[Cross-posted at Airminded.] In the published version of his 2008 Lord Trenchard Memorial Lecture, Richard Overy concluded that now

air power is projected for its potential political or moral impact. In Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan it is the political dividend that has been central to the exercise of air power, just as it was when Trenchard’s Independent Force flew against German cities in 1918 with the hope that a demoralised urban population might pressure the German government to make peace. In this sense it might be possible to argue, without stretching the history too far, that the RAF has begun to forge a new sense of identity in the past two decades more compatible with the traditions of Trenchardism.1

My interest here is in that last word, ‘Trenchardism’. Overy nowhere defines it — in fact, it’s the only time it occurs in his article — but as an airpower historian I have a pretty good idea what he means, despite the fact that it’s actually a relatively uncommon term. Marshal of the Royal Air Force (as he ended up) Lord Trenchard is well-known for his belief in strategic bombing as a war-winning weapon, particularly through its effects on morale, and as the RAF’s Chief of the Air Staff from 1919 to 1930 he was in a position to promote it. This sense of Trenchardism, something like Douhetism, seems straightforward enough, and it’s the sense in which I’ve encountered it in the secondary literature.2 But here I’m interested in other uses of this word Trenchardism: specifically the way it is used in a a Wikipedia article of that name which was created recently by Jo Pugh of The National Archives, who invites additions and comments (as discussed on Twitter).3 There, Trenchardism is taken beyond simply an enthusiasm for bombing, indeed beyond the military sphere entirely. The dilemma is that in so doing it risks diluting Trenchardism past the point of usefulness. But equally, it highlights a contemporary understanding of Trenchardism which is very different to that we understand now. Are they reconcilable? And if not, which should we prefer?

The Wikipedia article portrays Trenchardism as having three aspects: Trenchard’s advocacy of strategic bombing, his colonial air control policies (which I’ll leave to one side), and his approach to policing during his time as Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis between 1931 and 1935, that is to say as the head of the London Metropolitan Police Service. In a section entitled ‘Trenchardism in domestic policy’, the article currently has the following:

Campaigners on the Left in Britain resented what they deemed Trenchard’s militarisation of policing in London and saw innovations such as the Metropolitan Police College not as the professionalisation Trenchard claimed but a deliberate assault on Britain’s traditional style of consensus policing.

This was new to me. I knew that Trenchard was responsible for the creation of the Police College at Hendon (incidentally, practically next door to the aerodrome where the spectacular RAF Displays were held every year from 1920), which seems in keeping with one his major legacies to the RAF, Cranwell, the world’s first air force officer academy, founded in 1919. That Hendon was regarded by some on the left as a militarisation of the Met makes some sense from that perspective, though equally so does Trenchard’s professed aim of professionalisation. More to the point, it’s hard to see how this kind of Trenchardism is related to the strategic bombing kind of Trenchardism. The article also adds that

This view of Trenchardism as an authoritarian doctrine was exacerbated by specific police tactics used against hunger marchers in London, including use of batons.

The accusations of authoritarianism here are certainly more understandable. And maybe this form of aggressive policing is philosophically not too dissimilar from Trenchard’s emphasis on the ‘relentless and incessant offensive’, or for that matter his belief that the way to break an enemy was by attacking their morale. On the other hand, were these Trenchard’s tactics particularly, or did they spring from his military background? Most previous commissioners had held high rank in the British Army (two generals and a brigadier-general since 1918, for example; Trenchard was followed by another senior RAF officer, Air Vice-Marshal Sir Philip Game).

But what did people living at the time think Trenchardism was? It seems that, despite my misgivings, they used the term to refer to his policing philosophy; so far I haven’t found any referring to his bombing one. The Wikipedia article cites a 1934 example from the National Archives, a Young Communist leaflet advertising an anti-fascist rally in Hyde Park (emphasis added):

The National Government protects the Fascists from the fury of the workers, while at the same time attacking the workers’ rights of meeting through the Sedition Bill and Trenchardism. Duff-Cooper, of the War Office advises the Blackshirts to join the Territorials. The National Government, side by side with the British Blackshirts, both weapons of the Capitalists against the workers, is rushing forward to war and Fascism.

It’s not too hard to find other examples, though admittedly I’ve turned up only a handful (and nothing about Hendon, for what it’s worth). A newspaper (probably the Labour Daily Herald) published a political cartoon by Australian Will Dyson which shows little ‘Johnny Bull’ unimpressed by his shoddy Christmas presents, not surprisingly as they include things like ‘UNEMPLOYMENT’; and on his head is a Bobby’s helmet labelled ‘TRENCHARDISM’. There are other press references to Trenchardism, from 1933 and 1934. The most prominent and also the most unusual use was by Oliver Baldwin, the left-wing son of the Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin. In a speech to trade unionists in London in March 1934,

He referred to the ‘atmosphere of “Trenchardism,” “Prussianism,” and “Red-Tabism”‘ in the B.B.C. and said, ‘I am very pro-B.B.C., but I am not pro-B.B.C. headquarters. I have nothing but contempt for the headquarters department.’4

Here Baldwin is not referring to police tactics or crowd control, but to the way the Government radio service (which employed him as a film critic) was being run on authoritarian (Prussian, Red Tab) lines. Trenchard himself is nowhere to be seen and Trenchardism is in danger of becoming of a free-floating insult.

Significantly, in none of these cases did anyone feel it necessary to explain what Trenchardism was. Clearly they thought their readers or listeners would know what they meant. So if Trenchardism had any contemporary meaning, it seems that, at least in 1933 and 1934 and at least on the left, it was his actual use of force to suppress civilian resistance at home through policing, not his intended use of force to suppress civilian resistance overseas through bombing. Are these the same Trenchardism? If they are, then studying Trenchard’s police career might shed light on his RAF one. If they aren’t, then to which should we give precedence?

  1. Richard Overy, ‘Identity, politics and technology in the RAF’s history’, RUSI Journal 153 (2008), 74-7. Thanks to Ross Mahoney for this reference.
  2. E.g. Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Strategic Air Warfare: The Evolution and Reality of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002), 239, 291.
  3. I won’t here discuss the question of whether Wikipedia is an appropriate place for original research. See also Richard Jenson, ‘Military history on the electronic frontier: Wikipedia fights the War of 1812’, Journal of Military History 76 (2012), 1165-82.
  4. Manchester Guardian, 7 March 1934, 13.

5 thoughts on “Trenchardism?

  1. Nice post Brett. I could make a very long response to this, but I might just confine myself to promising the answer to nearly all those questions in my forthcoming book: ‘Police control systems in Britain, 1775-1975’ (MUP 2014). Shorter: it’s about control rooms, short service commissions, promotion blocks, shiny new sporting facilities designed to freeze the Police Federation out, etc. Check out Gordon Halland as well, who is the man who actually set up Hendon, using Cranwell along with Sandhurst as a model.

    Does ‘Trenchardism’ get mentioned in Rex Warner’s _The Aerodrome_? Because that seems very much like a warning of what Trenchardism triumphant might look like.

  2. Brett,

    It is an interesting proposition and one that can be reconciled. However, my primary concern is a historiographical one and concerns the idea that is persistent in air power historiography that Trenchard was a theorist. This is a misnomer, as to my mind it is obvious that he was more a pragmatist rather than a theorist. Trenchard’s one great skill as a leader was seeing advantage in ideas and using them to fulfil a purpose. We see this throughout his career from his decision to join the RFC through to his decision return as CAS in 1919. For example, when he was tasked to deal with the mutiny in Southampton in 1919, Trenchard asked in what position he was to deal with it. When given no firm direction he decided to deal with it in his army uniform rather than his air force one; he was at this time still a Major General in both the RAF and Army. This is a clear indication of his pragmatism as he saw a clear advantage in dealing with an army issue as an army officer. It is true he believed in command of the air and the idea of bombing but I do not think that makes him a theorist. The problem with the Wikipedia article is that it is trying to link a theory to an attitude and here I think there are many holes that could be picked at it.

    However, I would suggest that if there is such a thing as Trenchardism in the RAF, it is much more applicable to developing the RAF’s organisational culture rather than anything linked to air power theory. Trenchard was quick to spot the opportunity to stamp his identity on the service. He makes it quite clear in his memorandum on the Permanent Organisation of the Royal Air Force that the key to the RAF’s survival is to do with developing the ‘Air Force Spirit’ and the key to this was leadership development. Here the creation of Cranwell, Halton and the RAF Staff College was crucial, as it was through these institutions that officers would be inculcated with the assumptions and beliefs that the service held to be true. Building on what Chris mentions about Hendon, Cranwell was explicitly based on Sandhurst, Churchill noted in a speech in the House of Commons that ‘Cranwell is the RAF’s Sandhurst, so rather than ‘using Cranwell along with Sandhurst as a model’ maybe it should be ‘using Sandhurst through Cranwell as a model’. The RAF develops its culture from two sources, the Army and Royal Navy, however, its educational side is singularly based on the Army as the commission set up to examine education in the RAF dismisses the RN system quite early on. The value of the ‘Air Force Spirit was underpinned by the assumption of independence and indivisibility of air power and the belief in command of the air; though this is broader term than just bombing. It is through this developing system that any conception of Trenchardism emerges in the RAF.

    On the use of Trenchardism when Trenchard was Commissioner, is it perhaps not a contextual issue? Is it not entirely plausible that Trenchard is a victim of the time he was commissioner in terms of the social and economic problems of the period, and any attendant policing issues that they created. I am sure Chris has a firmer answer, but could it have not been just as easily Byngism or Gameism in a different context?

    This is one way of suggesting that if there was such a thing as Trenchardism we need to move away the narrow idea of a theory to a much broader cultural argument to understand what, and how, Trenchard thought, and the impact that he had upon the institutions that he led. Organisational theory offers a way of doing this.

  3. This is setting the bar very high for future comments on this blog, I have say.


    I’ll just have to wait for your book then! Though I take it that part of your argument is previewed in your talk here? Have you come across the term ‘Trenchardism’ in policing history, either in primary or secondary sources?

    Trenchard/Trenchardism doesn’t appear in The Aerodrome (at least according to Google Books), but I could see Warner being influenced by Trenchard’s example, at least in general terms. The Aerodrome goes beyond mere authoritarianism into air force elitism, though: these men believe they are destined to rule over the rest of us because they see society from on high and are detached from our mundane concerns. That could tie in with the left-wing critique of Trenchardism as enabling or even incipient fascism, but I wonder if those critics saw Trenchard’s airpower background (as opposed to his generic military one) as part of the problem?


    I very much agree that Trenchard is overrated as a theorist. He was not particularly an original thinker and, to the extent that he was original, he certainly wasn’t systematic (my favourite example is his claim that the moral effect of bombing is to the physical as twenty is to one, apparently just plucking this ratio out of thin air). Also I accept that the historiography exaggerates the importance of strategic bombing in the interwar RAF and for that matter Trenchard’s determining influence. But even so, Trenchard clearly held theories about aerial warfare, no matter how poorly thought out or unoriginal, and he equally clearly promoted those theories in the early RAF. In that sense he should be regarded as an influential theorist, it seems to me.

    Your suggestion that Trenchard’s development of an institutional culture is a better candidate for Trenchardism is interesting, but I would like to see this argued at fuller length. Did anyone identify this at the time? You make the excellent point that the policing form of Trenchardism might just as easily have been a Byngism or a Gameism: neither had the Depression to deal with, after all. But isn’t the same true of Trenchard’s position as (essentially) the first post-war head of a newly independent service? Anyone in that position would have had to think hard about how to create a new organisational culture. Even in the midst of war, Sykes, his predecessor as CAS, found time to approve the distinctive RAF uniform among other things. We don’t know what he would have done after the war had he not been replaced by Trenchard but he surely would have had to create a Cranwell. No doubt, it would not have been quite the same as Trenchard’s, but I can’t see that Sykes, or anyone else, would not have placed a heavy emphasis on developing leadership and institutional culture. Especially since they would have lacked the money to do much else 🙂

  4. Brett,

    I think we will probably have to disagree on how we view theorists, and I am sure it is a matter of semantics. No doubt, Trenchard clearly held views and he vigorously promoted them but I do not see him as a theorist. At its most basic level, he did not write anything. Yes, there are documents with his name on them but we know from recollections by the likes of Slessor et al that they were the ones responsible for their production and not Trenchard, though it can be argued that they were writing down his ideas. Trenchard pragmatically promoted theories that largely pervaded the air power sphere at this time but did not come up with them; therefore, he believed in theories but was not a theorist. Actually, in a Hegelian sense, Trenchard had a thesis, though not one he originated, and we can question whether his thinking ever reached the state of a synthesis; there certainly existed an antithesis from the RN. If there were theorists in the early RAF, excluding Sykes, it would be Brooke-Popham with Chamier not far behind.

    This is where using the idea of Trenchardism as a determinant of culture is useful. I agree that in many respects we could ascribe Trenchard’s assumptions, beleifs, and values to other key figures. Indeed to draw a link with education, Sykes is describing its importance in his memoranda during 1918. It is clear that both Sykes and Trenchard were in their own contexts key defenders of RAF culture, as it was a key factor in preserving independence, the key assumption in the RAF’s organisational culture. However, the key difference comes in the role Trenchard plays in shaping culture during the 1920s, which is where the idea of Trenchardism is useful. He held views, which many people also held, that he vigorously pursued in order to create a service culture for the RAF. For example, the existence of institutions such as Cranwell and Andover was constantly questioned in parliament during the 1920s, however, Trenchard, through the Secretary of State for Air, defended their necessity on the grounds that if the country wanted an independent air force then these institutions were a vital link in its development.

    Of course, playing devil’s advocate, we could suggest that it is Sykism that we are talking about had Sykes been a more politically adroit CAS. However, this is the historical paradigm that confronts us in using the term Trenchardism, and the general problem of ascribing –isms to anyone, which is that within a cultural context are these leaders not just representative of a broader process of group think between people, in this case air force officers, who hold similar ideas? Can Trenchardism be specifically applied to Trenchard or is it a general term that we use to describe the evolution of RAF culture in the inter-war period? I suspect that with many complex issues that the answer lies somewhere in the middle. I should have an answer on that in about 10 months’ time 😉

  5. Yes, I think it’s just semantics re: theorists, I think we pretty much agree about what Trenchard did and the effects he had in the airpower sense! (Or did not have.) I think the question you ask about whether any Trenchardism represented only Trenchard’s views or instead the views of RAF officers more generally is very pertinent. The smaller Trenchardism gets the less it is an -ism and the more it is, well, just Trenchard.

    As with Chris’s book, I look forward to reading your PhD!

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