February 18, 2017

Finest Hour 175, Winter 2017

Page 47

Daniel Todman, Britain’s War: Into Battle, 1937–1941, Allen Lane, 2016, 848 pages, £30.
ISBN 978–0713999273

Review by Mark Klobas

Mark Klobas teaches history at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona and hosts a podcast for the New Books Network.

Daniel Todman’s Into Battle is the first half of an ambitious effort to encapsulate the entirety of Britain’s Second World War experience into a comprehensive narrative, one that begins in the prewar era and promises to end (in a volume scheduled to be published next year) two years after the surrender of the Axis powers. It is a revisionist assessment of the war, that is one that embraces modern perspectives on a story that has often been told in an effort to offer a better understanding of the true dimensions of the conflict.

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This effort begins with Todman’s choice of 1937 as his starting point. Opening with the celebrations of the coronation of King George VI, Todman portrays a nation in its last full year free from the immediate threat of war. His focus here is on the changes that Britain was facing, both domestically and internationally, and the stresses these posed to the status quo. Todman uses this to put into context the challenge posed by Hitler’s increasingly aggressive defiance of the Versailles settlement. Drawing upon the lessons of the First World War, the governments of both Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain began a rearmament program designed to build up a modern, mechanized military without straining an economy still recovering from the Great Depression.

Todman demonstrates considerable sympathy for both Baldwin and (especially) Chamberlain and their efforts to prepare Britain for war. By contrast, Winston Churchill is treated much more critically. This is of a piece with Todman’s overall revisionist approach, as he almost self-consciously seeks to avoid buying into the many legends surrounding the war. This leads him, however, to make some disparaging assessments about Churchill’s racial attitudes (deeming him “a savage racist” even by contemporary standards) and seeing as shady characters Churchill’s close political associates like Lord Beaverbrook and Brendan Bracken. More significantly, Todman calls into question Churchill’s judgment as a military and political strategist, particularly with regard to the degree to which Churchill overvalued the “special relationship” with the United States and underappreciated how Franklin Roosevelt’s pursuit of national goals shaped his efforts to aid the British.

Todman argues for considering a wider range of factors in assessing Britain’s success in the war. Drawing upon the work of such historians as George Peden and David Edgerton, he features the fiscal and technological dimension of the war to a far greater degree than in older accounts, showing how even before the start of the war British politicians and strategists planned for a long-term struggle against the Nazi regime that would be waged by a highly mechanized force. The empire also receives great attention, as Todman rightly demonstrates the degree to which Britain’s war effort was an imperial rather than a national one. This also contributes to Todman’s effort to emphasize how the war was truly a world war to Churchill and other British leaders, in that global considerations were never far from their minds, even as German bombs rained down on British cities.

It is to Todman’s credit as well that for all of his coverage of British strategy and the economics of the war effort, he never loses sight of the people who lived through it. Here he draws heavily upon contemporary writings and the nascent efforts of Mass Observation and other public opinion assessments to gauge what civilians and soldiers alike thought about the war. This complements Todman’s overarching narrative, which shows that, while Churchill and others worked to win the war, others were more concerned with surviving it. While Todman challenges the “finest hour” mythology, his goal is less to demolish it than to add a more realistic nuance, showing that sacrifice and selfishness often coexisted among the embattled populace.

Todman concludes this volume with the Japanese attacks of December 1941 and the transformation of the conflict which this heralded. While his claim that with the merger of the European and Asian wars “a truly world war had begun” is undermined by many of his own arguments in the previous chapters, it nonetheless represents an appropriate dividing point in Todman’s labors. Once his second volume is published, he will have provided a sweeping account of Britain’s Second World War that, for all of its flaws, could become the standard overview for decades to come.

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