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Book Review - The Hall of Mirrors: War and Warfare in the Twentieth Century

22 June 2021
Book review

By Jim Storr

Helion & Company, UK, 2018, ISBN 978-1-912390-85-4, 283pp
Cover of book Hall of Mirrors by Jim Storr

Reviewed by Major Andrew Maher

The Defence Strategic Update (DSU) 2020 marks a significant investment in equipping the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to 2040 and beyond. Realising the equipment investments articulated by the DSU will require decision makers to reflect on historic lessons and to exercise nuanced military judgement to justify recommended acquisitions for a complex and uncertain future. It is this issue of applying historic lessons and exercising military judgement that is the focus for Professor Jim Storr’s book The Hall of Mirrors: War and Warfare in the Twentieth Century.  Storr seeks to dispel myths, challenge assertions and undermine some of the mis-conceptions that can underpin Western strategic decision making. Indeed, the following passage explains the tone of Storr’s analysis. 

“History is our best guide to the future, but it is an imperfect mirror… Often we are looking at what other people had written about… It is like looking down a hall of mirrors… None of the mirrors are perfect. Imperfections are often repeated again and again by reflection. We may well not see what we thought we were looking at.”

Jim Storr’s The Hall of Mirrors advances the metaphor of distorted mirrors that amplify the challenge in exercising military judgement based upon incomplete or misconstrued evidence, chipped and clouded by the passage of time. This is a refreshing contrast to the predominant historical narratives that seek to advance our understanding through what Cathal Nolan described as ‘The Allure of Battle.’ History focussed upon battles often assumes a tactical orientation and risks losing broader strategic insights. By examining campaigns, not battles; passive, as well as active periods; and organisations, not generals; Storr valuably adds colour to what might otherwise be a monochrome historical understanding.

Storr’s narrative begins with the First World War, examining naval and land actions in combination. He draws attention to the almost four million tons of German shipping that was confiscated or trapped in neutral ports in 1914 which enabled the British Government to engage in economic warfare through both close and distant naval blockades. Germany’s allies could similarly exert pressure upon maritime trade in the Mediterranean, noting Russia’s dependence upon the Dardenelles for the export of grain. In this context, the purpose of the Gallipoli campaign comes into focus and Storr’s analysis provides much needed context to a campaign that has become the subject of Australian military folklore.

On the Western Front, Storr breaks apart the Schlieffen plan of World War I, assessing it to be “deeply flawed at many levels.” Peering through the cloak of wartime propaganda, he assesses that the French response, the “Miracle of the Marne,” was not a miracle, but rather a respectable operational manoeuvre that led to the break-down of the German advance. Storr observes that:

“Germany did not have a strategy in August 1914. It had plans for a maritime cruiser campaign. Quite separately, its Army had an operational plan (the ‘Schlieffen Plan’) to defeat France quickly and then turn east to defeat Russia. It was very sophisticated in terms of ‘what to do’ and ‘how to do it’, but critically weak in terms of ‘why?’ That is, its political purpose.”

While critical of the application of strategy in First World War, Storr’s analysis makes several unexpected findings relevant to military planning. First, he notes a convergence in orders of battle across all combatants to a Divisional structure of three brigades, each of three regiments. Second, he notes that there was an initial wartime shortage of trained staff officers to affect planning within newly mobilised formations, and a continuing trend towards simplification of those planning products over time. Third, he notes that ‘a proportion of commanders at all ranks had been sacked’ (including Army and Corps Commanders), but also notes that ‘a number were re-employed after a gap of six months.’

Storr progresses his analysis by comparing the effectiveness of German adaptation by compared to that of the British. He does this by examining how the Germans learned lessons from their involvement in the Spanish Civil War, which they then applied in World War II. In contrast, the British were not involved in Spain, and lacked similar learning opportunities. This is an intriguing perspective given the absence of this connection in most analysis of Second World War. Storr directs particular criticism towards the Royal Air Force’s failure to grasp the potential for close-air support, which he argues might have significantly unhinged the German advance through the Ardennes and into France in 1940. This facet is notable in light of the German Luftwaffe learning the completely opposite lesson from its Spanish experience and fielding the Stuka dive-bomber to support its Panzer-led advances.

Storr’s narrative advances from Cold-War colonial wars through to the implementation of the Air-Land Battle doctrine in the Gulf War. He summarises the 12 planned reorganisations of US Army Divisions that occurred between 1945 and 2000 by referring back to the Second World War’s lesson that “the optimal size was 20-25 ‘line’ (i.e. combat) companies in six to eight battalions.” Storr notes from this analysis that Divisional combat power wasn’t necessarily correlated to size, as reserves might be excessively large (thus presenting opportunity cost) or physically dislocated from where they were needed most (and are thus correlated to their form of mobility). His investigations explore issues of generating surprise, logistics, air-defence and air-integration. One of Storr’s conclusions is of particular interest to the military strategist:

“It took 24 days to resolve the Falklands Conflict, once the land force was ashore. A few Chinooks might have shortened it by about a week. Operations in Grenada (in 1983) and Panama (in 1990) were conducted very quickly using light, airmobile ground forces. Conversely it took 100 days to address the situation in Kosovo. If politicians want a conflict settled, they should commit a ground force.”

Storr’s style includes the presentation of counter-factual vignettes, showing what might have been had certain decisions been made differently. This style will be valuable for some readers, but distracting, or even confusing, for others. Indeed, an inexperienced reader may miss the nuance of the argument presented or be overwhelmed by the detail. This facet, along with quite complicated analysis of quite minor combat details, magnified through tactical to strategic levels, makes this book most suitable for the reader with a sound grasp of the history of the past century of warfare. Indeed, those most familiar with the myths that Professor Storr challenges will recognise the gravity of the analysis presented. For these readers, Jim Storr’s The Hall of Mirrors provides a unique opportunity to review military history through a refreshing analytical lens.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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