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Fighting the People’s War

Reviewed by Oliver Parken.

The notion of the Second World War as a ‘people’s war’ remains an established, and highly contested, tool for understanding the experience and representation of the conflict. Transmitted through wartime propaganda and cultural codes, scholars have tended to assess its workings in the home front context. In the British case, citizens were, after all, drawn into the front-lines of war as targets of enemy bombardment as well as forming the back-bone of civil defence and the home guard. The literature rightly highlights how wartime expectations of individual and national unity were deeply contested along gender, age, class, and racial fault-lines. Yet readings of the ‘people’s war’ tend to omit those who comprised the armed forces. The British Army underwent a dramatic expansion from its prewar regular roots in wartime; constituting a vast number of citizens who experienced the hardships of interwar depression first hand. It is the human history of these people––engaged in armed conflict but drawn from the body of the nation––which Fennell’s work calls attention to.

Fighting the People’s War sets out to analyse the ‘terms of citizen soldier’s war participation and locate the history of the Army firmly within the broader domain of twentieth-century British and Commonwealth history’. Whilst existing studies have looked at the British Army in its national context, and imperial forces in specific theatres, Fennell extends the scope to consider British and Commonwealth Armies as a ‘multinational team’ in both the western and eastern theatres. As Fennell states in the introduction, such an approach has the potential to disrupt prevailing understandings of the war and build bridges between existing national and military histories. Such a description sells the piece short. The book not only nuances our understanding of the military aspects of the conflict from a multi-national, global perspective. It represents a substantial contribution to the historiography in its own right, based on deep archival immersion (with archival collections from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, as well as the UK) and the inclusion of a number of untapped bodies of evidence (chiefly the vast number of morale reports taken from all five countries with impressive statistical analyses). The size, scale, and significance of this book is nothing but staggering.

A mixture of thematic and chronological analysis is utilised in order to reveal this history. It begins in the interwar period, in which Fennell establishes that defence expenditure ‘stabilised’ in the UK after 1923. Defence expenditure in the Commonwealth broadly mirrored the UK in lower figures. Yet increased budgets did not translate into high-quality military training. Whilst prewar doctrine through the Army’s Field Service Regulations (FSR) stressed creativity and lack of centralised control, this was inadequately tested. In some ways the British and Commonwealth armies were well prepared for war, in others not. The focus then shifts to the economic and cultural mobilisation of wartime, in which Fennell concludes that levels of war enthusiasm ‘reflected levels of public morale, the political context and perceptions of state legitimacy’. From early on, the reader is aware that the opinions and morale of combatants were vitally significant to waging war.

The so-called ‘crisis of Empire’ is covered in the second part. Defeat in the west with the fall of France was followed by Eighth Army’s protracted war against Rommel in the North African desert from early-1941. Increasing defeats wore down North African troops to the point that by late-July 1942 a full-blown morale crisis ensued––with General Sir Claude Auchinleck (commander in the Middle East) demanding a return to the death penalty for desertion. Fortunes in the Far East faired little better as the Imperial Japanese Army invaded Burma in January 1942. Training for jungle warfare was limited, and British/Indian morale proved flimsy in response to the ‘fanatical’ Japanese enemy. In the early war years, the British and Commonwealth armies faced a seismic military and political crisis in which the fate of the war hinged. Nationalist tensions in India, ever-present since the interwar period, had bubbled over to the point of potentially crippling much needed Indian resources.

At this stage, the British and Commonwealth Armies were still ‘unable to work effectively as a team’. The transformation came with new approaches to doctrine, training, and morale. Here the importance of Fennell’s human centred history comes through most acutely. The replacement of Auchinleck with General Bernard Montgomery in July 1942 as Middle East Commander had a transformative impact. A centralised, highly structured approach to battle (known as ‘Colossal Cracks’) meant that the largely citizen Eighth Army was given achievable objectives, with victory at El Alamein dramatically improving morale. Other initiatives including the establishment of a formal Morale Committee in February 1942 (in light of the war in the Far East), improved training, the fostering of officer-soldier relations, and the visible presence of command (notably Montgomery’s talks to the troops) made a huge impact, with Allied victory in North African achieved in May 1943. Yet the situation in the Far East required a remarkable turnaround.

In the fourth part, Fennell explores the ‘limits of attrition’ for British and Commonwealth Armies. The ‘Colossal Cracks’ approach did not prove as successful as attention shifted from North Africa to Southern Europe. The invasion of Sicily and later Italy illustrated that a more dynamic approach was needed. Morale issues continued to flare up in aggressive waves at the Battle of Casino (particularly amongst New Zealand troops), whilst a more positive picture emerged in the Far East as the filtration of the new doctrine book, ‘Jungle Book’, placed greater stress on jungle training. War against Japan improved as power was decentralised in a hybrid doctrine somewhere between the basic principles of the FSR and ‘Colossal Cracks’. Surrounding these juxtaposing pictures, Fennell illustrates how soldiers were increasingly politically awakened by 1942–1943. Debates on the Beveridge Report in Britain and the prospect of social welfare mirrored wider British and Commonwealth soldier’s demands for re-negotiation of the social contract. The concerns and postwar hopes of the citizen soldier needed to be taken seriously by the state––the implications for those which didn’t illustrated by the fascinating example of the New Zealand Furlough Mutiny. The final part of the book, ‘Redemption’, spans the D-Day landings, the Normandy campaign, and the final push into Germany. Yet it was only by the spring of 1945 that the British and Commonwealth armies constituted a ‘fully transformed…confident and professional martial tool’ as a contextual approach to battle (styled on FSR) was fully adopted.

The final parts of the book draw together its major themes. Soldiers, Fennell stresses, had a significant impact on wartime social change and the general swing to the left in postwar politics. The experience of war politicised its combatants to the point of a radical military appreciation for group solidarity, cohesion, social fairness and democracy. This had complex implications for the ‘people’s war’ narrative. In a sense it created internal military cohesion amongst soldier citizens; yet the realisation that many at the home front were not ‘taking it’ as equally as the troops (particularly in the case of New Zealand) highlights fissures between the home and fighting fronts.

Fighting the People’s War illustrates the utility of aligning military, political, social, economic, and cultural analyses within a global framework of the Second World War. It marks a major contribution to the historiography of the conflict, revealing the complex workings of the ‘people’s war’ from the British and Commonwealth citizens who fought it.

Fighting the People’s War: The British and Commonwealth Armies and the Second World War, by Jonathan Fennell (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 2019; pp. 966 £25.00).

Oliver Parken is an Assistant Lecturer in History and final year PhD candidate at the University of Kent’s Centre for the History of War, Media and Society. He is currently finalising a thesis titled ‘War and Belief: Heterodoxy in Second World War Britain’, which explores the cultural shaping of non-standard beliefs as part of the wider dynamics of the ‘people’s war’ at the home and fighting fronts. He is co-convenor of the upcoming conference ‘Spaces of War: Spatial Perspectives of Modern War and Conflict’ to be held at the University of Kent in June 2019. Image Credit: Free to use, Suzy Hazelwood/Pexels.

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