‘Honoured that you are writing my father’s biography’ the late Tony Benn, ‘...wonderfully written’ Hilary Benn

‘Sparkles with fascinating detail…a remarkable story of Liberal and Labour politics in the first half of the twentieth century.’ Michael Crick, Political Correspondent, Channel 4 News

‘Casts much light both on the evolution of British radicalism, and on the legacy which he bequeathed to his son, Tony. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, King's College, London

‘Brilliant biography…wonderful reading about the father and...discovering more about the son.’ Steve Richards of The Independent

‘Well-written and carefully researched, this fascinating biography brings to life a major figure in British political history…an excellent job of weaving together the strands of a complex life…as well as filling in the background of the Benn family’ Richard Doherty, military historian

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Fighting the Last War

Researching aspects of the First World War for my forthcoming biography of William Wedgwood Benn, I have been struck by the truth of the old adage that military figures tend to focus on fighting the last war.

This was certainly borne out by Benn’s experience of joining a cavalry regiment which shipped its horses all the way to Egypt, only to leave them behind (with a third of the troops to look after them), before the regiment went into battle in the Dardanelles in 1915.

One of Benn’s political roles before the war had been as parliamentary private secretary to Reginald McKenna at the Admiralty, where the focus had been on accelerating the construction of the vastly-expensive, steam-powered, heavy-gun, Dreadnought battleships. In the event the only significant naval engagement of the First World War involving the Dreadnoughts was the indecisive Battle of Jutland in 1916.

Benn ended up in the RAF on its formation and was involved in dropping the first parachutist at night behind enemy lines, through a trap door cut into the floor of the plane. He also served on one of the earliest aircraft carriers, a cross-channel ferry with a large shed stuck on the back. Ironically, this hybrid contraption saw much more action than did most of the Dreadnoughts.

As is often the case, the most expensive and politically-controversial weapons never really get used. Let’s hope that this turns out to be the case with the Trident nuclear missiles too.

1 comment:

  1. While technically a draw Jutland was however arguably a decisive one as it showed both sides that dreadnoughts and particularly battlecruisers were so fragile as to be virtually useless in battle - and in 1918 the German High Seas Fleet actually mutinied and brought down the Kaiser rather than leave port on another such suicide mission.

    It was also effectively the first and last full scale battle (although in fact most of both fleets were never fully engaged) between modern battleships - every subsequent sea battle of any size was to be decided by air power.