Military history


Lurking Dangers

My Reflections in 1928 — Annihilating Terrors of Future War — Some Technical Predictions — Allied Hatred of War and Militarism — “Ease Would Retract” — The German Army — The Hundred Thousand Volunteer Limit — General von Seeckt, His Work and Theme — “A Second Scharnhorst” — The Withdrawal of the Allied Mission of Control, January, 1927 — German Aviation — Encroachment and Camouflage — The German Navy — Rathenau’s Munitions Scheme — Convertible Factories — The “No Major War for Ten Years” Rule.

IN MY BOOK, The Aftermath, I have set down some of the impressions of the four years which elapsed between the Armistice and the change of Government in Britain at the end of 1922. Writing in 1928, I was deeply under the impression of a future catastrophe.

It was not until the dawn of the twentieth century of the Christian Era that war began to enter into its kingdom as the potential destroyer of the human race. The organisation of mankind into great states and empires, and the rise of nations to full collective consciousness, enabled enterprises of slaughter to be planned and executed upon a scale and with a perseverance never before imagined. All the noblest virtues of individuals were gathered together to strengthen the destructive capacity of the mass. Good finances, the resources of world-wide credit and trade, the accumulation of large capital reserves, made it possible to divert for considerable periods the energies of whole peoples to the task of devastation. Democratic institutions gave expression to the will-power of millions. Education not only brought the course of the conflict within the comprehension of everyone, but rendered each person serviceable in a high degree for the purpose in hand. The press afforded a means of unification and of mutual stimulation. Religion, having discreetly avoided conflict on the fundamental issues, offered its encouragements and consolations, through all its forms, impartially to all the combatants. Lastly, Science unfolded her treasures and her secrets to the desperate demands of men, and placed in their hand agencies and apparatus almost decisive in their character.

In consequence many novel features presented themselves. Instead of fortified towns being starved, whole nations were methodically subjected, or sought to be subjected, to the process of reduction by famine. The entire population in one capacity or another took part in the war; all were equally the object of attack. The air opened paths along which death and terror could be carried far behind the lines of the actual armies, to women, children, the aged, the sick, who in earlier struggles would perforce have been left untouched. Marvellous organisation of railroads, steamships, and motor vehicles placed and maintained tens of millions of men continuously in action. Healing and surgery in their exquisite developments returned them again and again to the shambles. Nothing was wasted that could contribute to the process of waste. The last dying kick was brought into military utility.

But all that happened in the four years of the Great War was only a prelude to what was preparing for the fifth year. The campaign of the year 1919 would have witnessed an immense accession to the powers of destruction. Had the Germans retained the morale to make good their retreat to the Rhine, they would have been assaulted in the summer of 1919 with forces and by methods incomparably more prodigious than any yet employed. Thousands of airplanes would have shattered their cities. Scores of thousands of cannon would have blasted their front. Arrangements were being made to carry simultaneously a quarter of a million men, together with all their requirements, continuously forward across country in mechanical vehicles moving ten or fifteen miles each day. Poison gases of incredible malignity, against which only a secret mask, (which the Germans could not obtain in time) was proof, would have stifled all resistance and paralysed all life on the hostile front subjected to attack. No doubt the Germans too had their plans. But the hour of wrath had passed. The signal of relief was given, and the horrors of 1919 remained buried in the archives of the great antagonists.

The war stopped as suddenly and as universally as it had begun. The world lifted its head, surveyed the scene of ruin, and victors and vanquished alike drew breath. In a hundred laboratories, in a thousand arsenals, factories, and bureaus, men pulled themselves up with a jerk, and turned from the task in which they had been absorbed. Their projects were put aside unfinished, unexecuted; but their knowledge was preserved; their data, calculations, and discoveries were hastily bundled together and docketed “for future reference” by the War Offices in every country. The campaign of 1919 was never fought; but its ideas go marching along. In every army they are being explored, elaborated, refined, under the surface of peace, and should war come again to the world, it is not with the weapons and agencies prepared for 1919 that it will be fought, but with developments and extensions of these which will be incomparably more formidable and fatal.

It is in these circumstances that we entered upon that period of exhaustion which has been described as Peace. It gives us, at any rate, an opportunity to consider the general situation. Certain sombre facts emerge, solid, inexorable, like the shapes of mountains from drifting mist. It is established that henceforward whole populations will take part in war, all doing their utmost, all subjected to the fury of the enemy. It is established that nations who believe their life is at stake will not be restrained from using any means to secure their existence. It is probable – nay, certain – that among the means which will next time be at their disposal will be agencies and processes of destruction wholesale, unlimited, and perhaps, once launched, uncontrollable.

Mankind has never been in this position before. Without having improved appreciably in virtue or enjoying wiser guidance, it has got into its hands for the first time the tools by which it can unfailingly accomplish its own extermination. That is the point in human destinies to which all the glories and toils of men have at last led them. They would do well to pause and ponder upon their new responsibilities. Death stands at attention, obedient, expectant, ready to serve, ready to shear away the peoples en masse; ready, if called on, to pulverise, without hope of repair, what is left of civilisation. He awaits only the word of command. He awaits it from a frail, bewildered being, long his victim, now – for one occasion only – his Master.

* * * * *

All this was published on January 1, 1929. Now, on another New Year’s Day eighteen years later, I could not write it differently. All the words and actions for which I am accountable between the wars had as their object only the prevention of a second World War; and, of course, of making sure that if the worst happened we won, or at least survived. There can hardly ever have been a war more easy to prevent than this second Armageddon. I have always been ready to use force in order to defy tyranny or ward off ruin. But had our British, American, and Allied affairs been conducted with the ordinary consistency and common sense usual in decent households, there was no need for Force to march unaccompanied by Law; and Strength, moreover, could have been used in righteous causes with little risk of bloodshed. In their loss of purpose, in their abandonment even of the themes they most sincerely espoused, Britain, France, and most of all, because of their immense power and impartiality, the United States, allowed conditions to be gradually built up which led to the very climax they dreaded most. They have only to repeat the same well-meaning, short-sighted behaviour towards the new problems which in singular resemblance confront us today to bring about a third convulsion from which none may live to tell the tale.

* * * * *

I had written even earlier, in 1925, some thoughts and queries of a technical character which it would be wrong to omit in these days:

May there not be methods of using explosive energy incomparably more intense than anything heretofore discovered? Might not a bomb no bigger than an orange be found to possess a secret power to destroy a whole block of buildings – nay, to concentrate the force of a thousand tons of cordite and blast a township at a stroke? Could not explosives even of the existing type be guided automatically in flying machines by wireless or other rays, without a human pilot, in ceaseless procession upon a hostile city, arsenal, camp, or dockyard?

As for poison gas and chemical warfare in all its forms, only the first chapter has been written of a terrible book. Certainly every one of these new avenues to destruction is being studied on both sides of the Rhine with all the science and patience of which man is capable. And why should it be supposed that these resources will be limited to inorganic chemistry? A study of disease – of pestilences methodically prepared and deliberately launched upon man and beast – is certainly being pursued in the laboratories of more than one great country. Blight to destroy crops, anthrax to slay horses and cattle, plague to poison not armies only but whole districts – such are the lines along which military science is remorselessly advancing.

All this is nearly a quarter of a century old.

* * * * *

It is natural that a proud people vanquished in war should strive to rearm themselves as soon as possible. They will not respect more than they can help treaties exacted from them under duress.

… Ease would retract

Vows made in pain, as violent and void.

The responsibility, therefore, of enforcing a continual state of military disarmament upon a beaten foe rests upon the victors. For this purpose they must pursue a twofold policy. First, while remaining sufficiently armed themselves, they must enforce with tireless vigilance and authority the clauses of the treaty which forbid the revival of their late antagonist’s military power. Secondly, they should do all that is possible to reconcile the defeated nation to its lot by acts of benevolence designed to procure the greatest amount of prosperity in the beaten country, and labour by every means to create a basis of true friendship and of common interests, so that the incentive to appeal again to arms will be continually diminished. In these years I coined the maxim, “the redress of the grievances of the vanquished should precede the disarmament of the victors.” As will be seen, the reverse process was, to a large extent, followed by Britain, the United States, and France. And thereby hangs this tale.

* * * * *

It is a prodigious task to make an army embodying the whole manhood of a mighty nation. The victorious Allies had at Mr. Lloyd George’s suggestion limited the German Army to a hundred thousand men, and conscription was forbidden. This force, therefore, became the nucleus and the crucible out of which an army of millions of men was if possible to be reformed. The hundred thousand men were a hundred thousand leaders. Once the decision to expand was taken, the privates could become sergeants, the sergeants officers. None the less, Mr. Lloyd George’s plan for preventing the re-creation of the German Army was not ill-conceived. No foreign inspection could in times of peace control the quality of the hundred thousand men allowed to Germany. But the issue did not turn on this. Three or four millions of trained soldiers were needed merely to hold the German frontiers. To make a nation-wide army which could compare with, still more surpass, the French Army required not only the preparation of the leaders and the revival of the old regiments and formations, but the national compulsory service of each annual quota of men reaching the military age. Volunteer corps, youth movements, extensions of the police and constabulary forces, old-comrades associations, all kinds of non-official and indeed illegal organisations, might play their part in the interim period. But without universal national service the bones of the skeleton could never be clothed with flesh and sinew.

There was, therefore, no possibility of Germany creating an army which could face the French Army until conscription had been applied for several years. Here was a line which could not be transgressed without an obvious, flagrant breach of the Treaty of Versailles. Every kind of concealed, ingenious, elaborate preparation could be made beforehand, but the moment must come when the Rubicon would have to be crossed and the conquerors defied. Mr. Lloyd George’s principle was thus sound. Had it been enforced with authority and prudence, there could have been no new forging of the German war machine. The class called up for each year, however well schooled beforehand, would also have to remain for at least two years in the regimental or other units, and it was only after this period of training that the reserves, without which no modern army is possible, could be gradually formed and accumulated. France, though her manhood had been depleted in a horrible degree by the previous war, had nevertheless maintained a regular uninterrupted routine of training annual quotas and of passing the trained soldiers into a reserve which comprised the whole fighting man-power of the nation. For fifteen years Germany was not allowed to build up a similar reserve. In all these years the German Army might nourish and cherish its military spirit and tradition, but it could not possibly even dream of entering the lists against the long-established, unbroken development of the armed, trained, organised man-power which flowed and gathered naturally from the French military system.

* * * * *

The creator of the nucleus and structure of the future German Army was General von Seeckt. As early as 1921, Seeckt was busy planning, in secret and on paper, a full-size German army, and arguing deferentially about his various activities with the Inter-Allied Military Commission of Control. His biographer, General von Rabenau, wrote in the triumphant days of 1940, “It would have been difficult to do the work of 1935/39 if from 1920 to 1934 the centre of leadership had corresponded to the needs of the small army.” For instance, the Treaty demanded a decrease in the officer corps from thirty-four thousand to four thousand. Every device was used to overcome this fatal barrier, and in spite of the efforts of the Allied Control Commission, the process of planning for a revived German Army went forward.

The enemy [says Seeckt’s biographer] did his best to destroy the General Staff, and was supported by the political parties within Germany. The Inter-Allied Control had rightly, from its standpoint, tried for years to make the training in higher staffs so primitive that there could be no General Staff. They tried in the boldest ways to discover how General Staff officers were being trained, but we succeeded in giving nothing away, neither the system nor what was taught. Seeckt never gave in, for had the General Staff been destroyed, it would have been difficult to re-create it…. Although the form had to be broken, the content was saved….

In fact, under the pretence of being Departments of Reconstruction, Research, and Culture, several thousand staff officers in plain clothes and their assistants were held together in Berlin, thinking deeply about the past and the future.

Rabenau makes an illuminating comment:

Without Seeckt there would today [in 1940] be no General Staff in the German sense, for which generations are required and which cannot be achieved in a day, however gifted or industrious officers may be. Continuity of conception is imperative to safeguard leadership in the nervous trials of reality. Knowledge or capacity in individuals is not enough. In war the organically developed capacity of a majority is necessary, and for this decades are needed…. In a small hundred-thousand army, if the generals were not also to be small, it was imperative to create a great theoretical framework. To this end large-scale practical exercises or war games were introduced … not so much to train the General Staff, but rather to create a class of higher commanders.

These would be capable of thinking in full-scale military terms.

Seeckt insisted that false doctrines, springing from personal experiences of the Great War, should be avoided. All the lessons of that war were thoroughly and systematically studied. New principles of training and instructional courses of all kinds were introduced. All the existing manuals were rewritten, not for the hundred-thousand army, but for the armed might of the German Reich. In order to baffle the inquisitive Allies, whole sections of these manuals were printed in special type and made public. Those for internal consumption were secret. The main principle inculcated was the need for the closest co-operation of all vital arms. Not only the main services – infantry, motorised cavalry, and artillery – were to be tactically interwoven, but machine-gun, trench-mortar, tommy-gun units, and anti-tank weapons, army air squadrons, and much else were all to be blended. It is to this theme that the German war leaders attributed their tactical successes in the campaigns of 1939 and 1940. By 1924, Seeckt could feel that the strength of the German Army was slowly increasing beyond the hundred-thousand limit. “The fruits of this,” said his biographer, “were born only ten years later.” In 1925, the old Field-Marshal von Mackensen congratulated Seeckt on his building-up of the Reichswehr, and compared him, not unjustly, to the Scharnhorst who had secretly prepared the Prussian counter-stroke against Napoleon during the years of the French occupation of Germany after Jena. “The old fire burnt still, and the Allied Control had not destroyed any of the lasting elements of German strength.”

In the summer of 1926, Seeckt conducted his largest military exercise for commanders with staffs and signals. He had no troops, but practically all the generals, commanding officers, and General Staff officers of the Army were introduced to the art of war and its innumerable technical problems on the scale of a German Army which, when the time came, could raise the German nation to its former rank.

For several years short-service training of soldiers beyond the official establishments was practised on a small scale. These men were known as “black,” i.e., illegal. From 1925 onwards, the whole sphere of “black” was centralised in the Reichswehr Ministry and sustained by national funds. The General Staff plan of 1925 for an extension and improvement of the Army outside Treaty limits was to double and then to treble the existing legal seven infantry divisions. But Seeckt’s ultimate aim was a minimum of sixty-three. From 1926 the main obstacle to this planning was the opposition of the Prussian Socialist Government. This was presently swept away. It was not till April, 1933, that the establishment of the hundred-thousand army was officially exceeded, though its strength had for some time been rising steadily above that figure.

* * * * *

Amid the good will and hopes following Locarno a questionable, though by no means irremediable, decision was taken by the British and French Governments. The Inter-Allied Control Commission was to be withdrawn, and in substitution there should be an agreed scheme of investigation by the League of Nations ready to be put into operation when any of the parties desired. It was thought that some such arrangement might form a complement to the Locarno Treaty. This hope was not fulfilled. Marshal Foch reported that effective disarmament of Germany had taken place; but it had to be recognised that the disarmament of a nation of sixty-five millions could not be permanent, and that certain precautions were necessary. In January, 1927, the Control Commission was nevertheless withdrawn from Germany. It was already known that the Germans were straining the interpretation of the Treaty in many covert and minor ways, and no doubt they were making paper plans to become a military nation once again. There were Boy Scouts, Cadet Corps, and many volunteer unarmed organisations both of youth and of veterans. But nothing could be done on a large scale in the Army or Navy which would not become obvious. The introduction of compulsory national service, the establishment of a military air force, or the laying-down of warships beyond the Treaty limits, would be an open breach of German obligations which could at any time have been raised in the League of Nations, of which Germany was now a member.

The air was far less definable. The Treaty prohibited a German military air force, and it was officially dissolved in May, 1920. In his farewell order Seeckt said he hoped that it would again rise and meanwhile its spirit would still live. He gave it every encouragement to do so. His first step had been to create within the Reichswehr Ministry a special group of experienced ex-air force officers, whose existence was hidden from the Allied Commission and protected against his own Government. This was gradually expanded until within the Ministry there were “air cells” in the various offices or inspectorates, and air personnel were gradually introduced throughout the cadres of the Army. The Civil Aviation Department was headed by an experienced wartime officer, a nominee of Seeckt’s, who made sure that the control and development of civil aviation took place in harmony with military needs. This department, together with the German Civil Air Transport and various camouflaged military or naval air establishments, was to a great extent staffed by ex-flying officers without knowledge of commercial aviation.

Even before 1924, the beginnings of a system of airfields and civil aircraft factories and the training of pilots and instruction in passive air defence had come into existence throughout Germany. There was already much reasonable show of commercial flying, and very large numbers of Germans, both men and women, were encouraged to become “air-minded” by the institution of a network of gliding clubs. Severe limitations were observed, on paper, about the number of service personnel permitted to fly. But these rules, with so many others, were circumvented by Seeckt, who, with the connivance of the German Transport Ministry, succeeded in building up a sure foundation for an efficient industry and a future air arm. It was thought by the Allies, in the mood of 1926, derogatory to German national pride to go too far in curbing these German encroachments, and the victors rested on the line of principle which forbade a German military air force. This proved a very vague and shadowy frontier.

In the naval sphere similar evasions were practised. By the Versailles Treaty, Germany was allowed only to retain a small naval force with a maximum strength of fifteen thousand men. Subterfuges were used to increase this total. Naval organisations were covertly incorporated into civil ministries. The Army coastal defences, in Heligoland and elsewhere, were not destroyed as prescribed by the Treaty, and German naval artillerymen soon took them over. U-boats were illicitly built and their officers and men trained in other countries. Everything possible was done to keep the Kaiser’s Navy alive, and to prepare for the day when it could openly resume a place upon the seas.

Important progress was also made in another decisive direction. Herr Rathenau had, during his tenure of the Ministry of Reconstruction in 1919, set on foot on the broadest lines the reconstruction of German war industry. “They have destroyed your weapons,” he had told the generals, in effect. “But these weapons would in any case have become obsolete before the next war. That war will be fought with brand-new ones, and the army which is least hampered with obsolete material will have a great advantage.”

Nevertheless, the struggle to preserve weapons from destruction was waged persistently by the German staffs throughout the years of control. Every form of deception and every obstacle baffled the Allied Commission. The work of evasion became thoroughly organised. The German police, which at first had interfered, presently became accessories of the Reichswehr in the amassing of arms. Under a civilian camouflage an organisation was set up to safeguard reserves of weapons and equipment. From 1926 this organisation had representatives all over Germany, and there was a network of depots of all kinds. Even more was ingenuity used to create machinery for future production of war material. Lathes which had been set up for war purposes and were capable of being reconverted to that use were retained for civil production in far greater numbers than were required for ordinary commercial use. State arsenals built for war were not closed down in accordance with the Treaty.

A general scheme had thus been put into action by which all the new factories, and many of the old, founded with American and British loans for reconstruction, were designed from the outset for speedy conversion to war, and volumes could be written on the thoroughness and detail with which this was planned. Herr Rathenau had been brutally murdered in 1922 by anti-Semite and nascent Nazi secret societies who fastened their hatred upon this Jew – Germany’s faithful servant. When he came to power in 1929, Herr Bruening carried on the work with zeal and discretion. Thus, while the victors reposed on masses of obsolescent equipment, an immense German potential of new munitions production was, year by year, coming into being.

* * * * *

It had been decided by the War Cabinet in 1919 that as part of the economy campaign the service departments should frame their estimates on the assumption that “the British Empire will not be engaged in any great war during the next ten years, and that no expeditionary force will be required.” In 1924, when I became Chancellor of the Exchequer, I asked the Committee of Imperial Defence to review this rule; but no recommendations were made for altering it. In 1927, the War Office suggested that the 1919 decision should be extended for the Army only to cover ten years “from the present date.” This was approved by the Cabinet and Committee of Imperial Defence. The matter was next discussed on July 5, 1928, when I proposed, with acceptance, “that the basis of estimates for the service departments should rest upon the statement that there would be no major war for a period of ten years, and that this basis should advance from day to day, but that the assumption should be reviewed every year by the Committee of Imperial Defence.” It was left open for any service department or Dominion Government to raise the issue at their discretion if they thought fit.

It has been contended that the acceptance of this principle lulled the fighting departments into a false sense of security, that research was neglected, and only short-term views prevailed, especially where expense was involved. Up till the time when I left office in 1929, I felt so hopeful that the peace of the world would be maintained that I saw no reason to take any new decision; nor in the event was I proved wrong. War did not break out till the autumn of 1939. Ten years is a long time in this fugitive world. The ten-year rule with its day-to-day advance remained in force until 1932 when, on March 23, Mr. MacDonald’s Government rightly decided that its abandonment could be assumed.

All this time the Allies possessed the strength, and the right, to prevent any visible or tangible German rearmament, and Germany must have obeyed a strong united demand from Britain, France, and Italy to bring her actions into conformity with what the Peace Treaties had prescribed. In reviewing again the history of the eight years from 1930 to 1938, we can see how much time we had. Up till 1934 at least, German rearmament could have been prevented without the loss of a single life. It was not time that was lacking.

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