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