The Training of the Infantry Soldier (1929)

by Major J.M. Milling, M.C., p.s.c.
Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, Vol;. LXXIV, Feb to Nov, 1929

"The military object of modern training must be to foster disciplined individual initiative … it is questionable whether we do enough to foster the individuality of the soldier." – Memorandum on Army Training, Individual Training Period, 1927-1928.

One may inquire, what is the first essential of war? Obviously the soldier. What is the first essential in the soldier, assuming always that he is in full possession of the normal physical attributes of man; surely, bravery, in other words, moral endurance. That this has always been recognised is proved by the care and thought bestowed on that side of military training throughout the ages.

Hitherto, the main problem has been how to influence the mind of the combatant during his training in peace in such a manner as will cause him to overcome in time of war all those instincts and tendencies which might run counter to the end in view. All the resultant methods of training may thus be said to have turned on the single phrase "inculcation of discipline," for discipline has stood the test of time and of war. Even at the present moment, we do not believe that we can possibly dispense with such discipline.

But some change in this point of View now appears to be called for. In the past, all systems employed for creating or strengthening discipline have been based on the application of methods founded on the known laws of mass psychology; that is, we have always trained the combatant as it were "in bulk," and with the idea of "mass fighting " at the root of all our training.

The late war, however, was productive of new weapons—weapons like gas and the tank which, wielded by a few, overcame thousands: and this feature of modem war seems to have become permanent. It appears reasonable, therefore, to assume that policy will aim at eliminating the human element from the battlefield of the future as far as possible. As an exaggerated example, one may visualise a solitary man, lightly armour proofed and armed with a lethal or automatic weapon, called upon to defend a certain area which heretofore would have been garrisoned by a platoon, or even a company. What will he do when he is attacked? Either he will retreat or he will hold his ground. If he holds fast, it will be due to his sense of discipline or to his innate courage.

Reverse things; set him to attack. In this case it is obvious that neither discipline nor courage alone will see him through, nor yet a combination of both. He must have something more. He must have the power to think and act for himself. In other words, he must possess individuality.

Now, what is it that develops individuality? Generally speaking it is being thrown on one's own resources. A flock of sheep is possessed of no individuality. A man moving with a crowd displays none, unless he endeavours to influence it one way or another. If the soldier is to be equipped with those powers of reasoning and initiative which will enable him to think and act for himself, his Individual Training period must be devoted to developing these qualities.

To what extent is the individuality of the soldier at present being developed? Generally speaking, the individual portion of a soldier's training is devoted mainly to the elements of discipline—drill, deportment, use of weapons. Further than this he is taught how to read a map, to use a compass; he is initiated into the outer mysteries of scouting. But none of these subjects tend overmuch to cause the soldier to use his own resources, or to inspire initiative in him. The higher standard of education required these days goes towards improving the foundations. to increasing the intellectual capacity. The Physical Training expert induces, or tries to induce, one to believe that the physical exercises he invents go towards developing a man's reasoning power. Perhaps they do. If so, it is again all to the good. But there are many other methods of developing initiative, self reliance and resource in the individual during the actual military periods of training, if only the person responsible for the training will, himself, use a little initiative and imagination. Here once more is the same problem in another form.

Now, our chief difficulty at present is that the training of the individual on the new lines calls for a good number of really competent instructors. That means more thoroughly trained N.C.Os, and, incidentally, officers better able to train because they are better trained themselves. The standard all round becomes automatically higher.

The writer has already reviewed the question of the individual education and training of the officer. ["The Training of the Army Officer," R.U.S.I. Journal, August, 1928] It was shown that the crux of that problem was the time factor. In exactly the same way the time factor affects the problem now under consideration; once more one is faced with the question of hours, since they are already sufficiently long.

Military service is voluntary. The flow of recruits to-day is essentially dependent on the attractions of the Service. Financial inducements are already at their maximum. Over-long hours must act as a deterrent. Therefore, if we are to find time to give the soldier this necessary training, we must look to economies in existing time-tables.

We have already inferred that an undue proportion of the Individual Training period has, up to date, been accorded to the elements of discipline. For instance, how much time is devoted to proficiency in the use of weapons? Do not the majority of Company Commanders regard the Individual Training period, whether a month or longer, as a period set apart for special preparation for the musketry classification season? Surely that is not right : should not this period be regarded rather as one set apart for the training of the individual soldier to take his place in battle, i.e., his tactical training?

There was a period when battalion drill was the basis of manoeuvre. To-day it has become one of the elements of discipline: in the nature of adjutant's parades, sergeant major's parades, guards, it is now part of the whole annual routine, and is generally excluded from the Individual Training period. So, too, nowadays do education, physical training and bayonet fencing form part of the annual routine. Is there any reason why to their number should not be added musketry? Is it expedient or necessary that the period of Individual Training should be deprived of precious hours in order to promote an element of efficiency which should, in fact, be maintained all the year round?

In the case of Lewis gun training, it should surely be possible for its mechanical side to be sufficiently inculcated throughout the year. The tactical aspect would be. a legitimate entry for the Individual Training period. In the case of the rifle, once a soldier has fired his Table "B", once he has reached a reasonable standard of efficiency, say, has become a good second class shot, he should be urged thereafter to train and improve himself as an aspiring marksman. The pay qualification alone should produce the incentive. The drill movements in a recruit's training should be evolved into natural and non-drill dexterity and ease; standard tests should, for him, become a thing of the past. Their elimination, for that matter, from the military schedule of the trained soldier is strongly advocated. Individual exercises, lying and kneeling only, steady aiming, rapid loading and firing, trigger pressing and snap shooting, combined throughout the year with as much practice as possible on the short and long range, and miniature range, should serve to ensure adequate progress in a soldier's proficiency in his weapon. It should at the same time produce a standard of musketry in the Army as high as, if not higher than, that acquired during what is now regarded as the legendary days of musketry in the British Army, namely in the years preceding the Great War. In the case of the machine gun, a similar principle applies, though with some modification owing to the greater technicalities of the weapon. For instance, it may be that the novice's first year's training may have to be virtually limited to the mechanical side, the tactical being relegated to the second and subsequent years.

The adoption of this principle alone should go far towards providing the requisite time during the Individual Training period for the development of individuality. It might, of course, be urged against these suggestions that climatic conditions in the British Isles during the winter months militate against the work in the field which tactical training demands. This fact is admitted, but, though constituting a genuine obstacle, it should not be insurmountable. In any case, the same obstacle cannot arise abroad.

Apart from the fact that, until recently, physical fitness and proficiency in the use of weapons have been regarded as the main requirements of the private soldier, are there any other reasons why so great a proportion of time is devoted to them? If so, are these reasons sufficiently important to outweigh the claims for developing individuality? One would like to consider for a moment Competition. But in considering this question we must not lose sight of the effect of competition or rivalry on the human element. For what exactly promotes competition? Does it not arise mainly from esprit de corps or individual desire for advancement? And the former is indeed vital in the Army, the latter also a necessity, since it constitutes a deep stimulus to efficiency and progress, provided always that it is. kept within the bounds of moderation. But competition, whatever form it may assume, implies relativity. The easiest method of obtaining a comparative statement of relative values is to be found in percentage and figures of merit. But that is where the evil, or shall we call it it: difficulty, lies; for in certain branches of training there is no possible figure of merit, whereas in others it very certainly does exist. How can one, for example, truly apply a figure of merit or percentage to tactical efficiency of one platoon as against another? A commander may, to a certain extent, and with time at his disposal, assess the relative merits of units under his own immediate supervision, but the values he attributes to each can bear no relation whatsoever to any of those units of which he has no personal cognisance, that is, the Army as a whole.

In the case of musketry, education, physical efficiency, games and sports, there can be, and are, definite standards which can be expressed in the form of percentages. But do they not, for that very reason, exert undue influence, owing to the frailty of human nature in the desire to stand well with higher authority and to achieve personal advancement. In other words, are not the dice apt to be overloaded in favour of those branches of training which are capable of being translated into definite figures of merit or percentages.

Let us consider musketry, for example. In point of actual fact, what is the real difference between the various classes of shots? No doubt the third class shot is no master of his weapon (theoretically), but is the man who obtains fifty points only in his classification so very inferior as a soldier (ballistically). Is there not a chance that while passing judgment on a unit on the result of the year's classification, undue weight is attached to these relative values. Did the thin line which held the German attack in 1914 do so merely because they were expert marksmen, or because they were courageous men, exceedingly handy with a bullet pump (better known as a rifle), and able to pump it in the right direction. The good shot is always to be found; the sniper will always be available, for the number of the latter required is never legion. Moreover, is it not the stopping power of the section or the platoon as a whole which is the true criterion of battle efficiency: and is this ever tried out in an ordinary range practice.

This contention may in itself sound pure heresy. To the devotee of percentages it certainly will; but will it so strike the man of more modern and broader vision? Let there be no misapprehension. It is not desired to decry standards of efficiency; they serve a definite and useful purpose and are therefore sound and necessary. But the real danger seems to arise when undue weight is given to them. The writer feels that until the higher education and training of the individual officer, the development of the N.C.O., and the military individuality of the private soldier are really accepted and insisted upon, this danger will remain.