B. H. Lidell Hart: An Author Who Shaped History

When he was in his twenties, Basil Henry Liddell Hart (1895-1970) decided that Liddell was a more befitting name than the more common Basil for a man of his aspirations and began to discourage the use of his first name.  Like Barry Obama's decision to shed his nickname, Hart's adoption of Liddell was what today we might call a personal branding strategy intended to differentiate him from the pack. 

Liddell Hart Strategy Historian

Over the course of his career, Liddell Hart distinguished himself as a military historian and strategic thinker to such an extent that his writing directly influenced the course of the most global war in human history.To truly understand the art of strategic thinking, it is essential to consider Hart’s notion of the indirect approach.

Hart’s theories of strategy were born during his participation in the trench wars of World War I. The failure of the German thrust into France led to a prolonged, protracted, agonizing stalemate along a seemingly endless line of confrontation.Like many, Hart was exposed to gas warfare, which led to long-term health issues and early retirement from the military.

The Somme conflict serves as an excellent counter-example of the principle of strategy discovered and rediscovered by Sun Tzu, Scipio Africanus, Napoleon, Clausewitz, Jomini, and so many others.It should be no surprise, then, that after first-hand experience as to the costs of sending armies squarely against each other, that Liddell Hart would craft his career as a military historian around the central thesis that the indirect approach is the only successful way of strategy.

In 1929, he published The Decisive Wars of History.Although Hart was a Briton, it is known that his work had greater impact on the pre-WWII military thinking than on his own countrymen. Among others, the German general Hans Guderian read and digested Hart’s work, which influenced his designs for employing tank (panzer) warfare in execution of the “blitzkrieg” strikes that quickly took the European lowland countries and France.

Erwin Rommel, the “desert fox” was likewise influence and his tank battles with the Allies in northern Africa are often seen as the prototypical Hartian strategic confrontation.

In 1954, Hart republished The Decisive Wars in History, with the new title Strategy: The Indirect Approach.In this updated and revised edition, Hart added analysis of the strategic initiatives of WWII, including great detail on the thinking of Guderian and Rommel.

Hart’s direct influence on the course of the second world war is not, of course, the first time generals learned from the books of others.While much attention is now paid to the work and insight of the military historian and theorist Carl von Clausewitz, I am told that it was Clausewitz’ contemporary, counterpart and rival Jomini whose theories were directly tested in our own Civil War.On the marches leading to Gettysburg, for example, generals from both sides carried copies of Jomini’s book The Art of Warin their saddlebags.

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