BEF Project Management Dynamics Conference

E 7 of Collected Articles


Dr George Bailey

Senior Lecturer in Strategic Management, University of Westminster
Member, British Commission for Military History
Hon. Professor of Business Policy, ESERP, Spain


Modern Project Management and Military History
From Rifle Companies to all-arms Armies
Transformation of the British Expeditionary Force
Setting the strategic scene; the clash of Nations
Consuming the ‘Old Contemptibles’
Starting the transformation
Elements making up the transformation:
1. Manpower; volunteers and conscription
2. High Command and the British War Cabinet
3. Infantry weaponry and tactics
4. Artillery
5. Suppression of enemy infantry and artillery
6. Tanks
7. Aircraft
8. Moving supplies
9. Rescuing the wounded
10. Patriotism and the maintenance of discipline
Lessons from the study of the transformation of the BEF in the Great War
Climbing the Experience Curve; the transformation of the BEF
The Author; A Professional and Public Life.


“The essence of successful project management is a positive and determined attitude towards setting, maintaining and eventually achieving firmly set objective, with action taken wherever necessary to keep the project on its planned course.”
Dennis Lock (2003), page 58.

This attitude is what the national management of Britain, its Empire and Dominions brought to the Western Front to achieve victory during the Great War of 1914 to 1918.

In recent decades, the application of the principles and the lessons of military conflict to the management of commercial firms has become popular. The actions and writings of personalities such as Sun Tzu (edited by Kheng-Hor,1992), Alexander the Great, the Emperor Napoleon and Carl von Clausewitz (in Paret, 1986) are examined to suggest how their experiences can directly guide modern firms to gain and sustain competitive success. Unfortunately there too often appears to be considerable naivety about the exact natures of warfare and of commercial management.

The author’s links to British and Commonwealth military historians gives him a different perspective. Hence this paper does not come to simplistic conclusions. Rather it presents, using modern language, the Project Management of the transformation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) during the Great War. It draws conclusions as to how strategic changes created the successful all-arms Armies of 1918. The reader is left with pointers, to consider how the lessons learned might be applied to better managing projects in today’s highly competitive and turbulent environment. Some may have relevance to transforming modern organisations.


The methodology of Project Management has become better understood in the second half of the twentieth century (Lock, 2003). However the creation of large scale projects has a history extending from the Egyptian Pharaohs building their pyramids. This paper focuses on the more recent historical event, the transformation of the British colonial-style army of 1914 into the victorious continental-style armies of 1918. It charts how the transformation came about through the British Empire and Dominions responding to the strategic imperatives presented by the Western Front. Emphasis is given to the application of new technologies, the political and social changes needed for eventual success, and the learning achieved.

Clearly it was not a project driven by one individual, such as Thomas Telford or Kingdom Isabard Brunel. Political and military leaders took responsibility for their parts. Thus it was a collective effort brought about by the demands of Total War. Hence this overview does not seek to identify individuals, unless like Lloyd George and Haig, their actions directly influenced the transformation.


The greatest succession of British military victories ever achieved was in late 1918 (Sheffield, 2001). But these victories would not have been possible for the small BEF of 1914. Transforming this force was not to be an easy process. Painful lessons of strategic management, personnel management and resources utilisation had to be learned. Through the many innovations, the Experience Curve was climbed, especially in focusing national competences and resources on the objective of achieving victory on the Western Front. Eventually mastery was achieved there over the most powerful army in Europe, the German field army.


The massive clash of the German and French armies in the August of 1914 was based on long-developed plans, Germany’s Schlieffen Plan and the French Plan 17. The Schlieffen Plan aimed to achieve a giant hook through Belgium, past the seaward side of Paris and envelope the remnants of the French armies in central France. But determined Belgian resistance and the Russian invasion of East Prussia (Solzhenitsyn, 1972) – by the recalling of two German corps to meet the invasion – weakened the hook. The outermost army swerved inside the Paris region, exposing its flank. The Miracle of the Marne forced the German retreat northwards to the hillsides overlooking the river Aisne.

Plan 17 saw the French armies advance eastwards to recover the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, seized by the new Greater Germany after the Franco-Prussian War 43 years earlier. These armies were bloodily repulsed in front of Morhange and Sarrebourg (Tuchman, 1962) during the Battles of the Frontiers before recovering to win on the river Marne. The 120,000 professional soldiers of the BEF supported the left wing of the French armies and retreated alongside them to the Marne before advancing to the Aisne.


In the Race to the Sea, the BEF was then entrained northwards to Ypres after making little progress against the German entrenchments above the Aisne (Bailey, 2000a). At the battle of First Ypres, this professional army was used up resisting increasingly desperate attacks by overwhelming numbers of German troops. Even students fresh from German universities were thrown in at Langmarck; linking arms in comradeship they marched forward into withering fire, to die in their hundreds (Macdonald, 1987).

It was the 15 rounds per minute of aimed rifle fire that stopped the German advances. But once these superbly trained marksmen were used up, their replacement was not possible. Nevertheless they had shown the Kaiser that his contempt for their fighting ability was totally wrong – and were proud to become known as the ‘Old Contemptibles’.


Necessity forced the beginnings of the transformation during the coming winter. This was also added to by the crippling French losses requiring long sections of their trench system to be handed over for manning. Newly introduced units from the British Territorials, the Canadians and the Indians joined the BEF survivors. The transformation that followed can claim to be the largest project ever managed in the United Kingdom, its Dominions and its Colonies. The 120,000 personnel rose in 4 years to many millions as an island nation which normally sheltered behind the protection of the Royal Navy created a land-based force for Total War.


The transformation embraced every aspect of Britain’s national life. The key elements are analysed in greater detail in the following sections:
1. Manpower; volunteers and conscription
2. High Command and the British War Cabinet
3. Infantry weaponry and tactics
4. Artillery
5. Suppression of enemy infantry and artillery
6. Tanks
7. Aircraft
8. Moving supplies
9. Rescuing the wounded
10. Patriotism and the maintenance of discipline

1. Manpower; volunteers and conscription:
The Great War was welcomed with enthusiasm in many of the European countries including Britain. Once the BEF was committed to France Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, called for 100,000 volunteers (Gilbert, 1994) to take the King’s Shilling. His powerful poster (still exploited by modern advertisers – even in notices in the School of Management, University of Surrey) brought an overwhelming response. So many men volunteered that the Army training system was overwhelmed. Large numbers had to be sent home, the rest were accommodated in hastily erected tents and requisitioned buildings. Drilling took place without rifles, little other weaponry existed. Many months were to pass before the factories began to manufacture sufficient weapons to arm what became known as the New Armies.

During 1915, the remaining Regular battalions, the Territorial units and the professional units from Empire and Dominion countries fought and took heavy casualties at Second Ypres, Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge, Festubert and Givenchy. Many of these actions were to support ferocious and largely unsuccessful French assaults in Artois (Notre Dame de Lorette and Vimy Ridge) and in Champagne (to the east of Rheims). Also British, Australian and New Zealand forces (the ANZACs), along with French troops, were committed to the abortive assaults on the Gallipoli Peninsula opposite Istanbul.

By the autumn of 1915, these units were heavily wasted. Thus at Loos, to support further French attacks in Artois and Champagne, two New Army divisions, the 21st and the 24th Divisions, of inexperienced troops were committed to battle. The catastrophic results, so starkly presented by Regan (1991), showed that even the ‘enthusiasm of ignorance’ could not break through the thick German wire (Bailey, 2000a). Because of the Shells Scandal, which meant the artillery had insufficient shells to weaken the German defences, and the wasteful committing of these two divisions, political and military changes took places. David Lloyd George replaced Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and General Sir Douglas Haig replaced Field Marshall Sir John French.

By the First of July 1916, these New Armies had become proficient. Spells in the trenches, carrying out trench raids, had given them practical experience whilst incurring limited casualties. But the opening of the Battle of the Somme was generally a catastrophe. The inability of British shells to cut the enemy wire (this had to await the development and exploitation of the 106 artillery fuze from the Spring of 1917 onwards – Sheffield, 2001) and to destroy the deep German bunkers meant that their machine-gunners wrought havoc on the heavily weighed-down British ‘Tommies’ as they walked forward across No-Man’s-Land. Only in the south did the British and French troops break through, a success which was not exploited because British generals in charge there could not comprehend the scale of the advances and so refused to order further attacks. Partly this was due to the limited communications then available – a problem never satisfactory resolved until the Second World War and which still continues to plague the British forces even today.

Two weeks later, the British troops spectacularly conquered the Bazentin Ridge. Officers walked freely across fields behind the German trenches. But again communications failed exploitation. By the time the British and Indian cavalry reached the open country, hours had passed and the Germans had recovered their nerve. The South African Brigade’s sacrifices in defending Delville Wood showed the continuing resilience of the German troops.

Understandably the stream of volunteers began to dry up and the demands for even more troops increased. So the Government took the decision to conscript able-bodied men in 1916. Thus by late 1917 the trenches were being manned by both volunteer and conscripted men. However many of the conscripts would have volunteered anyway. Together with those that had gained experience in battles from 1914 to 1916, they were welded into the all-arms units. The officers leading them were not just the mythical young men ‘fresh out of public schools’ but also working class men who had been commissioned because of their proven powers of leadership. They withstood the tremendous shock of the one million extra German troops thrown into the Kaiser’s Offensive of the Spring of 1918 (men released by the victory on the Eastern Front in 1917) before driving the German forces backwards during the One Hundred Days.

The heavy and increasing demand for manpower meant that for the first time women became an essential part of the war effort. Hence many went to work in the munitions factories making weapons, shells and small arms cartridges. They continued despite so many losing husbands, sons and fiances. Their contribution was recognised in the electoral changes made after the war and the entry of women into Parliament, onto University courses and into the professions. Partly this was the result of the demographic inbalance caused by the 677,515 BEF dead (Simkins, 1997).

Whereas the women from the working classes tended to work in manufacturing, those from the middle and upper classes (such as the late Queen Mother) focused on becoming nurses, with many serving in base hospitals and sometimes take casualties when exposed to enemy artillery fire. Vera Brittain’s memoirs (1933) tell of the anguish they faced in trying to help mend the shattered bodies of wounded soldiers.

2. High Command and the British War Cabinet:
As in the Second World War, the style of leadership at the beginning of the conflict was unsuited to the demands of Total War. The Edwardian years of peace brought Prime Ministers whose strategic policies were framed towards defending the position of the British Empire. But Total War in continental Europe and globally demanded offensive policies if the peace breakers were to be defeated. So in 1940, the gentle Neville Chamberlain was replaced by the warrior Winston Churchill. However in the Great War, Herbert Asquith kept the confidence for a few more months before being replaced by the more ruthless David Lloyd George. As Minister of Munitions during 1915 Lloyd George had weakened the suspicions about him by aggressively responding to the shortage of shells condemning the infantry to attack without adequate artillery support.

Lloyd George took a more robust approach to prosecuting the war, including not deferring to the British Army’s High Command. In this he was helped by the change of commander as a result of the Battle of Loos. Sir John French paid the price for the misuse of the two New Army divisions. Although Sir Douglas Haig was implicated, through his friendship with King George V he was able to have the blame pinned on French. In December 1915, Haig became the Commander in Chief and brought a professionalism to the execution of the war not found in his predecessor. Much analyses have been made of Haig’s personality (Terraine, 1963, Bond and Cave, 1999, Bailey, 2000b) but the enigma still remains. His professionalism is not in doubt, nor his stubbornness in pushing on with his attrition policy. But the flexibility of mind to challenge methods proven to be wasteful remains the source of debate despite his willingness to accept new technologies and innovations such as the tank.

As the war went on without sustainable success during late 1916, 1917 and early 1918, the tensions between the High Command and the War Cabinet increased. Lloyd George despaired of the human cost of Haig’s policies, Haig of Lloyd George’s wishes to interfere in military matters. A clash of personalities worsened the friction. But when Lloyd George suggested a change of Commander, opposition from within the Cabinet and the BEF showed him this was not possible and his own position might be put at risk.

Although harmonious relations would have been desirable, perhaps the tensions were creative in allowing innovations to emerge and be exploited. In the real world people in power usually have powerful egos. It is the intransigent use of power that separates the dictator from the leader. Lloyd George backed off when he realised there was no support for replacing Haig, and Haig was willing to become answerable to the French Commander, Ferdinand Foch, when the allied Armies had their ‘backs to the wall’ during the Kaiser’s Offensive.

The massive enlargement of the BEF required a modern managerial support system to co-ordinate the use of men and the supply to them of the necessary resources ranging from foodstuffs to military hardware. The staff officer system that was developed worked remarkably well in the later stages of the War. Troops received their rations even during the dark days of the Passchendale battle and the Kaiser’s Offensive. Wounded soldiers were recovered from the battlefield (often speedily despite the appalling problems of doing so) and well treated. The morale was well maintained so that the mutinies which overtook the French Armies in 1917 did not affect the BEF (the minor ‘mutiny’ at Etaples was an aberration due to bullying NCOs not being adequately controlled).

The High Command relaxing in luxury in their chateaux is a myth. More British generals died of war wounds during the Great War than during the Second World War. Haig was an abstemious leader unlike the French General Joseph Joffre who loved food and had the girth to prove it. Even the disasters of 1914 did not keep him from his long lunches! Overall the administration of the BEF met the requirements to transform the BEF into a war-winning instrument.

3. Infantry weaponry and tactics:
Innovations in small-arms technology transformed the rifle brigades into all-arms units capable of fighting independent actions, a transformation that has remained until today. The development of hand-thrown and tube-guiding explosives is detailed below. These reduced the infantry’s reliance on artillery support leaving the artillery to destroy larger targets such as enemy troop formations, blockhouses, machine-gun nests and fields of wire.

The 0.303-inch Short Magazine Lee-Enfield rifle, used with such skill by the professional marksman, remained the standard infantry rifle. However the firepower of the battalions was increased many times by the additions of many heavy machine-guns (the 0.303-inch Vickers) and the introduction of the Lewis light machine-guns into units as small as platoons. Transforming the weaponry did allow the all-arms companies to evolve new tactics, learning from the French tactical developments in the battles around Verdun and on the Somme during 1916. The German storm troopers of 1918 such as the winner of the Pour le Merite, Ernst Junger (Junger, 1929) were also created by imitating these developments.. After the final breaching of the Hindenburg Line in late September 1918, the BEF platoons were able to effectively harass and destroy the German units as they retreated.

4. Artillery:
The large transformation was in the use of artillery. When the BEF fought at Mons and on the Aisne in 1914, their main artillery support were 13-pounder quick-firing field guns (able to fire at up to 15 rounds a minute, Macdonald, 1987). The Royal Artillery still rode fast into action, unlimbered the guns, fired at the enemy over open sights, before limbering up to ride away. But increasingly the German gunners out-shelled them such as at the famous Affair at Nery. On the Aisne, the gun trailers impeded the guns elevating sufficiently to shell the top of the ridge thus leaving the German troops secure in their entrenchments. Only the few old pattern 6-inch howitzers rushed to the battle were able to cause the Germans much grief.

During 1915, more field and heavy guns became available, but not the shell production to permit them to fire rapidly over a long time. Supplies from elsewhere sometimes proved defective, some American made shells being found to contain sawdust, not explosive. The Shells Scandal gave David Lloyd George the position of Minister of Munitions and robust efforts began to greatly increase the production rate of the shells and small-arms cartridges. When he became Prime Minister a few months later, he retained his responsibility for armaments production.

Cannon fire was an important part of preparing for the infantry assaults on the Somme. But many days of shelling in late June 1916 did not destroy the German wire or bunkers. The shells ploughed into the ground before exploding, and the wire was often thrown into tangles making it even more difficult to pass through.

Only the exploitation of the sensitive 106 artillery fuze in 1917 gave a shell that would explode on hitting wire (Sheffield, 2001). Now it became more possible to focus firing programmes on specific areas of wire through which the infantry could pass in relative safety. Once the tank became more useful in late 1917, it was also able to contribute to wire clearing.

In 1914, the BEF did not have hand-held explosives. During the winter, the soldiers became expert at turning discarded food tins into primitive bombs. Once the Mills bomb became available, the soldiers then could use explosives effectively for clearing enemy trenches and bunkers. The grenade became one of the most important weapons in the platoon’s armoury.

Similarly no longer-range explosives were available. A simple tube device, the 3 inch Stokes mortar, was developed by 1916 to throw bombs up to a few hundred yards. Hence the infantry were now able to put down explosives onto enemy trenches without having to rely on getting information back to the gun parks, which inevitably wasted time.

The large increase in heavy cannons of many sizes has been mentioned. Some were so huge they had to be transported on rails. Others took days to set up and were cumbersome to move. This became a substantial problem during the rapid advances of the One Hundred Days when heavy guns had to be hauled over the old battlefields of the Somme valley, the Passchendaele ridge and the Picardy plain. However the greatly increased firepower of the infantry companies coupled with the use of medium-tanks and armoured cars compensated for the unavoidable irregularities in the overall performance of the artillery.

5. Suppression of enemy infantry and artillery:
The change in artillery tactics was a major innovation. The 1914 field guns fired mostly shrapnel shells which had little effect on covered entrenchments. The 1916 cannon bombardments could not penetrate the deep bunkers or clear away the fields of wire. The German guns from their concealed positions were able to pulverise the British trenches resulting in the near impossibility of the infantry crossing ‘No-Man’s-Land’ without facing murderous machine-gun fire. In 1916 lifting barrages were developed to bring down fire just in front of the advancing infantry. This worked adequately provided that the infantry were able to keep up as the barrages moved forward. Unfortunately this rarely happened, so the barrages were far ahead with the infantry facing German machine-gunners who had speedily climbed up out of their bunkers once the barrages passed.

As the result of the other combatants’ experiences, fundamental changes were made. Rather than seek to destroy the enemy fire power was used to keep them within their shelters until the infantry entered their trench systems. This suppressing rather than destruction bombardments not only overcame the problems of the lifting barrages, it also churned up the ground less so that infantry and track vehicles could move forward without encountering deep craters lying close together. Later in the war, gas shells became available, so that they were fired with high explosive shells to keep the enemy soldiers under cover wearing their cumbersome gas masks whilst the British infantry crossed No-Man’s-Land in relative safety.

The cannons themselves were carefully calibrated, thus the gunners could place their shells on the targets without having to spend time and expend shells registering the guns onto the targets. Understandably such registration alerted the enemy to future activity. At Cambrai in November 1917 this method was applied so successfully that the Germans did not realise they were to be attacked until they looked out to see British tanks a few yards away.

Essential to gaining more accurate fire was achieving better quality during the making of the gun barrels and the shells. This rapidly improved the standards of manufacturing. With the achievement of finer tolerances, the shells fitted better into the barrels, had more accurately weighed amounts of explosive and propellant, and so when fired landed on the targets. Hence 60-pounder heavy cannons could fire shells from ‘north London’ that would land on ‘Trafalgar Square’. The management of these improvements was the beginning of what is now known as Quality Control.

The sciences of mathematics and physics were also brought into use. Firstly, by spotting the flashes from the cannons, the British gunners were able to locate the German cannons using trigonometry. In 1917 Lieutenant Lawrence Bragg, of King’s College London, the pre-War Nobel Prize winner and future Knight, helped develop an electrical system for locating cannons by the sound of the firing of their shells. Thus in 1918, British heavy cannons were able to accurately fire upon German gun positions, hence stopping them shelling No-Man’s-Land and the British trench systems. Smaller cannons were able to use predicted fire to shell known machine-gun nests and blockhouses, and mortars to deal with individual machine-guns not previously located. And the Australian Corps under Sir John Monash used machine-guns firing continuously at Le Treguier to lay down effective bullet-based barrages to quieten the enemy .

The Royal Horse Artillery were a few thousand strong in the 1914 BEF. One third of a million gunners made up the 1918 BEF. Firing a million shells to support an attack became a normal event!

6. Tanks:
The story of the development of the armoured tracked vehicle is well known. After experiments with Little Willie and Mother, hiding their purpose by calling them water ‘tanks’, the tanks were introduced in the battle of Flers on 24 September 1916, a tank earlier having helped finally clear the remains of Delville Wood, fought over since the South African defence of the July. Even the very primitive vehicle, though lacking defensive armour plating, showed the ability to crush wire and break through the enemy trenches. However the tanks made limited impact at Arras in the Spring of 1917 and at Messines two months later and failed in the swamp conditions of Third Ypres. The French tried their two new types of heavy tanks during the Nivelle Offensive of early 1917 but with little success. The Germans later produced some twenty cumbersome AV7 tanks which proved to be little more than a joke.

The refinement of the British tanks, incorporating better steering and proper armour plating, allowed the first ever major tank attack over the firm ground in front of the Hindenburg Line at Cambrai. 324 tanks (Gilbert, 1994) punched through the enemy trenches but the success could not be exploited. Partly this was due to the fortuitous use of Cambrai as a resting area for German divisions not uncovered by British Intelligence, partly due to some German units having practised anti-tank gunnery.

By the summer of 1918, technological development based on a continuous loop between tactical experience and modifications during factory production (Strachan, 2003) had made the tank a battle-winning machine. It was easily able to crush and sweep away the field of German wire. Its cannons and machine-guns could destroy enemy trenches, field guns and enemy infantry units. It had become an effective instrument of breakthrough. But its relative unreliability meant it suffered substantial attrition, so after a few days of battle few remained battle-worthy. But once the Hindenburg Line was broken other weapon systems such as the Whippet medium-tanks and armoured cars were able to be exploited in the continuing advances. This included the cavalry denied a proper function for most of the previous four years.

7. Aircraft:
Flimsy aircraft helped watch the advance of the German armies in 1914 and spot their inward wheel that exposed their flank to allow the Allied victory on the river Marne. Soon the opposing airmen tried to shoot at each other with pistols and rifles. The development of more robust aircraft allowed machine-guns to be mounted, although the propellors spoilt aimed forward firing. German engineers worked out how to synchronise firing with the revolutions of the engine crankshafts which gave their fighter aircraft such as the Fokker Eindecker complete control. But in 1916, the French and the Royal Flying Corps aircraft gained supremacy. New German aircraft types such as the Albatros and the Fokker Triplane, and the creation of ‘flying circuses’ – large formations of fighter aircraft – under the leader of Rittmeister Baron von Richthofen and his successor Herman Goering (the Luftwaffe commander in the Second World War) regained supremacy.

But in 1918, the German aircraft became heavily out-numbered, with the now superior allied aircraft piloted by aces such Major McCudden VC winning the dog-fights. The Sopwith Camel was credited with 1,294 victories (Simkins, 1997). Hence British aircraft had relative freedom to survey enemy positions, spot enemy artillery, and straffe enemy formations. The new Handley-Page and Vickers bombers were able to drop bombs on the enemy support systems even many miles behind the trench systems to disrupt the resupplying of the front lines.

8. Moving supplies:
As mentioned earlier great care was taken with delivering food to the soldiers manning the front trenches thereby maintaining their morale. Water because of its weight was always a more difficult problem not adequately solved. Trench building materials were brought up to near the trenches by rail and by lorries. However soldiers assisted by mules had to bring these supplies into the trenches, together with the small-arms ammunition, the grenades and the mortar bombs. Under the appalling ground conditions of the Passchendaele battle, this could become extremely difficult.

Troop units were also rotated at relatively short intervals, which greatly helped
morale (unlike the French whose long stays in the front line contributed to the mutinies). Such rotations had to be handled with great care as the exchange greatly increased the vulnerability to attack. Hence before the battle of Amiens in 1918, an Australian unit rather stupidly carried out an unauthorised raid which greatly upset the Germans. They attacked just when the exchange was taking place and drove the new troops far back from their trenches. These troops then had to fight hard to retake these trenches even before the battle began on the 8th of August. Overall the learning of how to manage the effective movement of all these requirements laid the beginnings of what is now the modern Royal Logistics Core.

9. Rescuing the wounded:
Greatly assisting the maintenance of morale was the soldiers knowing that an effective system was in place to treat the wounded. When they were collected from the battlefield and brought into nearby advanced dressing stations, those needing simple treatment could be seen quickly. More serious wounds could be stabilised before the ambulances carried the soldiers to the casualty clearing stations where surgery might be performed. Once over the worst or with wounds not requiring life-saving surgery, the soldiers were then brought to base hospitals in France or (even better for the soldiers) in Britain, nicknamed Blighty. Hence a Blighty wound got them home to recuperate after recovery! Female nurses were integral to staffing the base hospitals and the hospitals in Britain, Vera Brittain (1933) speaking so eloquently for that generation of women.

Wounds to the head and to the body were often worsened by the shell and bullet splinters causing the wounds and the soldiers’ clothing driven into these wounds. New treatments mainly consisted of the better cleansing of the wounds by saline irrigation and including the surgical removal of the foreign particles. The drugs available in the Second World War had not yet been invented. Unfortunately gangrene often set in, especially where heavily polluted earth had been forced into the wounds, necessitating amputation of limbs.

Controversy still surrounds shell-shock and psychiatric care. Some soldiers suffered military execution whom in today’s culture would have received psychological counselling instead. However conditions for civilians, let alone soldiers, were much harder 90 years ago. Stress was unrecognised, the ‘stiff upper lip’ was the accepted standard, and professional counselling outside the Church and medical practices was unavailable. Nevertheless the scale of some of the mental disorders did lead to a recognition that the new science of psychiatry did have relevance to the mental changes resulting from warfare. Hence Siegfried Sassoon spent time in Slateford War Hospital in 1917 when it was decided he was suffering from shell-shock (Sassoon, 1930).

10. Patriotism and the maintenance of discipline:
The initial enthusiasm was maintained longer in Britain than in the other warring countries. Only two of the civilian divisions suffered heavy casualties in 1915. But the numbers of those killed in these divisions during the Battle of the Somme brought home to British civilians the scale of what was happening in the trenches. This was added to when conscripted men began to be killed. After the painful battle of Arras during the Easter weeks of 1917 when little ground was taken other than the Vimy Ridge (for which the Canadians gained renown) a grim determination to complete the job developed. The soldiers became resigned to what had to be done. So did the Government despite its deep unhappiness with the casualty figures. The national stoicism meant that there were no French-style mutinies. The strong belief in the future of Britain and its Empire continued among the nations now making up the BEF.

Much has been claimed in the modern British culture about a harsh and unforgiving discipline. It needs repeating, things were viewed differently 90 years ago. 304,262 officers and men were court-martialled for offences ranging from drunkenness and theft to capital offences (Peaty, 1999). 3,080 were sentenced to death for military crimes such as cowardice and desertion. Many of the crimes carried the civilian death penalty by hanging. 90 per cent of the condemned were reprieved, usually by Haig’s decision after reviewing the individual cases. Most then experienced hard labour, a normal civilian punishment (as suffered by Oscar Wilde for his homosexuality). Of the remaining 10 % who were executed, 291 were British and 55 were from other nations. No Australians were executed despite the plea of General Monash, their Australian commander, to allow its re-introduction in 1918 in order to bring back some discipline into his Corps.

Unfortunately a very few were executed after evidence that in today’s culture would be regarded as unsatisfactory, with the modern knowledge about the impact of real psychological stress. During the 1990s the British Conservative and Labour Governments reviewed the decisions and did not issue pardons.

The soldiers prepared to die fighting mostly felt that those executed had let their country down and their comrades down. They knew that civilian Britain still had the death penalty by hanging. Thus the 345 executed should be benchmarked against the 677,515 of the BEF who accepted and suffered the high risk of death in battle during the fifty one months of the Great War.


The lessons are presented in groups of ‘bullet points’ with the BEF example in italics.

Each group relates to the sections above but is expressed in modern management language.

• A total effort requires everyone to help (Total War).
• Leadership skills are transferable (the officers of 1918 came from all socio-economic groups).
• Training builds up experience ( time out of the trenches was used to learn and practise new techniques and become familiar with objectives to be achieved).

• Circumstances change the need for certain styles of leadership (Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George).
• Leaders united behind a common goal do not need to like each other (David Lloyd George and Douglas Haig).
• A sense of mission must be instilled (the BEF morale before the battle of the Somme).
• Carefully assess the balance between attack and defence where the risk of failure is destruction (The German losses in the Kaiser’s Offensive made BEF success in the battle of Amiens more likely).
• Respect your rivals ( the vigour with which the German forces resisted the BEF attacks on the Somme and at Passchendaele).
• Plan all activities carefully ( the weak co-ordination between the infantry and the RHA in 1914 became the superb co-operation between them in 1918).
• Resources needs are usually twice as much (or more) than originally predicted (the BEF 4th Army was ill-prepared to withstand the German storm-troopers in the Kaiser’s Offensive).
• Prowess and strength run down as implementation proceeds (BEF soldiers became exhausted during an attack often no more than 400 yards from their Start Lines).
• Maintain momentum, once lost it is difficult to regain (the BEF cavalry took many hours to arrive after the spectacular breakthrough on the Bazentin Ridge, 14 July 1916).
• Change unsuccessful strategies and structures (the overall transformation of the BEF between 1914 and 1918).
• Position to gain competitive advantage (bringing tanks up to the Start Lines at Cambrai without the Germans hearing their arrival).
• Keep up with new technologies (British manufacturing developed the war-winning Mark 5 heavy-tank, German industry the farcical A7V ‘mobile blockhouse’).
• A culture that allows innovations ( the tank, sound-ranging, predicted fire).

• Maintain balance between all activities (the co-operation between the infantry, the tanks, the RA and the RAF during the One Hundred Days).
• Control systems must be accepted as reasonable (the BEF soldiers accepted the execution of those condemned for desertion, cowardice and other serious offences).

Weapons in the armoury
• Pinpoint the likely retaliators and ‘silence’ them (sound ranging allowed the RA heavy cannons to destroy enemy cannons located behind the enemy lines).
• Exploit new products and processes (all-arms weaponry in the small infantry units, aircraft straffing enemy trenches during infantry attacks).
• One distinctive competence builds strength ( the Lee-Enfield rifle was the core element of the all-arms infantry units).

Product portfolio
• Ensure the product range is fully covered ( the explosive weapons and light machine-guns were added to rifles to give all means of attack and defence to the small infantry units).
• Aim for the highest quality of manufacturing and processes delivery (the manufacturing of cannons and shells allowed the successful use of predicted fire).

Quietening the competition
• Defeat the will to resist (many German soldiers were relieved to become prisoners on the 8th of August 1918 at Amiens).

New product development
• Launching products too soon (the tanks used at Flers on 24 September 1916 were unfit for serious action).
• Recognise the limitations of products (the attrition rate of heavy-tanks remained high so other means were used to carry on what they began).

• Seek out opportunities given by new products (the development of heavy bombers for raids well behind enemy lines).

• Build up resources at a planned speed ( preparing for the great assaults in 1916 and there-after required meticulous planning to avoid congestion – a lesson the American forces were forced to learn in their Meuse-Argonne attack of late 1918).
• Human needs must be supplied (the morale of the BEF troops in the front trenches remained high because great efforts were made to get food through to them).

• Gather intelligence on rivals and their activities (the BEF Intelligence officers failed to pay proper attention to the failure to cut the wire before 1 June 1916 and to the swamp condition of the Ypres Salient in late 1917).
• Need sophisticated knowledge transfer (analyses of military actions determining what had been achieved and what went wrong were parts of developing the new techniques).


These findings show that modern management thinking can be used to better understand historical events. Also such events can provide symbolical actions as applied examples to reinforce modern learning.

This assessment does not try to present historical events as certain answers to resolving modern day problems. The very different political, socio-economic and cultural climates make simplistic transfers of lessons of little value.

This holistic analysis of the transformation of the BEF between 1914 and 1918 shows many elements which are in tune with modern Project Management theories and practices. On the common sense approach of the past have been overlaid theoretical models and techniques such as the Gantt Chart, sensitivity analysis and the Ishikawa fishbone diagram (Lock, 2003).

Clearly the British political and military actions were beset by much uncertainty and risk. Obviously their outcomes could not be foretold at the beginning. Hence the overall project, unlike building a bridge or a motorway, had to be managed on a step-by-step basis. This demanded an overall vision being maintained by the political and military leaders – and this did happen.

Recognising how the events of the Great War still resonate strongly today, the better understanding of management makes it easier for historians to show that the events of these years were part of climbing an Experience Curve that had to be climbed.


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The reasoning behind this paper has benefited from discussions over many years with military historians, many within the British Commission for Military History. I wish to especially mention Professor Brian Bond, Professor Emeritus of Military History, King’s College London, and Dr. Christopher Pugsley, the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. They have been very patient as I have grappled with linking the methodology of modern strategic management to the actuality of historical events.


A graduate in Ecology of Edinburgh (BSc) and Exeter Universities (MSc, PhD), George Bailey first taught Environmental Management at the Polytechnic of Central London. Encouraged by the then Rector, he sought and was elected to the Greater London Council, taking responsibility for Industry and Employment issues from 1977 to 1981. After the Council’s abolition in 1986, he continued in public office until 2003 through his involvement with regional and local governance in the South East of England, for which he was appointed OBE in 1995. He graduated with an MBA from the Management College, Henley, in 1989 and later read for an MA in War Studies at King’s College London. He has taught Strategic Management to students in numerous countries. A former External Examiner at Staffordshire and ESERP Universities, he now has that role for the Management Unit’s MBA course, University of Reading. Besides Membership of the Chartered Institutes of Management and of Marketing, he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.


This paper was presented to the International Dynamics Conference held at the School of Management , the University of Surrey, on Friday 4 June 2004.