Preparing for War

The Old Defence Quarterly (1960)

By Lieut.-Col. H.F. Wood, CD, Deputy Director, Historical Section, Army Headquarters, Ottawa
Canadian Army Journal, Vol. XIV, No. 2, Spring 1960

The next time you find your "In" basket empty, go down to your Library and get out the bound volumes of the old Canadian Defence Quarterly. There is some fine military browsing to be had there and you can, at the same time, refresh your memory of the once-famous Simonds-Burns debate. You can, that is, if you ever heard of it. For the Second World War came within the year and academic articles on the employment of tanks were forgotten in the rush of learning to use them on battlefields.

The first issue of the Canadian Defence Quarterly appeared in October 1923, and the last one in July 1939. Thus the magazine spans the years between the wars, the years in which the Generals of today were training, thinking and writing about their profession. Because of this, the Defence Quarterly provides the reader of 1960 some tantalizing glimpses into the past.

Familiar names appear in the earliest volumes. One of the most frequent contributers through the years was an officer who, as Captain E.L.M. Burns, MC, RCE, wrote in 1924 that "Cavalry, if it is to survive on a modern battlefield, must be completely mechanized". Fourteen years later, as a Lieutenant-Colonel, he was gently accusing Captain G.G. Simonds, Royal Canadian Artillery, of not giving proper weight to certain factors in the tank versus infantry controversy.

In the years between, Canadian officers of every shade of opinion wrote for the Defence Quarterly, on a very wide variety of subjects. Lieutenant-Colonel G.R. Pearkes, VC, wrote knowingly of the Boxer Rebellion; Brigadier-General A.G.L. MacNaughton, Deputy Chief of the General Staff, contributed an article on Counter-Battery work full of authority and conservative optimism.

Captain Burns appeared again in 1926 with some "Speculations on Increased Mobility,—or the lessons of the British maneouvres of 1925." The British had used a mixed force of tanks and lorried infantry in an attempt to "turn a flank". Captain Burns' views are still sound in 1960, and one wonders if, when in 1944 he commanded a corps heavy with armour. rich in communications and trained to a peak, he ever thought of the article he had written nearly twenty years before on how to do it.

Lieutenant-Colonel H.D.G. Crerar also appeared in the Quarterly. writing of high strategy in the Empire, and Captain F.F. Worthington, at the other end of the scale, wrote with enthusiasm of the motion picture as a training aid and the value of the Miniature Battle Practice Range.

The thirties were times of transition. Side by side with articles on mechanization (one of them by Major George S. Patton, Jr.) were learned pieces on saddlery and horsemanship. Major Kenneth Stuart, destined to be a wartime Chief of the General Staff, wrote "Is War Inevitable?", and Lieutenant-Colonel H.F.G. Letson surveyed the contribution made by the University of British Columbia to the winning of the first World War. Lieutenant-Colonel G.P. Vanier submitted some personal recollections of Marshal Foch and in April 1933 the editor of the magazine included the following interesting opinion which is quoted without comment:

"It is contended by some authorities in view of the menace from the air … that the division of the future must … be reduced to the dimensions of a brigade group … Our rearward supply services are alleged to be vulnerable to the same degree, hence the general conclusion that, in a war of the first magnitude, our field armies of the future, both as regards fighting troops and supply services. must be small and extremely mobile."

By 1933, A.G.L. MacNaughton was a Major-General and Chief of the General Staff and Major Burns was contributing articles condensed from the CGS' speeches. He was also writing book reviews. In 1925 he had been a bit patronizing about the prolific British author, Major-General J.F.C. Fuller, saying that even a fiction writer would find it difficult to visualize an AA gun shooting down three out of four aircraft flying at 2000 feet. But by 1938 Major Burns had softened his attitude towards Fuller and gave him a good "chit" in his review of the General's book "Operations between Mechanized Forces". The previous year Major Burns had won the Bertrand Stewart prize essay competition on "The problems of Marlborough and Wellington in coordinating their efforts with the Government", a useful exercise in view of the role he was to play in the "peace" after the Second World War.

The Defence Quarterly provided an invaluable service to its readers in a section devoted to postings and promotions. In a small army the section took up few pages, and kept people informed. In 1933, for instance, we find that Captain W.H.S. Macklin was too busy, and too far away, to write for the Quarterly: he was attending the Staff College at Quetta. Lieutenant Geoffrey Walsh was also abroad, studying at the School of Military Engineering at Chatham, England.

The CDQ provided members of the armed forces with a forum for discussion and review for sixteen years. The committee handling its affairs was made up initially of representatives from the three services and the Non-Permanent Active Militia Associations of Cavalry, Artillery and Infantry. By 1933 it had been expanded to include representatives from the other NPAM Associations. From 1930 to 1937 there was a representative included from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Financial support came originally from the Associations, but in 1924 the Department of National Defence began annual grants of $500.00. The grant did not influence the contents; although published under the auspices of the Department of National Defence, the Department was not responsible for opinions expressed in the publication, nor did it exercise any censorship.

Thus the contributors felt completely free to express their views frankly. The majority were Army officers, although the Editor's efforts to give the Quarterly a tri-service flavour can be detected in his selections of reprints from other publications. Editorial comment and the speeches of public figures occupy much space. especially in the later thirties, and one finds contemporary opinion and public policy presented side by side with current military thought. Speeches by Roosevelt, MacKenzie King. Stanley Baldwin, Cordell Hull, and many others were reproduced in full.

It was in April 1938 that the article "A Division that can Attack" was published. E.L.M. Burns, by now a Lieutenant-Colonel, had been spurred to write it by the 1936 reorganization in Britain. which had left the infantry division's three infantry brigades without tanks. Infantry tanks were to be concentrated in tank brigades held as Army troops. Colonel Bums felt that the "Infantry school of thought" had carried the day in the British reorganization and would result in a perpetuation of first World War assault tactics, with their characteristically heavy casualities. He advanced the theory that the tank was now the "Queen of Battle", with the infantry role confined to fire support and consolidation of the objective. The standard division, in Colonel Burns' view, should consist of two infantry brigades and one armoured brigade, three artillery units with a total of 72 guns, and a light tank regiment for reconnaissance. His theories were not to remain unanswered for long.

In the next issue of the Quarterly, published in July, Captain Simonds appeared as the author of an article entitled "An Army that can Attack—a Division that can Defend". It was Captain Simonds' first contribution, but he lost no time getting down to it.

"Before we proceed to the design stage' … it is good and established practice to lay down a specification for performance' … Col. Burns ignores the 'specification stage', and plunges into the 'design stage',—the reorganization of the 'line of battle' division, on the assumption that we require a division capable of taking the offensive 'under its own steam' … in the opinion of the present writer, he has laboured and brought forth the unwanted brain-child—'A division that can attack' ".

Having thus firmly established his role as critic, Captain Simonds went on to argue that modern developments, including the use of air power, would make the army the lowest balanced formation of all arms. The division would be organized with the minimum number of forces required to hold a defensive position. If required to participate in an army assault, it would be reinforced with artillery and tanks according to each specific situation. Only thus could the principle of "economy of force" be observed. He opposed the permanent decentralization of armour, which he regarded as a supremely important weapon in the hands of the higher commander.

Colonel Burns had his answer ready in time for the next issue of the Quarterly. This time he chose as his title "Where Do the Tanks Belong?" He refused to play Goliath to Captain Simonds' David and began politely by saying that the Captain's article was a well reasoned defence of the existing British division; the only basic difference between them was how the armour was to be organized. Captain Simonds, while acknowledging the virtues of "economy of force", was ignoring the equally important principles of "security" and "co-operation". There would be no time in modern war to re-group as Simonds had suggested, so his defensive division was too weak. Further, co-operation required that tank and infantry units live and train together. Colonel Burns said that Britain's contribution to a European war should be in the form of shock troops, with her continental allies providing the mass of military manpower. This required the maximum offensive punch and must include armour within the division. Having thus demolished Captain Simonds by taking the argument into the realm of international policy, Colonel Burns laid down his pen.

In the January 1939 issue, however, Captain Simonds bobbed up again, quite unscathed, to battle on the new strategic level staked out by Colonel Burns. The shock force theory he rejected; if there were to be another war. Britain would have to resort to national mobilization and the raising of very substantial field armies. Shock formations with high offensive qualities might actually be detrimental to orderly mobilization. He did. however, accept the need for infantry and armour to work together, which he would achieve by including tanks in all exercises.

This article ended the exchange. As late as July 1939 Captain Simonds wrote another article on the Attack, but it contained no reference to the great debate. Shortly thereafter, both officers went overseas to test their theories in the Second World War. The same war forced the suspension from publication of the Canadian Defence Quarterly. Both General Burns and General Simonds rose to become corps commanders. The old CDQ proves to all who care to read it that these officers, and many others like them, were preparing themselves in peace for the responsibilities of high rank in war. Army officers of today please note.