Into Battle: 1937-1941
Oxford University Press, New York, 2016, 848 pages
Book Review published on: July 7, 2017
Britain’s War is an ambitious book that marvelously succeeds in weaving together diverse thematic threads of politics, economics, social and cultural contexts, and military matters into a richly textured narrative tapestry. Daniel Todman transports the reader into living within the historical situation; circumstances and events are typically not related with the benefit of hindsight but written as if they were happening at that very moment. This first volume of a set on Great Britain in World War II provides a comprehensive and immersive treatment and is an impressive achievement.
The book starts on the day of King George VI’s coronation on 12 May 1937, but little is said about the ceremony itself. Instead, the narrative focuses on the perceptions of others regarding this royal event: the new king’s disgraced brother, the press, popular novelists, and everyday people as captured by mass-observation pollsters. Todman follows this technique throughout the book; while he presents the estimations, decisions, and actions of the political, economic, and military elites as well, he always portrays them against the illuminated backdrop of a complex and dynamic local and global environment. Always showing divergent sides to an issue, Todman includes the perspectives of voices not often heard. Because of this, the reader may reconsider previously held judgments of well-known figures from this period, particularly Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill.
Within the first one-third of the book, Todman makes plain the degree of the British Empire’s decline and overextension across the globe—and the war has not started yet. Westminster is beset by many difficulties not only at home but also especially abroad. While Adolf Hitler’s mounting aggressions in Europe cause a great deal of concern within the British government, it must also consider the attitudes of the French, the challenges of the Arab Revolt in Palestine, independence issues in India, and the security of British interests in the Far East. The reader will sense that the British government has a few too many spinning plates atop very wobbly poles, with officials dashing to and fro to keep those plates from crashing on the floor. Todman’s matter-of-fact discussions demonstrate the practical considerations in play, particularly with regard to rearmament and appeasement.
Once the war begins, the reader cannot help but marvel at the resilience of the British people as described in the rest of the book. After the “Bore War” in the early months, disaster piles onto disaster in Norway and France abroad, while the bombing of British cities and food shortages on the home front seem to be unending. There is little cause for hope prior to and even during the early months of the German invasion of Russia, but still the Commonwealth endures. Todman’s deft portrayal of British strategic dilemmas and “least worst” solutions well illustrates the dire situation. At the end of the book, despite Nazi success in Russia, setbacks in North Africa, and danger signs in the Far East regarding Japan, the slowly developing relationship between the British government and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s U.S. administration provides a small flicker of hope for the future.
Britain’s War: Into Battle, 1937-1941 is a rare book that not only will engage a broad audience but also has enough depth to satisfy professional strategists, military historians, and senior leaders seeking to learn from this particular slice of the past.
Book Review written by: Col. Eric M. Walters, U.S. Marine Corps, Retired, Fort Lee, Virginia