Op REFLECT: What Can We Learn From the First World War?


Over the past year or so, I have been involved with the British army’s Operation REFLECT. This operation has been designed to mark the centenary of the First World War and the British army’s participation in this conflict. Much of this operation has focused around the traditional methods of remembrance centred on war memorials. Op REFLECT, however, has also contained a novel means of commemoration. When Gen Sir Peter Wall, the then-Chief of the General Staff, signed the order launching the operation, he stipulated that the British army would also use the opportunity to draw lessons from the war for today’s army.

I must admit that I was intensely skeptical of this aspect of Op REFLECT, as were many of my fellow historians who had been called upon to offer advice and, indeed, many of the British army officers with whom I spoke. How could we draw any meaningful lessons from a conflict that took place 100 years ago? Surely, changes to technologies, organization, and doctrine, not to mention social and political structures have rendered the ‘lessons’ of the First World War moot? The historians also asked ‘Hasn’t this already been done by the Report of the Committee on the Lessons of the Great War (the so-called Kirke Report) published in 1932?’ (This general skepticism about and the challenges of using history to analyze current events was recently discussed eloquently by Huw Davies here on Defence-In-Depth.)

The British army went all out to reach its objectives. In July 2014, it organized a major conference at RUSI examining key strategic and operational aspects of the war, primarily from the British, but also from the French and German perspectives. (For those lucky few with access to the Army Knowledge Exchange, videos of the presentations can be found there. My own contribution can be found here.) In September, 3 (UK) Division organized a major staff ride that spent a week covering major battles on the Western Front. While this focused on the British experience, the French and German side of the battles also featured. Finally, a one-day ‘exploitation’ conference was held at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst on 6 November. This brought together the syndicates that had taken part in the staff ride and asked them to present on how a range of topics covered during the RUSI conference and staff ride relate these to the British army and British defence policy today.

Participation was terrific. Some 200 attended the RUSI conference in July; another 300 or so took part in the staff ride in September; and nearly 350 were at the Sandhurst conference in November. The participants were not confined to the British army – Considerable numbers of French, German, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, Irish, and Belgian officers also took part. The participation cut across the ranks as well. The Chief of the General Staff and Commander Land Forces, as well as their French counterparts, were part of the process all along, while officer cadets from Sandhurst as well as members of several University Officer Training Corps also contributed. Throughout, British, French, German, and American academics provided support and guidance.

Of course, the operation did not ‘learn lessons’ the way in which armed forces attempt to do so today. Although the First World War might offer salutary lessons on the importance of say reverse-slope defences or on air-ground integration, Op REFLECT provided an opportunity to examine wider areas from which officers today can learn. Two areas that were identified by Prof Sir Hew Strachan in his closing address at the exploitation conference stood out to me:

First, we had many fruitful discussions about force generation in wartime that were relevant to a very small British army today looking at ways it could make effective use of its reserve component. In 1914, the British army went to war with a force unsuited for the conflict it faced. In size, it was dwarfed by its continental cousins. In knowledge of large-scale combat, it also lagged behind its allies and its enemies. As today, the size of the British army in 1914 – seven divisions – was a reflection more of the financial realities of 1914 Britain than of potential threats it faced. One contemporary British officer quipped: ‘There is no question to which ‘seven divisions’ is the answer.’ When neither side managed to win the war in the summer of 1914, Britain and its army were forced to improvise a mass army and had to learn painfully how to fight this unwieldy mass. In 1914, as today, the British army made extensive use of reservists to bolster its regular units and to provide replacements for losses. Moreover, the Territorial Force, as it was then known, was meant to be key component of British defence. While no one suggested the British army today might have to expand to 60 divisions as it did in the First World War, there was a widespread belief that the current size of the British army did not provide sufficient mass for many likely future scenarios. Moreover, there was considerable discussion about how reservists today could and should be integrated with a regular army. The challenges faced by their forebears to expand the BEF in 1914 and 1915 and how reserves were integrated into the expanded army provided insight into how a more limited expansion might occur in the future.

Second, the operation offered an opportunity to explore an issue close to my own heart and one that comes up again and again in military history, not least in our recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan – transformation in contact. As mentioned earlier, the British army went to war in 1914 with tactics and doctrine that were not suited to the conditions in which it found itself once trench warfare had been established. Of course, the British army was not alone in this, but it had further to go than its continental counterparts. The RUSI conference and staff ride provided a great opportunity to explore how the BEF adapted and innovated over the course of the war. Unsurprisingly, most of the interest and discussions around this matter examined 1917 and 1918 and how the BEF put in place measures that would capture and disseminate to the widest possible audience experiences and ‘lessons’ of recent combat. The history of how the BEF became a ‘learning organization’ over the course of the war, and how this process differed between the BEF and other armies provided important insights into how learning in or out of contact with the enemy can occur within the British armed forces today.

In addition to these ‘learning outcomes,’ the operation had several other important results. For those involved, it provided a chance to develop a much deeper knowledge of the experience of the First World War, particularly for the British army. Op REFLECT also brought together officers from a wide range of nationalities and of different ranks, providing a forum for understanding each other’s histories and perspectives on current defence issues. In short, the operation deepened the knowledge and education of those who took part. As one senior British officer said at the exploitation conference, such education is not easily measured, it will vary enormously from individual to individual, and its true value may only be seen in five or ten years. Despite this ambiguity, it is in my view this wider education and deeper knowledge that forms the most important outcome from the entire Op REFLECT.

Image: A syndicate on the Op REFLECT staff ride at Langemarck Cemetery discussing the First Battle of Ypres, 8 September 2014. © Robert T. Foley

10 thoughts on “Op REFLECT: What Can We Learn From the First World War?

  1. Just to raise a couple of points on the above. Firstly, arguably the size of the British Army in 1914 was not particularly a function of financial constraints. Britain was in some respects, quite aware of the threat it faced. There were even notable public demands pre-war for increased defence expenditure, and indeed 1908-1914 the Exchequer progressively increased one particular part of the defence vote from some £31 to £48.8 million p.a. However, the fact is that “we want eight, and we won’t wait!” referred to battleships for the Royal Navy, rather than divisions for the Army. On this basis it would probably be more accurate to say that the size of the British Army in 1914 was more a reflection of Britain’s particular strategic stance than finance, not to mention the domestic political aversion to the conscription that construction of a mass army would have entailed. After all, it is, I think, worth remembering that conscription was still controversial when it was introduced at the height of war in 1916!

    Questions of national strategy and domestic politics are absolutely as vital now as they were in 1914. Your contemporary British officer may have quipped: ‘There is no question to which ‘seven divisions’ is the answer.’ (and a pithy one that may be), but I fear they were horribly missing the point. Seven divisions may not have been the answer to a rather large part (though by no means all) of the war Britain ended up fighting 1914-1918, but it was very definitely the answer both to the question of the structure of forces the British electorate would tolerate building up in peacetime, and to the sort of war British policy makers envisaged fighting should deterrence and diplomacy fail on the Continent. One may disagree with the result, but as strategies go, it was by no means unclear, or incoherent. Today it might well be argued that some of that clarity and coherence is absent, but matters are by no means entirely opaque when one observes matters such as the perception of genuine, existential threat; or stance toward/reliance upon our existing alliance system (something also notable, incidentally, from 1914, regarding the French and Russian armies), and domestic spending priorities.

    Secondly (and due apologies if this is being covered, I cannot profess much greater familiarity with Op REFLECT than your piece above), it strikes me that a very great opportunity may be being missed. For not insignificant sections of the armed forces, fighting did not end “on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month” or anything like it, any more than a certain U.S. President standing aboard a certain aircraft carrier bearing a banner announcing “Mission Accomplished” signalled the end of shooting in Iraq, to risk a controversial comparison.

    In the aftermath of four years of what might be termed hardcore warfighting, Britain – and her allies – were left dealing with another four years of civil wars (once of which – Russia – it was feared by sections of politicians and the press might result in the ascendancy of an insidious ideology that would represent an internal threat to Britain itself), rebellions, risings and insurgencies (including a couple rather close to home in Ireland and India) resulting from the destruction and fracturing of longstanding central polities and indeed the societies within them, along with the occupation of parts of defeated powers. Many, if not all, of them directly as a consequence of the First World War. Tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen were involved. This was set against a background of domestic public and political opinion ranging from largely ambivalent to anti; massive demobilisation and restructuring of the forces themselves; hugely reduced budgets including the Ten Year Rule and Geddes; rising powers, against whom it was believed necessary in some quarters to maintain some modern, hardcore, warfighting capability (Japan); and uncertain allies, even some previously thought to be rock solid (rather notably with Chanak).

    Now, obviously I write the above paragraph with excellent recent pieces by both Huw Davies and Sir Lawrence Freedman on the dangers of strategy by analogy on loop in my head, and I sincerely hope that it will be read in the light of those self same works. Nonetheless, it does strike me that it might well be fruitful to expand Op REFLECT (if it does not already do so) to include looking at that all important transition at the end of the First World War from the hardcore warfighting into what happens next. This – necessarily, I think – ought to cover not just the transition on the ground, becoming (or perhaps returning to) what might be described as forces engaging in policing-type activities, looking at matters such as tactics and political engagement with local actors, but it should also look at the political, and even administrative spheres. Just as there are lessons to be drawn from the expansion of forces, integration of reserves and adaptation of new technologies and tactics prior to the Armistice, are there not, perhaps, lessons to be drawn, for example, from the ways in which the Admiralty under Beatty, General Staff under Wilson and Air Staff under Trenchard dealt with the enormous drawdown and restructuring of their forces: how they coped with massively reduced budgets: the institutional responses of the British armed forces to politicians, public, even many of the men under their command, adopting a peacetime mindset, despite shooting still going on, years after Compiegne?


    1. Thank you, Phil, for your extensive comments! We set up this blog to provoke discussion and debate, and your comments fit the bill exactly.

      I agree with you completely about the roll of politics. In 1914, as today in 2014, the size and composition of armed forces are determined by politics. Then as now, domestic political concerns determine the allocation of scarce resources – guns or butter. As you point out, Britain did have the resources in the years before 1914 to invest in defence; the government chose, however, to invest in ships rather than divisions. Moreover, as you didn’t point out, even the naval estimates were coming under huge domestic political pressure under a Liberal government that wanted to allocate less to guns and more to butter before 1914.

      I disagree with you, however, about British policy being coherent in 1914. Under Grey, Britain had progressively committed herself to a continental commitment to the French. Despite the creation of a Committee of Imperial Defence, this was done without real discussion or debate and without real understanding of the consequences of this decision. Moreover, no one explored fully how this commitment would be fulfilled. While domestic political concerns may have limited the size of the army, its reserves, the Territorial Force, to home defence, and prevented peacetime conscription, they did nothing to support Grey’s foreign policy or British ‘strategy.’ Indeed, the exorbitant expansion of the Dreadnought-era navy simply made matters worse. These decisions are themselves consequences of the lack of discussion or debate about how national resources should be allocated to support British strategy and foreign policy. In my view, Britain went to war in 1914 with a hopelessly muddled strategy, be it on the sea or on land, that was a consequence of a refusal to address crucial strategic issues before the outbreak of war.

      Regardless of whether you believe British strategy was coherent or incoherent in 1914, plans for the expansion of the army, such that they were, were completely inadequate. Hence, the decision to expand the regular army taken by the Cabinet on 5 August, i.e., before the BEF had been engaged in combat and before stalemate had set in on the Western Front. This improvisation of expansion is interesting to examine and offers insights for those thinking about how to expand an armed force in wartime.

      Personally, I believe Britain is in much better straits today. While there are no doubt problems with the current defence and security review process, a range of factors from a unified Ministry of Defence to the more public defence and security reviews themselves mean that the egregious policy and strategic errors of 1914 are less likely, or at least there will be coherence to national security strategy, even if one doesn’t accept its assumptions or conclusions fully.

      I take your point completely too about valuable ‘lessons’ that can be drawn from the Interwar experience. This iteration of Op REFLECT ended really in 1918. I know there are plans to take up the baton again in 2016, but I am not sure of the scope that this next phase will take. This time, quite correctly I believe given the centenary, the focus was on the war itself rather than the immediate consequences. I must also stress that the focus of this phase of Op REFLECT was on the army experience and military ‘lessons’. This was probably more a function of who organized the operation and a perceived need to limit the scope so that we could concentrate on depth rather than breadth. I am unaware of any current or future Royal Navy or Royal Air Force events that have had a similar scope to Op REFLECT, though they may well exist.


      1. My pleasure Robert. Thank you for your reply. I’m glad to have contributed.

        I absolutely agree with your extension of my point that domestic politics and finance continue to play a significant role, even during periods of international tension, rearmament and arms races. As you so rightly say, the pressure Churchill was under considerable pressure to reduce the Naval Estimates, particularly through 1913-1913.

        However, I fear we must continue to disagree with regard to British national strategy in the leadup to August 1914. I certainly take your comments with regard to Grey’s actions, and indeed Christopher Clark’s extremely well made point with regard to treating a country’s policy making and strategic thinking as a unified, homogenous, consistent mass. Nevertheless, even taking that into account, I do feel it is possible to discern a very definite, broad direction to British strategy up to 1914. I confess, in order to add some clarity here I am casting my definition of “strategy” in this case, strictly in terms of the application of the country’s means to defeat an enemy in war, and not encompassing its employment of the same to avoid war, prevent war, or otherwise achieve its aims.

        The cornerstones of British power in 1914 were the Empire, and economy, with the maritime trade that connected the two (which Britain possessed a dominant share of) forming a very significant component. Consequently, the first order of business for Britain was defending and maintaining these. Alliances formed a vital part of this, as indeed did the Army but first and foremost, it required naval dominance, particularly in the broad absence of a land based threat to the Empire brought about by rapprochement with Russia. The need to preserve this maritime dominance, from perceived threat to it from the German naval buildup is the reason for the increased naval expenditure. The reason this increased expenditure does no go to the Army (along with the already discussed domestic aversion to the conscription that this would necessitate) is that the land based threat to Britain, its Empire and interests had not correspondingly increased. A threat of invasion was recognised, and though some enemy forces were expected to get ashore, requiring the Army to deal with them, invasion was again expected to be a primarily naval problem. Furthermore, the country’s maritime dominance could be used against an enemy to damage their warfighting capacity through blockade.

        British strategy for fighting a war – or at least the broad thrust of it in the years up to 1914 – was thus admirably summed up in the words of the Cabinet member Jack Pease “by holding the sea, maintaining our credit, keeping our people employed & our own industries going – By economic pressure, destroying Germany’s trade, cutting off her supplies – we would gradually secure victory.” Admittedly that quote fails to mention reliance on allies and the great continental armies, which was the other main strand of British strategy in the event of the country finding itself drawn into a major continental war. Nonetheless, the gist of the matter is there. It was, if you will, a comfortable strategy, and it was a familiar strategy – so much so, in fact that it was known as “business as usual”. Yet it was not a strategy that happened by accident, nor did it come as a particular surprise to anyone. The years before the outbreak of war had seen some quite extensive discussion and planning, through committees such as Desart, war books written, and Royal Proclamations drafted, all to be opened, announced and implemented as soon as war was declared.

        This is not to suggest that absolutely everything was in place down to the last detail and that there was total agreement and no confusion – far from it. There was much that could have been done, and should have been done. Exactly how the blockade would be implemented, precise restrictions on trade, dealings with neutral states and shipping etc. all remained up in the air. There were even some rather harebrained schemes floating around about seizing Heligoland or Borkum in order to create a base to access the Baltic and create a close blockade. Discussions on these matters continued long into the war. Some of this was perhaps unsurprising as a blockade strategy tends to sit rather precariously on the edge of international law and foreign relations. However, these discussions can largely be characterised as rather more how, than what. The broad maritime strategy as outlined by the Pease above happened. It began on the first day of the war, it continued until the last, and it was at the heart of everything else Britain did from the Pacific and Africa, to the Middle East, and even the Western Front.

        I fully realise that this may make me sound like – at best – some ghastly unreconstructed navalist, confusing naval strategy with national strategy, or at worst, someone chronically oversimplifying an enormously complex situation. However, in reverse order, firstly, I do think it is useful to periodically apply the broader brush, and by looking at what had been agreed planned and discussed pre-war, and was thereafter applied, it soon becomes clear. Britain went to war in 1914 with a broad, but distinct concept of how it was going to fight in a major European conflict, based upon using what were seen as its principal national assets, to what was believed to be their best effect, in order to defeat the enemy. The details may well have been hazy (extremely so in the minds of even some of those in the upper echelons of Government); it may well have been flawed, and some minds may well have advocated variations, but I don’t think that this should be mistaken for absence.

        Secondly, as already mentioned, those principal assets were the Empire, the economy and the Navy. At the risk of annoying an awful lot of Army types (not my intention), the Army was, at this point, very much a second order strategic asset by virtue of its size relative to both the Navy, and particularly to the armies of the continental powers. Bluntly, the Royal Navy was the largest in the World and could not just make a difference, but be decisive in its element and thus, it was believed, significantly affect matters on the continent (I will leave debates about the effectiveness of the blockade and contribution of British industrial power etc. for another time). With the best will in the World, it was difficult to suggest that a 4-6 division British Expeditionary Force could ever be described in the same terms. Thus the role of the Army within this strategy is a supporting one. Whether that might be on those far flung operations redolent, as Asquith put it, of “a gang of Elizabethan buccaneers”, or physically manifesting Britain’s commitment to its continental allies was a secondary concern and could, in theory, be decided later.

        Now inevitably, with the benefit of hindsight, it can be said that “business as usual” as a strategy, did not prove to be adequate for Britain in the First World War, and that the country ended up engaging on the continent to its fullest strength, as well as performing its role in the maritime sphere. The fact that this occurred, naturally puts the neglect of the Army’s role particularly (though no by means exclusively) under a rather painful spotlight. Though one is left wondering just how inevitable this might have seemed in advance. The prospect of sending the Army to the continent had, of course, been raised by then Brigadier Sir Henry Wilson in the C.I.D. in 1911, when the 1st Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson, famously made a complete hash of presenting the Navy’s case. There were rumblings, from Hankey in particular, that Brigadier Wilson’s plan was the thin end of the wedge leading towards conscription. Whether it was, or it was not, to my knowledge (I stand to be corrected) remains a matter of conjecture as no decision was taken, not least due to serious ministerial opposition, and the matter was kicked into the proverbial long grass. However, what we do know is that the plan Wilson actually put forward involved only the Army as it then stood, and as you point out, actual plans for seriously expanding the Army in the way Hankey suggested – let alone the way it actually occurred – were, and remained for the next three years, thin at best.

        This brings up your point about Grey’s dealings on the continent and exactly what they entailed, the resources they required, and just how far they stepped outside of, or were separate from the broad, predominantly maritime strategy. The thing is (and once more, I stand to be corrected), my recollection is that Grey’s commitment – such as it was, and for whatever it was indeed worth without the consent of his leader and colleagues – was not terribly loaded with specifics and, to my knowledge, did not directly suggest Britain would conscript a million-plus-man army. It may be argued that such an outcome was implicit within any continental commitment, as suggested by Hankey and presumably feared by the aforementioned opposing cabinet ministers. As you say, in the end the debate did not occur, and the Army found itself in its traditional, subsidiary role perhaps as much by default as by design. As you quite rightly point out, this was wholly inadequate, though one suspects, in part it was reflective of the Army’s strategic standing (not that that makes it right!). Indeed, given the strategic situation, the realities of British power, and domestic opposition, one is left wondering whether or not such a debate, held pre-war, would really have resulted in such a force either being created, or even planned for. I am afraid I personally have some doubts.

        So, if Grey was, as it seems – realistically or not – offering only the token Expeditionary Force as it then stood, then he almost certainly was stepping beyond the bounds of his political authority in potentially drawing Britain closer to any impending conflagration. Yet arguably he was not particularly stepping beyond, or even stretching the bounds of the main strategy in terms of how that war would be fought, and the way the country’s resources would be applied. As mentioned above, a small force physically manifesting Britain’s commitment to its continental allies was well within the bounds of a predominantly maritime strategy in the event of war. Whether or not a commitment to this end was entirely welcome domestically, regarding its consequences in bringing the prospect of embroilment that much closer, is another question. Much the same can be said of Grey’s other, less frequently mentioned commitment to the French that the Royal Navy would effectively act as the guarantor of France’s Channel and Atlantic coasts, permitting the French navy to concentrate in the Mediterranean (which became the subject of considerable French concern as Britain prevaricated in the days before August 4th).

        Anyway, apologies for these now rather considerable ramblings. It has been quite fascinating (for me anyway). Op REFLECT certainly seems to have been a useful idea. I am glad it will be returned to and I do think it would be good if the other services could look at doing something similar, if they have not done already.


  2. Robert,

    Very interesting article and I do wonder if similar educational exercises are run for non-military policy makers. Even HM Treasury!

    For the audio-visual audience there is a parallel BBC TV series of podcasts on ‘What can today’s soldiers learn from WW1’, with Dr. Jonathan Boff as the “talking head”. See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zq2jq6f

    I have posted a thread on Small Wars Journal’s Forum linking your article and the BBC podcasts. It will be interesting to see how the mainly American audience respond.


    1. Many thanks, David, and thank you for posting this on the Small Wars Journal’s forum. I too am interested to see how an American audience would read this. I wasn’t aware of the BBC podcasts featuring Jonathan Boff when I wrote this piece or I would have linked them as well.

      As I mentioned in my response to Phil Weir’s comments, I don’t know of anything similar being run by another government department. Similar events may well be planned, but I haven’t seen anything about them yet. I was very impressed with how seriously the British Army took this exercise, and it dedicated considerable resources to making it work.


  3. I am not sure that the British army is in “much better straits” today. The result of the Basra enquiry suggests that there are still many mistakes made in the execution of war when the character if that war changes. It also seems to me (as a doctor) that lessons learned get forgotten and have to be re-learned; thus facial surgery organisation (and indeed the whole medical military organisation) was run down between the wars and had to be recreated for WW2. There is a parallel today in the rundown of the RAMC to a point where it would be difficult to mount a major war operation without calling up all the reserves; there is no standing reserve that is easily deployed (having said which the Sierra Leone expedition may be proof I am wrong). However my RAMC contacts always seem uneasy about their capacity to respond to a large-scale problem.

    The experience of war is often best refined by examining the mistakes. Many WW1 War Diaries are reflective and offer solutions or alternatives to the problems encountered. The question is whether these are learned from. I would argue that one of the major failures of offensive actions in WW1 were the result of a breakdown of communication. This was an insuperable issue thanks to poor technology, but even in the first Gulf War telecommunications systems were inferior to mobile phones. It is essential that when a problem appears it is properly dealt with so we are not left with a “plus ca change” issue. Over-contraction of the services will inevitably result in a loss of institutional memory if we are not careful and that should be remembered by those who lead us.


    1. Thank you for your comments. My point about better straits was about policy and strategy making more than learning lessons. I think you are on to something here about learning lessons today. I am particularly interested in your points about medical lessons. My impression of this field is that military medicine is well integrated into the wider medical field. Thus, battlefield medical knowledge transfers well to a wider audience and is retained by the profession not simply in the UK but more broadly. Is your impression of this different? I am interested in your views on this.

      Organizational learning is hard. Most organizations lay claim to being ‘learning organizations’ but in my view the reality is that few are. I do think the British armed forces have gotten better at this over the past few years. (One of the links in the post is to an article on this subject.) I do take your point about the dangers of contraction though. We have to figure out ways of capturing and disseminating the experience and knowledge gained over the past 13 years or so of operations, and I don’t think we have figured this out yet.


  4. Hello Team,
    Something not discussed much is the fact that the Empire’s strategic heartland was on the border of France at B r i e y ie the iron resources needed to conduct a long war. France as an intelligent ally needed just long range guns to disrupt this resource and end the war early. Verdun was a counterpoint to any incursions. As regards empires, it was in the end a lose-lose situation.


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