General Sir John Monash – The First Military Commander?





An Assessment By


Dr George Bailey OBE




The military management skills of General Sir John Monash, commander of the Australian Corps on the Western Front in 1918, is the subject of this assessment. The objective is to examine whether or not he brought unique competencies to leadership based on his earlier business experiences. Benchmarking his actions against those of other senior British Expeditionary Force commanders such as Sir Henry Rawlinson, Sir Arthur Currie and Sir Andrew Russell enable his overall performance to be analysed. Contemporary management concepts are used to test the findings.

Both primary research, the examination of original letters and reports, and secondary research, the literature about the First World War, have provided information to support the overall conclusion. Monash was a pioneer in military management but not unique. He shared with others from business and commercial backgrounds the ability to exploit management ideas and the new technologies current during the Great War. He should be remembered for bringing Twentieth Century thinking to an Imperial Army still largely dominated by Nineteenth Century teachings.


Table of Contents


Table of Contents

Why Examine the Military Management of the Great War?

The Shaping of Business Management in the Early Twentieth Century

Military Commanders as Seekers of Sustainable Competitive Advantage

The Researching of Monash’s Contribution to the Military Operations of 1918

Monash the Man; As an Engineer and as a Soldier

The Anzac Legend; The Problems with Illusion

Currie and Russell; Mythologizing the Other Dominions

Assessing Rawlinson’s Progress, 1914 to 1918

Monash and Rawlinson; Comments on their Working Relationship

Monash; the Unique Military Commander?

Taking Military Management Forward; A General Conclusion


Appendix 1: Defining Fayol’s Principles of Management

Appendix 2: The Evidence for Monash being a Military Manager

Appendix 3: Monash and his Military Experiences after 1919

Appendix 4: Rawlinson’s erratic planning

References and Additional Notes




Why Examine the Military Management of the Great War?

General Sir John Monash, the commander of the Australian Corps within the British Expeditionary Force (the BEF) during the final months of the Great War on the Western Front, has been considered by historians to have had a unique ability – that of being able to apply the skills of business management to the fighting of battles. It has led to Monash being thought of as the first military manager. As described by Pitt (1962), paraphrasing Liddell Hart’s obituary of Monash, he “…possessed one of the few ‘Big Business’ type of brains among the Allied commanders…” (also Serle, 1982a). However is this judgement based on a myth, or did he bring something to command which gave his units success out of proportion to their numbers and what they were asked to do? It is the analysis of the relevance of this ability that is the core of this assessment.

In juxtaposition to this question can be addressed two others. Were other commanders using such skills but hiding their origin simply because they progressed their careers through the established military hierarchies or were they from countries which did not seek to mythologize their commanders’ contribution to winning the Great War?

To set the scene – what is meant by business management will be examined first. This will show what influences were shaping the ways things were done during the early years of the Twentieth Century. Then the impact of these influences upon the operational thinking of a number of the leaders of the BEF units will be examined to allow the record of Monash as a military commander to be assessed. This will enable a more accurate judgement to be made of Monash’s contribution to the initial development of the military manager ethos, a development which has continued up to the present time albeit that controversy continues between the leadership school and the management school of military training.


The Shaping of Business Management in the Early Twentieth Century

During the Twentieth Century there has been a revolution in the understanding of how to manage business organizations. The stimulus for this has been the need to gain and hold a competitive advantage. Powering the stimulus has been the change in global economics brought about by technological changes such as Information Technology. These have allowed organizations to grow so that they have to ‘feed’ on greater and greater geographical areas – a process called globalisation. Trade has fuelled the growth of the larger commercial organizations so that they have outgrown their home countries, even their continents, and now export their goods and services throughout the world. In the early Twentieth Century, the Greater German Empire sought such expansion but felt itself blocked by the globally-based British Empire, one of the economic factors creating the political tensions which led to the Great War.

Allowing this process to progress has been the development of what is today known as ‘management’. Management has evolved beyond the term ‘administration’, which is about developing and maintaining procedures. It is the ‘umbrella’ term covering the activities of forecasting, planning, organizing, commanding, co-ordinating and controlling – concepts brought together in a cohesive whole by Henri Fayol in his hugely influential book ‘Administration industrielle et generale’. The book was published in 1916, the year of Verdun and the Somme on the Western Front.

Henri Fayol, (1845-1925) the successful French industrialist, was trained as a mining engineer. Between 1864 and 1918 he worked in one company, spending the last thirty years turning it into a prosperous organization. In his book, writing about the then already recognised five key activities of technical; commercial; financial; security; and accounting; he focused on a sixth, the managerial activities. These managerial activities are contained in 14 precepts, his famous ‘Principles of Management’.

They are:-

  • division of work;

  • authority;

  • discipline;

  • unity of command;

  • unity of direction;

  • subordination of individual interests to the general interest;

  • renumeration;

  • centralization;

  • scalar chain;

  • order;

  • equity;

  • stability of tenure of personnel;

  • initiative;

  • esprit de corps.(as listed in Cole, 1990)

Definitions of these terms are given in Appendix 1.

Although the modern management theorist might criticise these terms, nevertheless they reflected the management practices found to be the best for the organizational structures common in the early Twentieth Century, many based on paternalistic bureaucracies. For example, in the British Army such an organizational structure was the battalion with its scalar chain of command, its division of labour based on different weapon systems and activities, its use of authority and discipline, and its centralized purpose controlled by a commanding officer. Although personal initiative had to be contained within ordered procedures, the battalion usually had a superb esprit de corps built upon the loyalty of its men (Lee, 1997a).

Although the date of publication, 1916, and the language of publication (French), both precluded the book from being directly applied by the Great War’s BEF commanders, nevertheless, it linked concepts which had been gaining international respectability for some time. A major influence on these was F.W. Taylor who published his ‘The Principles of Scientific Management’ in 1911. With other American managers interested in management theories, the idea of managing scientifically was introduced into workplaces such as factories and construction sites and greatly improved productivity.

When the production of war materials, for example, gun tubes and shells, later demanded large quantities be made in short periods of time, scientific management provided the means by which this objective was achieved. Careful manufacturing to fine tolerances was critical for producing weapons such as the British 60-pounder gun which would accurately deliver explosives on to geographical points selected for creeping barrages and counter-battery fire (Winter, 1991a).


Military Commanders as Seekers of Sustainable Competitive Advantage

The mention of the two battles, Verdun and the Somme, is no coincidence. When military commanders fight each other, in effect they are trying to gain a competitive advantage over the other and then sustain that advantage through the exercise of military and, with other leaders, political power. Using Clausewitzian terminology, they seek to ‘impose their will on the enemy’. The later name for the Great War is the First World War which more accurately defines the nature of this conflict. The enemy states were in two blocs involving the major empires and nations of the world. Whereas campaigns between belligerents in previous centuries had been fought in relatively limited geographical areas, the campaigns of the Great War by contrast took place globally and simultaneously, on land, sea, and even in the air. Combatants from countries as far apart as India, Germany, the United States, New Zealand, Arabia, Turkey and South Africa found themselves fighting other combatants sometimes thousands of miles from their homelands.

The global nature of the Great War meant that those in command and responsible for co-ordinating groups of combatants from many countries were required to give thought to how these different groups could be motivated to achieve their best performance. Whereas controlling groups from within one’s own nation is commanding the known, doing so with foreign groups exposes the commander to the unknown element of different national cultures. The modern international businessman has had to become sensitive to differences in national cultures; understanding what is important has had to be learned, and the knowledge passed on, over a number of decades. Although many of the commanders of the Great War on the British and French side did have experience of commanding ‘native’ troops in India and in North Africa, only a few gained a reputation for cultural sensitivity.

Hence many Entente commanders, brought up in the Sandhurst or St. Cyr traditions, found themselves being required to command multi-national groups bringing with them many different thoughts on how war should be fought and expressing these thoughts in different languages. Furthermore not all the leaders of these groups were necessarily long-serving officers trained exclusively in military thinking. Some had qualified in non-military professions, and had led lives exposed to new ways of thinking fermented during the great industrial progress of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. Others had been involved with commercial enterprises and absorbed the new ideas being publicised by Fayol, Taylor and others on how to run these enterprises more efficiently so as to be successful.

Thus the military commanders on the Western Front were finding themselves being exposed to, and having to take account of, new attitudes and practices brought about the unusual circumstances of this multi-national conflict. These reflected the explosion in scientific ideas, the cascading of these ideas into industrial processes, and the divergence in the ways of doing things resulting from geographical and cultural factors. To get the best out of these processes required sound management. Furthermore, these commanders were soon made aware by practical examples such as the lethal power of machine gun fire that many of the military practices of the years 1860 to 1910 were being rendered obsolete by the industrialisation of the fighting, which demanded the huge expenditure of material resources to support the front-line troops – demands which could only be met by exploiting the commercial advances in making manufactured products of an acceptable quality in vast quantities.

In attempting to analyse the impact of these new attitudes, the name of one general stands out, the Australian commander John Monash. His ‘Big Business’ approach to military command (Pitt, 1962), seen in his application of commercial thinking to military problems – as evidenced in his own statements set out in Appendix 2 – can be said to make him the first recognisable military manager. He was one of the first ‘citizen officers’ (Cutlack 1935, Serle 1982b) to have reached the rank of Major General whilst being able to consider practically applying the many skills he acquired in his professional and commercial life outside military service. Hence Monash will be the pivotal personality around which this assessment revolves and will be used to benchmark the standard to which a number of other British and Dominion commanders performed in the managerial role.

From this analysis will come a deeper understanding of how management began to play its proper role in improving the effectiveness with which troops fight. In the early Twentieth First Century, this role is recognised, albeit sometimes controversially, as having a part to play in the running of military campaigns as well as of business organizations. Indeed, increasingly the lessons of military operations are being used to understand how to win commercial success, and new business ideas are being exploited to further improve military effectiveness. Although the Harvard Business School approach may have been misapplied in controlling American operations in the Vietnam War, recent conflicts in the Falkland Islands, in the Persian Gulf and, more controversially, in Kosova show how good management can help bring success – and with it a considerable saving in human lives.


The Researching of Monash’s Contribution to the Military Operations of 1918

In order to examine individual performances in the managerial role, three levels of research are available, of which the first has little applicability today. Being some eighty years since the end of the Great War, none of those who commanded remain alive. Even those who served as subalterns and privates are few in number, and as seen in the Armistice Day parade in Whitehall, London, or at the great Thiepval Memorial to the Missing ceremony (Coombs, 1976) on the First of July, are now extremely frail. Inevitably their reminiscences are usually based on selective memories – and anyway, unless they were attached to GHQ or Corps HQs, they would have known nothing of how decisions were made by the BEF commanders.

The second level is what academics and researchers call ‘primary research’. Here the war letters, personal letters and diaries of the commanders can be examined and analysed. Thus the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives at King’s College London provides microfilm of Sir Douglas Haig’s diaries and letters, the originals being stored in the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh. Sir Henry Rawlinson’s papers are stored at Churchill College, Cambridge. He commanded the Fourth Army in which the Australian Corps, led by Monash, fought during the Hundred Days of 1918. General Sir John Monash’s papers are stored at the Australian National Library in Canberra, but a selection of his war letters have been published (Cutlack, 1935).

Having examined the Haig Diaries, both as photographed from his original diaries and as selected by Blake (1952), the weakness of this form of research can be understood where someone with Haig’s renowned self-control writes to present his views on current and forthcoming operations recognising that these will be read by future historians. Sir Henry Rawlinson’s diaries covering the periods surrounding the battles of Hamel (4 July 1918) and of Amiens (beginning 8 August 1918) and the attack on the Hindenburg Line (September 1918) have also been read, in Churchill College (during November 2000), to examine the working relationship between Monash and his Fourth Army Commander.

The third level is usually called ‘secondary research’. For the purposes of this assessment, secondary research provides the main source of information. It is based on the many books written about the First World War and also about contemporary strategic and business management. However, the former books present problems of veracity. To what extent are the military authors seeking to provide objective assessments of often-controversial events, or are they trying to, perhaps sub-consciously, project their personal feelings, whether of admiration or animosity? This applies particularly to the events of 1916 and 1917 and especially to the battles of the Somme and Passchendaele.

In this assessment, this author as a lecturer and author on organisational management has no particular ‘school of history’ to defend. Instead he seeks to understand historical events using intellectual methodology and analysis from the business world which are not part of the historian’s ‘tools of the trade’. In presenting information, this author recognises that he has to select elements of historical recording in order to develop his analysis. However in the same way that a painting can be accepted as the representation of an actuality, this paper can be presented as a reasonable representation of what happened during the Great War. It builds on earlier authors who were able to question some of those that were part of the events, and who had better access to original diaries and letters deposited in the world’s museums and archives.


Monash the Man; As an Engineer and as a Soldier

In assessing the overall performance of Monash, it is prudent to separate Monash the man from the myth he came to represent. John Monash was born in Melbourne in 1865 of recently-arrived Jewish migrants from the Prussian-Polish region. When they settled in Australia, his father dropped the ‘c’ in the Monasch name to give the surname by which his son is now known. John Monash qualified as an engineer (alike Henri Fayol) and practised in construction, pioneering the use of ferro-concrete in Australia. Among his many interests was military training and he became a part-time militia officer gradually gaining promotion whilst in command of coastal artillery batteries. He was in the Australian forces which landed in Gallipoli in 1915 and the biographies by A.J. Smithers (1973), Geoffrey Serle (1982a) and P.A. Pedersen (1985) describe his control of troops during the campaign (where a temporary attack of panic fortunately did not damage his future prospects). After reaching the Western Front, he was made the commander of the 3rd Australian Division. His first divisional attack was at Messines on the 7th of June 1917 (Pedersen, 1985). On the 4th of October, he commanded the attack on the Broodseinde Ridge (to the east of Passchendaele) which employed his first use of ‘leapfrogging’ units of the Division through each other and onto the objectives. The success of the attack brought further renown to the whole Australian Corps.

Following Birdwood’s transfer away from the Australian Corps, Monash came into his own as the commander of the entire Corps, firstly in the very successful but limited action at Hamel, east of Villers-Bretonneux, on the 4th July 1918 (with appropriately, it being American Independence Day, some American troops taking part). The objective in capturing the Hamel Spur was to deepen the defences of the Villers-Bretonneux plateau (Pedersen, 1985). Because he was not directly involved with the disastrous First Battle of Bullecourt (11th April 1917) in which the 4th Australian Brigade suffered a 75 % casualty rate due to the fiasco in using the Mark 1 tanks, he was not prejudiced against the tank. 45 new Mark 5 Fighting tanks of the 5th Tank Brigade advancing in 3 echelons behind a creeping barrage helped the infantry to the swift capture of the Spur, a success achieved with limited casualties. Next month the divisions of his Corps were key elements in the famous advance on the 8th August at the Battle of Amiens, the first major step in closing the ring upon the worn-out German field armies. Two other important successes, at Mont St Quentin on September 1st and on September 29th in breaking through the Hindenburg Line at Bellicourt, were achieved before the Australian Corps left the front-line for rest and recuperation.

The recently erected Monument on the Hamel Spur commemorates the very successful attack of the Australian Corps on 4th July 1918.

The quiet village of Le Hamel, south of the river Somme, which gave its name to the Australian action – now basking in the heat of a summer’s day.

The Australian advance on 8th August was constrained by the German defence of Chipilly Spur. Next day the British 58th Division cleared the Spur; the Memorial is also a remembrance of the hundreds of thousands of horses which were also casualties of the Great War.

Whilst these actions cemented the global reputation of the Australians as superb fighters, they also benefited Monash, their Corps Commander, by giving him his long-lasting reputation even though his agitated state and indecision before the storming of the Hindenburg Line, similar to that he experienced during the Gallipoli campaign, lead to his being personally counselled by Sir Douglas Haig, his Commander-in-Chief (Serle 1982a, Pedersen 1985, Winter 1991b). However the next day, the 30th of September, two of his brigade commanders, Cannan of the 14th Brigade and McNicoll of the 9th Brigade, seized the opportunity to switch from a west-east line of advance to a northwards movement which allowed the remainder of the Hindenburg Line in the Australian sector to be cleared during the 31st of September (Pedersen, 1985).

After the end of hostilities, Sir John Monash remained a further year in Europe to ensure the smooth return of his troops to Australia. Unfortunately soon after his own return his personal happiness was blighted by the death of his wife who had suffered cancer of the uterus for six years without her knowing (although he was told of her condition in February 1916). He then returned to his professional life becoming general manager of the Victoria State Electricity Commission, which built one of the world’s greatest engineering schemes. Showing his good sense, he employed German engineers who were the only ones with the expertise to exploit the reserves of brown coal needed to fuel the power stations. After his death in 1931, Monash University, the second university established in the State of Victoria, was named in his memory.

There is ample evidence, some of it being listed in Appendix 2, that Monash was a superb military organiser, using a daily checklist (with each task meticulously crossed off once completed) to make sure that no task was overlooked. His engineering expertise came into play in rebuilding Australian confidence in the tank which brought success on the 4th of July. He used four Carrier tanks to supplement the carrying capacity of the Mark 5 Fighting tanks at Le Hamel village and Vaire and Hamel Woods to save over 1,250 soldiers having to carry forward 50,000 lb of supplies (wire, pickets, sheet iron, bombs, ammunition and water) to the advancing troops (Fletcher, 1994). Copying the Germans’ technique used in their attacks on the Lys and the Aisne during the Kaiser’s Battle, aircraft were used to parachute in 112,000 rounds of ammunition needed by the machine-guns although many of the parachutes failed to open (Pitt 1962, Pedersen 1985). Whether Hamel is categorised as a battle or a giant raid, it has achieved renown because of Monash’s meticulous planning, given support by Haig and Rawlinson. Therefore it is reasonable to claim that it was the first modern battle because of the close co-operation between the artillery, tanks, aircraft and the infantry (Serle 1982a, Bailey 1998)

During the Battle of Amiens (8th August 1918), his experiment with the Mark V Star tanks of carrying machine-gun sections into battle was less successful – because of the inadequacies of the tanks. Being slow, many supporting the Canadian 4th Division fell victims to German anti-tank gunfire. Also on both the Canadian and Australian fronts, the petrol fumes and heat within the tanks left the sections exhausted and unable to fight (Pitt, 1962). However, tanks did help 16 Austin armoured cars to break out and get into the rear areas (Fletcher, 1994). The Germans in the small villages of Proyart (Blond, 1965a) and Framerville were surprised and suffered heavily. Maps of the defence system of the Hindenburg Line showing details of the canal section from Bellicourt to St Quentin (Prior and Wilson, 1992) was seized, which proved of great advantage some six weeks later.

Monash demonstrated the ability to achieve brilliant success with economy in both lives and labour. Coupled to these organizing skills was the ability to get the best use from the technology then available, hence what appeared to be the innovative use of tanks and aircraft (Serle, 1982a); however Winter (1991b) has recently suggested that Monash copied his tactics from GHQ’s SS135. Probably he was helped in having as his army commander, General Sir Henry Rawlinson, a man disliked by many British Regular officers for being clever but who was willing, by that stage of the war, to learn from experience (Pitt, 1962). Whereas other army commanders might have stifled Monash’s experiments, under Rawlinson’s command of the Fourth Army and with the support of Haig, Monash was given the tanks to try new methods (whether taken from SS135 or not) which brought the breakthroughs at Hamel and Amiens. It was his repeated attempts to gain maximum success with the maximum economy in Australian lives which established his renown.


The Anzac Legend; The Problems with Illusion

In assessing the performance of Monash as a military commander, the issue of what is known as the ‘Anzac legend’ (Thomson, 1994) has to be directly faced. This legend is based on the mythology that grew out of the Gallipoli campaign of 1915 which described the Australian soldier as ‘…basically different from, and better than, other soldiers in the British armies…’ (Andrews, 1993). To what extent did the renown of Monash come about because of the Anzac legend which he himself helped to create through his writings (Sheffield, 1999)? Certainly the Australian troops gained an awesome reputation and took the lead in many successful assaults. However, by the time they came into action in France in 1916, the pre-war leadership within the superb British Regular Army had disappeared in two years of fighting (Bidwell and Graham, 1982) and the New Armies were soon reeling from the events of the 1st of July on the Somme. Although this not the place for a detailed rebuttal of the claimed inadequacies of British divisions compared to the Dominion divisions, the response of Simkins in British Fighting Methods in the Great War (1996a) does help put the Anzac legend into context.

Simkins shows that the overall performances of British and Dominion divisions during the final Hundred Days were comparable. One of the best British Divisions during that time was the 24th. Yet three years earlier, together with the 21st Division, it was the victim of one of the most tragic blunders of the Great War (Regan, 1991). Both were New Army units which were in reserve at the battle of Loos in late 1915. With little training and without previous experience of battle they were sent in to attack between Hulluch and Bois Hugo on the 26th of September (Macdonald, 1993). Both Divisions were shattered by German machine-gunners who themselves were only subjected to a sparse and inaccurate British artillery bombardment (Lee, 1997b).

Eric Andrews and Alistair Thomson, two authors living in Australia, in their recent books The Anzac Illusion and Anzac Memories put forward powerful cases to show that the legend is a distortion. The psychological process which led to the legend becoming established is understandable. Australia was then in the process of separating from Britain, its parent country, by gradually becoming an equal partner. Praising the performance of her troops whilst denigrating that of British troops (unfortunately a less pleasant trait of Monash) was a natural part of this process. Strangely enough the legend also had a benefit to the British high command. It had the effect of encouraging Australian men to volunteer for the war – even though the Australian nation twice voted against conscription being introduced (Andrews, 1993). It also kept them fighting despite the heavy casualties they suffered in battles such as Fromelles, Pozieres and Bullecourt. Thus between 1916 and 1918, the Australian Divisions fought with dash and panache on most occasions.

Monash’s personal reaction in criticising the performance of the British divisions may unfortunately have been conditioned by his ancestry; Jews in Poland (and of course most of Eastern Europe including Germany) were treated as inferior and sometimes suffered pogroms. He himself recognised that he was sometimes subject to anti-Semitism, even by other Australians (Serle, 1982a). Such racialist sentiments were also not uncommon in the British military establishment. Quoting Pedersen (1985), "General Sir H. Rawlinson and Major-General A.A. Montgomery were the commander and chief of staff respectively of the 4th Army, to which the Australian Corps belonged. Monash saw them almost daily, but their anti-Semitism was well concealed from him." Hence his understandable reaction of being critical of the British divisions’ performances. Nonetheless his criticisms did contain some truths. The British class system made it difficult for natural leaders from the lower classes to be appointed to the more senior officer ranks, and those being led often lacked the initiative to act as individuals. On the other hand many of the best British military leaders at both senior and junior levels were dead by 1916 (Bidwell and Graham, 1982).

However, Monash in his criticisms was not comparing like with like; even he had to recognise that the highly-trained professional British Regular Army had been largely destroyed in 1914 and 1915 (Serle, 1982a). In 1918, when Australian effectiveness reached its peak (Andrews, 1993), Britain’s conscription was ‘scraping the barrel’. However it is a myth that British Divisions were reduced to relying on English youngsters, newly out of school, being hastily trained and put into the trenches, many immediately having to serve as subalterns to cover the desperate shortage of junior officers. Experienced fighters who had served in the ranks during earlier battles were appointed as officers to replace officer casualties (Sheffield, 1999, 2001). And many of these youngsters would have been natural volunteers in 1914 and 1915 – indeed some may have tried to volunteer but been rejected because of their young age. The experienced ‘ranker’ officers and the newly arrived young officers, together with British veterans wearied of war (Bond, 1991) and alongside their Entente allies, successfully harried the retreating Germans back towards the frontier. Although the Germans were themselves weakened by their losses in the Kaiser’s Battle, nevertheless some of their units, and especially many of their machine gunners, continued to fight valiantly.

It is reasonable to conclude that both the British and the Dominion units gained success but in different ways. Lee (1997a) makes the comment that, at Passchendaele, both British and Dominion divisions had an ‘…extraordinary ability just to keep going, no matter how difficult the conditions…’. Simkins (1996b) concludes his assessment of the British 18th Division’s performance by praising the British soldiers’ ‘…bloody minded persistence and his powers of endurance…’. These are indications that different styles of performance could, and did, contribute to the final victory.

Following the lead of Andrews and Thomson, the Anzac legend should be put to one side, especially as much of it is owed to the great improvement in the organizational performance of the officers commanding the Australian Forces (Andrews, 1993). Monash was the commanding officer and hence his abilities as a military manager can be more accurately established without being overshadowed by the Anzac legend. These authors’ view is supported by the recognition that the term ‘Anzacs’ was a convenient acronym brilliantly exploited by the headquarters to publicise the Australian contribution, even though the Australian soldiers on the Western Front called themselves “diggers”, which they felt more accurately described their own culture (Thomson, 1994).


Currie and Russell: Mythologizing the Other Dominions

Sir John Monash was not the only major ‘native’ commander of Dominion troops. Sir Arthur Currie was a native Canadian and Sir Andrew Russell a native New Zealander. Arthur Currie commanded the 1st Canadian Division at the most renowned Canadian victory, the capture of Vimy Ridge on Easter Monday during the Battle of Arras (9 April 1917). This ridge had been the objective of two ferocious French attacks in the Spring and Autumn of 1915 which claimed horrendous casualties and led to one of the most famous war novels, Henri Barbusse’s ‘Under Fire’ (1926). The successive French attacks pushed the Germans off the Notre Dame de Lorette Ridge out of Ablain-St. Nazaire, Souchez, Neuville St. Vaast and la Targette, then across the Zouave Valley and onto Vimy Ridge (Macksey, 1965). However, fierce and costly counter-attacks meant that the Germans retained the 400 feet ridge with its superb observation over the Allied lines from Lens to Arras.

The imposing Canadian Memorial on the summit of Hill 145 commemorates the brilliant capture of the Vimy Ridge by the 4th Canadian Division on 10th April 1917 during the Battle of Arras.

A bronze beaver, caste on the base of a flag pole at the Canadian Memorial, symbolises the forests and prairies of Canada.

From Macksey’s book which gives a full account of the ridge’s capture, the similarities between Currie and Monash are revealed. Currie, pre-War, was also an amateur soldier, being professionally a prosperous real-estate manager and auctioneer in Canada. Indeed, at one stage, Haig confused Monash with Currie by referring to Monash as an auctioneer (Serle, 1982a). Currie brought to field command a willingness to search widely for solutions to problems (Monash drew on his engineering expertise). He also had two beneficial attributes of being approachable and good at communication – offsetting any disadvantage of being’…corpulent, a decidedly unmilitary-looking commander’ and having a ‘…less than charismatic personality…’ (Oliver, 1997). By the Kaiser’s Battle a year later Currie had taken command of the four Canadian Divisions which made up the Canadian Corps. At the Battle of Amiens, two of the Canadian Divisions contributed greatly to the breakout before returning to Horne’s First Army around Arras. There they cleared the Drocourt-Queant Switch Line, controversially rated by Winter (1991b) as the ‘…British Army’s single greatest achievement on the Western Front.’

Currie relied on the support of the Canadian Government to have the Corps treated as a national army, which gave him the right to be properly consulted before Canadian troops were asked to take part in specific operations. This caused Haig to be confused about whether the Canadians were to be treated as allies like the French, and later the Americans, or as fellow citizens of the British Empire (Macksey, 1965). The reality is that the Dominion forces of Canada, Australia and also New Zealand had by feat of arms achieved an equality of status in nationhood – part of the British Empire but not subservient to it.

Whereas Monash was competent at handling his own finances, Griffith (1994) suggests that Currie was not only eccentric but also fell on hard times to be a near-bankrupt during the War. Bryant (1987) gives a full account of how $10,833.44 (1913 values) from the Canadian Department of Militia given to pay for equipment for the 50th Regiment of which Currie was the commanding officer was ‘diverted’ from his private bank account where it was held into paying off his personal debts. These arose from property speculations which went wrong during a slump in real estate values and the considerable costs expected to be paid by the commanding officer of a militia regiment. Three years later he repaid the debts – but fortunately his taking command of a brigade in the Canadian Expeditionary Force after the declaration of war diverted attention away from what undoubtedly could have been criminal charges for fraud in peace-time.

Despite these personal failings he is judged as being militarily highly competent with a deep interest in tactical science (Winter, 1991c). Following his troop’s poor showing on the 8th October 1916 during the fighting for Regina Trench (the Battle of the Somme), he meticulously debriefed them and used their insights to both form and extend his understanding of how to get better military performance. In addition, he carefully examined the new offensive tactical doctrines of the French (Oliver, 1997).

This modern approach to problem solving is clearly a considerable advance on the approach to strategic and tactical thinking of the BEF’s Headquarters which relied upon the traditions of the Camberley Staff College of the 1890s (Griffith, 1994). This transition from the traditional ‘professional’ approach to war to the technical ‘managerial’ approach, favoured by Currie and Monash, created tensions. This change, needed to cope with the new scientific and technological problems of the Great War, led to the headquarters’ staff seeming to become isolated from the front-line soldiers (Beckett and Simpson, 1985).

Unlike Monash and Currie, Andrew Russell left his home country to be educated at Harrow and Sandhurst. Following five years of military service as a Regular officer in Burma and India, he resigned his commission to revitalise the financial performance of his family’s sheep station. A practical man, he disliked wasting resources – and regarded his men as being his most valuable resource. He was a meticulous planner who demanded professionalism, paid great attention to detail, managed by personal inspections, carefully debriefed his senior officers after operations, and required rehearsals to build experience and eliminate tactical weaknesses (Liddle, 1997). In common with Monash and Currie, he commanded part-time soldiers until the outbreak of war, and alike Monash he built his reputation on Gallipoli (where he liaised well with Monash) so took command of the New Zealand Division when it was formed in 1916. The Division was also a ‘national army’ but when it grew too big to be administratively one division, he had to accept it being retained as a four-brigade division rather than being split into two two-brigade divisions (Pugsley, 1997).

After the Somme, the Division’s soldiers also became known as the “diggers” (Pugsley, 1997), and their formidable reputation was strengthened by operations at Messines, and at Gravenstafel Ridge and Bellevue Spur during Third Ypres in late 1917. At Copse 125 (Rossignol Wood) in the autumn of 1918, soldiers of their Otago Regiment were ambushed by the famous German storm-trooper, Ernst Junger, during the New Zealand attacks (Junger, 1985). He admired the splendid physiques of the corpses when he later saw them in daylight. And during the Hundred Days, the New Zealanders took the walled town of le Quesnoy, using scaling ladders in a way that the medieval warriors would have understood and praised.

The ramparts of the fortress built by Vauban at le Quesnoy, a town brilliantly captured by the New Zealand Division on 5th November 1918.

It is reasonable to claim that the personal experiences of Monash, Currie and Russell in their civilian lives made their mental approach to military problem solving very different from the majority of the British Army’s Regular Officers. Thus it would be unwise to be simplistic in differentiating between the three – an important point when concluding on the uniqueness of Monash.

Assessing Rawlinson’s Progress, 1914 to 1918

Having discussed the competencies and personalities of these three Dominion commanders, it is worthwhile examining the performance of a British commander who managed at similar levels to Monash before ending the War as Monash’s superior officer. General Sir Henry Rawlinson led the 7th Division in October 1914, taking part in the battle of First Ypres. He then commanded the Fourth Corps at the 1915 battles of Neuve Chapelle (in March), Aubers Ridge (in May), Givenchy (in June) and Loos (alongside the First Corps, under Hubert Gough, in September).

Rawlinson took command of the Fourth Army for the 1916 battle of the Somme, his calamitous First of July being followed by the generally successful attack on the Bazentin Ridge on the 14th of July. During the ‘forgotten battles’ of the high summer (Prior and Wilson, 1992), which caused so many British casualties, many German regiments were shattered by the process of attrition. Unfortunately very little ground was gained in the later attacks of October and November whilst casualties were made worse by the muddy conditions of the battlefield in the late autumn and early winter. For most of 1917, he was on the sidelines preparing for the coastal assault at Nieuport which was never implemented (Wiest 1997). However he took over command of the Second Army in the final phases of the Passchendaele campaign (Rawlinson, 1917), thereby missing much of the criticism made of the generals who commanded the major attacks of Third Ypres.

Service in the Supreme War Board at Versailles kept Rawlinson away from the Kaiser’s Battle but he was put in charge of the battered Fifth Army reconstituted as the Fourth. With a successful preliminary attack at Hamel in July, the victorious 8th of August began the Hundred Days. Celebrated actions at the Hindenburg Line, and the Selle, helped complete Rawlinson’s contribution to winning the War.

Prior and Wilson (1992), having carefully analysed Rawlinson’s overall performance, have decided that his conduct showed’…no consistent advance in wisdom.’ and indeed was ‘…erratic…’ This is said of a commander who was allowed to retain command throughout the War despite leading troops in some of the most disastrous attacks of the whole War, Givenchy, Loos, First of July 1916, and Guillemont. If commanding in the French Army he would probably have become a Limoges (Tuchman 1980, Blond 1965b) after the First of July. Appendix 4 lists the behaviour and helps support the conclusion that Rawlinson was erratic. Rawlinson’s record suggests that the ability needed to control an army with its new technologies but antiquated communication systems was becoming beyond the capabilities of ‘professional’ army officers trained in the Victorian era, gaining experience and promotion within a small, highly professional, army but now having to ‘nurse’ a large number of newly created and inexperienced divisions under conditions of total war (such as the infamous German gas attacks launching Second Ypres in 1915). Only when power became decentralized in 1918 and the commanders gave responsibility to the experts in the new technologies such as counter-battery and predicted fire programmes did they regain competence in managing their now considerably narrowed span of control.

In terms of motivating his troops it is unfortunate to note that Rawlinson’s predisposition to criticise his infantry for failings directly his responsibility was seen in 1918 as well as in 1915. Haig’s admonition, and the horrendous casualties sustained during the Somme battles, appear to have made no lasting impressions as evidenced by his diaries. The caricature of the ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’(Littlewood, 1963) general might be applied, perhaps unfairly, to Sir Henry Rawlinson.

In management terms, Rawlinson seems to have had little sense of strategic planning, with no consistent vision of how to achieve success by moving up the learning curve based on personal experience of controlling in a succession of operations. Even though he recognised the value of the ’bite and hold’ approach, he seldom carried it out in his operations (Prior and Wilson, 1992). This can be judged an amateurish approach to a position demanding high responsibility. If this seems harsh, Rawlinson is nevertheless one of the more successful British commanders, hence can be used as a guide against which to benchmark the performance of Monash.


Monash and Rawlinson; Comments on their Working Relationship

In their book ‘Command on the Western Front’, Prior and Wilson (1992) record the working relationship between Rawlinson and Monash which began when Monash was appointed Commander of the Australian Corps before the battle of Hamel. Whilst Rawlinson accepted suggestions from commanders such as Monash, and Courage of the Tanks, they in turn were receiving and accepting sensible advice from their divisional commanders. The outcome of these discussions was that both on the 25th and 30th of August, and the 18th of September, Rawlinson gave Monash the opportunity to make best use of his Corps on the river Somme and at Mont St Quentin and le Verguier. At le Verguier (which had been in the British front line before the Kaiser’s Battle) the machine-gun barrage by 250 guns from the 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th Divisions firing 300 yards ahead of the advancing 4th Division proved most effective in compensating for the lack of available tanks – 10 dummy tanks having been placed in position to confuse the Germans (Pedersen, 1985).

In preparing for the attack on the Hindenburg Line, Rawlinson sensibly required Monash to increase the frontage of attack from 6,000 to 10,000 yards to prevent the flanking fire which would have devastated the attacking Australians. Rawlinson also devised the novel means of using 3,000 lifebelts from cross-channel steamers to get the 46th North Midlands Territorial Division across the St Quentin Canal at Riqueval brought about by the now widened front (the tunnel over the canal only being 6,000 yards long).

Janet Bailey, and her daughter, Julia, reading the inscription on the Western Front Association Memorial at the eastern end of Riqueval bridge.

The American Memorial, near Bellicourt, which commemorates the assaults of the 27th and 30th US Divisions during the storming of the Hindenburg Line.

The grave of Corporal Thomas E. O’Shea, killed in the attack of the 29th September 1918, one of the three Congressional Medal of Honour holders buried in the Somme American Cemetery at Bony.

The advance of the 27th American Division over 1,000 yards of fire-swept ground on the 29th of September before they could reach the security of their creeping barrage was accepted by Rawlinson but had deeply upset Monash. During the morning of the 29th the Americans took great casualties from the three unscathed German strongpoints at The Knoll, Gillemont farm and Quennemont farm within the Hindenburg Outpost Line (Pedersen, 1985). Monash then badly misjudged and ordered a frontal attack for 3 in the afternoon without the necessary artillery support which took Guillemont farm before it stalled, causing heavy casualties among the 10th and 11th Brigades of the Australian 3rd Division (Pedersen, 1985).

The famous Australian official war historian, Dr. C.E.W. Bean, reports Monash’s despair on the 27th September over the gap of 1,000 yards and the ‘rebuke’ he received from Haig (Serle, 1982a). Smithers then links this despair with Monash’s behaviour at Sari Bar on Gallipoli on the 6th of August 1915 which was also noted by Bean. The then Brigadier was reported to have said over and over again “I thought I knew how to command men”. Smithers sums up his luck at not being Limoged in 1915 in the phrase ‘…some after-taste must remain.’, especially as he then draws attention to an attack at Aghyl Dere recorded by Monash which contained two serious errors (Smithers 1973, Cutlack 1935). The veracity of Monash’s recounting of his own part in the Gallipoli evacuation has also been critically challenged by Serle (1982a) where Monash’s war letters suggest that he embarked in the last motor barge leaving Anzac Cove when in fact he had left five hours earlier.

Pedersen (1985) shows that his Gallipoli performance from the 6th to the 8th of August can be made the subject of ‘scathing criticism’. After the ill-fated attempt to seize Hill 971 at Sari Bar on the 6th his poor planning meant that when his 4th Brigade were repulsed with heavy casualties during their assault on the 8th the failure to provide proper medical support to bring down the wounded left many to suffer a gruesome fate. Pedersen tentatively poses the view that Monash ‘funked’ command on the 8th. With benefit of hindsight, perhaps he suffered psychological trauma on the 6th which resulted in his capacity to plan, for which he has always merited high praise, being eliminated by the shock of real warfare.

It is unfortunate that Monash then criticised the performance of the British New Army troops in Gallipoli in 1915. Likewise it is unfortunate that in his war memoirs he later complained about the failure of the 27th American Division in 1918, whilst overlooking his personal responsibility for the failure of the afternoon assault by the Australian 3rd Division. The American forces had suffered severely because German machine-gunners positioned within the 1,000 yards between the artillery barrage laid on to the main Hindenburg Line and the American’s start line flayed them with fire against which the Americans had no defence. Recalled to mind is the similarity to the gallant march to their deaths by the 1st Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont Hamel on the Somme on the 1st of July 1916. In his published private papers for the September and October of 1918 he did not refer to either failure of the 29th of September, his entry for the next date after the 29th being on the 3rd of November (there being none during the October) when he wrote about being made a Grand Officer de L’Order de la Couronne Belgium and also being awarded the French Croix de Guerre with Palm Leaf (Cutlack, 1935).

On the 1st of October the Australian 2nd Division relieved the Australian 3rd and 5th Divisions which were ‘all done up’ (Pedersen, 1985) and two days later helped eject the Germans from the Beaurevoir Line behind the Hindenburg Line. On the 6th the entire Australian Corps left the front-line for a well-deserved long period of rest and recuperation. This included Monash who was able to spend three weeks in and around London engaged in both military and social activities. On the 7th of November, the Australian 1st and 4th Divisions returned to the line although they did not have to go ‘over the top’ again.

In conclusion, Monash had been answering to Rawlinson for the 3 months starting just before the battle of Hamel. Undoubtedly he had made a significant contribution to improving Rawlinson’s plans, yet at the Hindenburg Line Rawlinson had had to improve on Monash’s plans. However to propose that Monash was vastly more skilled in planning than, say, Currie cannot be supported easily because of his misjudgments which lead to heavy casualties in the Australian 3rd Division on the 29th of September and the 2nd Division on the 5th of October at Montbrehain (Serle, 1982a). To build a myth around his judgment as a tactical commander when under the pressure of actual fighting, such as from the 6th to the 8th of August 1915, needs more substance, regardless of his abilities as a military administrator.

Perhaps the last words on the sustainability of the myth created around the command of Monash should be left to the American historian of the American 27th Division that it was just as well that Monash was ‘…never seriously tested by adversity.’ (O’Ryan, 1921)


Monash; the Unique Commander?

This examination has illustrated the abilities and the personalities of four senior British and Dominion commanders, one English, one Canadian, one New Zealander and the Australian Monash. This has been done in order to assess whether the performance of Monash has been mythologized rather than ranked objectively against that of other commanders who perhaps had to exercise their abilities under very different conditions and with different levels of support and resources.

Sir Henry Rawlinson, the Englishman, as Appendix 4 shows, had a very patchy record of performance. Sometimes he learned from what had happened, at other times he appeared to wilfully ignore these lessons. Yet his Fourth Army performed superbly during those final days after being reconstituted following its punishment during the Kaiser’s Battle. In assessing his overall performance he appears to have felt no need to work to a uniform focused programme of action. Indeed, he appears to have been reactive, rather than being proactive, thus planning his actions as he saw fit at that moment in time based on what he thought was best suited to a particular set of circumstances. Although not an acceptable form of modern strategic management, nevertheless it is a style of managerial control commonly followed by those lacking understanding of management principles.

Sir Arthur Currie and Sir Andrew Russell benefited from the superb fighting qualities of the Canadian and New Zealand troops which made them so feared by the Germans. Many of these soldiers had grown up in communities where the enterprising spirit and personal initiative were combined with an open-air life. This contrasted with the relatively poor health and strength of the average English, Welsh, or Scottish soldier brought up in heavily industrialised and polluted areas such as Glasgow, the Potteries, and the South Wales coal-fields (Baynes, 1967), and in the stultifying class system of the Victorian and Edwardian ages (Serle, 1982a).

Currie was encouraged by the Canadian Government to regard the Canadian Corps as a national army, which gave him the opportunity to display an independence not allowed to other Corps commanders in the rigid European military hierarchies, whether German, French, Austria-Hungarian, Russian or British. The American General Pershing was able to exploit a similar level of independence during the final months of the war for the same reason. But at a personal level, a question mark overhangs Currie’s performance at Second Ypres, during the first German gas attack in 1915, when he thrice ordered his troops to retreat. They refused and their stand saved the situation. He later asked Edmonds to suppress this embarrassing fact in the British Official History (Bond, 1991).

Russell similarly gained advantage from the New Zealand contingent always remaining self-contained and focused on their provincial origins (Pugsley, 1997). The remarkable performances at Flers (15th September 1916) and le Quesnoy (5th November 1918) are two highlights of its military achievements.

Nevertheless, troops have to be well led to perform well. The formidable reputations of the Canadians and the New Zealanders were built on and enhanced by the management skills which both Currie and Russell brought to their commands.

In assessing Monash’s performance against the standards set by these other three commanders, it is necessary to distinguish between his role as a military commander and his position as a figure-head for a young nation seeking to differentiate itself from the parent country. Like Currie, his unconventional ‘citizen’ route to supreme command of his national army meant that he had not absorbed the traditional military culture and training common to most European commanders. His professional expertise inevitably meant that he was able to bring a commercial perspective to analysing military situations and problems. The likelihood is that he instinctively thought in a business way rather than in a military way. Hence he was more receptive to innovative ideas simply because competitive advantage in the business world comes from exploiting new technologies and new methods of management. With his pre-War background, it is not surprising that he came to be credited with being the first military manager.

Nevertheless two factors can be presented as suggesting it is unwise to mythologise his military prowess. Firstly, two incidents, in Gallipoli (1915) and before the Hindenburg Line (1918), suggest that he was prone to breaking down under pressure. However his position outside the British military hierarchy was fortunate because both incidents could have resulted in him being ‘degummed’.

The second factor is the result of the national aspirations of a young country growing up and understandably seeking independence. Australia began its modern history with the unfortunate factor of being used as a British penal colony. Inevitably it lacked the sort of confidence which comes from being created as the result of heroic feats of arms. Yet it wished to set aside its feelings of inferiority with regard to its parent country and gain the freedom that, for example, a young adult wishes to display. With its citizens enjoying a similar lifestyle to that of the Canadians and the New Zealanders, it produced men with strong physiques used to showing personal initiative (helped, it must be added, by rigorous physical standards during the recruitment medical examinations which weeded out the weaker men)(Andrews, 1993). Hence the fine quality of its military performances in Gallipoli and at Pozieres on the Somme. As to the three debacles at The Nek, Fromelles and Bullecourt, these could be blamed on poor British leadership (even though the Gallipoli massacre was the fault of Colonel J.M. Antill, an Australian officer).

Following the Canadian example, the Australian Government sought separate status, the wish not to be commanded at senior levels by British officers (Serle, 1982a) and the right for injured Australians to be returned to the Australian divisions after their recovery. The British Government and the BEF’s General Headquarters found it prudent to accede. Monash, in general, was the commander of a force largely united within one national culture even though many of his soldiers were from recent immigrant families. He was less exposed to the problems of multi-cultural differences which complicated relations between the British and French commanders and between British officers and their colonial troops. Modern management theory recognises the crucial importance of these differences in complicating control and leadership.

As part of building a cultural heritage a young nation will seek heroes who can become examples to inspire succeeding generations. The English were well served by its Elizabethan adventurers who ‘singed the King of Spain’s beard’ and began the establishment of the British Empire. Such figures would have still meant much to early Australians, many being recent migrants from the United Kingdom. However later Australians would have been conscious of their geographical distance away from the parent country and begun to seek Australian heroes. Unfortunately their Ned Kellys were not role models. In the military sphere, although an Australian contingent was involved in the South African War, the main controversy from that conflict surrounded the execution by the British authorities of ‘Breaker’ Mourant and his partner in a murder.

Thus by the First World War, Australia needed Australian heroes. Junior officers such as Lieutenant W. Ruthven (Pedersen, 1985) and other ranks provided many who deservedly earned the Victoria Cross. Seriously lacking were senior officers who could be respected for attributes which extended to their personal lives. John Monash was such a person. Successful in his profession of civil engineering, from a migrant family which had done well, he later commanded the Australian Corps during the period of its maximum success. After his military service he returned to civilian life where his management of a large engineering project brought further renown. Inevitably his solid performance whilst a military commander acquired the veneer accorded great commanders. And the British people, having mixed feelings about the price in soldiers’ blood asked for by their British commanders, were happy to award him the status they denied many British corps commanders whose performance under battle conditions was no worse and often better.

In the title of this assessment, the question is asked about whether or not Monash brought to command business ideas not known to others. The answer is ‘yes’ if comparing his performance with that of most Regular officers. He did bring such ideas; and they were based on the practical experience gained in his pre-War professional life. Thus he absorbed business knowledge on how to be more scientific and efficient, to exploit clarity of thought in planning, to be lucid in explaining his plans, and to be economical in the use of manpower (Pedersen, 1985). He appears to have arrived at common sense conclusions on how best to run a business, and then later applied such thinking to managing an army corps. Yet there is no evidence from his war letters to suggest that he consciously took commercial examples from his own personal experience and thought how they could be applied to solving a current military problem. Nevertheless his record as a military manager later attracted two distinguished admirers. In 1963 the British historian A.J.P. Taylor is quoted by Pedersen (1985) as saying that Monash was ‘the only general of creative originality produced by the First World War’ and in 1968 Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery as saying that he ‘possessed real creative originality.’

All three Dominion commanders can be claimed to have applied their personal business expertise within their own commands. Although Pedersen (1985) mentions that it is difficult to find evidence of what Monash read he did read widely and thus was probably aware of the revolution in management thinking being pioneered by F.W. Taylor (1911), Henri Fayol and others. Whether or not the three commanders proactively managed their forces using the current business management theories is of minor importance, the issue is that the gap between thinking militarily and thinking commercially was then so great. Hence a different approach to formulating military strategy would have marked them out as having a revolutionary approach, particularly when their commands were seen to be successful in reaching their military objectives. However, Australia was seeking to create a new national identity; whereas neither Canada nor New Zealand had to re-invent themselves in strengthening their national identities at that time. Hence the performance of Monash needed to be mythologized whereas the performances of Currie and Russell did not have to be turned into myths.

As to the practical learning from the experiences on the Western Front, Monash had little input on military administration once he returned to Australia in 1919 (see Appendix 3). Yet this reaction to a citizen officer was not untypical. As if to put behind themselves the embarrassment of having to fight the war by drawing upon the civilian population for men and expertise, the Allied ‘professional’ officers stampeded to ‘…get back to some serious soldiering…'(Bidwell and Graham, 1982) after the Armistice.

In conclusion, Monash can be credited with being a pioneer of military management, although not necessarily unique in his performance. Nevertheless he brought a fresh outlook to military operations which matched many of Fayol’s Principles of Management. He was a Twentieth Century commander in an Imperial Army still largely dominated by Nineteenth Century teachings. It is for this pioneering role that he should be remembered rather than for his performance as an individual commander.

Taking Military Management Forward; A General Conclusion

This assessment has adopted a different approach, to examine historical events using the modern understanding of how to manage contemporary events. The problems caused by the benefits of hindsight are recognised through the acceptance that the Great War’s commanders had to operate within the mind-set of that period. The early Twentieth Century was a time of profound economic and social changes brought about by the new technologies. Inevitably the ability of those commanding to respond proactively reflected their upbringing, their social environments, and the cultures and traditions of the military forces they controlled. Haig and Rawlinson as Regular officers were seriously affected by these changes which challenged their acquired experiences.

On the other hand, Currie, Monash and, to a lesser extent, Russell brought to soldiering management expertise gained from their own involvement with the upheavals taking place in their nations’ business and commercial practices. These three had a different style of military management.

With the continuing interest in the history of the Western Front’s campaigns, a conclusion can be drawn that contemporary management thinking makes it possible to link these campaigns’ causes and effects within a different and, perhaps, more objective framework. This allows the relative importance of both the external and internal factors influencing historical events to be examined using modern analytical techniques. – as shown in the analysis of five battles in It also enables the competencies of individual commanders to be assessed anew.



Appendix 1:

Defining Fayol’s Principles of Management (after Cole, 1990)

1. Division of work: Reduces the span of attention, effort or control needing to be exerted by a person. Has the benefits of developing practice in managing people and familiarity with how they operate.

2. Authority: The right to give orders – but a right which should be considered together with responsibility.

3. Discipline: The outward marks of respect and behaviour with accords with the formal agreements and informal arrangements between an organization and its staff.

4. Unity of Command: Each person should have one superior to which he reports and has responsibility.

5. Unity of Direction: One person in charge and one plan of action for an activity or group of activities which have common objectives.

6. Subordination of Individual Interests to the General Interest: The personal interests of one individual or one group should not be dominant, without reasonable cause, to the needs and requirements of the overall organization.

7. Renumeration: Pay should be fair to both the individual and to the organization.

8. Centralization: This is always present within an organization, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the organization’s size and the quality of its managers.

9. Scalar Chain: The line of authority or command from the top to the bottom of an organization, nowadays covered by the terms ‘line management’ and ‘hierarchy’.

10. Order: A place for everything and everything in its right place, especially the use of people with the appropriate skills for particular tasks.

11. Equity: A combination of kindliness and justice towards all staff, regardless of their position within the organization.

12. Stability of Tenure of Personnel: The staff need to be given adequate time to settle into their tasks, before their performance is judged, recognising that some tasks such as management may take a lengthy period to learn.

13. Initiative: Within the limitations imposed by authority and discipline, all levels of staff should be encouraged to show initiative.

14. Esprit de Corps: Harmony is a great strength to an organization, thus teamwork should be encouraged throughout the organization and between the levels within it.

Division of Work, Scalar Chain, Unity of Command, and Centralization are characteristics of the typical bureaucratic organization widely found in the public and private sectors, including activities such as education and the military.

Although the paternalistic approach would have been the norm in the early Twentieth century to handle matters such as individual and general interests, renumeration and equity, the rise of industrial relations and personnel management have made this more or a joint relationship between the organization’s management and its staff.

Fayol’s reference to Initiative and Esprit de Corps was a recognition of how an individual’s actions could benefit the whole organization. This recognition goes well beyond the belief in the supremacy of the organization over the individual which was characteristic of the organizational culture and the general attitude to hierarchy then commonly held, especially by British company and land owners. Senior British officers’ feelings about Australian soldiers not showing respect to officers by saluting neatly sums up the differences in culture between the Old Country and the new Dominions, hence the Australians were viewed as fighters rather than as soldiers.

However in their defence, some British Regular officers welcomed the Armistice as the chance to return to ‘proper soldiering’ as they remembered it from their pre-War colonial days. In terms of the modern attitudes and activities of the British military forces, peace keeping and the maintenance of international order is very similar to the duties to which they wished to return!.



Appendix 2:

The Evidence for Monash being a Military Manager

The statements presented in this appendix come from Monash’s personal writings, edited by F.M. Cutlack in 1935. It is reasonable to suggest that these show a mind more tuned to the needs of business management than to the normal military way of doing things. The figures in brackets are the pages within the ‘War Letters of General Monash’.

‘We have got our battle procedure now thoroughly well organised.’ ‘…really a triumph of organization.’ (41) Monash as Colonel commanding the 4th Australian Infantry Brigade, Gallipoli, 21 May 1915.


‘It is the old story – insufficient troops, inadequate munitions, attempting more than was possible with the means available.’ (65) ‘…although we have gained enormous new tracts of country, our strategic or tactical objectives are still unreached…’ (66) Gallipoli, 5 September 1915.

‘…one can see the cult of inefficiency and muddle and red-tape practised to a nicety.’ (70) Sarpi Camp, Lemnos, 25 September, 1915.

‘All this betokens lack of business management and power of co-ordinated action.’ (76-77) Sarpi Camp, 4 October 1915.

‘…disgusted with the evidences of much muddle and inefficiency…’ ‘…one has only to keep cool and think out one’s problems and tasks and the work of fighting soon becomes perfectly ordinary and humdrum.’ (78) At sea, 10 October 1915.

‘But here my engineering experience will help.’ (83) Anzac Cove, 10 November 1915; preparing the Australian camp to face the Turkish winter weather.

‘All this means organization and makes all the difference between success and failure.’ (98-99) Anzac Cove, 18 December 1915; preparing for the brilliantly successful evacuation – not one soldier among the 45,000 Australians facing 170,000 Turks were lost.

‘…organization is a very much easier job than reorganization.’ (105) Ismailia, Egypt, 15 January 1916.

‘These enterprises are a combination of the highest scientific preparation with the greatest personal gallantry.’ (120) Of trench raids in France, 3 July 1916.

‘A perfected modern battle plan is like nothing so much as a score for an orchestral composition, where the various arms and units are the instruments, and the tasks they perform are their respective musical phrases.’ (121) Quoted from Monash: Australian Victories in France in 1918.

‘…was a good example of modern war organization.’ (143) Lark Hill, 6 November 1916; a full scale training exercise which drew an audience of over 120 generals and senior officers. This is a forerunner of Bernard Montgomery’s exercise conducted in July 1938, the first of its type since Gallipoli! (Hamilton, 1981)

‘…designed to spread the stress on the personnel as widely as possible.’ (155) France, 11 January 1917; managing the reliefs of front-line troops to maintain their efficiency (that contrasts strongly with the management of the French troops which was a strong factor causing the widespread mutinies after the Nivelle Offensive of April 1917).

‘I hate the business of war, the horror of it, the waste, the destruction, and the inefficiency.’ (168) Menton, southern France, 16 March 1917; not the Oh! What a Lovely War image of a Great War general!

‘…in this my engineering experience has been a great help to me.’ (171) 3rd Australian Division Headquarters, 26 April 1917; preparing for Messines.

‘I put in a half-day with Walter (Dr Rosenhain) at the National Physical Laboratory, seeing the latest munitions inventions.’ (180) France, 10 July 1917; keeping up to date with new technology with the help of his son-in-law whilst on leave in London.

‘Throughout every department of the work, both fighting and feeding up supplies, stores and ammunition, I strive to introduce similar systematic methods and order, so that there shall be no muddling, no overlapping, no cross purposes, and everybody has to know exactly what his job is and when and where he has to do it.’ (203-204) France, 18 October 1917.

‘It was a miracle of good management.’ (228) France, 2 April 1918; transporting in the Australian Divisions to contain the great German offensive of March 1918.

‘It is because we do not consider psychology enough that we are taking so long to win the war.’ ‘…to try to deal with every task and every situation on the basis of simple business propositions, differing in no way from the problems of civil life, except that they are governed by a special technique. The main thing is always to have a plan; if it is not the best plan, it is at least better than no plan at all.’ (233) France, 3 April 1918.

‘…the Field-Marshal had suddenly decided to put into force a strategic plan which I had myself propounded…’ (263) France, 21 August 1918; the plan for the battle of Amiens, 8th of August 1918 – but was it a copy of SS135 as Winter suggests?.

‘On taking over command of the corps at the end of May, my first business was to weld the whole of the corps into one great fighting machine, with a common policy, unity of purpose, and unity of tactical thought and conception, and to infuse in the whole a spirit of unrelenting offensive.’ (275) France, 8 November 1918; a mission statement which could have been written 80 years later!

The proviso has to be made that Cutlack faithfully copied Monash’s original words. Without the opportunity to inspect the originals in Canberra and accepting Cutlack’s veracity, the value of these statements is in confirming the advantage of undertaking primary research. They are Monash’s personal views, and are not subject to interpretation in their rewriting when the basis of biographies covering Monash’s performance between 1915 in Gallipoli and Armistice Day.



Appendix 3:

Monash and his Military Experiences after 1919

After Sir John Monash’s return to Australia and the enthusiasm of his welcome, he had limited impact on the further development of the Australian military forces. This was probably because the Regular officers regained control of the army and like their British counterparts wished to return to the ethos represented by the term ‘serious soldiering’. Also Australian egalitarian traditions did not favour special recognition for their great leaders (Serle, 1982a), such as is normal in most other countries

Nevertheless, he did take part in commemorative events such as the parades on Anzac Day (25 April). In addition, he held many positions of honour in many organizations, such as his alma mater, Melbourne University. These are detailed in Geoffrey Serle’s detailed biography, already much quoted, especially Chapters 15, 16 and 17 ( pages 435 to 529). But his major civilian activity was as general manager and then chairman of the State Electricity Commission of Victoria from 1920 to 1931. This exploited the huge reserves of brown coal (lignite) in the La Trobe Valley to power the electrification of the Victoria State. This massive undertaking made great use of his pre-War engineering expertise.

If he was consciously to apply his military expertise it was in his role as general manager. Certainly he had to use political skills to overcome the many entrenched interests such as the provincial electricity suppliers. He did mention that ‘…I have had my fight and overthrown my enemies…’ in the Melbourne City Council. In his method of management he consciously adopted that successfully used in his wartime H.Q. where he did not buzz about but stay in one place where everyone knew where they could contact him. In overcoming the carping and criticisms which most people in public life have to face, in his case mostly unjustified, he recognised the advantage his war prestige gave him. Despite the paternalism of his style of management, he made use of enlightened, scientific practices to increase productivity through humane and conciliatory personnel management based on his personal military experience. Hence industrial relations between the S.E.C. and the trade unions were kept manageable at a time when many countries were experiencing intense industrial strife including national strikes.

Overall, Monash was able to successfully apply his experience of military command and organization. But without the benefits which hierarchical military discipline provide, he had to make best use of his dynamic personality and the power of his intellect in presenting his case and demonstrating the weaknesses of his opponents’ cases. He continued to show his command of detail and his analytical strengths, drawing out the views of colleagues before making decisions. As with the greatest leaders, he pulled people behind him rather than driving them in front of him. However he was astute enough to recognise that military expertise has its limits in civilian life. As he said of his period when acting chancellor of Melbourne University ‘…the University is about as difficult to manage – if not more so – than an army.’ – a sentiment many modern university vice-chancellors would agree with!

Perhaps the best tribute to his approach to both military and civilian management is in the motto of the second State of Victoria university, named after him, ‘I am still learning’.



Appendix 4:

Rawlinson’s erratic planning

Neuve Chapelle (10th-13th March 1915): artillery the key weapon enabling the infantry to break into the German trenches. Although he understands the advantage of ‘bite and hold’, Rawlinson blames the 8th Division commander for not exploiting the break in.

Aubers Ridge (9th May 1915): provided insufficient artillery so infantry left cruelly exposed to machine-gun and rifle fire. Rawlinson blames the troops who died stopping bullets with their ‘bare chests’.

Givenchy (15th-16th June 1915): similar cause and outcome to Aubers Ridge. Rawlinson blames the Canadian troops.

Loos (25th September-8th October 1915): gas and smoke used to reduce deficiency in artillery, incompetent use of the reserve 21st and 24th Divisions. Rawlinson blames Field Marshal Sir John French for how these reserves were used.

Somme (1st July 1916): the infantry are sacrificed because of over-confidence in use of artillery to cut wire and reach deep dugouts (however during the prolonged bombardment at the end of June he did note in his diary that the wire in places was not being cut).

Somme (14th July1916): ignores the success of the artillery bombardment and gives the credit to the attack on the Bazentin Ridge taking place at night.

Somme (27th July 1916): ignores the success of the artillery bombardment and claims the Germans were demoralized in Longueval and Delville Wood.

Somme, the forgotten battles (August-September 1916): having condemned the narrow-front attack on 16th July, allows two months of such attacks sacrificing tens of thousands of infantry. Haig lectures him on the duties expected of a commander.

Somme (15th September 1916): the tank-assisted attack at Flers, but insufficient artillery bombardment provided in the form of a creeping barrage. Undamaged German machine-guns in tank lanes cause severe casualties to the unprotected infantry.

Somme (25th September 1916): the battle of Morval helped by the return to a proper artillery bombardment.

Somme (from 6th October 1916): the battlefield becomes a sea of mud, numerous attacks along the Transloy Line yield nothing but more casualties. Rawlinson now in disfavour.

Hamel (4th July 1918): surprise reintroduced by skilful use of the creeping barrage. Rawlinson no longer the ‘Napoleonic’ creator of large military manoeuvres but ‘…a manager drawing forth and co-ordinating the endeavours of others.’

Amiens (8th August 1918): ‘the black day of the German army’; detailed planning passes into the hands of Monash, the Canadian General Sir Arthur Currie and their staff experts; introduction of neutralising fire and counter-battery bombardment to protect the infantry lays the grounds for success. On the 13th, Rawlinson had to defer to the power given Currie as the leader of a distinguished ‘national army’ and stop demanding further attacks.

Albert, the Hindenburg Line, the 23rd of August 1918, and thereafter: Rawlinson oversees with reasonable competence the integration of the plans of the all-arms experts and the aspirations of corps commanders such as Monash, and their divisional generals and brigadiers. However he allows the mentally broken English Third Corps commander, Butler, to return to command. Rawlinson harshly criticised the American 27th Division which advanced without artillery protection thereby suffering great casualties (recalling the fate of the 21st and 24th Divisions at Loos).

The Sambre and Oise Canal (4th November 1918): the Fourth Army’s last major assault, successfully carried out.




References and Additional Notes

Andrews, E.M. (1993) The Anzac Illusion: Anglo-Australian relations during World War 1. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Bailey, G.N.A. (1998) Author’s personal investigation – 10 August 1998. On the ridge above Le Hamel, where the German front line was positioned, a superb monument of reliefs (one of Monash) on black marble panels has been built in recent years. The surrounding plinths and touch-activated voice messages explain why the battle, so easily overlooked, was important towards winning the war.

Barbusse, H. (1926) Under Fire: the Story of a Squad. English version: London: Everyman’s Library. One poignant episode is where two French soldiers wander in No Man’s Land seeking the site of the home of one of them – all that remains are pulverised traces of the road which passed the house in Souchez.

Baynes, J. (1967) Morale: A Study of Men and Courage, The Scottish Second Rifles at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle 1915. Cassell: London.

Beckett, I.F.W. and Simpson, K.(eds.), (1985) A Nation In Arms: A social study of the British army in the First World War. Manchester University Press: Manchester.

Bidwell, S. and Graham, D. (1982) Fire-Power: British Army Weapon and Theories of War 1904-1945. George Allen & Unwin: London.

Blake, R. (ed.), (1952) The Private Papers of Douglas Haig 1914-1919: Being selections from the private diary and correspondence of Field-Marshal the Earl Haig of Bemersyde, K.T.,G.C.B,O.M.,etc. Eyre and Spottiswoode: London.

Blond, G. (1965a) The Marne, trans. H. Eaton Hart,Macdonald: London. This tiny village, some fourteen kilometres from Villers-Bretonneux, was also the setting for a brilliant counter-attack by the 7th Corps of the 6th French Army in August 1914.

Blond, G. (1965b) The Marne, trans. H. Eaton Hart,Macdonald: London.

Bond, B.J. (ed.), (1991) The First World War and British Military History. Clarendon Press: Oxford.

Cecil, H. and Liddle, P.H. (eds.), (1996) Facing Armageddon: The First World War Experienced. Leo Cooper: London.

Cole, G.A. (1990) Management: Theory and Practice. DP Publications: London. Third Edition.

Coombs, R.E.B. MBE (1976) Before Endeavours Fade. Battle of Britain Prints International: London. This famous guide to the battlefields of the First World War remains invaluable for finding the traces and the memorials of the many individual actions. This author has been present at the various ceremonies on the First of July held on the Somme battlefield, the main ones being organised with the support and the participation of the French civic and military authorities. The most unusual was the funeral in Ovillers Cemetery on the 1st of July 2000 of the soldier found buried on the lip of the Great Mine at La Boiselle two years previously. The ceremony at the Thiepval Memorial is the grandest, that at the Ulster Tower nearby in the afternoon commemorating the superb advance of the 36th Division through the Schwaben Redoubt brings together the Ulster people. The most intimate is the ceremony at the Great Mine, held at 7.28 a.m, made poignant by the red crepe paper ‘poppy petals’ which are scattered from the rim to flutter downwards into the 90 feet deep crater.

Cutlack, F.M. (ed.), (1935) War Letters of General Monash. Angus and Robertson: Sydney.

Fletcher, D. (1994) Tanks and Trenches: First hand accounts of tank warfare in the First World War. Grange Books: London.

Griffith, P. (1994) Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army’s Art of Attack, 1916-18. Yale University Press: New Haven.

Griffith, P. (ed.), (1996) British Fighting Methods In The Great War. Frank Cass: London.

Haig, Sir D. (1914-1919) Diary for 1918-1919. King’s College London: London. Microfilm of writing in his own hand held in the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives.

Hamilton, N. (1981) Monty: The Making of a General 1887-1942. Hamish Hamilton: London.

Hyatt, A.M.J. (1987) General Sir Arthur Currie: A Military Biography. University of Toronto Press: Toronto.

Junger, E. (1985) Copse 125: A chronicle from the trench warfare of 1918. Zimmermann & Zimmermann.

Lee, J. (1997a) ‘The British Divisions at Third Ypres’ , see Liddle (1997).

Lee, J. (1997b) ‘The British Divisions at Third Ypres’ , see Liddle (1997). The answer to the mystery as to why the 21st and 24th Divisions never produced divisional histories to celebrate their deeds may lie in this debacle, the first time these newly-formed Kitchener Divisions were sent into battle.

Liddle, P.H. (ed.) (1997) Passchendaele In Perspective: The Third Battle of Ypres. Leo Cooper, London.

Littlewood, J., director (1963) This play, directed by Joan Littlewood in 1963, became a film, starring Laurence Olivier, John Mills and Maggie Smith, which had a major impact when first shown in 1969 and helped reinforce the popular image of ‘lions led by donkeys’.

Macdonald, L. (1993) 1915: The Death of Innocence. Headline Book Publishing: London.

Macksey, M.C., Major K. (1965) The Shadow Of Vimy Ridge. William Kimber: London.

Oliver, D. (1997) ‘The Canadians at Passchendaele’, see Liddle (1997).

O’Ryan. (1921) The Story of the 27th Division. New York, as quoted in Smithers (1973), p. 270.

Pedersen, P.A. (1985) Monash as Military Commander. Melbourne University Press: Melbourne.

Pitt, B. (1962) 1918: The Last Act. Cassell: London.

Prior, R. and Wilson, T. (1992) Command on the Western Front: The Military Career of Sir Henry Rawlinson 1914-18. Blackwell: Oxford.

Pugsley, C. (1997) ‘The New Zealand Division at Passchendaele’, see Liddle, (1997).

Regan, G. (1991) The Guinness Book of Military Blunders. Guinness Publishing: Enfield.

Serle, G. (1982a) John Monash: A Biography. Melbourne University Press: Melbourne.

Serle, G. (1982b) A Punch article of 9 March 1911 suggested that he was possibly the finest citizen officer in the Commonwealth.

Sheffield, G. (1999). Personal communication. Comments during the drafting stage improving the accuracy of the information given in the text.

Sheffield, G. (2001). Forgotten Victory. Headline Book: London.

Simkins, P. (1996a) ‘Co-Stars or Supporting Cast? British Divisions in the ‘Hundred Days’, 1918′, see Griffith (1996).

Simkins, P. (1996b) ‘The War Experience of a Typical Kitchener Division: The 18th Division, 1914-1918′, see Cecil and Liddle (1996).

Smithers, A.J. (1973) Sir John Monash. Leo Cooper: London.

Taylor, F.W. (1911) Principles of Scientific Management. Harper: New York.

Thomson, A. (1994) Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend. Oxford University Press: Melbourne.

Tuchman, B.W. (1980) August 1914. Papermac: London. The term was used to describe unsuccessful French generals relieved of their commands by General Joffre and sent to report for rear duty at Limoges in central France.

Wiest, A. (1997) ‘The Planned Amphibious Assault‘, see Liddle (1997).

Winter, D. (1991a) Haig’s Command: A Reassessment. Viking: London. Illustration 33, This gun could drop a shell fired from ‘Epping Forest’ into ‘Trafalgar Square’, 300 times a day!

Winter, D. (1991b) Haig’s Command: A Reassessment. Viking: London.

Winter, D. (1991c) Haig’s Command: A Reassessment. Viking: London. Winter ranks Currie the most successful allied general, making excellent use of artillery and machine gun barrages carefully linked to flexible infantry tactics.





This assessment would not have been completed without the support of a number of people.

Professor Brian Bond, the Professor of Military History at King’s College London, stimulated my thinking during his MA Options Military History: the First World War and The Face of Battle: Understanding 20th century Warfare during my time as an MA student in War Studies. Furthermore he encouraged me to experiment with new ways of looking at historical events, as seen in this assessment.

Janet, my wife, Nicholas, and Julia E.T. Bailey.

Brigadier Neville Pughe, for encouraging my application of contemporary management theories to historical military events.

Mike Piercy and Dr Gary Sheffield whose comments and observations have helped me towards seeking a balance between historical accuracy and contemporary management theories.

Ó GNA Bailey (20/12/2000)

Last Updated: 9 April 2002.

The concept of “strategy” as understood in the fields of Military Planning and Business Management



Author: Dr George Bailey OBE



Table of Contents:

Strategy, this universal concept: where does it come from?

Classical interpretations

Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’

Linking the Classical Age to the Twenty-First Century

Defining Military Strategy in the Nuclear Age

Some Business definitions of Strategy

Strategy and Grand Tactics

Comparing and contrasting the Military definitions

Adding the Business dimension

The Art of Politics – and the Possible

Strategy’s relationship with Politics

Implementing Strategy can fail: the Case of Hitler’s Eastern Front Campaign

Winning Politically through the use of Strategy: a Conclusion


Prepared for the Website



Strategy, this universal concept: where does it come from?

The word “strategy” has become one of the most dynamic words in the English language. This is because it is believed to offer those using it an advantage over their rivals. Hence it is a commonly used concept in both the military and business spheres where ‘competitive strength’ is expected to bring success.

This analysis will focus primarily on examining how definitions of strategy have evolved in the military sphere. However its usage in the business sphere will be considered where it serves to better expose the understanding and the limitations of the concept in its military application.

The word is derived from the two classical Greek words ‘stratos‘ and ‘agein‘:-

Stratos‘ – an encamped army covering ground;

agein‘ – to lead.

When amalgamated into the term ‘strategos‘ meaning the general, this has lead to strategy being taken to be “the art of generalship” in Ancient Greece.

Interpreting the word ‘stratos‘, there appeared to have been the recognition by the Greek commanders of that time that an army within its camp was a unit of administration requiring to be controlled. By ground can be inferred that such a unit has parts which have to be laid out in an ordered way – otherwise chaos will occur (such as different tribes competing to have their tents closest to a source of water). This need for control appears to have been extended by commanders such as Alexander the Great to the laying out of the parts of the unit over the field chosen for battle.


Classical interpretations

The evolution of the term ‘strategos‘ was a recognition that the style of fighting in the Ancient World had moved away from individuals fighting man to man, as exemplified in the tales of heroes such as Achilles in the Trojan War. Instead it had evolved into trained groups of men fighting in a co-ordinated way, and such co-ordination needed careful planning and administration if it was to be effectively integrated within an army capable of making disciplined manoeuvres on the battlefield. The highly successful ‘hoplite’ infantry units of the Athenian State were such an example.

But the greatness of this State rested on more than military prowess – the Athenians discussed the theory of strategy and linked the theory to practice by means of what is today known as ‘case studies’ (see the Website ‘’ for military examples taken from the Great War of 1914 to 1918). Through this method, examples of both best and worst practices could be rigorously analysed and lessons learned. Indeed the intellectual world of Plutarch would not seem too out of place in the military world of the modern staff college or the civilian world of the business schools.

Kleisthenes in 508-7 B.C. instituted the Athenian State’s military and political system, the ten ‘strategoi‘ who formed the Athenian war council. These ‘strategoi‘ provided the generals in times of war and peace, controlling military operations as well as strongly influencing political activities. Gradually the Athenians developed the concept of strategy as the ‘art of generalship’ – thereby usefully combining the psychological and behavioural skills needed to fulfil this leadership role.

By 450 B.C., when Pericles was the Athenian leader, it had further developed its meaning to cover managerial skills including administration, leadership, oration and the use of power. Hence Xenophon wrote of it as ‘knowing the business which you propose to carry out’. (in de Wit and Meyer, 1998). During Alexander the Great’s rule, a century later, it covered the skill of employing forces to overcome any opposition and to create a unified system of international governance.

And in the first century A.D., Frontinus defined strategy as ‘everything achieved by a commander, be it characterized by foresight, advantage, enterprise, or resolution.’ (in de Wit and Meyer, 1998)


Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’

At almost the same time as Kleisthenes was forming the Athenian war council, in China a native of Qi, Sun Tzu, wrote the thirteen chapter ‘Art of War’. Prince He Lu, the ruler of the neighbouring state of Wu was greatly impressed by the book and by a practical demonstration of its message. In 506 B.C., he appointed Sun Tzu the supreme commander of the Wu armies. Sun Tzu then lead them to victories over neighbouring states, including that of his birth, for twenty years until his death. (Kheng-Hor, 1992)

Only in 1772 did the French Jesuit Joseph Amyot (Chaliand, 1994) translate the book into a Western language. Although the translation temporarily enjoyed great success it was soon forgotten. Even though an intensive reader of books on military ideas during his training at the Artillery Training School at Auxonne in 1788 and 1789, Napoleon Bonaparte appears not to have read Sun Tzu from the lack of evidence of this given in Chandler (1966).

It was not until Western military strategists sought to understand the success of Mao Tse-Tung who had applied Sun Tzu’s teachings that Sun Tzu was rediscovered and the value of his ideas appreciated. Nowadays the message of the indirect strategy in the ‘Art of War’ is familiar to many European military strategists. As to applying the message to business situations, Japanese company executives have taken the book to heart.

Nevertheless, in the development of Western understanding of how to wage war, Sun Tzu remains outside the mainstream of the evolution of military ideas. However his example demonstrates that at similar times in history, new and similar ideas can develop in countries even thousands of miles apart. Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’ will continue to be mined by military and business strategists as a historical curiosity that confirms the correctness of contemporary military strategies.

Linking the Classical Age to the Twenty-First Century

After the fall of Rome and the temporary loss of so much knowledge, bards and poets collected the events surrounding historical battles, the triumphs and the failures, and passed this folklore on as guidance for their audiences. As social groupings once again became more sophisticated during the Middle Ages and armed conflicts became more complex, both soldiers and politicians studied, wrote down and tested different options until coherent principles emerged. Pre-eminent among them was Karl von Clausewitz during the early years of the Nineteenth Century. Foch and Liddell Hart gained great reputations in the Twentieth Century before the onset of the Nuclear Age after the Second World War. Each would describe strategy as set in the particular environment of the time they were examining it.

Examples of how strategy has been defined during the past two centuries:

Karl von Clausewitz – ‘Strategy forms the plan, and to this end it links together the series of acts which are to lead to the final decision;’ (in de Wit and Meyer, 1998); and

‘the use of combat, or the threat of combat, for the purpose of the war in which it takes place.’

‘the use of armed force to achieve the military objectives and, by extension, the political purpose of the war.’

‘strategy forms the theory of using battle for the purposes of the war.’ (all in Paret, 1986)

Baron Antoine Henri de Jomini – ‘Strategy is the art of making war upon the map, and comprehends the whole theater of operations.’ (in Chaliand, 1994)

Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke – ‘Strategy is a system of ad hoc expedients.’

‘Strategy is the application of common sense to the conduct of war…’ (both in Paret, 1986)

Captain Basil Liddell Hart – ‘… the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfil the ends of policy.’ (in Freedman, 1994)


Defining Military Strategy in the Nuclear Age

Craig and Gilbert – ‘effective strategy is always a calculated employment of force and statecraft for a political end.’ (in Paret, 1986)

Sokolovsky – ‘… a system of theoretical knowledge dealing with the laws of war as an armed conflict in the name of definite class interests.’

‘… deep nuclear-missile strikes in conjunction with operations of all branches of the armed forces in order to inflict a simultaneous defeat and destruction of the enemy’s economic potential and armed forces throughout the whole depth of his territory, for the accomplishment of the war aims within a short time span.’ (both in Freedman, 1994)

Freedman, as mentioned by Heuser (pers.comm., 1997) – ‘Strategy is about the relationship between political ends and military means; the art of creating power.’

As suggested by Heuser (pers.comm., 1996) – ‘Rationalisation into military ‘actions’ of the interaction between beliefs about the enemy and beliefs about oneself.’


Some Business definitions of Strategy

Business theorists and practitioners, having to understand the strategic process operating within highly competitive environments, have offered the following definitions:

Chandler – ‘…the determination of the basic long-term goals and objectives of an enterprise, and the adoption of courses of action and the allocation of resources necessary for carrying out these goals.’ (1962)

Quinn – ‘A strategy is the pattern or plan that integrates an organisation’s major goals, policies, and action sequences into a cohesive whole. A well-formulated strategy helps to marshal and allocate an organisation’s resources into a unique and viable posture based on its relative internal competencies and shortcomings, anticipated changes in the environment and contingent moves by intelligent opponents.’ (1980)

Andrews – ‘…a pattern of decisions…the unity, coherence and internal consistency of a company’s strategic decisions that position a company in its environment and give the firm its identity, its power to mobilise its strengths, and its likelihood of success in the marketplace.’ (1987)

Ansoff and McDonnell – ‘…strategic management is a systemic approach for managing strategic change which consists of the following:

1. positioning of the firm through strategy and capability planning;

2. real-time strategic response through issue management;

3. systematic management of resistance during strategic implementation.’ (1990)

Mintzberg and Quinn suggest strategy as the interrelationship between the 5 P’s – plans, ploys, patterns, position and perspective.’ (1991)

Hax suggests ‘…the major force that provides a comprehensive and integrative blueprint for an organization as a whole…the pattern of decisions a firm makes.’ (in de Wit and Meyer, 1998)

Once the term is defined, it can be used to decide:

* the organization’s purpose in terms of its long-term objectives;

* the organization’s competitive arena;

* the organization’s ability to gain competitive advantage out of its operating environment;

* how strategy is to be performed at different levels within the organization;

* how the organizations will benefit those who have a stake in its activities. (Kheng-Hor, 1992)

Cole suggests a definition seeking to unite the different strands – ‘Strategic management is a process, directed by top management, to determine the fundamental aims or goals of the organisation, and ensure a range of decisions which will allow for the achievement of those aims or goals in the long-term, whilst providing for adaptive responses in the shorter term. (1994)


Strategy and Grand Tactics

The terms ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’ often appear to be used interchangeably, which can create confusion. Baron de Jomini has correctly pointed out that there is a difference between the concept of strategy and the practice of grand tactics. Strategy is about deciding what to do, grand tactics about how to do it. The Soviet approach during the Cold War strongly emphasised grand tactics which they called ‘operational art’ (Heuser, pers.comm., 1997). From personal discussions with Russian economics professors in St. Petersburg during 1994, it was clear that Soviet economic strategies were enclosed for seventy years within the Marxist vision of the ‘ultimate victory of the proleteriat’. The economists’ duty was how to turn that vision into reality.


Comparing and contrasting the Military definitions

As understanding has improved of how war is waged, so generally have the insights provided by the military definitions. The early thinkers saw “strategy” as a reflection of the leader’s ability but some of the later thinkers of the Classical World began to recognise the importance of the management function although still concentrating on how to wage war. Indeed Xenophon’s definition is so modern in its understanding that it holds its rightful place in a 1998 corporate strategy textbook.

During the Middle Ages, grand tactics focused initially on how quickly to get knights at each other to trade blows rather like gangs of young boys do; later these crude tactics were replaced by the application of mathematical formulae to the methods of fighting. Nevertheless some leaders did study the art of war. In 1410, King Jagiello of Poland had a strategical plan ‘to seize the initiative at the onset and compel his enemy to conform to his movements. (Evans, 1970) At Grunwald (but called by the Germans Tannenberg), his strategic flair lead to the combined Polish-Lithuanian Army destroying the Order of Teutonic Knights.

As already shown, Karl von Clausewitz and Baron de Jomini presented definitions from which they advanced the systematic understanding of military strategy and the theory of conducting war. However von Clausewitz in ‘On War’ was more significant because he came to recognise war’s link with political events and began the insights which have been developing ever since into the philosophical and later psychological features of waging war. Baron de Jomini diverted into the operational tactics of conducting campaigns.

Later theorists such as Liddell Hart, Craig and Gilbert, and Freedman have enlarged the political dimension to war, linking it to policy, power and the perceptions of the antagonists. It is now recognised, as presented by Heuser, that the strategic decision to wage war, or not, does depend on their current belief systems. These can be modified by events, sometimes quickly and unexpectedly such as following the bombing of Pearl Harbour.

The evolution of strategic understanding does show the effect on the early and the latest theorists of the changes in how warfare is waged at the national and indeed supra-national levels. The former tended to place strong emphasis on personal qualities found in leaders because such leaders were both the political and the military leaders and often answerable to only themselves. The latter theorists focus on the reasons underlying the waging of war. In the two world wars of the twentieth century, the military commanders rarely had political leadership and took their instructions from the politicians. Understanding the personalities, motivations, and aspirations of a considerable number of people exercising collective leadership (as demonstrated by those politicians and military commanders controlling the Allied efforts in resourcing and fighting both World Wars) is difficult. Hence the latter theorists find themselves having to seek better understanding by exploiting the advancement of knowledge in many spheres unknown to or barely understood by the early theorists. Three of these are economics, sociology and psychology.


Adding the Business dimension

By contrast, whereas strategic understanding in the military sphere has evolved slowly over more than two millennia, in the business sphere such understanding has had to develop rapidly during the past fifty years. This is due to commercial organizations having to deal urgently with the international competitive forces released by the turbulence within the world economy created by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. For many, their survival has depended on their making correct responses. (Andrews, 1987)

Hence the strong emphasis given to understanding the operating environment (the famous PESTEL analysis -political/economic/social/technological/

environmental/legal) in order to assess how well the rivals are coping with it. Plans of how to gain a competitive edge over these antagonists are developed from this analysis and the relationships that they have with:-

* the suppliers of necessary resources,

* the users of the rivals’ products and services, and

* the attitudes of those who are interested in or have a stake in their actions

(the power relationships of the stakeholders).

Such planning (Kheng-Hor, 1992, Quinn, 1980) requires a rigorous examination of the challenges facing the various rivals, their ability to take advantage of opportunities which emerge (Cole, 1994), and logistical expertise (Chandler, 1962). Hubris, or overwheening pride, is discouraged because the competitive abilities of rivals should never be under-estimated – simply because a change in the PESTEL factors may suddenly improve their competitive strengths. Finally there must be consistency if those asked to implement the strategy are to have confidence in it. (Ansoff and McDonnell, 1990)

The business practitioners need to be mindful of Helmuth von Moltke’s observation that once implementation begins, unexpected problems arise. (in Chaliand, 1994) So the successful ones recognise the need to be flexible, to carefully estimate the levels of risk of different courses of action and to actively encourage and enable new strategies to emerge. But they recognise the importance of the ‘political’ dimension’ (Mintzberg and Quinn, 1991) even within a small industry.

This comparison with business practices shows that the modern military strategists can usefully learn from the fast-moving and fast-changing theatre of commercial operations. Hence the growing interest in comparing and contrasting the reasoning behind strategy formulation under conditions of war and peace which underpins this website.

In summary, sound strategy comes from rational thought based on scientific analysis. Received wisdom has to be examined to check its continuing relevance. Only after rigorous analysis is that ‘wisdom’ allowed to decide the decisions which follow. But care must be taken to ensure that timing and climatic conditions are properly considered in shaping these decisions – for example, to launch an attack across the Russian steppes in the depths of winter is more difficult than to do so in high summer.


The Art of Politics – and the Possible

The political process decides whether or not war will occur, how it will be fought and what will be done with the outcome of the war. The successful implementation of strategy will achieve a peace favourable to the winner’s needs and aspirations for land holdings, access to mineral resources, sources of future wealth, amongst others. However outstanding political strategists such as Prince Otto von Bismarck, the German Chancellor during the creation of the Greater German Empire in the later Nineteenth Century, have recognised the need to continue to pursue political objectives even whilst at war. In both the World Wars of the Twentieth Century there were moments when political interventions might have shortened the periods of fighting. But the timings were not right for both sets of belligerents to be willing to negotiate.

Politics has been called ‘the art of the possible’ – with much good reason. It is about persuading others to accept a particular point of view. That point may not be individualised, it may be a corporate expression of what should be agreed and implemented. To achieve this persuasion, skills in oratory, writing, and visual or audile presentation are generally important. From experience comes a feel for what is ‘possible’. Often the ‘possible’ is closely controlled by the environment in which the persuasion is taking place, and the time at which it takes place. Furthermore it is influenced either by the persuader having superior power or superior legitimate authority. Sometimes this superior power may be the threat of military or legal action if verbal persuasion fails to achieve the sought objective.

Timing does strongly affect whether or not the suggested action is acceptable to the stakeholders. The listeners’ personal emotions (such as eagerness, stubbornness, apathy, boredom, fear, etc.,) will greatly influence their decisions to agree or not. For example, some committee agendas have unpleasant but necessary items placed at the end. By the time they are taken at the end of a meeting, the resistance of the committee members is low as they want to go home or have a meal. The items are agreed with but little discussion.

As a subject concerning and of interest to many, much is written about the civil theory of politics. What has been described is based on the practical knowledge, not theory alone, gained through personal experience by this long-term practitioner of its art at different levels of government.


Strategy’s relationship with Politics

As already discussed, strategy is the planning of actions to be implemented at some future date, which can be soon or in the long-term. Politics is about assessing whether the plan can be implemented and will require a determination of its suitability, consistency, acceptability and feasibility to possibly a wide range of people who can be identified as being stakeholders. As part of gaining its acceptability, the political element of persuasion comes into operation.

In the process of strategic management, the assessment of factors such as what is happening externally, what might be done, what resources are available, what capabilities and competencies are possessed need rational appraisal. From this analysis comes the determination of feasibility (‘what can be done?’) and suitability (‘is it worth doing?’). Then the persuasion gains acceptability from those who will have to implement what is planned (in the military sphere the generals and their staff) or those who will accept, willingly or otherwise, the goals of the strategist. These stakeholders may need to be convinced that the proposed strategy is consistent with what has gone before to have confidence in it.

During the process known as the management of change, the staff are likely to become demoralised under the the turbulent conditions of the unfreezing and changing stages. The changemaster then adopts a political stance in order to re-motivate the staff as the freezing stage begins. They will have to be reassured that the changes they are helping to implement are beginning to deliver the promised results.


Implementation Strategy can fail: the Case of Hitler’s Eastern Front Campaign

In completing this examination of the relationship between strategy and politics, there is the recognition that implementing the plans developed from strategic analysis is often problematical, as understood by Helmuth von Moltke, the famous Prussian Chief of Staff. (in Chaliand, 1994)

Glantz (1993) well expresses the problem:

‘…no plan survives first contact. But, of course, plans are necessary because a good plan will get you to the start line with the right stuff at the right place, and at the right time.’

However careful the planning, sometimes implementation is unsuccessful. This dilemma bedevils not only military planning, but planning in civil administrations. When it happens, the strategist will need to modify his thinking. But for powerful leaders, this may suggest weakness – which cannot be tolerated.

For example, Hitler’s strategic thinking especially from late 1942 in the Eastern Front Campaign gives a clear example of believing that the exercise of enough personal will can conquer the friction caused by the unplanned unfolding of events.

After the launch of Operation Barbarossa on Midsummer’s day in 1941, the Wehrmacht had outstanding success until they stalled before the gates of Moscow. As the snows came and the temperature dropped, Hitler issued instructions to hold a ‘net of defended localities’ (Clark, 1995) that saved his armies which otherwise would have disintegrated as they attempted to carry out a strategic withdrawal. But once the Wehrmacht began their next offensive in June 1942 across the vasteness of the Russian steppes towards the river Volga which lead to their defeat at the Siege of Stalingrad, his conduct of the campaign demonstrated this conflict between exercising will-power and responding proactively to unforeseen circumstances. :

‘…stiff, inflexible conduct of the defensive phase of the war from late 1942 onward.’ (Stolfi, 1992)

– based on his Germany-under-siege mentality. This suggests a possible link between the ‘psychological’ fear of the German peoples under threat from their location, in the centre of Europe (Moen, 1941) and Hitler’s experience of being temporarily blinded (Bullock, 1991) on the Western Front in October 1918. That inflexible refusal to build new strategies emerging from changing conditions lead to the military disasters of Stalingrad and later Kursk.

Yet at the launch of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler had clear political aims, to destroy the Communist ideology. He also had strong economic aims, to guarantee the land and mineral resources to replace the German economy being reliant upon autarky (Cecil, 1975) – and prevent the economy being further damaged by the British Royal Navy’s blockade. Unfortunately for the Third Reich, Germany did not have the resources of manpower, materials and energy to enable these strategic objectives to be realised.


Winning Politically through the use of Strategy: a Conclusion

As to turning the strategy concept into a winning political instrument, Stolfi’s (1992) judgement on Hitler’s overall management performance between 1941 and 1945 serves as a useful warning of how strategy, tactics and implementation must each be properly controlled and co-ordinated:

‘Hitler faced the self-imposed task of providing strategic political direction for Germany in war while in operational command of the armed forces. This two-faceted situation quickly highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of the man… – the strategic vision, the operational fears, and the tactical compulsions that drove him.’

In business management today, linking the three very different aspects of strategic vision, tactical planning and operational management to a high enough standard to sustain competitive advantage is generally acknowledged for larger organizations to be well beyond the capabilities of an individual. Robert Maxwell tried obsessively to control all three tasks; his drowning from off his yacht ‘saved’ him having to explain the collapse of his publishing ’empire’!

In conclusion, the evolution of the concept of “strategy” and the development of the strategic process has advanced in both the military and business spheres to encompass the new disciplines of knowledge and what they can contribute to greater understanding. However implementing strategy successfully does require political sophistication – because intelligent opponents will seek to thwart the implementation by their aggressive use of counter-strategies. It is at this level in the dynamic military and business environments that the application of “strategy” becomes both an art and a science.





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Cecil, R. (1975) Hitler’s Decision to Invade Russia 1941, London, Davis-Poynter.

Chandler, A.D. (1962) Strategy and Structure, Mass, MIT Press.

Chandler, D.G. (1966) The Campaigns of Napoleon, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Chaliand, G. (1994) The Art of War in World History: from Antiquity to the Nuclear Age, Berkeley, University of California Press.

Clark, A. (1995) Barbarossa: the Russian-German Conflict, 1941-1945, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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Heuser, Dr. (now Prof.) D.B.A., Department of War Studies, King’s College, personal communication, 1996-97.

Kheng-Hor, K, translator Hwang Chung-Mei, H. (1992) Sun Tzu, Art of War, Petaling Jaya, Pelanduk Publications.

Mintzberg, H. and Quinn, J.B. (1991) The Strategy Process, Concepts, Contexts, Cases, London, Prentice-Hall International.

Moen, L. (1941) Under The Iron Heel, London, Robert Hale Limited.

Paret, P. (1986) Makers of Modern Strategy: from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, Oxford, Clarendon Press.

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Stolfi, R.H.S. (1992) Hitler’s Panzers East: World War II reinterpreted, Stroud, Alan Sutton Publishing.

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© GNA Bailey (29/3/2001)


Prepared for the Website: 29 March 2001.


Loos, 25th September to 8th October 1915 Part 2

External Circumstances

The French during the early part of 1915 had suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties during assaults in Artois (Notre Dame de Lorette and Vimy Ridge) and in Champagne (on the slopes to the east of Rheims) for little gain. The BEF had fought battles in Picardy (Neuve Chapelle, Festubert, etc) again for little reward for the tens of thousands of casualties. Once again the French wished to attack the Vimy Ridge but sought a simultaneous attack by the BEF. Psychological pressure was brought to bear by General Joffre expecting the British High Command to demonstrate that the BEF was ‘pulling its weight’.

In the spring, the Germans had attacked at Hill 70 to the east of Ypres and Langemark to the west using poison gas in defiance of the Hague Convention which Germany had signed. This factor was to be taken into account in planning the battle of Loos.

Selection of the Assault Units

The remnants of the Regular and Territorial battalions after the battles of 1914 and early to mid 1915 were insufficient to launch and sustain a major attack. Nevertheless six divisions of the BEF’s First Army were to be used as the main assault units but with two New Army Divisions, the 21st and 24th, in reserve to pursue the Germans when they retired in disorder. On the second morning these reserve divisions were used but prematurely because the German trenches facing them had not been cleared of the enemy.

Significantly more ammunition per cannon was available since David Lloyd George had as the newly-appointed Minister of Munitions taken charge in the summer of increasing the manufacture of shells. But increasing manfacturing production takes time, so the availability was much less than that on the Somme the next June. Nevertheless four days of artillery bombardment were possible. Unfortunately during the battle itself, little ammunition was left to continue shelling the Germans as they restrengthened their defences.

The Methods of Assault Adopted

At Loos, there was an attempt to exploit this new technology of poison gas. But controlling its effective use proved impossible and much of the gas was blown backwards towards and over the British jumping-off trenches by the wind which had changed direction, a clear example of changes in the external environment hindering the implementation of a plan.

Except for the gas and the preliminary artillery bombardment, the style of assault was very similar to that used on the Aisne and in the other battles of 1915.

The Rival’s Reaction

Later in the battle the Germans used gas shells for the first time which could be placed where they would have maximum impact, their development of gas technology allowing them to focus the gas rather than by dispersing it widely by discharging it from gas cylinders. Once again the Germans took advantage of their leadership in both military and industrial chemical technology.

The Lessons of Loos

Curbing the enthusiasm of the units attacking at the run proved to be a death-trap for the unit commanders who tried by physical means (such as running after the charging soldiers) to lead the troops in the right directions. The commanders’ deaths, including those of three Divisional commanders, meant that battlefield control of their units was lost, and hence the units suffered severe casualties because they were left not knowning what to do once their charges had been halted. After the earlier battles, training to tell soldiers what actions to follow when halted by barbed wire barriers and by machine-gun and rifle fire should have been provided to reduce the level of casualties caused by ignorance of what to do.

The use of untried divisions was unfortunately dictated by the necessity to utilise reserves once the assault units needed replacing. But recognising that previous battles had required the speedy use of whatever reserves were available, should the untried New Army divisions have been given this role at Loos? The decision to launch these half-trained inexperienced divisions into action can also be criticised in that the divisions were told that they would only be used to pursue the enemy once they were retiring in disorder. With this belief, the divisions could not have expected to be sent against enemy still manning their machine-guns. Furthermore Brigadier-General Williamson Oswald raised another issue in his 1928 account of his gunnery experiences during 1915. He said that he was aware the staff officers ‘think in distances of the horse’. So when the 21st and 24th Divisions were ordered to march to the front just before the attack began, the distance required was satisfactory for cavalry units moving forward, but impossible for infantry – which should have moved just ten to twelve miles. The troops arrived exhausted. It should be noted that both Sir John French and Sir Douglas Haig were distinguished cavalrymen! The 24th troops were also very hungry, probably not having been given the traditional “unconsumed” ration which experienced troops would expect to receive and then nibble on the march to save having to carry it. This issue of where to hold the reserves so that they can be used speedily and flexibly was again of great importance the next year on the Bazentin Ridge when the cavalry took over eleven hours to advance in exploitation to High Wood.

Rating the Quality of the Operation

From the analysis of the 34 questions using the Likert Scale, the deviation was found to be adverse by 10.8%. The spread of answers shows the battle to be one of contrasts, many favourable and even more that were adverse but few that were neutral. These findings show why Lyn Macdonald was able to subtitle her book on the events of 1915 ‘The Death of Innocence’. Some learning appeared to be gained although the events in 1916 suggest that it was the wrong learning – that explosives would utterly destroy machine-gunners and riflemen.

Views of the Battlefield

The site of the notorious Hohenzollern Redoubt from the le Rutoire crossroads, showing the flatness of the countryside around Loos.

Quarry Cemetery near Auchy-les-Mines contains the graves of many soldiers killed attacking the Hohenzollern Redoubt.

The Dump and quarries between the Redoubt and Hulluch from where the German troops resisted the British attacks throughout the battle.

Hill 70 showing its ‘steepness’, yet enough of a ridge to withstand numerous Allied attacks towards Lens during the early years of the War until it was captured in 1917.

The fields across which the 21st and 24th Divisions marched from Loos and Vermelles to their doom between Hulluch village and Bois Hugo on the north side of Hill 70.

The grave thought to be of Rudyard Kipling’s only child, John, at St Mary’s Clearing Station Cemetery between Vermelles and Hulluch; John is also commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing at Dud Corner Cemetery.

Loos, 25th September to 8th October 1915 Part 1

The Prelude

During early and middle 1915, British, Indian and Canadian troops fought short but intense battles at Langemarck (the Second Battle of Ypres), Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge, Festubert, and Givenchy. Although on some occasions, most notably at Neuve Chapelle, the British troops were able to over-run the German front-line trenches, they were not able to achieve break-outs into the open country behind. German
machine-gun and artillery fire shattered the advancing battalions as they crossed No Man’s Land and attempted to pass through the barbed wire enclosures placed in front of the trenches. Despite the expenditure of many thousands of lives, the trench systems moved little during these months.

To the south, the French Armies launched large offensives in Champagne and in the Souchez Valley. The ridge of Notre Dame de Lorette and the villages of Ablain St. Nazaire and Carency were recaptured but Vimy Ridge remained in German hands. In Champagne, to the east of Rheims, the French advanced slowly over the ridges but at a terrible cost, the
destroyed villages of Perthes-les-Hurlus, les Mesnil-les-Hurlus and Hurlus remaining to this day abandoned sites within the’camp militaire’.

After the shells scandal of the summer months when attacks failed with high casualties because of a lack of explosive shells to be fired in support of the attacking troops, David Lloyd George took charge of shell production in the new post of Minister of Munitions. By the autumn the British artillery had sufficient rounds for Sir John French to be receptive to the request of the French Commander General Joffre. Joffre wished to mount another attack in Artois to finally capture the Vimy Ridge. British assistance by an attack on the mining village of Loos-en-Gohelle would deflect German attention and assist the French assault on what was known to be a heavily fortified ridge. Capturing the ridge would deny the Germans their observation posts which gave
commanding views over the strategically important town of Arras and instead give the French superb observation over the Douai plain behind the ridge. The British Commander was also aware of the French political belief that despite the various assaults north of Arras, the British were yet ‘to pull their weight’.

The site chosen for the attack was unsuitable, being very flat, lacking cover yet constantly under surveillance from German observation posts dug into the slag-heaps of waste from the many coal-mines. However it was politically convenient as being just a few miles north of the Souchez Valley and so close to the boundary between the French and British Armies. Despite misgivings, a full attack was prepared using a new weapon. At Hill 60 and Langemarck in April, the Germans had released chlorine gas even though Germany had signed the Hague Convention not to use poison gas in warfare. In response to this outrage, the British military planners felt justified in also using chlorine gas to clear German trenches.

The Battle of Loos

After a few days of artillery bombardment, on the morning of Saturday, 25th September, the gas was released but proved to be of dubious value as the wind changed direction. Much of the gas was blown back over the British jumping-off trenches containing the assault troops so many of the regiments had to begin their attacks from within the clouds of chlorine gas. Despite this setback, the British troops were able to take the Hohenzollern Redoubt (although the Germans recaptured it later). The regiments to their right stormed through Loos village and the Hill 70 Redoubt. However the 15th (Scottish) Division deviated from the planned path of attack because of a communications breakdown over the objectives of the 47th (London) Division. The commanders who tried to bring to a halt the charging troops by the physical means of running after them were soon shot down. The Highlanders were stopped by the barbed wire and machine-gun fire in front of Lens. The Germans soon recovered from the successes of the BEF breaking through their front-lines in a number of places by rapidly bring up their reserve units not needed further south on the Vimy Ridge.

Next day the partially-trained but untried New Army 21st and 24th Divisions of ‘Derby’volunteers were sent against the German second line. An abysmal lack of artillery support meant that they had no protection from the German machine-gunners who were able to massacre many thousands. When the survivors reached the barriers of barbed wire, they found themselves facing wire made up of 4 to 5 strands and of some 12 millemetres in diameter. Heroically pulling at it by hand to clear it away under German fire was a form of suicide.

The loss of these two divisions of volunteers later became the catalyst for the replacement of Sir John French by Sir Douglas Haig. The Guards Division tried to recapture the Hill 70 Redoubt recaptured on the first day by the Germans. Despite great fortitude and huge casualties, the Guards were unable to hold on to their small gains. Among the Irish Guards missing in action was an eighteen-year-old lieutenant, John Kipling, the only son of Rudyard Kipling. After the first day of initial successes followed by severe failure on the second, the attacks continued for another fortnight without real gains being made.

The Aftermath

Although the battle is now officially recorded as ending on the 8th of October, further assaults continued until early November under the control of Sir Douglas Haig. But fortunately for him, during much of October the War Office was focusing on the hostile public responses to the blunders in Gallipoli. Thus the War Cabinet had no time to examine critically the effectiveness of the later assaults being launched around Loos.

The events of October at Loos were to be replayed in the later weeks of the Somme battle when assaults continued long after their value had become minimal.

Loos showed that it was possible to break through a heavily defended front line. But it revealed that unless the lines further back could also be speedily overwhelmed the Germans had sufficient time to reinforce and turn these other lines into formidable obstacles. Gas during the battle proved to be an unmanageable weapon although the more technologically advanced Germans had developed gas shells which they first used during the battle. Yet later the British became experts in using gas, launching 110 major gas attacks during the Somme battle – compared to the German’s 15 attacks during the whole war. Shellfire could disrupt barbed wire barricades but clearly the expenditure of vaste numbers of shells would be needed to provide sufficient gaps for assault battalions to pass through rapidly before German machine-gunners could cut them down. Finally, the control system proved totally inadequate to prevent the 15th (Scottish) Division from
accidentally changing direction when the 47th Division stopped, as planned, on capturing the German third line on the western edge of Loos village.


1. What strategic reasons lead to the battle of Loos?

2. Were sufficient munitions available to give covering fire?

3. Should restrictions have been put on using the untried 21st and 24th Divisions?

4. At what stage should further assaults have been stopped?

5. Can the demands of coalition partners compromise strategical and tactical decision making?

Exploring the Battlefield

Loos-en-Gohelle lies close to the autoroute around the north of Lens. The village itself is typical of the mining villages of Northern France, adaquately built but lacking interesting buildings. Driving north along the N45, the imposing Dud Corner cemetery with its panoramic view over the battlefield is reached on the right side of the road. This cemetery’s walls list those men with no known grave including John Kipling. There is also a real Blackadder recorded! Taking the road to Vermelles from Mazingarbe and turning right towards Hulluch, across the flat fields can be seen under the electricity pylons the site of the Hohenzollern Redoubt, now leaving little trace. Soon St. Mary’s Clearing Station cemetery is reached where a grave records the believed presence of the body of Lieutenant Kipling. Opposite are the open fields over which the gas was supposed to drift.

Turning right at the roundabout on to the D947, soon the gentle slope between the villages of Loos and Hulluch is reached. This was where the 24th and 21st Divisions marched smartly to destruction. And on the skyline to the south is the ridge known as Hill 70. The coal heaps which once dominated the battlefield have been largely removed but those of the Double Crassier still ‘overhang’ the village of Loos.

Amiens, 8th to 12th August 1918 Part 2

External Circumstances

After the assaults of the Kaiser’s Offensive died down in June 1918, the Allied Army found itself being boosted by the coming into the line of American divisions. Following careful planning by General Sir John Monash of an all-arms attack, his Australian Corps’ 4th Division with 8 companies of Americans dressed in Australian uniforms (to defy American General Pershing who had ordered them out of the line hours before the attack began, to their annoyance) launched a spirited attack at le Hamel on American Independence Day, the 4th of July. A stunning victory was gained in just 93 minutes and the assault brought to a close before German resistance hardened into a battle of attrition. One interesting feature was the parachuting in from aeroplanes of containers of bullets to feed the machine-guns. The lessons learned were used in planning the major attack in front of Villers-Bretonneux scheduled to begin on the 8th of August.

Selection of the Assault Units

Two British divisions, the 58th (London) and the 18th Divisions, were to attack the stronghold of the Chipilly Spur, with the Australian Corps to their right in the valley, the Canadian divisions to their right and the French forces beyond. Supporting them were the Mark V heavy fighting tanks, the light Whippet tanks, the supply tanks and the 6 armoured cars (towed through the German trenches before being released to drive into the German rear areas). Over 2,000 cannons were supplied.

Becausae the Germans now recognised that the BEF High Command was used to using the Canadian Corps as shock-troops to launch an assault, the High Command put in place an intense security operation to hide the movement of the Corps from the northern part of the Western Front. Bringing the Canadians forward into the assault trenches on the eve of the battle lessened the risk of an individual soldier being captured thereby revealing the presence of the Corps. Complete surprise was achieved when the Germans found themselves fighting Canadian troops.

The Methods of Assault Adopted

As at Cambrai, the short intensive bombardment coupled to the launch of the tanks completely surprised the Germans. With the infantry protected by the creeping barrage and benefiting from the heavy mist, the German trenches were soon overwhelmed except on the Chipilly Spur. The Canadians swept forward some thirteen kilometres, the Australians some ten, although hindered by enfilading fire from the Spur, a consequence flowing from their unfortunate raid at Morlancourt a week before. The Whippet tanks and armoured cars created havoc in the rear areas.

The Rival’s Reaction

The Germans were still capable of hitting back hard, except against the tanks. After the Australians raided the German lines at Morlancourt as a form of parting gift on leaving that section of the line, the Germans used an assault division to strike back hard on the 6th of August, a few nights later when unfortunately one British unit was relieving another. The Germans broke in and captured sections of the British front-line. Before the British units could launch their attack on the 8th, they had to expend energy and incur casualties recapturing the line lost as a consequence of Australian fighting exuberance and their not thinking about the impact of their actions within the context of the whole offensive strategy.

Lessons from Amiens

Careful co-ordination of all the fighting techniques and machines mean that the Allies’ clear technological lead could now be put to full competitive advantage. Rapidly this destroyed the morale of many German units already weakened by their appalling losses during the Kaiser’s Offensive, the recognition that their last chance for victory was gone, the worsening environment (political conflict and widespread hunger) in their Fatherland, and the onset of Spanish influenza. German troops surrendered in their thousands.

Amiens was a battle won by troops of countries which had been fighting since at least 1915. It has to be recognised that the calibre of the British, Canadian and Australian troops had been severely affected by a high proportion of their most audacious warriors being lost in the earlier battles of the Great War. By the time of Amiens, the British in particular consisted of cynical survivors of earlier battles, many still not properly healed from their wounds, and youngsters fresh out of school given basic training before being posted into the front line trenches. Yet together, and with the support of the land and air machinery (including the artillery), they cleared the still formidable German machine-gun emplacements.

Their resilience and ability to cope with local problems that they encountered were strategic assets which Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and the BEF High Command were able to exploit properly, giving the continuous run of successes over the One Hundred Days (actually 98 days) until the Armistice on the 11th of November.

Rating the Quality of the Operation

Rating the Quality of the Operation
The analysis of the 34 questions using the Likert Scale shows the most significant deviation of 37.3%. The concentration of answers into the very good and good categories with none being either poor or very poor demonstrates that Amiens had a quality of performance which was outstanding. The German Commander, General Erich von Ludendorff recognised this fact in his memorable quote that the 8th of August was the ‘black day of the German Army’.

Views of the Battlefield

Villers-Bretonneux town and plateau from the direction the advancing German troops came during the Kaiser’s Offensive to capture the town on the 24th April until the Australians cleared them out of the town the next day.

The Australian National Memorial and the Villers-Bretonneux plateau from the direction of Villers-Bretonneux showing where the BEF forces prepared for the decisive attack on the 8th of August.

Below the Chipilly Ridge, the 58th Division Memorial is an artilleryman tending his wounded horse, an emotive memorial to the thousands of horses who were casualties of the War.

The line of advance eastwards from the Hamel Ridge towards Proyart showing the landscape over which the Advance to Victory began on the 8th of August.

The village of Framerville-Rainecourt where one of the British armoured cars created havoc and saucily attached the Australian flag to the gates of the local German headquarters.

The graves of the Australian National War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux taken from the tower, the walls alongside the tower commemorating the Missing in the many battles the Australians fought from 1916 to 1918.

Amiens, 8th to 12th August 1918 Part 1

The Prelude

In the spring of 1918, the German Army launched the Kaiser’s Offensive which broke through the British Fifth Army and pushed it back by some fifty kilometres. When that assault eventually petered out at the town of Villers-Bretonneux to the east of Amiens, the Germans launched major assaults to the west of Lille at Givenchy and Festubert in the Battles of the Lys. Messines, Armentieres, Merville, Bailleul and Meteren were captured in fighting to the north. Mont Sherpenberg was held. German attention then switched to the French sector along the Chemin des Dames. So began the Third Battle of the Aisne. The American Third Division helped the French contain the attack after four British divisions sent to the supposedly ‘quiet’ French sector to rest and recuperate received another mauling to follow their heavy losses during the fighting in March and April.

By the 20th of July, General Erich von Ludendorff realised that his five separate offensives had gained some ground but at the cost of his decreasing human resources. The highly-trained assault soldiers (including Ernst Junger, the Pour La Merite author of ‘Storm of Steel’and ‘Copse 125′), the best troops in his Command, were dead or seriously wounded. The divisions released from Russia after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk were spent, only the machine-gunners remained an elite force. At the cost of some 750,000 casualties, the defensive capacity of his now-exhausted armies had been worn out.

On the 4th of July, in front of the town of Villers-Bretonneux, Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash had planned an all-arms assault by the 4th Division of his Australian Corps on the German lines at le Hamel. Despite some rancour, following the debacle with British tanks at Bullecourt in 1917, 60 Mark V tanks and 12 supply tanks drove forward to assist the Corps’ attack. Eight American companies, which had disguised themselves in Australian uniforms to escape General Pershing’s wrath, attacked with them. 111 machine-guns laid down a ‘beaten zone’ barrage in support of the artillery bombardment and aeroplanes parachuted in over 100,000 rounds of ammunition to resupply the Australian machine-gunners. A stunning victory was achieved in just 93 minutes! The methodology was to be used again on a large scale five weeks later on the 8th of August.

On the 29th of July the Australians launched a large raid at Morlancourt. This had the unfortunate effect of stimulating a German reprisal raid by an elite assault division which damaged the 18th and 58th British Divisions on the 6th of August. The effect of this was in fact harmful to the Australians two days later who became exposed to enfilading fire from the Chipilly Spur.

From June 1918, some 500 tanks a months were reaching the Western Front. In August both the French and the British had 1,500 each. By November the French were using over 2,000 – mostly the light Renault tanks, whereas the British had the heavy Mark V and V* tanks as their main assault tanks and the light Whippet tanks and armoured cars to pursue the retreating enemy driven out of their trenches.

The Battle of Amiens

The 8th of August 1918 was the day Ludendorff in his memoirs described as ‘the black day of the German Army in the war’. General Sir Henry Rawlinson planned with Lieutenant-General Monash, Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie and General Debeney that the BEF Fourth Army and the French First Army assault the German lines in front of and to the south of Villers-Bretonneux. In support of the attacking Australian, British, and Canadian infantry were to be some 800 British aeroplanes, 420 fighting tanks of which 324 were the new Mark V heavy tanks, 96 of the faster but smaller new Whippet ‘chaser’ tanks, 96 supply tanks (converted from the now-obsolete Mark IV fighting tanks), 22 gun carriers (used instead as supply tanks where previously they were employed in carrying field guns forward from their main firing-line so that they could support infantry which had advanced beyond the protection of the firing-line) and 6 Austin armoured cars. The French forces were covered by some 1,000 aeroplanes but were without tank support.

The intensive barrage allied to the early morning mist surprised the Germans and the Australians and Canadians were soon on their objectives. The Mark V tanks proved irresistable in crushing the barbed wire and machine-gun emplacements, whilst the Whippet tanks destroyed German troops and gun batteries caught in the open, with the exploits of the Whippet tank ‘Musical Box’ becoming famous. Three of the heavy tanks, each towing two of the armoured cars, were able to release them beyond the German trenches and these cars drove forward to Proyart and Framerville-Raincourt creating chaos in the rear areas where previously the Germans had thought they were safe. At Framerville-Rainecourt, not only did they create havoc without one shot being fired against them, but in honour of the 5th Australian Division to which they were attached they nailed the Australian flag to the German general’s front door.

However, the Chipilly Spur, a high ridge dominating the northern bank of the Somme on the left of the Australians, proved to be a strong obstacle to the 58th (London) and 18th Divisions throughout that day. Meantime the French on the right of the Canadians advanced slowly not having tanks to clear the barbed wire barriers and the machine-gun nests.

The German losses of most of their frontline troops, either killed or taken prisoner, and many guns on the ‘black day’ for the German Army reflected the application of the lessons of the battle of Hamel on a large scale. Careful co-ordination of all the available fighting techniques and machinery was the basis of the all-arms assaults. The aeroplanes were used to straff with machine-gun fire the German trenches and to bomb more distant targets, 284 tons being dropped in the fortnight before the battle – compared to 50 tons during the Battle of the Somme. The artillery bombardment, using many huge cannons with their silent registration, predicted fire and counter-battery fire, was able to destroy German cannons which would otherwise have been targeted at the advancing BEF and French troops. The creeping barrage gave protection to these troops from German machine-guns firing from their front line trenches. The 3-inch Stokes mortars gave close-range ‘artillery’ support under the control of the local infantry commanders. Hand grenades were used to burst apart machine-gun nests and trenches manned by resisting German riflemen. Mobile Lewis light machine-guns gave covering fire to riflemen moving to within grenade-throwing range of the German machine-gun nests. Vickers medium machine-guns provided bombardments of bullets on enemy trenches.

Mobile heavy tanks added shell and machine-gun fire to their trench-crossing and barbed wire crushing capabilities. Whippet tanks and armoured cars gave mobility behind the trench systems to surprise and outrun enemy trains, troop units, wagons and even cavalry. Indeed the 6 armoured cars proved themselves in this action to be worth more than a cavalry division. Supply tanks allowed the rapid movement forward of rifle and machine-gun cartridges, cannon shells, petrol and water, and all the other equipment voraciously needed by an agggressively advancing army. At the battle of Hamel in July, four carrier tanks had brought forward the supplies which it was later calculated would have required the use of 1,250 human bearers. Better communications including using continuous wave wireless meant that artillery spotters were able to identify individual targets needing attention from the artillery to make easier the infantry assaults. They also allowed unit commanders to more speedily modify their objectives having assessed the changing situations as some units advanced more rapidly than expected, others experienced delays outside their control – as when the Australians found themselves being enfiladed from their left because of the failure to capture the Chipilly Spur on the 8th.

Four years previously, on the Aisne, rifle and pistol bullets together with the bayonet and the light mainly shrapnel-firing 18-pounder gun were the main offensive weapons available. By 1918, new and developed mechnical, scientific (counter-battery sound-ranging equipment, continuous wave wireless and aerial photography, for example) and chemical (smoke and gas shells, for example) devices had added an arsenal of new and effective weapons to those of 1914.

The nex day the 58th Division, with the remnants of the 131st American Infantry Regiment, finally cleared Chipilly Spur allowing the Australians to resume their advance. During the next two days the advance continued but more slowly against the stiffening German resistance as they poured in their reserves. The loss of most tanks to enemy action and mechanical problems meant that their support was temporarily ended. Of the 420 tanks beginning the battle on the 8th, 145 were servicable on the 9th, 85 on the 10th, 38 on the 11th, and only 5 on the 12th! Sir Douglas Haig then switched his attention to General Byng’s Third Army for an attack towards Albert and Bapaume.

The Aftermath

The Battle of Amiens was over but the Advance to Victory had begun. During the next 94 days, a long series of victories marked the final ‘One Hundred Days’. All along the Western Front, the Allied units bit into the German trench systems, attacking different sectors on different days so that the Germans could not use their railway networks fast enough to rush up reinforcements to replace their lost units. This was based on the concept of attacking a sensitive spot then shifting the blow rapidly to the flanks in order to create a state of flux which gave the military advantage to the attacking troops.

The Australians seized the formidable Mont-St Quentin position, using rifle grenades whilst being covered by Lewis machine-guns (they had two or three in each platoon), to destroy the German machine-gun nests. Then the Canadians conquered the Drocourt-Queant Switch trench system to the east of Arras. The Americans suffered severe casualties at Bony but continued to push through the Hindenburg Line at Bellicourt ably supported by the Australians. The British 46th (Midland) Division crossed the St. Quentin Canal and captured the important Riqueval Bridge. Thereafter the Allied troops pursued the Germans retreating across open country who were no longer able to rely on the trench defences of the now left-behind Western Front.

To the south the revitalised French armies forced their way north-east whilst the American Army under General George Pershing drove through the Argonne Forest, west of Verdun, towards Sedan having gained a spectacular victory at St. Mihiel due south of Verdun. The Belgium forces between Ypres and the North Sea recaptured large areas of their country whilst the British First and Second Armies on their right recaptured Lille on their way to Mons, halting on the 11th of November close to where the BEF had begun fighting four years before.

But these One Hundred Days were not a stroll behind a retreating enemy. The German machine-gunners in particular continued to fight heroically, prefering to die than surrender. Many thousands of Allied troops were killed during assaults on hills and over canals even during the last ten days of fighting. The civilian cemetery at Ors contains the small British Communal Cemetery with its possibly the highest concentration of military heroes. Amongst the sixty graves lie two winners of the Victoria Cross (2nd Lieutenant James Kirk and Lieutenant Colonel James Marshall) and Lieutenant Wilfred Owen MC.


1. Why was le Hamel a pilot study for the Battle of Amiens?

2. How were the various resources available exploited before and during the battle?

3. Explain the advances in warfare technology made between the First Battle of the Aisne and the Battle of Amiens.

4. What competitive advantage did all-arms co-ordination bring to attacking enemy trench systems?

5. What strategic planning was done to ensure the Germans could not recover from reverses on any sectors?

Exploring the Battlefield

To the east of the massive Australian national memorial north of Villers-Bretonneux, twelve kilometres to the east of the city of Amiens, is the small village of le Hamel with its recently built hilltop memorial to the Australian victory there on the 4th of July 1918. Eastwards lies flat country which was ideal for charging heavy and light tanks, with the armoured cars raiding the fourteen kilometres to Proyart and Framerville-Rainecourt. Above the valley, on the other side of the river Somme, is the Chipilly Spur. At its base commemorating the 58th (London) Division’s capture of the Spur is the emotive staue of an artilleryman comforting his wounded horse.
Besides this statue and the Australian memorials, there is little to show of those four days in August 1918. Perhaps this is a continuing reflection of the British wish to brood over the deaths of the civilian warriors on the first day of the Somme rather than to commemorate the ultimate defeat of a magnificent army created over during years since the Prussian disaster at Jena-Auerstadt. As Professor Bond (1991) pithily wrote of many populist British Great War authors, ‘…they succumb to the tyrannical hold which July 1916 is now beginning to exert on British First World War studies…’. The contrasts to this attitude are seen on the hilltop close to le Hamel where the Australians remember their victory of the 4th of July 1918, and particularly on Vimy Ridge where Canadian students come during the summer months to serve as guides in celebration of their countrymen who captured that infamous ridge on Easter Monday, 9th April 1917.

The Aisne, 12th to 15th September 1914 Part 2

External Circumstances

Political tension had been building up within Europe over the four decades since the stunning victory over France by the Prussian forces in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1, a revenge for the famous Napoleonic victories at Jena and Auerstadt in 1806. The seizure of Alsace and Lorraine by the now Greater German Empire preyed on French minds and set the good reason for France to seek to recover these provinces. The growing economic strength of Germany as the result of successful industrialisation coupled to their now large poulation (by European nations’ standards) meant that Germany wished to gain a position of authority not only in continental Europe but globally. The acquisition of overseas colonies (taking what was left after British and French colonisation in particular) and the building of a large battle fleet were symbols of their determination to have their power internationally recognised.

After the creation of Belgium and the British guarantee of its independence in 1839, should Belgium appear to be threatened, treaty obligations were likely to draw Great Britain into any conflict between Germany and France which involved fighting on Belgian territory. Thus in August 1914, the small British Expeditionary Force was permitted by France to position itself to the west of the northern French armies so should an invasion of Belgium occur, the BEF could come to the aid of the Belgian Army.

On August the 4th, German troops invaded Belgium and the BEF moved forward to meet them at Mons. The battle on the Aisne a month later was a direct consequence of the German assault upon Belgium and France as set out in the German war plan known as the Schlieffen Plan. The failure of the French Plan XVII meant defeat at the Battle of the Frontiers followed by a fighting retreat of the French Army and the BEF to south of the river Marne. Following their unexpected defeat at the Battle of the Marne, the German forces were disorganised and had to conduct a strategic withdrawal to geographical positions of potential military strength and settled on the Chemin des Dames heights north of the river Aisne.

Selection of the Assault Units

The battle was fought by the professional Regular soldiers of the BEF. They were highly trained in rifle markmanship (fifteen aimed bullets a minute). Leadership was outstanding. Their offensive tactics had been developed under the conditions of colonial warfare; charging with the bayonet at the enemy whilst aimed rifle fire forced them to shelter. Meanwhile 18-pounder field guns brought into action by teams of horses covered the sheltering enemy with shrapnel fire which rained down bullets on them from above.

Heavy cannon in the form of a few old pattern 6-inch howitzers only became available towards the end of the battle in time to help consolidate the positions gained by the advancing troops.

Methods of Assault Adopted

The assaults during the battle were based on the above traditional methods as last used in the Second Boer War. The vulnerability of troops to machine-gun fire charging across open ground was largely ignored because native and irregular forces rarely had machine-guns. The lessons of the Russo-Japanese War and Boer sharp-shooters were deliberately ignored by the British military tacticians until after the casualty rates at Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge, and Loos caused by the German Maxim machine-guns were experienced.

The Rival’s Reaction

Unfortunately the Germans had manufactured modern heavy cannons with shells of size far in excess of the Royal Field Artillery’s 18-pounders. These shells were high explosive capable of destroying field fortifications which had become common in the American Civil War and in sieges such as Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese War. German artillery fire was thus able to pulverise the British troops as they lay in their flimsy shelters. Meanwhile because the German soldiers were skilful in using their entrenching tools, they soon created shelters to protect themselves from shrapnel fire yet from which they were able to fire upon the advancing British soldiers.

With three times the ratio of machine-guns to rifles, the Germans were also able to lay down an intensive curtain of fire far greater than could be sustained by the British machine-gunners. One machine-gun’s fire was equivalent to that of 40 rifles being fired by trained musketeers.

The Lessons of the Aisne

The Aisne showed that technological advances in equipment and processes by competitive rivals must be continually monitored to avoid becoming uncompetitive. Leadership without the support of the appropriate resources is heroic but wasteful, such as charging machine-guns without adequate supporting fire to distract or destroy the machine-gunners. Once a disadvantageous situation is recognised, it is far better to consolidate the gains made, or withdraw to safer ground if not possible, than lose resources which may never be so abundant again. Furthermore, before committing all resources to an operation, especially of technical expertise, it is sensible to retain some to rebuild the operating capabilities of the organization in the event of disaster. By 1916 some 10% of the troops were kept behind when a battalion went into action to serve as its nucleus when it was rebuilt later.

The significance of this is seen in the consequences of the casualties sustained during the battle and the rest of 1914. The loss of so many outstanding officers had a significant lasting effect on the human resourcing of the British war effort, especially in 1916. During the Great War, 27% of officers were killed on the Western Front compared to 12% of men. The quantity of knowledge of how to become a military professional soldier was so reduced that when the soldiers of the New Armies were trained, the training was often poor because the training officers had to be brought out of retirement and their knowledge was obsolete. Hence the tactics of marching in line at a steady pace towards the enemy, so disastrous for the 21st and 24th Divisions at Loos and on the 1st of July 1916, was dictated by the limited training (in terms of transfering professional expertise) the Derby volunteer civilians received.

Rating the Quality of the Operation

Rating the performance on the analysis of 34 questions utilising the Likert Scale, the deviation from the neutral level of performance was found to be favourable by 3.9%. The performance was close to be a normal distribution but with a pronounced peak. This demonstrates that the BEF performed at the standard expected of them although the circumstances they faced were beyond their professional experiences in colonial policing and maintaining the security of the colonies. Nevertheless the survivors knew that they had done marvellously well to halt the German Field Army and for the rest of their lives were proud to be known as the Old Contemptibles.

Views of the Battlefield

The Aisne valley from the village of Paissy towards the slopes up which British soldiers fought in the September of 1914.

The region is riddled with underground caves, here is one at Paissy which is still used for storage by the farmers.

The Chemin des Dames road running along the ridge above the Aisne valley; the view towards Cerny-en-Laonnois from the Caverne du Dragon.

A German 105mm light field howitzer model 1916 cannon, probably manufactured by Krupp, by the entrance to the Caverne du Dragon showing the Aisne valley in the background, the scene of bitter fighting from 1914 to 1918.

The Aisne, 12th to 15th September 1914 Part 1

The Prelude

After a month of retreating across Northern France, the French Armies and the British Expeditionary Force halted beyond the River Marne. In a succession of titanic battles at the frontiers with Germany and Belgium, the French Armies suffered horrendous casualty rates, higher even than at Verdun in 1916. On the 29th of August the last ‘Napoleonic’ attack was made at Guise led by Franchet d’Esperey. The red pantaloons and the shiny officers’ swords had become too easy targets for the German machine-gunners. The French proved it was not ‘chic’ to die wearing white gloves. Even today, at the St. Cyr Military Academy’s museum can be seen on display a pair of these gloves, a memory of the entire Class of 1914 who were commemorated en masse because there were too many individual names to record of the St. Cyr officer cadets of 1914 who died for France.
The BEF also took heavy casualties at Mons, Landracies and Le Cateau. But they also shot down many German infantry and cavalry men with their steady fiften rounds per minute of rifle fire. Thereafter the Germans believed they had been the victims of machine-guns not rifles. After these battles, the BEF retreated in a south-easterly direction across the Somme region and to the east of Paris, periodically facing the following Germans in short, but bloody, engagements such as at Nery. Meanwhile on their right flank, the French had been painfully retreating, continuing to suffer heavy casualties such as at Peronne.

To the amazement of the Germans once over the River Marne, they found themselves facing an advancing enemy both in front and on their right flank, the result of the famous drive of the Paris taxis laden with the French troops of the Garrison of Paris. The French adopted the tactics of attack that the Germans had used so successfully the previous month (which were set out in the French Army’s Field Service Regulations of 1904 but ignored in 1914). Soon the Germans were driven across the treacherous Marshes of St. Girond and retreated northwards to the River Aisne. Once on its northern bank, they began to dig trenches, proving to be very good at using entrenching tools to protect themslves. The advancing BEF then came up against them and so began the First Battle of the Aisne.

Although this battle is little known, it is important as being the first serious attempt by British troops to attack the Germans in defences that the Germans had had time to prepare. However the French had already faced this situation in the August’s Battle of the Frontiers when they had advanced across Lorraine towards Morhange and
their regiments had been shattered. For the British advancing between Soissons and Bourg-et-Comin, they found themselves facing an entrenched enemy sheltering behind the wide river, swollen with rain, whose bridges had been demolished.

The First Battle of the Aisne

The cavalry commander, Douglas Haig, was later criticised for the tardiness of the advance. So by the time the BEF troops reached the Aisne, they faced their foe in trenches which could only be taken by frontal assault because their continuity left no flanks to turn. Although the trench system had not yet the sophistication and depth later prepared on the Somme, around Ypres, and in the Hindenburg Line, nevertheless the new trenches were formidable defences. Furthermore, after crossing the swollen river, the BEF units had to attack up the slopes of the escarpments.
The 12th of September began the three days of attacks to establish footholds beyond the Aisne and to drive the Germans northwards. By means of brilliant bridge building by the engineers under enemy fire and the fortuitous finding that not all bridges had been successfully blown, footholds were established. But only in certain places was
it possible to reach the German trenches and overwhelm their occupants. Machine-gun and artillery fire, coupled with the newly erected barbed wire, meant that too many attacks were repulsed with heavy British casualties. The BEF had a far lower ratio of machine-guns to rifles in their fighting units so were unable to put down enough fire to silence the German machine-guns and keep the German infantry’s heads down below the parapets of their skilfully-built trenches which gave them much protection.
Linked to the paucity of machine-gun fire was the problem of firing the 18-pounder field guns through the thickly-growing trees to hit targets on the Chemin des Dames heights above the Aisne. Furthermore the gun barrels could not be elevated enough for the shells in flight to clear the ridges of the escarpments, hence the rear of the carraiges had to be lowered into specially dug gun pits, difficult to do when the gun crews were under heavy bombardment from the 5.9-inch and 8-inch German cannons brought south after the subjugation of the Belgium and French frontier forts. However the few available old pattern British 6-inch howitzers had not been with the BEF earlier but reached the Aisne in time to help stabilise the front-lines.
On the 15th the BEF Commander, Sir John French, recognising the futility of further attacks, ordered his units to stop attacking. In this he was conforming to the secret directive to minimise the losses of men and equipment. Soon afterwards the surviving troops handed over their positions to French units and entrained for northern France.

The Aftermath

Eventually the BEF marched into the Belgium town of Ypres to halt the thrusts of the German army at Gheluvelt to the east of Ypres during what has become known as the Race to the Sea. By the end of First Ypres, the BEF of August 1914 had ‘wasted away’, but the German army was too exhausted to mount new attacks until the next spring.
Strangely German troops did occupy Ypres a week before the BEF arrived but did not stay! Over the next four years, Ypres became a symbol of defiance for the British and her Empire’s troops (particularly Canadian, Australian and New Zealand units) in the same way that Verdun became that symbol for the French. In neither case did the Germans capture these cities despite the deaths of hundreds of thousands of fighting men.
Undoubtedly Sir John French’s decision on the Aisne to act on the directive and conserve troops was correct. By preventing further attacks there, just sufficient numbers of troops were left to halt the increasingly desperate waves of assaults at Ypres. Despite suffering colossal casualties, the still-numerically large German army could not break through to the strategically important French North Sea ports which supplied the BEF from across the English Channel.
The most famous battle on the Aisne took place in April 1917 in what is now known as the Nivelle Offensive, named after the French Commander. The French units suffered appalling losses, partly because of the driving snow. Serious mutinies were triggered leaving France having to take a back-seat for the rest of 1917. German attention had to be diverted to the north so the BEF launched attacks at Messines and later began the battle of Third Ypres, the infamous Passchendaele. During the Kaiser’s Offensive in the spring of 1918, the Third Battle of the Aisne was fought as the Germans again advanced south from the Chemin des Dames to the Vesle river beyond.


These questions can be answered more fully by scanning the many books written about the Great War, some of which are listed in the Readings division.
1. Why did the BEF butt up against the German army at the River Aisne?

2. What limited the effectiveness of the British assaults?

3. What competences were shown by the British troops even though the battle and previous engagements were of limited success?

4. What were the long-term implications of the German army’s defensive system?

5. Explain the strategic significance of Sir John French’s decision.

Visiting the Aisne

Soissons lies midway but to the north of the line between Paris and Rheims. The famous Chemin des Dames meets the road to Laon and driving along it gives superb views over the Aisne valley far below. The steep slopes show clearly why they were such formidable obstacles to the British in 1914 and the French in 1917. Fort de la Malmaison (now
ruined but beside a beautifully maintained German military cemetery) is on the left flank of the British assaults, Caverne du Dragon (where German units sheltered before emerging to crush the French assaults) beyond the right flank. South from Cerny-en-Laonnois is the British cemetery at Vendresse. From there the Aisne at Bourg-en-Comin is soon reached. But it is worth diverting to Paissy where the caves which sheltered Germans now store the French farmers’ tractors. Some of the farmers are proud to show the interiors of these caves. Driving westwards along the D925 passes military cemeteries of France, Germany and Italy before Chavonne and Vailly-sur-Aisne are reached. Looking at the modern bridges needed to cross the river shows why the destruction of the original bridges made it so difficult for the British to support their troops fighting on the slopes beyond the Aisne.

Cambrai, 20th November to 7th December 1917 Part 2

External Circumstances

As the attacks on the Passchendaele Ridge during the Battle of Third Ypres became bogged down in the Flanders mud, the proposal for an attack on the Hindenburg Line before the town of Cambrai was made. The original suggestion was to launch a large tank raid exploiting the Mark IV tanks rapidly coming off the assembly lines which could not effectively be used at Ypres. The topography of the rolling ground, well drained, in front of Cambrai offered the opportunity to use the strengths of the tanks in being able to cross open country and not rely on tarmaced roads, vulnerable to damage from shell fire.

The raid also offered the political and psychological benefits of achieving a victory after the many reverses and few successes of 1917. Hence the planning for the raid ‘grew by topsy’ so that it became a full-scale attack employing numerous divisions besides the tanks. But recognising that the divisions were weakened after their fighting at Third Ypres, two cavalry divisions were added to the force.

Selection of the Assault Units

The tank force was to consist of 378 Mark IV fighting tanks, 88 supply tanks – many pulling sledges, and 5 wireless tanks to relay information on progress back to British High Command. Some 1,000 cannons were supplied. Five infantry divisions were to be used in the main attack. These were the 62nd (West Riding), 51st (Highland), 6th, 20th (Light) and 12th (Eastern) Divisions. The 36th (Ulster) Division was to attack later the empty Canal du Nord and its spoilheap strongpoint. And the two cavalry divisions were to be available to advance in exploitation of a break through.

The Methods of Assault Adopted

Unlike the normal preliminary bombardment of sometimes days’ duration, a short but intensive barrage was fired by the cannons carefully positioned and camouflaged close to the two-mile long brushwood and bush screen which also hid the tanks. This positioning was to permit the cannons to range more deeply behind German front lines without needing to be moved forward once break through was achieved. The camouflage protected them against German counter-battery fire. The tanks had been brought forward with their engine and track noises being suppressed by the sound of aeroplanes flying over the German trenches and machine-gun firing.

After the intensive barrage, a lifting barrage with 100 yard lifts was fired as the tanks moved forward followed by the infantry. Despite the capture of some Ulster Division prisoners two days before making the Germans aware of an impending attack, this short barrage fooled the German defenders so they were surprised by unexpectedly finding themselves facing the advancing tanks. The tanks fanned out from the so-called Grand Ravine in front of Havrincourt Wood to crush the belts of barbed wire. The following infantry then entered and captured with relatively few casualties many sections of the German front line trenches.

The Rival’s Reaction

German commanders were aware of the basic abilities of the British tanks and some divisions had trained in using cannons, machine-guns and adapted rifles in an anti-tank role. The 54th Division at Flesquieres village were able to so weaken the attack on the first day that greater success was contained. The German High Command then used their skill in moving troops rapidly over the railway network to bring forward eleven divisions. When the momentum of the British assaults began to subside, these divisions were released into action and the British troops driven back to the Flesquieres Ridge and elsewhere to near their starting-lines.

Lessons of Cambrai

This battle was the first occasion when the major innovation of the Great War, the tank, went into action in large numbers. Their numbers were such that the preliminary bombardment was dispensed with in favour of allowing the tanks to attack with limited artillery support beforehand. This plan was the opportunity to test whether or not tanks could achieve surprise using their own cannon-fire to supplement the limited barrage. The plan worked well during most of the first 48 hours, the planned duration of the attack.

It was less successful in the co-ordination between the tanks and the following infantry. The infantry found themselves being caught by German machine-guns once the tanks had passed them. Instead the infantry could have advanced alongside the tanks using the steel walls of the tanks for protection from which they could destroy the machine-gun nests, leaving the tanks to destroy solid gun emplacements with their cannons and large concentrations of German troops with their machine-guns. Unfortunately better co-ordination required better communication between tank and infantry commanders and the existing wireless communications technology and design of the tanks prevented this. The wireless tanks, for example, proved to be ineffective. Furthermore the tanks themselves destroyed the means of communication. The brushwood fascines, weighing some two tons, positioned on their roofs to be used as fillers of trenches, brought down overhead telephone lines. The sledges being dragged behind the supply tanks cut the ground laid wires.

The decision of General Charteris to ignore the reports about the arrival of the three fresh German divisions from the Russian front was unacceptable – a decision for which he was later sacked. Their presence and fighting capability left the infantry and the cavalry seriously exposed to counter-attack once the tank force had been spent (over half being damaged or destroyed, being stranded by falling into trenches, or breaking down mechanically during the first day) and the eleven German reserve divisions brought up by railway. These events suggest the lesson was that having achieved the break through, the vulnerable units should have been allowed to consolidate until the tank force had been revitalised and the cannon line moved further forward, the principle of ‘bite and hold’. Originally planned as a 48 hour attack, the continuation beyond the first two days for limited gain was a reversion to the type of control which had brought such poor returns during the last weeks of the Battle of the Somme.

Nevertheless the development and exploitation of the tank was clear evidence that the Allies had at last pulled back the technological lead of the Germans. Fortunately the German High Command were complacent that their way of waging war still gave them a competitive advantage – thus they regarded the tank as something of a joke. Their attempt to build a tank, the A7V, was pathetic. Its performance was mediocre, its country-country ability almost non-existant, and its design suggested a miniature mobile Hohenzollern Redoubt. The 9 tanks they built were rapidly put out of action. Instead they took to recycling broken-down British tanks left behind after Cambrai by mending them and painting on the Iron Cross. Together with repaired French tanks they had some 170 recycled Allied tanks to use in the Kaiser’s Offensive of the spring and early summer of 1918 – but these were soon used up.

This failure to understand the importance of the new technology and to develop an effective rival machine in sufficient numbers to protect their infantry meant that during the Offensive their mobile storm troopers speedily made great gains but suffered huge casualties. These troops were the cream of the German Army soldiers drawn from Western Front units and units no longer needed in Russia. They were carefully trained in assault techniques. But once they were used up, the poor calibre of the remaining troops was to be exposed in the assaults at le Hamel, St. Mihiel, and then at Amiens.

Rating the Quality of the Operation

Examining the analysis of the 34 questions using the Likert Scale, the deviation was found to be favourable by 4.9%. The distribution showed a marked concentration on performance ranging from the good to the poor with very few being considered either very good or very poor performance. This mean that overall the performance was as might be expected to be achieved by competent managers but showed little sign of sustained excellence. The events after the first 48 hours can be held to justify this conclusion.

Views of the Battlefield

The Grand Ravine Cemetery on the southern edge of Havrincourt Wood, typical of many Great War cemeteries which are geographically isolated yet often visited by Western Front visitors.

The so-called Grand Ravine up which the some 400 tanks advanced from Havrincourt Wood towards Flesquieres and Ribecourt-la-Tour at the head of the valley.

Another view of the Grand Ravine showing that it is nothing more than a gentle incline towards the Hindenburg Line on the Flesquieres-Ribecourt ridge.

The modern bridge at Masnieres across the St Quentin Canal replaces the bridge which collapsed under the weight of the tank ‘Flying Fox’ on the 20th of November that effectively drained away the impetus of the British advance.

The Newfoundland Regiment’s Caribou Memorial on the northern edge of Masnieres which could also commemorate the success of the Fort Garry Horse during the battle for which Lieutenant Henry Strachan was awarded the Victoria Cross.

A bas relief by C.S. Jagger carved on one of the walls of the Cambrai Memorial at Louverval which vividly illustrates in stone the nature of trench warfare.

Cambrai, 20th November to 7th December 1917 Part 1

The Prelude

After the disaster of the French Nivelle Offensive and the spectacular Canadian capture of the Vimy Ridge on Easter Day (9th April 1917), the British Army continued assaults around Arras which were largely unsuccessful. But on the 7th of June, 1917, the Messines Ridge near Ypres was torn apart by the explosions of some 15 mines. Supported by a creeping barrage, British, Australian and New Zealand infantry and tanks surged forward to clear the ridge. Two days later the battle was closed. After an interval of some seven weeks, the attacks around Ypres on the 31st of July began Third Ypres. Soon the rains turned the battlefield into a swamp. Even when the rains stopped, the drying conditions allowed the exploding shells to throw up clouds of dust. During the terrible months of September and October, the troops fought forward over the swamp until on the 10th of November the Passchendaele Ridge was finally taken. Six kilometres of advance had taken fourteen weeks for a cost of some 225,000 British and Empire casualties.

As the tanks had proved unable to cope with the swamps of the Ypres Salient, the British High Command decided that the tanks rolling off the assembly-lines should be tried out in a mass attack on ground not ruined by earlier battles and capable of carrying the weight of each tank. After the Battle of the Somme, in early 1917 the Germans retired to the newly-prepared line of strong fortifications, the Siegfried Stellung (nicknamed the Hindenburg Line by the British), in front of the town of Cambrai. Not only was the ground suitable for tanks being relatively flat and well-drained, but also it gave the opportunity to test out the capability of the Mark IV tank to break through the new German defences.

When the proposal to attack the Hindenburg Line was first made, Fuller saw the assault as a tank raid. However during the planning process, the operation ‘grew by topsy’ into a large scale attempt to break through what British Intelligence thought was a weakly-defended German sector. The Divisions assigned to the assault had recently been at and taken heavy casualties at Third Ypres so were in the Cambrai sector being refilled with replacements of newly-arrived soldiers. To compensate for these soldiers not being battle-hardened, cavalry was substituted. The initial planning was for the battle to be terminated after forty-eight hours if no substantial gains had been made.

The Battle of Cambrai

Before most British offensives, long barrages were employed. But as with the assault on the Bazentin Ridge, a short barrage was used using predicted fire. Beforehand the cannons had been silently registered onto identified targets. But rather than the effective creeping barrage based on 10 yard lifts which was ideal for suppressing German fire (their troops naturally hid in their underground dug-outs until the barrage passed, by which time the British troops were entering their trenches), a lifting barrage was used with 100 yard lifts. To achieve longer range, the guns had been hidden behind a two-mile long screen of cut brushwood and bushes along the edge of Havrincourt Wood. The 378 Mark IV fighting tanks and 93 support tanks (54 supply tanks pulling sledges carrying ammunition, fuel, water, wire, etc., 32 fitted with grapnels for shearing away the belts of barbed wire to make gaps for the cavalry to pass through, 2 carrying bridging equipment and 5 fitted with wirelesses) had been brought forward by their sound of movement being masked by British aircraft flying over the German trenches and drowning the noise with their own and by the firing of the Vickers machine-guns. The tanks then moved forward to crush the barbed wire enclosures before the Hindenburg Line and achieved complete surprise.

Soon the tanks were beyond the German trenches and with the following infantry and cavalry began to advance through the open country behind the trench systems and stormed through the villages of Masnieres and Marcoing. But the tanks were slow and vulnerable to artillery and anti-tank fire. Their assault capabilities were rapidly weakened, especially on the ridge before the village of Flesquieres where the gunners of the German 54th Division manning the line had been specially trained by their commander, Lieutenant-General von Watter, to fight tanks. The gunners manhandled their 77mm cannons into exposed positions from where they could fire directly at the approaching tanks. Twenty-eight tanks were ‘brewed up’, and the 51st Highland Division lost the protection these tanks would have provided.

An innovative German tactic was for the machine-gunners in the front line to wait for the tanks to pass then fire upon the following infantry, leaving the second line to engage the tanks. Their response was given assistance by the lifting barrage which meant that the machine-gunners were able to wait for the barrage to lift beyond them before emerging to fire on the advancing British troops, a practice not possible with the creeping barrage. With the rapid dwindling in numbers of tanks and British soldiers, the Germans gained time to regroup well beyond their former trenches. At their defensive positions along Bourlon Ridge, they resisted stubbornly. As the tanks bottomed on the tree stumps, they were not able to greatly assist the assaulting British troops who were unable to securely capture Bourlon Wood lying along the Ridge.

Unfortunately the BEF Director of Military Intelligence, Brigadier-General John Charteris, did not accept the information that three fresh German divisions had recently arrived from the Eastern Front following the collapse of Russia and so misinformed Sir Douglas Haig. These divisions helped slow the advance until the arrival of another eleven divisions over the next few days. During the first forty-eight hours, the British troops had achieved great success, measured by capturing formidable trench systems and large numbers of prisoners, despite the two set-backs at Flesquieres and Bourlon Wood.

The dilemma for the British military tacticians was now either to halt the attack and retreat to defensible positions or to continue with the aim of consolidating on Bourlon Ridge. This would give visual observation dominance over the land around the town of Cambrai – a substantial prize under the conditions of the Western Front. The British High Command decided to commit the limited reserves available in seeking to achieve this consolidation but the German troops on the ridge continued to fight valiantly. Skilfully exploiting their railway system to speedily bring up their reserve divisions, the German High Command then launched a series of attacks and by the 8th of December had driven back the British infantry to near their start-lines of the 20th of November although they held on to Flesquieres and its Ridge, Ribecourt and Havrincourt.

The British began the battle with very limited reserves because of the casualties suffered at Third Ypres and the troops sent to northern Italy to bolster the Italian Army following its disaster at the Battle of Caporetto. After days of fighting, British troops were left with small gains, and the tank force was spent. Communications also soon broke down because of the tanks. The fascines on the top (bundles of brushwood to aid in crossing trenches) brought down the overhead telephone wires. whilst the sledges being dragged behind the supply tanks cut the ground-laid wires. Furthermore the Mark IV tanks were still not mechanically reliable and were too easily disabled by artillery and anti-tank rifle fire. Nevertheless the use of tanks en masse was the most dramatic innovation using machinery during the Great War by the British High Command.

The Aftermath

Cambrai was the last major offensive of 1917. Together with the battles of Arras and Third Ypres, it had achieved little despite early promise. Although the new technologies of tanks, the creeping barrage, counter-battery fire and the continuous wave wireless were not sufficiently reliable to give sustainable competitive advantage, nevertheless they were changing the face of battle after the previous three years of stalemate and horrendous casualty lists.


1. Why did the planned assault at Cambrai ‘grow by topsy’?

2. What measures were taken to achieve surprise?

3. What limited the exploitation of the successful breakthrough?

4. Why did communications fail, both on the battlefield and with British Intelligence?

5. What skills did the Germans show during the course of the battle?

Touring the Cambrai Battlefield

As Professor Brian Bond of the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, has commented, touring the Cambrai battlefield is difficult because the present road layout does not relate to the routes followed by the advancing tanks and infantry in 1917. This is because the dry ground freed the tanks from having to drive along roads so they were able to follow the contours of the ground rather than having to keep to the roads. The battlefield is to the west of the city of Cambrai. Havrincourt Wood is at the bottom of the shallow valley, strangely called the Grand Ravine, along which the tanks drove up to Flesquieres and Ribecourt. The tanks broke through to Marcoing and Masnieres beyond, towns on the St. Quentin Canal. The bridge at Masnieres replaces the one which collapsed under the weight of the first British tank crossing it, thereby ruining the advance of the mechanical forces. At the northern edge of Masnieres beside the N44 road is the Caribou monument marking the Newfoundland Regiment’s contribution to the battle (as well as the Canadian Fort Garry Horse which broke into the open country beyond but had to withdraw because their support was delayed by the collapsed bridge). In this part of France other Caribou are also found, at Gueudecourt and at Beaumont-Hamel. The latter statue presides over the famous Newfoundland Memorial Park where the Royal Newfoundland Regiment marched to thei deaths on July the 1st, 1916.

To the north of the N30 road from Cambrai to Bapaume is Bourlon Wood, on the Ridge dominating the relatively flat countryside to the west of Cambrai. The Memorial to the Missing at Louverval further along on the right of the road has the superb bas relief panels by C.S.Jagger which capture in stone the essence of trench warfare.