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27 February 2019

Ordinary citizen soldiers

Jonathan Fennell explains how he arrived at a fresh interpretation of the Second World War


Dr Jonathan Fennell, Senior Lecturer at the Defence Studies Department, King's College London, launches his new book Fighting the People's War on 28 February. This blogpost originally featured on, an online magazine devoted to current military operations and development, technology, defence news and security analysis.

It was by a stroke of luck that Fighting the People’s War landed on my desk. I was presenting a paper at a conference in the United States when Cambridge University Press (CUP) asked me to follow up my first book, Combat and Morale in the North African Campaign, with a study on the British Army, as part of Cambridge’s new series on the Armies of the Second World War. Needless to say, I was delighted; the opportunity to write a second book for CUP seemed too good to be true. But, with a number of superb books recently published on the topic, I wasn’t sure that there was much space left for new perspectives. I suggested to CUP that the best way to address the issue might be to look at the British and Commonwealth Armies in their entirety, rather than focusing solely on Britain; no one had yet written a comprehensive history on the subject and much might come out of a comparative analysis. My editor at CUP, Michael Watson, agreed and I got down to work.

It took two and a half years, and trips to London, Ottawa, Wellington, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Pretoria, to track down all the sources I needed for this new project. Another two and a half years passed before I had a first draft of what had become a 900-page book. When it was all done, it was quite clear that a book that had started out as a story of great battles and campaigns had metamorphosed into a study not only about military victory and defeat, but also about social change and the end of empire.

As such, the book pursues a number of interlocking strands. In the first instance, it fully embraces a cross-national approach; the histories of the many components of the British world system, as the historian John Darwin has argued, make little ‘sense on their own’. The basis of ‘British power’ lay in combining the strength of its overseas components with that of the Imperial centre. The British and Commonwealth Armies were organised and trained to take the field with standard establishments, equipment and procedures; there was a harmonised ‘language’ of war, as set out in shared doctrine, and a common staff system. They were purposely designed to fight as a multinational team and they must be studied accordingly in that light.

The book, therefore, addresses all the campaigns fought by these great armies: the war in the West and in the East. Once Japan entered the conflict in December 1941, significant numbers of British and Commonwealth divisions fought in the Far East and the South-West Pacific Area (SWPA). In the summer of 1940, the Empire had been able to assign the equivalent of just over twenty-three divisions to the Western theatres of war. It would take, due to commitments in the East, four long years before it could do so again, by which time the equivalent of an additional sixteen divisions were allocated to the fighting in Burma and the SWPA. The Second World War, as Ashley Jackson argued in The British Empire and the Second World War, ‘ought to be recognized as a global struggle, and particularly as an imperial one, in which apparently disparate British battles and strategic concerns formed part of one interconnected whole’. Acknowledging this aspect of the conflict provides an opportunity to integrate analyses of the wars in the West and the East and to explore the complexities of waging a multi-front multinational global war.

The second key strand to the book is its integration of the political, social and economic histories of Britain and the Commonwealth into the stories of battles and campaigns. The book charts the military implications of fissures on the home front and explores the domestic implications of the radicalisation of soldiers as a consequence of their war experience. The soldiers’ political beliefs, many of which emerged as a consequence of their experience on the front line, were instrumental to the socio-political changes that materialised post-war. Labour’s victory in the British election of 1945 was dependent in no small measure on the votes and political influence of soldiers and their social networks. The story, arguably, was little different for the Australian election of 1943. In New Zealand, the continuation of the great adventure in social citizenship that had been set in motion by Labour’s victory in the 1935 general election hinged considerably on the voting preferences of the cohort of citizens who fought in the Second World War. The war nearly destroyed the unity of Canada and South Africa; in the latter case, the conditions for institutionalised apartheid were substantially shaped by the soldiers’ experience on the front line. On the Asian subcontinent, the very character of partition and the birth of an independent India and Pakistan in 1947 were influenced by veterans of the war.

Finally, the book explores the British and Commonwealth experience in a perhaps more ‘democratic’ manner than that encountered in existing accounts. While the challenges faced by those in charge of the state and the military institution during the war are necessarily considered, the book takes seriously the agency of ordinary citizen soldiers embroiled in the conflict. Strategy can, and perhaps should, be understood as an iterative multi-level decision-making continuum where decisions on means and ends at each level of war and society can affect decisions on means and ends at all other levels. If we understand strategy in this manner, our comprehension of military and political dynamics is radically dependent on taking account of the often highly contextualised, contingent and interlinked decisions and behaviours not only of those at the top of any organisational or socio- political structure but also of those further down the ‘chain of command’. In this book, the ‘strategic corporal’ plays as a big a role as Winston Churchill!

The result, I hope, is a quite unique book. Readers will find that the British and Commonwealth Armies made numerous contributions to the peoples, institutions and states of the Commonwealth: they played a key role in the military defeat of the Axis, albeit to different extents in different theatres at different times; their varying levels of performance at critical moments during the long global conflict were a factor in the declining extent and influence of the Empire; and they functioned as an instrument or conduit of socio-political change in all the countries from which they were recruited. By engaging with these three strands, the study bridges the gap between traditional military histories of the British, Australian, Canadian, Indian, New Zealand and South African Armies in the Second World War and the mainstream political, social and economic histories of those countries. The outcome hopefully sheds new light on the Second World War and its place in twentieth-century British and Commonwealth history.