Review of “Futile exercise?”

Futile exercise? The British Army’s preparations for war 1902-1914
by Simon Batten
published by Helion & Company Ltd in 2018
hardback ISBN 978 1 911512 85 1
210 pages plus appendix (order of battle), bibliography, index. Illustrated.
publisher’s stated cover price £35
reviewed by Chris Baker

When I studied for my MA in British First World War history many years ago, the first essay that we were asked to write was to consider whether Britain was prepared for war when it came in 1914. It is often said that the British Expeditionary Force that went to France in that August was the best trained and best equipped force that we had ever despatched to fight for us. Was that true? This book looks at one aspect of its preparedness, in examining the large-scale manoeuvres that took place at home in 1904 and 1912-13. While it is obviously in a fairly narrow and specialist field and not a book likely to find its way into the top 10 sellers that you can pick up at an airport, “Futile exercise?” is a very good and thought-provoking read.

Between the end of the trying Second Boer War in South Africa and the Great War, the army was considerably changed, re-equipped and professionalised. It also began to integrate the emerging technologies of motorised transport, flight and wireless communications. Its men were constantly being trained, and in the manoeuvres examined in this book the army underwent a stern test of its approach and abilities in command, control, leadership and logistics. In 1904 it landed an entire division from the sea onto the Essex coast, while other formations tried to defend against it; in 1912 a battle of movement was fought, the two sides being led by emerging key figures in Haig and Grierson. But in retrospect it all looks a little suspect , if not naive: the kind of war it envisaged might have resembled that of the first few weeks of the coming war in France, but missed completely the awful possibilities of entrenched positional warfare that would follow it. Given the confines of carrying out manoeuvres in the shires of England and with the Treasury leaning hard on the War Office, as large as these manoeuvres were they were orders of magnitude smaller than the war that would eventually be fought and were inevitably only a snapshot; a sample; a classroom test.

Some time ago I was asked to obtain a copy of the detailed report on the 1904 manoeuvres from the National Archives. I had never heard of it before and found it absolutely fascinating, perhaps not east as it began to make me wonder why the learning form seaborne landings appears to have been completely forgotten by the time the army had to try it for real at Gallipoli in 1915. Simon Batten has explored such reports and many other sources to produce a valuable look at how the army was shaped before the conflict. I found it well written, fluid and a good book to read. The bibliography is also extensive and a useful work in its own right.

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