The involvement of politics and the military goes back centuries but Gordon began his talk in 1658 with the dying Oliver Cromwell failing to appoint a successor as Lord Protector. The obvious choice, General John Lambert, had been dismissed by Cromwell over policy disagreements. Instead Parliament appointed Richard Cromwell, Oliver Cromwell’s son, as Lord Protector. Richard Cromwell had not wanted the position, neither did he have the skills for governing. As he had never served in the army and had no influence over the senior commanders, parliament degenerated into squabbling and chaos. Richard Cromwell resigned in 1659 and General George Monk, commander of the army in Scotland, marched on London. Monk recalled the Rump Parliament, including members dismissed for disagreement with the Protectorate (the Long Parliament), and encouraged them to recall the eldest son of Charles I and restore the monarchy (April 1660). Prince Charles returned from Breda in the Netherlands and was crowned King Charles II in April 1661.
The relations between the Amy & Parliament are governed by a series of Acts, in the seventeenth century there were the Articles of War and the Mutiny Act. Later they were combined in the Army Act which is now known as the Armed Forces Act.
The action of John Churchill in 1688 during the ‘Glorious Revolution’, when members of Parliament orchestrated the replacement of James II with William and Mary, was another example of a member of the army’s involvement in politics. Churchill, a fine tactician on the battlefield, also had excellent diplomatic skills. His involvement in the government of Queen Anne reflected the moderate Tory politics of his time. The increasing influence of the Whigs, favouring the war in Europe, kept Churchill (now the Duke of Marlborough) and his wife Sarah (now the Groom of the Stool, Mistress of the Robes and Keeper of the Privy Purse) in power. When the Tory party regained power, Churchill and his wife were dismissed from the government.
Passing on to the 19th century there were two commanders of note who had interesting pollical connections. The first was Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, who was appointed to command the British forces in the Iberian peninsula in 1809 (after the death of Sir John Moore at Corunna who had not made a success of working with continental allies) as he was a fine tactician on the battlefield and was a fine diplomat. Working with the Portuguese and the Spanish armies and their commanders, he pushed the French forces out of the Iberian Peninsula by 1814 and the defeat and abdication of Napoleon. Appointment Ambassador to France, he was in place to forge the allied force which defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. The second commander of the 19th century was Major-General Charles George Gordon. After a successful campaign in China (1860-63) where he trained a army to defeat a Chinese insurrection, he was appointed Governor of Sudan by the Khedive of Egypt (1870-80). Working from Khartoum, Gordon attempted to suppress the slave trade. Leaving Khartoum for another appointment, he was recalled after the Mahdist uprising (1884) to supervise the evacuation of Khartoum. Instead of following orders, Gordon organised a defence of Khartoum. Cut off from military aid and food supplies and with a small defensive force, Gordon held out from March 1884 until January 1885. After the relief column failed to reach him, Khartoum fell to the Mahdi and Gordon was killed.
George Nathaniel Curzon, Marquess Curzon of Kedleston, was a prominent politician who took a keen interest in military affairs. He was Viceroy of India from 1899 – 1905 during which time he involved himself in Indian affairs. He inaugurated the modernisation of the Indian Army, which might not have been prepared for its involvement in the First World War otherwise. During the First World War, Curzon was Lord Privy Seal in Asquith’s administration from 1915. He was a member of the Dardanelles Committee in October 1915 which recommended evacuation. In 1916 he visited General Douglas Haig in France after Haig’s promotion to C-in-C. Haigh records how impressed he was with Curzon’s appreciation of the war effort. As Leader of the House of Lords he was at odds with Lloyd George as he felt the war would be won by increasing the involvement of the army on the Western Front.
General Henry Wilson, while commandant of the staff college, 1907-11, instructed his senior class of staff officers to prepare a scheme for the deployment of the BEF to France in the event of a German invasion. As Wilson had met General Foch twice by then, once at the Ecole Superieur de Guerre, and once informally while of holiday, it was assumed he was preparing official policy. He took senior staff officers to Northern France to explore, by train and bicycle, and to investigate the problems any invading army might have as well as possibilities for defence.
Irish Home Rule bill of 1914 was passed but postponed after the incident at the Curragh Camp (aka the Curragh Mutiny) where officers, led by Hubert Gough, resigned rather than contemplate action in Ulster against the Ulster Volunteers. Field Marshal John French (CIGS) and Arthur Seeley (Secretary of State for War) also resigned after the incident.
General (later Field Marshall) Herbert Horatio Kitchener was C-in-C India during the time Curzon was Viceroy. Initially the two men worked together very well especially on the modernisation of the Indian Army. But they fell out over the control of transport and logistics. At the outset of the First World War, the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, appointed Kitchener as Secretary of State for War. Kitchener organised the recruitment of the largest volunteer army (aka the New Army or Kitchener men) that Britain had ever seen. After the deployment of the BEF, Kitchener, like General Haig, felt the men should be deployed at Amiens and not sent into Belgium. Kitchener argued that the men would have to retreat after confrontation with the German Army but was ignored. Kitchener was proven correct after the action at Mons. Kitchener survived the shell crisis of 1915 and ordered the army into the Dardanelles Campaign in support of the navy to support Russia. He also ordered French & Haig to attack at Loos in the autumn of 1915 (in support of the French attack in Artois) despite opposition from his army commanders that the ground was not suitable for the proposed action.
Our last example of the overlap/confrontation between the military & politicians was Winston Churchill. Born in 1874, Winston attended Sandhurst (1893) and was commissioned into the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars in 1895. He was an observer in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, and in India for 19 months with his regiment. While in India he became interested in journalism and politics. He used his contacts to be assigned to Kitchener’s campaign in the Sudan – writing for the Morning Post and serving with the 21st Lancers. He went to South Africa to report on the Boer War for the Daily Mail while serving with the South African Light Horse. He entered Parliament (elected as the Conservative candidate for Oldham) in 1900. In 1905 he defected from the Conservative party to join the Liberals. He was President of the Board of Trade (1908-10), Home Secretary (1910-11) and First Lord of the Admiralty (1911 -15). As First Lord he oversaw Britain’s naval warfare effort when war was declared. He was a member of Asquith’s war cabinet from November 1914. In this capacity he encouraged the development of the tank. He was deeply involved in the disastrous Dardanelles campaign, after which he resigned from the government (while remaining an MP) and joined the 6th battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers as their commanding officer. Churchill spent three and half months in the front line before returning to the House of Commons. He was minister of munitions in Lloyd George’s government (1917 – 19) and Secretary of State for War and Air from 1918-21. Out of government 1929-39 he devoted himself to various special causes such as the future of India and re-armament. Returning to government in 1939, first as First Lord of the Admiralty (1939-40) and then as Prime Minister (1940-45) he was deeply involved in the war effort, first in the defence of the country (Battle of Britain) and then bringing the attack to Germany by defeating German armies in North Africa, Italy and then in Northern Europe after D-day. He continually interfered with his senior generals, many of his decisions were less than successful (the ill-fated Greece and Crete campaigns which resulted in evacuation of British troops). In the North African campaign, he replaced generals who could not win him quick victories (Cunningham, Ritchie & Auchinleck) with one who could (Montgomery). With hindsight, we can judge these decisions as being taken by a man who saw himself as a commander forty years after military service in the cavalry.
In conclusion politicians (frock coats) always interfered with military policy (brass-hats) when opportunity arose since Britain became a power in Europe and the World.
Report by Peter Palmer