The ordinary soldiers' war

Jonathan Fennell
Opinion - Books Thursday, 07 February 2019

Jonathan Fennell reports on how he drew on previously untapped sources for his new book, the first comprehensive history of the British and Commonwealth armies in World War II


When Cambridge University Press asked me to follow up my first book, Combat and Morale in the North African Campaign, with a study of the British Army as part of the new Cambridge Armies of the Second World War series, I was, of course, delighted. Having spent a few years in the city after completing my doctorate, I was, at the time, feeling my way back into academia, and the opportunity to write a second book for CUP seemed too good to be true. But I was less sure, with a number of excellent books recently published on the topic of the British Army in the Second World War, that there was much new to offer in the area.

I suggested that the best way to approach the project might be to expand it and look at the British and Commonwealth Armies in their entirety: the histories of the many components of the British world system make much less sense, after all, when told on their own. Moreover, no one had yet written a comprehensive history of the subject, and much might come out of a comparative analysis. My editor at CUP, Michael Watson, agreed, and I got down to work.

My desire to expand the project was not based solely on the need to find a gap in the literature. In researching my first book, I had been impressed by the range of untapped sources to be found in archives outside the United Kingdom. While the British authorities had destroyed a lot of records from the period, the impression I had was that the authorities in the former dominions of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa had been more inclined to keep what had survived the war.

In particular, I had been lucky to find censorship summaries of soldiers' mail for the North African campaign (in the archives in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa). These reports were based on the examination of the letters sent by soldiers during the war, and were designed to assess the effectiveness of the Army's efforts to maintain security. They also functioned, however, as detailed and extensive assessments of the soldiers' attitudes and levels of morale. Compiled on a weekly and bi-weekly basis, the reports from North Africa had provided a remarkable window into the experience of the ordinary man in conflict. I hoped that I might find these sources for the rest of the war and that they would allow a very different story to be told than that commonly found in the literature.

It must be remembered that, whereas there is an abundance of sources regarding the decisions and activities of those at the top of the strategic chain, considerably less survives from the bottom. As a result, the influence of an "authority-generated model" for understanding warfare, and history for that matter, persists in most works. It is not surprising that the role of Winston Churchill and other war leaders, and the decisions of senior commanders in the field, dominate the history of the Second World War. Similarly, it is records relating to the size of armies, the movements of people and machines, and the productive capacities of combatant nations that mostly survive in archives. The accessibility of such records facilitates the portrayal of war as a complex game of chess, where the decisions of the "great men" and the interplay between numbers, tactics and ruses dictate the outcome of events.

I was determined to take seriously the agency of ordinary citizen soldiers, and so expanding the project and visiting archives across the Commonwealth seemed the best approach. Armed with a mission and a plan, I started writing grant proposals and was soon winging my way round the world. However, knowing the sources one wants to find and finding them are two different things.

In some of the archives there was no electronic search facility. In others, digital records were only partly complete. As I was conscious that I had only one "shot" in each location, I decided to go "old school" and interrogate the original paper and card indexes. This, needless to say, took time, but the approach produced quite staggering results. In the end, I managed to find 925 censorship reports based on about 17 million letters sent during the war. Moreover, in working my way through the original indexes I discovered categories of file that were to lead to yet another major expansion of the project.

The key moment occurred in Archives New Zealand, when I spotted a file name that immediately grabbed my interest: "Report on the Conduct of the General Election in the Middle East, 1943". I knew elections had taken place during the war, but I was not aware of any records of how soldiers, as opposed to civilians, had voted. With a quickening pulse, I ordered the document and soon enough I made the kind of discovery that thrills the historian.

The file provided detailed statistics of the soldiers' vote. Here was a golden opportunity to integrate military history with the history of politics and social change. Armed with my discovery in New Zealand, I was soon able to replicate this approach for the elections in Australia (1940 and 1943), South Africa (1943), Canada (1945) and to a lesser extent in the UK (1945). Fascinating statistics were also available for the conduct of Indian veterans during the bloodletting of Partition (in 1947). Not only would the book deal with the history of great battles, and by extension the history of the (end of) empire, it would also tackle the role of the citizen soldier in shaping the post-war world.

The result, I hope, is a 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. I hope that the outcome sheds new light on the Second World War and its place in 20th-century British and Commonwealth history.

Jonathan Fennell's Fighting the People's War, the first single-volume history of the British and Commonwealth armies in WW2, is out today (7 February) from Cambridge University Press.

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