Victory to Defeat: The British Army 1918–40

Image of Victory to Defeat: The British Army 1918–40
Release Date: 
September 12, 2023
Osprey Publishing
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“Dannatt and Lyman tell an engaging history of the British army, 1918 to 1940, that offers lessons in ‘the failure of both political and military leadership and disfunctionality between the two.’”

“At any point in time, the British army is a product of many things: its higher direction; its people; its history and ethos; its fighting doctrine; and its equipment,” writes Dannett and Lyman, in Victory to Defeat. They apply these ideas in explaining why the Imperial Army, victorious in 1918, suffered such an overwhelming defeat in 1940.

The authors argue that the terrible costs in Great Britain and Germany, with the United Kingdom’s failure to prepare for a future war, created that failure. While they concede that the events of 1918 to 1940 deserve better explanation and qualification in public history, they keep their writing clear and to the point, accurate but not clouded by distractions and excessive details.

The rapid defeat of the Allied armies that led to Calais in 1940 was staggering. It was made even more so because the First World War was remembered for enormously bloody, long, grinding bloodbaths not known as decisive or mobile. This failure has many fathers.

Continuing to fight a cold war against a possible revived German threat after 1918 would have been difficult in the fragile economy of the times, especially when the last war was called “the war to end all wars.” The public wanted to believe that was true. They believed that “888,246 British Commonwealth soldiers to their senseless deaths on a chaotic slaughter overseen by imbeciles.” Over 700,000 men returned to civilian life in Britain with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Victory had cost too much by the public’s measure. Pacifism, after the staggering costs, deaths, and destruction of World War I, was an international phenomenon. What resources the post-war British government and the public would pay tended toward the Royal Navy and Air Force, which were seen as protecting the homeland from future wars.

Even after the rise of the military in Germany after 1935, the British public did not see it or Italy as a threat. The seriously underfunded post-World War I army was stretched thin by political commitments around the globe.

The final German offensive in the Spring of 1918, allowing for technical differences, followed a not dissimilar plan to the strategy of the Dunkirk Campaign in 1940. In the former, however, both sides had four years of experience in command control, with the outcome affected by big decisions.

The original British Expeditionary Force sent to France in 1914 consisted of only 150,000 men, in contrast to the 3,820,000 soldiers in France in 1918. In May 1940, the British forces in France, preparing to fight a modern war for which it was inexperienced and grossly under-equipped, numbered only 380,000 men.  France in 1940 did not allow Britain’s soldiers the time to catch up with the German military in the new ways of war.

Much of Victory to Defeat covers how the British armies in France developed after 1914 as the war progressed, including important innovations such as aerial warfare and tanks. The victory came not in numbers and casualties but, as the authors write, by developing and properly “deploying a sophisticated approach to warfighting in which a single weapon was crafted from its many constituent parts.”

The major difference between the end of the First World War and the Second World War was that the British public had not appreciated that the fighting was so near an end in November 1918.  The percentage of the population in the United Kingdom’s military was greater at the end of World War I than at any time in British history. Yet, many people despised the war and the army, as if they were the same.

The United Kingdom’s imperial global priorities over the next two decades did not include preparing for a new and very different war with Germany but were severely restricted by the debts of the First World War and the costs of garrisons across the post-1918 world. British troops were stationed in Cyprus and India, and “historic animosities continued in Somaliland, Afghanistan, and Waziristan.”

The post-1918 Imperial Army also had to occupy Germany and deal with the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman, and Russian empires. British troops served in Russia. Revolts broke out in Egypt, Iraq, and Ireland, even as the British army demobilized. Decisions had to be made on withdrawing Brigades from Constantinople and Persia, even as the army had to fight the Anglo-Irish War,

The authors explain that in 1914, the British Expeditionary Force in France suffered staggering and unexpected losses but went on to victory four years later. In 1914, as they carefully explain, the Germans also had problems, and that time allowed the British army to develop and grow. A similar situation would apply to the British military in World War II but in other theaters after France fell.

In 1940, a German army, having rehearsed new ideas in Poland and elsewhere, went up against inexperienced opponents still fighting with ideas of the 1918 war. Not the British military's finest hour, but the army and the nation were better prepared for what happened than generally given credit, and German inadequacies and mistakes allowed the Imperial Army to survive to fight another day.

Dannatt and Lyman tell an engaging history of the British army, 1918 to 1940, that offers many lessons in “the failure of both political and military leadership and disfunctionality between the two.” The prose is straightforward and engaging, with facts and not sermons. Victory to Defeat has annotation and suggested further readings.