Basil Liddell Hart

From Academic Kids

Basil Henry Liddell Hart (October 31, 1895 - January 29, 1970) was a military historian and is considered to have greatly influenced the development of armoured warfare in the 20th century.

Liddell Hart served as an officer in the British Army during World War I, where he witnessed the horrors of a war of attrition. He set out in the following years to discover why the casualty rate had been so terribly high during the war and arrived at a set of principles that he considered the basis of all good strategy, principles that, he claimed, were ignored by most commanders in World War I.

These principles can be reduced to a single phrase, the indirect approach, and two fundamentals:

  • Direct attacks against an enemy firmly in position almost never work and should never be attempted
  • To defeat the enemy one must first upset his equilibrium, which is not accomplished by the main attack, but must be done before the main attack can succeed.

In Liddell Hart's words,

In strategy the longest way round is often the shortest way there; a direct approach to the object exhausts the attacker and hardens the resistance by compression, whereas an indirect approach loosens the defender's hold by upsetting his balance.

He also claimed that

The profoundest truth of war is that the issue of battle is usually decided in the minds of the opposing commanders, not in the bodies of their men.

This argues that one succeeds by keeping one's enemy uncertain about the situation and one's intentions, and by delivering what he does not expect and is therefore not prepared for.

He arrived at his conclusions after studying the great strategists of history and their victories. He believed the indirect approach was the common element in the men he studied. He also claimed the indirect approach was a valid strategy in other fields of endeavor, such as business, romance, etc.

Liddell Hart published his theories during the 1920s. They were well-received by many of the younger officers who would emerge as leaders in World War II. Paradoxically, Liddell Hart saw his theories successfully adopted by Germany and used against Britain and its allies. His theories were a central part of the German blitzkrieg tactics which were designed to hit the enemy so fast and so hard that he would not be able to establish or maintain an equilibrium. They were also openly endorsed by Germany's most successful general, Erwin Rommel.

He retired from the British Army as a Captain in 1927 (after being invalided out and placed on halfpay because of the long term effects of gassing which he suffered on active service in World War I), and spent the rest of his career as a writer. He was initially a military analyst for various British newspapers. Later he began publishing military histories and biographies of great commanders who, he thought, were great because they illustrated the principles of good strategy. Among these were Scipio Africanus Major, William T. Sherman, and T.E. Lawrence. Shortly after World War II he interviewed/debriefed many of the highest ranking German generals and published their accounts as The Other Side of the Hill (UK Edition) and German Generals Talk (US Edition).

The principal posthumous biography of Liddell Hart, Alex Danchev's Alchemist of War: The Life of Basil Liddell Hart, written with the cooperation of Liddell Hart's widow, is startling for its candor. Among its revelations are that Liddell Hart connived at the planting of an endorsement of his own work in the English language version of Panzer Leader, the autobiography of Heinz Guderian. Although Guderian greatly admired Liddell Hart's work, and avidly read his newspaper columns, the German language edition of Guderian's autobiography gives Liddell Hart's work no greater preference than that of his contemporary, J.F.C. Fuller whom Guderian also admired.

Liddell Hart's personal library is now ensconced within the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives at King's College London.

Partial bibliography

  • B. H. Liddell Hart, A Greater Than Napoleon: Scipio Africanus (W Blackwood and Sons, London, 1926; Biblio and Tannen, New York, 1976)
  • B. H. Liddell Hart, Great Captains Unveiled (W. Blackwood and Sons, London, 1927; Greenhill, London, 1989)
  • B. H. Liddell Hart, Reputations 10 Years After (Little, Brown, Boston, 1928)
  • B. H. Liddell Hart, Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American (Dodd, Mead and Co, New York, 1929; Frederick A. Praeger, New York, 1960)
  • B. H. Liddell Hart, The Ghost of Napoleon (Yale University, New Haven, 1934)
  • B. H. Liddell Hart, The Defence of Britain (Faber and Faber, London, 1939; Greenwood, Westport, 1980)
  • B. H. Liddell Hart, The Tanks - A History of the Royal Tank Regiment and its Predecessors: Volumes I and II (Praeger, New York, 1959)
  • B. H. Liddell Hart, The Memoirs of Captain Liddell Hart: Volumes I and II (Cassell, London, 1965)

Further reading

  • Brian Bond, Liddell-Hart: A Study of his Military Thought (Cassell, London, 1977)
  • Alex Danchev, Alchemist of War: The Life of Basil Liddell Hart
  • John Mearsheimer, Liddell Hart and the Weight of History

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