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The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Fighting ability of officers?


Alastair

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One would hope that proper restorative justice led him never to steal from anyone. Roghing him up so he doesn't steal from his mates is all well and good, but one wonders if this type of justice would serve to divert the problem rather than cure it.

I've no idea. All I know is that he didn't act that way again during the remainder of his time with us. I could be wrong but perhaps it would have been enough for the trench mortar unit too.

Harry

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Any new unit which had to rely on transfers from existing units for personnel knew that no commanding officer was going to send his best men or even the satisfactory ones. The CO and NCOs of such a newly created unit had to maintain a very firm grip of the men. He would also be on his guard to see that neither the Adjutant nor the RSM used his unit as a source of casual labour to the detriment of their training or duties. Trench Mortars were never going to be popular with their comrades in the trenches, they attracted far too much retaliation. It is difficult to imagine many men volunteering for a transfer to them and I suspect it was very difficult to get a transfer out. Not quite a penal battalion but perhaps tending in that direction.

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Not quite a penal battalion but perhaps tending in that direction.

Seems to me that that sort of unit would have been highly capable of keeping their own soldiers in line.

Harry

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My original question seems to have provoked a lot of interesting debate! Since posting, I have managed to read a diary of one of the officers of the 7th battalion who fought on 28th June 1915 at Gully Ravine (their first time 'over the top') and he talks about being armed with his rifle suggesting that it was issue rather than acquired. It is a sad fact that the majority of the officers of both the 7th and 8th battalion were killed that day leading from the front including the commanding officer of 7th and the Brigade Commander - Brigadier General Scott-Moncrieff, and I suspect that the tactics of the officers changed somewhat after that to prevent such heavy losses within the chain-of command.

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I was in the National Archives yesterday trawling through the 29th Inf Div War Diaries.....Div instructions: "Notes for Infantry Officers" dated 15th May 1915

No.5. 'Officers are not to fire, but to direct the fire of the men'

It is interesting that they had to be instructed not to fire....

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I was in the National Archives yesterday trawling through the 29th Inf Div War Diaries.....Div instructions: "Notes for Infantry Officers" dated 15th May 1915

No.5. 'Officers are not to fire, but to direct the fire of the men'

It is interesting that they had to be instructed not to fire....

That seems to me to be on a par with the order "don't run, walk slowly." Why were officers ordered not to fire? Couldn't they direct the fire of their men and fire at the same time?

Harry

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If you are firing a rifle then all your attention must be focussed on your aiming point. I would have thought it most useful to have at least one person viewing the general scene and picking up targets - perhaps with the aid of binoculars. I think order No.5 is common sense.

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So you did. Apologies.

Harry

There is absolutely no need to apologise. I look on these threads in much the same way as I would a discussion in a pub. We state our opinions and we expect to back them up when they are challenged.

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If you are firing a rifle then all your attention must be focussed on your aiming point. I would have thought it most useful to have at least one person viewing the general scene and picking up targets - perhaps with the aid of binoculars. I think order No.5 is common sense.

I can't argue with that Ian but Martin didn't say anything about firing a rifle. I know that the subject of officers being issued with rifles has been discussed on this thread, and that, as time went on, more and more officers armed themselves with rifles, but surely it was a single, hand held weapon, a revover, that most officers were issued with. Would that require the same level of concentration ?

Another point that has occurred to me is that having a weapon in one's hand (any weapon) and being able to fire it at an enemy who was trying to kill me would, I think, help me handle the situation a little better..

Harry

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A revolver or pistol is essentially a close quarter defensive weapon. A rifle is usually not.

Officers armed with revolvers waving their men on were obvious targets for an enemy. By dressing the same as and carrying rifles they were less conspicuous.

Also, an Officer's job is to direct his men and control them when in action not to do the fighting himself although there would be some instances where this would be necessary; self defence and showing an example when required.

But fighting was not the Officer's primary task. The more you become involved in fighting the less chance you have of controlling and directing your men.

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An officer can best carry out his function when he is behind his command. Whether that is a platoon leader in the field bringing up the rear where he can see where the men are and what is going on or an Army commander in his battle HQ keeping in touch with his subordinates, the rule applies. Any commander who allowed frustration to over rule his better judgement and went to see for himself, risked seeing less of the overall situation as well as exposing himself to unnecessary risk.

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A revolver or pistol is essentially a close quarter defensive weapon. A rifle is usually not.

Officers armed with revolvers waving their men on were obvious targets for an enemy. By dressing the same as and carrying rifles they were less conspicuous.

Also, an Officer's job is to direct his men and control them when in action not to do the fighting himself although there would be some instances where this would be necessary; self defence and showing an example when required.

But fighting was not the Officer's primary task. The more you become involved in fighting the less chance you have of controlling and directing your men.

Yes squirrel, I know that a revolver is a close quarter weapon and I also agree that carrying a revolver while "waving their men on" was a real give away. For that reason, I have no problem supporting such moves as wearing ORs uniforms and carrying rifles etc. I also agree on what you describe as the "officers job": directing his men and controlling them when in action.....but I have a problem with "not to do the fighting himself" That statement opens a whole box of tricks. As an ex squaddie (albeit a long time ago) I just wonder what members of a platoon would think of a subaltern who "waved his men on" but because of standing orders, didn't fight! The history of The Great War is replete with stories of subalterns who led from the front. (Lieut EJ Brooman of the Lancashire Fusiliers for example).

Please don't think I'm being facetious here but as someone who served for 26 years (though not in anything like the period we are discussing) I feel I know what the lads woud think of a platoon officer who just waved his men on.

Harry

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I can't argue with that Ian but Martin didn't say anything about firing a rifle. I know that the subject of officers being issued with rifles has been discussed on this thread, and that, as time went on, more and more officers armed themselves with rifles, but surely it was a single, hand held weapon, a revover, that most officers were issued with. Would that require the same level of concentration ?

The level of concentration which I mentioned was required of the men of the platoon. Someone else was required who could take in the wider view and direct the fire to the best advantage. Even a solitary sniper would have his observer.

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Yes squirrel, I know that a revolver is a close quarter weapon and I also agree that carrying a revolver while "waving their men on" was a real give away. For that reason, I have no problem supporting such moves as wearing ORs uniforms and carrying rifles etc. I also agree on what you describe as the "officers job": directing his men and controlling them when in action.....but I have a problem with "not to do the fighting himself" That statement opens a whole box of tricks. As an ex squaddie (albeit a long time ago) I just wonder what members of a platoon would think of a subaltern who "waved his men on" but because of standing orders, didn't fight! The history of The Great War is replete with stories of subalterns who led from the front. (Lieut EJ Brooman of the Lancashire Fusiliers for example).

Please don't think I'm being facetious here but as someone who served for 26 years (though not in anything like the period we are discussing) I feel I know what the lads woud think of a platoon officer who just waved his men on.

Harry

They would think that he was doing his job and making sure they did theirs. Men looked to their officer for leadership. It was his job to make the decisions and their job to implement them. That hasn't changed. It was true in Napoleonic times and it is true in Afghanistan.

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They would think that he was doing his job and making sure they did theirs. Men looked to their officer for leadership. It was his job to make the decisions and their job to implement them. That hasn't changed. It was true in Napoleonic times and it is true in Afghanistan.

I agree and disagree. Yes they would look for leadership but "not at a distance". In the situation described here, many would think he was opting out. There is a balance that young officers have to address. Even in my day with an armoured recce regiment in Germany troop (platoon) officers were expected to do the same job as their men.....but better. That's what leads to confidence and high morale. Forget what the text books might say.

Harry

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The level of concentration which I mentioned was required of the men of the platoon. Someone else was required who could take in the wider view and direct the fire to the best advantage. Even a solitary sniper would have his observer.

Again Ian, I can't argue with this but I wonder whether it was done in this "by numbers" way. With no useful relevant experiece to fall back on, I just wonder if when fired upon the lads in a front line trench would wait and respond to orders from their platoon commander - or - as I think more likely they would duck down below the parapet or open up with everything they had in the general direction of where the incoming fire originated.

I hope you don't think I'm being frivolous but I can't believe that military action invariably operates according to "the book".

Harry

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Again Ian, I can't argue with this but I wonder whether it was done in this "by numbers" way. With no useful relevant experiece to fall back on, I just wonder if when fired upon the lads in a front line trench would wait and respond to orders from their platoon commander - or - as I think more likely they would duck down below the parapet or open up with everything they had in the general direction of where the incoming fire originated.

Harry

Well, having seen quite a bit of "home camera" footage from Afghanistan, I'm relieved to say that fire control is alive and well. Opening up at will might have been acceptable in your days in the Household Cavalry, but it was heavily frowned on in my TA days (but our PSIs came from the Gordons, so were possibly more careful about the cost of ammo).

Opening up over the lip of trench without looking, as you imply, has to be the sure sign of an indisciplined rabble, surely. The British soldier, from the days of black powder muskets to the present, has been trained to count his shots and aim every one.

Personally, i would never have expected an officer to do what i did, any more than I would have expected the reverse. I would have expected him to be able to do my job - quite a different thing.

The Household Cavalry is obviously different.

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I do not think you are being frivolous but I'm struggling to see a point to your musings. I'm sure that, on occasion, things were done 'by numbers' and I'm sure that, on occasion, blind panic would overtake men, the officer, or both. I'm not sure how to extrapolate from this. If the men were to 'open up with everything they had in the general direction...' are you suggesting that the officer who joined in and fired with his men is being a good officer?

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Well, having seen quite a bit of "home camera" footage from Afghanistan, I'm relieved to say that fire control is alive and well. Opening up at will might have been acceptable in your days in the Household Cavalry, but it was heavily frowned on in my TA days (but our PSIs came from the Gordons, so were possibly more careful about the cost of ammo).

Opening up over the lip of trench without looking, as you imply, has to be the sure sign of an indisciplined rabble, surely. The British soldier, from the days of black powder muskets to the present, has been trained to count his shots and aim every one.

Personally, i would never have expected an officer to do what i did, any more than I would have expected the reverse. I would have expected him to be able to do my job - quite a different thing.

The Household Cavalry is obviously different.

No Steven the Household Cavalry isn't different. The British Army has always been one of the best, if not THE best, and the Household Cavalry is simply one of the many magnificent regiments that have earned it that reputation.

You speak of watching "camera footage" from Afghanistan so I'm sure that you will be aware that members of the Household Cavalry serving there have excelled themselves as indeed they have done wherever they have been deployed.

You talk about "opening up over the lip of a trench without looking". I never said that. I suggested that they would not necessarily wait for a fire order from their platoon commander before opening up in the direction from which the incoming fire emanated. Indeed, in my opinion, it would show a lack of professionalism if they weren't permitted to use their own common sense and hard earned experience in situations like this. Incidentally, I really do wonder if soldiers in The Great War or in Afghanistan for that matter "count their shots".

One thing I do agree with you on is your comment that a soldier during the Great War or today would never be expected to do the things an officer is trained to do. That would be unrealistic. From my own experience though officers were able to do my job and the jobs of other members of my sabre troop. They might not have been able to do them quite as well but they could do them if the need arose.

No Steven what I'm talking about is professionalism.: the "thinking soldier", someone who can be relied upon to act sensibly when the chips are down. The Army has always expected its soldiers to think and act in a sensible manner and not to just sit on their backsides and wait for someone to tell them what to do.

It might well be different in the TA, I don't know.

Harry

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I do not think you are being frivolous but I'm struggling to see a point to your musings. I'm sure that, on occasion, things were done 'by numbers' and I'm sure that, on occasion, blind panic would overtake men, the officer, or both. I'm not sure how to extrapolate from this. If the men were to 'open up with everything they had in the general direction...' are you suggesting that the officer who joined in and fired with his men is being a good officer?

I'm not talking about "blind panic" Ian. I'm simply saying that a good unit is one that can think for itself and is not totally dependent on the orders of its leader. It's all about balance I suppose but there's one thing I'm clear about in my own mind and that is that a unit that can't operate without always being told what to do and how to do it is a pushover.

Harry

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"It might well be different in the TA, I don't know." That's not entirely complimentary.

However, fire control, by Officers and NCO's, is what Infantry Training, and presumably other arms as well, is about.

The idea of everybody blazing away at will at their own personally selected target with no guidance or direction is not what you suggest should happen, but, if the Officer(s) and NCO's are not giving the direction, then who is?

At best this would be an "uneconomical expenditure of ammunition", at worst, complete chaos.

And, whilst evaluating the situation and deciding on targets and course of further action, direction of further advance/movement/retirement, identifying weak spots or strongpoints in the enemy position, deciding how to deal with same or otherwise, receiving information from NCO's etc., then could the individual still be concentrating on sighting and firing a weapon along with everybody else? I doubt it somehow.

Yes, an Officer needs to be a leader but he doesn't have to do everything at once- that's what he has NCO's for.

I agree that there will be certain instances when taking part in the fighting is the best course of action, but for the time that he is involved in that he surely cannot be undertaking the task of controlling and directing his soldiers to best effect.

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"It might well be different in the TA, I don't know." That's not entirely complimentary.

.

What's the difference Squirrel between " it might be different in the TA, I don't know" and "The Household Cavalry is obviously different" (Steven Broomfield). Look, we are never going to agree so why don't we just call it closing time on this particular thread?

Harry

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