Classic Essays

Major General J.F.C. Fuller

MTE5NDg0MDU0NTgwNzkwNzk5In remembrance of another great but half-forgotten Westerner

OUR MODERN MEDIA like to depict military men as trigger-happy simpletons whose throwback minds are still laboriously progressing from the 18th to the 19th century. Unfortunately, at least within the Western democracies, the rewards and the constraints have been such as to drive creative intellects from the military ranks at Mach I speed. Nevertheless, occasional bright intellectual lights have remained in uniform, despite all the obstacles. By far the brightest such light (a veritable supernova) was Major General John Frederick Charles Fuller (pictured). The treatment accorded General Fuller by British politicians and the British high brass rivalled that given to Galileo by the Inquisition.

Early Life

Fuller was born in Chichester, England, in 1878. As a child, he showed few signs of academic brilliance. Ignoring the tedious school curriculum, he preferred reading books of his own choosing and taking long walks through the country. Although his father was a man of the cloth, young Fuller lost his traditional faith at an early age. He would remain an agnostic, but an agnostic who maintained an enduring, life-long interest in questions of morality and metaphysics. It was not what he learned or would learn in schools, military or academic, but his early internal theological conflicts which would help make Fuller the great military prophet of his times. At an early age he did not merely reject dogma (despite tremendous social and familial pressure against nonconformism), but picked up the habit of evaluating arguments, testing theories and building alternative systems.

In 1897 Fuller entered the Royal Military College and in the next year was sent to garrison duty in Ireland. While he enjoyed fencing and shooting, the budding militarist showed no interest in the social activities of the officer corps. When his classmates went riding to the hounds, Fuller secluded himself in his study, reading, of all things, philosophy. Another young officer noted that Fuller’s conversations and caustic humor generally led to “the complete confounding and obfuscation of the mess.” From the start he was, as he described himself, “a most unconventional soldier.”

Africa and India

The Boer War resulted in Fuller’s being posted to Africa as an intelligence officer. A near fatal illness prevented his assignment to combat. Instead he was given a grab-bag of tasks which included the inspection of garrisons and fortresses, and the training of native scouts. Among all these duties, he still found time to read over 150 books.

Fuller’s unusual assignment allowed him to view the Boer War from a broader perspective than obtained by front-line officers. He gained an appreciation for the value of fortitications, as well as their limitations. He was aware of the tendency of “set piece” engagements to become stalemates. He understood the influence of genetic and cultural factors on morale. The mind which had been honed and rehoned by theological disputes now turned to questions of strategy and tactics. But, unfortunately, the military establishment quickly returned to drills and ceremonies upon cessation of hostilities. What little the commanders had learned, Fuller noted, they quickly forgot.

Fuller’s next overseas tour was the usual one to India, where his inquiring mind was fascinated by Oriental religions and philosophers. He would later write two books on these subjects, Yoga (1925) and The Secret Wisdom of the Qabalah (1937), in which he compared the thoughts of the Eastern sages with Herbert Spencer, T. H. Huxley, and W. H. Lecky. Years before such thoughts would occur to social scientists, Fuller realized that what men believed was a prime determinant of what they did. Despite his agnosticism Fuller was struck by the concepts of the absolute unknowable and of the interconnection of all life. It is not surprising that his fellow officers considered him somewhat odd.

It was in India that Fuller acquired his nickname “Boney,” because of his resemblance to the young Bonaparte both in appearance and in mental outlook. “Give me the power and limitations of any weapon,” he told his seniors, “and in half an hour I will give you a reasonable tactical answer.”

Returning to England in 1906, he was assigned to training duties. Within a year he led his battalion to first place in musketry among the territorial units. At this time he also began writing training manuals. In these highly readable documents (few military manuals can be so described), his suggestions ran from the seemingly obvious (using terrain rather than parade grounds for training exercises) to the abstruse (preventing a military formation from degenerating into a crowd, as defined by Gustave Le Bon).

World War I

In 1914 Fuller was appointed deputy assistant director of railway transport because of an earlier article he had written on troop entrainment. During this assignment he found time to write two books dealing with the tactics of Sir John Moore and of Moore’s training of raw recruits during the Napoleonic Wars. Posted to France, Fuller served in a number of staff posts. Initially he supported the policies of Haig and the War Office, but after studying the results of the Somme offensive he argued for a tactical change from advance in line to advance in files in the hope of reducing losses. In December 1916 he was assigned as senior general staff officer to the Machine Gun Corps — soon to become the Tank Corps. Here Fuller had a chance to come up with the “tactical answers” he had boasted about in India. He saw in the tank a means of overcoming the tremendous defensive advantage of entrenched troops firing rifles and machine guns. Fuller believed a concentrated tank assault could easily puncture such a defense. A deep tactical penetration would then break the stalemate of trench warfare, greatly reducing casualties on both sides. Before he could sell his idea, however, he first had to win a long argument with the military old guard epitomized by Sir Douglas Haig. In his usual fashion Fuller dubbed his superior “The Stone Age General.”

Fuller, later in life
Fuller, later in life

In November 1917 Fuller’s tactics were at last employed. For the first time tanks were massed rather than committed to action piecemeal. At the cost of only 4,000 casualties (ridiculously low by World War I standards), a penetration at Cambrai of one of the most intensely defended sectors of the Hindenburg line was effected. Within twelve hours British tanks had advanced five miles. It had taken three months to gain this same amount of ground at the third battle of Ypres. On the Somme, it had never been accomplished. Eight thousand prisoners were taken at Cambrai along with 100 captured guns. Unfortunately, mechanical failures of the tanks, the lack of an adequate mechanized reserve and the stupidity of the conventionally minded infantry and cavalry commanders prevented full exploitation of the situation. The Germans regrouped, counterattacked and eventually regained most of what they had lost. But Fuller’s point had been made.

Based upon the Cambrai offensive, Fuller proposed a more radical project called Plan 1919. Eventually approved by Foch for use in the year specified, it called for a penetration of the enemy lines by two inner pincers on a fifty-mile front and two outer pincers on a ninety-mile front. The inner pincers were to be composed of 2,500 heavy tanks supported by motorized infantry and cavalry, while the outer pincers would comprise 2,400 medium tanks. Aircraft would interdict supply and communications of enemy headquarters, provide close support of tank formations and serve as reconnaissance. Tank commanders would be in radio contact with each other and with the aerial units. The outer pincers were to be launched first, their target enemy headquarters twenty miles behind the front line. The purpose was to decapitate the enemy, leaving the front-line German troops without any chain of command. The forward troops would then be overwhelmed by the inner pincers. Subsequent pursuit of at least twenty miles per day was to be carried out for five to seven days. By aiming at the enemy’s command and control centers, Fuller believed he could obtain a decisive and yet humane victory. But victory came in 1918, so Plan 1919 was filed away in the military archives.

The Mechanized Army

The close of World War I found Fuller assigned to the War Office, which he dubbed “the tower of Babel,” as a staff officer with primary responsibility for tanks. At the time two thoughts were foremost in his mind: (1) the Treaty of Versailles made another war almost inevitable; (2) armored formations using the methods of Plan 1919 would prove decisive in that conflict. Consequently, he pushed hard for the development of a highly professional, highly mechanized army which would allow Britain to intervene in the continent in a decisive manner at minimal human cost. Fuller’s recommendations were opposed by an unusual coalition. First, there were the pacifists who were convinced that World War I had been the war to end all wars and that military expenditures should now be trimmed to the bone. Second, there were the Colonel Blimps, whose military strategy had not changed in 100 years. Only mechanization, Fuller warned, would permit a return to cavalry methods, since the horse had gone the way of the dodo. Colonel Commandant Neil Haig (cousin of Sir Douglas) served as unofficial spokesman for the Blimps. Replacing the horse with the tank, he argued, was as farfetched as the thought of replacing “our railway systems with lines of airships.”

In 1919 Fuller submitted the winning essay to the Royal United Service Institute’s army competition. His Gold Medal paper argued not only for mechanization, but for training officers in the social and physical sciences so that they could better understand the purpose of modern war and the technological weapons that would dominate the fighting. In 1920 he won that same Institute’s naval prize for the essay “Future Naval Tactics.” As all essays were submitted anonymously, the Admiralty Lords were somewhat embarrassed when they discovered a soldier had won. Fuller, who could never resist the opportunity to unnerve the establishment, claimed that he had in fact only written the essay on a dare, taking but a single weekend to compose it and encountering no difficulty in mastering naval tactics beyond the question of whether a ship was properly referred to as “she” or “it.” The Admiralty was now outraged. Fuller received his monetary prize, but his was the only prize essay never published by the Institute. Eventually he wrote a similar article for the Naval Review contending that the submarine and aircraft carrier had altered naval strategy. The capital ship, he asserted, was headed for the same future as the horse. The lesson Fuller couldn’t teach the Admiralty Lords in London, the Japanese taught them in Malaya.

Fuller produced mountains of books, manuals and articles stressing familiar military themes. His most ambitious work was The Foundation of the Science of War (1926). In it he sought to develop a military science grounded in what he termed “the threefold order.” Any organization or system, he argued, consisted of structure, control and maintenance. This was true of the human body, an army or a nation. Each of the three elements possessed the properties of stability, action and cooperation. Despite the protests of his critics, Fuller never reified the threefold order. He saw it as a heuristic device for concentrating attention on the purpose of a military engagement and the most expedient means to achieve that purpose, given the resources at hand. Today, systems analysis serves a similar purpose, if in a less Hegelian manner.

In 1927 it appeared as if Fuller had finally won the begrudging acceptance of the higher-ups. He was assigned the command of an experimental mechanized force to be employed in the Salisbury Plain exercises. At the same time he was given command of an infantry brigade and a garrison. Fuller saw this as a not unsubtle attempt to spread him so thin as to sabotage the performance of the mechanized force, thus discrediting his theories. His response was to resign from the army, which he reconsidered after receiving a pledge of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff that mechanization would be supported. But the command of the experimental force went to an infantry officer with no interest or background in tanks. So ended the short-lived experiment.

Fuller’s remaining military assignments were mostly uninteresting and unimportant ones which took him far afield from mechanized warfare. He continued his writing, however, and two manuals dealt with the training and utilization of mechanized forces. The second manual was endorsed by Heinz Guderian for use in the development of German armored units, and Russia printed 100,000 copies of it. In England less than 500 copies were sold as late as 1935. In 1930 Fuller was promoted to Major General and placed on half pay. Late in 1932 he published Generalship: Its Diseases and Their Cure. The tone of the volume, in which the author pointed out that the average age of the world’s greatest generals was forty, while that of his British contemporaries was sixty, proved too abrasive. On refusing command of a second-rate Bombay garrison, he was retired in 1933.

By this time Fuller had described the main elements of the German Blitzkrieg, which was to stun Europe a few years later. He predicted a fast war of movement based upon destruction of the enemy’s will to fight, rather than a war of annihilation. He said highly trained professional forces would replace the massive armies of World War I. Linear defense would give way to area defense, lines would become erratic, battles would take place in the neutral zones between armored “hedgehogs.” Tanks would be employed in reconnaissance and amphibious operations, as would aircraft. While battles would often be fought with lightning speed, prolonged guerrilla warfare might break out in occupied areas. His article on “Tactics” in the 1929 Encyclopaedia Britannica can easily be mistaken for an historical account of the 1939 Polish or 1940 French campaigns.

Oswald Mosley
Oswald Mosley

Anti-Democratic Writings

Freed from the duties and restrictions of military life, Fuller turned to the study of military history and the causes and consequences of war. At the same time he became involved with Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. He saw the leaders of democratic Britain and France as tired old men living in bygone days. Leaders in the totalitarian nations, on the other hand, he found to be quick to grasp the impact of technological advance upon society and warfare. Hitler, Mussolini and Communist Karl Radek were all familiar with Fuller’s works and could discuss them intelligently with him. Perceiving the national will to be stronger in the totalitarian nations, he hoped Mosley’s proposal for conscription would galvanize the British spirit. Fuller also believed the democratic, capitalist nations had proved incapable of solving the cyclic booms and busts that plague them to this day, cycles he felt could be eliminated by basing national wealth on production rather than on gold. He attacked Jewish plutocracy in an article in the Fascist Quarterly entitled “The Cancer of Europe,” so ending any chance of his being accepted back into the government fold. He favored Mussolini’s system of vocational representation on the ground that the only thing the average man knew anything about was his job. Finally, Mosley was the only British politician to give full support to a mechanized army. Fuller felt Mosley was wrong, however, in styling his movement, uniforms and salutes after continental Fascism. He would have preferred a traditional British political party, Fascist in content, not style.

Benito Mussolini
Benito Mussolini

Fuller covered both the Italo-Abyssinian and the Spanish Civil Wars as a news correspondent with the Italians and the Spanish Nationalists, respectively. In both cases he was impressed by Fascist morale. In Spain he got a firsthand view of the anarchist wing of the Communist movement whose doctrine formed “a kind of political jazz that could be danced but not marched to . . . a surrealism . . . not even rational” (Decisive Battles, 1940, p. 1011). The experience of Spain and Abyssinia also convinced Fuller that air bombardment was not as powerful in destroying morale as he had himself once believed. He became a critic of the Douhet-Trenchard doctrine. He would repeat this analysis even more forcefully in his writings on World War II. This has made him persona non grata with the U. S. Air Force. Despite Korea and Vietnam, Air Force journals still take swipes at Fuller.

Fuller’s Decisive Battles (1940) is a brilliant military, diplomatic and economic history of the Western world. Like his other writings of the 30s, its tone is basically anti-democratic and anti-liberal. He deplored the “insane world where the highest statesmanship depends upon the vocal unthinking masses” (The Dragon’s Teeth, 1932, p. 181). By 1936 Fuller openly predicted France and Poland would be overrun by mechanized forces in a fortnight (The First of the League Wars, 1936).

Military Historian

Fuller’s The Second World War (1949) still contains a heavy, self-serving, anti-Churchillian revisionist accent. From a distance (which includes Vietnam) his criticism reads better than it did originally, particularly his attack on “strategic bombing” and his conclusion that “should you when waging war lack a politically sane and strategically possible aim, you are likely to be thrown back on an insane moral one, such as attempting to eliminate ideas with bullets or political beliefs with bombs” (p. 402). Decisive Battles reappeared in three volumes as A Military History of the Western World (1954-56). In addition to expanding the coverage to include World War II, some earlier material is included. The overall tone is markedly less pro-Fascist, though still revisionist, and the chapter on the Italo-Abyssinian and Spanish Civil Wars has been removed. His short Armament and History (1945) also employs a less polemical tone. Along with Carleton Coon’s Story of Man and Darlington’s Evolution of Man and Society it could serve as an excellent text for a college survey of Western civilization.

The Conduct of War (1961) represents the culmination of Fuller’s thinking. It is not a history, but rather a long essay on the impact of the French, industrial and Russian revolutions on warfare. Fuller’s primary point is that contrary to “learned” opinion, democratic wars are the most brutal of all. Further, he notes, that while democratic nations in theory win their wars they have proven singularly incapable of establishing lasting peaces. Fuller attributes these shortcomings to: (1) the failure of moral (or behavioral) science to keep pace with physical science; (2) the economic failures of capitalism; (3) the tendency of democracies to treat wars as “jihads” in which there is “no substitute for victory” rather than accepting Clausewitz’s view of war as a logical extension of foreign policy, in which the means must be adjusted to future ends and future costs. The third point is also capably made by Mr. George Kennan in his American Diplomacy 1900-1950 (1951). Fuller goes beyond Kennan, however, in attempting to explain the irrational behavior of democracies. Taking his cue from Spencer, W. G. Sumner and Sir Arthur Keith, Fuller argues that democracy has produced a reversion to tribal morality, overturning the chivalric system of aristocracy. Like the tribe, democracy is founded on ingroup amity and outgroup enmity. Fuller’s arguments received recent support from Edward Wilson’s Sociobiology (1976).

Fuller concludes The Conduct of War with a statement that modern technology, especially nuclear weaponry, has made all-out war between major powers an obsolete concept. In 1956 he was already predicting that only proxy wars and “police” engagements would take place in the future. In The Conduct of War he argued that the problem of the Western nations was economic, with all of them moving toward a planned economy and the elimination of tariff boundaries. He saw the Soviet sphere as becoming more consumer-oriented as its overall wealth increased and predicted a Russian “bourgeois renaissance.” Both camps would become more alike in that each would move toward the Fascistic system he had advocated in the 30s, though no one (including Fuller in 1960) would dare to call it that.

One of Fuller’s chief concerns was China. In the 1930s he had seen that nation as a potential power, in that it possessed in addition to its natural and human resources “an essential unity which is totally wanting in India.” Unless China solved the problem of industrialization without the overpopulation that usually goes with it, Fuller saw the possibility of war with either Russia in the north or Western interests in the Pacific. Fuller’s message to the Western nations was to get their houses in order.

Francisco Franco
Francisco Franco

Fuller is important as an historian because he understood not only the importance of technology, as well as genetic and cultural factors, but also the importance of ideas. In discussing the Spanish Inquisition he deplores its cruelty, but notes that without the unifying power of its ideology Spain would be “only a mosaic not a nation.” Though nonreligious himself, Fuller felt Franco was correct in supporting the established church as a means of reunifying Spain. Hitler, he believed, became powerful not only by his economic programs and technology, but because he had an idea of “heroic man” with which he could rouse people against the Marxist concept of “economic man.”

In 1963 the Royal United Service Institute awarded Fuller its Chesney medal, first presented to the American, Alfred Thayer Mahan. On February 10, 1966 General Fuller died. Although long married to the daughter of a Polish doctor, he, like Arthur Keith, Francis Galton and Madison Grant, left no offspring. In The Dragon’s Teeth (1932) he provided his own best epitaph: “If my dislikes are pronounced, it nevertheless will be found that one and all are based on principle. I cannot tolerate cowardice, untruthfulness, and sentimentality.”

* * *

Source: Instauration magazine, May 1977

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10 November, 2020 11:06 am

One of a handful of ‘British’ genii.