The British Army and Conduct of Warfare, 1914-1918

Ian F.W. Beckett
Horner Chair of Military Theory, US Marine Corps University

October 9, 2002

Note: The opinions expressed below are those of the author only and do not represent the views of the Marine Corps University, the Marine Corps, the Department of the Navy, or the Department of Defense.

To start, it's useful to bear in mind the British popular memory of World War I. Critical to this consciousness is the sense that a generation of young men was lost on the Western Front due to the incompetence of the Generals. This memory reflected the "battle of the memoirs" that occurred in the 1920s and 30s, as David Lloyd George, J.F.C. Fuller, B.H. Liddell Hart, and others wrote of their experiences. Embedded in these arguments was the belief that the British Army failed to adapt to new circumstances and that this lack of adaptation led to the terrible losses of the First World War.

In evaluating the British Army in World War I, it's important to recognize that the world changed dramatically in the years approaching the First World War. The railroad and telegraph emerged as profound influences, while improvements in range and rates of fire significantly improved the performance of weapons in combat. Further, universal conscription expanded the scale of modern armies with an accompanying increase in the magnitude of destructive capacity.

The traditional view is that an inherent contempt for technology or some latent conservatism hindered the British Army's ability to understand and react to these changes. However, I would argue that the British Army did attempt to react, but that these technologies and historical experience did not provide a clear predictor of the future. 19th century conflicts like the US Civil War and the Russo-Turkish War were far removed from Europe and offered few lessons. Further, the more relevant conflicts such as the Russo-Japanese War, the Boer War, and the German wars of the 1860s and 1870s possessed contradictory implications. For example, while some argued that superior morale was the key to Japan's victory over Russia, others contended that poor Russian infantry skills made the difference, and still others contended that superior Japanese training was the advantage.

Compounding these mixed messages was the British Army's belief that victory resulted from a fusion of military, social, and moral factors. The ability of morale to drive soldiers forward through the empty battlefield to the guns of the opponent translated into a belief in the offensive over the defensive. While technology may have changed conflict, the scope of that change was not entirely clear, and the British belief in a socio-moral view of conflict nonetheless pushed strategy towards offensive campaigns.

Indeed, the maneuver campaigns of the first months of World War I confirmed some of these expectations. However, two changes became apparent almost immediately. First, pre-war planning understated ammunition expenditures by many orders of magnitude. The ammunition requirement for an 18-pound British artillery piece included only 1000 shells, with 300 shells per gun in reserve and replenishment of 500 shells over six months. Given the ability to fire four shells per minute meant the entire allotment of shells for six months would support only 7-8 hours of sustained fire support. Further, casualties far exceeded any historical parallel. While planners assumed a "wastage" rate of 40% over six months, and 65-70% over 12 months, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) experienced over 60% casualties in only three months. As mass artillery and mass casualties became evident early on, it was not until fall of 1914 that a third, more fundamental change occurred on the Western Front: "war of position" replaced "war of movement." Trench warfare and static defensive lines now characterized a conflict previously expected to be wholly offensive in movement.

As the BEF attempted to confront this new environment, senior military leaders faced massive managerial problems stemming from the rapidly growing size of the British Army. In 1914, the British Army included 247,000 personnel, of which 13,000 were officers, and six fielded divisions in Europe. By 1917, there were 1.5 million soldiers in 56 divisions assigned to Western Front, and the staff officer requirements of 1917 alone matched the entire officer cadre of 1914. Formerly concerned with small unit actions carrying out the duties of an imperial constabulary, the British Army would eventually integrate 4.7 million enlistments and conduct warfare on the Continent using comparatively immense formations.

The institutional framework reacting to these challenges was encumbered with several constraints. Not only was the British Army extremely centralized, but personal relationships among the relatively small officer corps were also critical to the functioning of command and control. Moreover, the British Army was unfamiliar with large formation maneuvers, with only one peacetime corps and only three general officers with corps command experience. These structural challenges also were compounded by inconsistent principles of command. Officers may have had substantial flexibility and authority in one campaign, but suffered from micromanagement and second-guessing in a second campaign. While General Sir Douglas Haig understood this tension, he himself showed persistent inconsistency when commanding the BEF in France and Flanders. Finally, the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the British Army was both physically and psychologically isolated from the realities of the battlefield. Located at Montreuil, GHQ was far removed from the actual front and perpetuated perceptions of "shadow generalship." The dichotomy between delegation and micromanagement, coupled with the absolute loyalty demanded by General Haig, created a culture of fear and timidity at GHQ—and led to disastrous consequences on the battlefield.

Multiple technical problems also confronted the British Army. First as noted above, artillery expenditures greatly exceeded expectations, and these large artillery barrages were responsible for 70% of casualties (as compared to only 10% of casualties in the Russo-Japanese War). The significance of artillery also lies in the need to cross no-man's land, suppress enemy fire, and leverage small changes into large breakthroughs. However, trench warfare placed an implicit limit on the mobility of artillery, and cannon could not transit the trenches crisscrossing the battlefield.

The second technical challenge was the lack of responsive communications. With wireless only available in primitive form and telephone wires vulnerable to artillery, commanders were forced to rely on runners and carrier pigeons. As a result, once the infantry left the trenches or the barrage commenced, commanders had very few means of understanding progress, identifying problems, and taking corrective actions. Adjusting artillery or bringing in reserves was difficult to achieve without the clear understanding of the battlefield denied by primitive communications. As with the limited mobility of artillery, the lack of responsive communications made any breakthroughs in the trenches difficult to achieve, much less exploit.

The challenges and institutional constraints of the British Army were manifest at Neuve Chapelle, the location of the first attempt at breakthrough in March 1915. Reflecting the constant artillery shell shortages in the opening stages of the war, the British fired all 340 of their artillery guns in 35 minutes before the shell supply was exhausted. This hurricane style barrage was effective as 288 pounds of artillery high explosive per yard of trench pummeled the Germans. However, the British made the mistake of expanding the concept of hurricane barrages to encompass a wider area for a longer period of time—a linear extrapolation that ignored the declining pounds of artillery per square yard of trench associated with the expanded area. Used in later campaigns, this expanded approach did not nearly approach the psychological effects inflicted on the Germans at Neuve Chapelle.

In other ways, British innovation was uneven. By 1917, technical advances in the range and accuracy of British artillery were starting to influence combat. However, the Germans countered with a defense in depth, a band of mutually supporting trenches sometimes approaching 12,000 yards in depth, to move their troops beyond artillery range. As these trenches grew in depth, the length of ground unable to be traversed by artillery also increased—further complicating the use of artillery. The British also imitated the defense in depth concept, but relied on static independent fortifications that lacked the flexibility and mutually supportive fields of fire of the German defenses.

British infantry soldiers also showed innovation after lack of communications caused attacks to occur without artillery support at Passchendaele. To compensate for any gap in artillery coverage, the British Army pursued more powerful man-portable types of firepower. The rifle grenade, small mortars, and the American Lewis machine gun became key elements of the British infantry, first as individual weapons companies and then as standard arms throughout all units.

As the March 1918 German offensives struck the Allied lines, the Germans were unable to convert tactical successes into strategic victory. While overwhelming British defenders in one of five offensives, the German effort lost momentum due to lack of supplies and a raging influenza epidemic that disproportionately hurt the Germans. More broadly, the German superiority in tactics (schwerpunkt attacks, small unit tactics) was squandered in attacks on strategically insignificant areas that did not affect the Allied center of gravity (such as ports).

While the German offensive did not bring victory, the Allies likewise were unable to achieve immediate success. The performance of opposing forces may be degraded by the need to don chemical protection gear, but gas attacks did not lead to decisive victory. In addition, despite over two years of operational experience, the tank was still not a significantly persistent force on the battlefield due to extremely poor reliability.

Given the potential reemergence of a familiar stalemate, what was behind the rapid fall on the Germans in the final 100 days? Critical to success was the improved organization of the British Army. The officer corps was much stronger by 1918, reflecting the benefits of a seasoned group of young officers who had survived years of conflict. Showing the priorities of the coalition chief, General Foch, General Haig's pursuit of grand victories also was abandoned in favor of smaller more persistent actions.

In addition, the technical advantages held by the Allied proved significant. Better communications, use of aircraft, and better artillery support were all improvements over British operations earlier in the war. More significant however, was the sheer weight of materiel now filling the ranks of the Allies. By the final 100 days, German forces just could not withstand the overwhelming artillery, firepower, and mass of the rejuvenated Allied forces.

What does all this mean? First, the Great War was a transitory war. While cavalry charges still occurred in the East and lines of battle still characterized Jutland, World War I also saw the somewhat limited but still profoundly destructive applications of poison gas, machine guns, tanks, and aircraft. Such a fluid situation posed multiple intellectual and technical challenges to the British soldier. And, the British Army did adapt. While the German army possessed superior flexibility, small unit tactics, and defensive position, the victory parade did not occur in Berlin. In many ways, the British Army overcame the encumbrances of a small peacetime army, rigid personnel systems, and erratic command and control to play a pivotal role in the final victory.

Ian F.W. Beckett is Visiting Professor and the Horner Chair of Military Theory at the US Marine Corps University. Prior to MCU, Dr Beckett was the Head of the School of Literature and History and Professor of Modern History at the University of Luton, and formerly Senior Lecturer in the Department of War Studies at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. His publications include The Amateur Military Tradition, 1558-1945 (Manchester University Press, 1991) and The Great War, 1914-18 (Longman, 2001).

Rapporteur: Oliver Fritz

back to Seminar Schedule, Fall 2002