***Stemming the Tide: Officers and Leadership in the BEF 1914

Stemming the Tide : Officers and Leadership in the BEF 1914 (ed) Spencer Jones

Our intention is that in the series of books your find a military history that is new and innovative and academically rigorous, with a strong basis in fact and in analytical research, but also is the kind military history that is for all readers, whatever their particulars interests, or their level of interest in the subject.
To paraphrase an old aphorism : a military history book is no less important just because it is popular, and it is not more scholarly just because it is dull.

Stephen Badsey WLV
Introduction : Spencer Jones

The BEF’s 1914 time in action was brief, with its main combat involvement lasting just four months between August and the end of 1914. It was a small, professional force that consisted of six infantry divisions and a single cavalry division at the outset of the war, making it quite unlike the vast militaries of Europe or the great British citizen army that would take its place.p17

This unique army found itself fighting an unusual campaign. 

The nature of combat in 1914 was markedly different from the trench warfare of 1915 to 1918. August and early September 1914 were defined by fast moving operations and pitched battles in the open. Whilst machine guns and artillery proved the formidable killing power, the campaign also saw traditional cavalry playing a crucial role and engaging in cold steel combat (5). Stephen Badsey, Doctrine and Reform in the British Cavalry 1880-1918 (Aldershot, Ashgate, 2008), p.239-248; Spencer Jones ‘Scouting for Soldiers: Reconnaissance and the British Cavalry 1899-1914’ in War in history, 18(4), pp.510-513.

It was not until the fighting at Ypres in October and November 1914 that the war assumed a more static character, but the hasty entrenchments and improvised obstacles deployed here bore little resemblance to the complex trench networks and dents lines of barbed wire that come to define the Western Front. p18
Although its time in the field was comparatively short, the BEF exercised an important and arguably a vital role in the 1914 campaign. Operating on the left flank of the French and advancing into Belgium, the BEF unexpectedly found itself facing the main thrust of the German invasion:

  • 23 August : Mons
  • 26 August : Le Cateau
  • Great Retreat
  • 6-12 September : Battle of the Marne – turn and counterattack
  • 13-15 September : Battle of the Aisne – BEF’s advanced stalled against dug in German defenders.
  • 19 October – 22 November : Battle of Ypres

The stubborn defence of Ypres cemented the reputation of the BEF. 

It had proven its fighting qualities, played a vital role in defeating the German invasion of France and then sacrificed itself defending the last free city of “Brave Little Belgium”.p19

Command: is a managerial function that emphasises direction, coordination and affective use of forces at the commanders disposal. (16) G.D.Sheffield (Ed.) Leadership & Command: The Anglo-American Military Experience since 1861 (London, Brassey’s, 1997, pp1-9.

: is concerned with inspiration and motivation, with skilled leaders able to persuade the troops to endure hardship and incur dangers that they would otherwise avoid. (17) Ibid., pp9-14.
See image for further reading
Exacerbating the problem of command inexperience was the improvised nature of the staff arrangements, particularly in II Corps and the cavalry division. As a cost saving measure these formations had been denied a permanent peace time staff, and on the outbreak of war the posts were hastily filled with officers who had no prior experience of working together.

Smith-Dorrien was able to overcome this handicap through virtue of his own ability and the strengths of his Chief of Staff George Firestier-Walker, but Simon Robbin’s chapter on Allenby reveals that the weak staff arrangements played a major role in the disintegration of the Cavalry Division into its component brigades. p21

Mark Connelly highlights the fact that James Grierson, although otherwise innovative thinker and trainer, did not impose uniformity on those he commanded, whilst Brian Curragh shows that Henry Wilson’s attempts to create a school of thought in the army but only a cheek to moderate success for the outbreak of war.p21
However while they were clear command failures during the 1914 campaign, the BEF ultimately quitted itself well in battle and played a vital role in halting the German invasion. A key factor in this victory was the high quality of leadership within the army. These leadership skills had been developed and honed in its conflicts around the British Empire.p21
Tactical reform in the aftermath of the Anglo-Boer War had codified the British emphasis on leadership. Combined Training and its successor, Field Service Regulations, encouraged tactical flexibility and enshrined the authority of the man on the spot to make decisions. (21) Field Service Regulations, part 1. (HMSO, London, 1909), pp. 27-28.





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