(This is an edited version of a paper delivered to a high-powered military audience in Washington DC a couple of months ago)
Today I’d like to do three things: 1) provide some context of how the character of war changed between 1914 and 1918; 2) explore how the British and German armies adapted to the changes they experienced; and 3) discuss how the military cultures of the two sides drove and shaped that adaptation and what their experiences might mean for militaries today. I want to leave you with three main points: 1) It isn’t all about mass and technology. It’s also about force employment and, unless you have 20/20 foresight, that means adaptation, which means you need to be able to learn. Learning is a fighting front as important as any other 2) Successful learning and adaptation requires the right culture to enable you to do so. But 3) there is no single ‘right’ culture to facilitate the flexibility and agility required of modern militaries. Instead, what is essential to successful adaptation is working with the cultural grain of your institution, not across it, and that demands a cold-eyed understanding of that culture – which is far from easy to achieve.
(Change/adaptation/transformation/learning: I’m going to use these words interchangeably, although academic pedants can tie themselves in terrible knots drawing distinctions between them – but we all kinda know what we mean, right?)
By 1918 the character of the war was vastly different from what it had been in 1914. Somewhere in the middle of the First World War warfare moved away from the old linear battlefield and began to fight in three dimensions, based around artillery and the aeroplane. If Napoleon had ridden on to the battlefields of 1914, he would have known at once how to fight. That was no longer true even in 1915. On the other hand, a Foch, a Haig or a Pershing, comfortable on the battlefields of 1918, could have grasped the fundamentals of Gulf War I. The template of heavy metal first-division warfare in the developed world, laid down during the First World War, defined a century and how we all think about war today. In many ways, that makes sense: it’s materiel- and technology-intensive and its plays to the strengths of the society we inhabit. Many problems can indeed be solved by adding more stuff and/or better stuff. To see war primarily in material terms, has at least three problems, however. First, it risks under-estimating the importance of the ‘genius’ leg of the Clausewitzian trinity, under-rating the importance of force employment, ‘friction’ and the role luck can play. Secondly, and closely related, it can cause us to overlook the importance of the human factor even in heavy-metal warfare. And thirdly, it leaves us at a loss when forced to fight in ways – or against opponents – which don’t fit the heavy-metal NATO model, especially when they privilege the spiritual or ideological over the material. We need to be able to transform how we employ force, and that’s going to mean we need to manage change.
Let’s think in more detail about the change undergone between 1914 and 1918, then. At a political and ethical level, the violence of the war had started intensely and escalated with increasing brutalisation and desperation. At the technical and military level which is our main concern today, the combination of terrain, technology and force-to-space ratios created two fundamental problems, one tactical and the other operational. The tactical one was how an attacker was to cross No Man’s Land in the face of the enemy’s firepower and break in to his defences. It took the British longer than the French to work this out, but they learnt the hard way during the battle of the Somme (July-Nov 1916) and developed new doctrine incorporating the lessons picked up. The three fundamentals for a successful attack were: 1) greater articulation with small-unit dispersed manoeuvre: the platoon became ‘an army in miniature, the Lewis guns supplying the covering machine gun fire; the rifle grenadiers acting as artillery; and the riflemen making the infantry assault’; 2) maximum possible delegation of initiative to ‘the man on the spot’; and 3) best possible integration of available technology into combined arms ‘weapons systems’. There was no single static solution: the exact mix deployed varied from time to time, from country to country, and, indeed, sometimes, even from formation to formation. As the measure/counter-measure race continued the details of how to break-in to the enemy’s defences evolved, and there were many false starts and disasters in 1917-18. But those three broad principles persisted.
Restoring mobility required more than new weapons and new tactics, however. It also depended on the solution to an even trickier operational problem: how to sustain any assault over days, weeks and months. This problem had two aspects. First, keeping any offensive supplied with matériel was a significant logistic challenge. The immense resource demands of the methodical ‘step-by-step’ or ‘bite-and-hold’ approach only exacerbated this. Both the British and French transportation networks nearly collapsed under the strain in autumn 1916. Root and branch reform followed and by 1918 both armies had logistics systems in place which allowed a much higher tempo of operations. On 26 September 1918, after only three weeks preparation, Marshal Foch unleashed a series of offensives all along the Western Front by no fewer than ten armies and probably more men even than the Soviets used to attack Berlin in 1945. Secondly, the defender could reinforce his lines more quickly than the attacker was able to feed in reserves. The slow tempo of a methodical advance gave the Germans ample time to prepare new defence lines. By the autumn of 1918, Foch and Haig had learnt that the solution lay not in trying ever harder to exploit in depth once the culminating point had been reached, but in switching over to lateral exploitation instead, and in broadening the attack, rather than deepening it.
By 1918, the use of new weapons in new ways, and the new and more sustainable operational approach the Allies pursued, were important factors in breaking the trench stalemate and restoring mobility to the battlefield. We must not get carried away by this. This was no Blitzkrieg. Neither the German offensives of spring 1918 nor the Allied one of the Hundred Days were as fluid as the campaigns of 1939-41, nor even those of the early months of the fighting in 1914. A much better analogy would be the grinding, rolling attrition of June to mid-August 1944 in Normandy. Nonetheless, in the course of three months in the late summer and autumn of 1918, the allies advanced up to eighty miles and broke the back of the German army, capturing 385,000 German prisoners, almost as many men as the German army’s total casualties at Stalingrad. Learning had made a direct and observable contribution to improved force employment and victory. Learning was a whole new fighting front of the First World War, one where the scientists and military intellectuals of both sides competed to develop measures and counter-measures with all the effort and determination displayed in later famous measure/counter-measure races such as the Battle of the Atlantic: and the simple fact of the matter is that the Germans lost.
Why was this? Some of it comes down to things the Allies were doing right, of course, but some of it also down to things the Germans were doing wrong. There were three of these: 1) centralised control 2) poor information flow and so bad decisions 3) a fundamental misconception running through the German army. Let’s take these in turn.
1) Centralised control. The German army has a reputation for flexibility based in a system of decentralised command, known as Auftragstaktik or, in modern jargon, ‘mission command’. This is unmerited. In fact, a very high degree of central control was a feature of German command throughout almost all the First World War. Only during the war’s first weeks, when Moltke the Younger was so far out of his depth that he exercised no grip at all, and for a few months’ honeymoon period in the second half of 1916, as Ludendorff acclimatised to conditions on the Western Front, did anything approaching mission command operate at intermediate and senior levels. Otherwise, it was OHL which not only dominated decision-making but also collated and sifted lessons learnt reports and generated and disseminated new doctrine. Any attempt on the part of subordinate formations to produce new best practice was stamped upon. And as the situation deteriorated, command only grew yet more sclerotic, with ideas of delegated command evaporating. Ludendorff set the tone. He was a notorious micro-manager. Quick to blame and slow to praise, he treated his subordinates with increasing disdain and aggression, eroding their confidence and initiative. This was partly a function of Ludendorff’s personality. But also important was a command system rotten from the head down where the Chief of the General Staff owed his position entirely to the goodwill of a flaky Kaiser. The insecurity this generated transmitted itself down through the ranks of command and spread fear through a structure of already inherent instability.
This, in turn, contributed to 2) the second reason: poor information flow. As the news got worse, after-action reports too often told the boss what he wanted, not what he needed, to hear. In particular, staff officers were unwilling to admit the weakness of the German army to Ludendorff. As a result, inconvenient truths remained untold, objectivity fell away, and decisions became made on the basis of increasingly flawed information. Failure to analyse experience honestly led to the wrong problems being identified, the wrong lessons being learnt and the wrong solutions put forward.
3) A third factor was also at work. The German army, like most armies, was a ‘can-do’ institution which saw itself as able to solve problems. It identified, correctly, that its comparative advantage vis a vis the Allies lay at the tactical, rather than the operational or strategic levels of war. Germany could not hope to win a drawn-out war of economies and industries, but on the battlefield, German soldiers might be able to out-think and out-manoeuvre their enemies and offset enemy mass with agility. Consequently the tactical level was where it concentrated its efforts. Even where tactical innovation seemed successful, as in the case of stormtroop tactics and the early gains made during the German offensives of spring 1918, the failure to see that they were heading into a strategic blind alley cost Germany dearly. Seeking to address operational, and sometimes even strategic, problems with tactical solutions, was doomed to failure. The strategic tide could not be turned by tactics alone. Tactical obsession meant that the Germans missed three salient facts: first, that they had already been defeated at the political and strategic levels of war; secondly, that their immediate problem was the operational one of matching allied tempo and resources; and, thirdly, that British tactical improvement had shifted the battlefield terms of trade against the German troops such that more was required than just ironing out their mistakes. When the disease was being misdiagnosed, there was little chance of a cure.
This misconception of the army’s role and capacity led to two further tragedies. First, rather like the British army in Blair’s Wars, its confidence in its ability to solve problems outran its capability. This caused immense problems at the strategic level. If the German army hadn’t presented the Schlieffen Plan as a workable military solution to Germany’s political problems, after all, the war might never have started. Once war broke out and the Schlieffen Plan had failed, the high command continued to believe that it could find tactical answers to the impossible strategic situation Germany had created for herself, and so refused to consider any kind of climb-down and negotiated peace (even had one been possible). Secondly, once war had begun, the Germans still kept looking for tactical answers when it would have been better for all to accept the strategic logic of the situation. If there is a lesson for today, it is surely that the military needs to be ruthlessly honest, both with itself and with its political masters, about what it can and cannot achieve.
As for the British: some historians talk about how the British climbed ‘a learning curve’, and certainly the British army had learnt, not only how to fight in new ways, but also how to learn. It evolved a process to capture lessons learned, distil the most important and revise best practice through new doctrine. Sometimes, the new approaches were codified and published in widely disseminated doctrine publications and taught in a wide variety of schools and courses on subjects from sniping to staff work. Sometimes, they were spread through the many informal channels of communication which linked the army within and between theatres scattered all over the world. The army managed to construct a highly flexible and effective system of learning systems, operating simultaneously down multiple different channels, each characterised by varying degrees of formality and central control, to spread the word and ensure innovation and adaptation was as effective and efficient as possible. Whether this happened by design or fortunate accident, frankly still remains unclear. What is certain, though, is that implementation remained extremely patchy: right up until the end of the war, for all the units and formations which did a good job of employing the latest methods, there were others which never got the hang of it. The BEF did not always either fully internalize or implement the lessons it had learnt. The efficiency with which information was disseminated varied widely and some units seem to have been unable to process new information sufficiently well to change their approach. The British Army of 1914-18 appears as a very imperfect learning organization incapable of generating uniform change in any systematic fashion, very haphazard next to the French and, especially, German armies, both of which employed a more centralised process within which the centre played a much more active role in promoting adaptation.
This, however, is to misunderstand the culture of the British army of the time, and to look through today’s spectacles at yesterday’s institution. Modern Anglo-American military analysts have become accustomed to seeing innovation implemented in a centralised and process-heavy way due to the very particular requirements of NATO interoperability, where innovation has often led by the (very large) US military, and where clarity and uniformity are essential if troops from many different countries are to work together in mutually predictable ways. Of course the British army of the First World War can seem amateurish by such standards. Such standards are inappropriate, however. The British army had a long tradition of laissez-faire. Pre-1914, within broad and generally accepted principles of war, it preferred to leave as much latitude as possible to commanding officers to train the men they would lead into action, rather than impose centrally-devised programmes. The flexibility this engendered seemed better suited to the wide range of environments British soldiers were likely to find themselves operating in, all over the world, than the uniformity instilled in conscript armies almost exclusively designed to fight on the continent. This also fed into the way British officers tended to perceive themselves as pragmatists and skilled improvisers. In a distaste for theory and prescriptive rules they saw one of the features which set themselves apart from their French and German counterparts, who seemed in contrast keen on abstract ideas, elaborate doctrine and programmatic solutions. Between 1914 and 1918 the BEF tended to allow more free play to the periphery than its allies or enemy and there were times, in 1918 at least when operations became more mobile and the importance of synchronised fires shrank relative to that of manoeuvre, where this helped, rather than hindered, operations. As a result, the British proved a sometimes unpredictable opponent. The Germans, in contrast, were not. Indeed, British ‘bite and hold’ tactics were designed precisely to chew up the German counter attacks which were bound to come in as soon as ground was lost.
We are confronted, therefore, with a contrast between two militaries with very different approaches to innovation and adaptation: the Germans centralised, programmatic and uniform, the British devolved, unsystematic and ad hoc. The British approach demonstrably won out. Just because that was the outcome on the Western Front in 1918 doesn’t mean that the organic, pragmatic British model is inherently better than the systematic German one in all contexts, of course. Indeed, the example of the French army – the approach of which was much closer to that of the Germans than the British – suggests that programmatic approaches could work on the Western Front. In other words, it wasn’t the learning culture itself which was decisive, but something about how the institutions worked with those cultures.
The big difference is that the British clearly understood the laissez-faire spirit of their military and worked with the cultural grain, facilitating change and enhancing effectiveness even at the expense, sometimes, of uniformity. The German army, by contrast, thought it was flexible but actually wasn’t. Under pressure, the agility it believed it possessed became arthritis. The conflict between devolved authority and central control caused significant disruption to its attempts to change, with the drive for one-size-fits-all solutions actually undermining effectiveness. Knowing how to drive change, even revolutionary change, requires acute sensitivity to organisational culture: the British had it and the Germans didn’t. The lasting lesson of the First World War for modern militaries is not that they should fight in this way or that, but that they need to understand the culture within which they have to work and create a culture which enables them to respond flexibly and creatively to the situations they find themselves in. There are, of course, three complicating factors: 1) understanding the ethos of any organisation, even one in which one has worked for 30 years, is not straightforward. Indeed, for most militaries, it might not make much sense to talk a single culture even at the level of the single service. This is obviously the case for the British army, with its distinct and very diverse regiments; and I know it’s applied in the past in the USA, too: think of the difference between black-shoe and brown-shoe admirals in the USN during World War Two, for instance. 2) no individual can hope to effect much observable change during a 2 or 4-year posting: one has to be prepared to play a much longer game and accept that results might not make themselves properly felt for a generation. And 3), change might look relatively easy to effect in a crisis, such as the greatest war ever fought to date: it might appear much harder in peacetime. Certainly, the pressure of war can reduce or remove resource constraints. Lead times shrink radically. Necessity can also help override cultural barriers – sometimes. That’s the good news for change managers in wartime. The bad news, of course, is that someone’s shooting at you. No Harvard MBA hotshot ever had to deal with an opposition that was actively trying to prevent them adapting, nor face a situation where the consequences of failure could be so disastrous.
The leadership of the British and German militaries faced situations of that kind daily during the First World War. They dealt with them in very different ways, which played directly into the outcome of the war. To sum up, the British understood three things better than the Germans: 1) the importance of force employment and learning 2) the difficulty of learning and so 3) the importance of identifying what kind of change your organisation needs and can tolerate, and of working out how to use that culture, not fight it, to drive, shape and lead transformation. The British were not perfect at any of this stuff, but they were better at it than their enemy, and that, after all, was all that was required
 Quoted in Robbins, Simon (2005), British Generalship on the Western Front 1914-18: Defeat into Victory (London: Frank Cass), p. 98
 Albrecht von Thaer, Generalstabsdienst an der Front und in der O.H.L. (Siegfried A. Kaehler, ed.), (Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1958), pp. 187-8
 See Aimée Fox, Learning to Fight: Military Innovation and Change in the British Army, 1914-1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017)
 Mark Connelly, Steady the Buffs! A Regiment, a Region, and the Great War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 225-6; David French, ‘Doctrine and Organization in the British Army, 1919-1932’, Historical Journal 44:2 (June 2001), pp. 497-515: p. 514.