Doctrine Pt. 4



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium episode number 20. This is our fourth episode in our series on the military doctrine of the various armies of Europe during the war, and after we have done the French and Germans in previous episodes it is obviously time for the British. For this discussion instead of focusing in on just one area, like we did with the French and their pre-war evolution and the Germans and their changes to defense in offensive in 1917 and 1918 respectively, we will be doing a pretty broad overview. The British came into the war in an interesting sport due to their reliance on a professional army before the war. The small numbers in their army would find themselves essentially annihilated by the end of 1914 and the British found themselves back at square one and were forced to build their army up from almost nothing. Due to this, and other reasons, the British would lag behind the Germans and French in terms of doctrine for most of the war. However, by the final year of the war they would take their position as the most advanced army in Europe. There were still problems in how they were doing things by late 1918, especially around consistency, but all of the important tactical concepts were present and they had formations that were adept at using them. Big props goes out to the Canadians and Australians for this last fact. Also, as a small programming note, instead of just having a wrap up and conclusion episode next month it will be a combo with some of what I found to be interesting information about the Austro-Hungarian army and how it came to its form in 1914. With all of that in mind, let’s jump in to the situation before the war.

Much like the other armies of Europe before the war the conversations that the British army was focused on was the conversation between which was most important, firepower or mass. We covered this conversation a lot in our cavalry focused Patreon episodes from last year so I won’t go too deep into the conversation, but in the 1902 the infantry training manual had a heavy emphasis on firepower and using it as the primary way to take enemy positions. It called for a strong firing line to be setup to cover any advances, which should not be done over open ground. Then units would move forward under the cover of this fire while other provided fire support which would result in something like a leap front action as the units worked with each other. These were all good ideas, but they greatly overestimated the effect that rifles fire would have on the enemy during the next war. There was also a reversion to more mass tactics by the time of the 1909 regulations, which we discussed in some detail in those cavalry episodes. On the defensive side of the regulations the British were actually superior to that of the French and Germans. The regulations stated that only half of the men should occupy the defensive firing line, and that the other half should always be kept as a local reserve in a position where they could be used to stage aggressive counterattacks whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Another area of note for the Army before the war was decision making, which was overall very centralized. Commanders would issue highly detailed orders, and they would be followed, simple as that. This had been the tradition of the British army for a very long time. There was a push to change this, and give junior officers greater autonomy, a movement spearheaded by General Roberts when he was leading the British Army. In the 1902 Infantry Training Manual he would write in the preface that “Success in war cannot be expected unless all ranks have been trained in peace to use their wits.” While this was good in theory it would not take root in the British army before the war. In the five years before the war the move back to centralization would be strong, negating most of the gains of the previous decade. Another item to touch on hear that is at least adjacent to autonomy was that of education for officers. All across Europe most of the armies did not necessarily want their soldiers to study military theory and history too much, and they did not place any value on such a practice. The British even actively discouraged it while in other armies it was only encouraged for the General Staff and during an officers time at the Staff College. This meant that there was not a ton of institutional military knowledge. On the British side this was felt even more severely due to the weakness of their General Staff. They did have one before the war, however it was not an area that attracted the top talent of the armed forces because it lacked any real power and could not really confront higher level commanders. So whole the General Staff was undervalued they also had no team on the General Staff dedicated to gathering information and analyzing both the British practices and those of other armies to try and find areas to improve upon. This lack of a culture of improvement and learning would slow the adaptation of the British once the war started.

From a training perspective the British were the complete opposite of their command culture, they were completely decentralized. Every unit had a different training system and while there were regulations involved with training they ended up being more like rough guidelines. It was up to the officers in charge for how they interpreted the regulations or if they really used them at all. This cycle would just compound on itself overtime as officers in charge of training, of course, did not want to give up any of that power so it was difficult to make a change. This would be somewhat solved during the war, but it would take some time and only really happened because the traditional training apparatus was completely overwhelmed by the number of new soldiers. Part of this training culture also prevented a good way for combat troops at the front to influence the training that was taking place back at home. This meant that in 1914 when so many lessons were learned on the battlefield, often by paying the iron price, they were not effectively communicated back to the training camps and therefore soldiers were going to the front trained in very outdated tactics.

One of the critical lessons that was learned during the 1914 battles was that the British army went to war with not even remotely close to enough firepower. Before the war the British had put a lot of emphasis on rifle drill. Their professional soldiers could shoot faster and more accurately than any other army in Europe, even the Germans acknowledged this. They put up fire so impressive that at Mons the German attackers believed that they were facing machine guns when in fact it was just British infantry. The British actually had shockingly few machine guns, even on pre-war standards with only 4 machine guns per battalion, and none of them allocated below the battalion level. This was basically nothing compared to the Germans and French. Another lesson that was quickly realized was how important defenses were. While troops started digging in almost instantly, but it would still take some time for the British to adapt to any kind of reasonable defensive posture because instead of even doing what their regulations said, which was to have only half the men at the front they almost always overstuffed the front lines which fell prey to German artillery. The final big lesson of 1914 was that their General Staff was wholly inadequate for the task at hand. They were completely overwhelmed by the amount of information in front of the, and all of the things that they needed to do and interact with. They had to both keep the war going but also come up with different tactics and doctrine, since it was clear that the current tactics were not going to win the war. They also had to manage the massive expansion of the British army on a scale previously unheard of for the British army.

1915 was a turning point for the British army when it came to their tactics on the battlefield. The first attacks of the year held more in common with prewar doctrine, lots of fire and movement and small u nit actions with a small amount of artillery preparation. After the spring battles, especially Aubers Ridge in May that all began to change. The core of this change was that the British officers believed that it was impossible for the infantry to carry enough firepower to effectively attack the prepared German positions, which was not an incorrect analysis. Therefore they began to focus more and more on artillery, mostly around masses of artillery, and they started down a road, that would eventually turn into a two year odyssey, of trying to make the concept of ’the artillery conquers, the infantry occupies’ work. The issue with this, and something that they would never be able to properly solve, was that the artillery had a finite range, pretty short range in the grand scheme of things, and the infantry were never able to move beyond it. The British knew and recognized this, causing them to make plans to always move their artillery forward, but they also made the assumption that they could make a breakthrough because the Germans positions would get progressively weaker as they advanced, the one thing that they did not properly account for was that their attacks would get far weaker as well. When this failure was coupled with a culture that did not tolerate upwards criticism it resulted in both disaster and a seemingly repetitive series of attacks that seem to have learned nothing from what came before.

These disasters would continue into 1916. This meant that when the army began preparing for the Somme it would look pretty much like what they did at Loos in 1915, just on a much grander scale. As the attacks got larger the authority over the attacks also migrated up the chain of command. This put things like artillery, the exact planning for the new creeping barrages, and the placement and commitment of reserves at an increasingly high level. This then made it difficult to react in any kind of timely manner when the situation at the front changed. Operation orders were very detailed, with specific objectives, timetables, and artillery plans. They often covered items in extreme detail, details that even the French with their constant pull towards centralization thought were minutia best handled by the officers at the front. Because of these facts the attacks of 1916 seem very rigid, very stiff, and unmoving in their goals and methods regardless of the outcomes. There was some experimentation but it was few and far between and while the British did get better at their style of attacks, which can be seen in the efforts on the Somme after July 1st, they were moving at a glacier pace. What lessons that were learned by the infantry often were not passed up the chain of command in a timely manner which then could not make its way back to the training depots which then meant replacements knew very little of the new situations at the front. The thing that saved the British in 1916 was not some huge innovation but rather the fact that they were just starting to dip into their manpower reserves, and the German army was already stretched thin.

1917 would begin much the same way that 1916 had, with the British still using a scaled up version of what they had done in 1915. The one big difference was that they were starting to figure out how to use tanks, which had required a good amount of experimentation. As the year progressed their doctrine began to change. Small unit experimentation became fare more common which accelerated change and the infantry was reorganized so that the platoon became the primary unit of maneuver. This was done through a reorganization of equipment so that the platoon had a wider variety of weapons and much greater firepower. There was also greater success in integrating tanks in with the infantry which was on display later in the year in battles such as the attack at Cambrai. This did not mean that they had solved the issue of how to integrate tanks into their attacks or that everything they were doing was successful. The three main efforts of the year at Arras, Messines, and Passchendaele all involved the typical massive artillery barrages. They also still had not sorted out how to continue an attack beyond the range of the artillery, which is where the Germans were moving most of their men and defenses, but they were making at least some progress. We have not gotten to it in the main episodes but we will certainly look at Passchendaele in much greater detail later this year. On the defensive side of the coin the British were also making some advances, most of which were just attempts to copy what the Germans were doing. Late in 1917 the British shifted to what they thought was the German method of elastic defense. They setup the various zones of defense and then manned them in a similar way, with the outpost zone thinly held, then the battle zone with most of the defenders, then the reserve zone from which they could stage counterattacks. While all of this was correct, and while they got all the hard facts correct, it was in the soft facts, the details that they fell short. Instead of giving up the outpost zone the men were told to defend it at all costs, not very elastic. Then the counter attacks that were supposed to be quick and powerful were instead held back while intricate planning took place which slowed the response enough to be mostly worthless. All of this would come to haunt them when the Germans launched their first attacks against the British since 1914 in the spring of 1918.

The BEF entered 1918 in an interesting spot, at least relative to other countries in the war. Morale was at a new low after the disaster that was the Passchendaele offensive, there was a general lack of manpower at the front driven by a general manpower shortage but exacerbated by the growing friction between Lloyd George and Haig. This resulted in Haig requesting 615,000 men be sent to him on the Western Front in early 1918 but only about 100,000 actually being sent. This meant that the British, for the first time during the war, would start 1918 with fewer men on the western front than the previous year. This friction was at least partially driven by the disagreement about how the rest of the war should be fought, and what the British should do while waiting for the Americans to arrive in force. While many of those types of problems were shared by many of the other armies, if not in specifics than at least in general, the British also had some advantages that other countries did not have. There was a general agreement among all of the British leaders that, at least for the moment they should take the defensive and wait for the seemingly inevitable German attack using troops from the East. The British had also improved their training consistency, meaning that men were getting to the front in better shape than ever before. They had continued to improve on their mobile and mechanical warfare doctrine, the infantry and artillery would work better with the tanks in 1918 than ever before. All of this meant that the British were the second most capable army in Europe in early 1918, second only to the Germans, and while in the short term they came to this position almost by default, in the long term they seemed destined to be the military power that could last the longest in the war, especially if they could just hold off the Germans for a few months so the Americans could come on line. This is at least partially why the first German attacks of the spring would be aimed at the British and not at the French.

Before we get into all the action though, lets dig a bit deeper into the British offensive doctrine at the beginning of the last year of the war, that is why we are here after all. In theory and on paper the British offensive doctrine of 1918 was just as advanced as the Germans. However, units applied the theories set forth on that paper in different ways depending on the commander. The first and most important change that was made was that the British no longer separated the fire and movement phases of an attack, they were all integrated into one effort. Second, and much like what the Germans were doing, they began to construct their infantry units to maximize firepower, with the mindset that each infantry unit had to have enough firepower to suit their own needs. This gave them greater freedom on the battlefield because it uncoupled them from the artillery barrage. This led into the third feature, which was the push for independent small unit action where junior officers and NCOs leading the units were empowered to carry the attack forward. They were given their objectives and expected to pursue them without direction or information from their superiors. General Maxse, who was at this point Inspector General of Training, would give the advice that “When in doubt go ahead. When uncertain, do that which will kill the most Germans.” This put a lot of pressure on these leaders, and they would be up for the task. This third bit was only possible because the assault units were provided enough firepower in the form of weapons and explosives to make it happen, something that all of the armies seemed to be slowly learning.

One of the items that separated the British from other armies revolved around how they would use technology in the last year of the war. The most popular and well known of these technologies was the tank, obviously, but there was also a wider focus on mechanical mobility that saw the rise of supply tanks and other mechanical means of moving men and material on the battlefield. In late 1917, in the last month of the year there were several discussions about what the British army should look like in the future, and important decision that would drive munitions work back home. In these discussions there were two different schools of thought, the first was based around the idea that more traditional infantry should still take the priority while the other school believed that mechanical warfare should be the emphasis. The reason that this was important was because in 1918 the British no longer had a seemingly infinite pool of manpower they had enjoyed in 1916 and 1917 and while they were not as low on men as other countries they still had to decide what their priorities were. At a meeting on December 5th 1917 it was decided that for the foreseeable future the infantry would be the priority with Haig being given troops to bring his infantry units up to establishment before men were used to increase the size of the other arms. While this was the decision going into 1918 it would begin to change even before the year was half over. On March 13th the Supreme War Council, which had a combination of representatives from all allied nations, would release “Notes on Economy of Manpower by Mechanical Means.” This memo assumed that the Allies would be on the defensive for all of 1918 and the only offensive action would be large raids which they hoped could be launched with large numbers of planes and tanks to reduce the manpower costs, allowing the armies to build up a large manpower pool for attacks beginning in 1919. This isn’t how things would go, and 1918 would go very differently than many predicted. It is likely that if the war had continued into 1919 it would have seen attacks that were more about tanks than infantry a change due both to just sheer numbers of tanks and just the general belief that was spreading around the British army of how important new technologies were on the battlefield. As it was, the tanks that the army had were often used in a very ad hoc manner throughout the last months of the war, so instead of taking their place in the sun during the attacks of 1919 the tanks would have to wait for the next war.

Before they got to attack again the British had to deal with the German spring offensives, which would catch them at least somewhat by surprise. The British could not help but notice that the Germans were building up for something, and they knew the rough area where it might occur, but it was how it was executed that came as such a shock. Instead of a lengthy artillery bombardment, then an infantry attack that moved forward slowly, the Germans had a very quick bombardment then their infantry moved forward quickly. This put a strain on the British defenses that they were ill equipped to handle. There were three main issues with the British defensive doctrine and situation at this point in the war. Keep in mind that they had not been seriously challenged by a German offensive since 1914. The first issue was that while GHQ had introduced the concept of defense-in-depth in late 1917 they had not mandated it be implemented by all armies. This meant that the commanders at the army, corps, and division level had a lot of autonomy when it came to what kind of defense they favored and how they carried it out. This meant that some areas were using a reasonably well formed defense-in-depth while others were using antiquated defensive systems that placed too much emphasis on holding the front line. This type of confusion would result in units who were relatively close together in the line would handle the German attacks differently, causing their coherent line to be mixed up and become disorganized. The second issue was that there had not been enough time or manpower to properly dig and prepare defensive positions in depth, even where the generals had attempted to do so. This was especially true for the British 5th army who had only relatively recently taken over their area of the front from the French giving them a lengthy list of improvements to do while dealing with the fact that they were overextended and critically short of manpower. The third major issue was that Haig and the other British leaders were simply too overconfident in their armies, and in the inability of the Germans to launch a serious offensive. This led to statements by Haig to the effect of him being concerned that the British line was too strong and the Germans would not attack. Now, of course, we know from our discussion of the German Doctrine last episode that these attacks would be initially successful before they ran out of steam. Once the British, French, and Americans had recovered it was once again time to attack.

Once they were back on the offensive they seemed to be fighting almost a different war. One example of this were the attacks at Hamel on July 4th, an attack led by the Austrians with some Americans in support. During this attack, a precursor of the combined arms approach that would typify World War 2 battle and would influence 20th century military thinking, General Rawlinson tried to utilize all of the mechanical advantages that his troops possessed. This meant that a large number of tanks, 60 in total, were joined by low-flying ground attack aircraft, in their movements forward. Before the attack, instead of a lengthy artillery barrage that forfeited any surprise was just a short 4 minute bombardment, then the artillery changed over to mounting a creeping barrage to protect the attack while mixing in 10 percent smoke shells to provide some cover. All of this was designed not just to produce results but also conserve manpower in the process, and it would be quite successful at both.

The last major British attack of 1918 was supposed to be at Amiens in early August 1918. It would be here that the combined Australian and Canadian forces, considered to be the premiere formations of the British army, would fight side by side for the first time. They would use a scaled up version of what had happened at Hamel. There would be no lengthy bombardment, just a short one right before the attack began. Fro the Canadians they would also use some of the tactics that we discussed earlier this year when discussing the attack at Vimy Ridge. They moved their troops into the line the previous day to give them time to familiarize themselves with the ground over which they would be attacking. They also used knowledge gained from Passchendaele for how fast the creeping barrage should go forward, 100 yards in 8 minutes. Then they took advantage of changes in the makeup of artillery units of 1918, with the units becoming more self-reliant with their own machine guns and units of engineers, all of which were designed to give the units more firepower. The attack then succeeded so well that instead of calling off the attack after the initial stages were over, the British just kept attacking, and they would not truly stop until the end of the war.

That is sort of where our discussion of British doctrine during the war ends, they had sort of peaked. There were still three months of fighting, but it would devolve into surprise artillery barrages followed by infantry assaults. The British were fighting a foe that, if not defeated, now found it impossible to regain he initiative. Sensing that the Germans were on the ropes the British refused to slow down, refused to rest, which would have allowed the Germans to catch a breath, and which would have allowed the British to plan and equip their army for another attack like at Amiens. Instead of waiting though they just kept pushing forward while the Germans fell back. It would be a bloody 100 days but the war would be over on the other side of it. At the end of the day, even for all of their mistakes, of which there were many the British came out of the war as the best fighting army in Europe, they had experimented with and had at least some mastery over combined arms tactics, they had created and produced some reasonably serviceable tanks, and while they lost some battles, and lost many men in the process, they had won the war.