I am looking forward to speaking to the Society for Libyan Studies about Anglo-Libyan relations in the 20th century. One of my discoveries was the map below that reveals how Field Marshal Herbert Kitchener became involved in the long-standing dispute about the Libyan frontier with Egypt. I will also tell the tale of the roller-coaster ride from the policy of non-intervention to the post-war British administration that found itself looking after a devastated and impoverished country and how all this changed after oil was discovered in the Libyan desert.
The humanitarian response to the plight of Ukrainian refugees has been ray of light this week, but with diplomacy failing and military means ruled out, the West’s support to the Kiev Government in its war with Russia remains restricted to Intelligence and Economic levers of power.
Unfortunately, Putin foresaw this and has built huge financial reserves and hoarded key electronics and pharmaceutical goods before launching his invasion. The Russian State is stepping in to keep people at work and the banking system has not collapsed as Washington thought it would. With oil still around $100 per barrel, Russia will earn about four times more than it did last year from exports. It is likely that China will fill the gaps in consumable goods such as cars, that the western governments have sanctioned.
Meanwhile, the Western economies are facing their own problems with post-Covid inflation exacerbated by the lack of badly needed Eastern commodities. For example, the Russian and Ukrainian combined wheat production accounts for 30 per cent of the global demand. Miners are also in a stranglehold with refining costs of copper and platinum group metals increasing dramatically because they require hugely energy-intensive processes.
This all reminds me of the situation in 1920 when Parliament was supporting the White cause in Ukraine and Poland against the Bolsheviks in Moscow. At a Cabinet meeting on 17 November, Lloyd George’s government spent an hour and a half discussing sanctions on Russia. The President of the Board of Trade, Sir Robert Horn made an impassioned plea based on the critical economic situation in Britain, with business confidence very low and unemployment very high and was supported by the Prime Minister, who said: “When I mentioned the possibility of our going to war to support Poland, a shudder passed through the House and those who were clamouring against Bolshevism immediately shewed the white feather… I have heard predictions about the fall of Soviet Government for the last two years, Denikin, Judenitch, Wrangel have all collapsed, but I cannot see any immediate prospect of the collapse of the Soviet Government.”
Unfortunately, Putin’s government seems to be not too different; see Part 2 of Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners for a grounding in the modern Anglo-Russian relationship.
I join others around the world who are applauding Marina Ovsyannikova for her brave stand on Russian News. Her placard, which includes the words: “Stop the war, don’t believe the propaganda” was a welcome sign that the tradition of Russian womanhood is as strong as ever. If there is ever going to be a reversal of the current Russian system, it will be founded on the courage and honesty of women such as Ms Ovsyannikova.
This is another example of the similarities with the Russian civil-war that took place one hundred years ago and reminds me of the story of General Brian Horrocks’ experience at a station near to Krasnoyarsk on 18 March 1920. As he stretched his legs, an unprepossessing girl approached, but was ordered to move away by a Soviet guard who drew his sword from its sheath. Instead of kow-towing to the bully, she sprang towards him with a storm of words. She didn’t say anything that might not be repeated in a court of law, but she “burned him up with retorts that made him cringe” and he retreated to the train, while the girl spoke to the future British corps commander.
“Where you not afraid that he might strike you with his sword?” Horrocks asked.
“Bah, the son of a swine has no heart, none of them have!” she replied.
This was not the only time that the British prisoners-of-war came across heroic Russian women who faced up to state terror. For more tales of the extraordinary bravery of Russian women, see chapters 4, 13 and 14 of Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners.
Several commentators have observed that the morale of the Russian army fighting in Ukraine is very low and have suggested this is a reason why they will lose the war. Those of us who spent ten years on the Central Front in Germany during the Cold War recognise the same characteristics that contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, we should not be too hasty in drawing conclusions from what we are seeing in the western media and should in stead, remember what General Horrocks wrote about the Russian soldier.
For those who are not aware, Horrocks was an instructor in the Anglo-Russian Brigade in Ekaterinburg during the civil-war in 1919. He described how ordinary Russian soldiers had to put up with brutish leaders, inadequate equipment and appalling conditions on the front line, but somehow accepted their lot with a shrug and the word “Nichevo”. This was on the lips of every man who suffered the slightest annoyance, but was afraid to do anything about it. It means “Oh never mind!” and is whispered by the trampled man in his mud sepulchre with his last breath, while those above nod in agreement (see chapters 5 and 13 of Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners).
There are so many similarities between what is happening now in the Russia-Ukraine conflict and what happened in the 1919 civil-war. The railway refugees, the humanitarian catastrophe, the brutality of the campaign and the unbelievable propaganda are all prominent. The big danger is that, just as 100 years ago Trotsky built the formidable Red Army, President Putin is using the current war to build a new army that will look to other horizons. At least Jeremy Hunt has recognised this and has called for the British Government to increase Defence spending, so we can properly deter further aggression.
The news that a Coldstream Guards soldier has gone to fight for Ukraine against Russia reminds us of the long history of British soldiers fighting for other countries and causes. Some of these deployed with an official formation such as the British Auxiliary Legion during the first Carlist War in Spain. Others were individual postings such as the loan service arrangements to help the King of Jordan and the Sultan of Oman against rebel insurgents.
The current situation is more like the sad case of Bertie Montagu of the Northumberland Fusiliers, who went to fight with the Libyan army when Italy invaded in 1911. It did not end well for the young man, although he proved himself to be a courageous commander in battle. The story how he earned the prestigious Order of Medjidie is in Chapter 4 of Liberating Libya, but perhaps more relevant to the current situation is the tale of what happened to him afterwards.
The War Office demanded his resignation when he returned from North Africa, but reinstated him as an officer in the Royal Munster Fusiliers at the outbreak of World War I. He fought with his battalion at Gallipoli and was so badly wounded that he was invalided out of the army. However, a year later, he re-enlisted and deployed to the Western Front, where he was killed in action during the Battle of the Somme on 25 November 1916.
One hopes that history will not repeat itself in this case…
To succeed in a land battle, a military maxim suggests the attacker’s capability needs to be dominant by 3:1, which is pretty much the exact ratio between the totals of the Russian and Ukrainian forces, if you include reservists in the calculation. Of course, with an extensive border to defend, local superiority can be achieved easily by a well-trained, mobile army, but holding onto the captured territory requires more troops on the ground. So why has President Putin invaded his southern neighbour with such a tiny proportion of the Russian army?
What we have seen in the war so far, is a relatively cautious approach compared with the way the Soviet Army planned to invade Germany in the Cold War. There has been nothing like the sort of artillery barrages that the British Army of the Rhine anticipated if the balloon went up in the 1980s. So why has President Putin held back from using the full might of the Russian military?
The answers to these two pivotal questions lie in Putin’s own words and the patterns of recent conflicts. Someone once said that only a fool would try to predict the future, but these vital issues might provide the public with an idea of the length and depth of this war and where Putin might go after Ukraine. It is time the serious UK media commentators focused on the grand strategy, rather than the here and now.