Thursday, December 8, 2011

The British High Command on the Western Front - Pt 2

Back to Part 1

The High Commands 1915 Battlefield Strategy

Was this the case?  By December 1914 the BEF had expanded to five infantry and two cavalry corps.  To ease GHQ’s control burden Sir John French, under pressure from Kitchener, formally split the BEF into two armies on 26 December 1914; First Army commanded by Haig, Second Army commanded by General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien.  The initial Army HQ’s were ad-hoc affairs, hastily formed with minimal guidance from French who saw them as an administrative unit along the lines of Corps HQ’s.  French fearing the loss of control over his units failed to realise that his role as CinC had to change as the BEF expanded.  Haig as commander of First Army during 1915 was determined to ensure that he was not turned into a postmaster but remained a commander in operational control of fighting units.  The battles between 26 December 1914 and 18 December 1915 were increasingly planned by army and corps staffs rather than GHQ.  During Haig’s tenure in charge of First Army the army level of command become the most important operational command in the BEF.

At first glance it would appear that Haig remained true to his pre-war concepts throughout 1915.  In June he had told Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister:

‘With such changed conditions [of war on the Western Front] it might be thought that the old principles of war had also changed.  But I do not think that is so. . . . The difficulty is to apply these great principles under the changed conditions.’  Haig to H. H. Asquith, 25 June 1915, Asquith Papers, 13–14, Bodleian Library, Oxford, United Kingdom.  Quoted in: Nick Lloyd, ‘ “With Faith and Without Fear”: Sir Douglas Haig’s Command of First Army During 1915’, The Journal of Military History, (October 2007), p. 1060.

A closer examination however reveals a change.  During his tenure in command, First Army embarked upon four major engagements: Neuve Chapelle (10–13 March), Aubers Ridge (9 May), Festubert (15–27 May), and Loos (25 September – 13 October).  All of which, with the exception of Festubert, were planned as ‘decisive’ battles.  Following the disaster of Aubers Ridge, Haig changed tactics and planned to employ ‘more deliberate methods’ in the Festubert attack.  (Nick Lloyd, “With Faith and Without Fear”, p.1067).  As Nicholson the author of the Canadian Official History pointed out: ‘For the first time in the war British forces were to engage in a battle of “attrition”.’  (Nicholson, G.W.L., Canadian Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War: Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919. (Ottowa: 1962), p. 97).

On 19 December 1915 Haig took command of the BEF in France, within the first month he had articulated his strategic views formally in a GHQ document (GHQ General Staff: Notes on operation, 1916 Jan. - Dec. WO 158/19.  Quoted in:  Sanders Marble, ‘General Haig Dismisses Attritional Warfare, January 1916’, The Journal of Military History, 65 (4), pp. 1062 - 1065).  He had recognised the utility of limited attritional attacks, what he called ‘operations designed to wear down the enemy,’ (Sanders Marble, ‘General Haig Dismisses Attritional Warfare’, p. 1063), but had placed the concept 'on hold' due to resource limitations (munitions).  Although cognizant of attrition as an option Haig went on to plan the Somme using his traditional principles.  (Douglas Haig (Sheffield and Bourne Ed), Douglas Haig War Diaries and Letters 1914-1918 (London: Phoenix, 2006), pp. 178-179).  Saunders Marble has used Haig’s document and the lack of records indicating that Haig revisited this strategy in 1917 or 1918 as evidence of Haig’s adherence to ‘the traditional idea of a decisive attack winning the war at a stroke.’ (Sanders Marble, ‘General Haig Dismisses Attritional Warfare’, p. 1061).  By the beginning of 1916 two fundamentally different operational methods had been recognized by GHQ, the choice over which method to use, decisive or attritional, were a source of friction between Haig and his army commanders for much of the war.

The Somme

The Battle of the Somme (1 July to 18 November 1916) served as a catalyst to force a sweeping doctrinal and tactical change throughout the BEF.  It demonstrated the gap that existed between Haig’s ambition to achieve a decisive breakthrough and the practical capabilities of his armies in 1916.  The BEF that had deployed to France in August 1914 comprised 5 divisions, approximately 100,000 men.  By the end of 1914 as the Western Front settled into stalemate the BEF had expanded to 270,000.  During those first few months of war the BEF had lost, killed, wounded, missing or captured 80,653 men, most from the regular army (Richard Holmes, Tommy, (London: Harper, 2005), p. 33).  The loss of so much trained manpower so early was to cause the BEF problems for the duration of the war.  What had replaced the well trained regulars by December 1915 was a large (17 Divisions where involved in the attack on 1 July 1916) raw but enthusiastic citizen army, inadequate in equipment, training and understanding.  The BEF’s expansion had been both huge and rapid and as John Bourne has pointed out it came at a price:

That price was a massive de-skilling of the army at all levels.  . . .  Wherever you looked men were ‘acting up’ in commands and staff positions for which their pre-war and wartime experience had done little to prepare them.’  Dr John Bourne, Haig’s Army, Haig Fellow 2002, at the Eighth Annual Lunch on 29 January 2002.

There were fundamental command weaknesses throughout the BEF:

‘Everyone, in the British Army of 1916, including Haig, was a learner in the hard business of modern Continental war.  Only two of the Corps commanders who took part [in the Somme on 1 July 1916] had commanded as much as a division in peace-time. Only three out of twenty-three divisional commanders had had experience of as much as a brigade.’  John Terraine, Douglas Haig The Educated Soldier, (London: Cassel & Co, 2000), p. 206.

The BEF paid heavily for its inexperience but much had been learnt as all but two of the BEF’s divisions had fought on the Somme.  A ruthless clear-out of incompetent senior officers, begun during 1915, at times unfair and drastic, continued during 1916; the result was the emergence during the Somme of some young experienced and effective commanders who were active in pursuing new methods and ideas, although the leeway they were given depended on the character or command style of their senior officers.  As Martin Samuels has pointed out the employment by the BEF of two distinct command systems ‘umpiring’ at the operational level and ‘restrictive control’ at the tactical level created ambiguities in planning and an over-centralised rigidity in application that tended to stifle initiative at the lower levels. (Martin Samuels, Command or Control? Command,Training and Tactics in the British and German Armies, 1888-1918, London: Frank Cass, 2003) – Ch 2 covers ‘umpiring’, Ch 4 covers ‘restrictive control’.).  The adoption of these command systems can be attributed to the fact that in an environment of huge expansion and associated ‘de-skilling’ few BEF commanders were sure how far to apply the principles of FSR, rather than the command systems being a British military trait.  FSR were ‘a set of principles for application by trained and experienced officers,’ at the start of the Somme experience was at a premium (Andy Simpson, Directing Operations – British Corps Command on the Western Front 1914-18, (Stroud: Spellmount, 2006), p. xvi).  Inconsistencies in planning, command and performance were inevitable as the BEF strove to improve its tactical and operational methods.  By the end of the Somme however, a degree of command decentralisation and devolution was evident within the BEF.

Next: Part 3 ‘Which Operational Method?

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