Forgetting the Western Front? The Adaptation or Eradication of Military Experience

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”.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3] 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’.[4] 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.


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

[1] Unknown, Through Palestine with the Twentieth Machine-Gun Squadron (London: J. M. Baxter, 1920), p. 74

[2] 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

[3] 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)

[4] J. Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2005 [2002])

9 responses to “Forgetting the Western Front? The Adaptation or Eradication of Military Experience

  1. Aimee,

    An interesting piece and there certainly is something to be said about the British Military not being a learning organisation. Personally I sit somewhere between the the Nagl/Farrell position. This is not me hedging my bets but has more to do with a wider consideration of the place of the military in society, and by that read culture. It is clear that in peacetime the military does innovate and adapt but it is an uneven process often initiated by changing geo-political situations. For example, innovation in the field of air defence was driven by the perceived threat of France in the mid-1920s and then the very real threat of Germany in the 1930s.

    Despite this there is something to be said about British military culture and how officers view change. The military has, in general, for many years had a poor record of recruiting from the brightest elements of society. This is born out of the indifferent cultural attitude society has towards the army in particular, and the military in general. This can be traced back to its role in the civil war. This has led, again in general, to an overly conservative officer corps, even in the RAF, which became wedded to an offensive view of air power and did not spend enough energy on other forms of operations. It is within this context that I think we have to consider the effectiveness of the British militaries ability to innovate or forget. We need to consider the organisations culture before we can consider anything else. This becomes the measuring stick for effectiveness in context, unlike some analyst who suggest that it should have been x rather than y. I think that by understanding the officer corps of the British military we can go some way answering the problems of military transformation. Of course and added issue in the First World War is the problem of de-skilling that clearly happened in 1914-15.

    I think that adds something 😉

    • Ross,

      Thanks for your useful comment.

      To be honest, I also sit somewhere between Nagl and Farrell. I think the British army is capable of organisational learning, but I am not entirely convinced that it is a ‘learning organisation’. According to theorists (boo hiss…), such as Peter Senge, a ‘learning organisation’ needs to have a *sustained* ability to learn. Scholars, such as David French, have been highly critical over this ‘learning organisation’ concept, particularly the British army’s performance in COIN operations and its failure to pass on relevant lessons.

      I agree with you regarding the importance of an organisational culture that enables and encourages innovation. For organisational learning to take place, an appropriate organisational culture and infrastructure is required. I see all these as linked concepts – culture, learning, adaptation and innovation. There needs to be an ability to learn before adaptation and, ultimately, innovation, can take place. I think this is where your point about the officer corps ties in nicely.

      It certainly does add something, so thanks again, Ross.


  2. To the Indian Cavalry the Western Front was an anomaly. The Campaign in Palestine was different than the Western Front. Learning in the British Army does not, and did not mean forgetting how to fight in different types of campaigns and relying on units in theatre passing on information. The Army has to remember how to fight in different terrains and situations.

    • Peter,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I think you’re right about the Indian Cavalry’s view of the Western Front. I also think you’re right that the army ‘has to remember’ how to fight in different situations, but it’s questionable as to how effectively the army does that. Going off on a slight tangent, I think there’s any amount of work to be done on the British army’s colonial commitments between 1919-1939. I know that Tim Moreman has looked at some of the British army’s frontier commitments during this time, but it would definitely repay further study. It’s very easy to jump from 1914-1918 to 1939-1945 without considering the type of warfare the British army fought during the inter-war period. Take this with a massive pinch of salt, but I’d tentatively suggest that the experience of the ‘sideshows’, coupled with the British army’s pre-war experience, play a part in unlocking how the British fought in these inter-war forays.


  3. Aimée’s note represents an engagement with some of the most interesting aspects of current scholarship in military history and the First World War. It certainly demonstrates the low-level or granular nature of research into how the British Army learned to fight (effectively) in a modern, industrial and trans-national conflict. If one accepts that the War was finally decided in the main theatre, in engagements between the main belligerents, then any alternative fighting methods employed away from the Western Front could be viewed as anomalous. But whether or not the ‘Sideshows’ represented distractions or necessary wars, there was a flow of troops between the theatres and their cumulative experiences (or lack, thereof) are part of the learning process. The author of ‘Through Palestine…’ does mention a possible benefit of similar environments in parts of India and Palestine – though the landscape of the sub-continent is infinitely more varied – but his main point is reasonably grounded on the premise that their experience in France was not overly helpful to the conduct of a more mobile war in the Middle East. There are further distinctions which are useful here.

    First, the cavalry experience in France was not helpful to the conduct of a mobile war in France, either. In general terms their host, the Cavalry Corps, was most commonly deployed as infantry and was, therefore, called on to employ infantry tactics rather than those developed for reconnaissance, the screen, the pursuit or shock attacks. As such they were not to be called on to shake off cavalry “tactics adapted from previous experience to suit trench warfare”, rather to drop the infantry methods they had necessarily adopted and revert to type. The relative ease with which this could be accomplished was demonstrated, first during the first German offensive in March 1918 when British and Canadian cavalry regiments were directed and performed as such alongside their dismounted comrades; more latterly the Cavalry Corps trained and deployed in classic cavalry manoeuvres during, for example, the ‘Pursuit to the Selle’ in October 1918.

    Secondly, the question of identity is an interesting one. The author is welcoming his new comrades-in-arms into his formation with a virtual initiation test. What the reversion represents first is, I would suggest, regaining their true identity as cavalry regiments, and precedence as wielders of the arme blanche.

    Thirdly, there is a definite case for disassociating ‘combat experience’ from the specialisation represented by the brief comparison above. Whereas tactics and skills and – dare I say the ‘D’ word – doctrine can be drilled, trained and practised, the experience of fighting could only be learned. I believe this creates one of the tensions in attempting to balance the tenets of organizational learning in public or private sector companies with those of military formations in the First World War. For example: in the former, with a staff turnover of, say, 6% per year, there is ample opportunity to consolidate learning and progress through adaptation; in the latter with attrition rates of 20-80% per month it is more difficult to manage.

    Finally, at last week’s conference on The Greater War: conflict beyond Flanders’ fields, 1914-1918 at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, Dr. James Kitchen (King’s College) delivered a fascinating paper on the E.E.F. where he promoted training, together with Allenby’s ‘battlefield management’, as the major reasons for success in Palestine. He touched on specific aspects of knowledge transfer which are pertinent to your research. This is good stuff. Please keep us all informed of progress!


    • Simon,

      Many thanks for your detailed comments and observations.

      I welcome your note that the ‘flow of troops between the theatres and their cumulative experiences (or lack, thereof) are part of the learning process’. I think this is spot on. Naturally, I recognise that the Western Front was the main theatre and that, to win the war, Germany would need to be defeated on the Western Front. However, I do think the ‘sideshows’ warrant further attention as to neglect them results in a misunderstanding of the British army’s experience in the early twentieth century. I am particularly heartened to see scholars, such as James Kitchen, Andrew Syk and Kaushik Roy, re-evaluating aspects of the ‘sideshows’. We desperately need this new scholarship to help to move away from grand operational narratives and battle studies that have dominated our understanding of non-Western Front theatres.

      To address your points in turn:

      First, I bow to your greater knowledge of the cavalry in 1918. I particularly like your point on the ‘relative ease’ with which the cavalry could drop infantry methods.

      Second, I think you’re right with this point. On first reading, it does come across as an initiation test. Whether it’s to do with ‘crusader’ rhetoric or the romance or the desert, there is a real sense of identity in memoirs and personal papers of individuals who served in the E.E.F. There seems to be this view that fighting in the desert was a purer form of warfare. Highly sentimentalised, yes, but the difference in combat conditions reinforced this strong identity, I think.

      Third, this is a very interesting point. The high attrition rates and Ross’ mention of the ‘de-skilling’ that occurred have serious implications for the British army’s ability to learn and retain knowledge. Yes, experience can be externalised (with great difficulty, cf Michael Polyani) and written into formal protocols, i.e. S.S. pamphlets, Notes on Operations, AARs. However, you cannot discount the importance of individuals to this learning process. This links back to a fundamental question in organisational learning theory: can organisations learn or not? Is organisational learning simply the sum of individual learning?

      Finally, I was sorry to miss out on ‘The Greater War’ conference. Kitchen’s paper sounds very interesting and I was particularly disappointed to miss Vanda Wilcox’s paper on training in the Italian Army. It’s reassuring to know that Kitchen touched on aspects of knowledge transfer and that I’m not completely barmy with my PhD topic (!)

      Thanks once again, Simon. Your thoughts, as ever, are incredibly useful.


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  5. Not that this is highly relevant to your studies, but perhaps a little comparative information might help in the framing process. I’ve found that the U.S. military has a fascinating ability to pick and choose elements of its history remember at certain moments in time. Throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. Army ignored the lessons of the Vietnam War, promising to simply never fight a similar war. Yet since 2001, the forgotten lessons of Vietnam are now being remembered by the Pentagon. Now the U.S. military has a rich history of fighting small wars. Right.

    • Robert,

      Thanks for the comparative point. It’s interesting to see how militaries ‘unearth’ forgotten lessons. Never underestimate the power of spin.

      As someone who knows very little about the U.S. military (aside from the reading I’ve done for my literature review), I can only offer a brief comment and a tangential one at that… so bear with me (!)

      Something that occurred to me whilst writing my literature review was the tendency, particularly in military innovation studies, to use historical case studies in order to distil lessons for the modern day military. This is something that Matthew Ford has also commented on and, as he rightly notes, it’s been going on for centuries, so nothing new. However, I’m always a little wary of studies that do this military ‘soul searching’ as, being slightly paranoid, I begin to doubt both the methodology and the veracity of the conclusions they are able to draw; for example, Williamson Murray and Allan Millett’s Military Effectiveness series. This research was funded by the Office of National Assessment and was commissioned to identify lessons for the U.S. military in the 1980s. Naturally, they chose case studies with a similar strategic environment. However, to shamelessly paraphrase Field Marshal Sir William Robertson, each war has its own peculiarities. Military organisations are still socially constructed and we all know that humans do funny things irrespective of rules, norms or protocols. It’s difficult to account for this tendency when drawing lessons from the past for the future.


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