From Boer War to First World War

From Boer War to First World War – Spencer Jones

BEF whilst field Marshall Sir John French, and corps commanders Lieutenant-General Sir Douglas Haig and and General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien and leader of the cavalry division Major General Edmund Allenby had all served during the Boer War 1899-1902, only a small handful of their men had any combat experience and almost a third of their troops had only been in the army for two years or less. Ascoli ‘Mons Star’ 8. p4.

Lack of Reconnaissance
23 August 1914
Ignorant of their opponents strength and intentions both armies advanced, which led to a collision at the Battle of Mons. p5.

Clumsy German attacks were initially beaten back but as they made ground and the French retreated the need to do likewise or be flanked became necessary. p6.

Fearless rearguard actions were fought 24th and 25th August.

What were the key tactical lessons learnt from the Boer War?
How were these ideas implemented into tactical and training reforms?
To what extent was the BEF of 1914 ultimately shaped by the tactical and operational lessons derived from the Boer War?

Tactical ideas
Resulting reforms
Changes in training that made improvement possible

although faced with a profusion of walls from which to draw examples there was no formal system for disseminating tactical lessons drawn from combat to the wider army. p21

Training in tactics was further limited by a lack of ground over which to conduct manoeuvers and the constant need to supply drafts for the garrison of India reducing the number of men available for company training, under such circumstances individual training of the men focused on gymnastics snd physical drill to inculcate obedience to orders. p22 Grierson ‘Scarlet into Khaki’ 173
C2 Doctrine and Ethos
Training was principally focused on simple drills with financial stringency and restrictions on manoeuvers meaning the training at the gate level and above was a rare occurrence. indeed the Brigades dispatched to South Africa only the battalions of Major-General Henry Hillyard’s second brigade had been formed to gather and had had the chance to train as a unit in peacetime. p37 Elgin Commission.

The relative success of the BEF in the defence battles of 1914 in particular, lends support the idea that the British Army emerged as a tactically skilful force in the aftermath of the Boer War, although weaknesses undoubtedly existed at an operational level. In addition the unique Imperial role of the British Army meant that copying German or French operational methods would’ve been inappropriate for the type of campaigns that the army was likely to fight, limiting the flexibility and adaptability that was required in colonial campaigns. p39

Three aspects of study:

1) change in training ethos to encourage high levels of initiative
2) difficulties that prevented the adoption of formal doctrine
3) the willpower versus firepower debate that encouraged a belief in the offensive, arguably to excessive levels. p39

Strict discipline, unquestioning obedience and close control may have worked well against poorly armed forces such as Zulus and Mahdist, but was questionable against rifle-equipped opposition, such as the tribesmen of the North-West Frontier. p40 Gatacre, ‘Few Notes on Hill Fighting’.

Battle of Moder River – so many officers killed that badges of rank and swords were abandoned. p41 Ramsay ‘Command and Cohesion’ 140

Elgin Commission : officers and men to be trained to take greater initiative. To offset command paralysis in the absence of orders, cultivating intelligence and initiative would prove crucial in getting troops across fireswept ground.

Lieutenant-General Sir Ian Hamilton felt that the solution lay in developing a small elite army based around highly trained soldiers, who could be relied upon to press forward individually or in groups, laying covering fire for comrades and seizing advantages presented by local cover. p41 Elgin Commission.

Captains and subalterns given more responsibility and encouraged to exercise their leadership skills in peacetime. p44 Hamilton ‘Training of troops During 1906’. Jay Stone and Schmidt, Boer War and Military Reforms, 117

Vs Unreasoning and mechanical adherence to the letter of orders and to routine when action under service conditions. p44 War Office Combined Training 1902.

Musketry training – individual accuracy and ability to estimate ranges, moving away from volleys and iron fire discipline. p46

Improvements in training took place for all ranks 1902-1914.

The skills of the BEF has been developed as a result of changes in attitude and training in the aftermath of the Boer War. p49.

1904 Esther Committee replaced commander in chief with Britain’s first General Staff.

The need for close cooperation of all arms, based on lessons in Natal, were emphasised in all manuals. p52.

NB Field Service Regulations 1909 – created a uniform doctrine, according to Jay Luvaas, without it the enormous expansion of the British Army in the WW1 would have resulted in utter chaos, according to Corelli Barnet

Luvass ‘Education of an Army, 309 b
Barnett quoted in De Groot ‘Douglas Haig, 1861-1928. 128

The dichotomy between tactical skill and operational weakness was influenced by the experience of the Boer War. p56

The high tactical quality of the regular BEF was it critical importance in surviving ultimately blunting the onslaught the Germans through Belgium and France.

The elite nature of the BEF was a direct result of the new training ethos that emerged as a result of the Boer War, replacing unthinking of obedience, dread of responsibility, and strict discipline, with individual initiative and skill at arms.
Early set backs show clearly that frontal attacks against well-positioned Boers could succeed only with strong artillery support, wide infantry extensions, and skilful tactics. P59

To remain purely on the defensive was to “suffer war, not make it”. p60 Battine ‘Offensive versus Defensive’ 654.

Respect for firepower was eroded by the ‘popularity of aggressive tactics’ … creating a ‘virtual cult of the offensive in the French Army and becoming a major influence for both the British and the Germans. p.61

British soldiers serving at Mons were amazed at the appearance of close-order columns of Germans and inflicted dreadful casualties at the First Battle of Ypres. p68 Terraine, ‘Mons’, 83; Beckett, Ypres 48-49.

Ever changing governments preferred patriotism over discipline. p68 Porch, ‘March to the Marne’ 214-215.

Battle of Aisne
A lack of urgency and direction from higher command led to a piecemeal and inadequate attack. The Official History was scathing. p69
Excessive diversity of method amongst various divisions.


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