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Politics and Morale: Current Affairs and Citizenship Education in the British Army, 1914-1950.

The advent of total war in this century has meant the raising of what largely amount to citizen armed forces to do the fighting. The creation of such forces seems to be relatively simple for totalitarian states, although their effectiveness is another matter. In this respect, one only has to compare the Wehrmacht under Adolph Hitler's regime which fought so successfully against a range of powers from 1939 to 1943 or the army of the Peoples' Republic of China which suffered the bloodiest of noses in its little skirmish with the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam in 1979. But what is true for totalitarian governments in building and sustaining armed forces is not the case for what can broadly be termed the liberal democracies. Given the traditions of individual liberty, strictures on state interference in the lives of the electorate, and the endless "guns and butter" debates tending almost always to favour "butter," the creation and maintenance of citizen armed forces, let alone ensuring their effectiveness on the battlefield, - is fraught with difficulty. Here, the French army in Algeria in the mid-1950s or the United States army during the last phase of the Viet Nam war come immediately to mind. And what is true of twentieth-century liberal democracies in general is especially so for Britain.

Paul MacKenzie has broken new ground by offering a well-thought out and cogently argued analysis of current-affairs and citizenship education in the British army from the beginning of the First World War to the Korean conflict. "Only with the appearance of mass conscript armies, at a time of general literacy and increasingly direct political participation by the general population in the life of the nation," he observes on the first page, "did attention seriously begin to focus on possible links between Army education, morale, and sociopolitical outlook." Beginning with the First World War, he shows how "Kitchener's Army" differed from its Victorian and Edwardian predecessors because the millions of conscripted men conceived of themselves as citizens first and soldiers second. The army high command had to adjust because these men did not necessarily share the traditions and attitudes of Britain's military past; and, as the fighting stretched on into 1915, 1916, and beyond, and as the army suffered horrendous casualties, methods of motivating men to fight and possibly die had to be devised. Here lay the genesis of current-affairs and citizenship education that was seen by prescient officers as "a potential modifier of mass opinion" (p. 4). This programme within the British Army then became integral to its functioning during the First World War, the inter-war period, the Second World War, and the first years of the Cold War.

With a broad and impressive empirical base, including extensive use of the Royal Army Educational Corps Archive, Dr. MacKenzie charts the ups and downs of this crucial element of British military life. By the latter stages of the First World War, current-affairs and citizenship programmes, especially within the context of the so-called "Educational Training Plan," were imparting "responsibility and serious thought" amongst young soldiers (p. 17). The effectiveness of this plan in MacKenzie's view was mixed, but it laid the basis for a continuing programme of public education within the post-war regular and volunteer Army. For most of the interwar period, however, the Army Educational Corps (the A.E.C.) suffered from the retrenchment that affected all branches of the British armed forces; and, on top of this, party political controversy erupted over the kinds of ideas to which regular soldiers were being exposed. By the late 1930s, the A.E.C. had little effectiveness. But with the reintroduction of conscription in April 1939, a new wave of citizen-soldiers had to be convinced about why it would be necessary, perhaps, to fight Britain's perceived enemies. And once the Polish crisis in September precipitated the Second World War, the problems that had confronted the generals after 1914 re-emerged. The focus of the education programme was to extol the virtues of the British way of life, which created controversy between the Conservative and Labour elements of Winston Churchill's war coalition, each of whom had different views about British society, its economy, and the nature of the political system. The net result by 1945 was "to give rise to the widespread view that Army education had been both left-wing in orientation and decidedly effective in influencing how soldiers thought" (p. 173). In this context, the votes of soldiers had an important - though maybe not decisive - impact on the July 1945 general election which gave the Labour Party its first majority government. Within five years, however, a "changing climate of opinion, combined with a more youthful Army, had ... put an end to the politically and socially oriented forms of army education that had flourished during the war."

I commend this book to both British military and social historians who concentrate on the twentieth century. Dr. MacKenzie has shown clearly the link between the liberal democratic state in Britain and its modern army, and he has done so within the wider context of the evolving society that gave rise to the post-1945 Britain which differs significantly from that before 1914. The impact of the two world wars of this century, of course, was crucial to this transition; and, in this context, the attitudes of the army, both its officers and men in the ranks, are of fundamental importance. I should say that there are a few difficulties with this book. For instance, Dr. MacKenzie has followed rather closely his Ph.D. supervisor, Sir Michael Howard, in laying the blame for many problems in interwar British defence policy on the spineless politicians who weakened the British armed forces by supposedly senseless retrenchment. One only has to think of the ineffective General Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd, the chief of the Imperial General Staff from 1933 to 1936, to question such an assertion. Nonetheless, these are minor quibbles about a valuable book that offers much to scholars of twentieth-century Britain.
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Author:McKercher, B.J.C.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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