Review Essay

Two Biographical Works Examine the Life of a Great British Historian and Military Thinker

Reviewed by James Alexander

Though dead now for more than 25 years, J.F.C. Fuller is still widely remembered by those who love great history and who believe that history should be something more than a “distillation of rumors,” as Carlyle put it, or fawning, languorous apologias turned out by establishment courtiers. In this review essay, we take a look at the life and work of this outstanding British historian, military theoretician and Major-General. After first noting his impact as a military thinker, we consider his controversial political activities and his career as a writer and historian. We conclude with a discussion of two volumes that chronicle his extraordinarily productive life.

John Frederick Charles Fuller (1878-1966) is acknowledged as one of this century's most brilliant military strategists. Often compared to Clausewitz, his reputation as the first to grasp fully the implications of the mechanization and armoring of battlefield forces, and as the creator of the Blitzkrieg style of warfare, was already firmly established by the early 1940s. Figures as diverse as Charles De Gaulle, Adolf Hitler, Heinz Guderian and Marshal Timoshenko have acknowledged his genius. Characteristic is the comment of US Army Lt. Colonel S.L.A. Marshall, who wrote in his introduction to a US edition of Fuller's manual on armored warfare:

… Nowhere else in the writings of men was the outline of the military future so clearly revealed, and nowhere else had the tactics of modern battle been explored as brilliantly in conformity with war's enduring principles. One cannot weigh the pure gold contained in this slender volume …

Between the two world wars, Fuller tirelessly warned that the war of the future would not be like the static conflict of 1914-18. Fixed trenches and the supremacy of artillery and machine guns had become obsolete. Future wars would be fluid and dynamic, he insisted, with victory ultimately going to the nation that mechanized and maintained supremacy in armor and in the air.

Fuller was more than a brilliant thinker. Of inestimable help in publicizing ideas that demanded a revolutionary change in the conventional British military thinking of the time was Fuller's gift — one might even use the word genius — for vivid, forceful and persuasive writing.

Fascist Views

In his political views Fuller was no less outspoken, or radical. During the 1930s, when the assumptions and values of the Old Order seemed irreparably shattered in the aftermath of the First World War, he was strongly attracted to authoritarianism (along the lines of Italian fascism). He was not at all alone in this. During that period, many prominent intellectuals sympathized with the “fascist” outlook. Roy Campbell, Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Henry Williamson, Hilaire Belloc, and A.K. Chesterton, among many others, voiced approval, to one degree or another, for some form of rightist authoritarianism.

A man of decidedly authoritarian inclinations, Fuller held a deep distrust of mass democracy (which he dubbed “pluto-mobocracy") as well as contempt for the intrinsic vulgarity of 20th-century popular culture. Only heroic figures, he believed, would be capable of rising to the great challenges of the time — which meant, above all, revitalizing the Old World and stemming the destructive tide of Bolshevism. Accordingly, Fuller joined Sir Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists (BUF) in 1934, serving as its spokesman on military matters and as a member of its policy committee. He contributed prolifically to fascist periodicals, and was a BUF parliamentary candidate.

From the early 1930s onwards, Fuller's writings reflected his fascist-authoritarian outlook. This is perhaps most manifest in his two-volume military history, Decisive Battles: Their Influence Upon History and Civilisation, which came off the press at the outbreak of war in 1939. Its 1,060 pages fairly bristle with denunciations of the corrupting, anti-national influence of high finance — “the Money-Power” — the source, he believed, of many of the world's ills. Typical are the following extracts, which comment on the decline of the ancient Roman world, the American Civil War, and the period between the two world wars:

Never had the rabble sunk so low. Bereft of religion, morality and all social virtues, the dole-fed masses wallowed in every vice. Luxury begot brutality and brutality licence … Whilst to these degenerates licence spelt liberty, to the plutocrats liberty spelt power, profit and an unlimited scramble for wealth, until money became the sole link between man and man.

… Moral decay had so deeply eaten into the vitals of the Romans that he [Augustus] could do no more than stay the voracity of the disease. Peace was now to be corrupted by plenty, as war had been corrupted by profit, and peace and plenty were the abutments upon which the arch of the Principate rested. As peace grew more solid the burgesses avoided politics in order to enjoy wealth, whilst the nobility became atrophied as the path to glory narrowed. As wars grew less frequent, life became more comfortable, until the spirit of the wild-boar petrified into the gluttony of the farmyard pig … Gold had curdled the Roman blood: it was no longer red, but thin and yellow …

Slavery had by this date made the South so unlike the North that, though the Southern States were the originators of the Union, now they daily were growing more and more antagonistic to it, because their people could not keep pace with economic changes, for slavery prohibited machine-industry. Then two simultaneous events occurred which accentuated the turmoil: the first was the discovery of gold in California, and the second the rapid extension of the railroad. Whilst the one disintegrated the people morally, the other facilitated social and economic union.

So it came about that all these various events more and more divided the people into two groups: the Northern insisting upon union, and the Southern insisting on the right of each State to control its own destiny, which tallied with the Constitution. These two groups could no longer even think alike: the one was composed of field-men, the other of men of the city; and the one was an aristocracy, whilst the other was a pluto-democracy. In the South the military, religious and artistic spirits preponderated; in the North the commercial, matter-of-fact and practical. The South was eighteenth century, the North nineteenth century; the one looked backward to Cavalier and King's man, the other forwards to the Roundheads and Cromwells of an all-conquering mechanical age.

So the gap widened and widened, when, in 1857, depression and crisis followed the boom created by the discovery of gold. Then psychosis took ultimate command, and was fanned into fury by the Abolitionists, until, though the North dreaded disunion, it learnt to dread the unchecked ascendancy of the slave-interests even more, because they undermined the fundamental idea of its own economic civilisation — namely, industrial in contradiction to agricultural servitude. At length fact was obliterated by fiction — e.g., Uncle Tom's Cabin, etc. — until a universal falsehood cancelled out reason, when suddenly from out of the North, on October 17, 1859, came a maniac — John Brown ("a cold-prayer hardened into a musket-ball") …

In 1918, writes Karl Friedrich Nowak in his book The Collapse of Central Europe, “two evangels, which no armed force could stop, had spread among the masses… They came from the east and the west …” from Moscow and from Washington, and together they represented the extremes of the world revolution begotten by Money-Power and its repercussions upon nineteenth-century thought. The one strove at liberating the masses, the other at making the world safe for bankers.

On March 20, 1919, [US Secretary of State] Mr. Lansing had jotted down: “The whole world wants peace. The President wants the League [of Nations]. I think that the world will have to wait.” It did, because the League could not possibly rise higher than the level of the nations composing it. It became the instrument of the “status quo,” which so greatly favored the Money-Power, and about it circled the treaties like phantoms round a witch's cauldron. Meanwhile, what was the alternative solution proposed by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin), that “guillotine which thinks"? Whilst Woodrow Wilson was burnishing his evangel, November 1917, Lenin carried out his “coup d'etat” in Petrograd, and with Lev Davidovich Bronstein (Trotski) assumed power, when the vision of the Second Advent swept over Russia. His political outlook was as narrow and lethal as a razor blade, and self-determination was also the bait in his political trap.

As these passages suggest, Fuller's renown is not merely as a military prophet and innovator, nor, obviously, is it due to his commitment to a short-lived political movement. He is remembered today primarily as a masterful writer of history, and as a historian who artfully described the underlying forces behind historical events. “Like Clausewitz he has been drawn to the study of history by his desire to interpret,” the London Times once wrote of Fuller. “It is as interpreter and prophet, one of the most remarkable of modern times, that he will be best remembered.”

Nearly 40 Books

Though some of Fuller's writings do not lend themselves to rigid classification, his nearly 40 published books may be said to fall roughly into three categories:

  1. Military strategy, tactics, technology, and training: 15 volumes.
  2. Military and political perspectives on topical issues and problems: 8 volumes.
  3. Military history: 15 volumes.

Fuller's writings on military strategy, tactics, technology, and training — while still useful and instructive — are now largely obsolete. Dating from the 1920s and 1930s, these books were written primarily for specialists. Likewise little read today are his works dealing with topical questions, such as the League of Nations, the unity of the British Empire, the future of British India, speculation on the long-term results of the Italian venture in Ethiopia, and so forth. None of these topical works has ever been reprinted.

By contrast, his works of military history remain enduringly popular. Like Sir Edward Creasy's Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, they will be read and admired for the next hundred and fifty years. At the same time, they have a breadth comparable to Hans Delbrück's monumental Geschichte der Kriegskunst im Rahmen der politischen Geschichte. Accordingly, many of these classic works have been reprinted several times. Nine are currently in print, and a tenth will appear later this year. They are given here (with the year of original publication):

  1. The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant (1929)
  2. Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship (1933)
  3. Decisive Battles of the U.S.A. (1942) [Fall 1993]
  4. The Second World War (1948, revised edition 1954)
  5. A Military History of the Western World: Vol. I-- From the Earliest Times to the Battle of Lepanto (1954)
  6. A Military History of the Western World: Vol. II-- From the Defeat of the Spanish Armada to the Battle of Waterloo (1955)
  7. A Military History of the Western World: Vol. III-- From the American Civil War to the End of the Second World War (1956)
  8. The Generalship of Alexander the Great (1958)
  9. The Conduct of War, 1789-1961: A Study of the Impact of the French, Industrial and Russian Revolutions on War and its Conduct (1961)
  10. Julius Caesar: Man, Soldier, and Tyrant (1965)

The most highly praised of these — and Fuller's magnum opus — is his three-volume A Military History of the Western World. (Originally published in Britain under the title Decisive Battles of the Western World, it is based on his earlier, two-volume military history.) Writing in The New York Times, Lynn Montross called this “Far and away the foremost military history in its field — indispensable reading for every intelligent adult.” [A Military History of the Western World is available in softcover, but only as a complete set, from the IHR for $44.85, plus $5.00 shipping.]

View of Second World War

Though not quite so strongly ideological as his pre-Second World War books, this is nonetheless revisionist writing par excellence. For example, Fuller writes with uncommon insight about Hitler's consolidation of power in Germany, and he clearly identifies the underlying economic factors behind the outbreak and expansion of the Second World War.

He is extremely critical of the conduct of that conflict, which he regards as an unmitigated catastrophe for the West. He characterizes it less as a contest between two great coalitions of nations, than as a guerre a mort between proponents of two powerful myths:

They [Mussolini and Hitler] challenged the myth of Economic Man, the fundamental factor in Capitalism, Socialism, and Communism, and exalted in its stead the myth of Heroic Man …

In Hitler's eyes the aims of international Capitalism and Marxism were one and the same. Both, he said, repudiated “the aristocratic principle of nature"; both were destroyers of quality, not of things but of life. He held that both lacked the self-justification of sacrifice, fought against Nature, and were destroyers of the race …

Unless the struggle between these two myths — Economic Man and Heroic Man — is accepted and understood, the cataclysm which in 1939 submerged the world is almost incomprehensible and the age to which it gave birth little more than the plaything of chance.

In this three-volume study, Fuller also expresses outrage over the Allied terror-bombing of Germany and Japan, arguing that it was of questionable military value and, if anything, served to prolong the bloodshed and devastation. Predictably, he has little regard for Churchill or Roosevelt, portraying them as bungling incompetents and unwitting tools of international Communism:

This blind trust in Russia's motives can only be explained by Roosevelt's and Churchill's ignorance of her history, or by the trance into which they had been induced by their pro-Soviet propaganda… At least they might have borne in mind Lenin's prediction of the inevitable clash between the bourgeois states and the Soviet Union. Instead, they bandied witticisms between each other on Uncle Joe!

The second American crusade ended even more disastrously than the first, and this time the agent provocateur was not the German Kaiser but the American President [Roosevelt], whose abhorrence of National Socialism and craving for power precipitated his people into the European conflict and so again made it worldwide.

What persuaded them [Roosevelt and Churchill] to adopt so fatal a policy? We hazard to reply — blind hatred! Their hearts ran away with their heads and their emotions befogged their reason. For them the war was not a political conflict in the normal meaning of the words, it was a Manichean contest between Good and Evil, and to carry their people along with them they unleashed a vitriolic propaganda against the devil they had invoked.

Throughout this masterpiece, Fuller expresses his dissident views on a wide range of related military, social, and political issues. (On the Second World War, two other books by Fuller are also recommended: The Second World War and The Conduct of War.)

Two Biographies

There are two currently available biographies of Fuller. The first — Major-General Anthony Trythall's `Boney' Fuller — is the only comprehensive study of his life. (The US edition is a reprint, under a slightly different title, of the work published originally in Britain in 1977.)

Trythall has produced an attractive, well-written and interesting treatment that embraces everything one would expect in such a work. He relates, for example, that Fuller's father was an Anglican priest and that his mother was French. His education, it seems, was somewhat mediocre, but he compensated for this through voracious reading, especially of history. In 1906 Fuller married Margarethe Karnatz, a woman of German-Polish ancestry who was known as Sonia. While absolutely devoted to her husband, she was inexplicably abrasive toward others. Their married life was very private but apparently happy, although they had no children.

Fuller's career in the military, including his service in the South African (Boer) War and the First World War, and his peacetime service, as well as his political activities, are all treated in detail here. Trythall also writes of his close friendships with a small circle of prominent men that included Sir Basil Liddell Hart and Sir Oswald Mosley, as well as of his visits with figures such as Franco, Mussolini, Hitler and Churchill.

Perhaps the most interesting of these meetings took place in 1939, when he was invited, as a personal guest of Hitler, to attend the ceremony marking the German leader's 50th birthday. On the morning of the 20th of April, from a reviewing stand across the Berlin avenue from where Hitler stood, Fuller viewed a spectacular military parade, the Third Reich's most elaborate display of armed might. “Never before or since have I watched such a formidable mass of moving metal,” he later wrote. At a formal Chancellery reception that afternoon, Hitler came forward to greet him warmly. Alluding to his role in the development of the tank, Hitler remarked: “I hope you are pleased with your children?” Fuller responded: “Your Excellency, they have grown up so quickly that I no longer recognize them.”

Dealing with Fuller as a writer, Trythall describes and analyzes each of his books. He considers how each has contributed to history and to the science of warfare, and discusses how well each has stood the test of time. Fuller, he writes,

… never believed in history for its own sake or in the necessity for dusty accuracy; he studied and wrote history … for its lessons, for what it could teach us about the present and about how we ought to behave in the future …

Trythall praises Fuller as “as a man of very great vitality and intelligence, application and integrity.” While manifestly opposed to his political views, Trythall for the most part considers them respectfully, and within the context of the times:

… It is important not to judge his action [in joining the fascists] by standards derived from feelings of revulsion engendered by events which took place after June 1934. It is also reasonable to conclude that he saw in fascism a way of implementing the military reforms he thought essential for purely patriotic reasons …

The second biography — J.F.C. Fuller: Military Thinker — is by Brian Holden Reid, a lecturer in War Studies at King's College (London) and Resident Historian at the British Army Staff College. First published six years ago, this new edition is in a quality paperback format.

Dr. Reid's approach is markedly different than Trythall's. Omitting much biographical detail, Reid instead concentrates on a close examination of Fuller's views and theories, and on his impact as a military critic and historian. Reid's book might more accurately be described as a lengthy bibliographical essay, with other elements interwoven, than a biography. Still, this work does include anecdotal material that wonderfully illustrates Fuller's character and temperament. As Reid shows, for instance, Fuller was not an easy man to befriend. He was, rather, an intensely private person who selected his friends carefully. Conversely, he was so impatient with those of differing opinions, and his particular brand of wit so barbed, that he made enemies at those very times when, from the standpoint of his career in the British Army, he could not afford such luxuries. His forced retirement in 1933 was a direct result of his withering public criticism of his military superiors, whom he depicted, Reid relates, as ill-educated fools.

Like Trythall, Reid does not sympathize with Fuller's political views. He attempts to account for them by explaining that “Fuller's fascism was technocratic in character, emphasizing order and efficiency in government — a rational management of resources that was not possible with democratic muddle.” In fact, Fuller's repeatedly stressed admiration for ideals such as heroism, duty, hierarchy, chivalry, and authority would indicate that his worldview might better be described as medieval rather than technocratic.

Given Reid's wholly conventional political outlook, he is largely fair in his treatment of a man in whom the British military now, apparently, takes considerable pride. Reid's analyses of Fuller's works are trenchant and lucid, which is not to say that he is always correct in his assessments.

For readers seeking an introduction to Fuller's thought and astonishingly prolific career as a writer, Reid's book is a excellent choice. If, on the other hand, one wishes to explore General Fuller's life from beginning to end, then Trythall's highly rewarding book is preferable. (Reid himself calls Trythall's volume, “the fullest account of Fuller's life.") In this reviewer's opinion, each book compliments the other handsomely, and each is essential for an informed appreciation of one of the most fascinating and influential figures produced by Britain in many years.

About the author

James Alexander is the pen name of a West coast writer on political and historical topics. His articles and reviews have appeared in a variety of magazines, newspapers, and scholarly journals. This is his first contribution to the Journal.

From The Journal of Historical Review, May/June 1993 (Vol. 13, No. 3), page 38.