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Radio 4’s Archive Hour strand comes up with a sobering warning against Britain’s complacently acknowledged muddling through. Saturday’s How Britain Went to War (8pm) opens on the night in 1914 when the nation awaited the chimes of Big Ben to announce that Britain was at war. Margot Asquith, the PM’s wife, recalls stifling summer heat, cheering from the streets contrasting with the silence of the cabinet room. Only Churchill, a jaunty late arrival, having already sent the war news to the fleet, looked unworried.
Peter Hennessy presents the background, from the Boer war’s jolt to Britain’s military prestige onwards. Army and navy refused to share their very different strategies. The 1909 Imperial Defence Committee was a fudge. When Kitchener opined that the war would last three years the cabinet was “dumbstruck”. Intelligence was “ramshackle”, according to Keith Jeffery, author of the history of MI6.
Preparations had been made despite military muddle and political cluelessness. The first British war games in 1905 uncannily postulated a scenario about aiding Belgium. And Maurice Hankey, pioneer of cabinet government, the programme’s hero, completed his first War Book in 1912.
The second edition in 1914 was four to five times bigger. Hankey’s vision of a state grinding into action was vast, his details meticulous. The government would control the 50-plus railway companies – vital to transport food from unblockaded western ports like Bristol and Liverpool, besides troops. Who would insure the world’s largest merchant marine? What of the financial system? The Treasury, joint stock bankers and the Bank of England had their heads banged together by Lloyd George. The police’s duties were laid out, a separate force for order, intelligence and security.
But then, after the initial scramble, all the institutions were in place, and they worked. All that remained was the fighting. And nothing could have prepared humanity adequately for that particular hell.