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Sir  Basil Henry  Liddell Hart (1895–1970), by Howard Coster, 1939Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart (1895–1970), by Howard Coster, 1939
Hart, Sir Basil Henry Liddell (1895–1970), military thinker and historian, was born on 31 October 1895 at 4 rue Rosquépine, near the place St Augustin, in Paris (8th arrondissement). He was the younger son of Revd Henry Bramley Hart (1860–1937), the Wesleyan Methodist minister in Paris, and his wife, Clara Liddell (1862–1954). Bramley Hart came from Westbury-on-Severn, Gloucestershire, of yeoman stock. His mother's family was more distinguished, hailing from Cornwall and among its early railway pioneers. Clara's father, Henry Liddell, was assistant general manager of the London South-Western Railway. However, though the young Basil identified socially with his mother's family, he developed a strong bond with his broad-minded and shrewd father; his sour and contrary mother was a much less important figure in his life. Basil had an elder brother, Ernest Ravensworth Hart (1888–1932), who became an eye surgeon. Basil did not enjoy robust health as a child, and was rather indulged as a result.

Education and military service

The Harts returned to England in 1901. Basil attended school briefly in Folkestone, but thereafter he was educated privately by governesses, not attending school until he was sent to Edgeborough School (1904–7) aged almost nine. He moved to Willington School (1907–10) before his parents selected a day school, St Paul's School (1911–13), in preference to boarding at Haileybury College, because of his delicate health. During these years he spent much time at home reading voraciously, giving free rein to his romantic imagination, and writing. An adolescent passion of his was aviation, and by the age of sixteen he was writing confident letters to magazines such as The Aeroplane.

Bored by school, Hart persuaded his parents to allow him to go up to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, eighteen months early, and take the history tripos. He was uninterested in medieval and constitutional history, and scraped a third in his qualifying examination in May 1914. Preoccupied with his hobbies, he recalled later, ‘I was content to let the future take care of itself until I graduated’ (Liddell Hart, 1.10); but this casual attitude was swept aside by the outbreak of the First World War in August. In December 1914 Liddell Hart (a surname he did not adopt until 1921) was gazetted second lieutenant in the King's Own Yorkshire light infantry (KOYLI). He saw three tours of duty on the western front, concluding with active service with 9 KOYLI during the battle of the Somme in July 1916. On 18 July he was gassed in Mametz Wood. While recovering he wrote a short book extolling the qualities of British commanders. He was promoted captain in April 1917 and served as adjutant of the 4th battalion Gloucestershire volunteer regiment in Stroud. Here he met and on 24 April 1918 married at Stroud parish church his first wife, Jessie Douglas (1895–1977), the youngest daughter of J. J. Stone, a stockbroker. They had one son, Adrian John (1922–1990).

Liddell Hart had moved to Cambridge in January 1918 and codified his experiments in training soldiers in a short book, New Methods of Infantry Training (1918). Encouraged by this first step, he began to submit articles to military journals. In March 1920 he sent a long paper on mobile offensive tactics to General Sir Ivor Maxse, general officer commanding, northern command. This move inaugurated a technique that Liddell Hart would deploy skilfully, that of impressing his superiors by sending them copies of his writings. General Maxse introduced him to his brother, Leo Maxse, editor of the National Review. Liddell Hart's paper was published in this periodical in two parts, as ‘The “Man-in-the-dark” theory of war’, and ‘A new theory of infantry tactics’. Also through Maxse, Brigadier-General Winston Dugan requested that Liddell Hart serve on the staff of 10th infantry brigade headquarters. He was asked to write the manual Infantry Training, which was completed in September 1920. He sent parts of the draft to Colonel J. F. C. Fuller and started their long friendship. In October 1920 Liddell Hart delivered the Royal United Service Institution's opening lecture, ‘The expanding torrent system of attack’. These important lectures and papers consolidated Liddell Hart's growing reputation as an intelligent interpreter of the operational experience of 1918: distilling its essential principles for training purposes, and then relating them perceptively to mobility and command in a novel way. However, frustrated by the army's doctrinal ‘vetting’ process that sandpapered his conclusions, Liddell Hart published his unadulterated views in The Framework of Infantry Tactics (1921); a revised edition was entitled A Science of Infantry Tactics (1923, 1926).

Liddell Hart's career on the staff seemed assured, as he enjoyed the patronage of Maxse and Dugan. They suggested he transfer to the Royal Army Education Corps; in 1921 he was given a regular commission, but the medical board refused to pass him fit (he had experienced two mild heart attacks in 1921 and 1922). In 1923 he was selected for the Royal Tank Corps, until his medical record was scrutinized; then in July 1923 he was placed on half pay, but he was not officially retired until 1927, with the rank of captain, on the grounds of ‘ill health caused by wounds’.

Career in journalism

The early 1920s were years of struggle as Liddell Hart faced up to the disappointments resulting in the end of his military career and he tried to find another. His experiments in writing fiction and film screenplays came to nothing. He wrote to Lord Northcliffe asking for a job, but was refused. His first success was in sports journalism, covering Wimbledon for American Lawn Tennis and several national newspapers. In 1926 he published a collection of his tennis writings as The Lawn Tennis Masters Unveiled. His first opportunity came in 1924 when he accepted the post of lawn tennis correspondent and assistant military correspondent of the Morning Post. On 10 July 1925, thanks to the intercession of General Maxse (a director), Liddell Hart was appointed military correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. ‘I decided to make it a platform’, he averred, ‘for launching a campaign for the mechanisation of the Army’ (Liddell Hart, 1.76). In addition, in the autumn he was selected military adviser (later he was to be editor) to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, a stimulus to his study of military history.

Liddell Hart quickly established himself as a journalist of formidable talent. Affable, knowledgeable, and reliable, he soon forged relations of trust with progressive soldiers. He developed an enormous network of contacts and was very well informed; consequently his reports were authoritative, and his judgement was trusted; he was granted privileged access to the War Office. When the chief of the Imperial General Staff designate, General Sir George Milne, wished to signal his desire to reform the army in August 1925, he met Liddell Hart in Arundel. No military journalist before or since has attained comparable influence.

Liddell Hart's early books were written from the perspective of improving war-fighting techniques, and reveal the powerful influence of J. F. C. Fuller. His most notable early success was Paris, or, The Future of War (1925), which argued that technological improvement of weapons would enable psychological paralysis of armies and nation states to occur and reduce the destructive time-scale of war. His historical works stress the importance of the great individual, A Greater than Napoleon: Scipio Africanus (1926), Great Captains Unveiled (1927), and Reputations: Ten Years After (1928), complementing the theoretical ideas advanced in The Remaking of Modern Armies (1927). He argued that the Napoleonic strategy of confronting the enemy directly in great strength at the earliest moment in order to effect his destruction was obsolescent because of improvements in weapons, especially the machine gun. Scipio's campaigns had shown that ‘the moral objective was the aim of all plans, whether political, strategical or tactical’ (Reid, 219). With the exception of Scipio these early books were essentially collections (or extended essays), at which journalists excel. They were certainly didactic, confident, and written with great flair. Their reception abroad was not retarded by a trip that Liddell Hart undertook to France and Italy in the autumn of 1926, during which he met Mussolini. Liddell Hart's first impressions of fascism were not unfavourable.

Growing reputation

By the late 1920s Liddell Hart had acquired an international reputation as a military critic. He began to develop as a thinker and move beyond the confines of a talented journalist. He worked confidently in assembling larger theoretical and historical structures. The influence of Fuller was less pervasive and his books bear his own distinct voice. Liddell Hart began to take some of Fuller's theorems in new, more radical directions, and indeed began to surpass him in influence. It was perhaps no coincidence that tensions erupting between their two wives in 1928 spilled over into a quarrel in 1929 about American Civil War generals, although they were quickly reconciled. Liddell Hart had championed William T. Sherman as a practitioner of what he later termed the strategy of the indirect approach. His biography, Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American (1929), appeared at the same time as Fuller's study of Ulysses S. Grant. Liddell Hart himself believed that the concept of the indirect approach was his major contribution to military theory, and claimed that it was the outgrowth of a general, philosophical outlook on life that valued reason, detachment, urbane ‘civilized’ good manners, and honest, moderate objectives. In military terms, it was based on movement, deception, and surprise, resulting in the ‘dislocation of the enemy's psychological and physical balance’ which forms ‘the vital prelude to a successful attempt at his overthrow’ (B. H. Liddell Hart, The Decisive Wars of History, 1929, 5). T. E. Lawrence quickly replaced Fuller as his guru and served ‘as the living embodiment’ of the theory (Reid, 167). Significantly also, his writings on the First World War, The Real War (1930), enlarged as A History of the World War, 1914–1918 (1934), and Foch: Man of Orleans (1931), began to exhibit a critical, hectoring tone, especially in the chapters on the western front.

With these substantial books Liddell Hart took his place as a leading member of the liberal intelligentsia. Thanks to General Sir Ian Hamilton he was elected a member of the Athenaeum. He moved beyond military social circles, consorting with Gilbert Murray, John Buchan, and Maurice Bowra. In the spring of 1930 he was invited as a lecturer to attend the Hellenic travellers cruise, along with Murray, H. A. L. Fisher, and Canon Wigram. He became consumed by ‘the truth’ and in the years 1930–35 entered a philosophical phase, most apparent in ‘T. E. Lawrence’ in Arabia and After (1934). By comparison with his exalted ideals, Liddell Hart became increasingly impatient with soldiers. His private reflections were littered with complaints about ‘military trades-unionism’ and wilful blindness to ‘truth’ (Holden Reid, 175–6).

Indeed, in truth, Liddell Hart's dedication to mechanization and the cause of the Royal Tank Corps always implied much more than an interest in the tank or even armoured warfare. It was a means to an end—the revival of generalship as an art. Liddell Hart's pioneering stress on strategy was initially viewed through the prism of operations. At a lecture given at the Royal United Service Institution in January 1931 Liddell Hart posited a ‘British way in warfare’. This essay was included in a book of that title published the following year and subsequently enlarged as When Britain Goes to War (1935). British strategy, Liddell Hart argued, had traditionally rested on commercial pressure imposed by naval power. In 1932–3 Liddell Hart delivered the Lees Knowles lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge, published as The Ghost of Napoleon (1933). He denounced the Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz as the ‘Mahdi of Mass’. He blamed him (unfairly) as the source of the brutal, unimaginative, and bloody frontal attacks in 1914–18. The more Liddell Hart stressed the operational potential of armoured warfare, criticized conscription, and stressed the need for lighter, more flexible infantry tactics, as in The Future of Infantry (1933), the more his logic seemed to demand a grand strategy that could fit his scenario for a more limited form of war. In 1932 Liddell Hart visited the disarmament conference in Geneva, and advocated a reduction in the size of tanks and calibre of artillery—foreshadowing a new defensive twist to his thinking.

Leading military and public opinion

In March 1935 Liddell Hart joined The Times as defence correspondent. His appointment conferred not only prestige but a lofty platform from which to expound his views on policy. Throughout 1935–7 he advised the secretary of state for war, Duff Cooper. By this date he had become outraged by revelations concerning the conduct of the First World War that had emerged through private briefings from the official historians, as well as from recently published diaries and memoirs. A further catalyst to Liddell Hart's critical perspective on the war was the help he gave in 1934–6 to Lloyd George when preparing his War Memoirs. Liddell Hart thus denounced British generalship harshly in The War in Outline, 1914–1918 (1936) and Through the Fog of War (1938). He came to believe passionately that the continental commitment to France was a colossal error that should never be repeated. In two books, Europe in Arms (1937) and The Defence of Britain (1939), Liddell Hart advocated a policy of ‘limited liability’, restricting military commitments to air and naval forces, supported by two high-quality armoured divisions. He assumed a position to advance this case after he became unofficial adviser to Cooper's successor, Leslie Hore-Belisha. He helped introduce many reforms that modernized the officer's career structure and improved training, drills, and living conditions for the troops. The army council was purged of older generals who were replaced by more dynamic men. However, many felt that Liddell Hart had become too powerful and that the army should not be run by journalists. His influence waned and the ‘partnership’ ended in July 1938.

Liddell Hart's hectic schedule became even more frantic as he began a round of public-speaking engagements warning against the dangers of fascism, which he detested—leading to an estrangement with Fuller (1937–42)—and opposing both appeasement and war. The confluence of public despair and private sorrow was reached in August 1938 when he separated from his wife, Jessie. His relations with the pro-appeasement editors of The Times had also deteriorated, and he left the paper at the end of 1939. In any case Liddell Hart suffered a major heart attack in June 1939 coupled with a nervous breakdown. He moved to Devon to convalesce, nursed by Kathleen Nelson (née Sullivan; b. 1904) , who in 1942 became his second wife, his divorce from his first wife having taken place earlier that year.

Discredited by events

Liddell Hart's fall from grace was rapid. The reasons are complex. Throughout the years 1925–37 he had reflected and led public opinion, especially on the First World War. In 1938–9 opinion began to change, but Liddell Hart consistently defended his original stance, and he became out of step. The spectre of war had concentrated Liddell Hart's mind, and his strategic concepts were based less on operations and more on deterrence, containment, collective security, and an ‘armed truce’; this structure was cemented by a concept that almost destroyed his reputation: the primacy of the defence. However, Liddell Hart's underestimation of the ruthless exercise of military power was punished savagely by the allied collapse in the West in May–June 1940, leaving him vulnerable to the charge of being a canting false prophet. His self-confidence never quite recovered from this experience. He wrote freelance for the Daily Mail and Sunday Express. Yet the taint of defeatism stuck, especially after his calls for a compromise peace with Hitler and his criticisms of Churchill's strategy. In 1940 Lord Beaverbrook warned him that his name was a byword in the House of Commons for defeatism. Some MPs had ‘stated that you sympathise on occasion with Mosley and his fascist movement’ (Beaverbrook MSS, C/159, 15 Feb 1940). As a consistent anti-fascist Liddell Hart must have been stung by this letter, but his attitude to the war inevitably meant that he could not be offered a senior official position.

Liddell Hart's health recovered slowly, but his reputation only fitfully. In 1941 he moved to the Lake District. His wartime books, Dynamic Defence (1940), The Current of War (1941), and This Expanding War (1942), are tedious apologias that somehow miss their mark. His dedication to ‘moderation’ in Why Don't We Learn from History? (1944) seems misguided. Liddell Hart never quite grasped the true nature of the Nazi regime in Germany; and his dedication to limited forms of war is attested in Thoughts on War (1944). In the spring of 1943 he still believed that an allied victory was only ‘a possibility’ (Bond, 147). His contract with the Daily Mail ran out in February 1945 and was not renewed. In 1946–7 he seriously contemplated abandoning his military studies and writing full time on (and designing) ladies' fashion, one of his private passions.

Reputation restored

None the less, Liddell Hart had laid the foundations for rebuilding his career, and as before 1939 they rested on a combination of historical and contemporary analysis. The strategic concepts that Liddell Hart had explored in the late 1930s were better suited to the cold war. The Revolution in Warfare (1946) absorbed the atomic bomb into his thinking, and was followed up by The Defence of the West (1950). While still living in the Lake District he interviewed captured German generals in a neighbouring prisoner-of-war camp. His The Other Side of the Hill (1948, 1951) discussed their view of their campaigns in the Second World War. Although a valuable source for many years, this book underestimated the generals' allegiance to the Nazi regime. Liddell Hart followed this up with an edition of The Rommel Papers (1953). Further, he campaigned indefatigably on behalf of the German generals, rather relishing his minority position, demanding an improvement in their living conditions, and arguing that they should not be tried as war criminals. By the 1950s he had received a number of glowing tributes (for instance, from Heinz Guderian) as the ‘creator’ of modern armoured warfare. These claims have been disputed, but there can be little doubt that he exerted a general stimulus or inspiration. However, Liddell Hart tended to exaggerate the extent to which his ideas were neglected in Britain and taken up in Germany; and his later choice of the ideas he deemed important from the 1930s was highly selective.

However, Liddell Hart's version of events was accepted, and his rehabilitation coincided with his move back to the home counties, first in 1946 to Tilford House, Farnham, Surrey, and then to Wolverton Park in 1949, and then a decade later to States House, Medmenham, Buckinghamshire. He assumed the role of sage, entertained generously, and surrounded himself with younger ‘pupils’, drawn not just from western Europe and the United States, but also Israel. He still endured disappointment. His failure in 1946, for instance, to be appointed to the Chichele chair in the history of war at Oxford wounded him deeply. However, by 1960 Liddell Hart's reputation had not just been restored but enhanced, as he was fêted by distinguished foreign admirers, and John F. Kennedy was photographed holding a copy of his Deterrent or Defence (1960), which called for a more flexible NATO strategy. When in 1960 he visited Israel he received more attention than any other foreign visitor save Marilyn Monroe. In 1963 he was awarded (with Fuller) the Royal United Service Institution's Chesney gold medal, and a year later he received an honorary DLitt degree from Oxford.

Liddell Hart also emerged as something of a man of the left. His most extravagant admirers in civilian circles tended to be socialists who found much to approve of in his denunciation of the incompetence of the British army (especially in 1916–17) and his trenchant criticisms of its social ethos. His political allegiance if not his sympathies had been kept vague for much of his career. Hore-Belisha had been a Liberal National, and Liddell Hart had been consulted by both the Liberal and Labour parties; during 1938 both agreed to support him as a Progressive candidate for the Rye division. After 1945 he supported the Labour Party, and made contact with defence intellectuals on the left, like John Strachey and Denis Healey. He was not a Conservative, and his relations with Churchill after 1940 were cool; they united only once, in 1954–5, to denounce Richard Aldington's ‘debunking’ biography of their mutual friend T. E. Lawrence, a campaign which Liddell Hart orchestrated brilliantly. In 1966 Harold Wilson's Labour government rewarded him with a knighthood for services to military thought.

The years 1965–6 formed Liddell Hart's apogee. He was visiting distinguished professor at the University of California, Davis. A Festschrift, edited by Michael Howard, The Theory and Practice of War (1965), appeared, and in the same year two volumes of his Memoirs. However, while in Davis he suffered a painful swelling of the prostate and had to return to England early. Yet he was not deflected from his remorseless labours: replying to his huge correspondence, commenting on international events such as the 1967 Six Day War, scrutinizing the book manuscripts of others, and preparing his own History of the Second World War, which was published posthumously in 1970. He regularly took an annual holiday after Christmas with Field Marshal Montgomery, at the Carlton Hotel, Bournemouth. He died suddenly at his home in Medmenham, shortly after returning from holiday, on 29 January 1970. He was buried at the parish church in Medmenham on 2 February.

Liddell Hart was a bundle of contradictions. He was self-confident but insecure, vain and sometimes arrogant, but he was remarkably tolerant and open to argument. Despite a rather glamorous air (a man who dined with film stars, as well as famous military men, scholars, and writers) he was fundamentally an Edwardian rationalist and gentleman. He was self-made, however, and could be mendacious in defence of his reputation, but his overriding sincerity and abundant generosity contributed to a tremendous talent for making (and keeping) friends. He had real but untapped gifts as a teacher. For all his weaknesses (which sprang from his journalistic background), Liddell Hart made a massive contribution to British intellectual life, not least in introducing the study of war into its mainstream, and making war studies a respectable province for scholarly endeavour.

Brian Holden Reid

Sources  

B. Bond, Liddell Hart: a study of his military thought (1977) · B. H. Liddell Hart, The memoirs of Captain Liddell Hart, 2 vols. (1965) · B. Holden Reid, Studies in British military thought: debates with Fuller and Liddell Hart (1998) · A. Gat, The fascist and liberal visions of war: Fuller, Liddell Hart, Douhet and other modernists (1998) · A. Danchev, Alchemist of war (1998) · J. J. Mearsheimer, Liddell Hart and the weight of history (1988) · B. Bond, ed., The First World War and British military history (1991) · J. Luvaas, The education of an army: British military thought, 1815–1940 (Chicago, IL, 1964) · King's Lond., Liddell Hart MSS · Parl. Arch., Beaverbrook papers · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1970)

Archives  

King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. and MSS · News Int. RO, MSS as military correspondent for The Times |  Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Gilbert Murray · CAC Cam., corresp. with Monty Belgion; corresp. with M. P. A. Hankey; corresp. with E. L. Spears · IWM, corresp. with Sir Michael Carver [photocopies] · JRL, corresp. with E. E. Dorman O'Gowan · King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. with Robert Graves; corresp. with John North; letters and articles to Don Russel, editor of the Chicago Daily News; corresp. with E. L. Spears; corresp. with R. W. Thompson; corresp. with Sir Andrew Thorne · NRA, priv. coll., corresp. with John Strachey · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Lord Beaverbrook · Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, corresp. with John Buchan  

FILM

 

IWM FVA, actuality footage

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, ‘Scipio and Hannibal’, 8 Oct 1960, B302365 · BL NSA, documentary recordings · IWM SA, oral history interview


Likenesses  

H. Coster, photographs, 1930–39, NPG [see illus.] · S. Botzaris, drawing, 1938, priv. coll. · H. Heckroth, oils, 1939, NPG · E. Kennington, portraits, 1943, priv. coll. · W. Bird, photograph, 1966, NPG · J. Pannett, chalk, 1966, NPG · M. Fitzgibbon, bronze bust, 1978, King's Lond., Liddell Hart C. · M. Fitzgibbon, bronze bust, IWM · Joss, cartoon, repro. in The Star (6 April 1936) · R. Searle, cartoon, repro. in Punch (7 April 1954) · Vicky, cartoon, repro. in New Statesman (4 Jan 1958)

Wealth at death  

£63,161: probate, 23 Sept 1970, CGPLA Eng. & Wales