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Book Review - A Military Transformed?

Adaptation and Innovation in the British Military, 1792 -1945

Cover of A Military Transformed?

Series: Wolverhampton Military Studies #3
Editor: Michael LoCiceroRoss MahoneyStuart Mitchell

Helion, 256pp, Images: 10 tables

9781911096702 - Paperback
9781909384460 - Hardback

Reviewed by BRIG Chris Roberts (Retd.)

Being another excellent publication in the Wolverhampton Military Studies series (University of Wolverhampton), A Military Transformed? offers valuable insights into the factors that enable or impede adaptation, innovation and reform in military organisations. These insights are as applicable today as they were in the times covered by the fourteen historical studies contained in this book. Written by a team of academic military historians, these well researched and insightful essays cover a range of examples from the French Revolutionary Wars to the Second World War relating to the British Army, the Royal Navy, and latterly the Royal Air Force. Rounding them out, in a thought provoking Epilogue, Matthew Ford questions the theoretical debates concerning learning organisations, and provides a practical example of how a sound tactical doctrine failed to gain acceptance.

Andrew Limm kicks off by suggesting that the laudatory claims of the success of the Duke of York’s reforms on the British Army are deceptive. He states the reforms took a long time to become embedded, and their success in war was only achieved in a few instances. While Limm’s essay provides lessons for today’s joint planners and commanders, his case studies miss the mark. To support his argument, Limm compares two disastrous, inter-service amphibious campaigns at the operational level of war.  However, the Duke’s reforms were not concerned with the operational level; they concerned tactical, social, disciplinary, training, administrative, and organisational issues within the Army itself.  While Limm clearly shows that nothing was learnt by either the army or the navy from the operation in his first case study in undertaking the second, he neglects to mention the successful amphibious operation conducted by Lieutenant General Sir Ralph Abercrombie in the intervening years. Nor does he delve into the reforms themselves and their impact on the Army’s performance, and his claim that success was only achieved in a few instances is highly debatable.

In discussing the lean years between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the Crimean War, Peter Randall reminds us that a key obstacle to reform is an organisation’s leaders.  Despite being successful and highly respected wartime commanders, their resistance to reform can be founded in protecting personal reputations rather than on the merit of the issues at hand. Matthew Ford reinforces this point concerning the British Army’s battle drill reforms in 1943, as does Ross Mahoney’s discussion of the implementation of lessons following the disastrous Dieppe raid in 1942. Similarly, in his illuminating essay on British aero-naval co-operation in the Mediterranean Theatre during the Second World War, Richard Hammond highlights the impact of inter-service rivalry (or rather a reluctance to assign control to another Service) on limiting effective innovation. 

On the other hand, in two excellent chapters, Spencer Jones and Aimée Fox-Godden demonstrate the importance of senior level support in ensuring that organisational transformation takes place. Jones highlights that, in response to the firepower encountered against the Boers during the South African War, the British Army quickly adapted their infantry attack tactics. However, in the years following the war, the applicability of open order tactics against a determined European foe was hotly debated.  Nonetheless, support from senior leadership, including the much maligned Sir Douglas Haig, ensured they were retained and embedded in the Army’s doctrine, leading to superior tactics over their German foe during the mobile phases of the war in 1914. Fox-Godden’s essay on brigade staffs during the Great War not only supports the central place of high level support, it also provides clear examples of the roles, functions and the impact of staff officers on successful operations. It should to be on the reading list of Command and Staff Colleges courses.

Richard Dunley’s chapter on the Royal Navy’s acceptance of the revolutionary whitehead torpedo, and Martin Gibson’s on the adoption of oil to fuel its vessels, reinforce the role of a strong and well respected advocate. They also reveal that, while adaptation to new technologies can be embraced, the means of delivering such technologies in an operational setting, or the sources to ensure their effective supply, can be limiting factors which delay their introduction.  In discussing the substantial reforms which occurred within the British Army’s medical services between the Crimean and the South African Wars, Andrew Duncan demonstrates that cultural changes across the whole organisation may be required for transformation to be fully effective. Neal Dando’s analysis of the controversial ‘Jock Columns’ during the North African Campaign reminds us that a doctrine and tactical formation devised for one operational situation ought not to be persevered with when that situation changes.  The need to quickly adapt to changing circumstances imposed by the enemy remains paramount.

Sarah McCook’s essay on communications in the British Army between 1914 and 1940 highlights that, while technological advances may provide impressive change on the battlefield, they may not be as operationally effective as anticipated, and older techniques ought not to be readily discarded.  Indeed, when technology fails, recourse to more traditional military techniques remains essential, even today. Peter Grant’s discussion on the Army Administrative Course undertaken at the London School of Economics between 1907 and 1914 offers insights into the value of considering the systems and techniques of other successful organisations in improving one’s own systems and processes. While not specially addressing the factors that affect adaptation and reform, James Pugh considers the differences in the development of doctrine between the Army and the Navy when they established their new flying arms. These variations reflected the different focus of the two Services; with the Army addressing tactical employment, and the Navy being more concerned with technical matters. Meanwhile, Simon Justice analyses the operational impact of the politically enforced re-organisation of British divisions immediately prior to the German Offensives in 1918, finding that the repercussions during the March Offensive were acute and extreme.

Addressing a wide range of topics, this instructive book covers the principal issues that affect adaptation, transformation, and reform within an organisation. It will appeal to those seeking to understand these imperatives. Military officers aspiring to high command would do well to read it.


The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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