The Soldier's Pillar of Fire by Night

The Need for a Framework of Tactics (1921)

By Captain B.H. Liddell-Hart, A.E.C. Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, Vol. LXVI, Feb to Nov, 1921

SCENE.—A tactical exercise without troops. Syndicates, composed of captains and subalterns with a sprinkling of field officers, are giving their solutions. The general idea is that a Scottish Army is following up a retiring English Army. The special idea deals with the action of a brigade group of the Scottish Army. The situation for which a solution is required is the action of the commander of the advanced guard to the brigade group on receiving word that the vanguard is held up by riflanke and machine-gun fire from a small wooded hill, with an exposed glacis in front, on the line of advance. The advanced guard includes one battalion and a battery of field artillery, the vanguard consists of one company of infantry.

After a brief personal reconnaissance, the solutions are rendered. One syndicate suggests sending two companies to turn the enemy's left flank and one to turn his right, the suggested lines of approach for the companies being so far apart that mutual support and co-ordination would be impossible. A second syndicate contemplates reinforcing the vanguard with one company and sending each of the remaining two companies round a different flank. Thus they would simply increase the casualties of the troops who are held up and render both the turning movements too weak to be decisive. Another syndicate even suggests still further dispersion of force by leaving part of a company as escort to the guns, which are well in rear and will soon be protected by the arrival of the main body!

Surely it is a serious reflankection that in such a case, where economy of time is of the first importance, experienced officers would risk dispersing the force of their manoeuvre in packets so small that neither could deliver an effective blow, and on lines of approach so widely apart that neither could support the other.

Yet this is a true story. That, in our war-experienced Army, a representative group of officers averaging from seven to twenty years' service, who are thoroughly competent in other respects, can be so tactically deficient surely indicates that something is wrong with our system of teaching.

What more striking illustration could be obtained of the danger of befogging the mind of the subordinate commander with a mass of tactical precepts and considerations, often seemingly contradictory and made more involved by frequent reservations? Surely instead it would be safer to define clearly the few essential principles in a simple framework. It is only the very exceptional individual who after being drenched in this morass during his early service will have the keenness and originality to find his own way out to the bedrock principles of tactics.

The writer's own experience has led him to the view, shared by others of vastly wider experience, that the majority of the failures of the troop leading in modern battle are due to the junior commanders' haziness of mind as to the correct action to take in any particular tactical situation. How often in the late war did carefully prepared plans, worked out by the staflank complete to the minutest detail, fail because an unforeseen centre of enemy resistance was encountered or an unexpected movement of the enemy took place?

The over-elaborated plan was thrown out of gear by the delay caused in dealing with the unforeseen. Often the actual resistance could be, and was, overcome by the unit immediately opposed to it, without other aid, but the "friction" due to the uncalculated event upset the ordered progress of the neighbouring units.

It was then that the junior commander of infantry groped vainly among the multitudinous "considerations" which he had imbibed from the text-books in the futile endeavour to think of all the considerations which were applicable to the situation and decide which should govern his next. move.

It is felt that the compilers of text-books failed in some measure to realise that subordinate leaders when embroiled in the heat of battle cannot be expected to remain crafty and cool-headed chess players capable of deliberating on the exactly correct move to meet every situation as it arises. The precepts, considerations, and reservations catalogued in the manuals may be remembered and sifted by the higher commanders in secure command posts in rear, but those who are in the forefront of the battle have rarely the time or the power of weighing up the pros and cons of the situation.

It is a truth too often forgotten in our training methods and manuals that in the excitement of battle, the normal mind retains only those ideas which are so thoroughly ingrained as to have become instinctive. The secret of the success of our infantry in the battles of earlier days rested largely on the fact that the movements which they were called to carry out in battle were identical with those which they had practised, until they had become second nature, on the drill ground in peace. It is true we still retain these same movements, which were actually applicable to battle conditions in the days of the musket, but on going into battle we tell our men, illogically, that the one part of their training which has become instinctive must be thrown to the winds and dismissed the memory. No wonder that on occasion this admonition was forgotten in the late war in moments of crisis and one saw men advancing against the deadly fire of machine guns in closed packed line or column of fours, until the leaden hail convinced the survivors that their instincts had been drilled into obsolete grooves.

Surely the answer to the costly losses of the past should be to provide the junior officers and non-commissioned officer with a simple framework of tactics, just sufficiently flexible to be adjustable to the normal situations of battle. Once established, this framework should be drilled into them until the act on it instinctively.

We shall never train an infantry as efficient in comparison with that of our forefathers if we make them build their knowledge on shifting sands of "considerations" which we tell them are always changing, and subject to reservations. We must give them a concrete foundation on which, as they gain experience, they can build their knowledge of ground and the effect of fire.

Theoretical rules to be of use and to be remembered in the stress of action must be clear and brief enough to be carried in a man's head. Moreover, they should be clothed in the form of a parable or simple imagery which will leap into his mind by force of association with some common object or action with which he is thoroughly familiar, as for instance the analogy of boxing or personal combat.

Then there is a certain school of military thought which maintains that infantry tactics can only be taught by actual experience on the ground, with or without troops, and by the application of common-sense and experience to each individual situation as it occurs. They lay stress on the assertion that in battle no two situations are ever alike, and therefore they aver that both text-books and previously taught principles are of little use.

Surely this rule of thumb method of training is unscientific and hopelessly slow even if it were sound, which may be doubted. One may illustrate the folly of it by considering the parallel of teaching tactics with that of sending a man out to become acquainted with a stretch of country in order that he may be able to act as a guide over it. The methods of the school of thought we have spoken of are similar to telling the man that he can only learn his job by exploring every yard of the ground, explaining to him that it is sheer waste of time to give him any directions or landmarks as the ground will look different from every aspect.

Even if our guide-to-be should prove a man of most exemplary keenness and conscientiousness, this method must inevitably be slow It will certainly be uneconomic, owing to the length of time he will have to be paid to learn his duties without any return. Moreover, the fine edge of even the keenest blade is apt to become dulled by incessant hacking. Unless our learner is of unusual intelligence he may so immerse himself in the intricacies of the ground that, when it at last falls to him to put his knowledge to practical use, he may lose his way because he has not realized the relation of the different landmarks to each other.

But if such a method as this of gaining knowledge would have these grave drawbacks in the case of such an unnaturally exemplary individual as we have portrayed, how much worse the result in the case of the average man? He would simply start his travels from what appeared to him the easiest and pleasantest point—in all probability the village inn—and it is feared that he would know the immediate locality too well, but remain in complete ignorance of the main portion of his allotted area.

Surely it will not be questioned that a better method would be to supply the guide-to-be with a plan on which were plotted the essential landmarks, leaving out the mass of wearisome detail which would only hamper him in grasping the relation of the landmarks to each other. Thus when he had committed this plan to memory he might be allowed to improve his general knowledge of the area by traversing it as frequently as possible, using the landmarks to direct himself. By this method he would be able, if the call came, to carry out his functions as a guide almost immediately, and should he come on an unknown stretch of ground he could always save himself from losing his way by noting the nearest landmarks.

Tactics are just as much an unknown country to the budding officer or non-commissioned officer. They stand in even greater need of a plotted system of landmarks, in the form of a framework of the essential principles, to direct their steps, for the fate of nations may depend on their guiding in the day of battle. In the past the training manuals have been usually compiled by senior officers who have grown grey in the slow pursuit of knowledge, and not unnaturally they have been apt to forget that what to them is self-evident or second nature is to the aspiring young leader-to-be an unknown country littered with unfamiliar signs, which merely dazzle and blind his half-grown vision, leaving his mind in chaos. The past method of relying on experience and unorganized initiative to supply the key to every puzzle has too often led to chaos when the subordinate leader so trained has been brought abruptly against novel conditions.

It is to be feared that this failure has not been confined solely to the junior leaders. One may perhaps reflankect on the lessons of the ate War, how, when trench warfare came into being, commanders groping either in their past experience or among the mass of considerations in the text-books, found nothing to fit the novel situation. So for the lack of an ingrained framework on which to base their deductions, painfully and at a bitter price they had to learn anew from the beginning, only to realize at the close of a tragic and terrible pilgrimage that the key to the problem was simply the old master key adapted to the new lock. Nay, worse still, they fell back on the methods of a still earlier generation, and thus was seen the incredible folly of men trying to carry out Crimean close order movements in the teeth of machine guns. Thus casualties in fact became the only guides to tactical improvement!

Is it not time that we laid down a clear-cut framework—not a mere catalogue, for that would be worse than useless—of principles at the very beginning of manuals. It is generally admitted that there is evidence that such masters of war as Napoleon and Frederick worked out their plans on a certain framework of principles, aiming always to execute a formula of action which they adapted to the actual situation as it developed. We cannot expect our platoon commanders to deduce their own framework. It is hopeless to expect every infantry leader to be a potential Napoleon. Even if they tried it is unlikely that the many different formulas resulting would fit in with each other, and the effect would be to produce a confusion as uncoordinated as at present. Such a framework should be supplied to them, and ingrained in them by constant repetition. Thus, when they practised on the ground, with or without troops, they would reap a fuller benefit from it than from their diverse and unrelated schemes of the present.

These last reflections bring us to a further argument in favour of a framework.

In the past our teaching of tactics, our schemes, our books have been devoted to imparting the right course of action of a single body. Our instructions and advice appear to be directed to the supreme commander of an independent command, whether it be an army, a battalion, or a platoon. Despite the lessons of the late war we do not seem to have grasped that in the vast majority of their actions our infantry leaders must consider themselves first and foremost as merely the inter-dependent and subordinate working parts of a vast machine; that, above all, their correct course of action in every situation must be guided by the necessity of fitting in and dovetailing with the requirements of the neighbouring units and of the machine as a whole.

The new Field Service Regulations mark the dawn of a new era in devoting whole chapters to the co-operation of the different arms with each other. But even they seem to have missed the outstanding lesson of the war when they fail to deal adequately with the necessity for co-operation between the different units within each arm. This necessity demands a complete orientation of our channels of thought. It is an aspect which seems entirely overlooked in our training.

Even now what do we almost invariably notice when we see a company or a platoon carrying out a tactical exercise, let us say an attack practice? That it is conceived as an attack by an independent unit, to all intents, on a single objective or strong point. How rarely does the officer responsible for the scheme appear to realize that in actual battle his success and movements would be largely dependent upon the actions of the neighbouring units; that when the single immediate objective had been taken, his real difficulties and problems would begin, in co-ordinating his next movements with the general scheme, to reap the fullest advantage for his side. In modern battle it is rarely possible to tell beforehand at what point and moment he may come up against his own immediate opponents. Moreover, it is reasonably certain that as he fights his way forward he will run against, not only, one, but a series of such stumbling-blocks in his path; that each success must only be regarded as a stepping-stone on his way, and that when he has overcome the problem of reducing one centre of resistance, the real problem will arise as to how to resume his role in the general plan of advance. So long as our infantry commanders in their tactical exercises only visualize the action necessary to overcome a single rock in their path, so long will they fail to break even the crust of the training necessary for modern war.

It is for this reason above all that there is such urgent need of a crisp, clear-cut formula, which will enable the small subunits of infantry to co-operate with one another and to co-ordinate their actions in a harmonious cycle to achieve the general success. At present our sub-units are too often like an unorganized mob, pushing disjointly, at diverse moments and points, against a boulder in their path, which would present but slight delay to an organized team uniting in one effort.

This formula which is required must be sufficiently flexible—and therefore simple—to fir the various situations and phases of action which the small infantry unit is likely to meet in a large scale battle. It will scarcely be disputed that in the case of the minor infantry units these situations do not vary too widely to be incapable of being covered by a simple and flankexible framework or formula.

These minor units are moving parts of the car which is the whole force. The car itself, under the control of its driver, the general commanding, may alter its direction, vary its speed, change its gears, but the actual moving parts execute their share in a definite system, comprising a certain few cycles of movement which are almost uniform. The main essential to the smooth running of the car to its journey's end—victory—is that each moving part should fulfil its role in harmony with the remainder.

It is hoped that these few arguments may have helped to carry conviction of the need for a framework of elementary but essential tactical principles. To supply such a framework rests with those in authority.

Should the writer be accused of shirking the difficulty of solving the problem to which he has drawn attention, he would plead in his defence that such a framework was put forward by him as a trial essay in a lecture at the Royal United Service Institution in November, 1920, and published in this JOURNAL for February of this year.

As may be remembered, a simple yet flankexible formula, or framework, of tactical action was deduced from the natural procedure of a man fighting another in the dark.

The main girders of the framework comprised five principles in chronological order:—Protective Formation, Reconnaissance, Fixing, Decisive Manoeuvre, and Exploitation. It was argued that since dispersion caused by modern weapons had given to each infantry unit the power of penetration and manoeuvre, the formula held good even for every small unit in a large scale battle, and that the formula was true equally of defence as for attack.

The infantry unit of to-day was compared to a human tank possessing both offensive power—its fire weapons and movement—and protective armour—a formation, moving or halted, with an outstretched "arm" or part.

Apart from its intrinsic defects or merits, this formula fulfilled the condition that in order to be remembered such a framework must be based on some simple metaphor or imagery with which, from constant association, every man is familiar. The analogy of personal combat is surely the most vivid and suitable because it is so closely related to the tactics of battle. Our infantry leader would only have to recall to his mind when confronted with the problem as to what is to be his next step, the familiar actions of personal combat.

It may further be recalled that in the "Expanding Torrent" system, the endeavour was made to link up this formula, executed by every infantry unit against each of the series of posts it encounters during its advance through a defensive system, with the need for maintaining the momentum of the whole attack, and to ensure that this was not allowed to slacken nor friction developed between the moving parts, because of the delay involved in overcoming each obstacle in the path of the sub-units.

Further advantages claimed for this method were that it would avoid limiting the advance of unexhausted units, and that the co-ordination of the advance of the different parts of the unit would rest with the commander of the whole unit rather than upon the difficult task of co-operation between the parts, or sub-units, themselves—thus the driver would retain control of his battle car instead of losing all but a shadow as happens at present.

Whilst recalling these fundamental formulas, the suggestion may be made that almost every minor tactical move can be reduced to a formula. An example of this is when deciding which flank to turn It is a self-evident axiom that with the small units of infantry, it is desirable to throw in one's full weight of manoeuvre on one flank only if a quickly decisive blow is to be achieved. Hence our formula runs thus:—

The question is automatically decided:—

(i) If the neighbouring platoon on one of your flanks is making quicker progress than you, move towards that flank.

(ii) If one of your forward sections is making quicker progress than the other, move towards it.

(iii) If smoke is used; go round the windward flank.

If the question is not automatically decided in one of these ways:—

Survey the ground personally and choose the flank which affords the most covered approach and the maximum advantage from covering fire.

In the lecture to which we referred, two tasks were attempted; to establish our moving part—the infantry unit—in its cycle of operation by the man-in-the-dark formula; secondly, to fit it into its place in the chassis of our battle car and to link it up with the other moving parts by means of the expanding torrent system.

It remains to ensure its smooth running by means of a controllable system of movement. Our predecessors, wiser than we have been, did not discard their drill movements when they came to the battlefield. The wonderful quickness of movement and manoeuvre which they had attained on "the barrack square saved them many times when the fate of an engagement depended on the rapidity with which the sub-units responded to the control of the commander.

Have we not acted as over-ruthless iconoclasts in discarding utterly their experience?

Efficiency can best be attained, not by scrupulously retaining their drill movements for the parade ground and then throwing them aside for all practical purposes, but by adapting them to the conditions enforced by modern weapons. To retain the letter of tradition from sentiment results too often in stagnation and decay. But the spirit of tradition purified and refined by the acid test of reason and knowledge is ideal, because it represents the pure gold of experience stripped of the dross of passing prejudice and fallacy. Can it be denied that we should save minutes, and even hours, of priceless value, if during the approach, and indeed at all times save when under close rifle or machine gun fire, we were able to manoeuvre our infantry units, to extend or close their parts according to the ground and the varying flankeet of the enemy's fire, by the use of an ingrained system of battle drill?

Close order movements should be erased from the soldier's mind, but in their place should be implanted by constant drill a system of instant and controlled movement. This would be in the form of an open order drill for the infantry battalion. Voice control would be out of the question for these drill movements, but some form of visual control might well be used, provided the signals were few and simple. The ordinary hand signals, with cautionary whistle blasts, should prove effective save when in very close contact with the enemy. Moreover, it would not be beyond the wit of man to evolve a more penetrating instrument and a clearer means of signalling.

Even during the actual attack, one may suggest that on many occasions such an ingrained method of control could be used to quicken manoeuvre and direct sub-units to take advantage of covered ways of approach. Let anyone with experience of war ask himself if there were not many moments in his recollection when he might, had his men but been drilled in such a system, have saved precious minutes, by the use of a signal instead of the slow method of sending a message by runner? How often did he have to let slip some priceless opportunity because he knew that his sub-units or men were beyond his control, that before any message could reach them the opportunity had gone or the mistake passed beyond the power of mending? Given such a system of control we should still have the runner to fall back on, if the signal passed unobserved.

To meet again the challenge that destructive criticism is useless unless followed up by a constructive suggestion, let us outline a system, which has been actually worked out and practised.

For control signals we only need four, other than the "advance" and "halt" signals. These four are the "extend" (or deploy), the "close," the "change direction " and the "incline."

The key to the system is that on an "extend" signal the unit opens out into the next more open formation, whilst on a "close" signal it closes into the next more closed formation. Taking the battalion as an example, let us suppose that it is marching along in column of route. On an "extend" signal it would open out into the next more open formation, the four companies opening out from the battalion column to form a diamond or square with, let us say, 400 yards interval and distance between each company. On a second "extend" signal each company would open out into platoon columns at 200 yards interval and distance

from each other. Should a "close" signal then be given the platoons of each company would close in and form a company column once more. Thus the battalion could be opened out in concertina fashion to any necessary degree, or closed in again, with the least possible delay.

If a "change direction" signal was given when the battalion was deployed in platoon columns, each platoon would simply wheel, and advance to the flank indicated.

If a "half change direction" signal was given, the leading line of platoons would make a half wheel to the flank indicated, and then lead on, each remaining line of platoons conforming on reaching the same alignment.

If an "incline" signal was given, each platoon in the battalion would make a half wheel to the flank indicated and then advance in the new direction.

The power of control given by these two signals should prove of the utmost value in altering the direction of deployed units and in taking advantage of covered approaches. In the case of a small unit like a platoon it might be used even in contact with the enemy.

Such a system as this might go far to restore the wonderful flankexibility which the British Infantry possessed in the days when close order movements were possible in battle; those days when they were the first infantry in Europe in power of manoeuvre. However great their right to this title still on other grounds, it could scarcely be claimed for them on that score since the introduction of open order.


The views which have been put forward may seem at first sight to be novel if not daring, but it is hoped that when the foregoing arguments have been digested, there will be a measure of agreement with the need for a framework at least, if not with the one put forward at the lecture to which we referred.

The use of ground and scoutcraft can never be reduced to a formula or framework, but it is claimed that the minor tactics of infantry would be immeasurably improved by a flankexible framework of tactics and of movement becoming instinctive in every junior leader and man.