9

I've seen the quote "Generals are always prepared to fight the last war" be attributed to Winston Churchill by several sources, but none of them actually give a primary source (such as a transcript of one of Churchill's speeches, a passage from one of his books, et cetera) to support this attribution.

Using Google Ngram, I've found that using the phrase "fighting the last war" in this context became popular for the first time around 1940, specifically as an explanation of the defeat of the Allied forces in the Low Countries and France against Germany that year. It's therefore not implausible that Churchill would have used it at some point, but I simply can't find any evidence of him ever doing so.

I think it's quite unlikely Churchill actually coined the phrase, but regardless, I'm interested in two questions: did this phrase actually originate with Churchill, and if it didn't, is it nevertheless possible to attribute the quote in the title to him?

7
  • 4
    Stack Exchange - History has a related (possibly duplicate) question Who said, 'Armies prepare to fight their last war, rather than their next war' ?.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 14 at 19:08
  • I have certainly seen similar quotes ascribed to Churchill, but I'm sure it would be hard to nail down. Feb 14 at 21:33
  • 2
    @NigelJ Thanks for the link. One of the answers to that question cites a passage from The Gathering Storm, one of Churchill's books, in which Churchill says something that is vaguely similar to this quote. It's possible that the attribution of this adage to him is a consequence of that.
    – Ege Erdil
    Feb 14 at 22:05
  • 1
    "I think it's quite unlikely Churchill actually coined the phrase" - Why do you think that? Feb 15 at 7:13
  • 1
    @EgeErdil I have an attributution "1948 Winston S. Churchill The Second World War I (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985) 426: It is a joke in Britain to say that the War Office is always preparing for the last war." from listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/ads-l/2007-July/072054.html but I don't have a way to independently confirm that that quote occurs in that work. If someone can, that would answer the "can it be attributed to WC?".
    – Dave
    Feb 15 at 16:05

1 Answer 1

9

It has been said critically that there is a tendency in many armies to spend the peace time studying how to fight the last war.

To me, this very closely captures the sentiment of Churchill's quote and pre-dates it (1920's vs. 1940's), and thus provides proof that Churchill did not originate the meme. I found this via a site maintained by Barry Popik.

Churchill himself wrote

"It is a joke in Britain to say that the War Office is always preparing for the last war."

In Volume 1 (The Gathering Storm) of his book series on WWII first published in 1948; found on page 426 of the Mariner Books edition from 1985.

enter image description here

2
  • As the Q is posed, this A needs to confirm that in Gathering Storm Churchill does write this, and he does so as "on old joke" about the War Office… Lifting the very first Qcomment (history.stackexchange.com/q/60422) into the A would also be nice. (Usually, giving credit to the author of that comment, but on Skeptics, comments are different and to be punished: by not giving credit? IMO: Your choice.) Feb 15 at 17:07
  • 1
    Accepting this answer for now. If anyone comes up with any evidence that Churchill actually said the quote in the title verbatim, I'm happy to accept that answer instead, but my current belief is that the quote I was wondering about is an altered version of the passage from The Gathering Storm provided in this answer.
    – Ege Erdil
    Feb 16 at 9:45

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .