Beyond the 'Learning Curve': The British Army's Military Transformation in the First World War

Placing the British army's experience on the Western Front into the context of wider military developments in strategic and tactical thinking amongst allies and opponents alike, Dr Philpott's assessment of the often traumatic but nonetheless dynamic transformation in the conduct of war between 1914 and 1918 provides an important corrective to the existing Anglo-centric interpretation.

By Dr William Philpott, for

The contention that the British army was ill-prepared for war in 1914, and continued to muddle through the killing zone of the industrial battlefield, while still popular, lacks credulity with most historians of the First World War. While it was inherent in the nature of industrialised mass war that casualty lists would be long - and societal trauma deep - to ascribe those wounds to the incompetence of the military practitioners, in particular higher command, has been consistently challenged by historians of the British army's battlefield performance over three decades. Rather than 'lions led by donkeys' a paradigm of 'citizens led by soldiers' deserves to be substituted.

Looking beyond the 'learning curve' concept

Early in this attempt to grasp the nature of industrial battle, and explain the British army's faltering yet ultimately productive engagement with the stalemated attritional battlefield that was the Western Front, historians coined the aphorism of a 'learning curve' to suggest a process of improvement based on battlefield experience, from the infamous first day of the Somme to 1918's victorious series of offensive battles in the 'Hundred Days' offensive. The origins of this concept are lost in the mists of time - it has been suggested that historians at Sandhurst (Paddy Griffith, Paul Harris and Gary Sheffield included) initiated it in the 1980s - but by 1999 Professor Brian Bond could suggest, in the introduction to a volume of essays on the Great War, that 'our contributors broadly incline to the positive interpretation of the British Army's role, and are more concerned with apportioning credit for the "learning curve" rather than denying its existence'. Yet as with other models of military change, the 'learning curve' has now had its day, being too amorphous a concept, and too Anglo-centric a debate, to do justice to the fundamental rethinking of warfare that occurred between 1914 and 1918.

The formulation is far too simplistic. The more that the British army's performance on the Western Front is studied, the more obvious it becomes that 'learning' is only one facet of the process of transformation, while 'curve' implies far too steady a parabola for what was in reality a more up-and-down, dynamic process of adjustment to new technologies, more sophisticated and flexible tactics, novel operational doctrines, complex logistics and fundamental change in the systems of command, control, communications and intelligence. Moreover, this dynamic encompassed competition with the enemy and symbiosis with an ally. Even after three decades of study, our understanding of the nature and process of the transformation of warfare between 1914 and 1918, and the British army's place therein, remains incomplete.

The processes and nature of military change continues to be a dynamic field of scholarly investigation, both contemporary and historical. Since the early 1990s when, following the end of the Cold War, warfare ceased to be 'conventional', military analysts have been engaged in prolonged and often abstruse discussion of the nature of this military transition. Various models - a 'Revolution in Military Affairs' (RMA) or a 'transformation' of warfare for example - have been deployed to analyse it, each having currency for a while until their inherent flaws render them obsolescent. Such models too have been applied to the onset of 'conventional' war between mass armies backed by the productive resources of industrial societies - what in considering the next world war David Edgerton has termed the 'warfare state' -  which saw a modern paradigm of material-intensive, high-intensity combat establish itself.

In the late 1990s Jonathan Bailey applied the then fashionable model of a Revolution in Military Affairs to codify the British army's evolving battlefield methods and lay down the parameters of 'the modern style of warfare'. Operations were high-intensity rapid-tempo engagements dominated by industrial weaponry (the artillery in particular), and with the arrival of airpower in the battle-space combat now took place in three dimensions. Battle became 'deep', aiming to break into and out of fixed defensive positions, replacing the linear 'flanking' engagements of the pre-industrial age. Such operations had to be backed up by a modern communications and logistics infrastructure, and supported by full mobilisation of industry and manpower on the home front.

A reformation of warfare

While well-constructed, Bailey's model is more focused on the outcomes than the processes of change. While it explains why the British army was able to defeat the enemy in successive engagements by 1918, such a tactical paradigm fails to explain many of the profound changes in warfare as mass armies collided in prolonged attritional campaigns. Even before the British army made its fateful appointment with the enemy on 1 July 1916, when its process of learning was in its infancy, France's leading military theorist, Ferdinand Foch, was already writing of 'la bataille profonde et de longue durée' (literally deep, prolonged battle). As well as the tactics for effective deep battle, the operational method of prolonged attrition to crush the material and moral strength of the enemy was central to the reformation of warfare between 1914 and 1918. This suggests that we need to look beyond the British army's struggles to master the technological battlefield to seek the roots of modern operational war in the coordination of such individual tactical engagements for the strategic end of destroying the fighting capacity of the German army. In 1918 Foch led the combined Entente armies in the first truly modern operational offensive, which he dubbed 'bataille generale', sequencing battles on the scale of earlier limited offensives in a co-ordinated high-tempo attritional campaign which broke the German army's physical and moral powers of resistance. If the British army had not learned to fight modern deep battles the task would have been much more difficult. At the same time, Haig's army remained a tool - a much sharper one - in the hands of a military genius, and the narrower parameters of the British army's own doctrinal evolution must be acknowledged. The persistent conception of warfare at GHQ as a phased 'manoeuvre' for advantage - through stages of engagement, wearing out, decisive attack and exploitation - seems, as Tim Travers has argued, to be a 'late nineteenth-century ideal of war' which no longer fitted the sort of war that the army was fighting on the western front.

Moreover, as far as the actual conduct of battle is concerned, recent research suggests that there was no single praxis, but rather adaptation to the mutable, challenging and dynamic situations likely to be encountered in the field: that the set-piece battle required a different method to the encounter or the follow-up engagement, all of which confronted the British Army once war became mobile again in 1918. Whatever the method, however, it is clear that the army could practice it, utilising a system of 'combined arms' warfare which was both adaptable and 'modern' in its approach to the problems thrown up by industrial war. Central to the method were guns and infantry, but other arms - tanks, aircraft, gas, machine guns and even at times the oft-maligned cavalry - could be deployed and employed as circumstance dictated. Partly this was due, as Andy Simpson has shown, to an effective system of operational command at the Corps level, into which assets could be slotted depending on intention and objective. Partly it was due to a more hands-off approach to command and control as the British army's general officers became more skilled, and GHQ allowed more licence to operate within a set and understood set of doctrinal parameters. Partly it was due to better training and ingrained skill and esprit de corps in junior officers and men, not just in the vaunted 'colonial' units, but also the run-of-the-mill infantry divisions which made up over eighty-percent of the army on the Western Front. Partly it was due to technology: not just the right sort of weapons for the modern battlefield, but enough of them and their appropriate use.

On 1 July 1916, it was not so much that the thinking was wrong; more that it was yet to become second-nature, and that the resources to implement it effectively were lacking. That same day General Fayolle's Sixth Army demonstrated how impressive tactical victories were achievable with sufficient guns properly controlled. But if we compare 'the black day of the British army' with the British army's rapid crossing of the Somme battlefields in August 1918 - culminating in the Australian 2nd Division's spectacular storming of Mont St Quentin as British divisions to the north smashed through the German 'winter position' and commenced their pursuit to the Hindenburg line - we can see that the army had been transformed from that which had become bogged down there so tragically in 1916.

The problem to date has been that the Great War's battles have usually been studied as isolated tragic events, rather than stages in a progressive continuum. Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson's studies of the Somme and Passchendaele offensives, for example, by not contextualising these notorious mud- and blood-baths with what came before and after, fail to draw any 'lessons learned' paradigms as they did in their ground-breaking book on the military career of Sir Henry Rawlinson, one of the seminal texts for the whole 'learning curve' debate. It is to the thematic studies - Simpson on Corps command already mentioned, Griffith on battle tactics, Ian Malcolm Brown on logistics and Simon Robbins on generalship stand out - that we must turn for a proper appreciation of both the positive changes in the British army's way of war, as well as the false starts and trials along the way.

It needs to be recognised that by 1918 the British army was not just much better at what it did, but that it was doing something entirely different - if not from July 1916, then certainly from August 1914. 'Trench warfare', misunderstood and maligned though it may be, was the battle-school in which this learning took place. Nonetheless, it must be acknowledged as a temporary interruption in a continuum, between two phases of 'mobile' operations: Napoleonic in their conception in 1914, modern in 1918. Perhaps the problem was not new, embodying the age-old contest between firepower and shock action on the battlefield in twentieth-century form. Nor was it a uniquely British problem, for all armies went through rapid change and occasionally traumatic episodes as they strove to reshape battle in response to the application of science and technology and industrial productivity to war. In Britain's collective memory the mistakes loom largest. Perhaps for military professionals the innovations and successes are of greater significance.


Dr William Philpott is Senior Lecturer at the Department of War Studies, King's College London


The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI


Further reading

J. Bailey, 'The First World War and the Birth of Modern Warfare', in M. Knox & W. Murray, The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300-2050 (Cambridge, CUP, 2001)

J. Bailey, 'The First World War and the Birth of the Modern Style of Warfare' Strategic and Combat Studies Institute, Occasional paper no. 22 (1996)

B.J. Bond (ed), Look to Your Front: Studies in the First World War by the British Commission for Military History (Staplehurst: Spellmount, 1999)

I.M. Brown, British Logistics on the Western Front (Westport, Ct: Praeger, 1998)

D. Edgerton, Warfare State: Britain 1920-70 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)

P. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army's Art of Attack, 1916-18 (New Haven, Ct. Yale UP, 1994)

P. Griffith (ed.), British Fighting Methods in the Great War (London: Frank Cass, 1996)

J.P. Harris, Men, Ideas and Tanks: British Military Thought and Armoured Forces, 1903-39 (Manchester: MUP, 1995)

J.P. Harris & N. Barr, Amiens to the Armistice: The BEF in the Hundred Days' Campaign, 8 August-11 November, 1918 (London: Brassey's, 1999)

R. Prior & T. Wilson, Command on the Western Front: The Military Career of Sir Henry Rawlinson, 1914-18 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992)

R. Prior & T. Wilson, The Somme (New Haven Ct: Yale UP, 2005)

S. Robbins, British Generalship on the Western Front, 1914-1918: Defeat into Victory (London: Frank Cass, 2005)

M. Samuels, Command or Control? Command, Training and tactics in the British and German Armies, 1888-1918 (London; Frank Cass, 1996)

G. Sheffield, Forgotten Victory: The First Word War, Myths and Realities (London: Review, 2001)

G. Sheffield & D. Todman, Command and Control on the Western Front: The British Army's Experience, 1914-1918 (Staplehurst: Spellmount, 2004)

A. Simpson, Directing Operations: British Corps Command on the Western Front (Spellmount, 2006)

T. Travers, The Killing Ground: The British Army, the Western Front and the Emergence of Modern Warfare, 1900-1918 (London: Unwin Hyman, 1987)

T. Travers, How the War Was Won: Command and Technology in the British Army on the Western Front (London: Routledge, 1992)

T. Travers, 'The Offensive and the Problem of Innovation in British Military Thought', Journal of Contemporary History XIII (1978)

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