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Lethal dialectic - the evolution of battle planning in the BEF 1915-1916

Farrell-Vinay, Peter (2024) Lethal dialectic - the evolution of battle planning in the BEF 1915-1916. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Identification Number: 10.21953/lse.00004643


This thesis examines the planning of battles by the British Expeditionary Force (henceforth: BEF) from 1915 to 1916 and finds that with honourable exceptions, they were planned so very badly that by September 1916 only 27% of the attacking battalions had written orders. The causes of this failure stem from an internal conflict of the British Army between the proponents of cavalry and those of mounted infantry, and the belief that battles were won by cavalry charges which could not be planned. This led Major-General Sir Douglas Haig, a cavalryman, to excise essential planning elements from the primary doctrines of the Army. Several other causes are evident: the enormous increase in the size of the BEF from 1914 to 1916 meant a corresponding increase in the span of control which senior officers had to manage; the lack of suitable exercises before the war hid the gross incompetence of many of them; and the lack of staff officer training created gross frictions. The BEF suffered from a doctrinal sclerosis, lacking a feedback mechanism whereby problems could at least be identified even if workable solutions were as rare as unfeasible approaches were common. It also suffered from management conflicts in that Army commanders failed to set out overall plans, corps expected to incorporate divisional plans into their own, failed to coordinate them and induced much re-writing. Planning processes were haphazard and the quality of the plan contents were highly variable. In consequence assaulting troops were betrayed by an unconcern of corps, divisional and brigade staff to ensure that workable plans were in the troops' hands a day before the assaults. Occasional improvements were made: a set of common objectives were published, imposing a degree of unity (but not the unit boundaries whose variability continued to plague planners) barrage plans emerged, timetables and conditional orders were included in plans (all contrary to regulations), scenarios were documented, and counter-battery planning established. The dominant ethos of the BEF began to evolve from the agricultural to the technological.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2024 Peter Farrell-Vinay
Library of Congress subject classification: D History General and Old World > D History (General) > D501 World War I
D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain
U Military Science > U Military Science (General)
Sets: Departments > International History
Supervisor: Stevenson, David

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