Book Review – Reinventing Warfare 1914-18: Novel Munitions and Tactics of Trench Warfare

Anthony Saunders, Reinventing Warfare 1914-18: Novel Munitions and Tactics of Trench Warfare. London: Continuum, 2012. Index. Glossary. Bibliography. x, 362 pp.

Drawing on his previous experience as a Patent Officer at the Ministry of Defence, Anthony Saunders brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to his latest book, Reinventing Warfare. The work is based on his PhD thesis, completed at the University of Exeter in 2008, and accompanies his two previous works – Weapons on Trench Warfare and Dominating the Enemy – both of which consider the invention and development of novel munitions.[1] Unsurprisingly, Reinventing Warfare builds on Saunders’ previous publications. However, the key importance of this work is its examination of the relationship between the technical aspects of novel munitions (specifically grenades and mortars) and the tactics of their use. This area is often overlooked by historians who have tended to view grenades and mortars as incidental to the transformation of the infantry. The work’s other importance lies in its consideration of the infrastructure required – both in the United Kingdom and on the Western Front – for the organisation of the manufacture and supply of these munitions. As such, Reinventing Warfare is a welcome addition to recent studies that have examined the less glamorous aspects of the First World War,[2] whilst providing a useful addition to the traditional ‘learning curve’ literature.

Drawing on a mix of the latest scholarship and in-depth archival research of his own, Saunders offers a highly analytical account of the British army’s invention and use of novel munitions. The processes of invention, conceptualisation, manufacture, supply, operational usage and tactical evolution are incredibly complex, particularly as most of these processes took place concurrently, rather than sequentially. In order to make sense of these concurrent narratives, Saunders divides the book into thematic chapters that allows the reader to navigate these complex processes with some ease. After a necessary overview of the inventive process, Saunders dedicates a useful chapter to trench warfare munitions before 1914. This provides important context to a series of chapters that detail the infrastructure – formal and informal – required to research, develop, manufacture and supply novel munitions. His sections on the work of the Experimental Section and the provision of ‘stop gap’ munitions by the Royal Engineer Army Workshops are particularly strong. After lucidly exploring the political and bureaucratic dimensions of the process, Saunders dedicates the final five chapters to the technical evolution of grenades and mortars and their tactical employment on the Western Front. In these final chapters, Saunders shows that he is just as comfortable dealing with battle tactics as he is with the inventive process. His approach throughout is holistic and pays due attention to the political, social and military aspects that contributed to the British army’s invention and use of novel munitions.

At the outbreak of war, the British army possessed no trench warfare munitions, as no one in government or the War Office had seen a need for them. This stark reality is central to Saunders’ argument. Unsurprisingly, given the complexity of the topic, his argument is multi-faceted. Saunders lauds the achievement of providing the BEF with trench warfare munitions as an ‘unsung triumph’ of ingenuity and engineering (p. 221). This achievement was made all the more remarkable given the lack of infrastructure. Saunders argues that neither the War Office nor the Royal Engineers have received sufficient credit for their part in the development of this infrastructure, particularly in the first eighteen months of the war. Although he rightly acknowledges the ‘remarkable’ achievement of the Ministry of Munitions, Saunders reminds us that such achievement cannot be seen in isolation. Individuals in the War Office, who had made significant progress in organising the provision of novel munitions, were absorbed into the Ministry of Munitions (pp. 53, 68). The latter department, which Saunders acidly describes as ‘supercilious, arrogant, uncooperative and politically biased’, clearly benefit from their experience.

The second aspect of Saunders’ argument concerns the dynamic relationship between technology and tactics. This is one of the most original aspects of Saunders’ work. Invention was a continuing process. It did not simply end when that device went into production. Indeed, the technologies of trench warfare munitions and the development of tactics were directly linked by feedback (p. 243). In addition, the importance of mass production, particularly the use of ‘cooperative group manufacture’ (pp. 82-5), to the impact of novel munitions cannot be underestimated. Simply put, the greater the availability of munitions, the more they are used. However, in contrast, the very success of mass production and group manufacture also meant that there was little incentive to develop new munitions patterns, as their adoption would disrupt production. This led to the Mills becoming the standard hand grenade, while the 3-inch Stokes became the standard light mortar.

Certain aspects of Saunders’ discussion of the tactical evolution of novel munitions will be familiar to scholars of the First World War, particularly the movement from an ad hoc to a systemised training programme and the development of the all-weapons platoon. However, throughout his discussion, Saunders links back to the importance of munitions supply and functionality to tactical development. Refreshingly, Saunders argues that ‘the cult of the bomb’ was a myth – a GHQ phobia, rather than an actuality (p. 191). The new munitions emphasised the value of traditional weapons and allowed the infantry to remain mobile in the face of heavy opposition.

Unfortunately, it was not within the scope of this book to consider the relationship between printed training manuals and what actually occurred in practice on the battlefield. For the reviewer, it would have been useful to understand the impact of informal, or bottom-up, practices on the technical and tactical evolution of these munitions. Saunders acknowledges that the war diaries of trench mortar batteries ‘offer some insight’ into the operational use of mortars (pp. 8-9). However, he cedes that a significant number of war diaries would need to be consulted for a meaningful analysis and time did not permit such analysis. In spite of this, Saunders does occasionally reference operational examples, such as the Manchester Regiment’s employment of Stokes mortars in Russian saps on 1 July 1916 (pp. 210, 213). However, these references are often from secondary sources, rather than archival material. This, however, does not detract from the scholarly tone of this work.

With Reinventing Warfare, Saunders has produced an important, well-researched and original piece of academic scholarship that furthers our understanding of the infrastructure and processes behind the invention, manufacture and employment of novel munitions. More than 75,000,000 Mills hand grenades of all patterns were manufactured in three and half years. This achievement is made even more remarkable considering the Mills grenade was invented in January 1915 and mass production was not under way until October 1915 (p. 236). Like Ian Malcolm Brown and, to some extent, David Edgerton, Saunders highlights the importance of innovation, technology and the mobilisation of civilian and military expertise to meet the demands of modern war.[3] The work encourages us to reconsider the British army’s ‘learning process’ and to look beyond the traditional martial prism. As Dominick Graham has noted, ‘it was military ‘boffins’, workshops mechanics, munitions designers, logistics staffs, radio and telephone technologists… who were conscious of progressive methods because all of them were engaged in functional activities’.[4] Despite its price, Reinventing Warfare deserves a place on the bookshelf of any serious scholar interested in the political, technical and bureaucratic processes that enabled the British army to fight trench warfare on the Western Front.

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

You can download a copy of the review here.

Citation: Aimée Fox-Godden, ‘Review of Anthony Saunders, Reinventing Warfare 1914-18: Novel Munitions and Tactics of Trench Warfare’, Birmingham “On War”, 9 January 2013

[1] A. Saunders, ‘A Muse of Fire: British Trench Warfare Munitions, their Invention, Manufacture and Tactical Employment on the Western Front, 1914–18’, PhD Thesis (University of Exeter, 2008); A. Saunders, Weapons of the Trench War, 1914-18 (Stroud: Sutton, 1999); A. Saunders, Dominating the Enemy: War in the Trenches (Stroud: Sutton, 2000).

[2] See I. M. Brown, British Logistics on the Western Front, 1914-1919 (Westport CT: Praeger, 1998); J. Beach, ‘British Intelligence and the German Army’, Ph.D. Thesis, University of London, 2004; B. N. Hall, ‘The British Army and Wireless Communication, 1896-1918’, War in History, Vol. 19, No. 3 (2012), pp. 290-321.

[3] I. M. Brown, British Logistics on the Western Front, 1914-1919 (Westport CT: Praeger, 1998); D. Edgerton, Science, Technology and the British Industrial ‘Decline’, 1870-1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); D. Edgerton, Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[4] D. Graham, Against Odds: Reflections on the World Wars (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999), pp. 50-1.


2 responses to “Book Review – Reinventing Warfare 1914-18: Novel Munitions and Tactics of Trench Warfare

  1. Pingback: Book Review – Reinventing Warfare 1914-18: Novel Munitions and Tactics of Trench Warfare |·

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