Military Learning

When Learning Goes Bad


Jonathan is a Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Birmingham. His first book, Winning and Losing on the Western Front: The British Third Army and the Defeat of Germany in 1918 was published by Cambridge University Press in 2012. An audio recording of a paper detailing some of his new research on German command on the Western Front can be found here.

On the Western Front in September and October 1917, during the Third Battle of Ypres, the British army employed a new operational approach known as ‘bite and hold’. Rather than trying to drive deep into the German defences and break through, the BEF sought instead to limit any advance to the range of its artillery cover, driving a thousand yards or a mile into the enemy trenches, digging in quickly and then defeating the inevitable German counter attack. This approach posed a significant challenge to the German defenders. Based on new research into the papers of the army group commander opposite, Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, this article explores how they adapted to the new British method. It demonstrates three points relevant to modern commanders:

  • Find solutions which address the real problems you face, not those which you best know how to fix;
  • Don’t assume that a solution exists, much less that you’re the person to find it;
  • Intellectual honesty about the past is crucial to the integrity of ‘lessons learned’ processes. Infection by present-day concerns risks misrepresenting the past and drawing the wrong conclusions.

In late September 1917 the Third Battle of Ypres burst back into life with a series of resource-intensive, limited-objective British attacks. In the battles of the Menin Road Ridge and Polygon Wood (20 and 26 September, respectively), troops of the British Second Army used ‘bite and hold’ tactics to chew their way through the enemy defences. The Germans, practising an elastic defence in depth, seemingly had no answer. Their forward garrisons were too weak to beat off the first assault. And poor communications and the difficulty of movement across a devastated and lethal battlefield made it impossible to launch counter attacks to regain lost ground in time. For the first time in the Flanders campaign, Rupprecht needed to call in reinforcements. The search for counter-measures began.

According to the German Official History, the defensive expert, Fritz von Loßberg, proposed moving away from defence in depth and increasing the strength of the forward crust to prevent any initial British break-in. This was adopted on 30 September but did nothing to prevent another defeat in the Battle of Broodseinde (4 October). Consequently the Germans reverted to a (slightly reformed) elastic defence on 7 October. Within two weeks, then, they had been able to operate three different styles of defence: an impressive level of flexibility.

This narrative was false in three particulars. First, Loßberg’s was merely one of several senior voices, including some at Supreme Command (OHL), advocating a crust defence. Secondly, whatever the orders, it is far from clear that every front line unit was able to adjust their tactics in time. Some could but many could not. The 119th Infantry Division, for instance, which was at the front for 67 straight days from 11 August to 18 October, pointed out that new orders incorporating the latest lessons learnt were of only limited use with no opportunity to train. Thirdly, there were far simpler and more traditional explanations for the problems the Germans were facing, which spoke far more to the operational level of war than the tactical. The cumulative effect of attrition was beginning to make itself felt, with both the quantity and quality of replacements slipping. Poor leadership was another concern.

Nonetheless, the Official History narrative held considerable attractions for the German military writers who constructed it. First, by attaching responsibility for mistakes to Loßberg, it deflected blame from OHL and the General Staff more widely. Secondly, it simultaneously emphasised how flexible, rational and systematic the German approach usually was. Thirdly, it reinforced the case for elastic defence, which was an important tenet of German military thought between the wars. It is no accident that the Official History was compiled by former officers of the German General Staff, many of them who had served at OHL during the war. When the Treaty of Versailles demanded the abolition of the General Staff, the army transferred its finest doctrinal thinkers, steeped in the manoeuvrist approach of Schlieffen and Moltke the Elder, to the apparently civilian Reichsarchiv. There they were to keep the General Staff flame alive and produce a history designed to help train and teach the army’s officer cadre.

As a matter of fact, the revised elastic defence brought in after Broodseinde was never really tested. Continued British attacks at Ypres in autumn 1917 were handicapped more by weather and logistics than by German resistance. Thereafter there was little opportunity to try elastic defence until the Allied offensives of July-November 1918. It failed. But, since the German army was much weaker by then, and Allied attacks much stronger, comparisons with 1917 are tricky.

The lessons of this episode are threefold. First, the German general staff sought tactical solutions to what was in fact the operational challenge of ‘bite and hold’ and attrition. Culturally they were, like most militaries, ‘can-do’ institutions and natural problem solvers; but they were more comfortable offering tactical tweaks than in confronting operational reality. The tendency of the German army to offset operational weakness with tactical brilliance and to seek military solutions to political problems is a recurring theme in its history from Schlieffen to Stalingrad. Secondly, the experience of Flanders highlights the intellectual arrogance of its commanders. Men such as Erich Ludendorff and his entourage at OHL were convinced not only that a single solution to their difficulties existed but also that they could find it. This blinded them to the possibility that there might be no panacea, and that different situations might require different responses. It also meant that doctrine formulation became increasingly centralised and dogmatic, restricting the initiative of subordinate commanders and rendering the Germans predictable to their enemies. Rupprecht criticised this tendency, pointing out that ‘there is no cure-all. A pattern is harmful. The situation must be dealt with sometimes one way, sometimes another.’ Thirdly, the interwar German army’s prime mechanism for lesson-learning was distorted by official historians pursuing their own agenda. By misrepresenting the process of adaptation in contact during the Third Battle of Ypres they encouraged a fascination with tactical detail which helped distract the Wehrmacht from the strategic and political horrors it was soon to face. Their example reminds us that more history is not necessarily the answer. But better history may be.

Image: The view from a captured German pill-box, showing the burst of a shell of the German barrage searching British reserve trenches as part of the Battle of Polygon Wood within the Battle of Passchendaele. Taken near the Wieltje-Grafenstafel Road (Rat Farm), 27th September 1917, via the Imperial War Museum.

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.


General Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War: Or, How to Think about a Future War with Russia Today


In the vast majority of cases, scenarios of future war have rarely come to pass as originally envisioned. At least two inter-related reasons can account for this. First, due to the incredibly large number of variables to consider – geopolitical, technical, human, etc. – it is simply impossible to calculate how they will interact with each other, especially if projecting forward by months, years or decades. The second reason has to do with distinguishing between ‘future war’ and the ‘future battlefield’. Regrettably, far too many scenarios and models, whether developed by military organizations, political scientists, or fiction writers, tend to focus their attention on the battlefield and the clash of armies, navies, air forces, and especially their weapons systems.  By contrast, the broader context of the war – the reasons why hostilities erupted, the political and military objectives, the limits placed on military action, and so on – are given much less serious attention, often because they are viewed by the script-writers as a distraction from the main activity that occurs on the battlefield.

During the Cold War, thinking about a NATO-Warsaw Pact conventional clash in Europe required more attention to be placed on the political context because of the risks of nuclear escalation. More recently, scenarios of a possible NATO (or to be more precise – ‘coalition of willing NATO members’) clash with Russia over the Baltic States have similarly been required to account for the nuclear issue. Regrettably, a number of key weaknesses are observable in many of the assumptions underpinning such scenarios.  This blog post will examine a selection of these weaknesses, focusing on General Sir John Hackett’s 1978 book The Third World War, comparing it with several other texts from the Cold War, and then bringing the problem up-to-date with a discussion of some recent scenarios dealing with the Baltic States.

Hackett’s work has been selected because it is often considered the benchmark text by which other fictional accounts of a future war are assessed in relation to, such as Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising and General Sir Richard Shirreff’s 2017: War with Russia. The book was an unexpected publishing triumph, with some 3 million copies sold and translated into 10 languages.  Prime Minister James Callaghan presented President Jimmy Carter with a copy in 1979, and President Ronald Reagan named it as one of his top three books in 1983. Fortunately, the early manuscripts and correspondence related to The Third World War are available at King’s College London’s Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, and can be examined to identify how and why the scenario evolved during the more than year-long drafting process, which it did in significant ways.

Although the book is often referred to as being authored by Hackett, in actual fact, he only wrote a small portion.  Instead, his main role was providing the general concept for the scenario, as well as organizing and editing the more detailed chapters that were written by a group of former British senior officers from each of the services, a deputy editor of the Economist, a former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, as well as the Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Warfare Directing Staff (DS) at the Royal Military College of Science, Shrivenham.

The published version describes a war lasting from 4-22 August 1985 that begins with a Warsaw Pact attack on NATO utilizing conventional and chemical weapons, evolves into a barely successful defence and counterattack by NATO, is then followed by a limited nuclear exchange that wipes out Birmingham and Minsk, and concludes with the dissolution of the Soviet ‘empire’. It is important to note that the scenario is a global one – across the continents, on the ground, in the sea, in the air, and in space – although the main action takes place in Europe. Hackett deliberately chose this version of the scenario to demonstrate that a successful defence against the Warsaw Pact could be mounted by NATO – provided of course the Alliance invested heavily in new military equipment and increased its frontline manpower.

However, Hackett’s earlier attempt at writing a scenario had the Warsaw Pact advancing to the French border in as little as 4 days leading to the occupation of West Germany, a D-day style NATO counterattack two years later, followed by a Soviet collapse. After distributing drafts of this early version, he was told by several retired US and West German generals that if it was published it would undermine public confidence in NATO. A year earlier, in 1976, Belgian Brigadier General Robert Close published a controversial book, Europe Without Defense? 48 hours That Could Change the Face of the World, involving a scenario in which the Warsaw Pact launches a surprise attack and advances to the Rhine in two days. Fearing the prospect of undermining NATO, Hackett developed more optimistic scenarios, including the one that was eventually published.  Interestingly, the end state of a Soviet collapse remained consistent throughout all of the versions, even ones in which no nuclear weapons were used.

In terms of the realism of Hackett’s scenario, as well as several similar works, at least six key aspects should be critically examined:

The Decision for War Initiation. In most of these scenarios, this aspect of the conflict is treated in a superficial way, with very little discussion about the rationality and cost-benefit calculus of the Soviet/Russian leadership, and what they would hope to gain, especially given the costs of war and risks of nuclear escalation. In Hackett’s scenario the decision to attack NATO is not one based on a Soviet desire for world conquest, but rather it is motivated by fears of the elite that the future ‘correlation of forces’ does not favour the Kremlin and that projected internal weakness will eventually lead to a state collapse. Therefore, war against NATO is ultimately seen as a way of re-establishing order internally. This motivation is also apparent in Clancy’s Red Storm Rising and Shirreff’s account of Putin’s decision to attack the Baltic States.

The Timing of War Initiation. Unlike Close’s surprise attack from a standing-start, Hackett chose to begin his war on 4 August because, as in 1914, he viewed a period of mobilization as almost certain to precede the start of hostilities.  Indeed, the Warsaw Pact attack is preceded by a combination of diplomacy, propaganda, subversion and sabotage – ‘hybrid war’ in today’s parlance. In Hackett’s scenario, NATO forces have sufficient lead time to alert the covering forces along the inner German border, disperse aircraft, and mobilize their reserves to be able to mount an adequate defence. Many of the NATO scenarios from the period assumed 48 hours of early warning – the minimum period which was deemed necessary for NATO forces to begin mobilization and deploy to the forward defensive positions. On the other hand, there was some debate whether a longer lead time prior to war worked for or against NATO given that the Soviet Union could probably more quickly mobilize and deploy more divisions from inside the USSR. Curiously, in the 2014-2015 US Army-sponsored RAND wargames of a Russian attack on Estonia and Latvia, there is an early warning period of one week – by happy coincidence, roughly the amount of time needed by the US Army to deploy its troops to the region. In reality, one wonders if NATO would have one day of warning, much less one week.

Geographic Objectives and Limitations. The stop-line for a Warsaw Pact attack was also a hotly contested issue. Hackett insisted that the idea of a Soviet invasion that would only stop at the Channel ports, probably died with Stalin. Instead, the Warsaw Pact attack through West Germany was supposed to stop at the French border to avoid French intervention. Close’s scenario also limits the Warsaw Pact advance to the Rhine.  Nevertheless, whereas Close limits his scenario to West Germany-only, Hackett’s scenario encompasses attacks not only in West Germany and the Low Countries, but also on NATO’s northern and southern flanks, as well air attacks on Britain. Oddly, though Hackett has the Soviets invade neutral Austria on their way to Italy (in most scenarios the Soviets violate Austrian neutrality to attack NATO forces in southern Germany), they choose to avoid attacking Switzerland, no doubt wisely. More recent scenarios have Russia attacking one, two, or all three of the Baltic States, but none have them invading Poland. Not only is the stop-line of the invading forces a crucial consideration, but so too is the stop-line for the counter-attacking NATO forces. In Hackett’s scenario, NATO chooses not to cross into Warsaw Pact territory to reunite Germany and liberate Eastern Europe. Similarly, whether NATO would choose to attack Kaliningrad is a contested subject in the more recent scenarios, and there seems little inclination to expand attacks elsewhere inside Russia.

Deciding to Cross the Nuclear Threshold. In The Third World War there are several points when decisions must be made about using nuclear weapons. On the NATO side, SACEUR and SACLANT are pressed by subordinate commanders to authorize the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Soviet ground and naval forces. This they refuse to do fearing Soviet escalation. On the Soviet side, the decision to drop a one-megaton nuclear warhead on Birmingham is taken only after Soviet forces begin to lose the conventional battle. In response, the US and UK decide on an instant ‘limited’ nuclear attack on Minsk (in earlier drafts Ukraine and the city of Tomsk). Just as the Soviet leadership are considering further escalation, a coup occurs in Moscow and the war ends. In the BBC’s February 2016 programme ‘Inside the War Room’, a limited nuclear attack by Russian forces (albeit Russian officials deny they authorized it) on British and American ships in the Baltic leads to a ‘like-for-like’ US-only retaliation. The programme ends with British decision-makers contemplating whether to authorize a full-scale nuclear retaliation should Britain be attacked. By a slim majority, they decide against this.

Nuclear Targeting. Assuming nuclear weapons are used in these scenarios, what sort of weapons are used and against what targets? Hackett’s original conception of possible nuclear use was to be limited to naval targets or for use in space. For reasons that remain unclear, more than half-way through the book’s drafting Hackett chose to include a nuclear aspect to the scenario in which a one-megaton warhead was to be used against Birmingham (most likely the idea and details for this section of the book derived from the then still-classified 1961 study prepared for the MoD’s Chief Scientific Adviser Solly Zuckerman about the effects of a one-megaton nuclear attack on Birmingham). At the time of The Third World War’s publication, many critics argued that the single Soviet attack was unrealistic. In Hackett’s description of Soviet decision-making, there is no serious consideration given to Soviet use against NATO battlefield targets, and the Soviets quite deliberately choose not to attack London, much less any US targets, fearing much greater retaliation.

War Termination. Writing an ending to a third world war is almost as difficult, if not more so, than writing the beginning.  In the scenarios discussed here, unlike in much of the nuclear fiction genre, the war does not end in global Armageddon. In both Hackett’s and Clancy’s scenarios, the war ends with a coup in the Kremlin. For Hackett, this occurs after nuclear use but before further escalation. For Clancy, the coup occurs to prevent nuclear use in the first place. In Close’s 48-hour scenario, NATO is defeated before it can even come to a decision about nuclear escalation. In some scenarios, the war ends in days or weeks. In others, initial defeat does not lead to surrender or acceptance of the status quo, but rather hostilities continue until such time as the initial lost territory is recovered. One feature that is pretty much a constant in all of these scenarios is that as the war is taking place, so too are diplomatic negotiations. Unlike in the conventional-only World War II, ‘unconditional surrender’ is not an option to end the potentially nuclear World War III.

Hackett’s The Third World War, like many of the fictional scenarios dealing with future wars, can be quite useful as a tool to help think through the strengths and weaknesses of one’s own defence posture, as well as those of allies and adversaries, and how these might interact in the event of an international crisis or war. Ideally they provide the reader with a genuinely futuristic perspective that is not simply the last war projected into the future, though ultimately any scenario cannot entirely escape the past and present. That being said, scenarios are rarely neutral. It is essential to be aware of the conscious agendas and the unconscious assumptions underpinning them. For instance, all too often, scenarios are written around a predetermined end state.  Therefore, the starting point for any critique should begin with a study of the author before it proceeds to the content. As for the content, to assess the realism of any future war scenario, one must make the conceptual distinction between ‘wars’ and ‘battlefields’, not treating the latter in isolation of the former. It is quite easy to project how one weapon system might fare against another, but taken out of a broader strategic context, such a projection is practically meaningless (apart from its marketing value), or worse, misleading.  In this sense, even if less entertaining or exciting, the degree of realism of the political aspects of the scenario, particularly policymakers’ rationality and cost-benefit calculus, and the key decisions that are taken about going to war, the objectives being sought, the limits placed on military action, and the willingness to incur the risks of escalation, should receive more critical attention than the purely battlefield dimensions of the future conflict.

Image: M-60A3 near Giessen in West Germany, 1985: the year of Hackett’s scenario from The Third World War, via wikimedia commons

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.

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.


Beating Away From the Lee Shore of Jutland

This is the fourth in a series of posts connected to a King’s College First World War Research Group and Corbett Centre Event to mark the centenary of the Battle of Jutland. 


Rear Admiral James Goldrick AO, CSC RAN (Retired) commanded HMA Ships Cessnock and Sydney (twice), the multinational maritime interception force in the Persian Gulf, the Australian Defence Force Academy (twice), Border Protection Command and the Australian Defence College. He is an Adjunct Professor at UNSW@Canberra (ADFA) and in SDSC at ANU, as well as a Professorial Fellow at ANCORS at the University of Wollongong. He was a visiting fellow at All Souls College, Oxford University in 2015. He is a member of the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal and of the Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal. He was a member of the Expert Panel supporting the development of the 2016 Australian Defence White Paper. He was awarded a Doctorate of Letters (honoris causa) by the University of NSW in 2006. His books include: No Easy Answers: The Development of the Navies of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and Before Jutland: The Naval War in Northern European Waters August 1914-February 1915, and, with Jack McCaffrie, Navies of South-East Asia: A Comparative Study.

The Royal Navy mourned Jutland. The legacy of the battle was, ‘never again.’ There was regret for tactical and material failures and the catastrophic losses they caused, regret for the deficiencies of reporting and communications and, above all, a regret for the absence of initiative on the part of so many who should have known better. In later years, there may well have been ‘too much Jutland’. Yet it is clear that the Royal Navy between 1916 and 1939 functioned in relation to the battle as a ‘learning organisation’. While there was attention to the mechanics, what may have proved most important was the focus on restoring the spirit of the tactical offensive.

The response to the Grand Fleet’s material problems was remarkable, and something of a tribute to at least one facet of Jellicoe’s leadership. However, to suggest that the command and control of the fleet moved to a looser regime, particularly after Beatty took over as C-in-C from Jellicoe in November 1916, would be to over-simplify what happened. Many practical challenges remained and had to be endured. The action seems to have confirmed that the battle fleet was too big. But, given the forces available on either side, the North Sea battle fleets would always be larger than tactically desirable. There was certainly a new emphasis on squadron and divisional tactics and a greater understanding that subordinate flag officers needed the authority to respond individually to an emerging situation. But it is notable that the drive within squadrons and divisions was to an even greater degree of coordinated manoeuvre, not less. The reason was that concentration of fire became a focus of gunnery innovation, first with two ships and then up to four as a single gunnery ‘unit’.

Night fighting was the subject of new attention, with the realisation that the uncertainty of combat in the darkness could only be mitigated by the systematic development and practice of procedures and tactics understood by all. Before Jutland, the Grand Fleet’s purely reactive attitude to action in the dark, and the doctrine and training which resulted, had been based on the assessment that a night encounter with no warning in the open sea was a practical impossibility. Arguably, however, any fleet encounter that started after noon would inevitably involve night action, particularly when it was not high summer. After June 1916, the Grand Fleet understood this.

Control and precision were emphasised in another area – reporting the enemy. By 1918, detailed analysis was being produced in the wake of each major Grand Fleet tactical exercise. This not only set out what had happened but critiqued formation commanders and individual ships. It also included an annex which listed and assessed every reporting signal – and pointed out when signals should have been sent, but were not. Keeping one’s head below the transmission parapet was no longer acceptable, particularly in a scouting unit.

However, there was more to it than greater control and precision. There was also the slow regeneration of a spirit of enterprise. There were several causes for its frequent absence at Jutland. The Navy’s culture of obedience to the senior officer present was one, particularly as the full implications of the ‘virtual unreality’ created by the assumption that radio contact equated to such presence had not been worked through. While Jellicoe must bear a considerable part of the blame, he himself was bitterly disappointed by the lack of enterprise, a disappointment that was part of his later admonition against the ‘virtual unreality’ of assuming that the admiral knew what each ship commander did: ‘Never think that the C-in-C sees what you see.’

What is notable about Jutland is the extent to which the future leadership of the navy was present at the battle. This continued well beyond the Second World War. The commander of the British and Commonwealth naval forces off Korea in 1950-51 was a midshipman at Jutland. The First Sea Lord from 1951 to 1955 was there as a Lieutenant in the Malaya. Only one First Sea Lord between 1916 and 1943 was not at Jutland (and he was commanding a light cruiser in the Harwich Force). The statistics for the other naval members of the Board of Admiralty are almost as telling. Many had their individual regrets about failures to act during the battle, while the Jutland veterans were not alone in their experience of failure and feelings of regret. A.B. Cunningham, commanding the destroyer Scorpion, was present when Rear Admiral Troubridge refused action with the battle cruiser Goeben in August 1914. An officer who was a captain in 1918 wrote that the Navy had ‘an insufficient insistence on the imperative need of really coming to grips.’ This summed up the attitude of many thoughtful officers.

The retrenchments of the 1920s were dead hands on any initiative that required financial resources. But one senses increasingly well-coordinated efforts to improve, which gained momentum as the 1920s gave way to the 1930s. The influence of officers who had direct experience of their seniors’ failures was very important. The Tactical School was a key innovation. There was a healthy dialogue, including the regular publication of ‘Progress in Tactics’ with the results of exercises and trials. What also helped was a growing realisation that the Royal Navy would not necessarily enjoy technological superiority over its opponents. This placed a premium on identifying tactics which would minimise British disadvantages.

Another vital element was the selection of officers for senior seagoing rank. The reductions of peace meant the Admiralty one priceless advantage – it could be highly selective. No matter how brilliant the specialist officer, nor how significant their staff or ship service, all were placed under a microscope. The weight given to proven initiative was clearly considerable. The promotions to Vice Admiral on the active list between 1934 and 1936 show what happened. Of 15 officers, 9 had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order and, of these, 3 had earned it in submarine command and 3 in destroyers. Rear Admirals of the same seniority tell a similar story – 4 submariner and 4 destroyer DSOs out of a total of 28 officers, 12 of whom had the award.

Risk taking in battle tactics was accompanied by a willingness to take risks with ships, a willingness that may have grown as the battle hardened reformers reached flag rank. The wider attitude being engendered was summed up by William Fisher’s response to Captain Philip Vian’s frank admission of fault in a berthing accident. ‘I was told to be more careful in future, but the Commander-in-Chief added a paragraph in the sense that he had liked the manner of the confession.’ Andrew Cunningham was not alone when he asserted that broken eggs are inevitable in making an omelette.

There were misdirections. Whatever the benefits of games for ship spirit and individual fitness, there were excessive claims about the relationship between sport and fighting instincts – and perhaps too much effort devoted to competitive inter-ship sport, as opposed to encouraging group activity. Safety also sometimes exerted too strong an influence. Night operations by submarines were almost non-existent and restrictions on their interaction with surface forces created tactical unrealities.

Unanimity on the subject of command and control was not complete. There was a fissure over the role of staffs. Much commentary has been devoted to the problem of over-centralisation within staffs and commanders who attempted to do too much themselves. But an equal problem, arguably one that has continually dogged the Royal Navy in the years since the Grand Fleet, was that of over-centralisation into staffs and their misemployment on nugatory work, particularly that of minding the individual business of worked up ships, rather than thinking creatively about tactics, operations and war.

Despite this, by 1939, the Royal Navy had successfully learnt most of the lessons needed to achieve effective remote coordination of operations at sea and the associated exercise of local initiative. Thus, when the three British cruisers under Commodore Henry Harwood encountered the Graf Spee off the River Plate in October 1939, the British had set the conditions for the encounter. Harwood had considered and gamed – imaginatively – the problem and knew what to do. It was a ‘damned nice thing, the nearest run thing you have ever seen in your life.’ But the Graf Spee suffered critical damage and was driven into harbour, from which she would emerge only to be scuttled. Afterwards, the First Sea Lord, Dudley Pound, wrote to Harwood to declare that he had set the standard for the war to come, a matter which he felt was of ‘great importance.’ Pound emphasised not only that Harwood had acted correctly, but that he would have been right to engage the Graf Spee even if his entire force was sunk.

Balance had indeed been restored, but are we balanced now?

Image: Admiral David Beatty and his secretary Paymaster Commander Frank T. Spickernell on the bridge of HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH of the 5th Battle Squadron (Grand Fleet) with Captain Ernle Chatfield RN, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

Future Strategic Priorities for Professional Military Education: A Practitioner Perspective


At the end of last year, the King’s Centre for Military Education Outreach (CMEO) put together its first ever Professional Military Education (PME) Working Group. This took place over the course of two days on the 10 – 11th December 2015, at the Joint Services Command and Staff College (Shrivenham, UK). The event was attended by around 35 military education practitioners, from nations including: Canada, Egypt, Georgia, Japan, Kuwait, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Qatar, Singapore, and the UK.

For anyone interested in learning more about the discussions on the day itself, a range of presentations are available for download on the Defence Studies Department’s online events archive. This includes talks by senior officials from the National Defense University of Pakistan; the Nigerian Defence Academy; Joint Services Command and Staff College (UK); Norwegian Armed Forces Defence University; Nasser Higher Military Academy (Egypt); and King’s College London. In addition to these presentations, however, the event resulted in another interesting source of data. As part of the workshop, evaluation forms were handed out to attendees, asking them to provide their insight on the future strategic goals for PME.

Due to the mix of internationals who were present at the working group, attendees were asked whether they believed their PME challenges were different to those of their international peers. Responses to this question were split, with half of the respondents saying their challenges were similar with those of their international peers and half saying that they faced different challenges altogether. Despite this split, respondents acknowledged that any differences in systems were “clearly driven by culture and context”, and that one key area of difference was the level of support that educators received from their superiors. One respondent commented that, at its most basic level, the key issues faced by militaries remained broadly similar: “time, budget and mandate”. Above all, respondents noted that it was important to have international gatherings that allowed educators to discuss both the differences and similarities between their systems. This type of gathering “informed, emphasized context and encouraged wider thinking”.

Attendees were also asked what subjects they thought should be prioritised for academic research on PME. Responses included “academic rigour”, “enhancing staff officer PME in the early stages”, increased use of “simulation”, and “democratising access to PME”. Indeed this recurring theme of democratizing education, was elaborated upon by one respondent as “a focus on the whole rather than the elite and how to manage late bloomers, different thinkers and those that fall outside the requirements of the ‘successful’ career mould.” Another respondent commented that the very concept of strategic studies required greater further analysis in academic study, and that this “necessitates deep and timely study of recent ops of campaigns, and a corresponding feedback loop to doctrine and education.”

Attendees were then asked which three competencies they believed were vital for successful PME. Respondents commented upon the need for educators to have credibility informed by experience, including a comprehensive understanding of the military profession, international security, and warfare. Yet most responses were directed to personal qualities, such as curiosity, strong networking skills, innovation, perseverance, willingness to change but not drift, agility/flexibility and sense of humour.

When asked which key action points discussed during the event needed to be implemented as a matter of urgency, attendees commented upon the need for policy simulation in military-strategic exercises; increased democratization of education; better identification of the points where officers’ career paths and educational requirements diverged; new focus on national security for all citizens; and greater academic/military balance in PME.

At the end of the evaluation form, attendees were asked to place seven “strategic challenges” into categories of importance. The categories included 1. Top priority; 2. Very important; 3. Important (but not urgent); 4. Useful (but not important); and 5. Counter-productive. The results were as follows:

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Although these evaluation forms were an informal means of gaining insight, with a relatively small sample frame, the results provide an interesting insight into some of the strategic opinions held by senior military educators in the contemporary PME environment. There exists natural variation between different nations’ PME requirements. However, for educators across the world there exists an increasing emphasis on improving strategic competencies at all levels of officer education, jointness between forces, blended learning techniques, and professional development for the 80% of officers who fall outside of the traditional advanced command and staff course.

Image: An interior shot of the Defence Academy, Shrivenham, Wiltshire via Defence Imagery.

Uncertain COINage


Military manuals do not often attract readers from outside of the profession of arms, and the publication of the US Army/US Marine Corps’ manual on counter-insurgency (FM3/24) by the University of Chicago Press ten years ago was one of those rare occasions where military doctrine gained an audience beyond the armed forces. FM3/24 attracted wider attention because of Iraq, and the protracted insurgency in which US and Coalition forces had become embroiled after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime (March-April 2003). The US armed forces (the Army in particular) had focused almost exclusively on inter-state warfare, and as a result they were collectively unprepared for the challenges of occupying and pacifying Iraq following Saddam’s fall. Abu Ghraib, Haditha, the two battles of Fallujah, mounting American military casualties, and an increasingly disastrous sectarian war between Shiites and Sunnis forced the Army and Marines to rethink their approach to counterinsurgency (COIN). The adoption of FM3/24 – and the ‘surge’ of troops into Iraq in 2007-2008 – appeared to herald a ‘COIN revolution’ in American military thinking, and indeed one of its authors (General David Petraeus) became a household name as a consequence.

Britain also had a reality check over Iraq, and subsequently Afghanistan too. Before 2003 there was an academic and professional consensus that the British Army had an instinctive talent for COIN, based on their experiences fighting guerrillas and terrorists from Palestine in the 1940s to Northern Ireland (1969-1998). The experience of peace support operations (PSO) in the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone appeared to provide added justification for this myth, with squaddies being supposedly attuned to the complexities of ‘hearts and minds’; possessing the inherent ability to both cow potential adversaries while winning over the local populace with ‘soft posture’ patrolling and the ‘cultural understanding’ that came from phrase-book chit-chat. The increasingly violent occupation of Basra (2003-2007) and the ferocious fighting experienced in Helmand showed that in fact the British armed forces were no more masters of COIN than their superpower allies were.


British colonial police on a patrol in Malaya, April 1949, picture taken from Wikipedia Commons, originally from BBC Hulton Picture Library.

The myth of a ‘British way in counterinsurgency’ – relying on the judicious and humane application of minimum force and ‘hearts and minds’ – has been comprehensively debunked by David French, Karl Hack , Huw Bennett and other historians who have pointed out that the UK’s COIN history was far bloodier and more brutal than received wisdom admitted. The Kenya Emergency in particular was a ‘dirty war’ in which British colonial forces committed particularly egregious atrocities in order to crush the Mau Mau. David Ucko  has also pointed out that the distinctions drawn between ‘authoritarian’ and ‘democratic’ models of COIN also fade with closer scrutiny. Dictatorships may use overwhelming force and terror to crush internal rebellions, but have also used popular mobilisation and the ‘carrot’ of development and socio-economic reforms to build support for their regimes.

Nonetheless, American and British doctrine aspires to match democratic norms and contemporary ethics with COIN, and both FM3/24 and AFM1/10 (its UK equivalent) draw a distinction between ‘enemy-centric’ and ‘population-centric’ operations. In the former, the government side uses maximum force and exemplary violence to smash the insurgents and to terrorise the civilian population into obedience, whereas the latter stresses the protection of the populace from violence, the adoption of reforms to address the grievances that led to the insurgency, the recruitment and development of indigenous security forces able to defend the population, and a policy of reconciliation to negotiate a political solution to the conflict. Both the US and British militaries currently express a preference for the latter over the former.

The distinction is, however, to a considerable degree an artificial one. No state fighting an internal foe can follow a purely ‘population-centric’ approach, not least because it is very difficult to do state-building and war-fighting concurrently. It is both humane and strategically sensible for Western militaries to exercise ‘courageous restraint’ (to use Stanley McChrystal’s term), and to be discriminating in targeting (say) the Taliban rather than Afghan civilians, but there is the risk of forgetting that there is an enemy that has to be fought and beaten. With my own research on Oman, it became clear that Sultan Qaboos’ much-vaunted development of Dhofar was subordinated to a largely military effort by the Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF), their Iranian allies and their British advisors to defeat the Popular Front guerrillas. The civil affairs effort and socio-economic reforms had to wait until the ‘adoo’ (enemy) had been driven into South Yemen, and were no longer in a position to offer an armed challenge to Qaboos’ regime. Insurgents are also more often than not part of the indigenous community, and their relatives and clan may not be receptive to appeals to rally to the government’s side. With reference again to Dhofar, the Popular Front still had a base of sympathisers within the local community even after their formal defeat in December 1975, and the province was by no means ‘at peace’ even after Qaboos declared the insurgency over.

M.L.R. Smith also reminds us of the problems of terminology. The special forces of state armed forces all practice ‘guerrilla’ or ‘irregular warfare’. The Cold War-era term of ‘revolutionary war’ doesn’t allow for conflicts where there is a popular rebellion against a radical regime; as was the case with the Vendee in Revolutionary France in the 1790s, the Christeros in Mexico in the 1920s, or the Afghan mujahidin in the 1980s. Scholars have yet to provide a precise and commonly agreed definition of the difference between an ‘insurgent’ and a ‘terrorist’; in Syria now, the Assad regime uses this term to describe all of its opponents. Distinctions between insurgency and organised criminality were blurred with the racketeering of Republican and Loyalist gangs in Northern Ireland both during and after the ‘Troubles’, and with the current terror campaign by the Mexican drug cartels.

Much is made of the ‘narrative’, and its value almost as a war-winning weapon in convincing the local population to back your cause. Yet a ‘narrative’ revolving around a better future, and of peace and prosperity for all, will lack conviction if no one believes you can deliver it. The Taliban were not popular in Afghanistan even during the height of the NATO intervention, and it is clear that the majority of Afghans fear their return to power. Yet this has had no appreciable effect on their campaign at all. They are still in a position to destabilise the country and discredit its government, particularly now that the majority of NATO forces have returned home.

It is also perhaps worth asking whether COIN should still be discussed as a distinct type of war. The presumption with ‘guerrilla warfare’ is that insurgents are materially weaker than government forces, but the Viet Minh in Indochina in the early 1950s, UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) in Angola in the 1980s, and the Eritrean and Tigrayan rebels who overthrew Mengistu’s regime in Ethiopia in 1991  all acquired the means to wage ‘conventional’ land warfare – including armour and heavy artillery – whether this was captured after battle or supplied by a foreign patron.

Insurgencies can involve ‘regular’ military forces, particularly in the context of a proxy war, and there are historical examples that precede the Russian intervention in Ukraine. The ‘confrontation’ in Borneo (1962-1966) started with British forces fighting indigenous rebels in Brunei, and ended with an undeclared war with cross-border raids by the Indonesian military and the SAS. During the latter phases of the Dhofar war the Marxist-Leninist regime of South Yemen had committed 250 soldiers to fight the SAF, and by the autumn of 1975 there was a clear risk that the Popular Front revolt could lead to all-out war between Oman and South Yemen.

The presumption that insurgencies can be hermetically sealed within a state has been disproved not only by the current wars in Syria and Iraq – involving Syrian and Iraqi regular forces and militias, Kurdish peshmerga on both sides of the old Sykes-Picot frontier, Daesh, Hezbollah, the Russians, the various Syrian rebel groups and the US-led Coalition – but in Southern Africa in the 1970s-1980s. The apartheid-era South African Defence Force (SADF) conducted COIN against the military wing of the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) during South Africa’s illegal occupation of Namibia, but the SADF also conducted cross-border raids into Angola to destroy SWAPO bases in that country, while Pretoria backed UNITA’s struggle against government forces (FAPLA) in the Angolan civil war. The culmination of this multifaceted struggle came with the battle of Cuito Cuanavale (August 1987-March 1988), pitting SADF and UNITA against FAPLA and a Cuban expeditionary force. The South Africans may have been originally fighting the SWAPO insurgency, but they ended up fighting a ‘conventional’ war.

In summary, we should remember Carl von Clausewitz’s description of war as an act of violence in which the belligerents intend to compel their foe to submit to their will, and his observations that combat is a reciprocal process, and that wars are fought for political objectives. Clausewitz also stated that it was necessary to understand every conflict you waged on its own terms, and that ‘the first, the grandest, and the most decisive act of judgement which the statesman and general exercises is rightly to understand in this respect the war in which he engages, not to take it for something, or wish to make it something, which by the nature of its relations it is impossible for it to be’.

As Clausewitz put it, ‘[everything] is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult’. It would be highly dangerous for governments and their armed forces to be seduced into the logic of ‘clear, hold, build’, and to assume that they can fight a ‘pure’ and binary (government v insurgents) campaign that does not account for the possibility of proxy warfare, internecine conflicts involving multiple actors, state failure, and the potential for either escalation or metastasised violence across borders. Indeed, the characteristics of current conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere suggest that the terminological distinctions between COIN, PSO, ‘stabilisation’, and ‘major combat operations’ are potentially becoming increasingly less relevant.

Image: Yemeni Army soldiers, August 2011, via the Al Jazeera Creative Commons Repository.

Research Dispatch from Sydney: New Directions in War and History

by Dr Huw J. Davies 
Today is the penultimate day of my research trip to Sydney (with Canberra and Wellington thrown in). The trip has been what I now call a harvest. I’ve photographed literally thousands of documents, unsure whether they are useful. I’m deferring the actual process of research until a later date. Still, like the many thousands of tourists on Sydney Harbour, I have occasionally looked up from the screen of my digital camera to glimpse what I’m actually taking photographs of.

The man whose papers I have come to see, Lachlan Macquarie, before becoming Governor of New South Wales, served in India for decades, visited China, and journeyed overland from India through Iran and Russia in 1807. I didn’t know that. Moreover, his correspondence from Sydney in the 1810s clearly indicates that his decision-making was influenced by his past experiences.

So often, though, when undertaking research in a library, one stumbles upon other useful little nuggets. Probably my most surprising find was a series of sketch-maps, by Thomas Livingston Mitchell, of Spain in 1813. Mitchell was a Rifleman, but also an excellent draughtsman, so was seconded to the quartermaster general’s department to identify possible routes along which the army could march. One of the maps was on calfskin, and though so finely detailed as to be unreadable, I practically skipped over to the curator’s desk and said, wide-eyed and excitedly, ‘look, it’s an illegible map of Spain… From 1813… On calfskin!’ The curator seemed mildly interested, though I imagine her finger was hovering over a button marked ‘Security’.

Mitchell, though, was more than a mapmaker. In another notebook, I found a set of military maxims derived from the classics, and contemporary military theorists such as Guibert and Henry Lloyd, of whom I have written previously here. For a historian who is dealing mainly with circumstantial and speculative links between theorist and practitioner, direct evidence like this is both rare and pant-wettingly exciting when it crops up – particularly in the most unexpected of places.

All of this at least serves to prove that my research on the development of military thinking and innovation in the eighteenth and nineteenth century has some legs. The subject of military innovation was also a major theme of a conference on New Directions in War and History which I attended at the Australian National University in Canberra.

The study of military history has diversified considerably in recent years: a more appropriate term for the discipline might be ‘history of the military’ or ‘war and society’, as one speaker at this excellent conference highlighted. Despite an everlasting fear that the discipline is under siege from more popular and fashionable genres, military history endures, and like Madonna, regularly reinvents herself.

Traditional operational history – the study of buttons and bullets and blobs on a map – has declined but remains important, as important insights can be offered into the mentality and psychology of human decision-makers under intense pressure. This decline has nevertheless created the impetus for a broader range of study and debate, encompassing other genres, some traditional, and some radically new.

Social history, cultural history, economic history, political history, art history, literary history, media history, gender history, class and religious history, sexuality history, and myth and memory. All were represented with a particular focus on the study of the military. As the keynote speaker, Professor Jeffrey Grey, argued, ‘we take out opportunities where we can’.

As a result of this conference, the study of military history, seems to me to be re-invigorated. The military is closely linked with other aspects of society, and it is impossible, indeed a disservice, to separate these elements from one another. The same currents and challenges that drive adaptation and change in wider society, wields important effects on the military. To study the military in isolation from these undermines our understanding of it as an institution.

Two days after this conference, I flew to Wellington, New Zealand to meet with Professor Charlotte MacDonald and Dr Rebecca Lenihan at Victoria University Wellington, who are studying the social and cultural impact of the garrison state in New Zealand between 1840 and 1870 – the period of the brutal Anglo-Maori Wars.

The communication of ideas, information and knowledge within the military was subject to the same social and cultural currents and upheaval that other parts of society was. The enlightenment of the eighteenth century exerted important influences on the way those in the military thought about their profession, the impact of which continued to be felt well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

From my own perspective, the outcome of this conference confirms for me that the study of military history by the military remains vitally important. Not only does military history offer and opportunity to investigate and analyse command decisions, both successful and unsuccessful, but the subject offers a real opportunity to understand the impact of the military on society and vice versa.

The military frequently feels outpaced by societal developments over which it has no control: this is not a symptom of the Twitter generation, but has always been the case. The military has frequently been caught up in social and political movements and contests, and study of this under-examined aspect of military history can yield important and useful lessons for dealing with different challenges faced today.

You can see the programme from the conference here.

My paper, entitled ‘The Evolution of the British Army’s Use of its History’ is available for download here.

Read about the Soldiers of Empire project at Victoria University Wellington here.

And check out a podcast I recorded when I was in Canberra for The Dead Prussian on Wellington, strategic culture and military innovation.

Image: Reading Room at the Mitchell Wing, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. As always, no research would take place without the help and support of librarians, archivists and curators. Those at the Mitchell have been extraordinarily helpful in meeting my requests over the last two weeks. 

Horizontal Military Innovation and Lessons Reports


In the summer of 1916, in the midst of one of the First World War’s most cataclysmic battles, the German army did a remarkable thing. During the course of the battle of the Somme, it created a new defensive doctrine. What is most remarkable about this is that it did so without the intervention of the German High Command, the Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL). The new doctrine was developed and was instituted by the German units fighting tooth and nail against the British and French armies, only after the battle did the OHL give its imprimatur to this new doctrine. In 1916, the German army successfully innovated through the use of Erfahrungsberichte, or ‘lessons reports,’ that were shared extensively and quickly throughout the German army on the Western Front.

The German experience during the battle of the Somme in 1916 demonstrates a different type of military innovation, one I have termed ‘horizontal innovation’ to distinguish it from other type of innovation examined by scholars of the field. Traditionally, scholars of military innovation have recognised two main types — top-down and bottom-up innovation. As their names imply, these two forms describe how innovation occurred. In top-down innovation, new ideas and new knowledge is created at the apex of an organisation and pushed downwards. This often suits hierarchical military institutions, where influential champions of new ideas or new approaches can be found in senior military officers or sometimes civilians in the chain of command. These senior ‘champions’ have the authority to impose this innovation on their organisation. More recent scholarship, though, as pointed to the importance of new knowledge coming from the lowest levels of the armed forces, often in the heat of combat. In this ‘bottom-up innovation,’ small units provide test beds for new ideas, and the best ideas eventually filter to the top from which they are then shared with the rest of the armed forces, usually via a new formal doctrine. What made the German experience different from these two types of innovation is that units shared knowledge between themselves, without involving the German High Command, and in the process created a new defensive doctrine. Rather than showing bottom-up or top-down innovation, this shows how innovation can occur horizontally between units.

The method of this horizontal innovation was the sharing of knowledge about the latest defensive tactics through Erfahrungsberichte. These reports had evolved throughout 1914 and 1915 as a way by which units could share experiences. Initially, these were written on an ad hoc basis; not all units wrote these, and they followed no set format. In 1914 and early 1915, many higher units (army corps and divisions) circulated Erfahrungsberichte internally. Through the course of 1915, these came to the attention of the OHL, which chose what it deemed significant reports to be distributed throughout the army. Indeed, the OHL saw Erfahrungsberichte as being an important means by which new tactics and new approaches could be shared throughout the army. As I discussed in a previous post, the Erfahrungsbericht of the 1st Army’s attack at Vailly in October 1914 was deliberately used as a model for new offensive tactics, and reports produced by the 6th and 3rd Armies informed new defensive tactical guidance issued by the OHL in October 1915.

So far, this is a good example of bottom-up military innovation — The knowledge of frontline units was gathered by the German High Command and this latest knowledge informed a centrally produced doctrine that was then distributed across the army. Indeed, the OHL sought to deliberately control this process. In January 1916, the OHL forbade the sharing of Erfahrungsberichte between units unless these had been previously approved by the OHL.

The OHL’s control over this learning cycle broke down completely in the heat of the battle of the Somme. The battle of the Somme was not like any battle the German army had hitherto experienced. Faced with the enormous material superiority of the combined French and British armies, the German army struggled desperately to defeat the Entente offensive. Whether or not this was deliberately designed as an attritional battle, the battle of the Somme did enormous damage to the German army. At its height, divisions could last no longer than two weeks before needing to be relieved from the frontline. Thus, unlike previous battles on the Western Front, the battle of the Somme drew in units from across the entire Western Front. Over the course of the battle, 96 German divisions were engaged, some three-quarters of the German army of the Western Front, and many of these divisions fought in the battle two or even three times.

Units that had been ‘fought-out’ in the battle of the Somme went to quieter sectors of the Western Front to rest and refit, and with them they took their most recent experiences of the defensive battle. These they shared with their neighbouring units through Erfahrungsberichte. Indeed, with so many divisions rotating in and out of the battle, demand for Erfahrungsberichte became great — Units desired to know the latest techniques before their inevitable deployment. The armies not engaged in the battle of the Somme used the Erfahrungsberichte to provide training for their own units and modified their own defensive systems to take into account the latest advances from the battle of the Somme. So widespread was the sharing of Erfahrungsberichte from the battle that today, countless examples can be found in the existing divisional files of the German archives.

Thus, the OHL lost control of the lessons learning cycle; units demanded and received the latest reports from the front to prepare themselves. This proved to be a blessing for the German army. By removing the High Command from the loop, this learning cycle sped up to accommodate the demands of the units going to the battle. In the process a new defensive doctrine was hammered out by the units doing the actual fighting in the battle of the Somme. This new defensive doctrine often departed significantly from the existing doctrine and from the orders coming from army- and army-group level, but allowed the frontline divisions to withstand the often overwhelming material superiority of the French and British attackers.

A new German High Command under the direction of Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff recognised this new doctrine when they issued updated defensive guidance in September 1916. They also made a virtue of the Erfahrungsberichte system that had emerged from the battle of the Somme. In 1917, the OHL required units to produced Erfahrungsberichte whenever engaged in battle. Recognising the benefits of rapidly sharing new knowledge, the OHL required units to share their reports widely. Thereby, the OHL of Hindenburg and Ludendorff also acknowledged that it could not and perhaps should not attempt to control the rapid learning cycle produced by effective sharing of lessons from battle. Horizontal innovation had become institutionalised in the German army.

Image: Cover from the I Bavarian Reserve Corps’ report on the experiences of the battle of the Somme. Landesarchiv Baden-Wuerttemberg, Generallandesarchiv, Karlsruhe, 456 F1/527.

For more on military innovation, see the King’s College London Military Innovation and Learning Research Group.

For more on First World War history, see the King’s College London First World War Research Group.