The last few years have witnessed a feverish period of remembering Britain’s military and the battles it and others fought during the Great War (what I recall increasingly vaguely as having been referred to at school more commonly as the First World War). A centenary is a historical marker worthy of reflection, particularly for a conflict which involved such horrendous levels of personal sacrifice, human cost, and social change. Its place in the psyche of global historians past, present and future is beyond question; for Woodrow Wilson it was ‘the war to end all wars’, an argument and descriptive term that continues to generate a literature and passionate level of debate all of its own such as can be found in a 2016 article in The New York Times and Hew Strachan’s 2003 review essay. It certainly led to the fall of kings and ended empires and changed political systems whilst also altering the way conflict was discussed and understood both at the time and still today during the current continuing period of reflection.
The extended period of recollection which has dominated recent years has rather crowded out a public appetite for discussion of the war that followed. This is a pity as there are still veterans – albeit in ever small numbers – who remain to offer first-hand accounts. The announcement in January 2014 that the Normandy Veterans’ Association was to disband was one of many during recent years as memberships dwindle, but there remain men and women with powerful and urgent stories to tell of the Second World War. A range of seventy-fifth-anniversary events, defining moments in Britain’s military and cultural psyches such as Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, have passed by with only the briefest of popular reference.
It is fortunate, however, that there remains a considerable academic interest in the second global conflict of the twentieth century. There are various reasons expounded for why there was a Second World War. I have never actually seen the ‘controversy’ in A.J.P. Taylor’s 1961 ‘revisionist argument’ in which he ‘reconnected the First and Second World Wars and drew attention back to Versailles’ and simply offered an entirely logical examination of events that continues to underpin our understanding of why Europe once again slid into a second, and even more brutal and destructive war. Explicit to his thesis was an exhausting earlier conflict which resulted in a poorly considered and triumphalist peace. This, in turn, helped produce an increasingly reflective body of domestic opinion which challenged the merits of an internationalist approach, military intervention and, more generally, the use of force as a lever of national power. It sounds familiar – indeed the replay of more recent events seems difficult to escape – but the degree to which there remained, even after the war had begun, an apathy amongst leading elements of British society for what was viewed as an ill-considered moral crusade against Nazi Germany can easily be forgotten. In this context, Lord Owen’s fascinating new account (Cabinet’s Finest Hour) is particularly timely as it attempts to re-focus attention to the political drama of May 1940, albeit whilst in its epilogue also musing on more recent Westminster dramas.
The focus for many historians and the public at large may have been fixed somewhere between 1914 and 1918 but as the recent most welcomed additions to the literature have demonstrated (notably including the first volume of Dan Todman’s hugely impressive Britain’s War), there certainly still remains considerable opportunities to scrutinise the war that followed the twenty-year peace and the themes and events that contributed to its structural foundations. To this end, in my latest book, The First Victory: The Second World War and the East Africa Campaign, published in 2016 by Yale University Press, I have attempted to explore one of the many gaps and look at what has been viewed by many as a peripheral military campaign. I previously had the opportunity to introduce to the Joint Services Command and Staff College this almost entirely overlooked strand of the Second World War as a case study for the examination. In the supporting instructor notes I summarised it then with the following paragraph:
Fighting began in early July 1940 and ended in November 1941; the principal Allied offensive commenced in January. Just eleven months later the 70,000 strong British-led force had succeeded in defeating an Italian army of nearly 300,000 men, in the process capturing 50,000 prisoners and occupying 360,000 square miles all at the cost of 500 casualties and just 150 men killed. It was a varied and wide-ranging conflict that witnessed many different types of military operations. These ranged from commando raids to long mechanised pursuits, mountain assaults and a protracted attritional battle. Added to this was an often-decisive use of air power, a triumphal amphibious landing and a generally incredible feat of logistical planning. In the process, Mussolini’s East African Empire had been destroyed, and the British Empire had secured its first significant wartime victory.
Having now had the opportunity to study in considerable depth the battles fought in British and Italian Somaliland, Ethiopia and Eritrea drawing upon primary sources from Britain, Kenya, South Africa, the United States and (even) Australia, this remains a reasonable description. Thanks to a bold and imaginative publisher who was willing to take a risk with what might have seemed too obscure an event to attract popular attention and a fantastic editor, I have been hugely fortunate to be able to see another book made available for public scrutiny and I hope they will accept my contention that there was huge operational and strategic significance in the crushing victory secured by British and Commonwealth forces that fought in East Africa. But at the same time – and just as importantly – in so doing I hope I will also have highlighted that there remain a great many gaps in our knowledge of the Second World War which many of my colleagues and I are actively doing our best to tackle.
This post first appeared at Defence-in-Depth, the blog of the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London. An addition to this blog was published in November 2016 at http://yalebooksblog.co.uk/ marking the anniversary of the campaign’s end.
Dr Andrew Stewart is Reader in Conflict and Diplomacy in the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London. He is currently Director of Academic Studies at the Royal College of Defence Studies and is Co-Director of The Second World War Research Group. His most recent book, The First Victory: The Second World War and the East Africa Campaign, was published by Yale University Press in 2016. He tweets at @WW2Hist.