Learning and Adapting: The British Army from Somme to the Hundred Days Campaign/Amiens
- LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0213
- LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0213
Over one hundred years on from the end of World War I (WWI), traditionally referred to as the First World War or the Great War in Britain, the British Army’s fighting performance in it remains deeply controversial. This is particularly true of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) fighting on the Western Front. In the first two years of the war, it moved from a small professional force to a large citizen army, all at a time when the character of warfare was undergoing a profound shift. On 1 July 1916 the opening of the Battle of the Somme was one of the darkest days in the army’s history as nearly 60,000 casualties were suffered for limited gains. Two years later, the BEF, along with its international allies, achieved one of history’s great victories when the Germans capitulated and asked for an armistice having been forced back over one hundred miles between 8 August and 11 November, during the Hundred Days Campaign. In the decades following the war, the British Army’s improved performance on the battlefield was increasingly overlooked as public views on the war slowly coalesced around a conception of futility, reaching its peak amidst the backdrop of the 1960’s anti-war movement. However, revisionist accounts began to emerge in the 1950s, and they increased exponentially in later decades thanks to the declassification of the official British archival records in the 1960s. These argue that the BEF underwent a painful “learning process” as it adapted to the unprecedented challenges of mass industrialized warfare through the application of new techniques, such as the creeping barrage, alongside the integration of new technologies, like tanks, gas, and airplanes, together forming an imperfect, but reasonably effective, combined-arms system. Scholars continue to debate the precise speed of this change, the Edwardian culture of the army, the capabilities of the BEF’s senior commanders, the underlying mechanisms that led the army to learn lessons, the influence of Britain’s French allies, and the errors made by their German enemies. Thus, a more balanced, less polarized picture has emerged of an army inconsistently adapting to the challenges the modern battlefield posed; in doing so, it got much right but also a lot wrong. Focusing on the BEF and its performance on the Western Front, this article will examine some of the key texts that have shaped the evolution of the historiography and hopefully encourage the green shoots of new scholarly thought.
WWI and the British Army’s role in it is so vast a topic that any attempt to provide a general overview can easily drown under a sea of evidence. Nowhere is this more apparent than the official British history of the war that totals 109 separate volumes, including twenty-eight volumes on land-based military operations alone—of which fourteen volumes (Edmonds 1922–1948) are concerned with the Western Front. While these works have been criticized for being bland, or for covering up incompetence by British generals, they are now widely accepted as an exceptional scholarly achievement filled with mountains of valuable evidence. Reading every volume fully is almost an impossible task. Furthermore, the classification of many official documents until the 1960s meant it was the chief source of evidence for many of the histories produced in the first half-decade following 1918. Numerous other overviews of the war have been produced. A stellar early example is Falls 1960, which prefigured many of the later revisionist arguments. Bourne 1989 is a beautifully written and expansive account of Britain’s war. Sheffield 2001 sets out the challenge and disproves the various myths surrounding Britain’s role in the war. It serves as a keystone work for the revisionist historiography of the war. A condensed overview of the British Army, with a particular focus on the Western Front, is provided in Beckett, et al. 2017. Britain was but one nation among many, and it is important to understand the scale of the war to understand the British Army’s place in it. No better works are available than Stevenson 2012 and Strachan 2001 for providing this global context in a manageable format, with both seamlessly combining the stories of multiple belligerents as well as imperial, economic, political, and military perspectives into a single narrative. Winter 2014 similarly explores all aspects of the global war. Lastly, two online resources are of considerable help to researchers. The Long, Long Trail and the International Encyclopedia of the First World War both provide a vast repository of easily accessible information on a massive range of subjects regarding the war.
Beckett, I. F. W., Timothy Bowman, and Mark Connelly. The British Army and the First World War. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
An impressive synthesis of both the authors’ past research and the wider historiography of WWI. Areas such as strategy and manpower are dealt with thematically before the battles fought on the Western Front are explored chronologically. The decision to condense events outside the Western Front into a single chapter is an unfortunate limitation.
Bourne, John. Britain and the Great War, 1914–1918. London: Edward Arnold, 1989.
A superb overview of Britain’s war that ranges across the different theaters of combat, political direction, and the home front. Bourne’s mastery of the concise sentence coupled with his contributions to some of the war’s big historiographical debates still make this an excellent primer for students and lay reader alike.
Edmonds, J. E., ed. Official History of the Great War: Military Operations, France and Belgium. 14 vols. London: HMSO, 1922–1948.
A momentous undertaking, the fourteen volumes on British military operations on the Western Front are unparalleled for detailed coverage. Formed from unrestricted access to classified primary sources and the accounts of many officers and men who fought in the war each volume is a gold mine of information. The chronological structure, further divided between various formations, makes it easy to dip in and out of for key information.
Falls, Cyril. The First World War. London: Longman, 1960.
One of the main contributors to the official history Falls produced his own short history of the war that blends his own experience as an officer in the BEF during the war with the knowledge he had gained helping write and compile the official histories. While his views of some key moments have been surpassed, it remains an engaging and gripping account of the war.
The Long, Long Trail: Researching Soldiers of the British Army in the Great War of 1914–1919.
A treasure trove of information on the British Army. One of its most valuable resources is its order of battle for the British Army during the war, showing when and where battalions, brigades, and divisions were stationed and fought at various times throughout the war. Other articles explore almost every aspect of the British soldier’s war, from his training through demobilization. Guides to major battlefields are also provided.
1914–1918 Online: International Encyclopaedia of the First World War.
An unparalleled resource, this open-access encyclopedia covers the entire war and features articles from over 1,000 contributors. It provides an easy, accessible primer to countless topics in WWI with over 1,500 articles published so far. Each article is authored by an expert and has its own references and bibliography making it the ideal first port of call for any unfamiliar subject matter.
Sheffield, Gary. Forgotten Victory: The First World War; Myths and Realities. London: Headline, 2001.
A landmark study articulating the revisionist perspective on the war. Sheffield sets out the manifest political, military, technological, and social difficulties of waging war between 1914 and 1918 while making a compelling case for the British Army’s learning process in overcoming these challenges. This work helped popularize a more positive view of the British Army, and motivated many of the studies produced in the following two decades.
Stevenson, David. 1914–1918: The History of the First World War. London: Penguin, 2012.
Originally published in 2004, this is an outstanding example of compressing a vast subject into a readable, academically rigorous, account. While the 601 pages may seem daunting, they are necessary due to Stevenson’s ambitious scope, covering all aspects of the war for all major powers, from political maneuvering to the conduct of battle and even the war’s legacy and its role in the rise of the Nazis.
Strachan, Hew. The First World War: To Arms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Simply one of the finest, most ambitious, works ever published on WWI. Planned as a multibook series looking at the war in all its global dimensions, this first volume nominally covers 1914 but it frequently strays beyond those boundaries to explore understudied but nonetheless important aspects of the war, such as industrial and economic mobilization, the fighting in Africa, and the naval conflict in the Pacific.
Winter, Jay, ed. The Cambridge History of the First World War. 3 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
These three edited volumes form the most wide-ranging overview of WWI, including military, political, social, economic, and cultural history. It is not limited to Britain, but it covers each nation involved and each theater of fighting. Each chapter is written by a leading expert and constitutes the latest research in the field making it an invaluable source of information.
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