Allison Woods report on the podcast “How Britain Went to War”

This podcast shows how unprepared Britain was for a global war.  After the Boer war, they knew they needed reform in the military, but oftentimes the committees created to accomplish this reform did not have much decision-making influence with the Cabinet.  Yet, the committees were able to get some progress done, A major accomplishment being the creation of the War Books, that functioned as walkthrough manuals on various subjects: what to do in the event of war, how to change the government from a peace-time one into a war one, and how to mobilize an army, among other topics.  However, these books would only be useful for the first few phases of a war, after which the British would then have to improvise.

At one point before the war the Cabinet is talking about how to go about getting the army and such and what measures they will have to take but they just turn to each other and shrug.  I am not joking when I say that they decided not to decide on anything and said basically, “let’s leave that decision for down the road if the war comes”.  The army and navy did not like to talk to each other.  There were too many interservice rivalries.  There was also another committee made to investigate threats outside of Britain and the person put in charge of that spoke no foreign languages at all.  Before the war, this group was essentially useless.  Nothing really worked as it should, but on the organization side, the British had it down pat.

When it became apparent at 11:00 pm Tuesday 4th of August 1914, that the British would be obligated to come to the defense of Belgium, thereby participating in the Great War, everyone cheered at Buckingham Palace, so sure of victory, while the whole cabinet was silent.  Colonel Maurice Hankey in a letter said: “Once we go to war, we will be in the unknown.  Minister Winston Churchill was the only one in the cabinet that didn’t look anxious.  He was jaunty and confident when it was apparent we were going to war.”  Churchill embodied the British people at this moment, the majority of them confident in their navy and the fact that they could win easily.

Yet for all their blunders, the British were more prepared for war than any other country at the time.  They were able to set styles and standards of a wartime government that needed to be adhered to, long before The Great War even begun.


Personal Opinions:

The podcast was difficult to comprehend at points because of the many thick accents of the speakers.  I had to rewind frequently to fully understand various points, and I felt the content of the episode was unorganized because of the way the information was presented to the audience.  For instance, something relevant a while ago would be brought up much later.  Though I will admit that this did not occur many times, it did make me confused.

I did appreciate how many educated scholars and professors were brought onto the podcast.  However, I do wish they had backed up their facts in some way other than when the broadcast switched to the national archives for quotes.  I did like the use of a few letters and a diary from higher-ups in government and the prime ministers’ wife.  That was a nice touch that allowed me to get into the heads of the people involved.

This podcast showed me that Britain was inept at figuring out how they would fight a global war, if it ever came.  They assumed that such a war would be like all others they had fought before, blockading their enemy with the navy, hurting their enemy’s economy, and have others do the fighting for them.  This turned out to not be the case.  It surprised me how self-assured Britain was; they thought their navy would beat the Germans easily, which just dumbfounded me.  Overall, I cannot judge the British too harshly for their actions, for who could have known the war to come would have been so different from all other wars prior?

259 thoughts on “Allison Woods report on the podcast “How Britain Went to War”

  1. I haven’t had a chance to listen to the podcast yet. But your description sounds like the colonial British Empire is still the standard mindset for how they would handle an enemy in war. And many of their techniques had been refined over several centuries for handling indigenous issues and conflicts with other colonial powers with similar game plans. Guns and war machinery changed quickly from the first Gatling guns towards the end of the Civil War to factory line processed guns and machines capable to multiple bombardments at the beginning of the Great War.

    I think this is something that we don’t recognize very easily as we can look back and see issues that should have been red flags in planning and human ingenuity. I plan to listen to this podcast, but I’m really curious if they had any understanding of how air power could alter everything they knew. War could hit the hallowed grounds of England and cause chaos. It would go from being a superficial offshore activity to being a part of life.

  2. It’s always scary to think how a government really doesn’t know the best course of action to pursue, especially with something as horrifying as war. The cheering for victory makes me think that they really had no comprehension that warfare had/would change so quickly and with such deadly consequences. I wonder if this initial reaction haunted people later, years after the war, especially after seeing all of the death and destruction around them.

  3. I would say it’s crazy to be so convinced of one’s ability to win a war, but it seems as though nothing has changed. Even today so many people view America as undefeatable. Everyone always says that if we don’t learn history, we’ll be doomed to repeat it. Maybe it’s more than just learn…maybe it’s fully understand as well. I hope that’s not the case.

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