Futile Exercise?

The British Army's Preparations for War 1902-1914

Simon Batten

Examines the exercises and manoeuvres conducted by the British Army in the years leading up to the First World War.
Date Published :
May 2018
Publisher :
Helion and Company
Series :
Wolverhampton Military Studies
Illustration :
c 50 b/w photos & illustrations, 4 b/w maps
Format Available    QuantityPrice
Binding. : Hardback
ISBN : 9781911512851
Pages : 236
Dimensions : 9 X 6 inches
Stock Status : Available


According to the official historian Brigadier-General James Edmonds: ‘In every respect the Expeditionary Force of 1914 was incomparably the best trained, best organized, and best equipped British Army which ever went forth to war’. There has been considerable debate over the extent to which Edmonds’ claim was justified, and to which the British Army had learnt the lessons of recent events (above all, its chastening experiences in South Africa). Conventional wisdom has it that the British Army in 1914 was utterly unprepared for the development of trench warfare from October 1914 onwards, and that it took many lives and a costly ‘learning curve’ for the British to come to terms with the new conditions of warfare. Given that war was expected in the decade before August 1914 - and that a great deal of time and money was spent preparing for that war - it seems obvious to ask why the British Army was not better prepared for the war when it came. This raises important issues about how armies learn from their experiences and how they prepare for the unknowable - namely, a war - without employing bullets and shells. How realistic and useful were the exercises and maneuvers the British Army used in the period between the end of the Boer War in 1902 and the outbreak of war in August 1914? The approach of most historians has been either to ignore them, or to dismiss them as a waste of time and money. The maneuvers carried out between 1902 and 1913 featured large forces – sometimes as many as 45,000 men and 12,000 horses – as well as guns, trucks, trains and the first sizable force of military aircraft ever employed in Britain. Many of the names later familiar from the Western Front were involved – Haig, French, Rawlinson and Allenby – as well as a great many of the troops who would cross to France with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in August 1914. Their efforts were witnessed by large crowds, as well as politicians, representatives of foreign armies and journalists (some of them ‘embedded’ with army units); there was comprehensive and opinionated coverage in the newspapers of the time.

What lessons were learnt, what value did these maneuvers have and how do they relate to the events of the war - especially, its opening months? How does the British experience compare with those of the continental armies, who also made extensive use of maneuvers in this period?

About The Author

Simon Batten studied Modern History at Jesus College, Oxford, where the experience of studying under Sir Michael Howard inspired him to pursue his interest in military history. He has taught History at Bloxham School since 1985 and is also the school archivist; he also coaches rugby. Simon has conducted numerous battlefield tours and has written articles on British commanders in the First World War, as well as lecturing on the subject. His twin interests in sports coaching and military history has led to a fascination with the question of how armies learn from their experiences and how they prepare for war. He is the author of A Shining Light (2010).


“Despite having read a number of recent “revisionists” 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.”

- The NYMAS Review

“Futile Exercise offers readers a perspective that has rarely been investigated in such depth, and throws fresh light on the Edwardian Army. It is a thoughtful, deeply researched, balanced, and well presented piece of work which shows that those who still persist in 'the Donkeys' school of thought are on very shallow ground indeed. Highly recommended.”

- Australian Army Journal

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