The Evolution of BEF Tactics and Training

The Evolution of BEF Tactics and Training

Notes to a lecture given by Dr. Spencer Jones. (7 slides)

1 The Pre-War Army

Combat hardened.

Core manuals for each service branch and ‘hints’.

Informal and individual.

Ethos rather than doctrine ?


Vs bad reputation ( see Paddy Griffith book) 

Peer reviewed international  Encyclopeadia of the First World War 1914-18 Jay Winter

Tactics tend to fall apart when the shooting starts and troops fall back on their training. Paddy Griffiths

(In sports training technique tends to fall apart which is why repetition, drills, practice and motivation are so important) JV

Undercurrent of the Official History, Edmonds … to prove that it was the regular army, soldiers, ethos and training that won the war.

‘[The Army was nothing] but a collection of stray units each with its individual traditions. The Cavalry, Artillery, Infantry and Engineers lived and trained apart. They were divisions; but as formations they had no real experience in field operations.’ Col. W.N.Nicholson, Behind the Lines, (1939), p.195

2 Pre-war battle hardened

138/157 had seen action, had the experience of being under fire, if only the likes of the Boer War. Difficulty if advancing against enemy fire, setting up artillery and dispersing in the advance.

Core manuals.

Field Service Regulations from 1909

And pocket books on building bridges, supplying troops etc:

Subtle differences in the way divisions trained and approached action.

Aldershot most closely scrutinised.

Other colonels did it their way.

Battalions in Britain trained differently to India

Ethos or doctrine.

Doctrine: understanding of how to train, but small, with good informal networks to exchange what we would now call ‘best practice’ not needing a document to standardised things.

Ethos: Common understanding, networks, comradeship, shared experience on campaigns.

An all volunteer,  long service army compared to Germany and France where conscripts were cycled through.

Colonel Norman McMan, school of musketry, wanted introduction of ‘Tabloid Tactics’ rejected by army in 1910.

Excessive focus on Battalion and Brigade, so little opportunity to train ‘en mass’.

Colonel Nicholson ‘Behind the Lines’

It had not built in capacity to take in new troops.

Funding, space and size to do massive movements in training.

3 To War 1915-15

  • First tactical memorandum in Sept 1914; semi-official Notes from the Front issued in Oct 1914.
  • No opportunity for training in the field.
  • Casualties & swift promotion limited
    “lessons learned”.
  • Challenges of trench warfare.
  • Changing nature of the Army:  Regulars, Indians, Canadians, Territorials and New Army.
  • Ever growing scale of the war.
  • No over-riding doctrine that new units could readily adopt.

A potpourri of tactical memos in Sept 1914

A disproportionate level of casualties suffered by the pre-war army.

Several factors ‘deskilled’ the Army.

Heavy casualties and swift promotions.

Striking contrast between 1914 with 22 year olds led by men in 30s and 40s,

By St Quentin 18 year olds led by 22 year olds.

Everyone had been moved up.

E.g. Brigadiers of 1st Division went on to be poor Divisional commanders.

Unlike Germany, Britain doesn’t have the luxury of experienced staff officers.

A sort of conveyor belt appears by accident. Denying the new comers the Combe cadre to learn with and from.

Challenge of trench warfare – is by its nature attritional.

If you are going to assault a trench you are going to have horrendous casualties.

1915 is the story of the expenditure of experienced troops.

Ever growing scale of the war.

The lack of ‘tabloid tactics’ is now felt.

By end of 1915, regular and territorial depleted and Indian Troops gone to Mesopotamia,

4 Problems of Training

Divisions made responsible for training, was delegated down, but in 1915 the system doesn’t work as troops either front line or resting. Delegated down to Colonels who don’t have the time. 

Ad Hoc training ‘schools’ start to form. Making do with French buildings.

Smiling,engineering, trench construction, then the new weapons, machine guns and grenades.

For officers and  NCOs.

NB See War Diaries on how in down time ad hoc training occurred.

March 1916 SS Pamphlet series begins.

BEF was unevenly trained by the Battle of the Somme.

  • ‘since the days of 1914 when everyone that could be spared was needed to man the trenches, it had been customary to regard trench warfare and training as incompatible.’ Ewing,  History of the 9th Division, pp.175-176
  • Training responsibility lay largely with
  • Ad-hoc training schools emerging in 1915.
  • Tactical advice was shared, but not
  • SS Pamphlet series began in
    March 1916:  SS 101 – Notes for Infantry Officers on Trench Warfare.
  • BEF was large but unevenly trained by the Battle of the Somme 1916.

Improvements after the Battle of the Somme

  • By 1917 “the need for an even,
    uniform and all-pervading standard was
    paramount.”   Gillon, The Story of 29th Division, p.99
  • SS.135 – Instructions for the Training of
    Divisions for Offensive Action
    (Dec 1916).
  • Training Directorate formed under
    Maj Gen Arthur Solly-Flood, 30 Jan 1917.
  • Official History attributed the impressive performance at first day of Arras and Messines Ridge to superior training and tactics.
  •  Not a perfect process – defeat at Cambrai – but steady improvements.

Learning in the BEF, taking by way of example the Machine Gun Corps, was a ‘learning process’ never a ‘learning curve’.

Need for an ‘even, uniform and all-pervading standard was paramount’ Gillon, The story of the 29th Division, p99.

SS.135 Instructions for the training game of Divisors for Offensive Action (Dec16)

30 Jan 1917 Training Directorate formed under Major Gen Solly-Flood.

The way to teach a person to drive is not to have them experience a car crash multiple times hoping that they won’t have them any more.

Now there were men with experience, the experience, gravitas and credibility.

Officials History attributed Arras and Messines Ridge on the training and experience that men now had.


  • Did the BEF ever have a unified
    doctrine?  Did it need one?
  • Training takes time is easily
    disrupted by casualties.
  • The Germans were not static.
  • BEF’s quality of recruit had declined by late 1917 yet army fought well in 1918.

By 1918 – 18 year old conscripts with physical ailments.

Did the BEF have a unified doctrine? 

Did it need one?

Impossible to measure or know how much of the paperwork handed down was adopted.

Training takes time and is disrupted by casualties.

It cannot be rushed, and it has to develop over time.

At some point the German army declines in ability and in 1918 the point at which the BEF is better occurs.

‘The Learning Race’

BEF able to fight a rich mans war

Has core cadres of experience

Newcomers able to join experienced

Hardened core of experience junior officer leadership


Chris Pugsley ‘a revolution’

Jim Beach ‘uneven, almost haphazard’ 

DISS: looking at how a Division trained.

1918 successes due to experience or training

What did the Training Directorate do? merely codifying common knowledge.

Conflating 2016 training and the need to ‘talk’ with 100 years ago.

Fair to say the British Army was the best in the world during the 100 days. 

After April 1917 French army very tightly controlled to avoid casualties and overreach.

Americans went through the same problems but learn. Pershing’ belief in crack riflemen will swarm over into a battle of movement. They are going to do it their way. Meuse -Argonne a carnal house. A completely amateur army with echos of 1915. Do better when attached as units to FRENCH and BEF.

Mark Rootaluaia. BEF AEF Way of War. 

Two followed British best practice, two followed Pershing to the letter. Two take their objectives, the other two get minced.

Big farm boys brought up on beef. Postcard ‘big but no heart’.


Haig as CNC and the use and invigorated spread of manuals

College Conference for Colonels

New weapons

British pragmatism vs. German doctrine.

Training during the 100 days limited as too often in action.

REF : GHQ recognises which divisions are doing better at training. See Beddington in the Lindley Hart Collection. 

Which Divisions get reputations as ‘crack’.

Haig creates a more professional environment.

Myth of Australians and Canadians as big,  actually from Sydney factories or recently left Britain. Australians also, had recently left Britain which they still called home.


Language a barrier

French doctrine translated and distributed without explanation

REF : Lafarge 1915 proto-Storm trooper tactics, translated and distributed.

But how much absorbed?

Verdun. Certain individuals, say 

REF Adenbrook.

Did the Royal Artillery learn the creeping barrage from the French.

Journal of army historical research

The army was not an unattractive place : it was the army or the workhouse. 50% unskilled in 1913.


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