Dr. Aimee Fox, Lecturer in Defence Studies at King's College London, talks about her new book Learning to Fight. This looks at military innovation in the British Army during the First World War and is published by Cambridge University Press.

You can read a review of 'Learning to Fight' here > 'Learning to Fight' 

Dr Tom Thorpe (TT) : I talked to Dr. Aimee Fox, a Lecturer in Defence studies at King’s College London, about her new book ‘Learning to Fight’ from her home in Wiltshire. Could you start by saying a bit about yourself and how you become interested in the Great War.

Dr Aimee Fox (AF) : I'm a lecturer at King's College London and I'm based down at the UK Staff College where I teach Military Officers across all three services, but also officers from other countries as well. 

Before that I was long-term at the University of Birmingham where I did all my degrees and where I had my first academic appointment.

As to how I became interested in the Great War - It's  been quite a long-standing interest, so probably my early teens when we did war poetry at school. I remember talking to my family about how much I was enjoying that and my great-aunt out of the blue sent me a load of First World War documents from relatives who would have served in the war. I had no idea that I had family who had served so I had letters home, photographs … And really from that point I was hooked.

At the time, when I got those letters, because my relative was killed in June 1917 I  felt quite negatively disposed towards the First World War Army. I blamed them … for the fact that my great-grandmother had lost her husband and was now a single mum to twin girls.

It was only when I got to University and took modules on the First World War that I got interested in how the Army functioned as an organization, but also the pressure that was placed on those who led and commanded it. So I suppose I've got that really fortunate interest that I've got that personal connection and that's led me into this profession and connection as well.

TT: So we're going to talk about your new book published by Cambridge University Press. Can you tell us what it's all about.

AF: Yes - to boil it down to the basics. The book is about how an organization deals with change in a time of crisis. So in this case how the British army changed, adapted and learned during the First World War and I think for me it's really important that the book was about the British army rather than just about the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front.

So in the book I cover up operations in what are called the sideshow theatres like Palestine, Italy, Salonika, Egypt and Gallipoli. I was also keen in the book to broaden out our  discussion of learning because I think a lot of it is about battles and tactics. Of course I'm not saying that that's not important, but I think learning relating to allies, relating to civilians are just as important and so they form quite an important part of the book.

TT: Many people think that the British army during the Great War was a rigid conservative institution full of butchers, bunglers and individuals like Blackadder's Goes Forth General Melchett - and that it was the same organization pretty much in 1914 as it was in 1918. Is there any truth to this perception? 

AF: I think that perception is influenced by a number of different factors. First off is the Second World War - the ‘good war’ which makes the First World War appear somewhat futile. Also, the Second World War is generally perceived as being more mobile - with really wizzy technology - and I think that makes the First World War seem even more antiquated. I also think that we have a tendency, rightly so I think in some respects, to focus on battles like the Somme and Passchendaele and the incredible losses within those - and I think that reinforces the perception of stupidity. And finally generals always appear quite aloof in their photographs. They've stiff upper lip and you know, they're back behind the lines where cause they're better able to oversee operations, but they're still not sharing the privations of private soldiers. So I accept all of those perceptions there, but I think as with any organization, there are people who are skeptical. There are people who might be over-promoted and might have a limited experience in a particular context. The Army is absolutely no different. There are of course generals who simply aren't cut out for the war that they fought. ButI think it's pretty much a generalization to say that the Army was rigid and conservative because for me at least in my research, I think it demonstrates a lot of flexibility and we just need to look at how it changes. It goes from a small regular army to a mass citizen Army made up of volunteers, of conscripts of different backgrounds, of different nationalities ... It is such a different organization and I  think that the Army's incredibly innovative - and in a way it has to be, because it wants to find the ways and means of shortening the war, but also because it's fighting tenacious armies like the Germans and the Ottomans. So I guess, in short, I think the traditional perception doesn't quite stand up to scrutiny. 

TT: So if the Army innovated, can you give me a couple of examples of how it did innovate? 

AF: That's so difficult because there are actually so many, believe or not. So I'll focus on two particular examples. 

The first is artillery survey techniques. Now, I know that sounds quite geeky and boring but they're really important. So during the war two techniques were developed and used across the entire Army. So you have flash spotting. This is where you locate enemy batteries by the flashes of their guns. And then you have sound ranging which is doing much the same but you locate the enemy The sounds of their guns and what's really interesting is that these two innovations are initially pioneered by soldier scientists. And the French are also experimenting with survey techniques too,  so what you're also getting is a bit of cross-pollination between allies. There was and I will admit there was some skepticism about these new methods, but what you also have or a number of senior generals who were really prepared to back those ideas and the two soldier scientists were appointed to British Headquarters on the Western Front. 

You also see these techniques used out in Salonika and in Palestine as well. So a localized Western Front Innovation is having a much broader organizational effect. And I think that's a really key part of an innovation itself.

You also have something similar happening with British platoon tactics. Now, I know that I said that the book looks at other things, but this is a really interesting case study of innovation because the adoption of these specialised platoons in the British Army with their own independent firepower has a really interesting genesis. It's influenced by French best practice and that's combined with British tactical development so again, you have that cross-pollination. These new methods are trialed out in training school settings. So there's an ability to fail and to take risk and they use demonstration formations as well. So what you see is a number of senior generals and officers observing these and buying into this tactical development and then they get codified into a pamphlet and then they get dispatched to all of the Army's expeditionary forces.

So once again, you have quite a localised innovation having an organisation-wide impact and I find that really fascinating. 

TT: So if the Army innovated how did it learn?

AA:  I think this is a vexed question in a lot of the literature on the British Army in the First World war. If you have such high casualties how can you say that the Army's learning?

I think how the Army learns is interesting because it  does learn and it draws on a number of means to do so. In the book I call this a ‘networked approach’ to learning - and I get it that sounds really management speak, but that could be boiled down into four different ways essentially: 

The Army learns first through relationships between individuals. This can be incidental fleeting, you know having a conversation with someone. Or it can be through like a pre-existing relationship. So, you know as part of the social networks say.

The second means is learning between groups. So this has been referred to as ‘horizontal learning’ - so imagine two units on the front line. Just talking to one another exchanging best practice. What works and what doesn't work. You also have the same process during reliefs. So when a unit relieves another one in the front line the unit that's coming in gets all that local knowledge and what's worked and what hasn't.

Thirdly you have top-down learning. This is more centralized. So this is senior commanders playing a key role in promoting certain ways of doing things. For example, and you certainly see this quite a lot in 1916 with an incredibly large army that's often lacking in competence, but also experience - so there's a requirement for that kind of learning to be used more often. 

And then finally you have ‘external learning’ - and what I mean by this is the kind of learning that you get from encountering enemies, allies but also non-military experts as well. And I think for me these kinds of external inputs are really important because they act as catalysts - challenging existing practice.

So what the Army does is it uses these four different approaches to learning in different contexts. I think for me that goes to show that it had quite a flexible approach - in that it was using all the tools available to it in order to learn in the most effective way possible.

TT: So if it was learning why was it learning? What motivated the Army to assimilate new ideas? 

AF: I think we can probably break that down into two questions. Why did it learn ? And why did it learn in the way it did? - which I think is probably the more interesting of the two.

For the first question, ‘why did it learn?’ - it learns because it has to. There is this whole military adage of ‘adapt or die’. Because the Germans, the Ottomans, the Austro-Hungarian forces are doing exactly the same thing. They are trying to find ways of increasing their military edge, their advantage over the Allied Forces.

As for the second question, ‘why did it learn in the way that it did’ - I think much of this is tied into the Army's culture. So, even though I've spoken about how the Army expands, how it becomes a citizen Army essentially - the role of individuals - and the relationship between individuals is really a key part of the Army's culture - which fundamentally prioritizes the individual, the local … it also prioritises ‘pragmatism’ - what works in a particular situation. And I think, boiling it down there's no one-size-fits-all solution - that's a key part of the Army's culture. I think when you have that kind of culture you're giving people the freedom, but also the flexibility to try out new things - to experiment. And that's the case whether you're a private soldier in the front line or a Brigadier at training school.

TT: So what did the Army learn over its four years of conflict?

AF : That’s such a deceptively simple question. It is useful to think about what you need to think about in terms of ‘macro’ big staff and ‘micro’ - the kind of incremental stuff.

I think if we look at what did it learn at the macro level - it learnt how to fight an industrialized War. There were certainly mistakes made - that the Army ended up paying for in blood and treasure. If we look at its personnel management system, for example, it's incredibly ad-hoc at first - and this leads to so many problems later on in the war when the army is trying to respectively move personnel into the right formations and jobs. Now, this is a process that they improved significantly during the Second World War. So there is a ‘longer lessons learned’ process there. 

But if we look at the micro-level we see countless instances of learning and adaptation on the Front Line - the development and refinement of new technologies whether that's grenades, or whether it's just innovations in trench design.

I think the big question is - did those lessons stick? Did the Army assimilate its learning beyond the First World War? And I think in some instances - as with the personnel management system - yes, it did. It also maintains really close relationships with certain civilian professions well into the 1930s. But this isn't the case with all of the lessons that the Army learned. You build in stuff like apathy, financial constraints, the passing of time - this all leads to ‘organizational forgetting’ and the Army is certainly no exception here.

TT: How did the Army share it - disseminate it through its divisions, battalions and brigades?  

AF: The Army uses a number of different ways to disseminate the learning that it acquires. It uses printed pamphlets, training schools - and also it has conferences and you're bringing people together from different formations for them to share their ideas. It also uses secondments, as well. I know that sounds like quite a modern sort of management tool, but the Army absolutely uses it to give people more experience. 

I think we can portion this into two camps: we have formal learning. These are methods that are developed by the organization - so your training pamphlets in your schools. Then you have the second camp, which is informal learning. And this is a bit more unstructured. It’s dependent on individuals talking to one another. 

What really struck me when I was researching for the book was how forward-thinking the Army was in many respects when it came to disseminating this learning. If you take military pamphlets, as an example - their presentation and their content evolved during the course of the war. So it goes from being really tech-heavy or text-heavy at the beginning of the war. But by 1918, you've got Illustrated maps, you've got pictures, you've got sketched out scenes - and they really help illustrate the principles in the pamphlets.

I think for me this shows an awareness of the kind of changing needs of the Army's personnel. Because you're moving from career soldiers - who understand this fundamentally to citizens in uniform - who need those pictorial aids and illustrations to help them digest and assimilate the information contained within.

TT: Obviously the Army was facing a conflict it had never seen before and it was faced with a series of problems that arose that traditionally they didn't have expertise on thinking about how they built a system of ports and railways and waterways to keep the five British armies in France in 1914-18 supplied with food ammunition and material. So how do they get around these new problems that they encountered? 

AF: So I think we need to bear in mind, with the Army in this conflict - and perhaps we can  extend this into subsequent conflicts, is it's quite proactive reaching out for expertise, for ideas that weren't part of its traditional skill set. So I think it's quite easy to see the armies being, you know, there's kind of conservative consumer. You know, it's ravenous for expertise rather than an organization that's willing and able to identify the expertise so that requires - and then bring that into the organization. We see this with key railway managers such as Eric Geddes - and individuals who are members of learned societies like the Institution of Civil Engineers or the Institute of Chemistry, you know. So many of these individuals were commissioned, they were brought into the military in order to improve the Army's increase its efficiency in areas like logistics, like transport … But you also see in contracts and procurement as well. You get people who are used to managing large businesses being moved to the contract section at the War Office. And this isn't just limited to the British expeditionary force in France. You see the Army drawing on local expertise in Egypt and Salonika to ensure adequate water provision. So I think in many ways, what we see here is the army is almost acting as a co-creator of knowledge and ideas.

TT: Finally, Aimee, where can people get your book? 

AF: You can get my book on the Cambridge University Press’s website - and from other online stores such as Amazon but can I ask if you do buy a copy from Amazon then do leave me a customer review as I always like to hear from people once you have finished reading it because I always like to hear what people think and it's just a great way of continuing the dialogue as well. 

TT: Aimee, thank you very much for your time.