the conqueror’s interests. Second, the British government would become a permanent and subordinate ally of the new imperial power. Third, Britain’s military would have been reduced to a fraction of its previous size, and the British government would be obligated to provide troops and ships to support the new imperial power when the latter decided on a military adventure. Fourth, Britain would be expected to pay a large sum of money as reparations for the costs of the war. Finally, to guarantee all these things, the British government would have been forced to accept an occupying force in Britain, and permanent military bases would be signed over to the new imperial power in Britain and its remaining colonies. That, by and large, is what happened to defeated nations in the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Now compare that list to the relations between Great Britain and the United States from 1945 to the present. That’s the thing that can’t be mentioned to this day in polite company: the British empire ended in the early 1940s when the United States conquered and occupied Britain. It was a bloodless conquest, like the German conquest of Denmark or Luxembourg, and since the alternative was submitting to Nazi Germany, the British by and large made the best of it. Still, none of Queen Victoria’s prime ministers would have tolerated for a moment the thought of foreign troops being garrisoned on British soil, which is where thousands of US military personnel are garrisoned as I write these words. That’s only one of the lasting legacies of the Gasoline War.
Since this week’s post is on the long side, this week’s End of the World can be told briefly. The prophet is Michel de Nostredame, better known these days as Nostradamus; here’s one of the quatrains from The Centuries, his famous book of prophecies:
In the year 1999 and seven months
From the sky will come a great king of terror
To resuscitate the great king of Angouleme;
Before and after, Mars reigns at his will.
Did you see the Great King of Terror in July of 1999? Neither did I.
—story from Apocalypse Not