British Army

Beyond Effectiveness on the Battlefield: reframing Military Innovation in terms of time, networks and power

This is one in a series of occasional posts from scholars outside of the Defence Studies Department. If you would be interested to contribute to this series please contact the editors: Dr Amir Kamel and Dr David Morgan-Owen


Dr Matthew Ford is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex. His book Weapon of Choice – small arms and the culture of military innovation is published by Hurst & Co, London and Oxford University Press, New York 2017. This blogpost draws on ideas that I have used to frame a discussion panel for the Annual Society for Military History conference this coming March-April in Florida. If you have found this of interest then it would be great to continue the debate alongside my fellow panellists Lt-Col. Dr J.P. Clark (U.S. Army) and Dr Laurence Burke (curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum) at the conference. J.P. Clark’s book Preparing for War: the Emergence of the Modern U.S. Army, 1815-1917 is published by Harvard University Press.

‘…it would appear that many battalion commanders are not really qualified to comment usefully on their weapons’

– Major J.A. Barlow, Tunisia, May 1943

In May 1943 Weapons Technical Staff (WTS) from the Ministry of Supply visited 18 Army Group in Tunisia. Led by Major J.A. Barlow, a captain of the Army Eight shooting team and two times winner of the King’s Prize at Bisley, the WTS sought to understand what soldiers in 18 Army Group wanted from their equipment. To their astonishment having tabulated 15,000 replies to their questionnaire the WTS found that soldiers’ opinions on their kit was ‘frequently conflicting, if not directly contradictory, as between different units and formations’.

Although surprising, the WTS’ findings were not unique, nor confined to the conscripted armies of the Second World War. For example in 2002, during Operation JACANA, Royal Marines were deployed to Afghanistan in support of America’s Operation Enduring Freedom. Newly issued with the upgraded SA80/A2 rifle, news reports started to emerge indicating that, despite the euphemistically named Mid-Life Upgrade by Heckler & Koch, the new version of the assault rifle still didn’t work. Recognising that the Ministry of Defence was facing a PR disaster, a team of civil servant and H&K engineers were sent to Afghanistan. This team showed beyond reasonable doubt that the issues were, in fact, caused by the Bootnecks who hadn’t followed the cleaning drills they’d been issued and as a result the SA80/A2 was malfunctioning. As in 1943, the interface between the soldier and his weapon proved to be a complex and problematic one.

Little known anecdotes like these might seem irrelevant to the much larger question of military effectiveness, but I want to suggest that these specific instances of ambiguity offer considerable opportunity to generate insights into military-technical change. Superficially these stories indicate that the military can struggle to inculcate standardised doctrine, drills and techniques into soldiers. More fundamentally, they point to the way that effectiveness is shaped by a whole series of functions that aren’t simply the responsibility of the armed forces but also reach back to matters concerning engineering design and even defence industrial policy.

Part of the reason for highlighting these examples is to draw attention to the complex socio-technical web of relationships that need to be understood if effectiveness on the battlefield is to be adequately explained and theories of military innovation developed. In this respect the first wave of innovation literature (literature that looked at military-technical change as a top-down exercise driven through by politicians, generals or forced on the organisation by events) is of limited use. While there was an impulse to change small arms in the Second World War, the driver of this change didn’t come from frontline commands but the Director of Infantry at the War Office. In the same way not even the shock of the SA80’s failures during the First Gulf War could force the Conservative Government to admit that they had got the privatisation of Royal Ordnance dramatically wrong. Instead the Ministry of Defence had to content itself with tinkering with the SA80/A1 until a Labour Government came into power after which the atmosphere in Whitehall changed and a systematic evaluation and refurbishment of the Army’s assault rifle became possible.

Similarly, some caution is required when trying to fit these anecdotes into more recent literatures that emphasise adaptation on the battlefield. In the case of 18 Army Group in 1943, even with the support of the Director of Infantry, British engineers were unable to introduce the kinds of assault weapons they recognised could help the infantry win the tactical battle. Weapon designers were hemmed in both by the Government’s over-riding focus on mass-producing existing technological devices and the logistical and supply chain challenges that making a switch implied. Moreover, they also had to recognise that the tactical engagement had been displaced as the Army’s foremost priority by commanders like Montgomery, who favoured combined arms in order to deliver success at the operational level.

By contrast, recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan point to the way that the battlefield has become less important for defining military effectiveness. As the evolution of components for the SA80/A2 (grips, picatinny rails, range finders, grenade launchers, sights etc.) indicates, the British Army has been excellent at accelerating its “lesson-learnt activity”, adapting its technology and technique in the face of changing insurgent tactics. However, indicators normally associated with the development of civil-society became proxies for overall campaign success even as Special Forces sought to win tactical engagements as part of kill/capture operations. Consequently, even as the pace of battlefield adaptation has increased, it has simultaneously exerted a decreasing effect upon the outcome of operations.

Thus, irrespective of whether military organisations continue to think of success in the same way as in Iraq and Afghanistan, events over the past 15 years present an opportunity to rethink how we theorise military innovation. Traditionally three conditions had to be met for a change to count as military innovation. First, innovation had to change the manner in which military formations functioned in the field. Secondly, an innovation had to be significant in scope and impact. Lastly, an innovation needed to result in greater military effectiveness. At the very heart of this definition, then, was the necessary link between effectiveness and the battlefield. What happens to a theory of military innovation, however, if we challenge the basis of the theory and reframe an analysis of change in ways that don’t make this assumption?

One possible way to generate insights into the process of change is to take what Dr J.P. Clark, my fellow panellist at a forthcoming Society for Military History conference, has done and look at innovations through the lens of time. Central to his approach is the recognition that there can be stark generational differences in professional expectations within the military profession. Among an older generation, even among those officers most supportive of reforms, there can be a tendency towards supporting innovation as a way to preserve the best of what was old. At the same time and by way of contrast, younger officers can regard reforms as the means by which to overturn old institutions and replace them with a new collectivist approach centred upon organisations filled with like-minded staff officers trained in accord with an approved doctrine. Far from constituting revolutionary change, innovation, as understood by Clark in his analysis of the U.S. Army during the 19th and early 20th centuries, may also represent an evolutionary inter-generational moulding of the military.

Alternatively Dr Laurence Burke offers a more explicitly theorised approach drawing on Science and Technology Studies (STS) as a way to reflect on processes of military innovation. By applying Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Model, Burke relates the experiences of the US military to the adoption of the aircraft in the early decades of the 20th century demonstrating the way in which a range of actors work to enrol groups into networks. What emerges from his analysis shows how interests are constructed and re-worked so as to dictate socio-technical outcomes.

Developing this point, my own approach recognises the value of STS and Clark’s consideration of time and seeks to develop theoretically informed insights into the importance of the concept of power in framing military innovation. By showing how innovation sits within a broader set of industrial and alliance relationships, relationships that demand engineering, scientific and bureaucratic mediation I reveal how frontline requirements are reframed in ways that make them intelligible for wider circulation. More than this I can show how users themselves have contested different views of their own requirements as they seek to enrol other groups and dictate the kinds of innovation that might emerge. In this respect I hope to draw scholarship back to not just discussion of top-down or bottom-up change but also to a consideration of what might be caricatured as middle-out change.

Image: SA-80 rifle stripped (1996), via wikimedia commons.


The British Army’s role in defending NATO’s Eastern Border


This post summarised some of the evidence Dr Chin gave to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee on the British Army and SDSR 15 in October. A recording  of the session is available here.

SDSR 15 acknowledged the increased threat posed by Russia to NATO and made clear its intention to deter any future Russian aggression. Most interesting is the role assigned to the British army which may be called upon to fight and defeat Russian forces. The British army’s thinking on this issue seems to contain echoes of the Cold War on the central European front in that our conception of defence rests on being able to fight a combined arms battle employing armour, infantry and artillery supported by airpower. As then, we face the problem of how to fight outnumbered and win with the added complication NATO is unlikely to have control of the air domain and the army lacks any integrated air defence capability. As in the past, we have also fallen back on a traditional western solution to ensure ends, ways and means are in balance, which is to employ technology as a force multiplier so that quantity is overmatched by quality. A number of questions arise regarding this approach.

First a great deal seems to depend on the successful acquisition of the Ajax armoured vehicle and the family of related tracked vehicles. However, the history of British weapons acquisition does not inspire confidence this programme will be delivered on time and to cost. A good example of the kind of technical problems that could be encountered is the recently cancelled FRES programme, which appears to contain many of the same technical features. The current CGS emphasised that a great deal of thought was being invested in this programme:`we are building the capability in a methodical and deliberate fashion over time, as this equipment rolls off the production line. Rather like we did in the 1930s, the idea is to test it to destruction and to experiment with it, in the same we did with the mechanisation of of force in the 1930s, so that we get the doctrine and the concept right.’ However, whilst I agree the UK did play a leading role in experimenting with armour in the inter war period and that by the start of the Second World War it was the most mechanised army in the world, we also need to take note of the fact that this still resulted in the production of tanks which were poorly armed and protected and the adoption of a divisional organisation and doctrine which was deeply flawed to the point that it was still being changed in the midst of battle in summer 1944. My point is that the successful introduction of technology is due to many factors some of which are beyond the control of the army and this could inhibit the success of the Ajax programme.

A second concern relates to the belief that combat power can be best articulated via the division. Gen Nick Carter explained:`The rise of state on state threat post 2012 made it important that the UK be able to deploy war fighting division.’ The justification given for focusing on this formation is that, like an aircraft carrier, it has a range of capabilities and it is where the orchestra comes together – `it is where all the capabilities that you need to compete in the state-on-state space happen.’ In his view, the possession of a division provides a metric to your friends and enemies about your power in the land domain about how powerful you are. There are two points I would make here. First, aircraft carriers are high value assets and extremely vulnerable in the modern battle space and because of this are unlikely to be deployed in the forward edge of battle – something a division might have to do if the data links between it and its remote theatre HQ do not work or are hacked. Second, in an age of fiscal austerity we need to think more boldly about how we organise and use military power and I am not certain enough thought has been given to this matter in the land domain. We also need to remember this formation dates back to the Seven Years War which begs the question why in the twenty-first century do we still need an organisational structure which really grew out of the requirements of warfare over two hundred years ago. In other forms of human activity technology is supposedly leading to flatter and more decentralised command structures, where power is devolved to the lowest levels of decision making.

One might argue that this trend can be accommodated within a divisional structure and that might indeed be the case. However, let us not forget that one of the reasons we introduced a divisional command structure into Afghanistan in the latter part of the war was to centralise rather decentralise command and control. Finally, whilst the division remained part of the orbat of some western armies in the post Cold War, the brigade seemed to rise in importance and I think became the most important unit of currency for a time at least. I raise this question because there are those who assert the covert goal of creating a war fighting division has a lot to do with protecting the army from the prospect of further cuts; a division is between 10,000 and 20,000 strong, and because of the teeth to tail ratio of modern armies will require at least a similar number if not more to keep it operational in battle. In essence we need to be bolder and more radical in our efforts to address this security challenge.

Image: UK Warrior Armoured Fighting Vehicles on Exercise in Poland, November 2014, via flickr


This is the first in a series of posts drawn from an event to mark the 60th anniversary of the Suez Crisis which the Defence Studies Department Strategy and Defence Policy Research Centre hosted on November 7th, 2016. Recordings of the papers will be posted shortly to the Department soundcloud.


An analysis of land operations for both Operations Kadesh (the Israeli Defence Force’s onslaught into the Sinai from 29th October 1956) and Musketeer (the Anglo-French invasion from 5th November) needs firstly to recognise the significance of joint operations, not least because of the use of airborne and amphibious forces. Secondly, it is worth bearing in mind that only one of the campaigns – Kadesh – actually succeeded, as the Anglo-French assault on Port Said was halted by international diplomatic opposition (and more importantly, American financial pressure on the UK). This blog post will summarise key points about the land war from the perspectives of the four belligerents concerned.

A fair assessment of the Egyptian performance should acknowledge that Egypt was a victim of aggression, and was the subject of an unprovoked attack (certainly as far as Britain and France was concerned). The sense of shock felt by its President and military commanders is reflected in Jamal Abdel Nasser’s telephone conversation to his confidante Mohammed Heikal on 29th October, in which the former exclaimed: ‘Something very strange is happening. The Israelis are in the Sinai and they seem to be fighting the sands’. In combat against the IDF (notably with the battles of Abu Agheila and Rafah) and the British and French in Port Said Egyptian soldiers and volunteers fought with considerable courage and tenacity (as was the case in 1967 and 1973), but they were poorly served by a command structure presided over by Nasser’s crony, Field Marshal Hakim Amer. Amer’s utter unsuitability for high command was exposed by Suez, but he remained as Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian armed forces until the catastrophe of the Six Day War of June 1967.

The assault on the Sinai was a test for the manoeuvrist (to use an anachronistic term) doctrine the Israeli armed forces developed after 1948. The War of Independence (or the Nabka, depending on your perspective) had been an existential struggle for the nascent state. Egypt’s acquisition of Soviet bloc arms, Nasser’s belligerent rhetoric, the blockade of the Straits of Tiran, and Cairo’s support for the Palestinian fedayeen were all necessary and sufficient causes of a pre-emptive attack as far as the Israelis were concerned. As was the case with the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars the mobilisation of the citizen soldiers of the IDF was a headache for the country’s civilian and military leaders. 60% of the vehicles requisitioned for the IDF’s use were found to be unserviceable, and the 1956 conflict was as much of a ‘come as you are’ war as the 1948 war.

Nonetheless, the IDF benefited from a war-fighting concept which emphasised initiative and audacity, as exemplified by the seizure of the Mitla Pass by Ariel Sharon’s force of 395 paratroopers, and indeed the overrunning of the Sinai by its armoured columns over the course of eight days. The IDF took heavy casualties in the process, with 231 soldiers killed and 899 wounded in action, but Kadesh was nonetheless a precursor to the more crushing victory won against Egypt in 1967.

The French had extensive experience of expeditionary operations in Indochina, and were also involved in the struggle against the ALN in Algeria. With Musketeer Guy Mollet’s government and France’s high command accepted subordination to the British, but in a striking parallel with Anglo-American tensions over Normandy in 1944 commanders like Generals Andre Beaufre (the deputy to the Land Force commander General Hugh Stockwell) and Jean Gilles felt that their British counterparts were too cautious and timid in the planning and execution of Musketeer. General Jacques Massu’s proposals for airborne landings on Ismailia and Kantara were vetoed by Stockwell, and Gilles – a salty para of Indochina fame – never concealed his disdain for any of his peers who weren’t (a) French and/or (b) wearing airborne wings. A contrast between British and French air drops on 5th November showed that les Paras had better kit and weaponry, and were also more practiced in the intricacies of command and control, as demonstrated by Gilles’ use of a Nordatlas transport plane as an aerial command post.

The British were hampered by the fact that the Army in particular was positioning itself for a nuclear conflict alongside NATO allies against the Soviet bloc, while also fighting insurgencies in a shrinking overseas empire. The UK’s involvement in the Korean War (1950-1953) was treated by the Chiefs of Staff as an anomaly, and in the aftermath of Normandy and Walcheren the expertise in and capabilities for amphibious operations so painstakingly acquired in WWII was simply forgotten. The late 1940s and early 1950s saw the Royal Marines’ (RM) 3 Commando Brigade (3 Cdo) chasing Communist guerrillas in Malaya, while at the time Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal (26th July 1956) the Parachute Regiment was on anti-EOKA duties in Cyprus. To use the analogy Field-Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery employed a year after Suez, the British armed forces were prepared for a ‘test match’ (WWIII), but were unprepared for ‘village cricket’ (intervention operations against state-based adversaries).

At the time of Suez the UK’s armed forces had a Strategic Reserve set aside from NATO that nominally consisted of 3 Cdo, the 16th Independent Airborne Brigade (16AB) and the 3rd Infantry Division (3 Div). However, as early as the Abadan Crisis of 1951 it became clear that Britain lacked the capability for a combat air assault involving 16AB; the RAF lacked the transport aircraft needed for another Arnhem, and by the autumn of 1956 it only had sufficient capacity to drop a battalion of paratroopers into battle (with 3PARA on Gamil Airfield on the night of the 5th November). It also took time for the British to muster the air and maritime assets needed to position forces for intervention following Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal, which meant that a military fait accompli (which the Americans may have tacitly accepted) was impossible to achieve.

The mobilisation of 27,000 reservists and the retention of 6,200 national servicemen also contributed to a morale crisis within the Army, albeit not one as grave as that suffered by the French in Algeria or the Americans over Vietnam. In this respect, the decision to abolish National Service taken with the Sandys Review of 1957 represented a pragmatic recognition by Harold Macmillan’s government that overseas interventions could only be conducted with an all-volunteer force.

With Musketeer the original plan was to seize Alexandria on 15th September 1956 with the Special Boat Service in the vanguard of an air and amphibious assault, conducted by 3 Div, 10th Armoured Division, the 7th Light Armoured Division (French) and the 2nd Infantry Division. The use of the latter formation required its transferral from the British Army of the Rhine, and it was also politically impossible to use the 10th Armoured Division which was stationed in Libya, thanks to basing rights agreed with the regime of King Idris (subsequently overthrown by Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s coup in 1969). Musketeer Revise made Port Said the focus of the Anglo-French landing, which would be Phase 3 in an operation preceded by Phases 1 (the destruction of the Egyptian Air Force) and 2 (the ‘aero-psychological campaign’).

The air drop of 600 British and 487 French paratroopers on the night of the 5th was followed by the landing of 40 and 42 RM Cdo at 0615 on the 6th. One important innovation involved the heliborne landing of 500 marines from 45 Cdo from HMS Ocean and Theseus in Port Said, and British marines and paratroopers also relied on improvised close air support with the RAF in the fighting that followed. By the time of the ceasefire at 0000 on 6th November 2PARA and the 6th Royal Tank Regiment were at El Cap, 23 miles from Port Said. The British had lost 20 dead and 65 wounded, while the French had 8 killed and 65 injured. Egypt’s loses are estimated as 1,600-3,000 military fatalities on both fronts, and 1,000 civilians.

Operations ended due to international pressure for a ceasefire, and in order to ensure Anglo-French and Israeli disengagement the UN deployed its first ‘blue helmet’ peacekeeping mission, the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF). For the belligerents, the outcome of the war had varying effects on the evolution of their land forces. The Egyptian armed forces remained under Amer’s command despite the fact that he was a liability, and its rank and file paid a high price for this in June 1967. Kadesh epitomised the Israeli trait of employing military force pre-emptively to offset the lack of strategic depth, regional isolation, and the political and economic impossibility of mobilising the IDF over a prolonged period of time.

The French refined the use of heliborne manoeuvre in Algeria (1954-1962), and also conducted a parachute drop under combat conditions during the Kolwezi crisis in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1978. In this respect, France maintained a two-tier land forces that consisted of crack units capable of expeditionary operations (paratroopers, Troupes de Marine and the Foreign Legion) and a conscript mass confined to France and Germany, although the mixed performance of French units sent to Bosnia in the early 1990s contributed to the adoption of an all-volunteer military after 1997.

In Britain’s case, Suez led the Army and Royal Marines to prepare for ‘village cricket’, most notably with the ‘Commando Carriers’ which would provide the UK with a quick means of intervention ‘East of Suez’, to be backed by sea-borne armoured/mechanised units if necessary. In reality, interventions like Operation Vantage in Kuwait in 1961 and conflicts like the Falklands War of 1982 turned out to be ‘close-run things’. With Kuwait there was a critical week where British troops lacked the anti-tank weapons needed to resist any Iraqi invasion, while with Operation Corporate their counterparts fighting at Goose Green, Longdon and Tumbledown found themselves faced by incompetently-led and demoralised draftees. British land forces avoided a Dien Bien Phu because they were lucky with the enemies they confronted.

With Operation Telic in 2003 – another politically-contentious and internationally unpopular Middle Eastern intervention – 1st UK Armoured Division and 3 Cdo were hampered by equipment shortages and kit failures just as their counterparts were with Musketeer, and the requirement of soldiers and Royal Marines to beg or scavenge to make up deficiencies led their American allies to nickname them ‘the borrowers’. The men of 3PARA cursing stoppages in their Stens and their faulty radios during the firefight for Gamil airfield would perhaps have seen some grim humour in the similarities between their plight, and those of their future counterparts sent into battle in Iraq in March 2003.

Above the tactical level, however, the enforced halt of Musketeer and the deployment of UNEF arguably saved British and French land forces the quagmire that would in all likelihood have ensued had Nasser been overthrown. The war-fighting phase of Telic/Operation Iraqi Freedom was the easy part; it was the replacement of Baathist totalitarianism with a new order that led to the prolonged occupation which cost the USA 4,491 lives, 318 Coalition fatalities (including 179 British lives lost), and over 100,000 estimated Iraqi dead. Breaking the historian’s rules about counter-factual speculation, it is hard to imagine a pro-Western successor to Nasser being able to survive in power in Egypt without British and French bayonets and tanks to back him up, with all the consequences that would have entailed.

Image courtesy of the Department of History, United States Military Academy.

The First Victory…


The last few years have witnessed a feverish period of remembering Britain’s military and the battles it and others fought during the Great War (what I recall increasingly vaguely as having been referred to at school more commonly as the First World War). A centenary is a historical marker worthy of reflection, particularly for a conflict which involved such horrendous levels of personal sacrifice, human cost and social change. Its place in the psyche of global historians past, present and future is beyond question; for Woodrow Wilson it was “the war to end all wars”, an argument and descriptive term that continues to generate a literature and passionate level of debate all of its own such as can be found in a recent article in The New York Times and Hew Strachan’s 2003 review essay. It certainly led to the fall of kings and ended empires and changed political systems whilst also altering the way conflict was discussed and understood both at the time and still today during the current continuing period of reflection ( has carried on its pages a series of excellent discussions about various aspects of this war which have left this reader much better informed about the catalyst for what followed).

The extended period of recollection which has dominated recent years has rather crowded out a public appetite for discussion of the war that followed. This is a pity as there are still veterans – albeit in ever small numbers – who remain to offer first-hand accounts. The announcement in January 2014 that the Normandy Veterans’ Association was to disband was one of many during recent years as memberships dwindle but there remain men and women with powerful and urgent stories to tell of the Second World War. A range of seventy-fifth anniversary events, defining moments in Britain’s military and cultural psyche such as Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, have passed by with only the briefest of popular reference.

It is fortunate, however, that there remains a considerable academic interest in the second global conflict of the twentieth century. There are various reasons expounded for why there was a Second World War. I have never really seen the ‘controversy’ in A.J.P. Taylor’s 1961 “revisionist argument” in which he “reconnected the First and Second World Wars and drew attention back to Versailles” and simply offered an entirely logical examination of events that continues to underpin our understanding of why Europe once again slid into a second, and even more brutal and destructive war. Explicit to his thesis was an exhausting earlier conflict which resulted in a poorly considered and triumphalist peace. This in turn helped produce an increasingly reflective body of domestic opinion which challenged the merits of an internationalist approach, military intervention and, more generally, the use of force as a lever of national power. It sounds familiar – indeed the replay of more recent events seems difficult to escape – but the degree to which there remained, even after the war had begun, an apathy amongst leading elements of British society for what was viewed as an ill-considered moral crusade against Nazi Germany can easily be forgotten. In this context Lord Owen’s fascinating new account (‘Cabinet’s Finest Hour’) is particularly timely as it attempts to re-focus attention to the political drama of May 1940, albeit whilst in its epilogue also musing on more recent Westminster dramas.

The focus for many historians and the public at large may have been fixed somewhere between 1914 and 1918 but as the recent most welcomed additions to the literature have demonstrated (notably including the first volume of Dan Todman’s hugely impressive ‘Britain’s War’), there certainly still remains considerable opportunities to scrutinise the war that followed the twenty-year peace and the themes and events that contributed to its structural foundations. To this end, in my latest book, The First Victory: The Second World War and the East Africa Campaign, published this week by Yale University Press, I have attempted to explore one of the many gaps and look at what has been viewed by many as a peripheral military campaign. I previously had the opportunity to introduce to the Joint Services Command and Staff College this almost entirely overlooked strand of the Second World War as a case study for examination. In the supporting instructor notes I summarised it then with the following paragraph:

Fighting began in early July 1940 and ended in November 1941; the principal Allied offensive actually began in the January. Just eleven months later the 70,000 strong British-led force had succeeded in defeating an Italian army of nearly 300,000 men, in the process capturing 50,000 prisoners and occupying 360,000 square miles all at a cost of 500 casualties and just 150 men killed. It was a varied and wide-ranging conflict that witnessed many different types of military operations. These ranged from commando raids to long mechanised pursuits, mountain assaults and a protracted attritional battle. Added to this was an often decisive use of airpower, a triumphal amphibious landing and a generally incredible feat of logistical planning. In the process Mussolini’s East African Empire had been destroyed and the British Empire had secured its first significant wartime victory.

Having now had the opportunity to study in considerable depth the battles fought in British and Italian Somaliland, Ethiopia and Eritrea drawing upon primary sources from Britain, Kenya, South Africa, the United States and (even) Australia, this remains a reasonable description. Thanks to a bold and imaginative publisher who was willing to take a risk with what might have seemed too obscure an event to attract popular attention and a fantastic editor, I have been hugely fortunate to be able to see another book made available for public scrutiny and I hope they will accept my contention that there was huge operational and strategic significance in the crushing victory secured by British and Commonwealth forces that fought in East Africa. But at the same time – and just as importantly – in so doing I hope I will also have highlighted that there still remain a great many gaps in our knowledge of the Second World War which I and many of my colleagues in the department are actively doing our best to tackle.

[An addition to this blog will be published in November 2016 at marking the anniversary of the campaign’s end]

Images taken from ‘The War Weekly incorporating War Pictorial’.

Chilcot: The Lessons of Iraq vs The Reality of Interventions


Chilcot’s exhaustive enquiry into the origins, undertaking, and consequences of the Iraq war has been published. In turn, this (rather less than) exhaustive analysis of certain of its conclusions seeks to explore two of the critical components of the faulty pre war decision-making process as identified by the report. It will propose that despite Chilcot’s pertinent and well meaning observations in this respect, and despite any prospective efforts to abide by those observations and incorporate them into our planning and strategizing for the purpose of future interventions should they occur, similar mistakes as those made in Iraq (not to mention Afghanistan and Libya) will most probably continue to be made.

What precisely then are the observations and recommendations referred to? They are, firstly, that ‘[W]hen the potential for military action arises, the Government should not commit to a firm political objective before it is clear that it can be achieved’. Secondly, and presuming that the achievability of the political objective as been recognized, that ‘[A]ll aspects of any intervention need to be calculated, debated and challenged with the utmost rigour’. One would no doubt agree that these are highly pertinent observations, and that any rational interpretation of the events surrounding the Iraq intervention and its consequences would support such recommendations. Indeed in theory I would absolutely agree, and a recent article of mine has identified similar themes to Chilcot in these important respects. But that same article also identifies certain crucial elements that will always infect the rational use of military power for the purpose of liberal intervention, regime change and stabilisation, and which will always have the potential to derail rational political processes and designs.

With regard to the first point, that relating to the ‘achievability’ of political objectives. The former soldier turned academic Christopher Bassford puts it best in some ways. Responding to the oft bowdlerized warning that ‘[T]hose who do not remember the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them’, Bassford adds the refinement that, then again, even those who do remember the mistakes of the past are still condemned to repeat them. Because that’s what people do. It’s an unhelpful aspect of human nature; not the fact that lesson’s can’t be learned (of course they can), but the notion that on this particular occasion they simply don’t apply (when of course they do). But although Bassford’s observation may have been intended as a throwaway quip, it is rooted in scientific realities. For the purposes of this post, it draws attention to the concept of Construal Level Theory (CLT), a field of psychology that examines how people cope with the challenge of forming evaluations of distant actions and outcomes and in particular the way that they evaluate the latter phases of a sequence of actions.

Obviously, the keen eyed observer will note that I’m not a psychologist. But thanks to the research of Aaron Rapport in his article The Long and Short of It: Cognitive Constraints on Leaders Assessments of Post-war Iraq the non-psychologist becomes immediately aware of how these cognitive processes really matter in relation to political actors choosing to use force for interventionist purposes, particularly when it comes to the objective of dismantling or altering political and social structures in target societies. By extension therefore, one becomes aware of the potential for Chilcot’s warnings to remain unheeded in future.

Essentially, Rapport’s research argues that there is a difference in the way that policymakers approach certain aspects of an intervention such as Iraq. The first is the ‘near’ problem, which in the case of Iraq was the initial military campaign and the process of regime change. This is generally assessed on the basis of feasibility i.e. can we do this? However, the ‘far’ problem, in this case the subsequent long-game involving the transformation of Iraq from totalitarian dystopia to functioning democratic and unitary state, is subject to different criteria. In this instance, the determining factor is one of ‘desirability’ i.e. how much do we want this to happen? According to Rapport’s analysis, when ultimate objectives are so highly prized, policymakers tend to focus almost exclusively upon the benefits that will accrue rather than the intricate steps necessary to make them happen. As his conclusion states, this had the effect of encouraging overly-optimistic assessments of the political conditions that would exist in Iraq in the late stages of the intervention, a laissez-faire attitude that was not reflected by those involved in the short term planning relating to the initial military invasion and potential humanitarian crisis that was expected to follow. Simply put, the more distant the event, the more likely policymakers are to attribute positive outcomes to it. This has obvious implications for the mechanics of intervention, and the likelihood of political actors failing to properly conceptualise and resource the ‘long-game’ due to their over-optimistic belief in the satisfactory conclusion of their ultimate grand designs.

Chilcot’s second observation, that relating to the requirement for ‘all aspects of the intervention’ requiring the necessary ‘debate, calculation and challenge’ is similarly problematic. ‘All aspects’ of an intervention must, by definition, include that point subsequent to initial military operations. Yet, as my article points out, military interventions of the type engaged in by the West recently tend to transform the known into the unknown. The demolition of Ba’athist Iraq and the toppling of Ghaddafi released a vicious, swirling, directionless mass of competing ethnic groupings, tribes, sects, gangs, militias, warlords, terrorists and foreign elements, each with their own peculiar local, regional, national and transnational allegiances, alliances, economic interests and political aspirations. The notion that policymakers could have accurately considered and debated the innumerable permutations that may or may not have arisen is laughable. Donald Rumsfeld may have got many things wrong on the subject of Iraq, but his much derided articulation of ‘unknown unknowns’ i.e. ‘things you don’t know you don’t know’, perfectly highlights the problem facing those seeking to abide by Chilcot’s recommendations. Because what Chilcot is advocating in reality is that policymakers and their advisors, both military and civilian, must ‘debate, calculate and challenge’ not only the unknown, but potentially the unknowable too.

Image: Tony Blair and George W. Bush at Camp David in March 2003, during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, via wikimedia commons.


The Dunkirk evacuation and the German ‘halt’ order


Sometimes academics are confronted by arguments with which we disagree, vehemently.  Most have something to be said for them or, at the very least, it is possible to appreciate where those proposing it are coming from and why they might believe it.  There are exceptions, which deserve nothing other than a good intellectual kicking.  For me, there is one particularly egregious example which simply refuses to lie down and die, coming back again and again like the baddie in a cheap horror movie.  I encountered this old foe once again recently when I was editing a Naval Staff Battle Summary on Operation Dynamo, the evacuation from Dunkirk.  Historians generally acknowledge that one vital factor in allowing the British and French forces to retreat, escaping the threatened encirclement to reach Dunkirk and then to establish a rudimentary defensive perimeter there, was the German decision to halt the advance of the Panzers for three days.  This let-off has given rise to the bizarre idea that it was a deliberate decision by Hitler to provide a ‘golden bridge’ for Britain, consciously choosing not to utterly humiliate his opponent in the hope of reaching a negotiated peace.

There is no denying the importance of this pause.  It was not the only factor contributing to the successful evacuation but it was significant.  The Allied armies had fallen, or rather leaped headlong, into the trap laid by Germany.  The invasion of the Low Countries by German Army Group B, launched on 10 May 1940, presented France and Britain with precisely what they expected to see and what they had planned to counter.  They therefore advanced into Belgium to meet the threat.  The main German effort, of course, came well to the south as Army Group A, with the bulk of the Panzers, passed through the ‘impassable’ Ardennes.  They crossed the Meuse, notably near Sedan on 14 May, broke through the second-line French units defending there and dashed for the coast.  By 21 May they reached it and turned north to encircle the British and French armies that were engaged with the forces advancing through Belgium.  On 23 May the Germans were closer to Dunkirk than most of the British Expeditionary Force; yet that evening, the Panzers were ordered to halt their advance.  They were ordered to resume on 26 May but by then, the Allies had been gifted priceless time to retreat towards Dunkirk and to establish defences that would buy them further time.  When the Germans finally took Dunkirk, the commanders wrote in their diaries, ‘The town and the coast are in our hands!’… yet they added, ‘British and French troops gone’.  No fewer than 338,226 Allied troops had been evacuated, rescued from the closing trap.  Lord Gort’s brave decision to withdraw to the coast deserves huge credit, as does the professionalism of the British Expeditionary Force (and their French allies) in conducting a hugely difficult fighting withdrawal; yet without the German pause, it is most doubtful that these would have been enough.

How could the most formidable military machine on the planet at this time, which was on the verge of shattering what had previously been seen as the greatest military power in Europe, have made such an elementary mistake?  Why would it voluntarily choose to leave the trap open, allowing the prey to escape?  It must have been a deliberate decision… hence the golden bridge theory.  This was initially propagated by Hitler to explain how he let strategic victory against Britain slip through his fingers; the refrain was eagerly taken up after the war by some surviving German generals who were quite happy to shift responsibility on to the conveniently dead führer – and was spread by Basil Liddell Hart, who was perhaps a little too inclined to take the word of captured German officers, especially when they talked up the influence upon them of his interwar ideas.  Nonetheless, the idea really is the most ridiculous nonsense.

First, even on its own terms, it does not make any sense.  While there is room to doubt the coherence of Hitler’s strategy towards Britain in 1940, it is not implausible to suggest that he would have welcomed a negotiated peace.  His prospects of achieving this would have been immeasurably improved by the additional bargaining chip of a quarter of a million British prisoners, to say nothing of the psychological blow to Britain of losing the best-trained part of her small army.

Second, the theory does not fit the facts.  If the Germans really were trying to allow the British Expeditionary Force to escape, then they displayed an unusual level of incompetence: only Army Group A actually paused – and only in part, as it still captured Calais and Boulogne – and only for three days before continuing. Army Group B and also the Luftwaffe continued to attack the Allies with all of their strength.  This hardly amounts to a free pass or allowing the British to slip away.

Third, there is a perfectly good explanation available that does not require a far-fetched conspiracy theory – and which, incidentally, is whole-heartedly accepted by every serious work on the subject that uses German sources.  Many senior German officers were nervous from the outset about the bold changes made to the original, more traditional plan for the attack on France, and in particular about the envisaged rapid advance of the Panzers that would involve outpacing their infantry, artillery and logistic support.  This bold vision was undoubtedly risky; the advancing armour could have faced a serious defeat if the Allies had been able to launch a coherent counter-attack against its flanks or rear.  We now know that the German offensive had precisely the effect it was designed to in paralysing the Allied high command, shattering its will and ability to devise and execute an effective counter stroke; but this was not known to the Germans in May 1940.  Moreover, there had been a warning sign of precisely what some of the more cautious German commanders feared when the British launched a small-scale counter-attack near Arras on 21 May.  This limited and short-lived success played into a growing sense of unease among those German officers inclined to worry that their success was too good to be true, and wary of pushing their attack beyond its culminating point.  The Arras counter-attack achieved only local tactical success, but it exerted a decisive influence on a debate that was already underway in the German high command.

The Panzers badly needed a pause to rest, repair and reconstitute, and to bring forward support and supplies.  There was no need to risk them in unfavourable terrain, when there was a perfectly good alternative in the form of Army Group B and also the Luftwaffe, whose leadership (not least the influential Göring) were keen to seize their place in the sun – a rare case where the overclaiming of air power enthusiasts was to the benefit of the Allies.  The tanks would be needed for the rest of the campaign and the push to Paris, taking on the bulk of the French Army, which still comprised a large and powerful force.  The Allied armies in the north had been defeated, were nearly encircled and only needed to be mopped up.  Why take a risk in rushing these closing moves of the first stage of the operation?

This last question suggests an important point about the whole debate: there is actually far less of a puzzle here than has been suggested.  Why on earth would it occur to a continental power that evacuation on any significant scale was possible?  After all, even the British Admiralty believed at the outset of the operation that at best, maybe 45,000 men could be rescued.  There is no mystery in the fact that Germany was not alert to this possibility.  The British were trapped and there was no reason for the Germans to suspect that their fate would be anything other than what would, three years later, befall Axis forces after their defeat in North Africa: without a Navy that was willing and able to go to such lengths to rescue them, 230,000 Axis troops were captured and only a few hundred escaped.  It is only hindsight and the knowledge it presents of the stunning success of the Allied evacuation that raises the question in the first place with respect to Dunkirk.  Considered in this light, the apparent mystery simply melts away.

Image: British soldiers wade out to a waiting destroyer off Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo, via the Imperial War Museum.

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.


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.

THE SOMME- The British Battle

This is the first 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.


Robin Prior is Visiting Professorial Fellow at the School of History and Politics at the University of Adelaide. He is the author of six books on the first world war, including Gallipoli: the End of the Myth and (with Trevor Wilson) The Somme.

The Battle of the Somme is to be remembered or commemorated but hardly celebrated on its hundredth anniversary this year. The battle has a number of distinctive features – few of them pleasant. It was the largest battle, in number of troops committed, ever fought, or likely to be fought by the British army; it also was the most costly in terms of casualties; and in terms of dead and wounded it contains the very worst day in British military history with 57,000 casualties – 19,000 of them dead – on the first day of battle 1 July 1916.

The decision for a large battle in the summer of 1916 was made by the allied planners at the Chantilly Conference in December 1915. Russia and Italy were to make contributions, but on the Western front it was to be a joint Franco-British affair to take place where their armies joined around the River Somme in Picardy. The German offensive at Verdun rather dented this conception as French troops were repeatedly drawn from the Somme area to prop up the sagging French line further south.

The British Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig, was aware of this movement but apart from taking over a section of front that was to have been assaulted by the French, did not let the new circumstances affect his planning. In attacking the German positions on the Somme he essentially had two options. He could adopt the plan of the Army Commander General Rawlinson, who would carry out the attack, and concentrate their artillery resources against the German front system of trenches. When this had been flattened and captured they would drag the guns forward and attack the second enemy line in similar fashion. The aim of this plan was to kill Germans rather than gain ground.

But Haig had his own conception. In this plan he would bombard the three German lines facing him and flatten them all. The cavalry would then be free to sweep over the enemy defensive position, head towards Bapaume and then turn north and roll up the entire German front. The aim of this plan was either to win the war at a blow or to force a substantial withdrawal of enemy forces from occupied France and Belgium.

Haig considered the Rawlinson variation but soon adopted his own scheme. He had an unprecedented number of guns and considered that with a long bombardment he could achieve his aim of unleashing the cavalry and overwhelming the entire German position. Two issues were ignored by this decision. The first was that despite the massive fire-power at his disposal, his artillerymen faced an enormous problem. The Germans, over a period of 18 months, had converted a system of defended lines into a series of much more complex defensive positions. Thus behind the front line of their first and second system lay a maze of inter-connected trenches, all with deep dug-outs. Haig’s artillery therefore were required to neutralise entire areas, especially in the two front systems but to some extent in the third and most distant system as well. For this the British needed heavy guns of at least 8” calibre and above. Yet the overwhelming proportion of British guns were not heavy, merely 18 pounder field pieces and 4.5” howitzers. The Germans had also concentrated many batteries of guns some miles behind their front, yet Haig was woefully short of counter battery guns with which to neutralise them.

The second issue that was hardly even considered was that should a miracle occur and the German defensive positions collapse, would the cavalry be able to navigate a path through a maze of trenches, littered with shell holes, barbed wire entanglements and all the detritus of a modern battlefield?

These two issues lie at the heart of the disaster that was the first day of the Somme. By merely assuming that his artillery was of sufficient number and of appropriate calibre for the task instead of undertaking the necessary calculations, Haig doomed his soldiers to destruction. The most elementary arithmetic would have revealed that he had sufficient fire-power only to subdue the front system. By attempting to destroy all three trench systems Haig managed to destroy none, leaving German machine gunners undisturbed and free to fire at the troops advancing across no-man’s-land or indeed merely trying to get forward to their own front line. Those troops who were not cut down by this fire fell victim to the un-attacked distant German artillery pieces that were able to land a fury of shells across the areas where the British infantry were trying to advance.

The cavalry aspect of the first day of battle is often deemed irrelevant because no cavalry were committed that day. But It was Haig’s insistence on attempting to push through the cavalry that spread the artillery fire fatally thin. And this was doubly obtuse because the sombre fact was that the cavalry had long ceased to be an arm that could exist (for very long anyway) on a modern battlefield. Horsed-soldiers were such easy targets for those enemy machine gunners who survived even the most intense bombardments on the Western Front that they must soon be shot down. And the entanglements through which they had to manoeuvre, meant that the pace of any fortuitous advance must be slow which made the horses that much easier to shoot. The type of war Haig might have liked to fight was one thing. The type of war he was confronted with quite another.

So the first day of the Somme was catastrophic for Rawlinson’s Fourth Army, almost 50% of which were casualties by day’s end. Ah, but observers say: the Somme battle continued until mid-November; the whole operation must be considered. Let us then consider it. After the first day, apart from one attempt at a considered broad front attack (14 July) the battle for the next two months descended into a welter of un-coordinated, narrow-front operations in which small numbers of troops attempted to capture the German trenches in front of them while being pounded by unsubdued machine gun and artillery fire. The results were so meagre that the ground gained in this period can only be clearly represented on a large scale map. Haig and Rawlinson presided over rather than directed this shambles. In August Haig seemed to grasp that some consideration should be brought to bear on the methods being employed by Rawlinson but when Rawlinson ignored his strictures, the commander-in-chief lapsed into incomprehensible silence.

While the command slumbered, the troops suffered. Repeated attacks were made against strongpoints in the German line such as Mouquet Farm, High Wood, Delville Wood, Ginchy, Guillemont and others. Probably the feeble yet frequent attacks against High Wood alone cost 100,000 casualties. Overall, in terms of the percentage of casualties suffered (50%) this period bears direct comparison with the first day. In short, looking at the battle in depth does not improve the view.

For a brief moment in September the prospects of the British improved. On the 15th Haig incorporated a new weapon into the battle in the form of tanks. About 50 of the Mark I monsters were used to some effect near Flers and the unsuspecting Germans sensibly fled. Some ground was gained. Then, just 10 days later, a broad-front, well planned blow was struck in the same area, this time without tanks. The Germans were pushed further back, the British gaining more ground in these two episodes than in the whole period from 1 July. Haig’s armies now stood at the edge of an extensive, low-lying area of the battlefield. It was late in the campaigning season. The French had recovered at Verdun. The battle could be halted on a winning note.

It was not halted. Instead Haig concentrated his cavalry once more. This time he was aiming for Arras, some 70 miles away, completely disregarding the fact that it had taken him three months to capture just 6 or seven miles of ground. The result was another disaster. On 9 October the troops set off in rain and mud. The important innovation in infantry protection that Haig had developed at the Somme, the creeping barrage of shells fired immediately in front of the attackers, was useless in the mire when troops could not keep pace with even the slowest barrage. Rain, fog and low cloud rendered the aircraft spotting for the artillery useless and therefore also rendered the protection the guns were trying to provide useless. The operation was called off. The enemy front was hardly in sight, let alone Arras.

In these dismal conditions operations continued for another 6 weeks. The gains made were derisory and tactically bereft as the troops were advancing into a swamp. Finally, major operations were halted in mid-November. The battle had cost the British some 400,000 casualties. The Germans certainly suffered –some 230,000 becoming casualties. In general the enemy was appalled at the tenacity of the once-insignificant British army. But the army that suffered most was the British. And this battle was not part of some grand conception on the part of Haig to wear down the enemy one battle at a time. As noted, it was designed to win the war. The ‘one continuous battle’ justification offered for the Somme is guff, thought up by Haig after the fact to disguise the incompetent way he had fought this particular battle. One hundred years later we must look at the Somme not as a bloody victory or indeed any kind of victory. It was a dire defeat and perhaps the nadir of British command on the Western Front.

Image: Three 8 inch howitzers of 39th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA), firing from the Fricourt-Mametz Valley during the Battle of the Somme, August 1916, via the Imperial War Museum.

1940-42 The Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century: “THE BARTHOLOMEW COMMITTEE: AN OPPORTUNITY LOST?”

This is the second in a series of posts connected to the King’s College Second World War Research Group’s ‘1940-1942: Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century Conference’, held at the JSCSC on June 1st. 


After the conclusion of Operation Dynamo on 3 June 1940, the War Office reacted quickly to form a committee to look into the reasons for the defeat in France and any changes which could be made quickly in the face of the threat of invasion.   Although expectations had been exceeded in terms of the number of men rescued from the Continent, losses of heavy equipment necessary to defend the British mainland had been particularly severe. The forming of the Committee took place in the knowledge that 150,000 British troops remained in France, south of the Somme. Sir Alan Brooke, returned to France only a few days after escaping with orders to co-ordinate a defence. He quickly realised that this was a lost cause and urged a second evacuation – meaning he would be unavailable to testify.

Sir George Bartholomew, recently retired as General Officer Commanding Northern Command, was appointed to chair the committee.   On paper his credentials were good; a former Commandant of the Imperial Defence College, Chief of the General Staff (India) and Director of Military Intelligence – some considered him one of the best minds on the General Staff. Others were less convinced, thinking of him as a typical conservative with a profound dislike of the Royal Air Force.   Three other senior members of the Committee had served in France.   Thirty seven officers gave evidence while the committee was in session, a mixture of senior BEF personnel down to battalion commanders – and a sole representative of the RAF.   The Committee sat for six days, taking evidence only on four.  An initial draft was ready in early July; after a General Staff conference in late July and discussion by the Army Council in September,   its findings were eventually published in October, belying the initial haste spurred by fear of invasion.

The committee made a number of recommendations for urgent change in the Army, including increased mechanisation of artillery, reconnaissance and liaison elements, improved artillery provision and co-ordination of air support. It also proposed making the operational “building block” of the Army the Brigade, or independent Brigade Group. However, many of its findings were gradually watered down as the draft passed through the bureaucracy; Sir John Dill, the CIGS, also gave Lord Gort, the former CinC of the BEF (who did not give evidence) a categorical reassurance that the report would not result in fundamental change in the structure of the Army.

Some of the recommendations were impeded by loss of equipment in France. In particular for purposes of defence against invasion, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns were in short supply thus making proposals for increased and reorganised provision of them at Division and Brigade level somewhat moot. This also meant that weapons that were obsolescent or which had underperformed were kept in production both to make up losses and to postpone the disruption to supply and training which would be caused by retooling and issue to the Army at a time of high threat.

Although the British soldier was held to be the equal of the German, the report criticised steadfastness in defence, tactical shortcomings and issues of discipline. Command and communications were considered extremely rigid. Despite the 1935 Field Service Regulations stating that orders should not be excessively prescriptive and should not prevent subordinate commanders from carrying out their mission in the face of better local knowledge or on their own initiative, experience in France showed that some senior commanders still insisted on the following of written orders, despite the fast pace of operations outstripping the ability to transmit them. There are many examples in the literature of orders to hold positions when they had fallen, or been surrendered long since. Command rigidity was criticised by senior witnesses. The report highlighted shortcomings in discipline and “fighting spirit”; however, rather than propose innovative solutions it concluded that these problems could be solved by more close order drill and time on the range.

One of the successes of the campaign was the use of “carriers” – small, fast tracked vehicles.   Until the battle of France these had been viewed predominantly as tractors or logistic vehicles; the report recommended their wider use across the Army, and their fitting with anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons as standard. Although this latter point was not completely adopted, the wider use of such vehicles – which had impressed the Germans – was one of the successful recommendations from the report.

The other primary recommendation was the operational building block of the Army should now be the Brigade, and the independent Brigade Group, rather than the Division. Reorganisation of divisional assets to allow Brigades to have organic artillery, anti-tank, anti-aircraft and reconnaissance support was proposed, but equipment shortages and the delay in introducing better weapons led to these ideals being diluted. Experience in home exercises in 1941-42 highlighted flaws in the concept where equipment was inadequate either in numbers or performance and the Division returned to prominence; however early success of the concept in the Western Desert against inferior opposition led to later failures against the Germans.

The need for quick and achievable change driven by the threat of invasion makes some of the curtailing of the Bartholomew report’s proposals excusable to some extent. However, the opportunity genuinely to innovate in other areas was lost due to equipment shortages and a lack of willingness to review concepts of command. Change would come eventually, but more gradually than may have been the case had senior officers not watered down the committee’s recommendations as it passed through the War Office bureaucracy.

Image: British anti-aircraft guns lie abandoned at Dunkirk in 1940, via wikimedia commons.




This is the second of a two-part series on the topic. The first of which was posted week on the Defence-in-Depth blog.

Turkey’s transborder Kurdish problem

There can be little doubt that both Ankara and Turkey’s Kurdish nationalists have been influenced by developments in Syria. Many of Turkey’s Kurds are inspired by the example of their Syrian counterparts. Although the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (HDP) may have prioritized a resolution in Turkey, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) probably saw its struggle in a wider pan-Kurdish context. Many Kurds in Turkey were bitterly angered by Ankara’s passivity in the face of the Islamic State (IS) siege of the Kurdish border town of Kobane.

During 2011, Turkey moved fast towards demanding the Syrian regime’s overthrow once it became clear that Damascus was ignoring Ankara’s advice on how to respond to the popular revolt that Syria was now experiencing, and notwithstanding the earlier courtship between the two governments. Ankara sponsored the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and called on its allies to help establish a ‘no-fly-zone’ and a humanitarian corridor along the Syrian border with Turkey. Instead, Turkey found itself confronted both with the radicalization of the Syrian opposition and with a Kurdish dimension to Syria’s travails.

It was the Kurdish factor that loomed largest. Ankara reacted fiercely to the early 2013 declaration by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) that the three self-governing and largely Kurdish entities that it had established were to be known as ‘Rojava’. Ankara did little to help Syria’s Kurds defend the border town of Kobane against IS, and criticized the US for air dropping supplies to the town’s defenders. Ankara also protested when the IS-held town of Tal Abyad fell to the Kurds in July 2015. Ankara fears being faced with a Kurdish self-governing zone along the length of its southern border, and has resorted to shelling Kurdish led forces in Syria in order to prevent their advance, intensified its support to groups that would obstruct Kurds on the ground – including Ahrar-al Sham and other decidedly jihadi elements – and prevented the PYD from participating in the Geneva peace talks on Syria.

Ankara’s problem with the PYD is that it is affiliated with the PKK. Kurdish self-government in Syria might give inspiration to the closely-related counterparts in Turkey. Turkey had tried to pressure the PYD to join the SNC and to commit to Assad’s overthrow, but the Arab nationalist SNC is also opposed to Kurdish self-government. Turkey’s hostility to the PYD has put it at odds with both Washington, DC and Moscow. The PYD’s armed wing has proved to be Washington, DC’s most effective and cooperative local force in its struggle against IS in Syria, while Moscow’s stance hardened in the wake of the November 2015 shooting down of a Russian jet that had strayed into Turkish airspace. The repercussions were several, but have included a heightening of Russian support for PYD forces and a determined bombing campaign against Ankara-backed elements inside Syria. Moscow has joined with Washington, DC in arming and training Syrian Kurdish forces, and has called for the PYD’s presence at the Geneva talks.

The PYD hopes for a federal arrangement in Syria, which in any case seems the best and most likely outcome should the violence there ever come to an end. After all, Moscow and Tehran are now in a position to ensure the survival of the regime. No one force is capable of an overall victory in Syria, the Alawites were surely unlikely to submit to Sunni rule, and no-one inside Syria looks capable of defeating the PYD’s forces. Sunni Arab forces are hopelessly fragmented. Ankara can play the role of spoiler – although in doing so it is putting at risk its relationship with Washington, DC and might provoke an even harder Russian response – but it cannot engineer a Syria more to its liking. In short, Turkey’s struggle with Kurdish oppositionists in Turkey is now extended to Syria, and it is a struggle that looks set to extend far into the future.

Iraq’s ‘good Kurds’?

Turkey’s relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) offers the exception to the rule of Ankara’s opposition to Kurdish identity politics. Turkey dominates the KRG’s economy, and enables the export of KRG oil from the Turkish port of Ceyhan. Turkey has even trained Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. Until recently at least leaders in both Erbil and Ankara spoke of the ‘strategic’ relationship between them. It was not always like this of course. Ankara greeted the 1991 emergence of the KRG with dismay, sought to destabilise it, declared its independence to be a ‘red line’, opposed its acquisition of further territory, championed ethnic Turkmen against it, and referred to its leaders as ‘tribal’. Turkey’s so-called ‘zero problems with the neighbours’ policy was part of the explanation for the shift. Trade and energy considerations also played a role. In any case KRG President Masoud Barzani is not a pan-Kurdish nationalist but a devout conservative concerned only with the fortunes of the KRG, or rather of his Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) ruled part of it. He is prepared to cooperate with Ankara against the PKK, which he regards as ideological and political rivals, and is in desperate need of a regional friend.

However, with the June 2014 capture of Mosul by IS the atmosphere changed. Ankara failed to come to the KRG’s aid, leading some Iraqi Kurds to question the depth of Turkey’s commitment. The KRG’s economic crisis – caused by a combination of reduced oil revenues, an internal political crisis, corruption, the termination of its subvention from Baghdad, the IS threat and the burden of over a million refugees – has rendered the KRG a less attractive economic proposition for Turkish investors. Barzani’s legitimacy inside and outside the KRG has waned. Iran’s influence has become more pronounced, and there is now high profile assistance to the KRG from the west. Some senior Iraqi Kurds are disappointed at Turkey’s murky links with IS and other jihadi groups, and also at the increasingly unpredictable behavior of Turkey’s president.

Furthermore, the depth of the ‘strategic relationship’ between Ankara and Erbil will face considerable challenges in the future. How might Ankara respond to Barzani’s promised referendum on Kurdish independence? Will it assist the Kurdish Peshmerga in their already-developing struggle with Shia militias – and perhaps in due course with Sunni Arabs too – over the territories that Erbil disputes with Baghdad, such as Kirkuk? Will Ankara accept a territorial enlargement of the KRG? What if the KRG, perhaps via the more pan-Kurdish Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Gorran parties, becomes more supportive of the PKK/PYD?

Turks and Kurds as neighbours

Until the breakup of the Ottoman empire there was little antipathy between Turks and Kurds. The new Turkish Republic then chose to suppress rather than embrace Kurdish distinctiveness. Turks acquired a virulent and exclusive nationalism which they are yet to shake off. The reaction of many Kurds has been one of revolt and alienation. There is no reason to suppose that Kurds, in Turkey or elsewhere, will resign themselves to the denial of self-determination that was visited on them a century ago. Sadly, there is little evidence that Turkey will embrace its Kurdish citizens and neighbours for what they essentially are – Kurds – and to allow them the self-identification that Turks so jealously guard for themselves. On what basis should we assume the next one hundred years of Turkish-Kurdish relationships will be much different from the last one hundred years, except in their detail?


Image: Putin and Erdogan. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.