Somme learning: Interpreting and adapting the lessons of the Somme campaign in the ‘sideshow’ theatres

This is the second in a series of posts by members of the First World War Research Group and select guest contributors to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

DR AIMÉE FOX-GODDEN

With the hundredth anniversary of the Somme campaign now upon us, it is both appropriate and understandable that attention is focused on the forces that fought across the plains of Picardy. The Somme campaign dominated the British Army’s experience of 1916 – both on and beyond the Western Front. Rightly or wrongly, it is seen as something of a watershed, particularly at the operational and tactical levels of war. Both Peter Simkins and Gary Sheffield have published respective works that include the subtitle ‘From the Somme to Victory’, while one academic has called the Somme campaign ‘the birthplace of modern warfare’. While there is a danger that such phrases understate the previous two years of campaigning, the experience of the Somme led to considerable introspection by all belligerents, generating a number of lessons learned. For the British, these lessons led to considerable changes in, inter alia, platoon tactics, artillery, and logistics.

Unsurprisingly, such lessons were not confined to the British Expeditionary Force [BEF] on the Western Front. A number of these lessons found their way to the ‘sideshow’ theatres. Exploring the interpretation and adaptation of the ‘Somme lessons’ in Britain’s far-flung theatres affords a useful way of exploring knowledge flows, interoperability, and offers us an insight into the British Army as an institution during a time of considerable change.

As I have written elsewhere (here and here), the army developed a number of different methods to disseminate knowledge, catering for a variety of different circumstances and needs. However, given the obvious differences in scale, enemy, climate, and terrain, why were the lessons of the Somme campaign of interest beyond the Western Front? The answer is two fold. First, there was appetite at an individual level. Some individuals were simply hungry for news of the latest technologies or innovations that emerged from France and Flanders, particularly as warfare in their own theatres was rather infrequent in nature. A staff officer in the Egyptian Expeditionary Force [EEF], for example, recalled being ‘given a description of the “tanks” in use in France’, and expressed great interest in meeting ‘two fresh fellows from the Somme and hearing all about their doings out their first hand’. Secondly, and more broadly, there was the importance of interoperability. For formations to be able to integrate and work together, they needed a certain degree of uniformity in structure and training. Such a requirement was nothing new. It had pre-war origins, notably with the dominion forces where, in cases of major conflict, imperial forces would combine to fight the common foe.

Interoperability was well understood by those forces beyond the Western Front who recognised that it was ‘impossible to define the kind of operations in which the troops… may next be involved’. Formations in the British Salonika Force [BSF] had a dual training programme that covered off warfare in offensive operations in Macedonia, as well as that relating to ‘trench work’ in France. The EEF went one step further, establishing a specialist branch of the Imperial School of Instruction at El Arish for ‘practical instruction’ in trench warfare to complement its training in semi-mobile operations. The school syllabus was focused around key Western Front pamphlets – many the product of the Somme campaign – and provided up to date instruction in cooperation between infantry, machine guns, and artillery.

The extra-European theatres were generally receptive to the Somme lessons, yet there were instances of friction relating to the relevance and movement of knowledge. Unsurprisingly, knowledge often resists translation into circumstances foreign to its genesis. It can be localised, temporal, specific. This kind of friction was not unique to the First World War. Owing to its global commitments pre-war, the British Army had been loth to prioritise one set of lessons over another, thus reinforcing individual action and initiative. This approach trailed the army into the First World War. Indeed, questions of relevance were never far from the minds of those commanders beyond the Western Front.

Essentially, what we see with the lessons of the Somme is the army’s continuing pragmatic approach to learning. Each expeditionary force, and, in some cases, the formations within them, approached these lessons in a non-unitary manner. The EEF, for example, pursued a highly individualised approach to the tactical lessons of the Somme. Its divisions were given significant latitude to adapt these lessons to suit their local situation. Despite serving in the same corps, both the 74th (Yeomanry) Division and the 60th (London) Division had very different views on how these lessons should be interpreted. The former felt that the platoon structure derived from the experience of the Somme was incompatible with conditions in Palestine, while the latter thought the new platoon structure ‘absolutely correct’. I Indian Corps of Indian Expeditionary Force ‘D’ [IEF D] in Mesopotamia employed a similar approach. While the corps believed the new platoon structure to be ‘the best’, it was concerned that these tactical lessons would be used ‘too rigidly… regardless of the prevailing conditions’. Though striving for interoperability with forces in France, I Indian Corps encouraged variation owing to the obvious differences in terms of geography, supply, and the enemy faced. Contrary to both the EEF and IEF D, the BSF ordered all its formations to adopt the new platoon structure with the aim of assimilating ‘the organisation of battalions in this Force with that of battalions in the British armies in France’. The attitudes of all three forces serves to highlight the tension between promoting interoperability, while simultaneously encouraging devolved decision making.

Innovations relating to counter-battery fire also elicited differing approaches within the various expeditionary forces. Relevance was, once again, the watchword. As a result, the adoption of organised counter-battery fire was patchy and often subject to lag. The importance of counter-battery fire during the Somme campaign had led to the establishment of counter-battery staff officers [CBSOs] within all corps of the BEF by December 1916. In the BSF, senior artillery officers were despatched to the Western Front in mid-1917 to learn lessons ‘on the job’, leading to the establishment of a CBSO in XII Corps in September 1917. In contrast, the EEF decided against the adoption of a formal CBSO. Instead, the EEF’s senior artillery commander advocated a far looser command structure than that found on the Western Front and Salonika. The different approaches taken by the BEF, BSF, and EEF reveals that specific best practice, much as it was in the pre-war army, was subordinate to conditions and demands in theatre.

The differing responses of British forces in Palestine, Mesopotamia, and Salonika to the lessons of the Somme campaign tells us much about the British Army as an institution. On the whole, the army was reticent when it came to enforcing best practice beyond the theatre of origin. It was for each force to discern the relative value of this experience for its own use. That the forces were, in the main, willing to adapt the Somme lessons suggests an openness to learning. This openness invariably led to considerable diversity of method across all forces, attesting to the uneven, non-unitary, and messy nature of military learning.

Image: Troops of the 10th Battalion, Black Watch and 12th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders assembled for a mock attack during training near Salonika in February 1916, via the Imperial War Museum.

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