REVIEW – Fighting the People’s War: the British Commonwealth armies and the Second World War

5 mins read

By Jonathan Fennell
Published by Cambridge University Press

Jonathan Fennell 
Cambridge University Press, £25 (hbk)
Jonathan Fennell
Cambridge University Press, £25 (hbk)

It is perhaps surprising that no one had written a history of the Commonwealth armies in the Second World War before this new book by Jonathan Fennell. At the heart of Fennell’s history is the story of the morale of the different armies – British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, South African, and Indian.

In order to assess this, he has found, and extensively used, an entirely new source. The 17 million letters sent home by soldiers from the several armies were all read by officers or censors, who wrote 925 detailed reports assessing the personal concerns of the troops, their broad social and political perspectives, and their willingness to fight.

In addition, Fennell has studied various reports on soldiers’ morale, and the multitude of official statistics relating to rates of sickness, battle exhaustion, desertion, absence without leave, and self-inflicted wounds. The result is an absolutely fascinating and fresh account of the Commonwealth armies at war.

Fennell, a senior lecturer in the renowned Defence Studies Department at King’s College London, loves statistics and uses them to provide lots of fresh insights. For instance, the countries that made up Britain and the Commonwealth had a combined population during the war of about 470 million (so much for Britain standing ‘alone’ in the summer of 1940).

About 10 million men fought in the various Commonwealth armies. Many of these were ‘volunteer’ armies, but often the reasons for volunteering had nothing to do with the appeal of King or Empire. Thousands of South Africans and Indians joined up because they were destitute and wanted adventure and employment. The Indian Army of 2.25 million became the largest volunteer army in history.

In Canada, government ministers did not want conscription, because they thought it would break up the country as it had nearly done during the First World War, when it had proved massively unpopular with the French-speaking population. In Australia, again, political unity was lacking, and here less than half the number of volunteers came forward compared to those volunteering in the First World War.

Nevertheless – more statistics – Britain dominated Commonwealth defence spending in the interwar years. In 1937-1938, the UK spent £265m on defence, while India spent £34m, Canada £7m, Australia £6m, South Africa £1.7m, and New Zealand £1.6m. Britain continued to provide 60% of all Imperial armaments even after America joined the war and became the ‘arsenal of victory’.

Fennell shows that there were several engagements where a collapse in Allied morale seems to have been decisive. The first confrontation with the German Army and its blitzkrieg tactics in the spring of 1940 was one. Another was the battle for Crete in May 1941.


Here the Commonwealth defenders had roughly a 2:1 superiority over the attackers, and knew through decoded Enigma messages the details of the attack plan. But in less than a week the morale of the New Zealanders had plummeted as the Germans, enjoying air supremacy, constantly bombed their positions. The resulting evacuation of the island proved catastrophic for British influence in the Mediterranean.

Fennell finds in his analysis a close correlation between high indices of battle exhaustion, desertion, and sickness on the one hand, and low levels of morale on the other – he even expresses this as an equation and plots a graph to illustrate it.

The 8th Army in the desert battles of spring 1942 is a classic example, and soldiers’ letters home provide further evidence of low morale and a loss of confidence in army commanders. The situation was so bad that General Auchinleck asked the War Office to reinstate the use of the death penalty for cases of cowardice and desertion, as in the First World War.

Indian soldiers fight for Britain during the Second World War.
Indian soldiers fight for Britain during the Second World War.

A central part of the book shows how the string of disastrous defeats from 1940 to 1942 at Dunkirk, Tobruk, and Singapore (among many others) had more than just a military consequence. The political, economic, and social effects of these disasters were immense, and Fennell writes of a ‘great crisis of Empire’.

Many of those who fought in the Commonwealth armies thought that the struggle ought to bring more than simple victory over Germany, Italy, and Japan, but had to be about building new, progressive nations, and in some cases free and independent states, in the post-war world.

The story of how Britain swung around to a Labour victory in 1945, and the important role the men in the services played in bringing about that victory, is well known. But how issues of social justice and fairness resonated within the armies of Canada, Australia, South Africa, and India is quite new to me.

Fennell argues that in the second half of the war, all the Commonwealth armies took a variety of organisational steps to rebuild morale and a fighting spirit among their citizen soldiers. Critical to this was creating a sense of what men were fighting for.

Churchill had no time for such distractions as post-war planning. But the War Office established the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA), and from the summer of 1942 junior officers began to lead weekly discussion groups with their men about a range of current affairs issues, the most popular of which were debates about the Beveridge Report and what the post-war world would be like.

At last, commanders were beginning to realise that in a citizen army a soldier who knew what he was fighting for would be more motivated and reliable than a man who did not.

But 1943 still proved a tough year. British commanders bemoaned the poor morale in the British Army in Italy, and members of the New Zealand Army mutinied on home visits or ‘furlough’, where they regarded the privileged treatment of workers at home as totally unjust by comparison to those who had volunteered to fight abroad. It was known as ‘the Furlough Mutiny’.


Slowly the Commonwealth armies obtained a new vigour. Fennell has an interesting chapter on the Australian Army’s defeat of Japanese forces in New Guinea, a campaign that rarely attracts much attention. And the Indian Army’s success at Imphal and Kohima led to one of the biggest defeats of Japanese forces in the war.

Fennell argues that by the end of the war all the Commonwealth armies were very different from what they had been at the start of the conflict. They were more flexible, innovative, and motivated. They were more cohesive as combat units, and more closely linked to the concerns of their home populations. And all this made them more competent and professional, and able to outwit, outmanoeuvre, and ultimately defeat the enemy on the battlefield.

British Commonwealth recruitment poster.
British Commonwealth recruitment poster.

I do, though, find some of Fennell’s conclusions less convincing. That ethnic divisions in South Africa (that is, English-speaking versus Afrikaans-speaking) disappeared in the radicalisation of the white working-class army is believable. But that race divisions (that is, white versus black) were reinforced, and that the creation of the apartheid state was partly a result of the veterans’ vote in the 1948 Election seems less convincing.

Easier to grasp is the role of Indian soldiers in the campaign for independence in India. Their experience had been broadened by hearing talk of a more just post-war society, and they had collaborated together in a new, positive way. As many historians have noted, there is a close relationship between war and socio-political change.

Fennell’s large book is dense and technical, with a mass of detailed tables, excellent maps, and useful summaries of data and statistics. It is also very scholarly, with more than 200 pages of appendices, notes, and bibliographies.

But it is very well written and totally accessible. It contains a wealth of information that is fresh and new, and Fennell’s insights on subjects that many might imagine are familiar will be of real interest to military historians, enthusiasts, and, no doubt, readers of this magazine. Highly recommended.

Review by Taylor Downing

This article was published in the May 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about how to subscribe to the magazine, click here.

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