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Fighting the People's War: The British and Commonwealth Armies and the Second World War by Jonathan Fennell

Fighting the People's War: The British and Commonwealth Armies and the Second World War
by Jonathan Fennell
Cambridge University Press (January 24, 2019)


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If an ill-informed or indifferent electorate is a menace to our national safety, so, too, is an Army which neither knows nor cares why it is in arms. 

The quote comes from an Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA) missive dated July 21, 1941, and it sums up the core of this extensive look at the Commonwealth armies in the Second World War. Despite its academic pedigree, author and professor Dr Jonathan Fennell writes in a clear and readable prose that makes it accessible outside the ivory tower set.
Fighting the People's War is a weighty volume, part of a new series from the Cambridge University Press on the armies of the Second World War. In it, author Jonathan Fennell weaves the social history of the times to come up with a portrait of the regular soldiers of the British and Commonwealth armies, including Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, and South Africa—soldiers he calls "citizens in military service to the state".

In doing so, he reveals a side of the Second World War that might surprise anyone whose version has so far depended on the stories of the generals and ruling classes. In the introduction, he lays out the logic of his approach.
  • To understand the behaviour of armies in a political and social context;
  • Conversely, societies themselves can be understood by examining the conduct of its soldiers.
As he points out, conflict and war brings any simmering social issues to a boiling point. The Second World War divided society in many ways, and along many lines that we now call intersections - by class, race, age, gender, and ethnicity.

Fennell used a variety of documents in his research, including military censorship records. Since all letters home were censored, it is a genuine snapshot of the lives of soldiers at the time. He also used diaries, photographs, memos, and many other documents to compile the book.

In the UK, WWII brought on a political and social sea change, one that led, post-war, to the surprising landslide victory of the Labour Party in 1945. In Canada, conscription for the war nearly caused a rift in the country as French speaking Quebecois objected.

In South Africa, the deep divisions of a racist society became even more pointed, with many white Afrikaners not exactly celebrating the German defeat in 1945. In India, the war effort had a tepid energy at best. Many people sympathized with the Japanese forces, and were decidedly anti-British.

In many regions of the Commonwealth, the armies were made up of a very mixed slice of the populace, including black Africans, Maoris in New Zealand, and many Indian soldiers. These soldiers wanted an end to the existing order of British imperialism—not to risk their lives for a return to the status quo.
This is photograph E 3265E from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 4700-33) - The Battle of Crete, 20 - 31 May 1941. German paratroopers jumping from Junkers Ju 52 3/m transport planes over Crete.

Even in the UK, many soldiers had already heard the stories of betrayal and disappointment from their own fathers, who had returned from World War I only to find their government failing on the promise to support them, their widows, and orphans. They'd grown up with the misery of the global economic Depression. After the poor treatment of its WWI veterans and survivors, there was widespread mistrust of the state.

The books chapters proceed in largely chronological progression, beginning with the social and political context of the pre-war years. The book quotes an article from The Economist of 1939 that notes that the economy of the British Empire, as it then stood, far exceeded that of Germany and Italy combined. Its output was boosted by a large non-white colonial population. Despite that kind of economic superiority, however, once Germany began to ramp up its armed forces, the British forces couldn't keep pace. Cracks had already begun to show in the Empire.

The armies of the Commonwealth were largely made up of blue collar skilled trades people, although Canada and New Zealand also included a large proportion of unskilled labourers in their army ranks. There was also a large chunk of poor people looking to avoid creditors or job insecurity. Welfare offices were said to have advised people to enlist rather than apply for benefits.

Once they'd been shipped overseas, their letters reveal an overwhelming homesickness. The letters and other documents also reveal the ways that their political beliefs had changed as a result of their direct involvement in the conflict.

Britain and its allies were not deficient materially. Instead, Fennell points to the crisis of morale as the root of their early difficulties during the prolonged conflict. In the second part of the book, he examines The Great Crisis of Empire.
Frank Capra (film) - Divide and Conquer (Why We Fight #3) Public Domain (U.S. War Department): https://archive.org/details/DivideAndConquer - British troops rescued in a ship at Dunkirk (France, 1940). Screenhot taken from the 1943 United States Army propaganda film Divide and Conquer (Why We Fight #3) directed by Frank Capra and partially based on, news archives, animations, restaged scenes and captured propaganda material from both sides.

The onset of war came with early defeats for the UK and Commonwealth forces in France and Norway, and significant losses to the British navy. The massive evacuation of over 338,000 British troops from Dunkirk known as Operation Dynamo was spun as a success, but it came alongside the surrender of about 40,000 French troops to the Germans.

Back home in the UK, the newspapers blamed the politicians. In private documents, the military already spoke of a crisis of morale. There were many documented cases of gross insubordination and AWOL, corroborated by letters and diaries. Churchill, who of course has emerged as a hero in the history books, was, as the book notes, "the architect of the disasters at Gallipoli and Norway". Fennell describes Churchill's political maneuvering, and the tumult at a time when the UK was facing bankruptcy.

Troops were stretch thin from Crete to the Balkans, and as the war dragged on, morale sank further. Soldiers were losing confidence in their abilities and equipment. Generals were so worried about dropping morale and the threat of both insubordination and desertion, that they requested the return of the death penalty for deserters. After Japan attacked in the east, during the Fall of Singapore, the troops were chastised for not showing "the fighting spirit which is to be expected of men in the British Empire".

The book spends some time examining the (mis)adventures of the Eighth Army in Africa, where the troops own exhaustion was only rivaled by that of the German Afrika Korps.
Field Marshall 'Monty' Montgomery
Extensive sections follow the battles of the war on various fronts chronologically. The turning point, as many felt it to be, came after the victory in North Africa—when Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery took over command of the Eighth Army and led them to final victory in Tunisia - along with New Guinea and Burma.

However, even as the Allies marched toward eventually victory, morale still remained an issue. There was the New Zealand Furlough Mutiny of 1943, where troops, who had suffered horrible conditions in battle, returned home to find the country in prosperity. Anger grew at their low pay. The New Zealanders were sent on a furlough in late 1943 before returning to the war in Burma. However, after a public campaign, many simply refused to go back. Only about 42 percent of returning soldiers showed up to embark in January 1944. It was an incident that the government suppressed, with no media reports of the effective mutiny.

The last section of the book looks at the post-War world, and the social changes the returning soldiers brought back with them.

The average British soldier was said, derisively, to run on "football, beer, and crumpets." But, the experience of war had changed them. Living as soldiers encouraged social cooperation and socialism—not the model of rugged individualism. As they returned home, they brought a wave of change.

In Britain, it was the Labour victory of 1945. New Zealanders also elected the Labour Party post-war. In Canada, the left-leaning Liberals, CCF, and Social Credit parties garnered 58 percent of the civilian vote post-War - and 71 percent of the vote of veterans with combat experience.

The post-War period saw the final dissolution of the British Empire, a kind of boiling point that stripped away whatever was left of the old ways. India was partitioned into modern day India and Pakistan in 1947, and became a republic in 1950, with Pakistan following in 1957. Nigeria gained its independence in 1960.
Photographer not identified. "Official photograph". This is photograph HU 2781 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 5707-03) - Lieutenant-General Percival and his party carry the Union flag on their way to surrender Singapore to the Japanese. Left to Right: Major Cyril Wild (carrying white flag) interpreter; Brigadier T. K. Newbigging (carrying the Union flag) Chief Administrative Officer, Malaya Command; Lieutenant-Colonel Ichiji Sugita; Brigadier K. S. Torrance, Brigadier General Staff Malaya Command; Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, General Officer Commanding, Malaya Command.

In South Africa, social change took a darker turn. The war experience brought greater cohesion among white soldiers from mixed Dutch, English, and Jewish backgrounds. Back at home, with so many white workers away, somewhat ironically, black workers tended to prosper as skilled trade positions opened up that had never been available to them before.

There were rumblings of dismay in the newspapers. The white minority saw the native black African population as one to exploit—not one with which to share a new era of prosperity. The general election of 1948 resulted in the entrenchment of Apartheid as an official state policy.

WWII is often examined in isolation of its legacy. The book delivers the proof for its premise that there are strong links between social cohesion and what happens on the battlefield. It's important as an academic work, but will also interest any history buffs with a penchant for the Second World War, mid-twentieth century, and the social history of the Commonwealth of the time.

Dr Jonathan Fennell is a Senior Lecturer in Defence Studies at King's College London. He's been with the Defence Studies Department since 2009, after a stint as a management consultant in the City of London. He is Co-Director of the Sir Michael Howard Centre for the History of War, Chair of the Defence Studies Department MA Assessment Sub-Board, Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Second World War Research Group and a member of the War Studies Research Ethics Panel. His book Combat and Morale in the North African Campaign was named one of BBC History Magazine's Books of the Year for 2011.

Fennell acknowledges in the introduction that there was not enough space (in a 700+ page book) to do justice to the contributions of some 473,250 colonial soldiers (most from West and East Africa,) the 43,000 Free Irish State soldiers, and the 214,120 women who served in these armies. Hopefully someone else with a similarly thorough approach will take up that challenge soon.

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