Belligerent Brits

Germany is the country most closely associated with militarism, but Britain has had its militarist moments, too.

George Evans | Published 10 January 2019

O Captain!: Wilhelm Voigt as  drawn by Ernst Kellermann in Simplicissimus, 12 January 1906.Paul Dixon’s 2018 report, Warrior Nation, suggests that militarism in Britain has grown significantly in recent years. A professor of politics at Birkbeck, Dixon produced this document for the charity Forces Watch, which tracks the influence of militarist values on British society. The report examines the relationship between recent conflicts and the political power of the military. Defining ‘militarism’ as military power and the spread of military values, Dixon argues that a ‘militarisation offensive’ was launched in 2006, which aimed to ‘generate support for the “good war” in Afghanistan and to repair the damage ... to the military’s reputation by the “bad war” in Iraq’, in order to promote British nationalism and to increase military power over politicians. According to Dixon, we are currently witnessing the severest strain in political-military relations since 1945.

These conclusions will prove controversial. For most British observers, ‘militarism’ has generally been associated with Germany – especially Wilhelmine Germany, where the army enjoyed unconcealed political power. Otto von Bismarck’s 1871 constitution, which followed German reunification, kept the military out of the reach of civilian-political control. Military budgets were set every five or seven years, limiting opportunities for debate on the army in the Reichstag. Kaiser Wilhelm II also overtly opposed any parliamentary resistance to his schemes for the military. In 1893, he threatened, before an audience of senior generals, to chase the Reichstag ‘to the devil’ if it did not acquiesce to a proposed army bill.

It was the Edwardian era that saw the coalescence of the durable British impression of German militarism. To many British minds, this impression was confirmed in 1906 by the innocuous figure of Wilhelm Voigt. A petty criminal living in Berlin, Voigt managed to acquire the uniform of an army captain. Capitalising on its authority, he commandeered a squad of soldiers, taking them to Köpenick in the Berlin suburbs. The soldiers were then ordered to arrest the mayor, before Voigt made off with the loot from the town hall treasury. For the British press, the Köpenick caper was symptomatic of an obsequious and unthinking respect for the military uniform. It could only have occurred in a society pervaded with militarism.

In comparison to the Kaiser’s empire, it has made sense to understand Britain as a non-militarist state and society. In Edwardian Britain, the army did not have anything like the degree of explicit political power enjoyed by its German equivalent. Historians have suggested that the constitutional upheavals of the 17th century established a British dislike of standing armies, one that persisted well into the 20th century. As a result, the British army was subject to ‘dual control’. Command was entrusted to officers responsible to the Crown, but administration was directed by ministers accountable to Parliament. Most early 20th-century Secretaries of State for War, such as the Liberal Richard Haldane or the Conservative St John Brodrick, were not career soldiers.

There was also no equivalent to the Köpenick incident in Britain. It was not, however, lacking in exaggerated respect for the military. In some quarters, such as the more martially inclined English public schools, military heroes enjoyed a saintly veneration. The martyred generals Henry Havelock and Charles Gordon, the respective heroes of Lucknow (1857) and Khartoum (1884-5), competed with the still-living Field Marshal Lord Roberts as figures for hero worship. Historians such as John Mackenzie have identified this veneration as a form of militarism – a result of imperial endeavour.

The Edwardian era also witnessed a rare example of German-style intervention in politics by the British Army. In 1912, the Liberal government had introduced a Home Rule Bill, with the aim of providing a form of devolved government for Ireland. In response, the paramilitary Ulster Volunteers was formed by mostly Protestant loyalists. By 1914, the Volunteers were arming and drilling in preparation to resist the implementation of Home Rule. Amid this febrile atmosphere, British officers at the Curragh – an important army base in Ireland – were given the impression that they would be ordered to act against the Ulster Volunteers. The officers, generally sympathetic to the loyalty expressed by the Volunteers to the Crown and the Union, were uncomfortable with this prospect. About 60 resigned their commissions.

The Curragh Incident was not exactly a mutiny, as no direct orders were disobeyed. The actions of the officers at the Curragh were also the result more of confusion than organised sedition. Nonetheless, senior officers in Britain – including Henry Wilson, a powerful figure at the War Office, and the retired but influential Lord Roberts – played a constitutionally dubious role in the affair. The incident raised the possibility that the army could not be relied on to enforce the policy of an elected government. Even historians unsympathetic to the idea of British militarism have accepted the Curragh as something close to it.

It is hard to imagine a 21st-century version of the Curragh. In recent years, however, the military has repeatedly broken constitutional convention by airing complaints about politicians publicly. These interventions occurred under both New Labour and Conservative-Liberal Democrat governments. Most notoriously, an unnamed senior serving general told the Sunday Times in 2015 that any attempt by a British government to pull out of NATO, or abolish Trident, would result in an effective ‘mutiny’ – ‘The Army just wouldn’t stand for it’. The army, he suggested, would use fair means or foul to prevent such policies.

The recent centenaries have drawn attention to the momentous and emotive events of the First World War. In this context, the question of British militarism can seem a contentious issue to raise. Despite this, a respectful, rational discussion over the proper place of the military within a liberal democracy appears increasingly necessary. ‘Militarism’ is a divisive and elusive concept. It may have more relevance to British history and contemporary British politics, however, than has often been allowed.

George Evans is a PhD student at King’s College London.


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