Finest Hour 174, Autumn 2016
By Andrew Stewart
Andrew Stewart is Reader in Conflict and Diplomacy in the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London and the Director of Academic Studies (KCL) at the Royal College of Defence Studies. The views, analysis, and opinions expressed here are his own.
For Britain and its Empire, a period of intense reflection and debate followed the conclusion of the bloodbath that had been the First World War. One of the main themes discussed was how in the event of another war, military resources and forces that were scattered around the world could be better prepared, co-ordinated, managed, and led. This was not new. Similar discussions had taken place since at least 1890, when the Hartington Commission had proposed the establishment of a naval and military council. In 1904 Arthur Balfour took over the chairmanship of a Cabinet Defence Committee, and, with the prime minister in the chair, it was renamed the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) and seen “as an attempt to create an Imperial General Staff on a temporary basis.”1 It had its own dedicated secretariat, but, with no executive powers, its ability to function effectively was seriously hampered. Following the outbreak of war in 1914, the CID ceased to meet. It was more than four years later, in November 1919, before it re-convened, by which point it was clear that there had been significant changes not just to the international system but also to the imperial network which held such an important role within it.
Questions were now raised about whether the CID was the most effective means for the co-ordination of imperial defence. Aside from the tremendous loss of life suffered by all of the territories that had fought for King George V, the conflict had left Britain’s finances in a parlous state. In the summer of 1921 David Lloyd George had established a special committee to review expenditure chaired by Sir Eric Geddes, a businessman who had played a prominent wartime role in helping organise military transportation. The interim report was presented to the prime minister in December and within its recommendations were proposals for major cuts to the military. Although he no longer had any direct involvement in the War Office or Air Ministry, having moved in November 1921 to take control of the Colonial Office, amongst the report’s most vocal critics was Winston Churchill.