Book Review: Fighting the People’s War: The British and Commonwealth Armies and the Second World War


by Jonathan Fennell

Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. xxxiv, 934. Illus., maps, tables, figures, gloss., appends., notes, biblio., index. . ISBN: 1107030951

 A Look inside the “British” Armies

Fennel, Director of the Sir Michael Howard Centre for the History of War, who has written on morale during the North African Campaign, gives us a major new account of the armies of the British Empire and the Commonwealth during the Second World War. He not only looks at the fighting, but also political and social influences on operations, and the morale of the troops and the peoples who supported them.

We get to see differences in support for the war, or in the ways in which it was being fought, in some of the Dominions (e.g., Australia’s concerns about Japan, South Africa’s Boers, who tended to be pro-German, some even engaging in sabotage etc.). There were also increasing demands for independence in India and some other colonies, and even anti-war pressures at home. Fennel reveals serious morale problems in the army, which developed surprisingly high desertion and venereal disease rates, as the war dragged on and war weariness grew, as revealed by censors who sifted through some 1.4 million servicemen’s letters.

Fennell reminds us that the remarkable British success in the Western Desert in the winter of 1940-1941 was effected by long service regulars far better equipped than their ill-trained foes. Despite the rosy image projected in wartime and postwar books, film, and public memory, Fennel does not paint a pretty picture, but it’s important to keep in mind that for the British Empire the war lasted six years, and many personnel were on active duty for ever longer. Most British, Commonwealth, and even Imperial troops were more or less citizen-soldiers, British forces were often committed to combat before they were properly prepared. In the long run, the army – or “armies” – performed well, but were always strained.

A volume in the Cambridge series “Armies of the Second World War”, Fighting the People’s War is a major contribution to the literature of the war, and a useful read for anyone interested in understanding how perceptions of war change over time.


Note: Fighting the People’s War is also available in paperback and e-editions.

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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