RLMH News - The Staff Ride: Spotlight on Training Officers before World War I

Newly catalogued items in the RUSI Library of Military History illustrate how army commanders were prepared for war through the new training exercise known as the ‘Staff Ride’. By Tony Pilmer, Acting Librarian

How can you effectively prepare your army commanders for war? Four newly catalogued items in the RUSI Library of Military History’s collection beautifully illustrate one way that pre-World War One commanders answered this question.

Staff rides, later known as TWETS, or Tactical Exercises without Troops:

‘may be described as a method of practising Staff Officers in working together, and carrying out the various duties they would be required to perform on campaign. It differs from a War Game in that it is carried out on the actual ground instead of on a map and it differs from Manoeuvres in that no troops are employed. It is, therefore, more practical than a War Game and, being less expensive, can be varied out more frequently than Manoeuvres.’  

Captain A. H. Marindin, Staff Rides, 5th ed.,  1910, p.7 Found in the RUSI Library of Military History – Training Guides section.

The RUSI Library of Military History has four volumes describing staff rides that took part between 1906 and 1909. These publications outline the problems set in each scenario, the decisions made by the officers taken part in each ride and comments from the directors. As such they not only show us the types of problems that army commanders thought their officers would face, but also show how the commanders tackled these problems. Each report is illustrated with maps and charts and some have photographs.

Each report is also different. Our earliest report was a staff ride held by the Chief of the General Staff from 3  to 7 September 1906. Here they created a scenario based on problems encountered in operations that took place in the Po Valley in Northern Italy in 1703-04, 1706, 1799 and 1859. Sadly the military budget could not stretch to holding the ride in Italy, so they chose Gloucestershire. 

The 1906 scenario saw England and Wales divided into four: Northland, Eastland, Southland and Welshland. All four nations were building up their forces in 1906 and by August, Southland ‘sent Welshland a peremptory order to demobilise by 2 September, failing which she threatened to move into Welshland. No answer having been received by 3 p.m. on 3 September, the Southland columns moved across the frontier of the River Avon’.

The 1906 report includes:

  • The briefing notes for the commanders. These included précis and maps of the battles that inspired the scenario. Our volume contains a précis used by one of the directing officers, Sir Henry Wilson
  • A lists of officers taking part
  • Appreciation of the situations by the commanding officer of each army
  • The orders issued by the opposing sides
  • Concluding notes by the directing officer
  • Plans showing location of forces throughout the ride.

One key advocate for the use of Staff Rides was heavily involved in the last two Staff Rides in the RUSI collection.  John Terraine, in his book Douglas Haig, the Educated Soldier, shows that Haig saw Staff Rides as one of the chief instrument of instruction as they helped to ‘free the minds of his staff officers, a batch at a time, from the preoccupations of routine ...but above ..... all the concentration of their minds upon the future enemy.’ As they were often based on military history they also provided his officers with a chance of studying the masters at work. Not only would they learn from the great commanders experience, but they would become acquainted with the difficulties to be encountered in applying principles. Most importantly, it also developed their ‘powers of decision’.

Some rides predicted future warfare better than others. Another report illustrates two siege staff rides held at Chatham in 1907. As well as describing the two rides, they showed how they would construct trenches and the how they would use ordnance to attack them.  

The four staff rides in RUSI Library of Military History’s collection are:

  • Report on a Staff Ride Held by the Chief of the General Staff in the Severn Valley, September 3rd to 7th, 1906
  • Report on a preliminary siege staff ride held at Chatham, 6th to 10th May 1907 and subsequent siege operations held at Chatham, July and August 1907
  • Report on a staff ride : held by the Chief of the General Staff, 7th to 12th October, 1907.
    Report on the second cavalry staff ride held by the Director of Staff Duties : 21st to 26th June 1909.

Explore our related content