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Book Reviews

Directing Operations: British Corps Command on the Western Front 1914-1918

by Andy Simpson

Stroud, Gloucestershire, United Kingdom
Spellmount Limited, 2006
258 pages, UK £ 25.00 (hardcover)
ISBN 1-86227-292-1

Reviewed by Lieutenant-Colonel P.J. Williams

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Book Cover: Directing OperationsMore than two years ago, as part of his plan to transform the Canadian Forces (CF), the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) established a number of operational-level commands to create more of a command-centric operational environment, replacing what was seen as a staff-driven realm under the Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (DCDS) Group. With what can arguably be termed a renaissance of the operational level of war occurring in the CF, it is useful to study how past military echelons of command matured into their roles, with the aim of applying lessons they learned to our current and future practices.

Andy Simpson’s book gives us the opportunity to do just that. Already the author of a number of military-related publications, he is currently a member of the Centre for First World War at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. The book grew out of a PhD thesis, and, in the author’s words, has the object of “... assess(ing) how important the corps level of command on the Western Front was, and to establish what the British Corps did, and how they did it.” The “British” emphasis is deliberate, as is pointed out, with the exception of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) and its Canadian counterpart, neither of which forms a major part of this study, little literature exists on the corps level of command as it was exercised during the First World War.

The book is written in eight chapters with three accompanying appendices. Chapters are written chronologically, initially covering how General (later Field Marshal) Sir Douglas Haig applied corps-level doctrine, such as it existed, during the early battles of 1914-15, and then proceeding to how Corps command evolved during the battles of the Somme (1916), Arras/Messines (1917), Passchendaele (1917), Cambrai (1917), and the final battles of 1918, thus running the gamut of defensive, offensive, and pursuit operations. The last chapter deals with the daily life and work of the corps commander himself, and it serves to debunk the myths that these officers were mere “chateau generals.” Appendices cover the list of the various wartime corps commanders, the compositions of headquarters staffs over the duration of the war, and a list of specific Corps Commanders’ Visits and Inspections. The bibliography is quite extensive, relying upon a large number of British archival sources from the Public Records Office, the papers of several corps commanders, and even the odd article from the Canadian Military History journal. The text is supplemented by several black-and-white photographs, and although there is only one map, this does not detract from the telling of the story, which Simpson does very well.

At the start of the war, corps headquarters were viewed largely as ‘post offices,’ acting as a conduit between the Commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and its six divisions. This was in keeping with the doctrine of the day, which was based mostly upon Field Service Regulations, Part 1 (Operations), or FSR 1, which was written in 1909. Indeed, FSR 1 gave short shrift to the corps echelon of command, omitting it from its definition of a ‘subordinate formation,’ stating instead that the basic all-arms formation was the division.

This was to change greatly as the war progressed. The BEF expanded several fold over the course of the Great War. By the end of 1915, the number of corps had expanded from four to eleven, a figure which was to rise to 18 a year later. Accompanying this growth was a rise in the importance of the corps as a formation that directed operations in its own right – divisional staffs were largely improvised, and they needed increased supervision; the artillery component of the BEF expanded, and with it came an increased role for the corps headquarters in coordinating such assets. Corps headquarters staffs increased from 18 in 1914 to 24 by the time of the Somme battles in 1916. It is interesting to compare these numbers to the size of our current operational level command headquarters, which are far larger in most cases. Of course, it was not only gunners who came into their own at the corps level, but also engineers, supply personnel, transport personnel, aviation resources, and signals units, including the humble carrier pigeon.

The planning of operations was deemed to be the most important role of the corps level, as it was felt that once an attack started, in the words of one specific corps commander (Lieutenant-General Hunter-Weston): “I have, with my excellent staff, done all possible to ensure success... I have nothing more to do now but to rest until well after the attack has taken place.” Clearly, the planning had been detailed, with a Corps Operation Order running to some 70 pages of direction provided under 28 different headings. Despite such lengthy orders, they were able to reach front-line company commanders within six hours, and all without the benefit of modern-day e-mail.

Corps were surprisingly nimble at assimilating and circulating operational lessons to subordinate formations and units, and they regularly issued doctrinal updates with respect to the employment of artillery and engineers. Indeed, by 1916, corps were no longer mere ‘post offices,’ but they were directly controlling operations. This was confirmed in higher doctrine (General HQ document SS135), which clarified the corps headquarters role vis à vis that of the division. The importance of the corps level of command in the Commonwealth context continued into the Second World War, particularly during the Western Desert campaign in North Africa and in subsequent operations conducted in North West Europe during 1944 and 1945.

What relevance, then, do the lessons of corps operations in 1914-1918 hold for the modern-day Canadian Forces? Certainly in creating the operational-level headquarters, the CDS never intended that they become mere post offices, but that they would take the lead in commanding and supporting operations worldwide. How the British corps level of command matured in the midst of a war holds many lessons for us as our own headquarters learn to find their way, some in the midst of current conflict in Afghanistan: determining the size of staffs required, implementing command and control of operational level assets, maintaining the operational tempo, developing a ‘lessons learned’ process, determining the role and duties of an operational level commander, and so on. Indeed, Andy Simpson’s book is particularly instructive to those of us serving in these new headquarters, where we often find ourselves in the position of being ‘new dogs’ learning ‘old tricks.’ This book is highly recommended.

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Lieutenant-Colonel Williams, an artillery officer, is currently serving as J5-Plans-Afghanistan (HQ CEFCOM) in Ottawa.


Painting Over the Top, Neuville-Vitasse by Lieutenant Alfred Bastien, Canadian War Museum Collection

Over the Top CWM – 19710261-0056 painting by Lieutenant Alfred Bastien

The 22nd Battalion’s assault on the Drocourt-Quéant Line in August 1918.

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