Between the Ears of a Horse

Brian Bond

  • Fire-Power: British Army Weapons and Theories of War by Shelford Bidwell and Dominick Graham
    Allen and Unwin, 327 pp, £15.00, August 1982, ISBN 0 04 942176 X
  • The Crucible of War: Year of Alamein 1942 by Barrie Pitt
    Cape, 478 pp, £12.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 224 01827 2

At first glance Fire-Power may seem to be a professional study by gunners about gunners and for gunners, but if readers not privileged to have served in the Royal Regiment can absorb the technical information and diagrams they will learn a lot about the realities of warfare in the first half of the 20th century. In particular, they will appreciate the extent to which fire-power has dominated combat and what techniques have been evolved to exploit it and overcome it. This is not a narrow study of artillery: the authors also discuss the development and tactics of machine-guns, trench mortars, hand-grenades and, most important of all, the radio, which exerted a truly revolutionary influence. Although this work is a joint effort, it is likely that the first part, on the First World War, was written by Professor Graham and the rest by Brigadier Shelford Bidwell.

Despite some painful experiences in the South African War, the British Army still lacked a clear doctrine and a mental grasp of the nature of modern battle on the eve of the First World War. Sir Douglas Haig’s tactical vision was clear but narrow, ‘like that of a man looking at the ground between the ears of a horse’. Haig saw his task as the application of direct fire-power against a visible enemy who would have to be vanquished by cold steel. Indirect fire would slow the tempo of battle and was of doubtful reliability given the existing means of communication. Too much reliance on fire-power would, moreover, cause a loss of surprise and initiative. Horse and field gunners, sensitive to the accusation that they preferred to skulk behind hills, endorsed Haig’s views on the need for direct wheel-to-wheel action in close support of the infantry. These tactics were suitable for the initial encounters but not for the prolonged contests in attrition which were likely to follow.

The section devoted to the steady improvement of British operational techniques in the ‘great and continuous engagement 1914-1918’ is perhaps the most original and significant in the whole book. Indeed, one has to go back to G.C. Wynne’s little-known, specialist study, If Germany attacks: The Battle in Depth in the West (1940), for a comparably cogent analysis of the causes of the static, attritional trench warfare on the Western Front. Professor Graham’s theme is the one endlessly inculcated by John Terraine and now finding wider acceptance among military historians: that the British Army’s great series of victories in 1918 should be seen as the ‘pay-off’ for lessons painfully learned in the previous three years. The early British offensives, made by ill-equipped and half-trained divisions, were extremely costly, and thereafter the commanders had to evolve new tactics against a skilful and well-entrenched opponent who could afford to remain largely on the defensive.

After making due allowance for Haig’s difficulties, Graham argues persuasively that he did not understand the tactical difference between a breakthrough battle and the series of attrition battles in which he engaged. In other words, neither Haig nor his staff at GHQ fully accepted that the Western Front was a gigantic siege operation in which a breakthrough into open country was impossible. One consequence was that artillery and engineer representatives were not given the scope and authority they deserved. Indeed GHQ did not plan its battles around the artillery or take full account of that arm’s new capabilities until the action at Cambrai in November 1917. Several staff officers and commanders, notably Rawlinson and Birch – who both emerge from this study with enhanced reputations – realised that breakthrough and attrition battles required very different preparations, but Haig persistently attempted to do the two simultaneously.

The divergence of views between Haig and his army commanders was especially marked in the Somme Campaign in 1916. Rawlinson, commanding Fourth Army, shared the French view that a breakthrough was impracticable: like Foch he regarded the Allied offensive as a siege operation in which massive bombardments should be employed to cover a series of short advances with a view to weakening the enemy and forcing him to withdraw troops from Verdun. Haig by contrast wanted a rapid advance culminating in a break-out by the cavalry: in his view, a series of attritional battles would only cause the Germans to consolidate their strong defensive positions. Whoever was right, it was a tragedy that this basic disagreement was never resolved. Rawly stalked his C-in-C ‘with the respect of a man in the Rockies hunting an unpredictable bear’, while for his part Haig was wary of Rawly’s superior skills in discussion. The outcome was a bad compromise: troops were spread evenly across the whole front as though for a break-in to the first trench system only and the artillery was similarly dispersed. The main thrust was intended to be on the left at Thiepval yet no special reserves were placed there to exploit a success. Moreover, Rawlinson did not enforce a uniform artillery plan and allowed each corps to evolve its own method for crossing no-man’s-land. These unresolved problems contributed to the failure on 1 July and the confused tactics which marked the later phases. Haig compounded these mistakes in the Third Ypres campaign in 1917 by again planning for a breakthrough despite the unsuitable terrain and the enemy’s territorial advantages.

The British artillery, however, was by now much more effective, despite the meagre gains and heavy losses in what will always be popularly known as the Passchendaele campaign. Not only had its guns and ammunition improved in quality and quantity, but an important tactical lesson had been learnt from the Somme experience. Instead of a creeping barrage lifting from one target line on the map to the next according to a rigid timetable (which on 1 July 1916 soon left the wretched infantry far behind), the barrage was now designed to move by 100-yard stages ahead of the advancing troops. If all went according to plan, the infantry had simply to stay close to the shell bursts even if the occasional short round sprayed them with shrapnel. As for counter-battery work, by 1917 location of the enemy’s guns by sound ranging and flash spotting was becoming so scientific that it could function even when the weather was too bad for aerial observation. Old-fashioned battery commanders accepted these innovations with reluctance: ‘You damned surveyors, with your co-ordinates and angles and all the rest, are taking all the fun out of war; in my day we galloped into action and got the first round off in thirty seconds.’

Despite such conservatives, progressive tacticians and trainers like Sir Ivor Maxse and Sir Noel Birch developed extremely effective offensive tactics in the final year of the war whose ingredients included close support from low-flying aircraft; concentrated use of massed tanks; fuses which permitted explosive shells to destroy the defenders without cratering the ground; and mechanical carriers for the infantry. Wireless now provided the essential means of communication between spotter aircraft, battery commanders and advancing infantry. These and other innovations must be set against the popular myth of an unchanging Western Front between 1914 and 1918 where unimaginative and callous commanders (like the caricature in C.S. Forester’s The General) repeatedly launched identical, suicidal attacks against unbroken wire.

Although the professional journals after 1918 suggested a continuing ferment of ideas, the Army’s leaders showed little interest in learning and developing the tactical lessons of the First World War. Brigadier Bidwell rightly stresses that there was no official inquiry into these lessons until the Kirke Committee of 1932, and even then its scope was severely restricted and its findings never promulgated throughout the Service. Specific matters such as the need to improve wireless and other communications, evolve a common tactical doctrine for all arms, mechanise or motorise transport, and settle the organisation of the division – all received less attention than in Germany, notwithstanding the latter’s handicaps under the restrictions imposed in 1919. Sadly, the Royal Artillery shared these shortcomings despite priding itself on being an educated, technical, ultra-professional arm, and despite possessing some of the ablest officers in the Army, including Uniacke, Karslake, Pile and Brooke. The gunners were guilty, according to Bidwell, not merely of hesitation or wrong decisions, but of failing to think about anything at all. As a newly-commissioned subaltern in 1933, the Artillery struck him as ‘deeply conservative and backward-looking: less interested in its military capacity than in its social status and its myth. Its system of officer selection was as narrow as in any fashionable regiment of foot or horse, it had succumbed to the national vice of admiring amateurism ... its officers were expected to conform to a strict social pattern which included an affectation of professional ignorance.’

To be sure, conditions for artillery units serving at home were discouraging. Horses and troops were so far below strength that the resources of a whole brigade had to be combined to enable a battery to perform a day’s exercise. Officers could just about exist on their pay but promotion was notoriously slow, with little prospect of rising beyond the rank of major. In short, there was little incentive to do more than the minimum, except where horses were concerned. Horses and horseflesh remained an obsession, one distinguished general remarking in all seriousness that ‘a battery whose horses looked well was a good battery, whether they could hit the target or not.’

Though not without interest, the chapters on the Second World War are rather miscellaneous and lack the coherence of Graham’s analysis of Western Front tactics. The topic most thoroughly explored is the evolution of land-air co-operation from the deplorable state of affairs in 1940, which was due partly to lack of suitable aircraft, but more to deep-seated mutual suspicion dating from the RAF’s early struggles to maintain its independence. But even when a Tactical Air Force was formed in the Middle East under commanders anxious to assist ground forces there remained the problem of how to convey the Army’s requirements to the air staff and to direct air attacks onto ground targets in very difficult conditions. The advent of Montgomery improved co-operation at the top because he immediately moved his headquarters close to Air Vice-Marshal Coningham’s. Operationally, a solution was found in Observation Post Squadrons employing small, low-powered aircraft which could take off from any dirt strip and fly just high enough over the guns to observe targets in dead ground. A tragi-comic demarcation dispute about whether the pilots could remain army officers delayed the implementation of this system until November 1942, but thereafter army-air co-operation was generally excellent with the notable exception of Arnhem, where arrangements for direct air support to 1st Airborne Division were lacking.

The authors’ conclusion, though well understood by soldiers and military historians, is grim and disturbing. There is, they affirm, no elegant formula for the overthrow of a powerful opponent: attrition and heavy casualties are unavoidable and this remains the case despite remarkable technical innovations in the period discussed. They assess British casualties during Passchendaele at 2,121 per day and during the final advance in 1918 at 3,645 per day. With better shells, target intelligence and communications, the battle for Normandy in 1944 cost 21st Army Group 1,333 casualties per day, and there was far worse to endure in the battle for the Reichswald. Allied command of the air saved many lives on the ground, but 35 days of aerial combat over the Normandy beachhead cost 20,000 casualties in aircrew members.

Barrie Pitt underlines this point in the second volume of his projected trilogy on the Desert campaigns. El Alamein in particular, with its lack of open flanks and with Axis defences in great depth, constituted a killing ground comparable to the Western Front in the First World War. Montgomery fully appreciated this, and though anxious to minimise casualties, sternly warned commanding officers: ‘There will be no tip and run tactics in this battle; it will be a killing match; the German is a good soldier and the only way to beat him is to kill him in battle.’ Although Montgomery enjoyed almost total command of the air and possessed nearly nine hundred field and medium guns, which opened the battle of Alamein with a devastating barrage, the fighting still lasted 12 days and cost Eighth Army 13,500 in killed and wounded.