“Hopeless Inefficiency”? The Operational Performance and Transformation of Brigade Staff, 1916-1918

Another abstract from our forthcoming book.


In his wartime memoir, Captain Gerald Burgoyne declared that the red tabs of the staff were ‘the insignia of hopeless inefficiency’. The performance of the staff during the First World War has always invited controversial and, at times, apocryphal opinions. The staff are popularly viewed as a single, homogeneous entity, ensconced in luxurious chateaux, ignorant of front line conditions. Although recent historiography has led to the beginnings of rehabilitation, notably at divisional level and above, studies on low-level staff work and military administration have been poorly served. This is in large part due to the limited amount of published sources on the subject. Drawing on primary source material, this essay considers themes that have been neglected or overlooked by past and recent historians, particularly instances of direct operational involvement by brigade staff themselves. It will examine the operational performance and involvement of brigade staff and, ultimately, how the cadre transformed between 1916-18 to meet the changing demands of modern warfare.

The essay contends that brigade staff were actively engaged in operations during the latter half of the war, exerting greater influence and receiving greater responsibility as the war changed from trench to semi-open warfare. It will support this contention by examining the operational performance of brigade staff within the 5th Australian Division during the battle of Mont St. Quentin in 1918. It will also illustrate how the roles and responsibilities and the training of brigade staff adapted to suit the changing nature of warfare on the Western Front. The essay argues that the trade unionism of Regular army officers did not universally apply to brigade staff by 1918. The organisation of low-level staff was forced to transform in light of heavy casualties and the rapid expansion of the British army. The resulting ‘civilianisation’ of brigade staff positions represented a meritocratic approach to promotion, whilst simultaneously highlighting the narrowing skill differential between military and civilian spheres.

By Aimee Fox-Godden, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

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