Futile Exercise?: The British Army's Preparations for War 1902-1914

#1
One of my old history teachers has written a book that might be of interest to some ARRSE members. In the spirit of full disclosure I haven't read it yet myself and haven't mentioned to him that I am highlighting it here on the board. I am sure though that he might find some readers from amongst those of you interested in military history.



According to the official historian Brigadier-General James Edmonds: ‘In every respect the Expeditionary Force of 1914 was incomparably the best trained, best organized, and best equipped British Army which ever went forth to war’. There has been considerable debate over the extent to which Edmonds’ claim was justified, and to which the British Army had learnt the lessons of recent events (above all, its chastening experiences in South Africa). Conventional wisdom has it that the British Army in 1914 was utterly unprepared for the development of trench warfare from October 1914 onwards, and that it took many lives and a costly ‘learning curve’ for the British to come to terms with the new conditions of warfare. Given that war was expected in the decade before August 1914 - and that a great deal of time and money was spent preparing for that war - it seems obvious to ask why the British Army was not better prepared for the war when it came. This raises important issues about how armies learn from their experiences and how they prepare for the unknowable - namely, a war - without employing bullets and shells. How realistic and useful were the exercises and manoeuvres the British Army used in the period between the end of the Boer War in 1902 and the outbreak of war in August 1914? The approach of most historians has been either to ignore them, or to dismiss them as a waste of time and money. The manoeuvres carried out between 1902 and 1913 featured large forces – sometimes as many as 45,000 men and 12,000 horses – as well as guns, trucks, trains and the first sizeable force of military aircraft ever employed in Britain. Many of the names later familiar from the Western Front were involved – Haig, French, Rawlinson and Allenby – as well as a great many of the troops who would cross to France with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in August 1914. Their efforts were witnessed by large crowds, as well as politicians, representatives of foreign armies and journalists (some of them ‘embedded’ with army units); there was comprehensive and opinionated coverage in the newspapers of the time.

What lessons were learnt, what value did these manoeuvres have and how do they relate to the events of the war - especially, its opening months? How does the British experience compare with those of the continental armies, who also made extensive use of manoeuvres
 
#2
If you take Edmonds statement and add 'compared to it's enemy' then I'd suggest he was correct. The Germans got a very nasty shock at Mons and I'd suggest a force with inferior training might well have fallen apart during the retreat.
If you employ 20/20 hindsight then the army was too small and not trained or equipped for trench warfare. Size was a political decision and the exercises carried out were commensurate with the size of force we were likely to field from the professional army in a short war. None of the nations/armies involved foresaw the trench stalemate; least of all the Germans. If they had they would probably not have started the whole thing off.
If we're making comparisons with today [or pretty well any time since 1918] then at least the army of 1914 and it's first line reserve were all equipped to fight high intensity warfare, not something that can be said now.
The failure of all the military hierarchies to foresee trench warfare is also a lesson for those who believe that being a regular soldier with combat experience makes you an expert in land warfare. The guys who got it right were Jan Gotlib Bloch, a Polish banker and the leftie intellectual Fiedrich Engles.
 
#3
Conventional wisdom has it that the British Army in 1914 was utterly unprepared for the development of trench warfare from October 1914 onwards, and that it took many lives and a costly ‘learning curve’ for the British to come to terms with the new conditions of warfare.
Obviously Trench Warfare wasn't on anyone's plan. The war that the British Army had prepared for didn't happen until the summer of 1918 but that said, if the army that went to war in 1914 had been totally unprepared, then there would have been no need for an army of 1918 to beat the Germans.

Apart from Trench Warfare, the planners were probably caught off guard by technology. Aircraft and machine guns were still novelties in 1914 and almost nobody had foreseen the advent of chemical warfare or tanks. Speaking after the war, Sir John French lamented that they'd not foreseen the effectiveness of technology. Why would they? French and his peers had spent careers fighting Pathans and Zulus.
 

ugly

LE
Moderator
#4
Obviously Trench Warfare wasn't on anyone's plan.
I'd dispute that, even at Mons fire trenches were dug at platoon level. All the major combatants had observers in the Russo Japanese wars (1905?) and conclusions from the trench warfare were mixed but were taken on board. What wasn't expected was the global impact, the massive defences and infernal weapons employed.
Kitchener stated in 1914 that it wasn't going to be over by Christmas, that it would take four years to defeat the hun and that a massive citizen army was needed. Luckily we had the TF to hold the gap whilst the regular army was bled dry.
I hope for £35 its not another Lions and donkeys misquote fest. The infantry were very well trained professional riflemen, the artillery deployed in the same way that the Germans did at the beginning. We lacked the industrial strength at first but even the Germans were surprised to be held and sent back from the Marne.
We had a mobilisation system that was as good as any other, luckily war broke out just after the summer field camps so everyone was freshly equipped and trained.
The germans weren't expecting to have to dig in, they almost had Paris, after they were repulsed they dug in on high ground and fought the pause.
We were a small contribution at first in the scale of things, well trained, mobilised like a well oiled machine and up for a scrap.
If you want to consider artillery as the defining point, we had siege batteries like the hun, we just didn't use them at first as the fighting was fluid and the Hun used theirs to reduce Belgian fortresses which held out surprisingly long!

I'd be happy to review it!
 
#5
I often wonder if future historians/pulp book writers will headline their work with:

"why was the army of 2026 so badly prepared for war? It was obvious war was coming, and yet they spent the years 2000-25 slashing budgets, disbanding capability, building gender neutral toilets and "training for the last war". Why were the Top Brass so complacent, why were they so conservative in their vision, why was the training and organisation so inappropriate?"

etc, etc.

I guess the Generals of 1900 were disgracefully negligent in not raising, equipping and training an army of 4,000,000 ready for 1914 - anyone could see that that was what they should have been doing (well, anyone in the 21st century, that is).
 
#6
Speaking after the war, Sir John French lamented that they'd not foreseen the effectiveness of technology. Why would they? French and his peers had spent careers fighting Pathans and Zulus.
They had, it's true. But it would have taken an extraordinary lack of awareness to see that, tribal skirmishes on the imperial periphery apart, warfare had long since started to become increasingly industrialised.

You only had to look at the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War and the Russo-Japanese War to see that.
 
#7
Speaking after the war, Sir John French lamented that they'd not foreseen the effectiveness of technology. Why would they? French and his peers had spent careers fighting Pathans and Zulus.
More precisely, they'd spend their careers employing superior military technology on Pathans and Zulus. That's a world away from trying to overcome an enemy that's at least a technological peer.
 
#8
Obviously Trench Warfare wasn't on anyone's plan. The war that the British Army had prepared for didn't happen until the summer of 1918
Trench Warfare question in the 1913 Sandhurst final exam. Trench construction was in the officers handbook as well. The British did not go firm and construct trenchs like the Germans as it would be seen as giving in to stalemate.
 
#9
Trench Warfare question in the 1913 Sandhurst final exam. Trench construction was in the officers handbook as well. The British did not go firm and construct trenchs like the Germans as it would be seen as giving in to stalemate.
Training for trench construction is one thing. I doubt that anyone foresaw, let alone planned, the four year stalemate that typified the Western Front though.
 
#10
They had, it's true. But it would have taken an extraordinary lack of awareness to see that, tribal skirmishes on the imperial periphery apart, warfare had long since started to become increasingly industrialised.

You only had to look at the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War and the Russo-Japanese War to see that.
That's very true - but they had to work within the financial constraints set by the government of the day. Don't forget that spending on defence matters was not a priority and within the defence budget the priority was the Dreadnoughts; plus ca change and all that!! Given the constraints that they were operating under, the BEF did spectacularly well in 1914 and a lot of that was down to effective training and the detailed planning of the TTW and mobilisation stages.
 
#11
Trench Warfare question in the 1913 Sandhurst final exam. Trench construction was in the officers handbook as well. The British did not go firm and construct trenchs like the Germans as it would be seen as giving in to stalemate.
Many of the superior concrete defences of the German front were constructed using British Blue Circle cement, thoughtfully sourced through the 'neutral' Dutch.
 
#12
I'd dispute that, even at Mons fire trenches were dug at platoon level....!
Obviously. But that's not what we mean when we talk about trench warfare in the context of WW1. Modern soldiers dig trenches too but nobody considers that to be trench warfare do they?

Edited to add that what we refer to as Trench Warfare in WW1 was more akin to Siege Warfare perhaps.
 
Last edited:
#13
Obviously. But that's not what we mean when we talk about trench warfare in the context of WW1. Modern soldiers dig trenches too but nobody considers that to be trench warfare do they?

Edited to add that what we refer to as Trench Warfare in WW1 was more akin to Siege Warfare perhaps.
Yes, trench works were nothing new and had long been a staple of siege warfare, going back to the Romans if not before. What wasn't foreseen was the Western Front becoming one huge siege from the North Sea to the Alps.
 
#14
Rather fortuitously, British Muzzleloaders has just published a new video on Youtube covering the changes in uniform, kit, and drill which took place after the Boer War. There was a great deal of emphasis on making uniforms and kit more practical for field wear under modern conditions, and greatly simplifying drill to reflect changes in tactics where drill motions had become much less relevant to field operations. Drill in those days (after the changes) by the way was probably more focused on practicality than it is today, without any excessive stamping of feet etc.
 
#15
On a man for man basis, the pre War Regular Army soldier was probably better than the largely conscript German or French equivalent.
British officers, however, were not thinking in terms of a European land war. They were used to Colonial and expeditionary war, not mass combat such as the French and Germans were planning for, and had practiced in the Franco Prussian War in 1870, which would have been well within institutional memory of both High Commands, and in which hundreds of thousands of troops had been deployed.
Although I suspect the value of artillery was underestimated, the real problem was that the unappreciated machine gun was now a huge force multiplier for the defence.
Since the Allies persisted with an offensive strategy, they were facing a Germany that was very strong on the defence in France.
In other theatres, where the Germans were fighting colonial style wars against the British, except in East Africa, they generally did quite badly.
 
#16
French and his peers had spent careers fighting Pathans and Zulus.
That's a bit unfair, they also spent a significant part of their careers fighting the Boers who dug trenches and at times had better artillery. The British Army of 1914 was perfectly ready for a war of maneuver, what all sides failed to foresee was the decent into the biggest siege in history.
 
#17
I often wonder if future historians/pulp book writers will headline their work with:

"why was the army of 2026 so badly prepared for war? It was obvious war was coming, and yet they spent the years 2000-25 slashing budgets, disbanding capability, building gender neutral toilets and "training for the last war". Why were the Top Brass so complacent, why were they so conservative in their vision, why was the training and organisation so inappropriate?"
Budgets are a political issue, gender neutral toilets an irrelevance [although what you have against a portaloo is beyond me]. The painful question might be why so large a portion of the army is unfit for high intensity warfare due to a lack of equiment.
 
#18
French and his peers had spent careers fighting Pathans and Zulus.
Returning to this I've had a look at Haig, French Allenby, Plumer and Gough's careers. All were in the Boer War, all but Allenby and Gough in the Sudan. Plumer also went on the Matabele operation. Only Gough went to the NW Frontier but at a time of little activity. Finally given our recent problem I'd suggest we're not in a position to suggest fighting the Pathan was a simple issue, those who did it at the time certainly didn't.
 
#19
Yers TBH honest we could go around in circles. All wars are different and the British were a largely colonial force. The CEF spent it formative months before being deployed in early 1915 practicing trench digging, which whilst a mobile war was preferred the experiences in American civil, Franco Prussian wars had not gone unheeded. I found this out researching my Great Uncle in 1 CanDiv. But trench warfare is very different from insurgency and I would suggest that the Boer war and mobility loomed large in the thinking. It would seem that there is a difference between trenches dug largely for static purposes in comparison to the temporary defences dug in a largely mobile war. For me the futility is rather more in the attritional mentality
On a man for man basis, the pre War Regular Army soldier was probably better than the largely conscript German or French equivalent.
Of course the professional is better than the conscript on a number of levels. It is however noteworthy that the British Proffessional soldier is being compared to conscripts rather than his professional opposite number. How do they stack up today? but I'd rather go with Kipling on the wast of an expensively trained man falling victim to a fifty cent bullet on that one. Objectively you want to win quickly and preferably decisively and in the scale of things the British army couldn't.
@ Gaijin. It's worth remembering that the French and the Germans also had exercises as did the Russians a year earlier IIRC. To be fair I think it's worth noting that neither reflected any original thinking, rather as most Historians I've read put it, it was an opportunity to wear the finery they rarely wore. So from that perspective I don't think anyone got that much from them.

I just want to add one more thing then I'll shut up. It's the attritional side that gets me for the first lot. Assaulting fixed positions with machine guns on both sides has got to be madness. Even if both sides did it and attritional losses justified the other. In none of the excercises did that ever come in to play given rapid cavalry breakthroughs.
I think that answers the question. Now I'll leave the pros to chunter
 
#20
That's a bit unfair, they also spent a significant part of their careers fighting the Boers who dug trenches and at times had better artillery. The British Army of 1914 was perfectly ready for a war of maneuver, what all sides failed to foresee was the decent into the biggest siege in history.
The Boer War lasted less than 3 years. And the conventional phase lasted about 6 months. By 1914 French had been in the Army for 44 years and a few years before that in the RN. A few years fighting the Boers is not a "significant part".

I agree that the Army, and indeed French himself, were both prepared for a short, sharp war of manoeuvre. But when that plan went tits up, he and the rest of the command couldn't adapt fast enough.
 

Similar threads

Top