Are your retrospectives retrospective? (Part 2)

Victory – What Now?

Richard Dannatt, and Robert Lyman in their book “Victory to Defeat: The British Army 1918-40” describe how Britain moved from victor in 1918, to victim of their own concepts in 1940.

Following the unexpectedly rapid victory there were celebrations in Britain, and a wish to put the terrible four years behind them. Initially there was no particular rancour against the men who had commanded the British and Empire forces.

The public and political feeling was, that what had happened was an aboration, and a wish to turn the clock back to a simpler time of an imagined pre 1914 golden age.

For many of those in the army there was a wish to get back to real soldiering, since what happened between 1914 and 1918, was not normal and was unlikely to occur again.

In the years following the war, public and political opinion, began to shift, and move towards a “Lions Led by Donkeys”1 mentality. By the mid 20th century, the idea that the Chateaux Generals were incompetent and uncaring about the lives of their soldiers was firmly established.

However, there were many conflicting perspectives and demands during the inter-war years.

1: Cost cutting

The war had close to bankruped Britain and subsequent post war governments sought to save money, and cash in on the peace dividend.

Now that the war was over there was no need for the focus on war production and the armed services

2: Inter-Service rivalry

The Royal Navy was the Senior Service, and for centuries had allowed Britain to dominate the world’s oceans, and keep her shores safe from invasion.

So! Why not stick with what had worked in the past, and give the Navy the lions share of the defense budget.

The situation was further complicated by the new upstart Royal Air Force (RAF).3

The RAF jealously guarded it’s independence, advocating that it’s bomber force could fulfill the role of the Army. Policing the far reaches of empire, and breaking the will of foreign enemies without the expensive need for “boots on the ground”.

The clarion call of the inter-war years was: “The bomber will always get through”

The army was very much the junior service, and in times of severe finacial constraints was unlikely to get a large slice of the defence pie.

Relegated to the more mundane policing roles around the empire and starved of funding, the army lost sight of the combined operational brilliance that had won the war.

3) Pacifism

Both politicians and the public began to focus on the carnage of the early war years, where much blood and treasure were expended for little or no gain.  

Many traumatised by the war took to pacifism, believing it a way to avoid the horrors of the Great War. This movement reinforced the efforts to cut defence spending.

4) The Army

Following the war the Army returned to it’s main duty of policeing  the Empire. A role that had expanded due to the additional responsibilities Britain had assumed through the Treaty of Versailles, and the deteriorating situation in Ireland4.

Many of the innovations and equipment developed during the war were forgotten or scrapped in an effort to cut costs and focus on the police role.

No real effort was made to preserve the lessons of 1918 and soon that highly efficient and effective army was dispersed and forgotten.

True, horses were much cheaper than tanks, and there were still many who longed for a return to the good old days.

There was also the other extreme, the tankers, who belived that the tank was a wonder weapon which could achieve victory without the need for the other arms. (Much as the bomber mafia thought the bomber alone could win the war).

Despite the severe lack of funding the general staff and the war colleges, could have made efforts to understand and retain the lessons of 1918, and to develop a doctrine that could be used to expand and modernise the army should circumsances change.

Because of this failure the Army was totally unprepared when Britain finally started to rearm in the late 1930s, to face the now obvious German threat.

5) The Appeasers

By the mid-1930s British governments had become isolationist, and desperatly wanted to avoid another war, and in the words of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, did not want to become involved in “A quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing”.5

There was a growing feeing that the Treaty of Versailles had been too draconion, and unfair to Germany. This led to an unwillingness to enforce the terms of the the treaty.

The appeasment emboldened Hitler and finally led to the thing the politicians feared most, a general European war.

By the time this was realised and rearming started in ernest it was too late.

6) The Germans

Despite being severly limited by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the German army, stung by defeat, strove to understand why they had lost and to find ways to work around those limitations.

Banned from possessing tanks they worked cladestinely with the Soviet Union to develop and test tanks, far from the prying eyes of the western allies.

Ironically much of the German analysis and formulation of doctrine, was learned from analysis of British operations the final days of the war and from British thinkers and writers in the inter-war years.

Much of the doctrine was captured by a former staff officer Heinz Guderian, in his 1937 book “Achtung Panzer”. Guderian brilliantly turned doctrine into practice during the 1940 battle for France.

1940 The Battle of France

I do not intend to give a detailed account of the fall of France in 1940.

Once more a British Epiditionary Force (BEF) was deployed in France to face the expected German onslaught.

Like there fathers in 1914 the BEF, and their French allies, were depolyed in a linear defensive role. The French feeling safe behind the Maginot Line6.

Both contries had forgotten the lessons of 1918, deploying in 1914 defensive style.

The Germans however had learned their lessons well, and when they attacked on the 10th of May, it was the allied 1918 tactics on Steroids.

In fact they were actually on methamphetamines7.

Not only did they make the anticipated assault through Holland and Belgium but launched a surprise attack through the Ardennes which the allies had considered unsuitable for major operations.

Unprepared and outclassed the allies fell back under the onslaught of the panzer divisions.

In a little over a week Lord Gort, (Commander of the BEF), fell back on the coast in the hope of evacuating his army.

Fighting a desperate reargaurd action he was eventually able to bring off over 300,000 British and French troops.

In what became known as the miracle of Dunkirk the majority of the BEF was returned to Britain but were forced to abandon all their heavy equipment in France.

Troops waiting for evacuation from the beaches of Dunkirk

France fought on for another couple of weeks, but was forced to sign a humiliating surrender in the same 1918 railway carrige near Compiègne.

To paraphrase Darth Vader;

“In 1918 we were but the learners. Now we are the masters.”


As the panzer divisions stormed towards the French coast, with apparent ease, it was not that the panzers were inherently superior to their opponents’ tanks.

Both the allies had tanks with heavy armour and “big” guns, that were more than capable of destroying any panzer in a tank on tank dual. True they were slow “gas guzzlers”, but it took innovative use of the 88mm anti-aircraft guns used in an anti-tank role to stop them.

On the few occasions where Allied armour were used with imagination and in sufficient numbers they shocked the Germans. However there was no follow through or consistancy and the panzers rolled on.

Equally the Germans maintained air-superiority over the battlefield, not because their aircraft were markedly superior. The French fighters and the British Hurricane were inferior to the Me 109, but not totally outclassed. The Spitfire however was comparable to the 109 if not superior.

The terror weapon, the JU 87, Stuka, created havoc among the allies, with its wailing sirens and pinpoint bombing.

However it proved ineffective during the Battle of Britain a few months later.

Without air superiority they quickly fell victim to the Spitfires and Hurricanes of the RAF, and had to be withdrawn from the battle due to the high attrition rate.

We can therefore conclude that it was not technical superiority, but an effective operational doctrine that gave the Germans victory in 1940.     

Had Britain and France had the foresight to develop the 1918 doctrine, things may well have turned out differently.

Top Lesson for Project Managers

What has all this to do with project management?

What can we learn from the disastrous inter-war years?

Project managers will often face similar problems to the inter-war armed services.

  • Lack of funding.
  • Interdepartmental rivalries.
  • Resistance to change.
  • Disruptive competitors.
  • Lack of will.

What can you do about it?

Most importantly have a serious After-Action Review, a true retrospective.

It is all too easy to allow the stresses of a difficult project to overcome you, and to simply want to forget it and move on.

Like Britain you may want to do anything to avoid a similar situation, other than address it head-on and determine the pros and cons.

Do not allow emotions to dominate!

This will allow you to analyze what went wrong, but more importantly there will also be the gems of what went right, and how you eventually achieved success.

This is the only way to meaningfully engage with the next project, rather than trying to push things off to the side.

Use a Red Team or red teaming techniques to analyze the results and develop a clear plan.

Although as a PM or a PMO, you are unlikely to face the stark choice faced by the British Army between preparing for another Global war or colonial police actions.

However, the duty of a PMO is to prepare for all types of likely projects and even if the will or the money is not available for the big project, you can at least formulate the doctrine.

That way you will be ready to implement it when the situation demands, and the money is available.

As project managers operating in a free market, you also have the option, not available to the officers of the various armed forces, of moving to a company more open to ideas.

Or like The Agile Alliance, you can collaborate with likeminded people to develop a new way of delivering projects.

I will look at Dr. Steve Peters mind management model, which explains why we can so easily be carried away by our emotions, in the next post.8


1“Lions led by donkeys,” is a saying that implies that while a group is made up of strong and competent people, they are led by incompetents.

Historian Alan Clark invented a story about a conversation between General Erich Ludendorff and General Max Hoffmann, discussing the performance of British soldiers.

Ludendorff: The English (sic) soldiers fight like lions.

Hoffmann: True. But don’t we know that they are lions led by donkeys?

From his 1961 book “The Donkeys”.

2Colonel Blimp was a cartoon character created by David Low that first appeared in the Evening Standard in 1934. Although a military man, his pompous, jingoistic, attitude is seen as personifying the British ruling class. He supports the huge mustache favoured by British senior officers during WWI. (The Donkeys as portrayed by Alan Clark)

It is also a term often applied to any pompous overbearing ass.

For more details see:    

3Until 1918 the Royal Flying Corps, had been part of the Army. It was amalgamated with the Royal Naval Air Service to form the Royal Air Force in April 1918.

4Britain and France had acquired troubled regions in the Middle East that had been part of the former Ottoman Empire. Additionally, Irish Home Rule, which had been place on hold due to WWI was not politically addressed and boiled over into armed conflict. This finally resulted in the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922.

5From a Chamberlain speech on 27th of September 1938.

6The Maginot Line was a series of static defenses and strong points along France’s border with Germany Switzerland and Italy. At points the defenses were up to 15 miles deep. It was an expensive variation on WWI defenses, incorporating all sorts of technology. However, it did not extend to Belgium and was very weak in the Ardennes area. The result was the Germans simply went around it and the antiquated (In the doctrinal sense) defensive system became an irrelevance.

7German troops were using the methamphetamine Pervitin, to remain alert and keep pressing the offensive.

8The Chimp Paradox – Dr. Steve Peters


  • Victory to Defeat: The British Army 1918-40 – Richard Dannatt, Robert Lyman.
  • Achtung Panzer – Heinz Guderian
  • Monash: The Outsider Who Won a War – Roland Perry, David Tredinnick.
  • World War I Trench Warfare – Dr. Stephen Bull, Adam Hook.
  • Germans Stormtrooper 1914–1918 – Ian Drury, Gerry Embleton.
  • An Illustrated History of The First World War – John Keegan.
  • The Pity of War – Niall Ferguson
  • The Bomber Mafia – Malcolm Gladwell
  • The Chimp Paradox – Dr. Steve Peters

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