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Sunday Book Review: Learning to Fight

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Douglas Haig, 1885. By Barraud of Oxford Street, London. Public Domain,

Aimee Fox’s Learning to Fight: Military Innovation and Change in the British Army, 1914–1918 is simply one of the best accounts of how military organizations learn that I’ve ever read. Fox describes in great detail the mechanisms through which the British Army tried to update itself in World War I.  She demonstrates that many of the popular understandings of the army during the war are flawed, if not outright wrong.  Her work should serve as a template for future work on how military organizations learn.

What’s at Stake

Modern military organizations, to have any degree of enduring capability, need to learn.  This is to say that they need to develop mechanisms to incorporate new technology, new information, and new missions into their organizational portfolio.  Technology is the most common driver, although changes in the strategic environment can also create the need to develop new mission capabilities.  

Even in what we understand to be the “modern” period, the idea that armies needed to continuously change in response to technological shifts was not taken as a given.  The way that the US Army integrated the lessons of the Napoleonic Wars into its tactics and operations during the Civil War, for example, is considerably different than how the Army of today thinks about the future.  Even then, the US Army between 1860 and 1875 needed to adapt to rapid, iterated changes in mission that put learning skills at a premium. 

The popular assessment of the British Army in World War I was, for a very long time, dominated by stereotypes of hidebound officers who could not understand the technological challenges presented by trench warfare in France, and who could not imagine effective, innovative ways of breaking through German lines. While this assessment was applied to all armies during World War I (with the occasional minor carve out for German tactics in 1918), it became particularly prevalent in the English speaking world, generating critics such as BH Liddell Hart and a generation of airpower theorists.  

Modern scholarship has pretty much demolished this stereotype. The armies on the Western Front and the Eastern Front all demonstrated a fairly high level of professionalism and attention to technological change, and the British Army was no exception.  Most of the armies rapidly took steps to modify their behavior based on experience, and most changed radically between 1914 and 1918.  Moreover, the armies faced immense social and technological challenges that would have been difficult for any organization to overcome.

Regarding this last, I read Learning to Fight at around the same time I began plowing into Vaclav Smil’s Creating the Twentieth Century, which argues that the technological change that happened between 1870 and 1915 was qualitatively more transformative than that of any period before or since.  Smil’s argument is one of several regarding the transformations associated with the Second Industrial Revolution, but he makes an impressive case.  If he’s right, then commanders in 1914 faced, in brief, the most complicated learning problems that any commanders have ever faced.  That few major power wars had happened between 1870 and 1914 made the problems even more difficult. That’s worth taking into account when evaluating their competence. 

What Happened in World War I

The British Army developed extensive, multi-faceted methods for capturing doctrinal innovation and incorporating new technology into existing structures.  Fox develops a typology of how information spread across the organization, including formal, informal, and hierarchical means of transmission.  These existed in different combinations in different times and places; even formal methods of training were valuable for generating opportunities for informal exchanges of information.  

The most recent combat experience of the British Army had come in colonial contexts, which varied deeply based on environment, but also shared characteristics such as superiority-in-firepower.  The army’s culture was shaped by these experiences, which tended to centralized, top-down doctrinal development.  Indeed, elements of the army were culturally hostile to the idea of set doctrine, as this restricted flexibility and inhibited the ability of commanders to adapt to local circumstances. At the same time, the hierarchical nature of British class structure resulted in command relationships that tended to inhibit discretion and independence at lower levels.

In the wake of the Battle of the Marne, the Western Front became the overriding problem of the British Army. Flexibility and adaptability were great insofar as they generated innovative ways to solve problems at the front, but openness to new information and local innovation depend on mechanisms for enforcing the adoption of innovations across the army.  The organization needs to be able to identify best practices, then ensure that units across the front adopt these practices. 

In short, the British Army needed to identify useful “know how” or tacit knowledge, then either turn that know how into explicit knowledge that could be distributed through hierarchical means, or develop mechanisms to share that know how across the organization.  This is a devilish problem, and one that all of the armies in World War I struggled mightily with.  Moreover, the struggle was not confined to tactical problems such as the appropriate sequencing of artillery and infantry action, or operational issues such how to hold an enemy trench system in the face of expected counter-attacks.  World War I resulted in a huge expansion of the Army, with consequent changes in administration, logistics, procurement, and public relations.  

The mechanisms that Fox describes functioned differently in different parts of the Army, and at different times during the war.  In part this resulted from the limitations imposed by distance; it was simply more difficult for informal and horizontal mechanisms to function between widely dispersed armies.  Units operating in Africa, the Middle East, and southern Europe often resented and resisted knowledge developed on the Western Front, sometimes with good results and often with bad.  The British Army also had to deal with unfamiliar and difficult personnel problems.  Fox goes into some detail about the cultural and bureaucratic problems of integrating Australian forces into regular British Army practice.

Wrap

Long story short: The British Army was aware of the problems that it faced on the Western Front and the other major areas of operation, and understood that it needed to learn how to manage its new operational and technological environment.  It took extravagant steps to develop mechanisms of learning, at multiple levels, so that knowledge produced in one area could be passed to others.  For a variety of reasons these mechanisms weren’t always successful, but they often were.  It also undertook steps to introduce civilian knowledge and know-how into the functioning of the organization.  By the end of the war, the British Army was probably the most lethal military organization on the Western Front, primed and ready to roll up the Reichswehr as the momentum of the Ludendorff Offensive collapsed. 

This book should provide a template for scholarly approaches to organizational learning in other military organizations.  Her use of sources is strong, and her appreciation of the stake in the debate serves to make the argument relevant for multiple audiences.  The structure she develops for the inquiry is intuitive, and provides a ready road map for how to think about the learning of military organizations. 

I do wish that Fox had given some more attention to how and what the British learned from the Germans.  She describes several isolated instances of German influence over British practice, but doesn’t offer much with regard to either systematic British efforts to capture German learning, or whatever impact such efforts may have had.  I would have been very interested to learn the mechanisms that the British used for copying or interpreting German practice, and then integrating that practice into their own tactics.  

Altogether, however, this is a fantastic book, and I highly recommend it to specialists on military organizations, to specialists on the First World War, and to general readers with an interest in how military organizations work and how the British Army fought World War I.

 

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