Book Review: Futile Exercise?: The British Army's Preparations for War 1902-1914


by Simon Batten

Warwick, Eng.: Helion / Philadelphia: Casemate, 2018. Pp. 236. Illus., maps, append., notes, biblio., index. $59.95. ISBN: 1911512854

How Manoeuvers Helped the British Army Prepare for the Great War

When Al Nofi tempted me with a copy of this book at the price of writing this review I fell into his trap because of my interest in the topic, despite some time pressures. The fact that it is a fairly thin volume of little more than 200 pages helped. Although I’m glad to have read it, it proved disappointing. I’ll discuss, as we say in the Navy, the “goods and others” of the exercise.

First the goods. Batten addresses a topic I have seldom, if ever, seen discussed in the general literature of the Great War. We all know that the British Army suffered severe and surprising damage to both its physical strength and its reputation during the Boer War, which ended in 1902. We also know that the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) that went to war in August 1914 showed that it had learned important lessons from that war, particularly at the tactical level. Its rifle marksmanship was universally acclaimed and the famous “mad minute” of its riflemen has been likened to the firepower of multiple machine guns. So too its use of cover was noted by several German writers to reflect the silliness of experienced colonial warriors. Beyond that, however, there has been a long – and somewhat undeserved – tradition of characterizing the BEF of 1914 and, in fact, much of the rest of the war, as an “army of lions led by donkeys.”

Batten’s exploration of the British manoeuvres and exercises during the interwar period from 1902 to 1914 concentrates on the effectiveness of those events as training and education for those officers who would lead the BEF to war – specifically, Sirs John French, Douglas Haig and James Grierson among others. Batten’s approach is to provide an overview of the large manoeuvres – distinct from the less extensive events he characterizes as exercises – which took place from 1904 to 1912, followed by detailed examination of the final two events, the manoeuvres of 1912 and 1913. He provides us some less detailed examination of similar events conducted by some of the other nations to be involved in the war, and then looks at the connections between the pre-war training events and how the BEF behaved in the early days of the fighting. He wraps up with a short summary, ending by answering the straw-man question of his title in the expected way: “British Army manoeuvres between 1903 and 1914 had certainly not been a futile exercise.”

I took away several main points from his presentation.

· After starting small and dealing with political issues of cost, damage to property, and its rivalry with the Royal Navy, the British Army evolved a series of larger and more realistically managed manoeuvres, involving up to some 50,000 troops with their assorted equipments ranging from guns to motor transport (including a tracked vehicle that was a progenitor of the tank) to the newest technologies of airships and aeroplanes.

· The manoeuvres used a mix of what we today would call free-play and semi-scripted events.

· The explicit goals as stated in the records included a heavy emphasis on giving senior commanders practical experience in managing large bodies of all arms in the field.

· The final two manoeuvres in 1912 and 1913 were similar in many ways to the operations the BEF faced in August 1914; first an encounter battle in 1912 and subsequently a retreat under pressure in 1913.

· Other experiences and insights included the difficulties of amphibious operations (can you spell Gallipoli?); the pluses and minuses of air reconnaissance, and the practical matters of staff work and organization of supply and transport for what would later become army corps in the field.

· The British expectations about the nature of modern war, based on their own manoeuvres and exercises as well as those they observed in other nations, coupled with observation and analysis of the Russo-Japanese War and the Balkan Wars, was probably no farther from – and in some ways even closer to – the reality of 1914 than the expectations of the Germans and French.

The “others” – that is, some negative elements – got in the way of Batten’s presentation, making it more difficult than it needed to be to follow the threads of his story. He drew on an immense variety of sources (documented in an extensive and valuable bibliography). Some of those sources, such as accounts of the manoeuvres as local events in newspapers and, of all places, local church magazines, spent nearly as much space describing the visits to the events, and social activities of King George V. I found these interludes a bit dissonant, but others might like the taste of local color. More troublesome to me was the frequent feeling of stream of consciousness as the narrative seemed to slide from one topic to another with little structure or organization. Again, what to me was a short-coming of the writing might be charming to other readers less enamored of strict logical frameworks.

Overall, I’m glad that I fell into Nofi’s trap and happy to have read this book. It challenges preconceptions and causes me to wonder about the extent to which my understanding, such as it is, of the prewar training of the French and German armies, particularly Zuber’s views of the latter, may be off base. Despite having read a number of recent “revisionist” works on the British Army of 1914, my overall understanding of how and why things developed as they did during that hot summer of 1914 has been enhanced by reading Batten’s slim volume. And in the end, causing one to ponder anew the source and validity of long-held beliefs is a solid victory condition for any book on military history.


Note: Futile Exercise? is a volume in the series “Wolverhampton Military Studies”


Our Reviewer: Dr. Perla, for many yeas a defense analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses, is a veteran game designer and the author of Peter Perla's The Art of Wargaming A Guide for Professionals and Hobbyists.


Reviewer: Peter Perla   

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