[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

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?

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at

  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. []

8 thoughts on “Trenchardism?

  1. An idle thought: was the use of "Trenchardism" in the 1930s symptomatic of a general tendency towards -isms?

    Throwing around "Red Tabism", etc, would seem to suggest that it was a handy shorthand for maligning the ongoing policies of whatever politicians/group you didn't like without actually needing to imply a coherent structure behind those actions. It might just be that "Trenchardism", to a reader, meant "whatever Trenchard is doing now, which of course you know".

  2. It's almost as though there were some popular theorist of the day who claimed that interest ought to have priority over ideas in social analysis, so that structures of ideas ("isms," or "ideologies," if you will) could be assigned without much concern over their specificity to clearly-defined economic interests.

  3. Post author


    Yes, it does have that feel. It's noticeable that all the examples of its use that I found are hostile to whatever Trenchardism might be. A true -ism probably ought to be called such by both its supporters and its detractors.


    That's fair too. Again, everyone throwing Trenchardism around seems to have been on the militant left, so Marx and his intellectual heirs were influences. So again the question is did the label have any wider currency? If not, it's probably not all that interesting.

  4. Pingback:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *