Historian Christopher Phillips compares specialist involvement in the Covid-19 crisis with civilian expertise in government during the First World War. Though very different situations, both point to the importance of experts in planning for and responding to an evolving challenge. Both equally demonstrate the constraints placed on outsiders 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 Covid-19. It has played a key role in 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 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 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. Yet the history of Britain’s approach to conducting 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 published as Civilian Specialists at War, examines how the senior managers of Britain’s railways, executives in the nation’s largest pre-war enterprises, worked alongside 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 20th-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. 

Prior to 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: 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. Rather, they informed policymakers of what was possible; identified the organisational and logistical limits of the available resources, and 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.

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 than by pressing domestic challenges such as House of Lords reform, Irish Home Rule, women’s suffrage and the power of the trade unions.

A similar tension can be identified in how 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. 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. 

As the war evolved so too did the role of transport expertise in its prosecution. 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 troops’ efficiency 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 deeply resented the encroachment of civilian experts into the military sphere, stressing the unique difficulty of wartime over peacetime logistics. 

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 now providing scientific guidance, wartime experts operated within a wider context that demanded consideration of social, material, and economic factors. For powerful transport executives, unaccustomed to having their authority challenged in peacetime, such restrictions proved discomforting.

The personality 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. 

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.

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 and the author of Civilian Specialists at War. Britain’s Transport Experts and the First World War.

The book is one of the first titles in the New Historical Perspectives series — an open access publishing programme for Early Career Researchers, from the Royal Historical Society, Institute of Historical Research and University of London Press.

Cover image: British soldiers, 14 June 1916, Imperial War Museum collection