Learning to Fight: Military Innovation and Change in the British Army, 1914–1918. Aimée Fox. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Serious historians realize war is a cruel arbiter that grades how well states and their military institutions have anticipated the character of future conflict. But the ultimate test of military organizations and their readiness does not end once a war begins. Quite to the contrary, history reflects the enduring need for armed forces to learn and implement change during war as well. As Sir Michael Howard recommended two generations ago, the one aspect of military science that should receive greater study “above all others in the Armed Forces; the capacity to adapt oneself to the utterly unpredictable, the entirely unknown.”
Adaptation is predicated upon learning from what was once “entirely unknown.” Learning to Fight offers a deep dive into how the British Army and its colonial partners measured up to that task in the first World War. The author is appropriately a Lecturer in Defence Studies and contributing to the education of tomorrow’s military at the Royal Defence Academy. This is the latest contribution to a deepening pool of scholarship into military change, and the book offers a unique framework for the study of wartime adaptation.
Recognizing the need to adapt and implement the requisite changes is inherent to the nature of war. The side that reacts best, and perhaps faster, increases their chances of success.
The essence of war is a competitive reciprocal relationship with an adversary possessing the capacity to make choices in battle. It is impossible to anticipate and predict with precision the contours of all future conflicts and the opponent’s strategy and discrete choices on the battlefield. Recognizing the need to adapt and implement the requisite changes is therefore inherent to the nature of war. The clash of arms is, therefore, also a competition in cycles of learning, reaction, or counteraction. The side that reacts best, and perhaps faster, increases their chances of success.
Reinforced by hard-earned lessons from combat over the past decade, the role of learning and innovation on the battlefield is growing in salience. In the United States, the Joint Chiefs of Staff identified adaptation as a critical gap and lesson to be learned from the last two conflicts. Drawing upon a decade of conflict against asymmetric adversaries, the need to sense, explore, and adapt is now at the forefront of research in military organizational research.
Institutional factors that abet adaptation have also been studied by the historical community. But, most historical scholarship focuses on large-scale innovation in peacetime: the military revolutions. The literature was sparse with respect to formal theories on how military organizations change or evolve during war. However, World War I offers a number of exceptions including Paddy Griffith’s Battle Tactics of the Western Front, Tim Lupfer’s Dynamics of Doctrine on German tactical experimentation, and Bruce Gudmundsson’s detailed analysis, Stormtroop Tactics. The latter two focused on the learning by the German Army, while Fox’s subject shares common ground with Griffith.
Learning and adaptation are major fields of research right now. In On Flexibility Meir Finkel used an array of historical case studies from World War II to 1973’s Yom Kippur War, to examine solutions and technologies forged in the crucible of combat. In Military Adaptation in War, Williamson Murray reviewed the same ground and concluded that changing under the pressures of war is needed but hardly easy. He noted that military leaders begin with a picture or mental frame about what future war will look like. Senior leaders stubbornly cling to these conceptions and try to impose assumptions on the war they are fighting. Paul Kennedy studied U.S. adaptation in World War II, highlighting the role of middle-level leaders as the engineers of victory.
Two newer studies focus on contemporary cases of irregular warfare. In Innovation, Transformation, and War James Russell conclusively undercut the simplistic top-down driven narrative of American counterinsurgency innovation in Iraq. Russell persuasively demonstrates that well before General Petraeus directed the surge in Iraq, U.S. Army and Marine units had evolved organically and were implementing counter-insurgency quite successfully at the tactical level. Serena’s work, A Revolution in Military Adaptation reinforces Russell’s conclusions and criticizes the institutional U.S. Army for its sluggish responses in Iraq. Like John Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife, Russell and Serena leverage organizational learning theory to explain their observations, as does Dr. Fox in Learning to Fight.
Fox’s work is a hybrid assessment that blends an analysis of both the internal and external drivers and shapers of British and Imperial learning and adaptation across the breadth of the Great War. She did not explicitly use the formal framework established by former King’s College London, War Studies Department head, Professor Theo Farrell. His cross-cultural study of adaptation defines four elements (strategic culture, coalition politics, civil-military relations, and domestic politics) as shapers of change. Fox does employ some of these and mixes in detailed aspects of the British Army’s internal institutional elements, particularly its organizational ethos and values.
Another valuable part of her presentation involves the context of the British Army before the war. Fox demonstrates the unique organizational ethos of the small Imperial army at the turn of the century. This ethos privileged individual action and principles over prescriptive rules, and accepted only general doctrine that had to be applied to specific contexts. A weak General Staff fought for acceptance within an army that “prioritised individual initiative and ultimately sought a universal, rather than a purely continental, approach to war.” Doctrine, in the form of Field Service Regulations (FSR), did exist. The FSR stressed “the method of attaining the object should be left to the utmost extent to the recipient. It is usually dangerous to prescribe to a subordinate at a distance of anything he should be better able to decide on the spot.”
Fox claims the officer corps had a lot of diversity despite being inbred, and largely homogenous in education, social class, and background. She also pushes back on criticisms that the British officer corps was anti-intellectual, or averse to professional reading and intellectual development.
Fox hypothesizes from a theory of military organizational learning, one based on networks and relationships. Rather than embrace the binary models of “top-down” versus “bottom-up,” Fox argues for an individual-centric model that is more dependent on social and horizontal learning. This is a hybrid model or what she terms a “mosaic-like nature of learning.” Military innovation studies have used this concept of horizontal learning in the past with respect to German tactical innovation.
Fox excels at dispelling the myths of the hidebound Blimps with the identification of numerous learning mechanisms, especially tactical and staff schools, and assorted technical pamphlets. She offers evidence on how British and Australian training evolved, and how senior regular officers sought to impart the unique ethos of the British army into Kitchener's Army and the Australian Imperial Force.
Learning to Fight emphasizes the sharing of better knowledge and its relation to improved actions.
What would have given this book more breadth, however, was a greater focus on how learning and adaptation were tied to and manifested in behavioral outputs –– that is, changes in strategy, force design, doctrine, and operations. While the author defined organizational learning as “improved actions through better knowledge and understanding,” Learning to Fight emphasizes the sharing of better knowledge and its relation to improved actions. Evidence for how the British tested and devised adapting existing tactics into improved doctrine and greater effectiveness is less documented.
Rather than resolve how Britain introduced new tactics or developed the tank to overcome the dense defensive problem facing the Allies, Fox emphasizes the use of social learning and horizontal-sharing between the Allies to disseminate lessons that were identified. British shortfalls are often attributed to overly centralized and dull leadership. Much of that ground has been covered by Paddy Griffith, as the British Army evolved from the Old Contemptibles to the New Armies with offensive tactics that ultimately proved better than the Germans could stand up to. Ultimately, the British tested their own 'storm-troop tactics' and evolved tactics for combined arms assaults, directed artillery fire, trench raiding, and heavy machine guns. Dr. Fox offers less on the generation of novel concepts and techniques but demonstrates the varied techniques used to transfer experience via horizontal learning between professionals and unprepared levees that were mobilized.
As a quibble, Dr. Fox’s work warrants a more critical examination of the quality and depth of British officer education. Historians, particularly Williamson Murray, stress the quality and rigor of officer education as the basis for innovation. Fox shows how experienced the Imperial officer corps had become, thanks to decades of constabulary tasks, but also how hard it was for the Army and General Staff to scale up to a global conflict. She also demonstrates that intellectual officers in the British Army did exist, but a more explicit challenge into the rigor of the Army’s education system is needed.
Students of military culture and mission command will discover further testimony for the critical contribution attributes of adaptation make to the success of armed forces in battle.
Overall, Fox’s analytical framework on internal shapers and processes (ethos, learning networks, social relationships, schools, and dissemination mechanisms) is sound. But the internal process - the how –– as a description of the actual learning mechanisms (after action reports, staff for learning functions, operational analysis, red teams, etc.) is underplayed. Formal efforts to systematically collect, interpret, and investigate combat data and the efforts to formally assess organizational performance is necessary to represent the acquisition of knowledge in order to abet improved actions. These learning mechanisms are critical to bridging the gap from individual learning to institutionalized effectiveness. These were not the focus of inquiry in Learning to Fight but would make her effort more comprehensive.
Anyone interested in this period in general and British and Imperial military history will find much of interest in this well-constructed study. The British Expeditionary Force did not lay mindlessly in the trenches of the killing ground as mavericks like Basil Liddell Hart depicted, nor was it an agile institution. As presented in Learning to Fight, the truth lies between the extremes.
All in all, this is a well-executed book that dissipates mythology and discovers insights about the British military of a century ago. The central issue remains relevant today. The United Kingdom’s institutional learning is much improved and was on display in recent operations in Afghanistan. Fox’s archival research into the period is noteworthy for its detail and original sources. In particular, students of military culture and mission command will discover further testimony for the critical contribution these attributes make to the success of armed forces in battle. Learning to Fight will appeal to students of World War I, and is recommended for scholars interested in military sociology, military learning, and combat effectiveness.
Dr. Frank Hoffman is a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer who currently holds an appointment as Distinguished Research Fellow at the National Defense University. His next book is titled Mars Adapting; Military Change Under Fire (Naval Institute Press, forthcoming).
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Header Image: "Our 'Little Contemptibles' (1914)" by William Barns Wollen (1918, The National Army Museum). Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany famously dismissed the BEF, allegedly issuing an order on August 19, 1914 to "exterminate first the treacherous English and walk over General French's contemptible little army." (Wikipedia)