Jump to content
The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Staff Officer Training


PhilB
 Share

Recommended Posts

A member recently posted:- "It has been pointed out that men can be trained to a tolerable level in weeks and NCOs and junior officers in months but a staff officer needs years to learn his job." This gives the impression that staff duties are akin to rocket science. Bearing in mind that staff officers tended to operate in one staff speciality, is there evidence that their training was necessarily years long? What is it that requires so long to absorb?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

A staff officer ideally should pass through staff college, this alone implies that the army thinks they need specialised training. They are responsible for the administration which covers a myriad of duties. I suspect that some commanders shared your estimation of the value of good staff work and only realised their error when something like the reserves cock up at Loos came along or the problem with casualty evacuation at the Somme.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Staff College turned a regimental officer - whatever arm - into one who was made fully aware of operating two ranks up - ie majors at staff college were being trained to be Brigade Commanders (at least). That required a lot of time and a lot of input as well as a fair amount of war gaming. Brian Bond's, 'The Victorian Army and the Staff College 1854 - 1914' (Methuen 1972) gives some important insights into this.

As you might have noticed, there was a substantial increase in the number of officers in a battalion during the war and many of them rotated through staff type appointments within the battalion. Brigade HQ was also substantially increased from its puny pre war establishment (effectively a Brigade Major for Ops and a Staff Captain for admin etc). Staff courses were run during the war, but the staff college itself was closed. These were short staff courses, to deal with the exigencies and different pressures that war time brought. Good staff training made an enormous difference in ops planning and the writing of orders; the lack of staff officers suitably trained was particularly felt at the Somme in 1916. Essentially, staff training prepares a person to be controller of men engaged in multi-faceted tasks whereas previously they had to concentrate on being professionals within their chosen arm.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

The perils of having untrained, inexperienced staff officers are all too well known , as Sassoon puts it "now we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine". Contrary to popular belief staff officers weren't all 'Captain Darlings' swanning around in large chateaux well behind the line. There are reports of collapses from days and weeks without much sleep and mental breakdowns from stress. True the degree of physical danger was much less but some had their mental health wrecked.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I didn't respond earlier because the U.S. Army I knew adopted the 1-2-3-4 method of staff organization we copied from the French in 1917. At battalion and brigade levels, the S1 is the adjutant, responsible for personnel administration; the S2 is the intelligence officer; S3 is plans, training and operations, the most important thing; and S4 is responsible for quartermaster type of things, supply and its endless paperwork. At division and higher levels the S prefix on the staff positions is replaced by a G, as in G1, G2, G3, G4. In joint-service commands it becomes a J.

To give a non-British answer to Phil, I imagine that the nuts and bolts of personnel administration or supply could be extremely complicated, more than a highly motivated amateur with the best of intentions could easily master. Some people in those specialist fields also can be quite passive-aggressive about protocol, procedures and properly submitted paperwork--to use the British term, jobsworths, and self-important pedantic ones at that. A few of them enjoy frustrating the plans of those they don't like, so one needs experts in those high-level staff positions to force the clerks and jerks do their jobs and make the system work the way it's supposed to. Of course, it could work both ways, the staff may have also told some combat units to clean up their paperwork and do things by the regulation book.

A description of the organization and functioning of staffs in the British army at battalion, brigade, division and higher levels would be a useful addition to the Long, Long Trail.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

A study of Norman F. Dixon's book "On the Psychology of Military Incompetence" gives a greater appreciation of the need for adequate staff training. One of the more successful commanders in the Mesopotamian campaign of 1914-1918, as an officer in the Indian Army, was mentioned in despatches after the relief of Chitral, gained his DSO in the last Ashanti war, a VC in Somaliland and for a short time commanded a Brigade in that campaign. With that under his belt,at the age of 34 he went to Staff College in 1905, where he met other students with South African War experience. The Staff College was able to analyse and condence those skills required in operating formations at Brigade Division and Corps level.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Phil,

A quick view on staff training. I will take the advice of those better qualified but I think the intent was that the staff qualified officer could fill any staff appointment, therefore they learnt about personnel management (beyond morale etc), intelligence, operations, administration, logistics, staff duties (writing in a consistent, succinct and unambiguous style and format) etc. As a case in point, Blamey who was the first Australian to attend Quetta landed at Gallipoli as a GSO for intelligence (he hadn't been an IO before and wasn't later), and advanced through the staff system to be the Brigadier General Staff for 1 Aust Corps at the end of the war.

The point is that it was never the intent that staff qualified officers work solely in one speciality, that is a quite recent phenomenen due to the increasing complexity of (primarily) logistics and so on, and just as importnatly the desire of commanders to have stability, continuity and expertise remain in the function they are good at. Nevertheless one would expect staff officers to have a sound understanding and real appreciation of the other staff disciplines, regimental officers sometimes don't have that understanding and more importantly appreciation and that is why Army staff officer training takes about a year.

cheers,

Chris H

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Gentlemen, I`m sure everyone appreciates the importance of good staff work and hence the need for good staff training. Although staff work has many facets, it was compartmentalized into specialities and, individually, they do sound more like large scale logistics than some rarified science. The fact that they worked long hours isn`t evidence that years of training were necessary. It may be that they did really require that long - I`m simply asking what skills and techniques necessitated that length of time to impart?

Quote:- "I suspect that some commanders shared your estimation of the value of good staff work and only realised their error when something like the reserves cock up at Loos came along or the problem with casualty evacuation at the Somme."

This grossly and unfairly distorts my view of good staff work. And surely the reserves at Loos and casualty facilities on the Somme weren`t a result of bad staff work but poor decisions at the top by the then C in C and DMS?

I take your point, Chris, that the ideal staff officer would be able to operate in all specialities but in WW1 some degree of specialization seems to have taken place and would seem appropriate for lower staff levels?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Formal staff training gives but the foundation for being a staff officer. The rest comes with experience - of success and failure, and understanding the underlying causes - and this takes a long period of time. Although staff work is to some extent specialised, a successful staff officer has to have a broad understanding and experience of all ( and I mean all) other 'trades' in the staff business.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Phil,

The assumption that a soldier could be trained in a short time is perhaps the place to start. He was given basic training. He learnt the rest from those around him and followed orders from those above him.

A staff officer however had to issue some of those orders and get them right first time or large bodies of men suffered. Which they did until sufficent officers were up to scratch on the staff front.

regards

Arm

Link to comment
Share on other sites

An interesting take is John Masters's account of Staff College recounted in The Road Past Mandalay. One I remember is his finding an assignment returned his room's previous occupant. It was heavily marked up in red, and at the bottom the comment "Your incompetence has cost the lives of ten men. Murderer!"

Staff College trains officers to think beyond the unit level.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Phil,

Staff College is like an MBA program. Pre and post war at the Staff Colleges, they did teach, discussed, exercised, wargamed the staff candidates in each of the "staff disciplines", they weren't compartmentalised to the extent you may think, not necessarily to the extent of being experts in each, but enough to be effective managers (of the system and the experts who worked for them) and decision makers for each. Remembering that each candidate has to be assessed in each, like other command and promotion courses, in practical situations (not tests and papers) it means that the course time is the individual assessment and critique time multiplied by the syndicate/squad size. In "peacetime" there is also a large amount of time broadening the candidates knowledge by exposure to politicians, government, senior officers and headquarters and appropriate industry, it can mean a lot of travel; unproductive time that must be added to the length of the course. That is why it took and does take a year or more, just about anywhere in the world, the Turkish Staff College that Mustafa Kemal attended also took about a year. In the case of the Indians and Pakistani's I seem t recall their annual Corps/Army exercises were also used as an aspect of their respective staff college courses.

Yes during the course of the war with attrition, weeding of the weak and the rapid exponential growth of the BEF as a whole (I include the CEF, AIF, NZEF, IA and other Empire forces in this) you naturally ended up with a staff sytem with many officers who were not "post staff college" qualified, these were either experts in their field or had through experience shown aptitude for their specific discipline. As a case in point my Great Grandfather was a Civil Engineer born and educated in NZ who was in South America building railways when the news got through to him that the war was on. By the time he got to the UK to enlist he was appointed as an RE LT working with the Inland Water Transport (IWT), building, improving, repairing canals and managing barge operations etc. By the end of the war he was the Deputy Director IWT, other than his initial first appoinment training I don't think he ever did any other courses.

Thus to answer your question about lower levels being more appropriate for specialists, certainly, and with the increasing complexity since 1914 a greater tendency for officers to be streamed. In the case of intelligence it is why you saw General Staff Officers "Intelligence" and Intelligence Officers working for them at Division and above (and later at Bdes). S.S. Butler was probably the only Corps GSO Int who could not speak German and was a Regular Army, South Staffordshire officer serving with the Indian Army pre war, but he was "psc" Quetta and through the previous incumbent being KIA at ANZAC Cove came to be the GSO II (Int) (He couldn't speak Turkish, Greek or Arabic either) for Birdwood with ANZAC on Gallipoli and served with Birdwood in that position throughout the war (ANZAC, I ANZAC and 1st Australian Corps), eventually handing over the position to the first Australian Corps level GSO II (Int) MAJ Hunn (not psc qualified) when the pressure was on to make all of the Corps GSO positions Australian. Butler then became the Fifth Army GSO Int, he was certainly the only Army level GSO Int who couldn't speak German and would have relied on his subordinate GSO Int and Intelligence Corps officers to do the translation work, but he was PSC qualified and obviously must have been reasonably good at making the necessary decisions and managing the int "experts" for Birdwood to keep him at it.

cheers,

Chris H

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I hope that our Jack Sheldon does not mind that I mention that he is a graduate of the German General Staff College. (Every year's class includes two NATO officers from other countries, I belive, or possibly two British officers, I am not sure.) He has stated that this two year long experience was a most impressive experience. I correspond with a German General Staff officer of some rank, and he has several languages (I would guess at a minimum of six), including two very different Middle Eastern languages, has served in a general staff position in a foreign army for several years, and could also be considered a German diplomat.

During WW I many German divisions had a Generalleutnant as formal CO, but on a day-to-day basis the division was largely run by a General Staff officer, who often was a captain.

Bob Lembke

Link to comment
Share on other sites

From what you say, gents, it seems that shortage of staff officers was bound to be a critical problem in an army having to expand as did the British. Since a continental war with Germany was on the cards for some years before 1914, should this not have been foreseen and steps taken to increase the pre-war supply & conserve qualified staff officers when war started? Ironically, wouldn`t predicting such a shortage be a staff function?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Phil,

I don't really think that the powers that be envisaged such a long savage attritional war as they got!

regards

Arm

Link to comment
Share on other sites

As a back up to that question, there were apparently 908 psc at wars start, I wonder how many divisional staff etc that would have sorted out, if they had taken them out of the battalions? Mind it would have ripped the heart out of the BEF.

regards

Arm

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Phil,

I agree with Arm, no one foresaw such a long attritional war. Plus where in all of the priorities in preparation for war do you place "increase number and quality of staff college graduates", the ten years prior to war were a period of sustained improvement for the war everyone prophesised Germany would start, for example; raising of the Committee of Imperial Defence and the biennial Imperial Defence Conferences; common unit nomenclature (important for understanding capability and function) and organisation; introduction of universal training and cadet training in Australia; acquisition of cruisers and associated destroyers by the Dominions.

cheers,

Chris H

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Phil,

I agree with Arm, no one foresaw such a long attritional war. Chris H

Kitchener did and Haig too. They can`t have been the ony two?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Many Officers thought that the war, when it came, would be a long one.

But, given the size of the pre war Army, just how many Staff Officers would you need?

And how could you have trained all the Officers that you thought might be needed and still run the Army and where would all the Instructors have come from?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

One source for staff positions where administrative and logistics skills were more important than military knowledge was to draft in people from senior positions in industry. Thus for example Cecil Paget Chief Superintendant of the Midland Railway became a Lt Col responsible for railway operations in France including ROD.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Many Officers thought that the war, when it came, would be a long one.

But, given the size of the pre war Army, just how many Staff Officers would you need?

And how could you have trained all the Officers that you thought might be needed and still run the Army and where would all the Instructors have come from?

If the war was to be long, the army would inevitably be big, very big, so ideally one would have planned for that. I say ideally because there are obvious problems and hindsight is a great help :) . One can`t escape the feeling that pre-war the young officers had lots and lots of free time. Training all of them in elementary staff duties would have seemed a good idea?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

908 psc Officers at the start of the war - so what percentage of Officers on the Active list and Captain or above did this represent?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

As you might have noticed, there was a substantial increase in the number of officers in a battalion during the war ...........

No, I had not noticed!

30 plus MO in 1914, 32 plus MO in 1917, slightly complicated by multi-tasking.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Well, of a number of battalions with which I have dealt, whatever the establishment might have said, I have found numbers of officers significantly above the 30 mark. Unfortunately I am away from books so cannot give specifics (what an excuse!) but shall cahse up. On the other hand, it might well be a gentle reminder not to make sweeping generalisations!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Gentle reminder?

Not my style!

Seriously, it was a lucky battalion that had as many as 30 at any one time, regardless of War Establishment.

BEF went to war with many gaps at subaltern platoon commander level, and this after using the Special Reserve and the Reserve of Officers.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
 Share

×
×
  • Create New...