Expertise Unbound? The state and its use of specialists in times of crisis

by | Jun 16, 2020 | Guest Posts, RHS Publications | 0 comments

In this post, published simultaneously with the IHR, Christopher Phillips, whose book Civilian Specialists at War has just been published in our New Historical Perspectives open access book series, draws comparisons between specialist involvement in the current COVID-19 emergency and the role of civilian expertise during the First World War. Though very different situations, both point to the importance of expert advice in planning for and responding to an evolving challenge. At the same time, both cases demonstrate the constraints placed on external specialists when expertise comes in to close contact with political or military power.


Government, Expertise and COVID-19

The British government, in tandem with the devolved administrations, is central to national responses to the threat posed by Covid-19. It has played a key, decision-making role in preparing for a pandemic, for organising the country’s response as the virus spread in the early months of 2020, and for managing the ongoing crisis. The decisions it’s taken — both in spring 2020, and in the months and years prior to this — are now the focus of journalists’ investigations and will engage numerous historical researchers in the future.

The government is keen to stress that it’s not making these decisions in isolation. Hugely experienced scientists and medical practitioners now stand daily alongside ministers to pronounce on the crisis. The phrase ‘following the science’ is frequently repeated in interviews. For some, this mantra is considered an attempt by government to abrogate responsibility for its performance. For others, it’s evidence of the state’s recognition of the role to be played by experts in tackling complex organisational challenges that are without precedent in living memory

The government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, and Co-ordinator of the National Testing Effort, Professor John Newton, Downing Street Press briefing, 23 April 2020, Image Pippa Fowles, 10 Downing Street, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


The challenges posed by COVID-19 are distinctive and particular. However, the fusing of government and specialist advice, especially at times of national emergency, has a longer history and benefits from being set in historical context. In the grip of a public health crisis, it’s natural that many are looking back a century to the global experience of the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918. But extend that timeframe a little further and we also take in the First World War; another international crisis during which the interweaving of civilian expertise and military governance became a central feature.

At one level — and notwithstanding popular rhetoric — it’s facile to compare the current (or any) pandemic with waging war against a calculating, rational actor. A virus cannot be compelled to seek a truce; nor can it be wrestled into submission, or not at least until the introduction of an effective globally available vaccine. Yet the history of Britain’s approach to conducting the war between 1914 and 1918 does provide some clues — and some cautionary tales — about the manner in which latent expertise can be mobilised to support the state in ‘days of mortal danger’.*

My own research, now available in Civilian Specialists at War, examines the manner in which the senior managers of Britain’s railways — executives in the nation’s largest pre-war enterprises — worked alongside and within the British army and government during the First World War. Their experiences of the crisis were not unique. Experts in science, telecommunications, clothing manufacture, engineering and agriculture provided knowledge and specialist advice to the state. Through the lens of these civilian experts, we can both view the nation’s preparations for the possibility of a national crisis before 1914, and track the government’s responsiveness to conflict as war progressed.


Preparing for the crisis

The first factor to consider is preparedness: the readiness to respond to the beginning of a crisis effectively, whether this be — as now — the stockpiling of personal protective equipment or, then, providing transport for the armed forces tasked with meeting an enemy.

The coming of the railways revolutionised early twentieth-century warfare. Railways permitted the movement of military forces at unprecedented speed, the accumulation of troops and equipment on a much greater scale, and the sustenance of these forces for previously unimaginable periods of time. Between the formation of the Engineer and Railway Staff Corps in 1865 and the outbreak of war in August 1914, representatives of Britain’s privately owned railway companies had worked alongside the army to facilitate the movement of troops in the event of a national emergency. These plans were initially based on principles of defence: focused on ensuring the security of the British coast in the event of an enemy invasion. However, as Anglo-German relations deteriorated and the threat of war in Europe became more pronounced, Britain’s railway experts were redirected towards the production of timetables to move troops to the ports for action overseas.

Significantly, Britain’s transport experts did not create policy. Instead, they informed policymakers of what was possible; they identified the organisational and logistical limits of the available resources, and they relayed conclusions to the decision-makers. The extent of experts’ influence was governed entirely by the range of options forwarded for their consideration, which in the years immediately preceding the First World War was narrow. Mobilisation planning for the British army was handled within the confines of the Directorate of Military Operations deep within the War Office, and was heavily influenced by the personal designs of its director, Sir Henry Wilson.

A committed Francophile, Wilson was eager for the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to operate in lockstep with the French army at the outbreak of hostilities with Germany. In the run up to war Wilson concentrated not on providing the British government with a range of military options but solely on preparing the BEF for a move to northern France. Consequently, in August 1914 the government’s freedom of action was severely restricted. Once the decision was taken to declare war on Germany and despatch the BEF to France, only Wilson’s mobilisation scheme existed in sufficient detail to permit its rapid execution.

These constraints reflected the comparatively low priority afforded to military planning by the British government in the years before 1914. Prior to the declaration of war, Asquith’s Liberal government had been consumed less by the technicalities of mobilisation schemes, and far more by reform of the House of Lords, the passage of the Home Rule bill, the ongoing debate over women’s suffrage, and the growing power of the trade unions.

A similar tension can be identified in the way in which concerns raised by Exercise Cygnus (NHS England’s 2016 simulated response to an influenza pandemic) were eclipsed by the Conservative government’s concentration on exiting the European Union. In the same way as Covid-19 swept away the day-to-day hubbub of British politics in 2020, so the First World War created a unifying focus for government action after August 1914.


Understanding a changing situation

The second factor is comprehension. How specialist expertise was utilised during the First World War was wholly dependent on government’s understanding of an evolving situation. As the scientists engaged in the battle against Covid-19 are keen to stress, there’s much we do not know about the virus. New information is established, interpreted and disseminated on a daily basis. Similarly, the task facing Britain during the First World War revealed itself only gradually. The effort that was ultimately necessary to defeat the Central Powers was unknown and unimaginable when the lamps went out across Europe.

Certainly, Asquith’s government acknowledged the specialist knowledge and experience required to operate a railway network in wartime when, in 1912, it created the Railway Executive Committee (REC). Nominally under the control of the Board of Trade, the REC comprised the managers of Britain’s principal railway companies and, from August 1914 onwards, coordinated the efforts of the country’s privately owned railways for the duration of the conflict.

However, as the war evolved so too did the role of transport expertise in its prosecution. During the first month of fighting, the REC was approached by the War Office to place its vast manufacturing capacity in service of the nation. Ambulance stretchers, gun carriages, shells, and numerous other wartime items were now turned out by the great railway works at Swindon, Derby and elsewhere. Railway materials including locomotives, carriages and wagons were sent overseas to supplement the existing transport assets that served the Allied armies stationed in France, Egypt and Salonika.

Individual members of the REC also took on a wide range of projects and positions as the British war effort grew beyond all previous military experience. These began on a small-scale with, for example, troubleshooting investigations into operations at individual English docks. But by 1918 British railway experts were making significant contributions to the supply and transport arrangements of the Allied armies that stretched from the Channel to the Adriatic and beyond. Their work, ensuring the constant supply of food, munitions, oil, timber, engineering materials, and other items, was paramount for the continued efficiency of the troops on the front line.

The growing involvement of civilians in previously military concerns did not go unchallenged. Many of the soldiers responsible for ensuring the steady flow of supplies to the front line deeply resented the encroachment of civilian experts into the military sphere, stressing the unique difficulty of wartime over peacetime logistics.

In August 1916 the deputy general manager of the North-Eastern Railway, Sir Eric Geddes, was appointed by the government to investigate the operations of the BEF’s transport organisation behind the Western Front. The force’s commander-in-chief, Sir Douglas Haig, had to write to each of his reluctant officers to explicitly demand they provide Geddes with the statistics and information he desired. Haig’s subsequent appointment of Geddes as Director-General of Transportation — charged with overseeing the reorganisation of the BEF’s transport assets — was in turn met with threats of resignation from senior supply officers on both sides of the Channel.

Sir Eric Geddes (standing, fourth from right) appears in James Guthrie’s group portrait, ‘The Statesmen of World War One’ (c) NPG CC BY NC 3.0


Balancing demands and personalities

Despite the recognised importance of their work, and its increasing significance to the war effort, Britain’s transport experts did not possess a free hand between 1914 and 1918. Like those providing scientific guidance as Britain seeks to ease lockdown measures, wartime experts operated within a wider context that demanded consideration of social, material, and economic factors.

Each pound of steel used for the construction of new locomotives was one not available for the manufacture of new guns or shells. Every man employed to unload ships was a soldier not in the firing line. Any train operated on behalf of the British army reduced the transport capacity available to the other Allied armies dependent on the same railways for their sustenance. For powerful transport executives, unaccustomed to having their authority challenged in peacetime, such restrictions proved discomforting.

The personalities of those engaged in dealing with the crisis is, therefore, a third factor to keep in mind. The men and women tasked with steering the nation through the Covid-19 crisis believe in their abilities to do the job they’ve been given. They also have strong opinions that need to be managed. In March 1917 Geddes threatened to resign his position in response to what he saw as a lack of cooperation from Britain’s coalition partners.

Haig was able to prevent a talented man from withdrawing his services, but the incident demonstrated that undoubted ability in one field (Geddes was the British railway industry’s highest paid executive prior to the outbreak of war) did not necessarily transfer to another. He proved either unable or unwilling to appreciate that France was also engaged in a war of unprecedented scale, and he lacked the diplomatic skills required to work in an environment that demanded conciliation and compromise between allies.

The application of expertise is no panacea to the enormous challenges posed by the Covid-19 crisis. As in the First World War, the talented and determined specialists recruited by the British government have not been able to work without restrictions or constraints, either before or since the breaking of this current emergency. They have been bound by political, social, and economic factors at all times. On matters of public health, the preferable, the possible and the popular are often at odds. And, as during the First World War, compromises are being made in acknowledgement of competing interests and priorities. In contrast to November 1918, however, it seems unlikely that the success (or otherwise) of this present balancing act will be as identifiable as victory on the battlefield.

*The epitaph for Sir Eric Geddes (1875-1937), one of David Lloyd George’s ‘men of push and go’, referred to his having been ‘privileged greatly to serve his nation in days of mortal danger’.

Dr Christopher Phillips is a lecturer in international security in the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University. He is the author of Civilian Specialists at War. Britain’s Transport Experts and the First World War, published by University of London Press in April 2020. His book is one of the opening titles in New Historical Perspectives, an Open Access publishing series for early career historians, run by the Royal Historical Society and the Institute of Historical Research.

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