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Recent studies of wartime morale focus on the intersection of combat effectiveness, and morale. This is important, considering the large role that conscription played during the two global wars during the twentieth century. Resultantly, much of the scholarship on morale focuses on both the land domain, and how warfare makes individual soldiers feel. The feelings range from basic human emotions like fear, anxiety, exhaustion, confidence and exhilaration, while pushing into complex sentiments such as brotherhood, self-worth, and matters of the soul.
Analysts, scholars, and practitioners have overlooked a broader analytical approach, one that places the concept of morale across the whole continuum of war, from the tactical to grand strategic, asking bigger questions regarding morale’s role in the higher conduct of war, not simply ones pertaining to combat and action. The author’s main thrust is that a more holistic analysis and evaluation of morale will facilitate a better understanding of its war-winning and decisive nature. Specifically, morale and friction have a close relationship and that friction is most felt in locations in which both war and humans co-exist.
For the first half of the war, the British Army was in an almost constant state of catastrophe.
Many analysts have written about the moral component of Vladimir Putin’s army. Suicide, psychiatric injury, a lack of fighting spirit and poor discipline are all allegedly on the rise.1 Desertion, historically viewed as the most heinous of all military crimes, is also reported to be increasing in frequency, with some accounts suggesting that informal executions have been endorsed to dissuade the would-be deserter.2 Only time will tell how deep and significant the Russian morale crisis is, but if Putin is searching for inspiration on how to resolve his army’s crumbling resolve, then he need look no further than the British Army during the Second World War.
For the first half of the war, the British Army was in an almost constant state of catastrophe. From the evacuation at Dunkirk in 1940, through the humiliations at Singapore and Tobruk, to the stalemate in North Africa in July 1942, the British Army suffered what many now describe as a ‘morale crisis’, which peaked in August 1942, where there was little to no observable offensive spirit.3
The situation became so grave, General Ronald Adam, the Adjutant General 1941-1945, felt obliged to take personal control of the situation, citing “The loss of Malaya, Hong Kong, and the withdrawal in Burma, are all due to the low morale of our troops. There are many causes, and they must be set right. This war is going to be won or lost on morale.”4 Here Adam sets out his mandate. If the British wanted to win, they needed high morale. It was a devastatingly simple deduction that became the focus of his tenure as Adjutant-General (AG) for the rest of the war.
Morale at the tactical level
In 1942, Adam formed the War Office’s Morale Committee to directly treat the low morale of the British Army, addressing the whole gambit of British Army life. The committee secretary, Lieutenant Colonel John Sparrow, asserted that AWOL, lack of continuity in units, trooping, transit camps, length of tours, infidelity of women, leave, isolation, welfare, pay and allowances and desertion were some of the factors that had led to low morale within the army; these issues had led to a general feeling of low self-worth among troops, especially when compared to their comrades in the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy.5
There is very little doubt that these factors did indeed aggravate the morale crisis. However, Sparrow adds some deeper analysis that reveals the challenge facing the British Army when he observes, “The fundamental problem which faced those responsible for the morale of the army throughout the war arose from the undeniable and all-important fact that a very large proportion of those who served as soldiers remained civilians at heart, in the sense that they regarded military service, into which they had been conscripted, as an interlude in a civilian career.”6 It appears that all was not well in the ranks of Churchill’s citizen army.
Morale at the operational level
At the operational level, Field-Marshal Montgomery was determined to lift the 8th Army’s morale from the depths of July 1942. During this month, 1,728 British and Commonwealth troops disappeared into the desert, which in part led to an unsuccessful attempt by General Auchinleck to reintroduce the death penalty for desertion.7 This morale disaster signalled the end of his command, and the arrival of Montgomery in North Africa. Montgomery’s initial reflections of the 8th Army Headquarters (HQ) demonstrate that morale would dominate much of his approach to war in the desert.
As he reflected in his memoirs, “I did not like the atmosphere I found at Army HQ. No one could have high morale at the headquarters if we stuck ourselves down in a dismal place like this and lived in such discomfort. We ought to have the headquarters by the sea; where we could work hard, bathe and be happy.”8
However, living conditions and welfare would not remain his focus when seeking to raise the morale of his troops, citing, “The morale of the soldier is the greatest single factor in war and the best way to achieve a high morale in war-time is by success in battle.”9 Montgomery did just this, with a stunning victory at El Alamein in November 1942. The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill would say of this victory, “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.”10
Morale at the strategic and grand strategic level
It was not only at the tactical and operational levels where the focus was on morale. Churchill and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), Field-Marshal Alanbrooke, were engaged in a seemingly constant battle with the US Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) in 1942 over the sequencing of Allied grand strategy. With the ‘Germany First’ agreement shaping much of the Allies’ planning, Alanbrooke lobbied the JCS to agree to a Mediterranean ‘peripheral approach’ in 1943, while the US build-up of forces across the Atlantic gathered pace in preparation for the cross-channel offensive and D-Day in 1944.11
Alanbrooke’s strategic logic was based on access to shipping, imperial resupply from the far east through the Suez Canal and an in-direct approach in the Mediterranean.12 There is no doubt that Churchill agreed with CIGS’ logic, however, his opposition to the JCS’ alternative ‘as soon as possible’ cross-channel offensive in 1943 was based less on sound military reasoning, and more on preserving the morale of the British people and British Army.
Churchill’s deepest fear was a static battle in France that resulted in high British casualties. From the outset, the Prime Minister was an advocate of a war of attrition via sea blockade and strategic bombing until Germany collapsed from within or was so weakened that an Allied continental offensive would be a fait accompli.13
Knowing that the British people would not tolerate another large loss of manhood as in the First World War, Churchill sought engagements that could tell a story of British greatness without sacrificing the human capital required to sustain Britain in the post-war world. He wanted victory but needed it to come at a low human cost.14 Churchill used the strategic situation in 1942 as an opportunity to advocate an Allied grand strategy that protected the British Army from the sort of devastation seen on the Western Front in the First World War.
The British placed morale at the centre of all military thought, with their efforts spanning the entire continuum of war, from the tactical to the grand strategic levels. However, a superficial level of analysis places the approaches of Adam, Montgomery, Alanbrooke and Churchill in conflict with each other. Adam’s Morale Committee dedicated themselves to resolving issues that affected the individual morale of British citizen soldiers, who mostly resided at the tactical level. The logic was that higher individual morale could in some way be converted into battlefield success, which in turn would address the shame of Dunkirk, Singapore and Tobruk, leading ultimately to victory over the axis forces.15 However, not everyone in the British Army agreed with this approach.
When first discussing the aims of the Morale Committee, The Executive Committee of the Army Council (ECAC) raised the following point, “In discussion, it was questioned whether the AG’s proposals went far enough. Admittedly, they were a step in the right direction for coordinating action in the War Office…but if indeed there was anything seriously wrong with the morale of the army, the causes were probably far more fundamental and deep seated than those arising from internal administration.”16 It would appear that at the very top of the British Army, there were doubts that Adam’s focus on troops’ individual needs could raise the morale of the citizen army.
Montgomery also disagreed with the Morale Committee’s approach, stating that high morale, “is not contentment or satisfaction or ‘happiness’… happiness may be a contributory factor in the maintenance of morale over a long period, but it is no more than that.17 A man can be unhappy but can still, regularly and without complaining, advance and defend.”18
Sparrow raised a similar concern in a letter to his mother, “You could not make a bigger mistake than to suppose that morale in battle is what the War Office are concerned with…The problem is exactly the reverse – to keep up the morale of the Army during long periods of boring inactivity such as they have been undergoing for the last 18 months – to deal with, and remove the cause of, AWOL, desertion, apathy etc etc…Whether these things can really be affected by action by the War Office is doubtful.”19
The strategic and grand strategic levels complicate the overall morale picture further. With the First World War weighing heavily on their minds, Churchill and Alanbrooke sought to maintain morale by pursuing a policy of battle avoidance, unless fighting absolutely had to take place to safeguard the British Empire.20 At first glance, this runs counter to Montgomery’s approach, who believed that battlefield success, wherever that may be, was the route to generating high morale. The British grand strategists believed the solution to the citizen army’s low morale was to fight less, placing them in conflict with Montgomery’s theory of operational momentum.
If morale is chaotic but also a decisive factor in achieving victory, then winning wars would appear to be a game of chance. To any serious student of military history, this is an absurd deduction.
With the War Office and Morale Committee at the tactical level concentrating on welfare and self-worth issues, Montgomery at the Operational level focused on delivering battlefield success, and Churchill and Alanbrooke at the strategic and grand strategic levels determined to save as many British Army lives as they could, it is hard to see how these three approaches complemented each other. This unsatisfying conclusion is aligned with many close to the academic discourse of morale, who observe that, at times, morale is not a particularly coherent concept. Adam neatly sums up this point, describing morale as, “being painted with the impressionist brush of a Turner and not with the microscopic detail of a Canaletto”.21
Morale is slippery stuff. In Combat and Morale in the North African Campaign, Jonathan Fennell concludes that, “There is an intricate web of factors that can be considered when studying morale. Some of these are primarily outcomes or correlates of morale…others are influencers and determinants of morale.”22
It is clear that morale is a fluid concept. It has no predictable sequence or direction, it is not iterative, and does not flow up and down the continuum of war in a linear fashion. In this sense, morale appears to be chaotic. Development of this theme leads to a deeply unsatisfactory conclusion. If morale is chaotic but also a decisive factor in achieving victory, then winning wars would appear to be a game of chance. To any serious student of military history, this is an absurd deduction. However, could it be that it is not morale itself that is chaotic, but more it is what morale seeks to resolve that induces this chaotic nature?
Clausewitz and morale
Clausewitz wrote extensively on the human element of war, what he described as ‘moral forces’, describing war as, “…nothing but a duel on a larger scale…an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.”23 It is of note that Clausewitz uses of the term ‘will’, highlighting the primacy of human spirit in conflict. Clausewitz goes on, “All war assumes human weakness and seeks to exploit it.”24 It is clear then that Clausewitz placed the human right at the centre of his conceptualisation of war, with moral forces being a major contributory factor in achieving victory.
Another Clausewitzian principle linked to moral forces is the concept of ‘friction’, which he describes as what, “…distinguishes real war from war on paper…”.25 In essence, friction is the unseen force that makes war difficult, from the weather to uncertainty surrounding intelligence. Friction is “everywhere that is in contact with chance and brings about effects that cannot be measured…”.26
Michael Howard’s analysis of moral forces and friction places them on either side of a scale, with morale being required to counter-balance friction caused by the uncertainty and danger of war, “A commander in the field could seldom be sure exactly where the enemy was or in what strength, much less what he was likely to do…he, and more likely the men under his command were likely to be tired, hungry, and apprehensive if not actually physically frightened.
Under these circumstances what mattered was not the logistical calculations of staff officers; it was the vital but incalculable factor of morale.”27 Howard’s evaluation builds a convincing argument to view morale not as a chaotic concept that exists in disparate locations, but more as the human response to an unpredictable and chaotic element of the nature of war – friction.
If Howard’s conceptualisation of the relationship between morale and friction is accepted, then morale can be defined as ‘the willingness of individuals or groups of individuals to overcome friction.” Against this new definition, the attempts of the British Army to raise morale during the Second World War feels much less chaotic. With friction spanning the entire continuum of war, Adam, Montgomery, Alanbrooke and Churchill sought to comprehensively overcome friction where and when they found it.
So what does any of this have to do with Russia? The British Army were on the winning side because they were willing to overcome friction in all its forms, whether that be the social and political friction associated with generating and employing a citizen conscript army, or the friction experienced by the 8th Army’s collapse of confidence and fighting spirit following years of humiliating defeats, or the political and strategic friction Alanbrooke overcame on a daily basis to ensure his strategic vision was ultimately endorsed by the Allies. Even though Alanbrooke appeared close to the edge throughout much of the war, with Churchill experiencing at least one case of psychological breakdown, this was not a demonstration of low morale, but more one of exceptionally high morale. They were willing to overcome the enormous amount of friction felt at the strategic and grand strategic levels, at significant personal cost.
It is doubtful that the societal, military and political institutions within Russia, but also within any non-democratic dictatorship, could tolerate the level of morale required to overcome the sheer amount of friction that pervades the continuum of war. Does the Russian Army really possess the will to overcome the friction their conscript army is currently generating? Not only that, but are their structures even capable of addressing the problem? It is difficult to imagine Valery Gerasimov endorsing and empowering a Russian version of Adam’s Morale Committee. Will Sergey Surovikin be loved and respected by his troops in the same way that Montgomery was, and who is acting as Putin’s Alanbrooke, challenging him to remain pure to the strategic vision?
The British Army’s morale crisis of the Second World War also reveals lessons for UK Defence today. The character of friction itself is determined in part by the character of warfare. In essence, the friction felt by sailors, soldiers and aviators is different, and will require different approaches to overcome it. This means that the morale of Navies, Armies and Air Forces will themselves be of different character. Anyone who has spent time on exchange will instantly recognise this dynamic – we are different. With global security deteriorating to levels not seen since Alanbrooke’s time as Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, and the spectre of a peer-on-peer conflict increasing in likelihood, perhaps we should become much more comfortable with the concept of being different, if not actively encouraging it. Morale, in all its forms, will be the decisive factor in winning the next war.
Rob McCartney is a serving RAF officer, graduate of the UK Advanced Command and Staff Course 25, and King’s College London PhD applicant. Currently working within Air Capability, his research interests are air power, grand strategy, the Second World War and morale.
- John Varga, ‘Russian Conscripts Kill Themselves as as Russia Doubles Down on Ukraine War,’ Express, 22 October 2022, available at: https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1686345/russia-news-army-conscripts-commit-suicide-kazan-putin-ukraine-war-update.
- Isabel Van Brugen, ‘Russian Commander ‘Executed’ Following Mass Desertions of His Unit: Report,’ Newsweek, 5 December 2022, available at: https://www.newsweek.com/russian-commander-killed-executed-desertions-unit-donbas-1764622.
- Jonathan Fennell, Combat and Morale in the North African Campaign: The Eighth Army and the Path to El Alamein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 282.
- NA WO 163/73, ECAC, Morale in the Army, 25 February 1942. Initial suggestion by Adam to form a Morale Committee.
- NA WO 277/16, Sparrow, Army Morale, 6-13.
- Ibid., 17.
- NA WO 32/15773, Auchinleck to War Office, 24 July 1942.
- Bernard Law Montgomery, The Memoirs of Field-Marshal the Viscount Montgomery of Alamein (London: Collins Publishing, 1958), 101.
- Montgomery, The Memoirs of Field-Marshal the Viscount Montgomery, 83-84.
- Winston Churchill, The Second World War, Volume 4: The Hinge of Fate (London: Cassell, 1951), 603.
- Arthur Bryant and Alan Brooke Alanbrooke, The Turn of the Tide, 1939-1943: A Study Based on the Diaries and Autobiographical Notes of Field Marshal the Viscount Alanbrooke (London: Collins Publishing, 1957), 30.
- Alex Danchev and Daniel Todman, War Diaries 1939-1945 (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001), 206.
- David Reynolds, From World War to Cold War: Churchill, Roosevelt, and the International History of the 1940s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 122-123.
- Alan Packwood, How Churchill Waged War: The Most Challenging Decisions of the Second World War (Barnsley, England: Frontline Books, 2018), 183-204.
- NA WO 277/16, Sparrow, Army Morale, 3.
- NA WO 163/73, Executive Committee of the Army Council, 49th meeting, 6 March 1942. Minute 71, Morale in the Army.
- Montgomery, The Memoirs of Field-Marshal the Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, 101.
- Major-General Raymond Briggs Papers, Paper by Field-Marshal Montgomery, ‘Morale in Battle: Analysis’, Imperial War Museum, 30 April 1946, 47-48.
- John Lowe and Paul Preston, The Warden: A Portrait of John Sparrow (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1998), 108.
- Phillips O’Brien, How the War Was Won (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 35-36.
- NA WO 259/44 ‘Army Morale’: Paper by Adjutant General, May 1944.
- Jonathon Fennell, Combat and Morale in the North African Campaign: The Eighth Army and the Path to El Alamein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 282.
- Carl Von Clausewitz, On War (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976), 75.
- Clausewitz, On War, 185.
- Clausewitz, On War, 119.
- Clausewitz, On War, 120.
- Michael Howard, Clausewitz: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 26-27.