Joseph Hansen

New Ways of War

(December 1940)

Source: Fourth International, Vol.1 No.7, December 1940, p.207.
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: Joseph Hansen Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

New Ways of War
by Tom Wintringham
Penguin Books, Inc., New York City. 128 pp. 25¢

Wintringham analyzes the deadly effect upon defense which bourgeois control of the armed forces entails: outdated concepts of training and army organization with consequent impairment of the intelligence, initiative, and fighting ability of draftees, use of antiquated arms and antiquated combat methods, the placing of defense needs in secondary position to the needs of the profit-makers. He demonstrates from the purely military viewpoint how the German armies, because of their modernization in equipment and organization and tactics, especially the degree of decision left to the individual soldier in the ranks, have been able to sweep over Europe with stunning speed.

The observations of Wintringham as to the paralyzing role of the present officer caste are valid not only for the British and the French but also the American armies. In the last war these officers sacrificed men uselessly by the tens of thousands. Clinging to antiquated concepts of war, the officer caste in 1914 attempted battles of maneuver as if nothing had happened since 1870 whereas the development of armament demanded an entirely different type of warfare.

“Whole divisions of British infantry,” says Wintringham, “climbed out of the trenches to commit suicide ‘dressed by the right.’ The official British history says, for example, of the 34th Division at the Somme: ‘At zero hour the whole infantry of the division except the head of the second column, rose as one man ... In a matter of ten minutes 80 per cent of the men in the leading battalions were casualties’.”

Had the men themselves had officers of their own choice, responsive to the experience of the ranks, these useless casualties could have been avoided.

By the end of the war in 1918 new tactics clearly loomed.

“It was no longer siege warfare,” explains Wintringham, “but war of movement under new conditions, and with a new shape. And here we see how the Blitzkrieg develops directly from its opposite, the stalemate of the trenches.”

The trench deadlock was broken by the development of the airplane and tank. But the Allied officer caste is still imbued with ideas of warfare that date back to the pre-Napoleonic era.

“... the leaders of a modern army must allow subordinate commanders to use their own judgment. Each of the units of a mechanised striking force must be ‘given its head.’ But owing to the social structure of Britain in the past, and of the class that rules the army, it is difficult in the British Army for the higher commanders to trust and encourage their juniors in this way. The leadership that hunts foxes cannot believe that the young officers from civil life ... can possibly think for themselves and act for themselves without close and continuous control from above. As for sergeants, corporals, and ordinary men of the ranks, they are unfortunately debarred by birth and income from polo and fox hunting; how can they possibly be given the right and duty to act on their own? In this way class considerations have in the past made it difficult for our army to achieve the form of leadership necessary for modern war.”

Wintringham considers it a myth inherited from the dead past that the best officers must come from the upper rangs of society. On the contrary he considers that the best officers come from the working class; moreover, without such officers the army as a whole is bound to greatly increase its mortality rate and the possibility of defeat in modern warfare.

Other “myths” listed by Wintringham are the idea that cavalry plays a serious role in modern war, and that the bayonet is a useful weapon. The bayonet, says Wintringham, has been outdated since the American revolution of 1776. As far back as the Russo-Japanese war, he reports, losses of the Russians from bayonets, swords and spears were only 1.7 percent of their casualties. Against automatic guns, grenades, artillery, the bayonet is ineffective. Nevertheless all the Allied armies spend time drilling with the bayonet.

Wintringham considers the drill which is now forced upon the British trainees to be harmful.

“But to take perfectly good young men and give them weeks on end of barrack-square, knocks out of them not only any ‘instincts’ for fighting they may have, but also their ability to think about all orders received and to use their own judgement. Independence, initiative and intelligence are all ground out of the recruit at the average training depot ... Drill teaches men to obey definite, limited immediate orders. In war, at the crucial moments, they will not get such orders. Such orders cannot reach them in time. They have to act and think for themselves.”

In Wintringham’s opinion football, swimming, sports in general, study of films showing actual warfare together with training in all the various arms is the best sort of drill for modern war.

For defense against invasion he proposes the general arming of the population, the building of a People’s Army. He cites examples of People’s Wars in the past which succeeded in breaking powerful military machines: the war of the Spanish people against Napoleon, the Italian people under Garibaldi. France fell to the German army, he believes, because “those who feared the French people had their way. Their way led to capitulation.” Arming of the people, workers’ control of the armed forces could have stopped the Germans.

Much of the book is devoted to valuable information on concrete ways in which a people can arm itself for a war of defense. Against tanks Wintringham advises the use of hand grenades and even includes detailed instructions together with diagrams for their home production. He indicates methods of making an ordinary shotgun into a deadly weapon at ranges much beyond that ordinarily attributed to the smooth bore gun. He also gives concrete advice on how to fight motorcycle troops, parachutists, artillery and airplanes.

The sections of his book devoted to ways in which the general population can drill and train itself to become in effective fighting force in an invasion by a modern army should be of particular interest to trade unionists. Wintringham indicates group drills that could be organized by any trade union local.

As for reform in the Army, Wintringham advocates besides modernization of tactics and equipment and the utilization of workers for officers, the democratization of the army.

“(1) Modern war makes imposed arbitrary and automatic discipline and rigid tactics not only useless but harmful, unsuccessful. (2) Modern war makes voluntarily, understood and thinking discipline and elastic tactics based on initiative and independence, more valuable than ever before. In the British Army’s training there is insistence on the discipline and tactics outlined in 1, and disregard for those outlined in 2. The way to alter that is to inject a large dose of democracy. There is no other way.”

His analysis of modern war does not take into consideration the effect of the relative economic weight of Germany in the capitalist chain in comparison with its political position prior to the downfall of France. Nor does his analysis include the role of the Versailles Treaty in modernizing the German armies and holding the Allied armies at their 1918 level. Hence as a treatise on modern war, the book is superficial. On the purely military side his treatment of the role of the navy and aircraft is also inadequate as the author himself admits. Inadequate too are his analyses of the German campaigns as a whole which all the military experts of the world have been studying with sharpest attention whether or not they have revised their drill manuals in the light of what these campaigns reveal. It is also necessary to warn the reader that the author’s political views are those of the traditional patriotic British socialist somewhat more than tinged with Stalinism.


Last updated on: 15.2.2006