on 27 November 2015
This is a valuable subject that is much ignored. People’s opinions of the leadership of the BEF seem to be more guided by emotional invective, itself derived from death rates, than any kind of sensible analysis of what was actually going on.
This is, at times, a very densely written book with lots of long examples of actual battles to show how information flows, or doesn’t, and why. For reasons that are difficult to explain and justify, it is intuitively obvious to me that this is a more academic book than a ‘general reader’ type book, which is disappointing because the idea of Haig as an incompetent who should have been tried for war crimes (I kid you not, some people really do think like that) does need smacking on the head.
As this book shows, different types of decisions were made a different levels, and the power is devolved towards the front as the war goes on, so if one is seeking to blame a British commander for the death of one’s ancestor, then one will need to look very carefully (and even consider the Germans perhaps ?) at who was making which decision when in the battle and when in the war.
As such, I have photocopied the pages of interest to me from the local library copy, but I’m not sure that I need to actually buy it. If your library has a copy, please get it out and read it, it is worth swotting up on this sort of thing, but I’m leaving home bookcase space for other books.
For those seeking more detail, the rest of the review consists of ‘snapshots’ of each chapter.
Chapter 1, “Command and Control in the British Army on the Western Front”, Sheffield and Todman
A brief chapter, that passes for an Introduction. Sheffield and Todman briefly review the way WW1 has been analysed over the years, before giving brief synopses of the following chapters. They note 4 problems affecting command :-
1) the scale of the war,
2) the totality of the war, ie the substantial inclusion of civilians at home, the need for industry to mass produce weapons, etc,
3) the geography of the battlefield,
4) technological changes and their applications during the war.
They finish by noting that the myths of incompetence have become so ingrained, it is difficult for some to believe that BEF commanders were not actively seeking to massacre their own troops.
Chapter 2, “Command in the Transition from Mobile to static Warfare, August 1914 to March 1915”, Barr
This is a densely written chapter, supported by maps, that defies a concise statement of contents at the time of writing. Suffice it to say, the actual experiences of commanders of the field, losing track of the battle under intense bombardment, are more realistic depictions of how command fails in battle than the ramblings of anti-establishment pacifists writing from ivory towers many years after. One has to wait for technological improvements that only come at the end of the war, eg the radio tank, for safe and secure communications to relay accurate information fast enough.
Chapter 3, “The Grand Lamasery Revisited: GHQ on the Western Front, 1914 - 1918”, Todman
Another long and dense chapter, with diagrams. The diagrams illustrate the sheer scale of the problem: how many different departments and levels of management (squeak) ? Todman proposes a four stage history: 1) administrative improvisation and operational inadequacy, 2) limited re-structuring and ad hoc changes, storing up trouble for later, 3) the Somme forces major changes in re-supply logistics and training methods, 4) the remaining faults in operations and intelligence gathering caused by behaviour within GHQ are addressed.
Todman also proposes the following analysis: GHQ suffers from the scale of the war and remains inward-looking because of the sheer scale of the information coming in the orders going out, this necessity to keep on top of the situation ironically prevents the rapid changes that would allow a more efficient system. This is made worse by the various branches not talking to each other. As such, the very necessity of keeping the senior staff away from the front, so they don’t get shot, increases the communication difficulties.
Chapter 4, “An Army Commander on the Somme: Hubert Gough”, Sheffield
In essence Gough was very good at mobile warfare, and was therefore not suited to the neo-siege situation he found himself in. To counter that, the ordinary troops were not well-trained enough (not enough time) to cope with his sophisticated multi-objective, one might call it ‘attack in depth’, plans to try and break the deadlock. Gough fails to understand the way artillery supports troops.
Chapter 5, “British Corps Command on the Western Front, 1914 - 1918”, Simpson
Typical analyses concentrate on Army or Division level decisions and actions, whereas Simpson’s original research shows the greatest concentration of power was at corps level. The corps was a new administrative level at the start of the war. By the Somme it has grown to cover new artillery formations, machine guns, has to cope with logistics, co-ordinate with the RFC, etc. The Somme experience results in pamphlet SS135 which details de-centralised command and new styles of attack. As such, the Army passes to Corps the outline plan, Corps delegates to Division, who get on with it, reporting back to Corps what is needed.
P102, for example, raises the valid point that rapid expansion led to staff shortages, going from two corps to thirteen. I personally note that all those officers need to be identified, trained, allocated, gain the confidence of their subordinates, gain battle experience (which means failing and learning from failure), and do all that without being killed. The already existing experienced leadership died in the initial German assaults.
Chapter 6, “Command and Control in Battle: British Divisions on the Menin Road Ridge, 20th Sept 1917”, Lee
Neatly continuing from the above, Lee shows how by the latter part of the war, the fate of a battle was in the Divisional Commanders’ hands, and the chapter shows how standard operating techniques could be both good and bad, and conversely how innovation can be both successful and disastrous. One is damned if one does, and damned if one doesn’t.
P120, for example, tells us about the standardisation of lessons learned from experience, and the efforts to distribute this learning through standardised training. Personally, I find trenchant critics of WW1 leadership generally fail to understand that humans are not telepathic, don’t learn lessons after one teaching session, and that tactics need to be shown to repeatedly fail before they are abandoned (ie, they might work next time). If you’ve never seen a tank before, how do you know what to do with it ?
Chapter 7, “ ‘Building Blocks’: Aspects of Command and Control at Brigade level in the BEF’s Offensive Operations, 1916 - 1918”, Simkins
The brigade could be seen as the ‘building block’ because it was most often the largest unit to be moved about. This is a very long and detailed chapter that takes the reader through the evolution and development of brigade organisation, ie the BEF did not use the same futile, tommy-killing tactics for four years and then all of a sudden the Germans retreat and give up.
P165, for example, shows us that loss rates for the successful battles are comparable to the unsuccessful ones. Once the battle actually moves, roads become clogged, telephones can’t be used and the wireless isn’t brilliant so runners are still necessary, the constant moving means people, orders and material get lost, left behind, or blown up. I ask, is this incompetence, or just normal ?
Chapter 8, “Queen of the Battlefield: the Development of Command, Organisation and Tactics in the British Infantry Battalion during the Great War”, McCarthy
The ‘queen of the battlefield’ is the PBI (poor bloody infantry). McCarthy uses unit histories, which he considers to be much ignored, to show how battalions developed and again gives the lie to charges of incompetence, a fetish for cavalry, and an inability to develop new strategies and
tactics, eg p191 where the Welsh Guards are now sufficiently well trained, and the officers sufficiently experienced, that the battlefield situation can be discerned very quickly and orders given verbally and carried out successfully very quickly.
P176-7, for example, gives us a brief history of grenade development and the evolution of tactics. Again, as mentioned above, it is not obvious how best to use these, people need to be trained, have combat experience, and still live to do it all again, better, next time.
Chapter 9, “Command of Artillery: the case of Herbert Uniacke”, Marble
Herbert Uniacke was one of the few artillerymen to leave any papers at all, let alone such a substantial body. Uniacke rose through the ranks based upon ability rather than connections. During the war he took advantage of power gaps to innovate and was willing to allow the RFC to inform the artillery of targets and success (not all artillery commanders appreciated “the toys in the sky”. He also worked closely with the infantry, using their local knowledge to assess targets and paying attention to their orders to minimise ‘friendly fire’. He was also instrumental in the creation of a central artillery school. This brief chapter shows how command were not all ‘donkeys’ and how tactics do change, when a lumberingly bureaucratic and in-fighting top command will allow it. The point is also made that tactics need to be repeated to see if success or failures are repeating rather than one-offs.