Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The British High Command on the Western Front - Pt 4

Back to Part 3

The Army Commanders

There was no training offered to new army commanders, although the lack of command experience in terms of handling large formations had been recognised before the war.  The new army commanders brought to the job their accumulated experience and learned as they went along.  In the turmoil of expansion their preparation time varied; Gough had spent just under one year as a divisional commander and one year as a corps commander before graduating to army command.  Byng by comparison spent approximately ten months as a divisional commander and two years as a corps commander.  Having served under five different army commanders he had been exposed to good, bad and indifferent army level command.  Being one of Haig’s later appointments, he replaced General Allenby in 1917, Byng undoubtedly benefited from his experiences as a corps commander.  The army commander’s lack of experience was compounded by the acute shortage of trained and experienced staff officers at all levels of command well into 1917.  Following a determined effort to train staff officers during 1916 a nucleus of experience and able Staff Officers began to appear.  During 1917 a number of formations had gained a very good reputation for their staff work and at army level in particular a harmonious relationship between the commander and his COS proved the key to successful command.  Plumer and his COS Major General Harington in Second Army and Rawlinson and his COS Major General A.A. Montgomery in Fourth Army proved the best partnerships in the BEF whereas the Gough and Major General Sir Neill Malcolm relationship proved disastrous as Malcolm proved unable to curb Gough’s excessive zeal.

Haig appears to have been relatively content with the overall performance of his army commanders.  Significantly he only removed two of them, Gough and Allenby, from their posts.  Both were arguably less than successful on the Western Front, although Allenby was removed more for his dissent than his battlefield failures, whilst Gough’s removal was the result of political scapegoating.  As the operational experience levels of the brigade, division and corps commanders and staffs grew GHQ and the army level of command stepped back and orchestrated rather than dictated the battle.  In addition as the war became more mobile in 1918 the greater was the command devolution downwards.  The principles of FSR, deference to the man on the spot, had once again become an achievable reality.

Management and Leadership Skills

The size of the BEF during the war, close to two million men at its maximum, dictated the need for leadership and management skills.  The BEF’s administrative skills had to be developed simultaneously with the operational skills and it has been suggested that the pressures of administrative concerns at all command levels was a major factor in the slowing down the operational development of the BEF (Michael Crawshaw, ‘The Impact of Technology on the BEF and its Commander’, in: Brian Bond & Nigel Cave eds, Haig a Re-Appraisal 80 Years On, (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2009), p. 158).  Unlike French Haig recognised his management responsibilities.  Having recognised the logistic imperative in early 1916 he was to have the reality forced home during the Somme as the BEF’s logistics infrastructure ground to a halt.

‘The Battle, a prolonged drive against the German lines utilising huge quantities of ammunition, stretched the BEF beyond its transportation capabilities, resulting in the offensive being stopped dead in its tracks. Following the problems of supplying munitions during 1915, the collapse of the transportation network represented the failure of the next link in the supply chain from factories to front line.’.  Christopher Phillips, ‘Sir Eric Geddes and the BEF's Transportation System on the Western Front, 1916 – 1918’, Birmingham University BA Dissertation, (Feb 2007), p 5.

His response was immediate.  He brought his administrative prowess, evident in his contribution to the army reforms during his period as an advisor to the War Minister Richard Haldane from 1906 to 1909, into play and developed the BEF's logistical infrastructure.  Central to this was the appointment of a civilian, Sir Eric Geddes with the honorary rank of Major General, to the post of Director-General of Transport in 1916.  Geddes’ appointed was a success although controversial.  In parallel he continually pressed the home front to improve equipment supply.  His frequent letters to the War Office pressed for a synthesis in the supply chain from factories to the front:

‘The fighters are of the first importance, for it is evident that we shall have to face a new struggle for the command of the air in the spring of 1917; and if we lose that, then neither reconnaissance machines nor bombers will help us.’  Douglas Haig, quoted in: Andrew Boyle, Trenchard (London: Collins, 1962), p. 205.

Only by 1918 was the BEF logistical organisation, the home front re-supply, and the operational and tactical experience developed to the extent where a series of multi-axes ‘limited’ operations, designed to wear down the enemy and prepare the way for a ‘decisive offensive' could be implemented.  The result was the successful BEF offensives during the last 100 days of the war.  Haig along with all elements of the BEF had been forced through a steep and uneven learning curve.  Harsh lessons had to be learnt, tactics had to be changed, command principles had to be adapted, new technologies had to be embraced, and a new army had to be constituted all through the immediacy of war.


Primary Sources


Chesterton, G.K.
Lord Kitchener (London, Field & Queen, 1917)

General Staff War Office

Haig, Douglas (Eds Sheffield, Gary and Bourne, John)
Douglas Haig War Diaries and Letters 1914-1918 (London, Phoenix, 2006)

Secondary Sources


Baynes, John
Far From a Donkey (London, Brassey’s, 1995)
Beckett, Ian and Corvi, Steven eds
Haig’s Generals (Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 2009)
Bidwell, Shelford and Graham, Dominick
Fire-Power: The British Army Weapons & Theories of War 1904 – 1945 (Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 2004)
Bond, Brian and Cave, Nigel eds
Haig a Re-Appraisal 80 Years On (Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 1999)
Boyle, Andrew
Trenchard (London, Collins, 1962)
Charteris, John
At G.H.Q. (London, Cassell & Co, 1931)
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Tommy (London, Harper, 2005)
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Journals and Periodicals

Echevarria II, A. J.
French, David
‘The Meaning of Attrition’, The English Historical Review, 103, (407), (April 1988)
Harris, Paul and Marple, Sanders
Lloyd, Nick
“With Faith and Without Fear”: Sir Dougles Haig’s Command of First Army During 1915’, The Journal of Military History, 71 (October 2007)
Marple, Sanders
‘General Haig Dismisses Attritional Warfare’, The Journal of Military History, 65, (4), (October 2001)
Travers, Tim
Travers, Tim
‘A Particular Style of Command: Haig and GHQ, 1916-18’, Journal of Strategic Studies, 10, (3), (1987)
Travers, Tim


Bourne, John
‘Haig’s Army’, Haig Fellow 2002, at the Eighth Annual Lunch on 29 January 2002.
Bourne, John
Lee, Robert
Phillips, Christopher
Sheffield, Gary

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