Tactical Training in the British Army (1901)

By "Outsider"
The United Service Magazine, Vol. XXIII, New Series, Apr to Sep 1901

The Boer War is now the campaign to which we must chiefly refer for guidance in our studies of the "Tactics of the Future." A common error of military students is to regard the most recent campaign as affording examples of what should at present be imitated or avoided rather than as what it really is, the source from which to obtain useful hints for future action under yet more modern or otherwise different conditions. Every fresh development in firearms brings with it the need for more or less considerable amendments in the application of unchanging tactical principles, and the main result of each successive campaign is to explode some theory or theories that had hitherto been credited with representing the sure secret of victory.

Smokeless powder has provoked a tactical revolution quite as great as that which followed the earliest employment of missile weapons or the introduction of firearms. Cordite, in the days of Waterloo, would have been merely a convenient means of propelling bullets without at the same time obscuring the vision of the soldier by a cloud of smoke. Otherwise it would have been practically ineffectual, since within the range of the musket the man who fired it would be visible to his opponent; or at all events the flash of the discharge would have betrayed his whereabouts. Thus the influence of smokeless powder as a cause of tactical developments is based upon the fact that the range of the modern rifle is such that a target can be accurately aimed at whilst the distance from the man who fires is still so great that even the strongest glass fails to discover his hiding-place, Consequently the soldier who advances to the attack is now required to face danger that is unseen and consequently the more terrible.

For an historical parallel we must go a long way back, and indeed the earliest of all is probably the most complete.

The first appearance of bows and arrows on a field of battle no doubt brought terror to the army which did not possess them, because men were being killed without having means of instant retaliation. Whether a gallant charge pressed home in spite of losses did or did not snatch victory notwithstanding initial inferiority, it is scarcely possible to say; but of this much we may be sure, that a lesson was learned from the adversary, and bows and arrows, perhaps of an improved type, were speedily introduced. Thence the development of archery proceeded until the English long-bow of the Cressy period marked the culminating point beyond which improvement in this class of weapon became impossible.

Smokeless powder having been adopted by all civilised nations, the most essential reply to an antagonist employing it has already been made, but it remains to be discovered how the assailant can best contend against the special advantages of concealment which the new explosive has conferred upon the defence.

The Lee-Enfield is not altogether so good a weapon as the Mauser, but the secret of successful attack does not lie in the provision of a rifle sighted for extremely accurate shooting, firing at the assumed position of an unseen enemy, long range and flat trajectory are of more importance than finely constructed sights. But upon the other hand it is equally obvious that for the defence, firing at visible targets, the better the sighting of the rifle the better the shooting and the greater the consequent number of casualties amongst the assailants. The Lee-Enfield if provided with as fine sights as the Mauser, would in most other respects be as good a weapon, and not appreciably inferior in any. It is not the rifle but the tactics that stand in need of reform, and in order that these may be improved, facilities for thorough training are urgently required as well as a common-sense system for taking advantage of them. Aldershot tactics have been employed in South Africa with only indifferent success, purchased always at most extravagant cost. The British Army has displayed heroic valour and endurance, but its tactical inefficiency has been consistently conspicuous. This is not, as some appear to suppose, because British officers are more stupid or less zealous than others, but simply because the existing laws of trespass in Great Britain and Ireland absolutely prevent them from training their men and, ipso facto, themselves in the common-sense use of ground.

It is moreover because officers do not generally learn the whole duty of the soldier that they fail as a rule to realise how much elementary instruction can be given to their men on the barrack-square or drill-field, to the infinite saving of time when actually working on wider areas. It is astonishing how much can be done with a company in a ten-acre field; but the fact that the alphabet, so to speak, can thus be thoroughly learned is only the greater reason that facilities for pursuing the course of education should always be available. Knowing from sad experience that practice in the use of ground can seldom be had, officers give up in despair, and fail even to teach the elementary matters without a full knowledge of which the utmost freedom of manoeuvre is almost worthless. The result is that the training of companies being inferior, that of battalions and larger bodies is even more so, and general and other superior officers who have never studied the use of ground practically, with small bodies of troops, are naturally incapable of dealing comprehensively with the same problem when called upon to handle larger forces.

Our system of so-called "training" at Aldershot and other large stations is absurd. The troops are so constantly "messed about" by general officers that they not only learn nothing but positively deteriorate. At field days, or even at genuine manoeuvres troops do not learn their work, but if they have already learned it have opportunities for displaying and perfecting their efficiency. Peace operations on a reasonably large scale are necessary evils, because without them the general and staff officers could obtain no practice in the art of handling troops in the field. But this does not appear to have been the view of those who rule the British Army. An erroneous idea has prevailed that soldiers are manufactured at field days and manoeuvres, and that therefore the more of these the better. Upon the contrary, it is only by the elementary training of squads, companies, and battalions that real efficiency can be reached. Large operations, from the regimental point of view, represent little better than so much waste of time. At Aldershot there is ample space for the efficient training of the minor tactical units, but instead of encouraging this class of training everything is done to hinder it. Even the regulation course of "Company field training" is interfered with owing to the fact that the Divisional and Brigade exercises occupy so much of the year that little time is left for the companies. Consequently so many companies are undergoing training simultaneously that the captains cannot be permitted to go where they like when they like, and without such freedom satisfactory training is impossible—because it cannot be progressive.

There is not the slightest doubt that if the British company officers were permitted to enjoy reasonable opportunities they would very speedily improve both themselves and their men, and the consequence of this would be that in future years we should have a larger number of superior officers who would be competent to handle troops in action. Great generals, of whom there have been very few in the world's history, are born, not made, and the provision of such must be left to the accident of birth. But we can nevertheless do something to remove the common difficulty that every great commander has had to contend against, namely the comparative inefficiency of his immediate subordinates. It is in vain that the most masterly strokes in strategy or grand tactics are conceived by the Commander-in-Chief, if those to whom the actual conduct of the operations must be entrusted are found wanting. The failure of Napoleon in 1815 was undeniably due in some measure to the fact that the man of Waterloo was not the man of Rivoli; but it is to be accounted for to a far greater extent by the errors of Ney, Grouchy and others.

The British Army of the twentieth century has neither numbers nor calling for operations upon such a scale as to need the services of one of the world's great captains, but more than any other army it requires to have many generals who are fully competent to handle comparatively small bodies in every class of country; men who can combine the science of conducting a campaign with the art of lighting battles under all imaginable conditions. The education that can produce a full supply of really useful all-round soldiers has never yet been at the disposal of our officers, and until the right of entry upon all lands in the vicinity of their quarters has been obtained for purposes of tactical instruction, it is idle to expect any real improvement. The question that the nation has to decide is whether a selfish assertion of the rights of property or the cost of paying reasonable compensation for damage done, shall any longer be permitted to stand in the way of military training? The lives of our officers and men and the security of our Country and Empire should outweigh all other considerations.

Meanwhile it is by no means universally impossible for officers commanding companies to obtain permission to train their men to some extent on private properties, and there can be no excuse for those who make no serious attempt to secure such advantages. Every one should however bear in mind that a training-ground is of but little use unless the elementary instruction has been thoroughly attended to in the first place. Before men can become fit to undergo tactical exercises they need a preparatory course of tactical drills. The entire theory of outpost duty, extended-order fighting and advanced and rear guards can be taught even on a barrack-square, so that all that has to be attended to on the training-ground is the application of theoretical knowledge to practical performance. It is sheer waste of time to ask men to spell long words when they do not know the alphabet. This however is the usual practice of the British Army. That a complete training without unlimited access to ground cannot be given is obvious, but this is no reason why the elements of that training should not be attended to as they should be, so that whenever opportunities for higher training offer themselves full advantage of them can instantly be taken. A company thoroughly well grounded on the barrack-square and the public roads is a more efficient tactical unit than one which has been unintelligently exercised upon the best training-ground imaginable. The training of the soldier to real perfection can only be accomplished by securing the efficiency of sections, companies, and battalions; whilst the training of general and staff officers demands that they should have practice at the exercises of larger bodies of troops. Hitherto we have attempted to combine both ideas all the year round, and hence our manifest failure in all branches of tactics. Let us then see to the thorough training of the minor units, so that when our generals proceed to exercise their commands they shall have thoroughly well-finished tools to work with. Neither generals nor troops would then be the worse, but distinctly the better for the annual manoeuvres.

A year ago the Special Correspondent of the Times at Cape Town wrote of the British Army as "a mass of organised stupidity." Though perhaps right in fact he was quite wrong in principle. The "stupidity" lies at the door of himself and the mass of his countrymen by whom the Army is denied facilities for proper training. This gentleman could not have written the able letter in which the words quoted occur had he not received an excellent education. Why should he expect the British officer and soldier to be proficient in a profession for which the responsible authorities, who stand to him in loco parentis, have denied him the education that alone can fit him for his work?

Finally to fix the root of the whole matter. Let the Army have access to ground, and let the Sandhurst cadet be taught at the College how to handle a company in the field rather than how to march an Army Corps on paper. Let the cadets spend on the exercise-ground, learning the field duties of regimental officers, the time that they now waste upon—for example "Organisation and Equipment." What can it matter to a second-lieutenant to know in minute detail how an Army Corps is composed? What he needs to know is how to work half a company to the best advantage in attack or defence in co-operation with the other half of the company to which he belongs. We begin at the wrong end in most things, and especially in this case, in our study of war. The result is a whited sepulchre polished with facts and figures, but inwardly full of disgusting ignorance.