The Learning Process in Practice

Some Case Studies of Tactics and Training in the BEF, 1916-1918

Notes from a lecture given by Prof. Peter Simkins

Tactics and training

The Problem: The core of the tactical problem until 1918 was how to overcome by adapted fire tactics and applied technology the domination of open ground and No Man’s Land by defensive fire from artillery and machine guns.

The Solution: Fire and movement gave way to interest in artillery, firepower, machine guns, tanks and aircraft.

The proportion of infantry to other arms fell from 53.89% in 1914 to 31.9% in 1918. Command and control lay more in the application of firepower than in the deployment of infantry alone, though infantry battle formation could still make a difference, especially in the 100 days, when massed firepower was not always available. 

Artillery in Transition

It went through a four-stage transition:

The realisation that existing practice inadequate.

The testing of new methods and build up of materials. 1915-1916

The tactics of destruction. 1916-1917

The adoption of neutralising and suppression. 1916-1918

Somme 1916

The BEF’s artillery in 1916 was used in an attempt to restore mobility by winning the firefight at the expense of surprise.

Availability of guns frequently determined the scope of operations.

For a time, command and control centralised because of the need to co-ordinate artillery resources to the maximum effect. 

The tactics of destruction also dominated for a while

This period saw three-phase artillery tactics:

  1. Preparatory bombardment
  2. Barrage
  3. Exploitation/consolidation
  • This period saw three-phase artillery tactics – preparatory bombardment ; barrage ; and exploitation/consolidation.
  • The primary aim of the first phase was destruction but new variations of the barrage were tested.
  • The task of destroying strongpoints and machine gun posts was given to heavy artillery under Corps control, together with counter-battery fire and the ‘deep battle’.
  • The scale of artillery planning made more centralised control essential (through the Corps).
  • Gunnery techniques, standards of accuracy and the quality of ammunition were all still far from perfect.

Line waves of four

  • ‘A single line will fail, two lines will usually fail, three lines will sometimes fail, but four lines will usually succeed’.
  • The weight and energy of the disciplined assault was apparently more important than a rush forward.  Assault must be delivered as one man. Waves of men going on at 50 to 100 paces distance is best method’ (Rawlinson)
  • ‘The assaulting troops must push forward at a steady pace in successive lines, each line adding fresh impetus to the preceding line’ (Fourth Army Tactical Notes)
  • Despite the advice contained in the ‘Tactical Notes’, Rawlinson did not insist on standardised formations and deployment on 1 July.

Weight and energy more important than speed in the rush forward.

Each lines adding fresh impetus.

80 Battalions, 53 before the assault, 10 rushed the German line, 12 advanced at a steady, pace, 5 no account.

  • Lewis guns, Mills bombs, rifle grenades, and Stokes mortars increased the options open to infantry but needed organisational changes in 1917 to exploit them more fully.
  • The formation of the Machine Gun Corps in late 1915 changed the roles of heavy and light machine guns.  The overhead, indirect machine gun barrage became more feasible in 1916.
  • The integration of trench mortars and machine guns into the brigade organisation offered the possibility of more concentrated and co-ordinated infantry firepower closer to hand in the assault.

REF : Tony Ball, Crossing No Man’s Land. 

Ivor Maxse : have a plan,then vary it.

  • Lewis guns, mills bombs, rifle grenades, and Stokes mortars increased the options open to infantry but needed organisational changes to exploit them.
  • 1917 creeping barrage standardised.
  • Overheard machine gun fire.
  • 106 fuse helped breaking the wire.
  • Calibration and calculations  based on weather and barometric pressure, improved artillery accuracy.
  • Flash spotting and sound ranging- more effective counter battery fire.

December 1916 creation of Army Field Artillery.

NB Great period of reform. providing a more flexible artillery reserve and reduced strain on the divisional gunners.

Lessons and Legacy of the Somme

  • By 1917 the creeping barrage had become standard and was better understood and applied.
  • Overhead machine gun barrages were more common.
  • The introduction of the 106 fuse helped artillery to cut wire without cratering the ground.
  • Calibration, and calculations based on weather and barometric pressure, improved artillery accuracy.
  • Progress was made towards the location of German batteries by flash-spotting and sound-ranging, facilitating more effective counter-battery fire.   This was accompanied by the appointment of counter-battery staff officers.
  • In December 1916 the field artillery was reorganised with the creation of Army Field Artillery (AFA) Brigades.   This provided a more flexible artillery reserve and reduced the strain on divisional gunners.
  • There was a renewed and growing emphasis on higher musketry standards and less reliance on the ‘cult of the bomb’.
  • The reorganisation of the infantry platoon in early 1917 encouraged more flexible small unit tactics.  The platoon became a miniature all-arms battlefield team capable of providing its own integrated fire support.
  • The preparation and dissemination of training pamphlets such as SS 143, SS 144 and SS 144 led to more standard operational procedures and application of tactical lessons, aided by an increase in schools of instruction at GHQ, Army, Corps and divisional levels.

Importance on musketry rather than bombing up a line

Platoon creating more flexible units

SS 143, SS 144 and SS145 ? 

BG Arthur Solly-Flood

Nov 1916 Commandant of the Third Army School

Late Nov joined the French Army at Chalfont who were already developing self-contained platoons.

Tried by 7th Norfolks, early in 1917

2 December 1917 demonstration of platoon organisation In front of Haig.

Solely-Flood appointed  Director of Training.

  • ‘The Somme represented a ghastly and expensive initial training programme for a new British army that, having learned some bitter lessons in 1916, could search for solutions in 1917 and apply the results of this search in 1918 to achieve victory.  New infantry tactics, new artillery tactics, integration of the various combat arms and more experienced troops were all the direct result of the Somme operation’. (Roger Lee, ‘British Battle Planning in 1916 and the Battle of Fromelles’, p.57)

Four Sections.

Rifle section 


Lewis gun

Verdun Visit

Early Jan 1917 to learn

2/3rds gunners

Range of ranks

All from 1st3rd or Fifth – all that are going to attack at Arras.

Major Generals Arthur Scott (gunner, GOC  12 Div, Third Army) ; Victor Couper (infantryman, GOC 14 Div, Third Army) ; J.F.N. ‘Curly’ Birch (gunner, MGRA at GHQ) ; H C Uniacke (gunner, MGRA, Fifth Amy) ; R.B. Stephens (infantryman, GOC 5 Div, First Army) ; Cameron Shute (infantryman, GOC 63 Div, Fifth Army) ; Arthur Currie (gunner, then infantryman, GOC 1 Canadian Div, First Army) ; Cyril Deverell (infantryman, GOC 3 Div, Third Army).

Brigadier Generals H de T Phillips (gunner, BGRA VI Corps, Third Army) ; M Peake (gunner, BGRA I Corps, First Army) ; J.T. ‘Jock’ Burnett-Stuart (infantryman, BGGS at GHQ, soon to be BGGS VII Corps, Third Army) ; C.M. Ross-Johnson (gunner, BGRA VII Corps, Third Army).

Lieutenant-Colonels C.C. Armitage (gunner, GSO1, GHQ) ; J.E. Brind (gunner, GSO1, Third Army) ; A.E.McNamara (infantryman, GSO1, 32 Div, Fifth Army) ; E.O. Lewin (gunner, GSO2, staff officer to MGRA First Army) ; H.W.B.Thorp (infantryman, GSO2, 50 Div, Third Army).

  • Majors A.F.Brooke (gunner, BM Div Artillery, 18 Div, Fifth Army) ; R.T. Hammick (gunner, BM Div Artillery, 1 Canadian Div, First Army) ; R.E. Johnson (gunner, GSO2, staff officer to MGRA Third Army) ; and P. Robinson (gunner, staff officer to GOCRA II Corps, Fifth Army).

GHQ talent spotting

Becoming a platoon commanders war

Growing importance of counter-battery

More us of ground-attack

Greater use of leap-frogging

Increased use of multi-layered artillery

Longer time to consolidate

20 Sept 1917

18pdrs, 240 machine guns, barrage by howitzers  60pdrs.

Tactics of destruction moving to suppression and destruction.

Cambria and the intensity and concentration of fire.

Ss153 and 144 didn’t see the end to platoon structures toward cross training : platoon more versatile in itself.

28 Sept 1918 2 Lewes guns, 2 rifles.

Canadian Corps under Byng and Currier did more changes to the Platoon.

100 days saw limited objective attacks on a broad front at different points in rapid succession, supported by superior logistics.

Operational tempo with three battalions rotating.

All arms become common place.

Case Study: Arthur SOlly-Flood and SS143

  • November 1916 : Brigadier-General Arthur Solly-Flood (GOC, 35 Bde, 12th Division) – who had worked with Haig on FSR (1909) – was appointed Commandant of the Third Army School.
  • In late November he joined a party of BEF officers who visited the French Army at Chalons to study its current practice, including its adoption of a self-contained platoon organisation.
  • There is evidence that the new French platoon organisation and tactics offered an ‘off the shelf’ solution to British tactical problems and provided inspiration for SS 143.
  • Solly-Flood took such ideas back to the Third Army School to experiment with and modify for use in the BEF.
  • Solly-Flood tests the new platoon organisation and attack formations, adapted for British needs and tried out by the 7th Norfolks, in early 1917.
  • A demonstration of the new platoon organisation by the 7th Norfolks is attended by Douglas Haig and some 200 officers from the Third Army on 2 February 1917.
  • Shortly afterwards, Haig gives the green light for the appointment of Solly-Flood as Director-General of Training at GHQ ; for the adoption of the new platoon organisation ; and for the production and dissemination of SS143, SS144 and SS152 in an effort to standardise and co-ordinate training based on the new tactical principles.

Taking Trones Wood again

Ground attack planes, tanks,


A enfilade, relay and fire.

The Search for Solutions 1917

  • Growing appreciation that this was a ‘platoon commanders war’.
  • Growing recognition of the importance of counter-battery fire.
  • Return to emphasis on musketry.
  • Attempt to adopt Standard Operational Procedures in order to ensure greater uniformity in tactic and reduce the need for over-elaborate orders.
  • Increasing emphasis on carefully-prepared, methodical, limited-objective, ‘bite and hold’ attacks.
  • More use of ground-attack aircraft
  • Greater use of ‘leap-frogging’ in attacks and advances, with longer pauses at each successive objective and a reduction in depth of each successive step.
  • Increased use of the multi-layered barrage.As 1917 wore on there was a swing away from the tactics of destruction and towards the tactics of suppression and neutralisation in the
  • attack.
  • It became possible, using a mathematical formula of guns and ammunition, set against length of front and infantry bayonet strength, to guarantee a local success of 2,000 – 3,000 yards in depth, though at the expense of surprise.
  • However, ‘predicted’ fire (no preliminary bombardment or registration of targets) was possible by the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917, thanks to technical advances in gunnery and the improved skills of the gunners.  This helped restore the element of surprise. 
  • Reliance now also being placed on tanks to perform tasks such as wire-cutting (previously carried out by artillery during the preliminary bombardment).  At Cambrai this included the creation of a passage through the wire of the Hindenburg Line.
  • Used en masse at Cambrai for the first time, tanks were still expected to help infantry to reach their objectives, but they were now an integral part of the operational plan and no longer just for mopping up or dealing with machine gun posts and strongpoints.
  • Preparations for Cambrai demanded new standards of planning and training which were required for the successful co-ordination of tanks and other arms (refined at Hamel in July 1918).
  • Of 1,003 guns firing at zero hour at Cambrai, two-thirds were assigned to counter-battery duties.


The. 25% smoke

Creeping barrage

Enfilading barrage

Further Changes in Platoon Organisation

  • SS 143 and SS 144, issued in early 1917, did not mark the end of changes in platoon structure (Solly-Flood left the post of DGT in October 1917).
  • The platoon structure of SS 143 contained the seeds of its own obsolescence.  The loss of specialists in an assault compromised platoon effectiveness.
  • As early as the spring of 1917 there were signs of a swing away from specialisation and towards cross-training in weaponry as well as a renewed emphasis on musketry.
  • A revised edition of SS 143, issued in February 1918, introduced a platoon structure of three rifle sections (all including men trained in the use of bombs and rifle grenades) and one Lewis gun section.
  • The manpower crisis and overall reorganisation in February-March 1918, exacerbated by the effects of the German spring offensives, necessitated a reduction, in June 1918, from four sections to three – i.e. two rifle sections and one ‘double’ Lewis gun section (with two Lewis guns).
  • On 28 September 1918, the June instruction was revoked and, to give the platoon better balance and ease tactical handling, its structure was changed again to two rifle sections and two Lewis gun sections (the ‘2 x 2’ structure.


The Platoon and the Canadian Corps


  • The Canadian Corps, under both Byng and Currie, worked in  parallel to – and sometimes ahead of the rest of the BEF – in seeking improvements in the platoon structure.
  • Orders to the effect that ‘ a new platoon organisation’ would be initiated throughout the Corps were already being issued by 29 December 1916.
  • Weaponry cross-training became a matter of Corps policy in May 1917 (Rawling).
  • The ‘2 x 2’ platoon structure was in evidence in the Canadian Corps in May 1918 (the Canadians being relatively free from the manpower problems afflicting the rest of the BEF).


100 days

Use of air supply.

5th Duke of Wellington

17 August 1918

Front and support trenches 200 yds apart

Smile barrage

Creeping barrage

Parallel bombing attack

Lewis guns following

Dropping tench posts as flanking guard

E.g. Highly sophisticated small unit exAmple

Tonne and a half of shells to each Canadian 

9th  ootesteine Ypres

E.G. 18th August -918

  • The Hundred Days saw limited objective attacks on a broad front at different points in rapid succession, supported by superior logistics.
  • BEF developed an operational tempo which the Germans were at last unable to match.
  • The all-arms battle became commonplace (Hamel, Amiens, Hindenburg Line).  However, it was also frequently the availability of support, rather than the quantity, that mattered most at a local level.
  • Ground-attack aircraft, a handful of tanks, sections or batteries of 18-pounders, and trench mortars, were often the key to success – especially as German defensive tactics were now based on defended locations, artillery and machine guns.
  • Enfilade, relay and back barrages were frequently employed by the BEF’s gunners.
  • Air supply of ammunition by parachute, supply and gun carrier tanks, armoured cars and motor machine gun units all helped to increase mobility.
  • Surprise was again possible – massed artillery and tanks were no longer always necessary.

Inspectorate of Training

  • An Inspectorate of Training, under Ivor Maxse, was established on 3 July 1918 (given impetus by Guy Dawnay, Haig’s MGGS Staff Duties).
  • This did not modify or replace the role of the existing Training Directorate, though the latter was renamed the ‘Training Branch’.  The Training Branch retained responsibility for the BEF’s training policy, its tactical doctrine and its schools system.
  • The Inspectorate’s responsibilities were intended to be complementary to those of the Training Branch – ‘to assist in bringing the training to a high pitch’ (Dawnay).
  • The problem which the Inspectorate faced was that, in practice, the independence of some commanders – encouraged in the BEF – often militated against uniformity of training.
  • The Inspectorate was created to tackle this problem head-on.
  • Our job is to interpret GHQ doctrine, as regards training, and to institute uniformity in the several Armies in France’ (Maxse, 23 July 1918).
  • Maxse almost certainly had some influence on the adoption of the new ‘2 x 2’ platoon structure of September 1918.
  • There is strong evidence that Maxse was familiar with the practice of the Canadian Corps and its adoption of the ‘2 x 2’ platoon structure before the September 1918 change.
  • Time and the constantly-changing tactical challenges of the Hundred Days probably prevented uniform or universal application of the June or September changes.
  • However, these changes illustrate that GHQ continued to play a proactive role in seeking improvements in the BEF’s tactics and organisation even in the final months and weeks of the war.

And Some of them liked it and others did not

And there were a few who took as their view 

  That they didn’t much like it because it was new

   There was also the bore who had heard it before


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s