Learning from Haldane

The wide-ranging army reforms, named after Richard Burdon Haldane, the Liberal secretary of state for war (1905-12), are widely credited with the despatch of the best organised, trained and equipped expeditionary force that Britain sent to war in the twentieth century. In light of current Strategic Defence Review what lessons can we still extract from Haldane's success?

By Professor Edward Spiers, for RUSI.org

This article is part of the Military History and Policy Series
Series III: Reforming Defence - Learning lessons from past Defence Reviews

When Haldane entered the War Office in December 1905, he knew that army reform was expected of him. He had to cut the cost of the army estimates, while preserving an army capable of undertaking imperial missions within the constraints of voluntary enlistment. He was under pressure on each of these fronts

The legacy of the South African War and previous reforms

Although the British imperial forces had prevailed in the South African War (1899-1902), the conflict had proved a harrowing and costly experience. After the shock of early defeats, the British army had reorganised itself, poured in additional resources (ultimately 448,435 British and colonial soldiers took part) and eventually defeated the Boers after a protracted counter-guerrilla war. Both the cost of the war (some £201 million) and a toll of 5,774 men killed in action, with another 16,168 deaths from disease or wounds, prompted demands for army reform.

Some adjustments in training and new drill books followed, as well as the introduction of a new service rifle for the infantry and cavalry, and the rearmament of the horse and field artillery. Yet the demands for reform were revived after the publication of two royal commissions in 1903 and 1904. The first exposed the many failings during the war and prompted a subsequent committee under Lord Esher to advocate extensive reforms in higher defence management, including the creation of a general staff, an army council and a secretariat for the interdepartmental Committee of Imperial Defence. The second commission pronounced the auxiliary forces 'unfit for service' and recommended various reforms, including compulsory military service.

Two Conservative war ministers sought to reform the army. William St John Brodrick had begun the process during the war itself, proposing the creation of six large army corps at home, based upon a vast increase in peacetime enlistments and military estimates about 50 per cent above their pre-war level. These reforms incurred fierce criticism and proved utterly unrealistic in their expectations of post-war recruitment levels. Accordingly, in the midst of a political crisis over tariff reform in the autumn of 1903, Arthur Balfour, then prime minister, replaced Brodrick with Hugh Arnold-Forster.

A firm believer in the capacity of the Royal Navy to defend the United Kingdom, the new minister sought to economise by slashing the auxiliary forces. At the same time he imposed  his own ideas about the creation of an army with long and short terms of service: the former to garrison the empire, the latter to compose a striking force. Tactless and self-opinionated, he encountered opposition from within the cabinet, from parliamentary supporters of the auxiliary forces, and from within the newly formed army council. He was only able to launch part of his reforms before the Conservative government fell from office.

Haldane's approach to reform

Richard Haldane

Haldane entered office without any preconceived ideas on army reform. Aware that he had to operate within politically acceptable limits, namely the voluntary system of enlistments and a tolerable burden of expenditure, he sought to cut the draft estimates of £29, 813,000 bequeathed by his predecessor. His aim was to ensure that any reorganised army conformed to the limits of an arbitrary, but politically acceptable, financial ceiling of £28 million.

Haldane imposed this limit by withdrawing some colonial garrisons, and cutting ten battalions (two of which were Guards) and 3,850 gunners in the teeth of furious opposition from Conservatives in parliament and the press. Liberals rallied in support of retrenchment but when some of them demanded further economies, first in the commons and then in cabinet through the chancellor of the exchequer, David Lloyd George,  Haldane proved adroit. He sought to preserve his budget by securing crucial endorsements from the responsible ministers in the Foreign, India and Colonial Offices (that is, the offices most likely to use the army), and from the prime minister, Herbert Henry Asquith. By being able to sustain this level of spending throughout his term in office, Haldane ensured a stable base of funding for his reformed army.

Within these forces of financial constraint, Haldane appealed to traditional Liberal sentiments by preserving the linked-battalion system, first devised by a former Liberal war minister, Edward Cardwell, whereby a battalion at home supplied drafts and reliefs for a linked battalion overseas. Within this balance of battalions at home and abroad, he then endeavoured with advice from his military secretary, Colonel Gerald Ellison, and Major-General Douglas Haig, then director of military training in the newly established general staff, to reform the home army. The latter involved a striking force, later renamed as the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of six divisions and a cavalry division, supported by elements from the militia and yeomanry, and a Territorial Force, created from the Volunteers and residual elements of the militia and yeomanry, which could support and expand the striking force in war.

Devising this concept, dubbed as a British version of a 'nation in arms' based upon voluntary service, was much easier than implementing it. In seeking the passage of the Territorial and Reserve Forces Bill (1907), Haldane encountered intransigent opposition and made wholesale concessions to his critics. He appeased Unionist leadership in the Lords by excluding all militia cadres from the Territorial Force, leaving them in a special reserve to support the BEF (but thereby reducing the likelihood that the Territorials would ever reach their target of 312,300 men, which it never did). To mollify Radical and Labour critics, he also switched the purpose of the Territorials from overseas service to home defence. Although Haldane secured passage of his bill, he had emasculated the 'nation in arms' concept.

Thereafter Haldane launched his Territorial Force with the support of King Edward VII and many of the county elites. He and his junior ministers toured the country over a period of five years, proselytising on behalf of the Territorials, speaking at various units, and opening branches of the new Officers' Training Corps (OTC) at various schools and universities. Recruitment surged initially, fuelled by Haldane's exploitation of an invasion scare in 1909, but then fell back with the campaign heavily criticised by the National Service League, an active and growing pressure group that advocated the cause of compulsory service.

Haldane knew that this was never a politically viable option in peacetime Britain, so he persevered on behalf of the Territorials throughout his term of office.  Although neither this force nor the special reserve nor the OTC ever reached their planned targets (with the Territorials only numbering 236,389 men by 30 September 1913, with a mere 1,090 officers and 17,788 NCOs and men willing to volunteer in advance for overseas service), Haldane delivered on his promise that the Territorials would be more organised and more complete in their arms and equipment than the old Volunteers. By the provision of field artillery and companies of engineers, medical and other supply services, he ensured that after the requisite training, they could have taken the field as a mobile field force.

While Haldane concentrated on raising the Territorials, he relied upon his general staff to sustain the reform of the army's tactics, training and organisation as an expeditionary force. As director of military training Haig sought to inculcate precepts of uniformity, efficiency and preparedness by devising training schemes, staff tours, and testing embarkation and disembarkation procedures, and later, as director of staff duties (1907-9), he supervised the preparation and testing of the Field Service Regulations, Part II, the first manual of its kind that covered the organisation of the army in the field. By frequent practice on the rifle range, rates of fire were developed that greatly exceeded equivalent rates in conscript armies, and training became a cumulative process, beginning with individual instruction in the winter, then squadron, company, and battery training in the spring; regimental, battalion and brigade training in the summer; and divisional or inter-divisional exercises and army manoeuvres in late summer. Finally, Major-General Henry Wilson as director of military operations (1910-14) overhauled all aspects of mobilisation, including staff, rail, naval, and horse-supply arrangements.

Continental strategy

The fact that Wilson, like his two predecessors, engaged in conversations with their counterparts in the French general staff, underscored the post-war claims of Haldane that a continental strategy had underpinned his reforms. Based upon a meeting with Sir Edward Grey, the foreign secretary, in January 1906, when the latter had alerted Haldane to the possibility of a German attack upon France, Haldane asserted that he had reformed the army with a view to intervening on behalf of France. Yet these claims, made in his post-war memoirs, had little substance; they were intended to restore his reputation sullied by allegations of being pro-German, which had led to his ejection from the coalition cabinet in May 1915.

In fact, throughout his service as war minister, Haldane had never alluded to any continental strategy in public or in the cabinet. He had always insisted that the purpose of the BEF was overseas service, frequently affirming that Britain had to be able to dispatch 100,000 soldiers to reinforce India. Even after the signing of the Anglo-Russian Convention (August 1907), the dispatch of reinforcements whether to India or to Egypt remained a prime concern in military planning over the next three years. A continental perspective may have been useful in setting standards for mobilisation, especially in the advance preparation of all ancillary and support services, but Haldane could never have reformed the army to meet the possible demands of a war in Europe. He had, on the contrary, to fulfill more immediate requirements, namely the annual provision of drafts for the battalions stationed overseas while keeping his military expenditure within the agreed ceiling of £28 million per annum.

Consequences of reform

The ultimate test of Haldane's reforms, building as they did on the rearmament and improved training since the South African War, occurred in August 1914. The BEF had developed tactical skills relevant to the new conditions of warfare and had trained systematically at section, company and divisional level. It had acquired an organisational framework and sense of purpose from the Haldane reforms, even if only four of the six divisions were deployed immediately to France. Similarly, the auxiliary forces had received arms, equipment and support services within an organised framework for wartime expansion, albeit a framework discarded by Lord Kitchener, who knew little of the home army, when he became secretary of state for war in August 1914. Nevertheless, the mobilisation and performance of the BEF in the crucial opening weeks of the war earned the accolade of the official historian that it was 'incomparably the best trained, best organised, and best equipped British Army which ever went forth to war'.

Assessment of Haldane's success

In reforming the Edwardian army Haldane understood, and operated within, political and economic realities. Far from designing an army to fulfill a specific strategic purpose, Haldane reorganised the forces that could be funded from politically acceptable estimates and raised through voluntary recruiting in peacetime. However gifted as a philosopher, and so able to think holistically about a nation in arms, Haldane demonstrated more prosaic gifts as a reformer, namely a capacity for man-management in the War Office, political skills within the cabinet, and an ability to carry his backbench opinion. If he deceived his political colleagues about the emerging continental purpose for the BEF, and made political concessions that crippled the peacetime purpose of the Territorial Force, Haldane worked tirelessly on behalf of his new creation. He toured the country to raise support for the Territorial Force but never saw the Territorials reach their full establishments. Haldane's reforms were hardly perfect but, by rooting them in an acceptable peacetime budget, he provided a stable peacetime platform in which the army could learn from its recent military experience and prepare for war.


Edward Spiers is a Professor of Strategic Studies, Faculty of Arts Pro-Dean for Research and the Director of the BA International History and Politics programme at the University of Leeds.




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