Military Law and Military-Civil Relations

Civil-military relations in the First World War have been caricatured as a series of clashes between bloodthirsty generals and overawed politicians, in which the latter strived to restrain the former but found it hard to do so. Both the memoirs of the inter-war years (such as those of Lloyd George and Clemenceau) and the more popular literature of the 1960s and 1970s (Leon Wolff, In Flanders Fields; Alan Clark, The Donkeysfed this image. The same approach also influenced more academic works, especially those dealing with Germany (Gerhard Ritter, The Sword and the Sceptre; Martin Kitchen, The Silent Dictatorship; even Karl-Heinz Janßen, Der Kanzler und der General). This approach, in turn, provoked a counter-argument from the generals and their supporters. The essence of their case was that they would have won the War, or would have won it sooner, if only they had been left to get on with it free of political interference: Ludendorff’s and Hindenburg’s memoirs stand out here; ‘Wullie’ Robertson’s and Foch’s are more restrained examples of the genre; C.E. Callwell’s Life of Henry Wilson was very important, but spoke to both sides. The generals’ case has found its most vociferous defenders in Britain, with John Terraine and Gary Sheffield; but Guy Pedroncini made the case in more modulated terms for Pétain.

The trouble with this body of work is that it focuses on the fire and brimstone but ignores the underlying causes which generated them. Fighting a major war required all belligerents to give a greater role in government to the armed forces than the relative peacefulness of the nineteenth century had suggested was appropriate. Even the autocratic countries were spawning more democratic institutions by 1914. Before the War the corollary was a de facto division of labour. Strategy was understood in limited terms, a task- and skill-set applicable solely to the military profession. However, by 1918 strategy had become so central to the winning of the War that it entered the realm of national politics— whether generals wished it to or not. After the War British military theorists, like J.F.C. Fuller and Basil Liddell Hart, would coin the phrase ‘grand strategy’ to explain what was required: a conflation of political with military effects.

Moreover, by 1917-18 states were engaged in what would later be termed a ‘total war’. In other words all the components of the state were bent to the fighting of the conflict. The state de facto militarised society, just as the generals required— again de facto— that the making of policy be ‘militarised’. In 1937 Alfred Vagts, who had served in the German army in the War but was by then based in the US, gave currency to the word ‘militarism’, in A History of Militarism (a book revised twice after the Second World War). Vagts used the word to describe an ‘excessive’ militarisation of society, a veneration of the army not justified by necessity, and a readiness to respect uniform (rather than the abilities of its wearer) of the sort satirised in Der Hauptmann von Köpenick (1931) by another German veteran of the War, Carl Zuckmayer.

The effect of the War on popular culture, on vocabulary, on children’s games, on education and so forth has attracted increasing scholarly attention. It is not the primary intention of this research cluster to add to that body of material. Instead its purpose is to pick up Vagts’ insight, and to ask what level of militarisation was found necessary. It will look at how ‘militarism’ was the product of a national need to wage major war, and how the War itself— rather than the generals— produced an elevation of military imperatives in society and in the making of policy. Prof. Sir Hew Strachan is among those available to supervise research students in this area.

Three strands of work propose themselves, although there could be others:

  • The need to redefine strategy from a narrower, more military approach to an embryonic idea of ‘grand strategy’, with its impact on civil-military relations. The necessary starting point here would be to look at the institutional and constitutional changes required to produce an effective national structure for waging major war between 1914-18. The British and French adoptions of war cabinets are cases in point: developments which were primarily designed to meet the exigencies of war, but which had a long-term impact on patterns of government in twentieth-century states. In this context, the internal struggles that these developments triggered within civilian institutions— with government departments vying to capitalise on the enlargement of state authority— are worthy of considered study. Also important is the influence of the War in shaping the understanding of strategy, so that the remit of ‘strategic thought’ widened beyond that defined by Clausewitz and others to include economic, maritime and social drivers in war. How far does the idea of ‘grand strategy’ emerge in the War itself, and did it determine the War’s conduct in its latter stage?
  • The use of law to mobilise and militarise the state. A major history of international law’s role in the War by Isobel Hull will soon be published. More neglected is the blizzard of laws enacted domestically both to mobilise society for war and to protect it from subversion. The 1851 Prussian law of siege and the plan to impose military oversight in Austria-Hungary are pre-war examples. The 1914 Defence of the Realm Act in Britain acquired (literally) thousands of additional clauses by the War’s end and served as a model for similar legislation across the Commonwealth, from Canada’s War Measures Act 1914 to Australia’s War Precautions Act 1914. The movement of armies brought areas of national territory under military law: notably those parts of France within the zone of the armies in 1914, and in 1915 parts of the Russian interior as the Tsar’s armies fell back in the ‘great retreat’. The introduction of conscription in Britain and New Zealand, and the debate which conscription generated in Australia, fit in here, as do other attempts to regulate the labour supply for the purposes of the War (‘the Shells and Fuses’ and ‘Treasury’ agreements in Britain; the Auxiliary Service Law in Germany).
  • Patterns of military occupation. In conquered territories the army assumed administrative responsibility, and then had to integrate the existing legal structure with its own needs and with the use of military law. The exploitation of conquered territory for the purposes of the War could leave areas devastated and provoke indigenous resistance. The cross-over here between patterns of administration in some parts of Europe and imperial practices both before and during the War bears directly on the core themes of Globalising and Localising the Great War.