Lions Led by Donkeys? Learning in the First World War

by Dr ROBERT T. FOLEY

One of the most prevalent and enduring beliefs about the First World War is that those who led the war’s armies were unable to adjust to the new conditions of fighting, particularly on the Western Front. This myth is epitomized by the idea that the heroic common soldier – a lion – was sent to his slaughter by an unthinking, uncaring high command – the donkeys. The BBC comedy series Blackadder Goes Forth captures this myth well with its characterization of General Melchett as a bumbling buffoon, while Captain Blackadder and Private Baldrick represent those about to be sent to their senseless deaths.

Of course, recent research has demonstrated the fallacy of this myth. Bruce I. Gudmundsson, Timothy T. Lupfer, David T. Zabecki, and Martin Samuels, for example, each published important works showing how the German army learned during the war. Michel Goya and Jonathan Krause have recently done the same for the French army, while Gary Sheffield, not least in his recent article, John Terraine, Andy Simpson, and Paddy Griffith, to name but a few, have shown learning over the course of the war in the British army.

However, how these armies learned has not been explored. This has left us with an important gap, and we have not really understood how armies of the Western Front acted as learning organizations. This topic is the subject of an article I recently published in International Affairs, which analyzes the methods by which the British and German armies learned from 1914 to 1918.

What emerges from this research is a clear indication of the importance of organisational culture in shaping how both armies learned on the Western Front throughout the war. My article examines how the more amateur nature of the British army led it to favor and to profit from non-formal means of learning. In an army where personal connections featured so heavily, informal knowledge networks abounded. They permitted often-radical ideas to come to fruition. Indeed, the development of the tank is probably the best example of the importance of these informal networks. Armored fighting vehicles were not a new concept in 1914, but only the British army was able to bring a functioning weapons system to the battlefield. This requirement did not stem directly from the field army, but rather by officers involved on the periphery of fighting, including the then-First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. The good social and professional connections of these pioneers enabled them to influence the weapons development system and create a brand-new battlefield weapon – the tank.

Of course, the German army failed to develop a functioning tank design during the war. Given the usual praise of the German army as a fighting force and as a learning organisation, this is somewhat surprising. However, again the organisational culture of the German army offers some explanations as to why they did not. While personal connections were of course important in the German army, it was a much more professional organization than the British army. By this, I mean that it had a wider range of formal structures in place for the officer promotion, education, and the transfer of knowledge. We can see this in the general staff system, which acted to anonymise its members. (Its unofficial motto was ‘sein mehr als erschein,’ or ‘be more than you appear.’)

The German army relied heavily and effectively on its formal learning processes over the course of the war. As we can see from its ability to develop and disseminate new doctrine rapidly, it was adept at creating and sharing new knowledge across the organisation. It made particularly effective use of an education system that focused on ‘training the trainers’ in new tactics and techniques, which helped spread new knowledge quickly. As I have examined in another article, it also made extremely effective use of ‘after-action reports’ to spread new knowledge between units and demonstrated ‘horizontal innovation.’

Of course, this is not to say that the British army did not develop effective formal learning processes over the course of the war or that the German army did not make use of informal processes. What we can see, though, is that the organisational cultures of the two institutions led them to make more effective use of, to prefer, one form of learning over the other.

What is true of the First World War is equally true today. Having spent 10 years involved in a variety of capacities with the US armed forces and then having spent nearly 15 years involved with the UK armed forces, the differences in organisational culture are readily apparent to me. To individuals within these organisations, though, their cultures, and with this the ways they prefer to learn, are often not clear. This lack of critical organisational self-reflection creates an impediment to organisational learning today. While this may not present the same problems as learning in the First World War, it does prevent efficient knowledge creation and knowledge transfer and does lead to unnecessary mistakes.

4 comments

    1. Surely the post-operational reporting system that gave rise to the the work of Arthur Solly Flood in creating the raft of doctrinal manuals that appeared after the Somme undermines the suggestion the British were not capable of adaptive learning. SS143 was founded upon the accumulated experience of the Somme (and the French) and completely restructured the rifle platoon. These wide ranging manuals were then formalised and “trained in” through an evolving training structure ultimately resulting in the creation of the Training Directorate in 1917 and the much celebrated activities of Ivor Maxse.

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      1. A good point, Simon, but I did not argue that the British didn’t make use of formal methods of learning. My point is that the British army made much more extensive, and effective, use of personal connections to spread new knowledge than the German army. Indeed, when we compare the ‘training organizations’ of the two armies, the British army lagged pretty far behind the German army throughout the war. This does not mean that the British army didn’t learn, but that the learning occurred in different ways. I also believe it gave the British army an advantage of being open to much more radical ideas than the German army. As I said, it was the British army that developed the tank, not the German army, and in my view the different approaches to learning help explain this. I go into more depth on this in my article, which is linked in the main post and which is free to download via the link.

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