Military historian Correlli Barnett, who died at the age of 95, was a prolific and controversial writer. His books took aim at the myths surrounding Britain’s wartime exploits, in particular the way its armed forces were run during the First and Second World Wars.
Barnett – or “Bill” as he was universally known – believed that Britain’s political and military leaders, and the mandarins who provided them with administrative support, were routinely guilty of abysmal incompetence during times of conflict, and that Repeated failures to learn lessons or enact reforms had contributed to Britain’s decline as a nation.
He made a name for himself in 1960 with The Desert Generals, in which he attempted a daring attack on most of the senior British commanders who fought the North African campaign in World War II, accusing them of amateurishness. and opposing their efforts unfavorably to those of the Germans. His criticisms extended to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who had generally been considered the hero of the campaign, but exonerated Montgomery’s predecessor, Claude Auchinleck, who he claimed had indeed defeated Axis forces in the first battle of El Alamein before succeeded by Montgomery. Montgomery’s most famous victory in the Second Battle of El Alamein was, he argued, unnecessary as the impending Anglo-American invasion of North Africa (Operation Torch) would have forced the Germans to retreat anyway. .
Barnett’s irreverent treatment of Montgomery and the British Eighth Army enraged some, but the book’s success encouraged him to tackle other military myths in The Swordbearers (1963) and Britain and Her Army (1970). ), in which he challenged the idea that sea power had obviated the need for an effective army to safeguard Britain’s interests in Europe.
There followed three impressive volumes tracing the decline of Britain from the mid-19th century to the 1950s. In The Collapse of British Power (1972), he traced the sources of decadence to mid-era evangelicalism. Victorian culture and the rise of public schools, with their overriding concern to produce ‘gentlemen’, steeped in the classics, at the expense of useful learning linked to industry and science. As a result, he argued, Britain had lost its competitive advantage in national and international affairs.
According to him, Britain’s decline as a manufacturing, trading and imperial power was already evident in 1900 and was even more cruelly exposed during the First World War. Germany, since Bismarck, had provided the example of a modern and efficient state, oriented towards science and technology, which Great Britain had failed miserably to imitate.
These themes were developed in the second volume, The Audit of War (1986), in which Barnett deftly deployed a great deal of evidence, including from official reports, to challenge the deeply rooted myth of Britain’s splendid record in matters of war. production, innovation and management. during WWII.
Third, in The Lost Victory: British Dreams, British Realities, 1945-1950 (1995), Barnett pointed out that Britain did not win World War II but was simply on the winning side. Old failings in domestic and foreign policy have not been corrected, he said; indeed, things were getting worse. The post-war reformers’ dream of creating a New Jerusalem had turned into the sad reality of an “under-literate, unskilled, unhealthy, institutionalized proletariat hanging from the nipple of state motherhood.” This brief summary does little justice to Barnett’s mastery of a mass of evidence, his array of targets and his savage invective, such as describing British strategy after 1945 as “all fur coat and no breeches”.
The Audit of War was particularly influential as some of its ideas were taken up by Conservative political theorist Keith Joseph, who became a minister under Edward Heath and then Margaret Thatcher. In general, however, Barnett was more successful in provoking discussion than in gaining acceptance for his concepts or providing workable remedies. Even sympathetic critics pointed out that Britain’s power base was still relatively weak and that this decline was inevitable sooner or later. They also wondered why other nations, such as France and Italy, had also declined without Britain’s alleged cultural handicaps.
Perhaps most disturbing to many was Barnett’s unabashed embrace of 20th-century Germany as a model; a military-industrial-educational complex designed to preserve and strengthen its power in a relentless, Hobbesian struggle with ruthless competitors.
Barnett was born the only child of Douglas, a banker, and his wife, Kathleen, in Croydon, south London, and was educated there at Trinity School before earning a degree in modern history at Exeter College, Oxford. He was simply too young to fight in the Second World War, but did his military service in the Intelligence Corps from 1945 to 1948, after which he worked for the North Thames Gas Board until 1957, followed by a period in public relations until 1963. Thereafter he spent many years earning a living as a historian and freelance writer, including in 1963-64 as a consultant and contributor to the innovative BBC series Television The Great War, also later working in a similar role on two other BBC series, The Lost Peace. (1965-66) and The Commanders (1972-73).
He also enjoyed exceptional success as a part-time custodian of the archives of Churchill College, Cambridge, between 1977 and 1995, playing an important role in the acquisition of Winston Churchill’s papers after many years of wrangling over their financial worth. and their destination. In the early 1980s he was appointed as a lecturer in defense studies at the University of Cambridge – but quit after three years in order to devote more time to his writing.
He was appointed BCE in 1997.
Although those who did not know him might have expected the angry tone of many of Barnett’s publications to go hand in hand with an angry personality, that of a Colonel Blimp-ish, in fact he was about as far from this image that one could have imagined. Despite his irritation at inefficiency in public life, he was remarkably even-tempered and cheerful, generous with his time to answer questions and help his friends. He retained almost childish looks in old age, and with them a youthful exuberance and a sense of fun.
With his wife, Ruth Murby, whom he married in 1950, Barnett spent most of his time in East Carleton, Norfolk, where his hobbies included gardening, home decorating and mole hunting. He also enjoyed traveling through France, although an aversion to flying restricted further adventures.
Ruth passed away in 2020. He is survived by their two daughters.