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.