In his first book, 'Combat and Morale in the North African Campaign: The Eighth Army and the Path to El Alamein' Jonathan Fennell examined the link between morale and combat performance of the soldiers of the British and Commonwealth armies that fought in this theatre in the Second World War. This current book is a more ambitious work in which the author widens the scope to examine these topics in all the major theatres in which British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, South African and Indian soldiers fought in the conflict. Using largely unused sources such as censorship and morale reports the author believes that the millions of letters considered by these reports provides a sound basis for his analysis and the conclusions he draws.
Those looking for a narrative history of these campaigns will not find it here, other than a broad brush description of each campaign and its political and military context, the author is not interested in repeating what has been written in many previous works but in looking at what motivated the soldiers of these armies to perform as they did. Fennell takes account of the domestic politics and home fronts of these countries as factors contributing to the morale and motivation of the men on the battlefield. Although the situation in the UK is probably the best known resulting from decades of analyses from Angus Calder's 'The People War' in the late sixties, through Paul Addison’s ‘Road to 1945’ in the seventies to Dan Todman's recent 'Britain's War 1937-1941', the author analyses the links between the home front and the battlefields for the other Commonwealth nations which will be new to non-specialists.
Fennell looks at theses sources and other indicators such as sickness, battlefield exhaustion, AWOL and Self Inflicted Wounds (SIW) statistics to see how morale rose and fell and affected combat performance in the different armies in their theatres of war. For example at Gazala and Singapore in 1942, well-equipped and or numerically superior Allied forces appeared to indicate likely success against the Axis yet the outcome in both cases was humiliating failure. Clearly the morale of the troops played a key part in these outcomes.
Although soldiers from Britain and New Zealand were largely conscripted men, in Canada and Australia, only volunteers served abroad, whereas in South Africa and India forces were volunteers, only. These varying domestic political responses to the needs for military manpower reflected the situation in each country. In Canada the proportion of French Canadians volunteering to fight in a war to aid the British Empire was much lower than those Canadians with UK roots. Likewise in South Africa English speakers were more ready to serve than Afrikaner citizens and the anti-British attitude of many in India meant that only a small fraction of its potential manpower pool volunteered for the British Indian Army.
Influences on a soldier's morale were two pronged; real or imagined fears about the home front being as important as on the battlefield concerning his welfare, training in suitable tactics and the quality of equipment he had to use. Soldiers were aware of the pay for those in war industries at home which exceeded their own and also of the struggles many wives had in bringing up their families on military pay. They wanted to know whether risking their life was worth it, if the countries they returned to after the war were not prepared to reward their sacrifice with a greater equality in society than the pre-war status quo. In particular the provision of sufficient jobs, free health care and protection from poverty in old age. The governments in these countries had to varying degrees taken over many former individual responsibilities on the grounds of efficiency and fairness and many wanted this to continue when the war concluded. Fennell argues that many formerly apolitical soldiers came to see these as goals of the peace partly because of their experience of fighting collectively in units where men were responsible for each other and success depended on group effort made them see the potential benefits of similar state organisation and responsibility for the common good in civilian life.
At the front the soldier's morale could be influenced by bread and butter issues such as regular mail delivery, hot food of reasonable quality and entertainment in the form of films, books and magazines. As the war progressed, the British army in particular made great efforts to provide these services more effectively. Also senior officers such as Ronald Adam, Adjutant General of the British Army, realised that improved selection of soldiers by testing suitability for particular roles and also better methods of officer selection were all key factors contributing to battlefield success. Such analysis is not new as academics such as Jeremy Crang have covered this ground before. However Fennell considers these changes in the wider context of a British approach to war that varied as the conflict continued with an impact on morale and thus combat performance.
The British Army’s Field Service Regulations (FSR) was the closest thing that it possessed to a tactical doctrine. It did not however provide text book answers and required the use of individual initiative to provide solutions to combat problems. However as the war progressed it became clear that the officer training had not been put in place to do this and as a result command decisions had been made higher up the command chain with the resulting delay in actions by the units. As Fennell indicates, Montgomery's decision in the desert to concentrate artillery and require sub-ordinates to follow a pre-ordained plan ('Colossal Cracks') stemmed from the failure of the British army to operate according to FSR and so he had to develop an operational strategy that would work with the army he had rather than the one he would like. Hand in hand with these operational changes Montgomery saw the need to improve morale and visits to troops and concern for their welfare contributed towards a positive combat outcome at El Alamein. Later when conditions were different in other theatres such as Italy and North-West Europe this command approach was less effective and morale suffered leading to new flexible methods (in fact closer to the original FSR) of combating the enemy to improve both morale and combat success.
Fennel considers the political influence that soldiers had en masse in influencing the composition of their respective governments in wartime or post-war elections besides the Labour election victory in Britain in 1945. In Australia and New Zealand they gave decisive support to parties promoting a more equal society yet in South Africa returning soldiers may have had a reactionary effect. Psephology is a difficult subject in which to make definite conclusions due to the secret of the ballot box and not knowing what motivates a person to cast their vote. It is clear that Fennell feels the evidence available indicates that the soldiers tended to favour parties which promised greater post-war equality. The author considers that soldiers would have influenced home voters too though his evidence for this is less strong and he does not appear to have considered that those at home could have equally have influenced those fighting overseas by communicating their own voting intentions.
Fennell has strongly argued his case that British and Commonwealth soldiers played a role in the domestic affairs of their respective nations in the Second World War and that there was a statistical correlation between morale and success on the battlefield and the response of troops when morale fell resulted in higher sickness, desertion, battlefield exhaustion, AWOL, SIW and POW. Morale is not equated to happiness but the positive response of the soldier to orders to attack the enemy or defend ground even if unhappy as many soldiers are at least some of the time. Even in the last years of the war when it appeared as though success was inevitable it was necessary to pay attention to morale to ensure that combat success continued and the war could be won with as few casualties as possible. The author has shown through his use of the statistics that victory was not merely about the numbers of men and materiel which did shift inexorably in the Allies favour but a complex interaction of factors affecting and influencing individual and group attitudes among soldiers who were capable of independent thought concerning their wartime role and of being active agents in determining the outcome of the war and the post-war future.
This book is suitable for a final year undergraduate or masters student in history, war studies or related fields such as politics, psychology or sociology wanting to explore wider questions regarding war and society. That said, it would also appeal to anyone who has read widely on the Second World War and wants to learn more about the conflict from a different perspective.
Fennell is a young historian and judging by this book a very good one. He has been brave enough to demolish myth after myth about the British and Commonwealth Armies in the Second World War, and risk the anger of many veterans and their relatives. This would be grossly unfair for all Fennell has done is to expose for the general reader what many of us have known for decades.
History is replete with myths. Military history is saturated with myth. If you want to know how your favourite regiment did in war don't read the official history if you want the unvarnished truth. Such accounts have been sanitised. I know of historians who have turned down offers to write an official history of a regiment because they would have not been able to expose, for example, desertions or wrongdoing. Excellent historians like Sir Max Hastings have had their outstanding accounts of wars criticised because he had the temerity to expose serious failings in our armed forces.
In the Second World War our army was initially a poorly trained citizen army that was never ever told what they were fighting for. As the author rightly says, they knew only what they were fighting against. Cromwell argued that it was imperative that citizen armies ' knew what they fight for'. This book examines the British and Commonwealth Armies that were composed of British, Indian, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian and South African personnel. Fennell examines the political, social, and economic factors that influenced their behaviour. As he says, war can give us a deeper awareness of our society. His book reveals some uncomfortable facts. For example, many South Africans sided with the Nazis, Canada refused to introduce conscription, many Indian troops fought for the Japanese after capture, a great many New Zealanders voiced their objections to the war. One battalion actually mutinied. You would never know any of this from films and most published accounts.
The statistics concerning desertion quoted by the author are startling. In the Italian campaign the equivalent of a whole division, some 13,000 men, deserted. Venereal disease decimated another division in Germany. In the Malaya campaign we lost 139,00 men. Of these over 100,00 were prisoners of war. This didn't impress the Japanese one little bit. Fanatics, they fought to the last man.
Fennell points out the importance for morale of socio-political factors. Letters show that for many soldiers what was happening at home was more important than comradeship. The book is a far more perceptive and nuanced account than many on this subject. It is far more critical.
The book is a rare attempt to integrate assessments of mobilization, battles, and strategy with geopolitical and socio-political factors. It disrupts prevailing orthodox accounts. Fennell has used newly discovered primary sources as well as underused ones plus letters. He covers all campaigns in the West and East. In addition, he integrates social and military history. All too often they are studied separately.
In many ways this is a groundbreaking book and a very important one. What the author has to say about ABCA is also important. This organization set up by Sir Ronald Adam, the Adjutant General, to keep soldiers abreast of current affairs has been much maligned by, among others, Winston Churchill, because of its so-called socialist bent. In fact it played an important role in motivating troops.
Undoubtedly, what will attract the most attention is the shocking statistics regarding desertion. So serious did this become that at the highest military level there were calls for the death penalty for those found guilty of desertion. Fortunately, this was refused but only after much debate by the government.
A first-rate account that replaces myth with reality.
A very welcome refreshing take on the experiences of the Allied armies in WWII, explaining why armies that were losing turned it around. A welcome antidote to the jingoistic, flag-waving of popular culture this book is thoughtful, analytical and insightful without being dry and boring. Recommended!