Thursday, September 15, 2011

David Edgerton's "Britain's War Machine"

David Edgerton is the Hans Rausing Professor at Imperial College London where he was the Founding Director of its Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine. He is the author of the iconoclastic and brilliant The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 (Oxford, 2007).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Britain's War Machine: Weapons, Resources, and Experts in the Second World War, and reported the following:
Opening my book on p. 99 I find I say that during the Second World War, Winston Churchill ‘took a personal and direct interest in this vital matter’ of production. Lord Lindemann ‘was his trusted adviser on all the material aspects of the war effort. Lindemann’s almost daily minutes to Churchill give an interconnected story of things and experts, little of which is reflected on the vast literature on both’. My book is such a history of things and experts in Britain during the war. It breaks with most writing on this well-rehearsed topic in many ways. There is a long standing understanding that Churchill concentrated on matters of strategy, while matters of production, of the Home Front, were the domain of others, especially of the Labour Party members of the coalition government. There is a suggestion too that Churchill was a figure from the past, concerned at best with gadgets, and that Lindemann was a dangerously cranky scientific adviser. In my account, conservative Britain rearmed powerfully before 1939, was deeply committed to modern ways of war, a commitment which became if anything even stronger under Churchill. Such a commitment implied interest and control over that most vital of aspects of modern war, production. My history is one of a strong warfare state, by many measures the greatest in the world in 1940-41. The point was however that power in production did not necessarily always mean power in the field. Britain’s lead in production and machines did not translate into victory. Unfortunately, British intellectuals, politicians, and later historians believed that such a direct link existed, and blamed supposed failures in armaments for defeat in the years 1940-1942. This is just one way I revise our accounts of how Britain fought the second world war, a story focussed not just on the British isles, but one which sees Britain not merely as an imperial but as a truly global power, able to rely on the rest of world for vital supplies. Wartime Britain was never alone, and was always strong. That strength came at least in part from the character of its ruling class, not its supposed usurpation in matters of production by the left.
The Page 69 Test: The Shock of the Old.

Writers Read: David Edgerton (May 2007).

Writers Read: David Edgerton (September 2011).

--Marshal Zeringue