Whilst scoping out some case studies for my research, I stumbled across an interesting reference to the arrival of Indian cavalry regiments in Palestine in 1918. Part of my PhD examines how learning was transferred through the movement of combat formations, so I was particularly interested in the following extract:
How these regiments [20th Deccan Horse and 34th Poona Horse] would settle down in this country after their experience in France was at first a subject of interest to the Squadron. But the surroundings resembled, in some respects, their native India, and they were soon “at home”. They only needed to forget the cramped warfare of the trenches in France and to practise real cavalry tactics again, to become a true part of the “E.E.F”.
I have highlighted the last line as it raises a number of interesting points on the nature of military experience and military adaptation. Firstly, the author views the fighting on the Western Front as an anomaly. He draws a parallel between the regiments’ experience in India and the fighting conditions in Palestine. The Western Front is something of an unfortunate ‘blip’ in the middle. Secondly, this ‘blip’ is reinforced with the mention of ‘real cavalry tactics’. This reference conveys two points; (a) that the cavalry tactics on the Western Front were not traditional tactics. They were tactics that were adapted from previous experience to suit trench warfare, and (b) it invokes a sense of identity. To be accepted as a ‘true part’ of the E.E.F., it was necessary to shake off the tactics and trench-bound habits of France and Flanders. Thirdly, and of particular relevance to my research, the author calls on these regiments to ‘forget’ their experience in France. Of course, it is very easy to read too much into an author’s choice of words. However, the extract got me thinking about the idea of deliberately (or unintentionally) forgetting combat experience.
Organisational forgetfulness in itself is not a new concept. The problems of organisational memory and knowledge atrophy are research mainstays within social science literature. The concept has also found currency within military innovation studies. Historians such as Theo Farrell, David French and Victoria Nolan have argued that the British army has a poor organisational memory. It may learn lessons in one campaign, but it will often forget them or fail to apply them in subsequent campaigns. This challenges the view espoused by John Nagl, for example, that the British army is a ‘learning organisation’. But what does this mean for the regiment or the unit?
As a result of its high decentralisation and poor organisational memory, the British army is both flexible and creative at the tactical level. Low-level adaptation comes relatively easily. My research has served to remind me that operational theatres, combat formations and individuals do not operate or fight in vacuums. Although formations may be able to suppress certain aspects of their previous combat experience, they cannot eradicate it completely. The 20th Deccan Horse and the 34th Poona Horse did not ‘start from scratch’ once they arrived in Palestine. They would have accessed institutional repositories (SOPs, protocols, training schools) to familiarise themselves with combat in this theatre; but, more importantly than that, they would have built on their previous combat experience, using it as a stepping stone as they adapted to war in the desert.
 Unknown, Through Palestine with the Twentieth Machine-Gun Squadron (London: J. M. Baxter, 1920), p. 74
 See, for example, J. P. Walsh and G. R. Ungson, ‘Organizational Memory’, Academy of Management Review 16 (1) (1991), pp. 57-91; C. L. Benkard, ‘Learning and forgetting: The dynamics of aircraft production’, American Economic Review 90 (4) (2000), pp. 1034-54; P. M. de Holan and N. Philips, ‘Remembrance of things past: The dynamics of organizational forgetting’, Management Science 50 (1) (2004), pp. 1603-1613; P. Thompson, ‘How much did the Liberty shipbuilders forget?’, Management Science 53 (6) (2007), pp. 908-18
 T. Farrell, ‘Improving in War: Military Adaptation and the British in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, 2006-2009’, Journal of Strategic Studies 33 (4) (2010), pp. 567-94; D. French, The British Way in Counterinsurgency, 1945-1967 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); V. Nolan, Military Leadership and Counterinsurgency: The British Army and Small War Strategy Since World War II (London: I. B. Tauris, 2012)
 J. Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005 )