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January 23, 2013


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A Smith

And it worked because those bureaucrats were infused with an identical *culture*--the guy running a province in India likely had a similar approach as the governor of Tasmania or the Virgin Islands.


15 years ago you could still see this in the royal navy. Our US Navy orders in the IO were pages and pages long. The Brit ship that relieved us had orders "Carry out the Queen's interest."

Which one is better?


"Somebody, for whom, the lack of connections to the home country would be liberating not enervating."

The problem, of course, is that they would have to be reasonably honest and loyal to the mother country; if they weren't, they would "liberate" anything not nailed down.


How, then, does this explain the differences between the decentralized British Empire and others, such as France's -- which, IIRC, was run under tight control from Paris? Surely the communications of each were similar.


In Vietnam, company level operations were destroyed by the Battalion Commander in a helicopter over the battlefield. "The eye in the sky" would tell not just the company commander that a platoon was in a wrong position, but would go down to individual weapon positions, cutting out both platoon and squad leaders.

One LtCol I worked for told about his time as a CO during bad weather...Helicopters grounded. He was unhappy that his platoon leaders had trouble reading maps. He got them all together, and started leading the company with all three platoon leaders right next to him. As his command party blundered into an ambush, he quickly decided that rather than teach map reading, he should turn his platoon leaders loose to be platoon leaders- If they made an error in map reading they would get to where they wanted to get to eventually.


I buy this, given I'm in way too many meetings that half of the people keep forcing the rewind button to be hit.

Former Captain

The Vietnam conflict proved this for Americans.

Whereas in WWII, General MacArthur was ordered to "attack and defeat" Japan, no such order was given in RVN. White House staffers, who the Army would have washed out as "unsuitable," in safe, air conditioned offices 10,000 miles away were choosing daily which airplanes with what ordinance attacked this or that target by which ingress and egress route tomorrow. The men in the field were so many puppets.

And the losing war closed like a bad puppet show. The US military could have and would have won the war but it was never given the simple order "Win." They weren't allowed to win by any pre-1974 definition of the term. So, 58,000 lives were, indeed, wasted by ineffectual

A giant EMP bomb over Washington that hurt no one would have allowed victory to occur.


Odd, but I was thinking that historically that the same situation had a salubrious effect on the U.S. Navy. Of course I was thinking of a period much earlier than fifteen years back.

Even so, during my tenure, the USN had a wonderful term to be used in messages from junior to senior Commander. UNODIR; translated, "unless otherwise directed I intend to ..." I was fortunate enough to work for an Admiral who made liberal use of that term.


Two weeks? Even worse. Tasmania to England in 1800 was maybe six months. India at least four. Each way. Which really really reinforces the point. Nobody who got anything done did it by sittig on their butts waiting for orders.

The False God

Not to be off topic, but one thing I've noticed in most "RTS" games is the extensive micromanagement that is done. When you're forced to micro everything, or fail miserably as your army is composed of retards when forced to act without orders, you become stuck between the bigger/smaller pictures.

In a situation where the enemy's team was administrated at a smaller level to higher level, with a delineated hierarchy, the lone player would get utterly smashed. Why would you attempt to micromanage in real life? No one person, or even a group, is going to be able to make the important strategy/tactics decisions for every general, commander, captain, sergeant, battalion, platoon, and unit in the field.

carl treseder

Back in the 1970's an organizational behavior class (required of first year MBA candidates) made the point that the schooling and cultural mores inculcated in the folks who ran the British Empire were in themselves a form of communication--expectations were clear and rules were understood.


I vaguely recall that the same question came up a lot through the Empire: how on earth were so many not-very-bright-people able to so successfully manage problems, from the depths of Africa to the hinterlands of Asia? It must have been something about an excellent basic education (ie, they had to know how to read at least); and they had respect for The Queen. Thus, they had amazing self-confidence in their society.

PacRim Jim

The trend is toward real-time sensing of global change, and rapid response when necessary. There will be no return to ignorance, however temporary.


The U.S. as originally organized was also efficient because decisions had to be pushed down to the lowest level. Now with modern communications, a bureaucrat in D.C. is expected to control everything. The same error that brought down the U.S.S.R.


"It must have been something about an excellent basic education (ie, they had to know how to read at least)."

In Greek and Latin, in addition to English. The British and American elites were educated in the classical tradition, which was far superior to what is taught in most public schools today.

Francis W. Porretto

It's been said that Imperial Rome was coherent for much the same reason: a legionnaire -- at least, one with authority over other legionnaires -- would not be sent out to the provinces without a thorough education in Roman law, custom, and military practice, because once he was out there, there was no way for the authorities back home to control him.

Matthew May

The man credited with transforming Hong Kong into an economic dynamo, Financial Secretary John Cowperthwaite, "refused to collect economic statistics for fear it would encourage officials to meddle in the economy"

martin snyder

Funny only SDN addresses the key distinction of the empire: it was run on cruelty, theft, and barbarism of the highest scale.

Southern slavery was managerially efficient too....shall we celebrate that fact?

In fact, the empire left a residue that haunts millions/billions of people to this day in Israel /Pal and India /Pak, and they utterly botched 1914 and the interwar period thru the cultural rot brought on by the experience of empire. Much like the USA today, sad to say....


Hi Martin:

Efficiency is not synonymous with virtue.

But in spite of that, the efficiency should be recognized. Particularly since modern management is so plugged in and controlling.

To get a bit off topic, while many of the less savoury aspects of the British Empire do not meet today's standards of virtue, let alone absolute standards, the British Empire was no crueler, more corrupt or barbaric than the primitive organizations that it supplanted. It can properly be said that the British brought civilization to the world. Would India enjoy parliamentary democracy today if it wasn't for the British?

You might say at this point that my opinion would be different if I wasn't a white European. Not true. Take my case. I am an Estonian. The three Baltic countries have the distinction of being the only places in Europe that were forcibly Christianized. (The Crusader in Ingman Bergmann's Seventh Seal who played chess with death was coming back from a crusade in Lithuania.) As a result, Estonian history tends to portray the Teutonic knights who Christianized us in less than positive light. It also tends to romanticize our pagan past. I have for years strenuously argued against both stances. In spite of the fact that my direct descendants were the bare-arsed pagans who were Christianized by the sword, I freely acknowledged that the German crusaders brought civilization to my people.


"In spite of the fact that my direct descendants were the bare-arsed pagans ..."


Some of my ancestors -- and less than 200 years ago -- were also "bare-arsed pagans" who learned civilization from the Anglo-Americans. And I thank God for it.


George Orwell talked about this. He said that the telegraph killed the Empire because it allowed London to micromanage everything. It stripped the local officers of their power. He encountered these sad figures early in his colonial career. Formally powerful representatives of a race of kings, now powerless file clerks.

Stealing everything that wasn't nailed down was part of it. Formerly it was easy to acquire a great fortune in foreign service, so the best and the brightest of the nation fought for every position. Once the corruption ended, it became impossible to make real money in overseas service, so the best and brightest went into business and foreign posts were filled by people who couldn't get jobs elsewhere.


Cincinnatus, concur with your comments at 12:09. I doubt the boundaries of India and Pakistan would have had any difference on the Islam/Hindu warfighting no matter where they were drawn. In a similar vein, the N. Irish and Irish issue would still fester whether there were six or four counties in N. Ireland. Has anyone else considered the parallel between the 13 US colonies removing themselves from British control via revolution, while the norther neighbor colonies remained British and the Irish Free State rebelling against the British and successfully removing the majorityof the island from London's control? Why did the North American version settle into a peaceful partnership while the Irish version still festers? Is it solely the religious differences? Any ideas?

Mark Bailey

Fascinating discussion.

I am Australian, live in Brisbane, and am currently writing my PhD thesis on 'The Development, Protection, and Strategic Implications of Anglo-Australian Maritime Trade 1887-1951'. I am retired military so doing it through the Australian Defence Force Academy. (I have to be crazy, doing this for fun at my age ...)

Anyhow, this topic includes describing how the Empire functioned, the structures that held it together and how they developed. So I am deeply interested in the sources of some of the comments here and your thoughts on them. I'd really appreciate anyone who can point me at sources for things they have said. A good example is Thule222's comment about Orwell at 1537. What's the source for that?

What I have found in primary sources is that the telegraph to Australia encouraged four major things. The first was maintenance of cultural/family ties. This encouraged immigration because they had a 'trusted agent' who would tell them the reality about the new colonial life.

The second was that it vastly encouraged investment of British capital in Australia at concessional interest rates.

The third was that it 'brought the Empire closer' via fast-travelling news and very much encouraged both a hybrid 'overseas Briton (Australian sub-branch)' form of nationalism, and by doing so played a powerful role in Australian colonial and after 1901 national participation in Imperial Defence. it really is remarkable to read through the proceedings of eth 1887 Colonial Conference and see why the Colonies were so eager to pay for the running costs of the Auxiliary Squadron (5 trade protection cruisers and 2 torpedo gunboats).

The fourth was the role telegraph played in developing the long-haul bulk grain trade. People became acutely aware of the price wheat commanded in Europe by 1850-60, of their much lower cost of production out here, and they applied great pressure to shipping lines to lower freight rates - which they did by developing the very ton-mile efficient iron three and four-masted barquentine type in the '60s.

SO you can see why the point that there was another issue at play here. The idea that there was a weakening of Imperial administrative efficiancy as London was able to intrude into local administration is startling.

I do not know if this has been explored well (if at all).

Regards: Mark Bailey


England, Your England, Chapter 5, second paragraph.

"Thirty years ago the Blimp class was already losing its vitality. The middle-class families celebrated by Kipling, the prolific lowbrow families whose sons officered the army and navy and swarmed over all the waste places of the earth from the Yukon to the Irrawaddy, were dwindling before 1914. The thing that had killed them was the telegraph. In a narrowing world, more and more governed from Whitehall, there was every year less room for individual initiative. Men like Clive, Nelson, Nicholson, Gordon would find no place for themselves in the modern British Empire. By 1920 nearly every inch of the colonial empire was in the grip of Whitehall. Well-meaning, over-civilized men, in dark suits and black felt hats, with neatly rolled umbrellas crooked over the left forearm, were imposing their constipated view of life on Malaya and Nigeria, Mombasa and Mandalay. The one-time empire builders were reduced to the status of clerks, buried deeper and deeper under mounds of paper and red tape. In the early twenties one could see, all over the Empire, the older officials, who had known more spacious days, writhing impotently under the changes that were happening. From that time onwards it has been next door to impossible to induce young men of spirit to take any part in imperial administration. And what was true of the official world was true also of the commercial. The great monopoly companies swallowed up hosts of petty traders. Instead of going out to trade adventurously in the Indies one went to an office stool in Bombay or Singapore. And life in Bombay or Singapore was actually duller and safer than life in London. Imperialist sentiment remained strong in the middle class, chiefly owing to family tradition, but the job of administering the Empire had ceased to appeal. Few able men went east of Suez if there was any way of avoiding it."

But all of chapter 5 is about the stagnation of the Empire.


Mark Bailey

Thank you, Thule.

Regards: Mark

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