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Writings by John Lee

Sir Ian Hamilton and the Dardanelles 1915
In “Fallen Stars: Eleven Studies of Twentieth-Century Military Disasters”
Edited By Brian Bond, published by Brasseys in 1991.

In “Fallen Stars: Eleven Studies of Twentieth-Century Military Disasters”, edited By Brian Bond, published by Brasseys in 1991.

This was a really neat idea by my friend and mentor at King’s College, Professor Brian Bond. It looked at eleven well-respected generals who all failed in their big test in war. Ian Hamilton at Gallipoli is almost the archetypal ‘failure’ in that regard, but I stressed that Britain was under-resourced and ill prepared for such a venture in 1915. It was sound strategic idea but was, in many ways, doomed to fail.

Written at an early stage in what became ten years research in the Hamilton papers at the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, King’s College London, there were a couple of small mistakes in this first effort. I referred to Hamilton as the most senior Lieutenant General on the Army List but he was, of course, a full General. The other was quite amusing. I said that a flippant remark Hamilton made about a Japanese general offended the sensibilities of King George V. A reader pointed out it was Edward VII who took offence. I replied (I always do) that the idea that Edward VII could take the moral high ground on anything was a bit more than I could cope with!!

Professor Martin Alexander told me that he used this chapter for years to teach his class at Southampton University the basics of the Gallipoli campaign. That is an encomium I can live with! The chapter stands up well after all this time.



“The Soul and Body of an Army: Sir Ian Hamilton and the Military Reform Debates
of the Early 1920s
In Acta XIX of the International Commission for Military History, and published in Istanbul in 1993.

I gave a paper at a conference of the International Commission for Military History in Istanbul in 1993, where the general theme was the military reforms in the 1920s, based on the experiences of the First World War.

It was a useful stimulus to my studies of Sir Ian Hamilton, and I shared two main ideas. Firstly I was able to show what a progressive military thinker he was. The first draft of the book “The Soul and Body of an Army” was ready before the outbreak of war in 1914. He embraced all the new technology, and would have mechanised the army very effectively. When published in 1920 he incorporated all the progressive lessons of the war. He even suggested ‘air-portable’ divisions as a good way of policing the far-flung British Empire.

Secondly, he was a keen exponent of a Tri-Service Staff College, officer cadet school and High Command. I illustrated Britain’s failures at inter-service co-operation with the obvious example of Gallipoli. Hamilton’s advanced ideas would have prevented (or at least reduced) the inter-service rivalries that often mar military performance. His work was frequently cited in the debates on the subject in the 1920s.



Introduction, to “Passchendaele: The Day-by-Day Account” by Chris McCarthy.
Arms and Armour Press 1995.

I was more than happy to write the introduction to this useful book by my good friend, Chris McCarthy of the Imperial War Museum. My work on the Battle of the Menin Road, inspired by the SHLM project (see next entry), was fast making me a considered expert on the Ypres Salient in general and Third Ypres (to give the campaign its proper title) in particular.

Once again I seem to have achieved a success in compressing a lot of important information into a very small space for the general reader. I was able to explain the campaign in its context and in the phases in which it unfolded.

The celebrated TV historian, Gordon Corrigan, once told a BCMH gathering that this introduction should be compulsory reading throughout the nation! Peter Hart also told me that it greatly informed the book he and Nigel Steel wrote on the campaign. The respect of one’s peers makes this sort of work truly worthwhile.



The SHLM Project: Assessing the Battle Performance of British Divisions
In “British Fighting Methods in the Great War”
Edited by Paddy Griffith and published by Frank Cass in 1996.

When I got my MA in War Studies, Brian Bond soon recruited me into the British Commission for Military History. There I met Peter Simkins, and was soon a regular attender at the ‘Friday Club’, where staff from the Imperial War Museum ‘unwound’ at the end of a hard week. The level of knowledge and debate about the Great War was breath taking, and it wasn’t long before a few of us, particularly interested in the tactical performance of the British Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders, began to group together and take the research to a new level.

(Pete) Simkins, (Bryn) Hammond, (John) Lee, and (Chris) McCarthy founded the SHLM project, to study the performance of British divisions in battle on the Western Front. We devised a form to analyse all the possible known factors in a battle, and recruited dozens of volunteers to carry out the research. There was a Newsletter (put out by yours truly) and several one – day ‘Teach Ins’, and things were going well. Then all the chief protagonists started writing books and doing other research work and it all tailed off, which is quite sad really.

This chapter introduced the ideas to a wider audience, and enquiries come in at a steady rate. Perhaps the scheme will be revived one day. It is still potentially a massive boost to our understanding of the BEF in 1914-1918.



Sir Ian Hamilton After the War: A Liberal General Reflects
In “Facing Armageddon: The First World War Experience”
Edited by Hugh Cecil and Peter Liddle, and published by Pen and Sword in 1996.

This began life as a paper delivered at a major international Great War conference at Leeds in 1996. I stood up and began to declaim one of Hamilton’s speeches at the opening of a war memorial, and found my eyes filling with tears and my voicing noticeably thickening. After a little pause I continued, but it left me with the lasting impression of the power of Hamilton’s rhetoric.

The chapter looks at the popularity of Hamilton after the war, where he opened a new war memorial every week for nearly two years. Even before the war ended, he was pounding out his message, carried forward from the Boer War, that we must not impose a harsh peace on the defeated enemy, but must offer them the open hand of friendship and bring them back into the community of nations. If we had listened to him then we might have avoided the rise of Nazism, the Second World War and the resulting Cold War.

The chapter also looked at his advanced views on the nature of modern warfare. He really was the most thoughtful of generals, who deserves to be taken much more seriously than he usually is.



The British Divisions at Third Ypres
In “Passchendaele in Perspective”
Edited by Peter Liddle, and published by Pen and Sword in 1997.

This is the sort of military history I really enjoy writing. I like to specialise in the realm of military operations, at the level of the battalion, brigade and division. This is where you can see the way military formations evolve under the stress of war. This is where redundant theory is, or should be, rejected and the lessons derived from the new experiences of war are absorbed and codified. Unless you understand this learning process, which takes place in every war throughout history, there is little chance that you will ever really understand the history of warfare.

In this chapter I looked at the performance of specifically British divisions during Third Ypres. (Other writers covered Australian, New Zealand and Canadian elements of the BEF). I spent some time showing how often the British divisions were committed to battle during the campaign, ‘proving’ that the Dominion divisions were not used excessively more than the British as some writers claim. A study of each of the separate battles that made up the larger campaign showed the British taking most of the strain. This was a united and allied army, all doing their best to achieve the final aim of defeating Imperial Germany. It does no credit to any of the BEF to claim that some parts of it were vastly superior to others.



Some Lessons of the Somme: The British Infantry in 1917
In “Look to Your Front: Essays from the British Commission for Military History”
Edited by Brian Bond and published by Spellmount Books in 1999.

A very useful set of ‘Studies in the First World War’ by members of the British Commission for Military History.
If I am in any way ‘famous’ in the field of First World War studies, it is in the detailed study of the evolution of the tactics employed by the BEF on the Western Front. This is what Richard Holmes meant when he said he was grateful to John Lee for his writing. (See the reviews of ‘The Warlords’.)

This essay seems to be the starting point for a lot of students embarking on serious research into the learning process of the British army on the Western Front. It started life as a reaction to the work of Martin Samuels, whose books pour praise onto the German army and scorn onto the British.

I looked at the protracted fighting on the Somme in 1916 and showed how the outpouring of training pamphlets and books in 1917 was based on real, hard-won experience. The performance of the BEF in 1917 was transformed as a result.
A detailed study of SS143 (The Platoon in the Attack) and SS144 (The Normal Formation for the Attack) showed how good the BEF was in 1917 and 1918, and this chapter remains something of a trailblazer.

It was cited as a source by the late, great Jill Knight in her excellent study of the Civil Service Rifles (15th London Regiment), and by the Imperial War Museum’s Paul Cornish in his 2009 book Machine Guns and the Great War.



Command and Control in Battle: British Divisions on the
Menin Road Ridge, 20th September 1917
In “Command and Control on the Western Front”
Edited by Gary Sheffield and Dan Todman, and published by Spellmount in 2004.

This was a fine collection of essays looking at the real problems of battle in the First World War, and the difficulty of command and control in the chaotic environment of modern war before the general availability of electronic communication with forward troops.

I took the opportunity of returning to my ‘favourite’ battle of the war to show just how effective the BEF was in 1917. After a general survey of the ‘Standard Operational Procedure’ then followed by the BEF, I looked in detail at the preparation of the battle, showing how pre-planning tried to cope with the expected and inevitable difficulties. Then I surveyed the course of the battle, concentrating on aspects of command and control. A very useful exercise and the precursor to a long-awaited full study of this very interesting battle!



The Greatest Trench Raid of the War
Published in “Firestep”, the journal of the London Branch of the Western Front Association,
Vol. 5, No. 1, May 2006

My interest in the tactical developments in the BEF 1914-18 led inevitably to a study of the policy of trench raiding, said by some to be Britain’s unique contribution to the nature of trench warfare. My love of the London Regiment led me to the raid carried out by 6th Londons in February 1917. Even Douglas Haig himself suggested that this was the most successful raid ever carried out on the Western Front. Instead of a force of volunteers crossing No Man’s land to enter the enemy trenches, the entire battalion went over and did colossal damage to the Germans opposite. Given the date of the raid, I concluded that it was being used as a training exercise to practice the new platoon organisation spelled out in SS143 (see “Some Lessons of the Somme: The British Infantry in 1917” above.)

It was a good talk to the London WFA and makes a good article, that may well be the precursor to a major study of British trench raids in general.


William Birdwood
In “Haig’s Generals”
Edited by Professor Ian Beckett and Steven Corvi, and published by Pen and Sword in  2006.

I was, of course, already very familiar with ‘Birdie’ from my studies of Gallipoli (where he commanded the ANZACs) and of Jack Churchill (who served on his staff on the Western Front).

After a survey of his career and service through Gallipoli and on the Western Front, I was able to explain why he was so very popular with the ANZACs. He was a natural leader of men. It was then useful to be able to discuss the role of Fifth Army in 1918, when Birdwood was appointed to the Army after it was brought back into existence from its debacle in the German offensives of that year. While it did not achieve the spectacular victories of some of the other British Armies, it did an important job in liaising with others and keeping the whole front moving forward relentlessly.

I was able to defend Birdwood from some his harsher critics along the way.



Lieutenant General Sir Hugh Jeudwine
Hesketh Pritchard
In “New Dictionary of National Biography”, and published by Oxford University Press in 2008/2009.

I had been asked to contribute to the DNB before but had been tied up with other things. This time I was offered a series of names to work on related to the First World War. I selected Lt. Gen. Sir Hugh Jeudwine because, after service as a ‘scientific’ gunner, he was a very successful infantry division commander and deserved to be recognised as such. He was also a commander in Ireland during the 1920s insurgency there and, like many military men, spoke a lot of common sense that was generally ignored. A little word of warning for DNB contributors. My final entry was altered by an unknown third party, who inserted a quote from a book I had not read (or claimed to have read!) Since it still went out under my name I thought that a little inappropriate.

Hesketh Pritchard was well known for his book ‘Sniping in France’ and his excellent work at improving the BEF’s sniping skills on the Western Front. I was totally fascinated by his other careers as a cricketer, writer and explorer.


Helmuth von Moltke
Erich Ludendorff
In “The Art of War Vol. 2: Great Commanders of the Modern World”, edited by Andrew Roberts, and published by Quercus in 2009.

These two short studies were commissioned by Andrew Roberts, an acquaintance who knew of my book “The Warlords”, for the new publishing house, Quercus.

Together they illustrate the evolution of the remarkable Prussian military system in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Having earlier completed the fuller study of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, it was interesting to delve more deeply into the era of the great von Moltke, who did so much to shape the military systems of the whole world by his victories in 1866 and 1870-71. He was the ultimate military professional, almost monk-like in his devotion to the detailed study of his trade. By personally selecting and grooming the candidates for the German Great General Staff, he ensured that the German army in the field was directed by ‘a single brain’. All formations, with uniformly trained staff officers at the side of the commanders, could be expected to react to situations with dexterity and a common approach to problem solving.

Asked to provide a battle study to illustrate the work of these two men, I selected Koniggratz 1866 and Tannenberg 1914.
It does seem as if my speciality is writing short essays and books that convey a great deal of up-to-the minute information for the general reader. Not a bad task for an historian to set himself!



“Station X”: The Women at Bletchley Park
“Women in War: From Home Front to Front Line” edited by Celia Lee and Paul Edward Strong, and Published by Pen and sword in March 2012.

My wife, Celia, was instrumental in setting up within the British Commission for Military History a “Women in War” study group. She collaborated with another member, Paul Edward Strong, as she was absolutely set on this not being a women only group. After a resounding success with their workshop at the BCMH’s 2009 summer conference, they embarked on preparing a book on the subject, inviting contributions beyond the original papers read at the conference.

A wonderful collection of chapters was put together, ranging from the Indian Mutiny to the Cold War (but overwhelmingly concentrating on the Second World War). The writers were not only some fine academic professionals but included other published authors and several writing for the first time, often remembering family members and experiences.

When one contributor had to drop out at a late stage, I was ‘recruited’ to complete a chapter on the work of women at the Bletchley Park code-breaking centre. It was one of the most enjoyable things I have written. With a good general knowledge of the subject, I swiftly immersed myself in the main published accounts, and many relatively little known memoirs of women who had worked there. A visit to the site and its museums was essential but still left the impression that the vital work of the many thousands of women working there was not fully recognised. I am quite proud of this little piece and heartily recommend it for the way it puts a new emphasis on an increasingly well-known story.

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