By Simon Batten
Since 1985 I have taught History at Bloxham, a boarding school in rural Oxfordshire. After so long at one school, culminating in nine years as a Housemaster, I decided in 2013 in the interests of setting myself a new challenge, I would write a book on my first love, military history; I had already written a history of Bloxham School in 2010 to mark the school’s sesquicentenary. As the son of an army officer, I’ve long had an interest in military history, and this was only increased by studying under two outstanding exponents, Piers Mackesy and Sir Michael Howard, when I was at Oxford.
As well as teaching history, I have been coaching schoolboy rugby for 33 years, most recently as assistant coach of the school’s 1st XV, and I have long been interested by the question of how one can most effectively prepare a team for a match on Saturday. A rugby side typically has an unopposed practice on a Friday, running through its moves without opponents to get in the way and invariably looking slick and assured in the process, only for things to go awry on match day when confronted with opponents who tackle them and with situations which develop unpredictably. Under the pressure of competition, mistakes are made and things which worked well in the practice go badly wrong. This made me question how armies practice for war, and whether the circumstances of exercises which inevitably do not involved the use of live ammunition can possibly provide any worthwhile preparation for real combat. The comparison between sport and warfare is a familiar and, in the case of the Great War, an over-used one – there’s obviously an enormous difference between being tackled in rugby and being shot at in combat – but the point about the gap between practice and reality is surely a valid one with application in a number of other areas.
In posing questions about the preparations undertaken by the British Army generally seen as likely if not inevitable for a decade before it happened, I found myself assessing the actions and abilities commanders that were already familiar to me from their later war-time performance, notably Haig, French, Allenby, Rawlinson, Robertson, Wilson and Plumer, as well as engaging with familiar historiographical debates over British generalship in the Great War and the so-called ‘learning curve’ the BEF experienced between 1914 and 1918. Among the many historians who helped me, I would like to single out two for especial thanks: Dr Spencer Jones, whose own work on the reforms of the British Army after the Boer War was my starting point, and John Hussey, whose vast knowledge of the subject guided me and pointed out some of the pitfalls, not least the danger of putting too much trust in what Edmonds and Liddell Hart had to say about generals of the
My focus was on the 10 sets of Army Manoeuvres carried out every September (except for 1911) between the end of the Boer War in 1902 and the outbreak of war in August 1914. Most took place on or near the army’s training ground on Salisbury Plain, but I was chiefly interested in the three sets of manoeuvres in Essex (1904), East Anglia (1912) and Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire (1913), as each took place in terrain closer to what they might face in the event of a continental war and each posed a different challenge – an amphibious landing, an encounter battle and a fighting retreat – which would confront the British in 1914 and 1915.
One of the most enjoyable parts of my research was the trips I undertook to these areas. I stood on the beach at Clacton just as the men of the 2nd Royal Fusiliers had in September 1904 after clambering ashore from their landing craft (some of these men would do the same thing, this time under Turkish fire, on X Beach at Gallipoli 11 years later). I walked the country lanes of Northamptonshire and stood where the Scots Greys watered their horses in Brackley’s Market Square during the 1913 manoeuvres. Most memorably, I travelled around the countryside south of Cambridge and visited Linton, Haverhill and Horseheath where nearly 50,000 troops clashed in the climactic ‘battle’ of the 1912 manoeuvres. I am firmly convinced that one cannot understand a battle until one has walked the battlefield, and one of the most valuable lessons of my visit to south Cambridgeshire was that the terrain was not the flat, open land I was familiar with from the area around Cambridge and Newmarket, but wooded, undulating farmland.
I very much enjoyed writing this book and feel that it has made me a better History teacher by taking me back to what made me love the subject in the first place. ‘Futile Exercise?’ was published in May 2018 and I am now working on my next project with Helion. This is a book, written jointly with one of my former pupils, Matt Dixon, which will explore the stories of the men of Bloxham School – former pupils, masters and other employees – who fought and died in the Great War. While Matt has already done much of the groundwork through the many years he has spent tracking down and photographing the graves and memorials of each one of these men and through his use of war diaries and service records to create a website on the subject (http://bloxhamschoolwardead.co.uk/), I am focusing on their stories while at school and the question of how the school responded to the war and to the loss of so many members of its community, both at the time and since.
Futile Exercise? The British Army’s Preparations for War 1902-1914 is available to order here.