Conference Report: Military Education and Empire.


Research on how militaries learn, adapt, innovate and transform has been gathering pace in recent years. The primary motivation for this emerging interest has been the need to understand the means and methods by which the US Army innovated or transformed during its campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Further studies have emerged exploring the same concept in the British military.

Historically, military adaptation, innovation and transformation has been explained through overarching concepts such as the Military Revolution, or more recently, the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs. The former implies massive change in military organisation or development prompted by external influence, such as political, social or cultural revolution.

The latter is a more limited concept – the aggregate, perhaps, of marginal gains produced by technological or organisational developments which combine to achieve a decisive shift in performance, capability or effectiveness. Both concepts have come in for their fair share of criticism.

The definition of the Military Revolution has gradually expanded to cover several centuries, beginning with gunpowder weapons, continuing with the consequent developments in fortification design, and concluding with Napoleon’s organisational reforms. Obviously, and event that commences in the fourteenth century and concludes in the nineteenth is hardly revolutionary.

The RMA also suffered from similar conceptual difficulties, most notably from the erroneous assumption that a revolution could be harnessed to deliver a decisive shift on the battlefield. As it became increasingly evident that attempts to do so were hamstrung by an asymmetric enemy determined to turn strength into weakness, so the concept fell by the wayside.

In more recent years, it has become increasingly clear that it is in the realm of military education, both formal and informal, that some of the more effectual developments in military learning and innovation have occurred. At least since the eighteenth century, when the concept of a profession of arms first began to take hold in Western military forces, officers, both individually and collectively have learnt their profession from a close study of their national military history, their specific national character, and the close examination of the art of war, strategy and tactics.

Rather than revolutionary, this is a gradual process, requiring patience and forbearance. A conference held at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston Ontario, illustrated this argument across a two hundred year period. Papers covered different approaches to military education across the British empire and beyond between 1750 and 1950, and explored differing national approaches. It is impossible here to explore the whole in detail, so I will draw out some of the key themes.

The turning point came in the mid-eighteenth century. Until then, British officers, imbued as they were with their sense of natural superiority and brilliance bestowed upon them by the accident of their high birth, reflected merely upon Britain’s military glory of yesteryear.

Military histories, such as narratives of Marlborough’s campaigns, dominated their reading, and reinforced their assumption that the British army remained the most effective fighting force in Europe. The War of the Austrian Succession dispelled this myth. Repeated defeats at the hand of the French caused a shift in the preferred reading, and therefore self-education, of the British officer cadre. Less military history, more studies into the art, science and theory of war, strategy and tactics.

Among these officers was the rising star, James Wolfe. In 1756, as British military prestige was agains tarnished at the hands of the French, he made recommendations to aspiring young officers. ‘In these days of scarcity & in these unlucky times, it is much to be wish’d, he wrote, ‘that all our young soldiers of birth & education, would follow our brothers steps, and as they will have their turn to command, that they would try to make themselves fit for that important trust, without it we must sink under the superior abilities & indefatigable industry of our restless neighbour…’

He was not alone. Across the army, officers were reading more widely into the political, social, as well as military histories of both Britain and Europe. Treatises on the art of war became important companions on long journeys. Understandably, as the French had been the author of many of Britain’s most recent defeats, it was to the Continental School that the intellectual officer looked for advice and guidance.

But this was wrapped up in a sense of national character. Imposing another nation’s approach to warfare would not work effectively in the context in which Britain fought. National Character therefore became a key theme of military education from the eighteenth century.

For the British, national character was imbued with its maritime history. The British Army was a short term expeditionary force designed to achieve limited objectives in a resource denial or containment based strategy that depended on British control of the sea. Therefore, the study of strategy revolved around this maritime focus, until the twentieth century, when the British Army succeeded in establishing a continental strategy in the First World War. There is an important debate about the wisdom of this approach which should be dealt with elsewhere.

Elsewhere, National Character exerted considerable influence on the direction of military education curriculum, so much so that a national ‘way of war’ was discernible. Papers explored the military curricula in India, Australia, South Africa, Canada, and Mexico. In all cases, military history, the study of strategy and the theory of war, alongside the importance of National Character were important common factors, demonstrating how these could be used to benefit the military effectiveness of each force.
Image: Cadets on parade at RMC Kingston

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