Adrian Grant Duff: Preparing for the First World War

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Professional soldier and Military Assistant Secretary in Britain’s Committee of Imperial Defence in the years before the outbreak of the First World War, Grant Duff contributed to the creation of the War Book, a systematic listing of war-related procedures and practices.

Adrian Grant Duff (1869-1914) was born into a noble family in Britain. Educated at Wellington College and Sandhurst, Grant Duff trained to be a professional soldier and his values and ethics reflected those of the armed service. He joined the Scottish Black Watch in 1893 achieving notable success which culminated in a command position. His distinguished overseas service included the Tirah Expedition (1897-1898) in India and the Boer War (1899-1902). Grant Duff’s participation in these campaigns demonstrated his personal belief in both preserving and defending the Empire from external threats. This faith in the necessity of war was transferred into the administrative realm when Grant Duff assumed a position in the Intelligence Section of the Department of Military Operations at the War Office from 1905-1909. In 1910 he was promoted to Military Assistant Secretary in the Committee of Imperial Defence, an appointment which saw the creation of the War Book.

Britain’s shift toward increased military efficiency stemmed from the tense international political climate of the day and from some dissatisfaction with the recent military performance of both Britain and its Empire. The Boer War, in particular, stimulated interest in improving Britain’s defensive planning, including systematic planning for external conflict. These preoccupations led the Committee for Imperial Defence, an advisory body charged with identifying such threats, to draft the document known collectively as the War Book.

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The War Book laid out the specific procedures and policies that were to be followed should Britain find itself entangled in an external conflict. It was a practical document, extensive in its scope, codifying and coordinating both civilian and military responses during wartime. Departments involved included the War Office, the Admiralty, the Home Office, the Colonial and Indian Offices and the Treasury, among others. The final product included 12 chapters, each corresponding to a government department, and it contained a formal timeline for their respective war-related actions. This formal schematic was further refined through the inclusion of incremental steps which included ‘precautionary’, ‘strained relations’ and finally a ‘war stage’. These phases allowed Britain’s administration to adapt its mobilization to international conditions. One of the most valuable features of the War Book was its universal applicability; its codified list of procedures could be applied to any situation and to any external enemy.

Grant Duff’s work as a member of the Committee of Imperial Defence centered upon the Committee for the Coordination of Departmental Action at the Outbreak of War where he was responsible for compiling and revising reports from the governmental and professional departments. These reports were compiled into the War Book, organized in a column-heading format devised by Grant Duff which allowed the departments to view the actions taken by their respective counterparts. He also drafted the minutes of various subcommittees under the umbrella of coordination in which policies were devised for specific war-related scenarios. These subcommittees dealt with the handling of foreign aliens, media censorship, the treatment of neutral shipping, and the internal distribution of supplies, among other issues.

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In his personal recollections Grant Duff elaborates on the difficult, and at times confrontational, nature of inter-departmental collaboration. There were clashes between naval and military personnel regarding strategy. Grant Duff often noted his frustrations with the Admiralty’s institutional resistance to collaborative efforts, which he attributed to the department’s prestigious history and to its incompetent staff. He also criticized the civilian membership of the CID, which included several notable political figures, among whom was Sir Winston Churchill. Grant Duff regarded Churchill’s maverick conduct on the committee as harmful to coordinative efforts. However, his main concern was with the committee’s overall efficiency; Grant Duff frequently admitted his frustration with unproductive meetings and unprepared colleagues.

The War Book represented the inevitability of war to British policy makers, including Grant Duff himself. Britain’s stature as a world power depended on its military capacity and ability to respond to external threats. The Coordination Committee effectively identified Germany as the most immediate threat to the Empire. Grant Duff and other policy makers realized that checking this German threat in turn required a systematic, continental-based strategy. Conflicts such as the Agadir Crisis (1911) and the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) magnified the potential dangers the British Empire faced, confirming the need for systematic war planning. Grant Duff could not have anticipated the declaration of war in August 1914. However, he responded immediately by rejoining the Black Watch to make his own contribution to the defence of the Empire. Unfortunately, this time his military service was to be short: he was killed in action in September 1914 at the battle of the Aisne.



Further resources:

Johnson, Franklyn A. Defence by Committee (New York: Oxford U.P., 1960) (pp. 132-4)

Sokolov Duff, Shiela. “The Origins of the War Book,” Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies 117, no. 3 (1972): 65-9.

Archival descriptions: