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BEF 1914. Marksmanship, Musketry and the Mad Minute


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One of the oft-quoted decisive factors for the success of the BEF in 1914 was their alleged superior marksmanship & musketry*. Is there any tangible evidence for this?

The OH Author and editor Edmonds famously claimed (among other things) that the EF (later BEF) was the best trained Army that left British shores. That may well be true, but comparing the BEF to the Army that set off for the Boer Wars or the Crimean War seems to be a rather pointless benchmark. Given 60% of the Infantry and 25% of the cavalry were Reservists, training would not be even through the Army and arguably would be bar-belled, with highly trained men (regulars) and men who had been out of training for many years (Reservists) at either end of the scale. Some infantry battalions went to War with as many as 70% of their ranks filled with Reservists. Given the legacy of varying terms of engagement in the previous 12 years, a large minority of the Reservists were '3 and 9' men who had done little or no training in the previous 9 years. For '3 and 9' men in Section D this fallow period could be as long as 13 years. The 2nd Suffolks that deployed in Aug 1914 had 18% of their men from this cohort. This raises some obvious questions that hopefully someone will be able to expand on. I have no strong preconceptions on marksmanship and I was an utterly appalling shot.. So, can anyone tell me:

 

1. Is there any evidence that the British Army were better shots than the French or German armies? I suspect there were different standards and tests and I suspect it is extremely difficult to compare across armies, hence the query on why the British sources constantly refer to this. I have no real interest in anecdotal evidence as it is susceptible to home-nation bias. Is there hard evidence?

2. Is marksmanship something that needs constant practice? i.e would good marksmen who went into the Reserves remain good marksmen, or would standards fall over time? And if so how quickly do they fall with time? The reason I ask is that there is a mountain of evidence in sports-science that to remain excellent at a skilled sport one needs to practise, practise, practise. Constantly.

3. Is there any evidence that the Reservists were as good marksmen as the regulars when mobilised?

4. Can a marksman with one rifle easily adapt to another rifle? Some diaries suggest many Reservists were not familiar with the new equipment. How quickly could they adapt?

5. What percentage of the Regular Infantry were marksmen? How does this compare to other armies? What percentage of, say the French infantry were classed as their best shots?

 

I am aware of the very long legacy of marksmanship in Britain linked to the Rifle Volunteers from 1859 onwards. The extent to which this was a 'British' thing and the extent to which it may have impacted attitudes in the regular army towards marksmanship is something I have no feel for. Any thoughts on the above would be of great interest. To avoid confusion I am not looking for British anecdotes of German POWs telling their captors they were great shots. I am really looking for tangible evidence if it exists. Thanks MG

* edited to include Musketry 8/12/14

Edited by Guest
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How about looking at the accounts of the people at the receiving end of this rifle fire ?

Not, I hasten to add, the German prisoners saying what their captors wanted to hear : there are some testimonies to the high standard of British marksmanship in German accounts of First Ypres - I do not allude to the famous " machine gun under every hedge" quote ; in Jack Sheldon's book THE GERMAN ARMY AY YPRES 1914 , there's at least one more discerning and authentic remark which I'll try and find.

Phil (PJA)

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How about looking at the accounts of the people at the receiving end of this rifle fire ?

Not, I hasten to add, the German prisoners saying what their captors wanted to hear : there are some testimonies to the high standard of British marksmanship in German accounts of First Ypres - I do not allude to the famous " machine gun under every hedge" quote ; in Jack Sheldon's book THE GERMAN ARMY AY YPRES 1914 , there's at least one more discerning and authentic remark which I'll try and find.

Phil (PJA)

Phil - most of us are reasonably familiar with the anecdotal evidence from this period. It is difficult to think of a book on 1914 that does not mention this, but none provide anything other than anecdotes. The BEF's 'superior marksmanship' is always delivered as an axiom, and as you well know, an axiom is something that is unproven.

I struggle with the idea that a British soldier's view of his own shooting (or indeed a German soldier's view of his own shooting) is unbiased. A am really looking for any empirical evidence of the claims of absolute and relative marksmanship. I have no doubt there is a vast archive of British military marksmanship records, given it was part of the annual tests. Craig's summary is certainly a big step towards this (Thanks Craig). Curious to know what the specifications were for this test if anyone knows.

Also before deploying the BEF did rather a lot of musketry practise and (I think) may well have shot Table A (or is it Table B?) The 18-19 year-olds certainly did. It would be interesting to find these records or at least a summary to get some idea of British marksmanship on the eve of the War. If we had similar for the French and German armies, it might, I stress might, be possible to make some objective comparisons

I recently read that the British Army record for the mad minute was 38 shots on target. I will dig up the reference*. One cannot derive any meaning from this of course, but it is an interesting stat.

MG

*Edit: Superiority of Fire by Major C H B Pridham quoted in "From Boer War to World War: Tactical Reform of the British Army 1902-1914" by Spencer Jones

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Martin

I think you will find the specifications for the tests in the Musketry Regulations. Table A is the recruits' course, and Table B is the annual refresher for trained soldiers.

Ron

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Martin

I think you will find the specifications for the tests in the Musketry Regulations. Table A is the recruits' course, and Table B is the annual refresher for trained soldiers.

Ron

Thanks Ron. If anyone has Musketry Regs and would be kind enough to post the relevant page, it would be gratefully received. MG

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5. What percentage of the Regular Infantry were marksmen? How does this compare to other armies? What percentage of, say the French infantry were classed as their best shots?

Several cavalry histories (as you know) identify the number/percentage of Marksmen, First Class, Second Class and Third Class shots they have. I can't ever recall seeing similar information in infantry regimental histories.

Out of interest, a copy of the History of the 14th King's Hussars magically appeared in my office this morning, with a Brighton post code, and I see that in 1915, 95% of the regiment were either Marksmen or First Class shots.

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Several cavalry histories (as you know) identify the number/percentage of Marksmen, First Class, Second Class and Third Class shots they have. I can't ever recall seeing similar information in infantry regimental histories.

Out of interest, a copy of the History of the 14th King's Hussars magically appeared in my office this morning, with a Brighton post code, and I see that in 1915, 95% of the regiment were either Marksmen or First Class shots.

Thanks Steven. Presumably all that practise in 1914 in Mhow honed their skills. It would be useful to also collate the Cavalry data. You make a good point. I need to trawl the library for evidence. Should you stumble on any evidence it would be well received.

MG

PS. You wouldn't donovan well believe it but a Brighton postmarked parcel also arrived in the post today and the History of the Guards Div, History of the 20th (Light) Div, the History of the 2nd Bn Wiltshire Regiment in the Great War magically fell out. Imagine my surprise. Sadly no marksmanship stats.

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For anyone remotely interested in exploring British marksmanship, Spencer Jones covers the advancements in the 1900s in his very excellent book From Boer War to World War. It is an interesting read but doesn't provide and empirical data. His short version: The British owed a lot to the lessons of the Boer War. In his reference material all roads appear to lead to "Superiority of Fire" by Pridham (1945) which is winging its way to me. MG

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From The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Chronicle for 1913:

2nd BATTALION

RESULTS OF MUSKETRY FOR 1913.

"A" Company: Part 1: Commenced: 115; Failed: 0; Part 2: Commenced: 115; Marksmen: 14; First Class: 48; Second Class: 51; Third Class: 2; Figure of Merit: 103.9

"B" Company: Part 1: Commenced: 133; Failed: 0; Part 2: Commenced: 133; Marksmen: 14; First Class: 52; Second Class: 61; Third Class: 6; Figure of Merit: 102.4

"C" Company: Part 1: Commenced: 112; Failed: 1; Part 2: Commenced 112; Marksmen: 18; First Class: 54; Second Class: 37; Third Class: 3; Figure of Merit: 106.4

"D" Company: Part 1: Commenced: 86; Failed: 0; Part 2: Commenced: 84; Marksmen: 18; First Class: 39; Second Class: 27; Third Class: 0; Figure of Merit: 110.1

Overall Classifications: 64 Marksmen, 193 First Class Shots, 176 Second Class Shots, 11 Third Class Shots. Overall Figure of Merit: 105.7

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From The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Chronicle for 1913:

2nd BATTALION

RESULTS OF MUSKETRY FOR 1913.

"A" Company: Part 1: Commenced: 115; Failed: 0; Part 2: Commenced: 115; Marksmen: 14; First Class: 48; Second Class: 51; Third Class: 2; Figure of Merit: 103.9

"B" Company: Part 1: Commenced: 133; Failed: 0; Part 2: Commenced: 133; Marksmen: 14; First Class: 52; Second Class: 61; Third Class: 6; Figure of Merit: 102.4

"C" Company: Part 1: Commenced: 112; Failed: 1; Part 2: Commenced 112; Marksmen: 18; First Class: 54; Second Class: 37; Third Class: 3; Figure of Merit: 106.4

"D" Company: Part 1: Commenced: 86; Failed: 0; Part 2: Commenced: 84; Marksmen: 18; First Class: 39; Second Class: 27; Third Class: 0; Figure of Merit: 110.1

Overall Classifications: 64 Marksmen, 193 First Class Shots, 176 Second Class Shots, 11 Third Class Shots. Overall Figure of Merit: 105.7

Andrew. This is excellent. Thank you. It is just the sort of data I am looking for. If I can find this data for a wider range of units it will be very informative.

Does anyone know what a Marksman, First Class, Second Class etc needed to achieve and how the score was constructed? Also does anyone know what the Figure of Merit is, and how it was calculated? MG

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Martin have you thought of looking at the War Office payment records to see if the Musketry increment payments still exit.

I do not know about the British musketry attempts to keep marksmanship up but I do know about the Finnish ones, during the interwar years with the Finnish reservists, in fact I even have some of the cups!

Its a great pity TonyE is not here to answer this.

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MG - I would guess that "Figure of Merit" is the highest score achieved by one individual. When your "Superiority of Fire" book arrives, see pages 56 and 57 for description of targets and maximum number of rounds per minute achieved.

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Figure of Merit is a means of measuring a grouping size, taking separate account of vertical and horizontal spread.

The questions raised by Martin are extremely interesting, but I do not think that quoting pre war range results really give any idea of the real effectiveness of British musketry in comparison to other armies. The standards, Marksman/1st/2nd etc are all self selected, and in any case, range results are a poor indicator of how effectively a man will shoot in action.

Does marksmanship require constant practice ? I would say, no, but regular practice, yes.

Reservists as good as regulars ? Unlikely - as physical strength, fitness and eyesight decline (especially with iron sights), so does marksmanship.

Is it easy to adapt to new rifle ? Yes; principles of marksmanship apply to all weapons. The SMLE which reservists were issued with were materially very similar to the earlier Marks of Lee Enfields with which reservists may have been familiar.

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Martin, I think marksmanship [as opposed to musketry] had little to do with combat conditions in 1914 for the following reasons:

1. Many engagements were settled by overwhelming artillery, and a fair few by manoeuvre .. outflanking, envelopment etc. Some significant ones in late Octoer aand November were in darkness ......... what price marksmanship under those conditions!?

2. The ranges and targets presented to determined men armed with rifles were not demanding ....... short [by 1900 standards] ranges, and thick targets not moving at an angle to the lines of sight.

3. Musketry is what matters, rather than the ability of a soldier to hit a target and score a bull. This involves sufficient men brave enough to expose themselves to an enemy who is not a cardboard cutout, practised enough to deliver 15 aimed shots in a minute, disciplined enough to fire when ordered at a nominated target, and able to hit a part, however peripheral, of an enemy.

4. Regulars or regular reservists would have practised for hours on "pokey drill", loading and snapping using drill cartridges under the baleful eye of an NCO. In my opinion the priority of COs was to give reservists what practice at marching and musketry as could be fitted in, and, in general, infantry versus infantry, that seems to have been sufficient..

5. Most of the replies above seem to refer to scores achieved in unrealistic circumstances, and might apply to sniping in trench warfare but hardly to the realities of 1914.

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Figure of Merit is a means of measuring a grouping size, taking separate account of vertical and horizontal spread.

The questions raised by Martin are extremely interesting, but I do not think that quoting pre war range results really give any idea of the real effectiveness of British musketry in comparison to other armies. The standards, Marksman/1st/2nd etc are all self selected, and in any case, range results are a poor indicator of how effectively a man will shoot in action.

Does marksmanship require constant practice ? I would say, no, but regular practice, yes.

Reservists as good as regulars ? Unlikely - as physical strength, fitness and eyesight decline (especially with iron sights), so does marksmanship.

Is it easy to adapt to new rifle ? Yes; principles of marksmanship apply to all weapons. The SMLE which reservists were issued with were materially very similar to the earlier Marks of Lee Enfields with which reservists may have been familiar.

Mr Drill. Thanks for your informed thoughts.

1. Pre-War Range Results. I have focused on this as a starting point. I am sure the whole Army's range results for 1913 are at Kew and I shall dig them up (if they exist). It will at least tell us what the range (excuse the pun) of results were across the Army and across the battalions that deployed with the EF in Aug 1914.

2. Clearly other armies will have different range tests, ...but... if we can find these it is another starting point and with some informed views, we might be able to make some (informed) comparison, however subjective that might be.

3. Range Results as a poor indicator of how a man will shoot in action. I don't know how one measures the latter. For obvious reasons it is (I think) impossible to measure. We have to go with what we have. I would argue that good shots on the range might be good shots in combat. In my very very limited experience good shots on the range were exceptionally good shots in CQBR* which is the nearest I can think of battle conditions. Similarly I have been on endless march-and-shoots and the best shots on the static range typically did better under these more stressful conditions, albeit clearly less stressful than facing Von Kluck and Co. It is a subjective view of course.

4. Reservists v Regulars. I would tend to agree, although eyesight deterioration doesn't usually set in until the late 40s early 50s and might not be a factor. The Average age of the Reservists with the BEF was around 30 **. and some loose change. If the diaries are any indication a higher proportion of the Reservists wouldn't have been on the field having dropped out on the march in boots that didn't fit. I am crunching numbers on a BEF battalion and the differentials between Regulars and Reservists are quite alarming when looking at attrition.

5. SMLE. Some diaries refer to the lack of familiarity with the SMLE for some Reservists. To be fair they don't record whther it was a problem. There are diaries of BEF officers commenting on their men shooting high. Not sure if this is related.

Not a criticism of your valid views, just some observations to add to the debate. MG

* Close Quarter Battle Ranges.

** I will revert with the exact figure. The 'Old' Contemptibles were not that old.

Average age of men 19 years and above in the British Army based in the UK on 1st Oct 1913: 25 years and 2 months

Average age of men in the Army Reserve Sections A & B on 1st Oct 1913:................................30 years and 1 month

Average age of men in the Army Reserve Section D on 1st Oct 1913:........................................33 years and 5 months

Average age of men in the Army Reserve Sections A, B and D on 1st Oct 1913:........................30 years and 11 months

Average age of men in the Special Reserve Sections A & B on 1st Oct 1913:.............................30 years and 1 month

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Martin, I think marksmanship [as opposed to musketry] had little to do with combat conditions in 1914 for the following reasons:

1. Many engagements were settled by overwhelming artillery, and a fair few by manoeuvre .. outflanking, envelopment etc. Some significant ones in late Octoer aand November were in darkness ......... what price marksmanship under those conditions!?

2. The ranges and targets presented to determined men armed with rifles were not demanding ....... short [by 1900 standards] ranges, and thick targets not moving at an angle to the lines of sight.

3. Musketry is what matters, rather than the ability of a soldier to hit a target and score a bull. This involves sufficient men brave enough to expose themselves to an enemy who is not a cardboard cutout, practised enough to deliver 15 aimed shots in a minute, disciplined enough to fire when ordered at a nominated target, and able to hit a part, however peripheral, of an enemy.

4. Regulars or regular reservists would have practised for hours on "pokey drill", loading and snapping using drill cartridges under the baleful eye of an NCO. In my opinion the priority of COs was to give reservists what practice at marching and musketry as could be fitted in, and, in general, infantry versus infantry, that seems to have been sufficient..

5. Most of the replies above seem to refer to scores achieved in unrealistic circumstances, and might apply to sniping in trench warfare but hardly to the realities of 1914.

Mr Grumpy.

Like Mr Drill you raise some very interesting points. It is axiomatic that Marksmanship, musketry and battle conditions are different, but we can measure the former two and we can't measure that latter. We have to go with what we have, or at least what we can measure. It is a subjective view but across 100,000 infantrymen I would think that good shots on the range might be (on average) good shots in static situations such as Mons and Le Cateau. This is at least what the OH implicitly claims and just about every history on the 1914 period - the BEF's alleged superior rate of fire and accuracy.

Marksmanship v Musketry. I tend to agree, and musketry results as posted earlier in the thread will help us understand this better. There are diary accounts of how some units specifically ordered men to cease fire and then directed marksmen to continue, picking off specific targets. Similarly, instructions to marksmen to target Officers and machine gunners. The evidence may be fragmentary, but there is at least some evidence that local commanders were tactically adept at optimising the musketry and marksmanship skills immediately to hand. Maybe it was tactics that optimised the available skills, rather than musketry skills that made the difference. Just a thought.

Jones (and others) allude to the lessons of the Boer War. This is some thing I am exploring separately - the number of Boer War veterans in the BEF. My sense is that some authors seem to believe the BEF was well endowed with Boer War veterans. The small amount of analysis I have done suggests otherwise. The number of Boer War veterans was very small, although the lessons may well have been enshrined in improved training and therefore applied to the whole Army. It is a point of debate. If the Boer War was such a formative experience, the very hard lessons were not wholly absorbed by the RA and in particular the RFA.

If anyone has any ideas on how the BEF's alleged superior musketry could be measured I would be interested. I don't think it is possible, hence my focus on a measurable proxy.

MG

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I would think that good shots on the range might be (on average) good shots in static situations such as Mons and Le Cateau.

MG

I would agree: repeated practising of a drill of any sort must lead to an ability to replicate it under extreme conditions. In microcosm one only has to look at the success of 1st Cavalry Brigade winning the fire fight at Nery, and again, at Messines, holding off pretty overwhelming numbers by the men's ability to handle their rifles.

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A good shot may crack under the pressure of combat and be unable to hit his man however this is clearly too subjective to be quantifiable. The idea of looking at musketry training and abilities pre-war is the only way I can think of to get a base line of ability.

There is an article on the 'new' 1909 German Regs here - http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03071841009436403?journalCode=rusi19#.VIM9jWeMvh4 - if anyone can get access to the journal.

Craig

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For what it's worth, the German 1905 musketry regulations ensured that the only targets to be used were human size (and of grey colour ).

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette - Thursday 30 November 1905

post-51028-0-29125900-1417897419_thumb.j

Craig

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I agree with Grumpy on the points he raises, particularly in that musketry and the ability to fire fifteen aimed rounds per minute as a cohesive group in order to stop an enemy attack while under fire themselves, is of more relevance than examining individual marksmanship in trying to find some resolution to your question. Although it is interesting from the viewpoint of how the soldiers were trained to fight in peacetime, their performance on a range cannot be compared to a situation when they were fighting for their lives. Although "anecdotal" evidence provided by the soldiers themselves is not being considered in your question, it would appear from the hundreds of accounts (no exaggeration) that I have read over the years that while the infantrymen of the B.E.F. in 1914 were not impressed with their German opponents' musketry, they had great respect for the skill of their artillery.

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At the risk of raising hackles here, I must mention Terence Zuber's assessment of the German performance in the1914 fighting.

I'm pretty sure - and I would ask forumites who have access to his book on the Ardennes to bear me out, or otherwise - that he attributes the monstrous slaugher of the French at the Battle of Rossignol to German rife fire, in the main. As I write this, I am away from home so I cite this from memory. I do possess his book " The Mons Myth" and when I return this evening I'll try and dig up a quote or two in which Zuber does acknowledge that British infantry did exhibit creditable skill with musketry and marksmanship.....but if what he says about Rossignol is true then we must agree that it was German infantry who made the most extreme demonstration of the effectiveness of the fusillade.

The historiographical dimensions to this are crucial. For those who set out to extoll the BEF of 1914 for punching above its weight, nothing is more understandable than the wish to emphasise the legendary role of marksmanship in the David versus Goliath scenario that British historians like to depict. Zuber delivers the counter punch, although we must beware of his historiographical agenda, too.

Phil (PJA)

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.....but if what he says about Rossignol is true then we must agree that it was German infantry who made the most extreme demonstration of the effectiveness of the fusillade.

. . . . . but perhaps that was largely due to the astonishing prominence of the target they were presented with ?

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The British army certainly made a decision to go for musketry rather than marksmanship. Tests were undertaken at, from memory, Hythe School of Musketry which showed musketry was more efficient. It's written up in a once highly regarded book which I have, although the name of the book I'm damned if I can remember. Away from home at the moment.

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