Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The British High Command on the Western Front - Pt 1


Sir Douglas Haig, Commander in Chief of the BEF in France at the end of the war, entered the war with a pre-conceived understanding of how the war should be fought.  Faced with a form of warfare that few expected, Haig clung stubbornly to his pre-war concepts until faced with overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary.  Haig’s learning process and adaptation along with those of his army commanders was confused and compounded by the rapid transition of the BEF from a small empire police force to a continental sized army and the transformation of British industry to a total war footing, all whilst in contact with the enemy.  At every level, in the BEF and on the home front, the learning curve was steep and uneven.  Not until 1918 had all the necessary elements developed to the extent where a natural synergy was achieved.  The result was the BEF advance during the 100 days in 1918.

The Pre-War Officer Corps

To understand the British higher command during the war it is necessary to gain an insight into the character and mentality of the pre-war officer corps, which was shaped by the ethos and culture of the army’s hierarchy.  The British Generals, who served at divisional level or above on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918, were born between 1854 and 1894, and came predominantly from an Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, upper class or professional background (Simon Robbins, British Generalship on the Western Front 1914-18 (London: Routledge, 2005), p. 3).  Generally the pre war British army’s elite were drawn from gentry with a military tradition and shared an establishment and Victorian upbringing which provided a common education and social background with elaborate family ties.  Imbibed with the traditional attitudes that stressed such values as group loyalty, deference and obedience to the accepted hierarchy, and an emphasis on self-assurance and character theirs was a narrow world whose ethos and values remained those of the landed gentry.  Personality and connections, rather than professional ability, exerted a significant influence within the army.  Brigadier-General Sir James Edmunds noted that ‘… in 1914 the army was still very feudal in its status,…’ (Edmunds quoted in Robbins,British Generalship, p. 4).  In an obituary to Lord Kitchener written in 1917 G.K. Chesterton captured the contemporary military ethos:

‘. . but in England it is, if anything, a little more traditional, for the very reason that the army has been something separate, professional, and relatively small--a sort of club.  The military man was all the more military because the nation was not military.  Such a man is inevitably conservative in his views, conventional in his manners, and simplifies the problem of patriotism to a single-eyed obedience.’ G.K. Chesterton, Lord Kitchener (Field & Queen, London, 1917)

Within the constraints of this rigidly hierarchical structure, allied to the military ethic of accepting orders, officer’s resistance to ‘superiors’ was only ever likely to be taken so far.

From the mid 19th Century the army’s officer corps had been experiencing a social transformation that saw a gradual shift in recruitment from the declining ‘landed class’ to the professional ‘middle class’.  These new officers, regularly from a lower income group than their predecessors, were forced due to their relative poverty to work hard and take their military careers seriously.  The transition from the amateurism associated with the officers of the 19th Century gentry to this new found professionalism created tensions before and during the war, where traditional attitudes and loyalties to service, arm and regiment tended to arouse prejudices against technological change and innovation.  Professor Tim Travers’ journal article; ‘The Offensive and the Problem of Innovation in British Military Thought 1870 – 1915’, Journal of Contemporary History, 12 (3) (1978), outlines these tensions in relation to the integration of the machine gun into the British Army.  Tim Travers has pointed out that:

‘. . the convergence and frequent conflict of these two concepts . . . the traditional . . . and . . . professional . . . produced an awkward transition period for the officer corps.’  TimTravers, The Killing Ground, (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2003), p.5.

This period of ‘awkward transition’ was to extend well into the war and was compounded by the exponential growth of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).

The High Commands (Haig’s) Pre-War Battlefield Strategy

Haig’s battlefield strategy was based on what he had learnt at Staff College between 1896 and 1897, a strategy, encapsulated by Haig himself in the army’s first modern training manuals, Field Service Regulations (FSR) of 1909.  Whilst at Staff College he learnt that war must end in a decisive offensive.  Battles were to be structured and would unfold into four clear-cut stages.  The enemy would be engaged on a wide front, his reserves drawn in and then exhausted, before a decisive assault was conducted by one’s own reserves.  Exploitation would follow in the form of a cavalry pursuit to scatter the enemy.  Alongside this emphasis on the decisive offensive came the conception of offensive warfare, whose underlying principles deemphasised technology and firepower and stressed the human factor and moral effect, the ‘cult of the offensive’.  A. J. Echevarria II has argued that critics of the cult of the offensive have oversimplified the message of the ‘cults’ proponents.  ‘The idea was not to pit man against machine, but to make man worthy of machine, that is, to set a better trained, more confident soldier against one who, although also armed with near-perfect weapons, was perhaps not as well prepared psychologically as his adversary.’  (Echevarria II, A. J., 'The 'Cult of the Offensive' Revisited: Confronting Technological Change Before the Great War',Journal of Strategic Studies, 25 (1) (2002), p 201).  FSR produced under the auspices of Haig, in his role as Director of Staff Duties (1907-1909), repeated and institutionalised his strategy:

'Decisive success in battle can be gained only by a vigorous offensive.’ (General Staff War Office, Field Service Regulations – Part 1 Operations, (London: HMSO, 1912), p. 126)  [and that] 'Success in war depends more on moral than physical qualities.  Skill cannot compensate for want of courage, energy and determination.' (General Staff War Office, Field Service Regulations – Part 1 Operations, (London: HMSO, 1912), p. 13).

In the context of leadership and command he had been exposed to and agreed with the command philosophy of decentralisation.  During 1895 he had witnessed the annual manoeuvres of the Prussian cavalry and was impressed by the independence given to junior German officers, a fact he emphasised is his subsequent report along with a criticism of the tendency of British army officers to interfere in a juniors sphere of responsibility.  These views were reinforced at Staff College where he noted that:

‘Interference of superiors with details really pertaining to subordinates paralyses initiative’. . . . ‘The chief duty of the higher command is to prepare for battle, not to execute on the battlefield.  After having clearly indicated to subordinate leaders their respective missions, we must leave the execution to them.  Travers, The Killing Ground, p. 97.

Deference to the man on the spot, central to Haig’s thinking, was also captured in FSR Pt 1 Operations.  In relation to operational orders FSR stated:

‘The general principle is that the object to be attained, with such information as affects its attainment, should be briefly but clearly stated; while the method of attaining the object should be left to the utmost extent possible to the recipient, with due regard to his personal characteristics. . . . It is usually dangerous to prescribe to a subordinate at a distance anything that he should be better able to decide on the spot, with a fuller knowledge of local conditions, for any attempt to do so may cramp his initiative in dealing with unforeseen developments.  General Staff War Office, FSR Pt 1 Operations, p. 27.

With these concepts of strategy and command firmly embedded in his mind Haig entered the First World War.  Tim Travers has argued that:

After 1914 [when trench warfare had become a reality], the General Staff [and by implication Haig] continued to operate within the same basic conceptual framework of decisive warfare, and this carried over into the General Staff's offensive plans in the first world war.  Travers, The Offensive and the Problem of Innovation in British Military Thought, p. 545.

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