Chapter LXXXVII: Brutal Honesty
Chetwode's insistence on starting with the Great War review was fiercely resisted by both former and current members of the Imperial General Staff (IGS). The reason for their protestation soon became apparent, reviewing past mistakes was painful enough at the best of times, but when it emerged the same mistakes were still being made almost two decades after they were first made it became positively embarrassing. The Great War review itself pulled few punches, no level of authority escaped scrutiny and few came off unscathed, even the sacred cow of the regimental system didn't escape comment. While some of the problems had been fixed, through technological advances and the limited efforts of the Staff at reform, many of the problems remained and it was these that Chetwode focused on, prompting the two main criticisms that would dog his review; it was too negative and it spent too long looking back not forward.
The first, while something of a weak argument (shooting the messenger to avoid having to read the unpleasant message), was popular amongst the staff for precisely that reason. However it was equally clear that just wallowing in the successes of North Africa would not just be valueless but positively counter-productive. With the War Office, Treasury and particularly the Cabinet all taking an interest, albeit for very different reasons, the IGS were forced to admit a positive whitewash was not an option. The second argument has more than a grain of truth to it, as we shall see the review was far from perfect and perhaps more time planning for the future instead of reviewing the past may have avoided some of those mistakes. However the positives of the approach cannot be over-looked, by finding the same problems repeated the review was able to carry the majority of the Army with it, whether you predicted a re-run of trench warfare or fully mobile warfare the problems raised by Chetwode still applied. More cynically, given the poor history of the British Army in predicting future defence needs on anything beyond the short term it's highly unlikely Chetwode would have correctly anticipated the future even if he had spent all his time looking forward. On balance therefore a fully supported, if occasionally flawed, moderate report must be considered a better outcome than a divisive and likely incorrect revolution.
The problems identified can be roughly grouped into four areas,; Communication, Administration, Professionalism and above all Doctrine. These areas over-lapped considerably, for instance the long standing problems with high level command and control pointed to issues with communication, administration and doctrine, there is no one 'correct' category. To tease out all the inter-connections is left as a task for the reader or, for the interested but less studious, Chetwode's official conclusion does a fine job of knitting the strands together. For our purposes a broad overview of each area followed by the the recommendations and the outcomes will suffice.
We begin with communications where, on a technical level, progress had been made. The early 1930s had seen the Army develop a range of radios ranging from short ranged mobile units to large fixed installations capable of reaching across the vast extent of Empire. Indeed by the time of the Abyssinian War experimental tank specific and man portable packs were entering limited production, with work under way on improved longer ranged and lighter units. However if the technical issues had been cracked, how to use the new radios was less clear, command and control was still exercised as if communications were fleeting and unreliable. The 'Nelson trick', using sometimes fictional communication problems to ignore out of date orders and exercise innovation and flexibility, that had served Great War commanders such as Rawlinson and Maxse so well was no longer available, bringing the issue of central control versus local latitude was brought to a head. That problem ran neatly into the next area, Administration, where one of the key problems was a constant low-level turf war between the War Office and the IGS. With it's control of funding the War Office was immersing itself in minor details that really should have been left to the staff or ideally commanders on the ground. Worse it lacked the capacity to do this effectively, often issuing entirely inappropriate instructions for lack of an idea of the practical difficulties or local conditions. This attitude inspired a related problem in the IGS as the Staff refused to devolve matters down the chain, fearing the War Office would hijack those powers unless central control was maintained, leading to precisely the problems they were accusing the War Office of causing.
The other key problem of administration was the regimental system itself, as mentioned it was something of a sacred cow and there can be no doubt the esprit de corps it produced and the sheer history of the institution counted very heavily in it's favour. However both the Great War review and the Chetwode report through up one serious problem with the system; manpower allocation. With each regiment responsible for recruiting and training it's own troops from it's local area the valuable skilled recruits (engineers, specialist tradesmen, etc) were deployed with no thought to the 'Whole Army' need. An example would be the adjacent Wiltshire Regiment and Somerset Light Infantry, the Wiltshires recruited from a county including the vast Great Western Railway depot at Swindon and so ended with so many skilled specialists many were used as regular infantry men. In contrast the Somersets recruited from a mainly agricultural county and so were regularly short of men with mechanical and technical aptitude, an increasingly important skill to have in a regiment as mechanisation filtered down. Interestingly the other oft quoted problem with the regimental system, that it inhibited co-operation between battalions by encouraging rivalries, received scarcely a mention. Whether this was through the authors ignoring it, pulling their punches or genuinely not believing it to be a problem is unclear, though in the case of Chetwode his reforms in India (with the 'Large Regiment' of 4-5 regular battalions becoming the peace time standard) would suggest it is most likely the latter.
The 2nd Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry on manoeuvres on Exmoor. One of the few issues facing the Army not spelt out in the review was the calibre of recruits, a problem the IGS was aware of but struggled to answer. The problem was the Army couldn't match the modern excitement of flying offered by the RAF (even if most recruits never even flew in a plane, let alone piloted one) and didn't have the heroic national appeal of the Royal Navy who could, and did, play the 'Historic defender of King and Empire' card to pull in the recruits. Such concerns were, and still are, hard to quantify, particularly given the very different attitudes to education in the services themselves. While the RAF had inherited it's founder Air Marshall Trenchard's mania for training (along with other less desirable obsessions) and had formalised the system at every level, the Army left such matters to the regiments, at least for everyone below approximately the rank of Captain, with predictably varied results.
By comparison the concerns raised over professionalism were very simple; much of the officer corps wasn't. The viewpoint of Montgomery-Massingberd 'Character is more important than intellect' held sway as it had done for many a year. For too many regiments, and especially the cavalry, if you were the right sort of chap then there was no need to study training manuals or think too much (or at all) about the science of soldiering, it would all work out under fire if you had character. Frustratingly for the reformers this attitude had been somewhat vindicated by the war with Italy, it had all worked out and there had been no real disasters. Professionalism links quite neatly to the final, and most important, problem flagged up by Chetwode, Doctrine. Technically speaking the Army didn't even have an official doctrine, though the Army's Field Service Regulations were intended to serve the same over-arching purpose with each branch required to produce and maintain their own specific manuals. Even if the system had worked as intended, which it did not, the key flaw should be apparent; the various branches developed their manuals in isolation. Thus the basic infantry manual could be revised by an officer with no experience of combined arms operations, while the cavalry manual could be left to an officer serving in an unmechanised unit. As bad as that sounds in practice things were worse, the infantry manual was all but unchanged since the 1911 version (An attempted re-write in the 1920s by Liddell Hart was gutted by a disapproving War Office) while the 1935 mechanised cavalry manual was merely the 1930 standard cavalry manual with the note 'When reading this document replace the word horse with the word tank'.
The catalogue of problems listed seems hard to reconcile with the success achieved in North Africa, yet a critical assessment of the campaign there shows all of the issues above were present. Consider the aftermath of the opening British move Operation Vulcan (the attack aimed at capturing Tobruk); the communications net had not been planned for such a rapid advance, inducing severe problems in communicating the success back to HQ. The staff of the BEF were equally unable to keep up with such rapid success and considerable time was wasted in trying to carefully plan the next step when doctrine (or even simple initiative) would have provided a quick answer. Finally the quite serious problem that no pursuit force was available was a direct result of the badly thought out, and somewhat bodged, mechanisation of the cavalry, an area where a more detached, professional approach would have borne considerable benefit, to say nothing of the advantages possible if there had been a joined up doctrine to guide the modernisation process.
Having seen the problems let us now move onto the proposed solutions, a considerably more controversial area. While Chetwode's detailed and historically grounded arguments had convinced the bulk of the army that the problems existed, his solutions did not attract the same widespread approval.
Seems a bit negative, but then this has been a somewhat depressing bit of research for me. While the RAF had, all things considered, about a good an inter-war as possible (not perfect, but then who was?) and the RN at least made understandable mistakes the Army seemed to just spend almost two decades ignoring things, pausing only to develop and then ignore good ideas. About the only defence one can give is that the Government seemed obsessed with appointing very bad CIGS, Massingberd was an awful pick (particularly after Milne who was one of the best) and Deverell wasn't a lot better. Even Gort, who had a mandate to shake things up, didn't. Sigh.
The manual parts are OTL, Liddel Hart did re-write the Infantry manual chunks of which were then discarded and the Cavaly did just republish old horse manuals for their tankers. On the plus side the radios are OTL, at least they have the technology for really good comms. They just don't know how to use them. The other advantage is that with the bar set so low almost anything will be a vast improvement over OTL, even just admitting there is a problem is an achievement, however I am wary as to how much could be achieved and how much would be fought tooth and nail. Something to ponder.
Still the big, big plus point is that Fuller and Liddel Hart's WW1 narrative 'It was all the stupid generals fault' (aided by a few not very good poets) doesn't take hold. Sure the British generals were a very mixed bunch and made more than their fair share of mistakes, but no senior officer came out of the war well and piling all the blame on a few generals means the real problems were missed. The first step to solving a problem is admitting one, the second is stopping it getting any worse. I believe Chetwode can knock those two of with this report, that only leaves the many follow up problem solving steps and they will not be so simple.
Still, tanks and trucks next along with a bit on the Army reshuffle.