In the past decade or so there has been much debate in the public sphere of the impact of downsizing the British armed forces and how short-term savings can have perilous long-term consequences for such institutions. Such thinking is obviously not new, and there have been times in the past where such considerations have likewise raised their heads. I have recently been reading Winston S. Churchill’s ‘The Gathering Storm’, early in which he discusses the impact of downsizing the German military under the terms of the Versailles peace accords. I will quote him at length below, as I feel his observations most aptly describe the damage a large-scale enforced reduction can have upon a military institution’s ability to rapidly reform and face new threats.
“It is a prodigious task to make an army embodying the whole manhood of a mighty nation. The victorious Allies had at Mr. Lloyd George’s suggestion limited the German army to a hundred thousand men, and conscription was forbidden. This force, therefore, became the nucleus and the crucible out of which an army of millions of men was if possible to be reformed. The hundred thousand men were a hundred thousand leaders. Once the decision to expand was taken, the privates could become sergeants, the sergeants officers. None the less, Mr. Lloyd George’s plan for preventing the re-creation of the German army was not ill-conceived. No foreign inspection could in times of peace control the quality of the hundred thousand men allowed to Germany. But the issue did not turn on this. Three or four millions of trained soldiers were needed merely to hold the German frontiers. To make a nation-wide army which could compare with, still more surpass, the French Army required not only the preparation of the leaders and the revival of the old regiments and formations, but the national compulsory service of each annual quota of men reaching the military age … Without universal national service the bones of the skeleton could never be clothed with flesh and sinew.”
Churchill is here alluding to the need for institutional depth as well as quality; for a military to be an effective force it needs large pools of manpower to draw upon as such trained soldiers are of far more utility even than the most advanced technology. A military can be equipped rapidly, especially in the modern age, but without experienced soldiers such technology is useless – the various failures of the Iraqi army in containing the rise of ISIS present a pertinent example of this; despite commanding a hugely powerful force of American weapons and vehicles many of their soldiers simply fled after first contact with the enemy.
In Churchill’s example, the German army could only retain a small pool of experienced soldiers. These men could form the nucleus of a new military expansion but such an expansion was hampered by their inability to allow large-scale basic training of conscripts. As he goes on to explain, the inability to build up a large reserve denied the Germans the backbone their army would need to fight in any form of war.
“There was, therefore, no possibility of Germany creating an army which could face the French Army until conscription had been applied for several years. Here was a line which could not be transgressed without an obvious, flagrant breach of the Treaty of Versailles. Every kind of concealed, ingenious, elaborate preparation could be made beforehand, but the moment must come where the Rubicon would have to be crossed and the conquerors defied. Mr Lloyd George’s principle was thus sound. Had it been enforced with authority and prudence, there could have been no new forging of the German war machine. The class called up for each year, however well schooled beforehand, would also have to remain for at least two years in the regimental or other units, and it was only after this period of training that the reserves, without which no modern army is possible, could be gradually formed and accumulated. France, though her manhood had been depleted in a horrible degree by the previous war, had nevertheless maintained a regular uninterrupted routine of training annual quotas and of passing the trained soldiers into a reserve which comprised the whole fighting man-power of the nation. For fifteen years Germany was not allowed to build up a similar reserve. In all these years the German Army might nourish and cherish its military spirit and tradition, but it could not possibly even dream of entering the lists against the long-established, unbroken development of the armed, trained, organised man-power which flowed and gathered naturally from the French military system.”
Such observations have clear echoes in the modern debate and serve to highlight that no matter the strength of the frontline fighting force, its robustness is sorely limited without a large pool of reserves. Equally, without a regular flow of new recruits a force can lose its essential vitality and capacity to expand; the cap placed on the German military by its denial of both reserves and conscription ensured that it was a rump force; highly skilled but incapable of protracted operations as each battle casualty it might have suffered could not be replaced – there were no replacements available.
In our modern world, limitations such as this are often referred to as hollowing out – the German people of the 1920s could still see the shadows of their great military past in the cap badges and regimental colours, but these were little more than a facade – without the men to wear the badges these institutions had little tactical use. The reduction in the number of soldiers is always accompanied by an equal reduction in skills available; certain capabilities will be lost as generals have to prioritise where to place the scant numbers of men available to them; post-Treaty Germany lost its entire air force (admittedly by Allied design) and many other specialised units and had to prioritise simply having enough soldiers to keep its borders guarded.
By interrupting the cycle of training and tradition, whole centuries of accumulated wisdom can be lost; as one regiment dies out or is amalgamated its operational methods die with it, and such losses are almost impossible to replace. In our modern world it is wise to remember that it is not so simple to rebuild a military tradition as to simply thrust weapons into young men’s hands and call them soldiers.
Churchill goes on to describe the impact of the Treaty of Versailles on the German Army’s officer corps, which was mandated to reduced from thirty-four thousand men to a mere four thousand. It’s effective survival was largely a result of the work of General von Seeckt, who ensured that whilst the treaty was followed openly there were large numbers of trained officers retained working in concert within various hollow governmental departments.
“Rabenau [Seeckt’s biographer] makes an illuminating comment:
Without Seeckt there would today [in 1940] be no General Staff in the German sense, for which generations are required and which cannot be achieved in a day, however gifted or industrious officers may be. Continuity of conception is imperative to safeguard leadership in the nervous trials of reality. Knowledge or capacity in individuals is not enough. In war the organically developed capacity of a majority is necessary, and for this decades are needed. … In a small hundred-thousand army, if the generals were not also to be small, it was imperative to create a great theoretical framework. To this end large-scale practical exercises or war games were introduced … not so much to train the General Staff, but rather to create a class of higher commanders.
These would be capable of thinking in full-scale military terms.
Seeckt insisted that false doctrines, springing from personal experience of the Great War, should be avoided. All the lessons of that war were thoroughly and systematically studied. New principles of training and instructional courses of all kinds were introduced. All the existing manuals were rewritten, not for the hundred-thousand army, but for the armed might of the German Reich.”
The stunning successes of the German Army in the early years of the Second World War are testimony to the efficacy of Seeckt’s methods; he recognised that the core of a successful fighting force is the ability of its officers and men to act decisively in combat through a readiness for any eventuality. Despite the crippling downsizing imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, Seeckt ensured that a capable institution could be rapidly rebuilt, even accounting for the necessarily lower quality of fighting men that would be available as a result of the lack of a trained reserve.
If a military is to resist being hollowed out, it must ensure that the men left available to it are of the highest quality, particularly those in leadership positions. Vital skills must be not only preserved, but nurtured and grown in new recruits.
The lessons of the post-Great War German Army should thus be seen twofold; firstly, for military to be effective it must be able to take a punch as well as deliver one – it is not enough to possess a strong frontline force, it must be bolstered by trained reserves in order to be credible. Secondly; a force must retain its traditions and experience, particularly at higher levels, in order to remain effective. Skilled commanders, operating within an environment that encourages excellence, are the cornerstone of an effective fighting force and preserving such traditions is a vital step to retaining the ability of an armed force to fight.