The recruitment of thousands of new men to the BEF created a new problem: how can so many fresh troops be trained while the BEF was fighting a major war? After each action during 1915 and 1916, the inquest into the inevitable failure was usually the same: inadequate training. Training, or the lack of it, became the scapegoat when each offensive failed to reach its objectives.
Haig and his senior generals were accused of adopting an anti-intellectual approach to training the new men. So who could be trusted with this vital task? In many eyes, and incorrectly, the only training a new recruit would get in France before being sent to the front line was whatever was on offer at Etaples and its bullying NCOs. Munro at Third Army set up the first of the BEF's schools in France , and many followed at GHQ, Army and Divisional level. Gradually, separate Divisional commanders set up their own training schools. The Divisional schools especially were of variable quality and it was not until 1917 that Haig took action. Criticism from officers while on leave in England fuelled the debate about training, but it had become obvious to senior officers like Montgomery (MGGS Fourth Army) that the new armies lacked the experience and training of the regular soldiers.
The Somme campaign of 1916 was the catalyst for change, as commanders experienced for themselves that existing battalion organisation and tactical methods were inadequate for the task. Whilst commanders experimented with different tactical approaches, the French Army was in fact already several months ahead of the BEF. They had encapsulated a new platoon organisation, tactics and associated training programmes in a manual released in September 1916, and had employed the new approach successfully in the field at Verdun in October. Arthur Solly-Flood was appointed acting Commander of Third Army School and was sent along with a party of British officers to investigate at French Fourth Army training school at Chalons in November 1916. On his return he worked with the French approach to develop SS143, ‘Instructions for the Training of Platoons for Offensive Action', the most important tactical manual for the BEF of the whole war.
Solly-Flood was born into a military family in 1871. After Wellington and Sandhurst, he joined the South Lancashire Regiment in 1891. He saw service in the Boer War and from 1904-08 he served in the War Office alongside Haig. It was at this time his interest in training was initiated. At the start of the Great War, he was Lt-Col 4th Dragoon Guards and saw service in France. During the Battle of the Somme he served as Brigadier-General of 35 Brigade, 12th Division. He went on to be GOC 42nd (East Lancashire) Division from October 1917 to the end of the war. But it was in October 1916 that his involvement in training the BEF began. On 30 January 1917, Haig appointed Solly-Flood to command the new Training Directorate.
SS143 ‘Instructions for the Training of Platoons for Offensive Action' was the first manual to emerge from Solly-Flood's time at the Training Directorate. It followed on from another influential manual from before Solly-Flood's time, SS135 ‘Instructions for the Training of Divisions for Offensive Action'. The training directorate continued to produce these manuals until the end of the war. They included al the manuals necessary for the training of platoons in the new infantry tactics such as instructions for the employment of machine guns and Lewis guns (SS106), instructions for the training of bombers (SS126), instructions for the training of machine gunners (SS122), assault training (SS185), and instructions about defensive positions which was essentially a translation of a German document which had fallen into British hands.
In addition to codifying the BEF's tactical doctrine, Solly-Flood unified the training which had been carried out by the separate army schools. Even Hunter-Weston had believed in training. His maxim has been summarised as ‘tt before ttt' (teach teacher before teacher teaches tommy). Solly-Flood abolished the divisional training schools and put the newly emerging Corps schools on a sound footing. Staffing was always a problem. During Solly-Flood's time his staff had been only three in number. When he moved to command 42nd Division in October 1917, his position at the training directorate was taken by Brigadier General Charles Bonham Carter who increased his staff to five and then to eight. Post Solly-Flood there were seven special GHQ schools, seven schools for each army and six special schools for each Corps. If one pamphlet was to summarise the improvement in training it was SS152, ‘Instructions for the Training within Schools at GHQ, Army and Corps Level.
July 1918 saw the arrival of Lieutenant-General Sir Ivor Maxse with his new command, the Inspectorate of Training. Maxse came from commanding XVIII Corps which had taken a severe hammering during the German Spring Offensive. Did Maxse rectify mistakes in training from before his time? Maxse liked to think so: he was the ultimate self-propagandist. His personal self-renewal in his new guise appears to have led him too far into a denunciation of all the manuals and doctrines that had gone before. He advocated the use of the ‘Brown Book', his training manual from his time as commander of 18th Division. There was nothing new here but what it contained was clearly laid out and far more ‘user friendly' than the manuals from the Directorate of Training. It is unfortunate that he helped contribute to the myth that there had been no doctrine or coherent manuals prior to the summer of 1918.
The upshot of this was that Solly-Flood's contribution to training was consigned to a dusty corner; his name was forgotten and he was lost in the shadow of Ivor Maxse. The contrary should be the case: he should be remembered as the man who preceded Maxse in authorising SS143, unifying the BEF's schools system and promulgating good practice with the excellent training manuals he was responsible for.
This article is based on a talk given by Alistair Geddes to the Yorkshire branch of the WFA entitled In the Shadow of Ivor Maxse: Sir Arthur Solly-Flood and the Training Directorate of the BEF in 1917.
Images courtesy Wikimedia
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