Company Training

By Major E.R. Mahony, Irish Guards
Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, Vol. LXXXII, Feb to Nov 1937

The principle which underlies the tactical training of all units, large or small, is the effort to simulate reality.

The problem of how to make training more interesting is certainly not new, nor does it exist because of a dearth of those well qualified to solve it. If it lingers for any one reason more than another, possibly the explanation is to be found in the word "finance"—that implacable wrecker of efficiency in every department of military endeavour. It is useless, therefore, when thinking about training to permit oneself any flights of fancy. Ideas can only become admissible if they are conceived with one eye always focussed on s. d. If, then, we have to do without the help of adequate material resources, let us see how far we can get with the only others available, those which can be called human resources.

The principle which underlies the tactical training of all units, large or small, is the effort to simulate reality. In order to cultivate that elusive atmosphere it is the custom to rely in training on the energy and descriptive powers of certain galloping individuals whose task it is to "paint the picture." This is all very well as far as it goes, but however ably the picture may be painted it will be of service only to those who are intelligent enough to be capable of appreciating it, namely, officers and a few N.C.Os. The imaginative effort on the part of the umpire demands a similar response on the part of the troops, and his work is largely wasted if only about ten per cent. of his hearers are mentally capable of reacting to it. Unfortunately this often seems to happen, and perhaps it may be accounted for on the grounds that though the British private soldier possesses qualities which are the envy of other nations, his very excellence is partly due to the fact that imagination is a characteristic in which he is most singularly deficient. If we wish, therefore, to stimulate the imaginative process in the soldier it is not enough to rely upon mental pictures, outlandish names for commanders, or the hazardous adventures of treasure carts; such things never counted with him in Balham, and he is unlikely to find a reason why they should do so in Hampshire. If adequate response cannot be obtained by appealing to his head, then let us turn attention to his stomach and the soles of his feet. With the exception of physical courage, all the moral and bodily attributes which characterize the soldier in war can be exploited in peace on the training ground; and since it is our purpose to experiment with the human mind and senses we shall mention those features of them which can be made use of, and illustrate by a few examples the way in which they might be developed.

Negligence Resulting in Discomfort

"A" Company had been exercising all day, and was going to spend the night out on company training. "B" Company was also out acting as enemy for "A." After an engagement in the afternoon, "B" Company withdrew so rapidly that "A" lost touch with them, and failed to regain contact by dusk. In due course "A" halted for the night, by which time their interest in "B" had, in conjunction with their energy, begun to flag. One may safely presume that very shortly afterwards all interest in "B" Company was effectively routed by the prospects of an evening meal.

The commander of "A" Company had been instructed by the director to refrain from putting out any protective troops and to encourage passively the spirit of forgetfulness and inconsequence. "A" Company in due course settled down to heavy slumber, but about 2 am. they were roughly tumbled out of their blankets, and at least half of these, together with some rifles, were carried off in the dark by the raiders of "B" Company. "A" Company must now pass the remainder of the night as best they may, share their blankets, and march into camp the next morning with some of their number disarmed. Their plight will be spread abroad and will be the cause of comment amongst the other companies.

If realism is the correct foundation on which to base training exercises, then in the above example we claim to have obtained some approximation to it in a harmless and inexpensive way. By producing an anticlimax such as the above the minds of those who experienced it will be more impressed by this single incident than by half a dozen stereotyped exercises in protective duties, wherein nothing more has happened during eight precious hours of human existence than an occasional brush with a hostile patrol. "B" Company should also profit by "A" Company's discomfiture and loss of "face." The approach march, the raid, and the consequences would make an impression on them also. They would not have been told beforehand that "A" Company had omitted to put out any protective troops, but at the director's subsequent conference he would no doubt explain that it was by his orders that none were put out.

Decision on the Unexpected

Sketch I is a tribal country, rather open and flat. The right sector is bounded by a river fordable in many places. There is a British Company at A, one at B, and another at C. The role of the latter is that of a central reserve to be used to reinforce either A or B as required. Tribal forces about 200 strong are known to be close to and East of the river. It is reported that they are preparing to make a descent, probably on camp A. The Company commander at C has received orders to move at short notice to reinforce camp A, and he has moved by the road running East from C. When his force is half a mile East of the cross-roads at X he hears sudden and heavy firing from the North-West. What will he do?

We will suppose that he decides, as we think he ought to do, to "march to the sound of the guns." He turns about and marches rapidly northward until he reaches point Q on the other road. Up to this moment he does not know what is happening ahead, but now the situation is suddenly revealed. Will he realize that here is an opportunity to teach his men two vital lessons of warfare—the power of surprise and the value of movement against a flank? Let us assume that he does realize these possibilities, and therefore launches his force against the tribesmen's flank and rear. They are taken unawares, panic seizes them, they begin to get up, turn, and fly (the umpires must see to it that these movements are carried out in as realistic a manner as possible).

The value claimed for this lesson is twofold. firstly, from the time that "C" Force left camp until the end of the skirmish the events which took place were entirely unforeseen and unexpected, and therefore true to the teachings of war. The march of "C" Force culminated in a realistic demonstration of the power of surprise and flank attack. The whole operation was full of action, decision, vitality, and was totally different from the usual hum-drum exercise wherein a company settles down to plod straight forward along a road knowing full well that in an hour or so it will hit the enemy frontally, and that after a further half hour, two of its platoons will start off on the inevitable flank movement of which the enemy are perfectly aware, while the remaining two take advantage of the occasion to contemplate the sky or the earth at their leisure. Secondly, the movements of "C" Force will provide it with a particularly clear-cut example of the almost instantaneous effects of a flank movement, in a way which the action of the two platoons mentioned above could never do. The lectures which the Company has had on Surprise and flank Attack will thus be driven home in an emphatic and enduring manner. In the above account of "C" Force's movements and those of the tribesmen it is not maintained that these events could have happened without the director's intervention. On the contrary, the tribesmen's attack on Camp "B" instead of "A" would have to be brought about by the hand of the director, who would ensure that the timing coincided with the movements of "C" Force after it had left its camp. The Commander of "C" Force might not have acted as he did, but have ignored the firing and continued his march to A. Had he done so, the day's work would not have suffered, for he would be bound to report what he had heard on arrival at A, and even then the occurrence was of sufficient importance to compel the two commanders there to take some steps to solve it. Should they omit to do so the stage would then be set for giving them some unpleasant surprises later on from a direction which they never expected.

Privation Following an Error in Judgment

Sketch No. II represents a semi-civilized hostile country. A and B are two food dumps at present in the enemy's hands. They are real food dumps, for they contain in equal proportions the evening meal of two British companies now stationed at C. A and B are about two miles apart. The enemy, who are well armed and led, are about two x hundred strong. The country is well supplied with good tracks: there are three main ones roughly parallel and running North and South between C and A B. The ground between the tracks is broken, and difficult for formed bodies to move over. The two companies at C are short of food and are ordered to capture the supplies which are known to exist at A and B.

"C" Force marches out of camp and, taking the centre track, moves direct on Shoby Cross Roads. Enemy observers posted well forward note this movement and report it together with the news that the two outer tracks are clear. As a result of this information the tribal commander pushes his main force up to hold the high ground just North of the cross roads. "C" Force is now reported to have passed the track junction at Y, the whole of it still moving by the centre track. "C" Force bumps the enemy and a sharp action develops. The British commander soon decides to get some men on to the high ground about Point M, but the enemy commander, knowing that he has the whole of "C" Force in front of him, and not fearing now for his flanks, denudes dump A of its local defences, and by means of them forestalls his opponent on Point M. "C" Force is now taken in flank and is forced to withdraw discomfited towards track junction at Y.

As a result of the above happenings, it looks as if "C" Force was going to have no evening meal. This fact is disconcerting, but it is one from which "C" Force and the world in general may be expected to recover. Owing to the moral, material, and numerical superiority of his force, and the topography of the country which offered movement on a double front while permitting intercommunication, O.C. "C" Force committed an error in moving on a single narrow one against an obvious defensive position. The enemy commander took advantage of the mistake by merely doing the obvious. When a situation similar to the above occurs on training, as it often has done, a not uncommon method of solving it is to pin "C" Force to its ground at Shoby Cross Roads, and then order the tribal commander for no very obvious tactical reason to withdraw. This procedure may be desirable for the purpose of restarting the otherwise moribund operations, but the realities of the situation require quite a different solution, and the more correct sequel to this phase of the operations would appear to be the orderly retreat of "C" Force as stated in the narrative above. Since "C" Force set out to capture its supper, it must either do so by the rules of war or else go hungry. We need not here pursue the subsequent course of the exercise, but, supposing that one dump was eventually captured, this might prove to be the best solution, because the dividing of the rations there would savour of war, and while the quantity would suffice to blunt the pangs of hunger it would conversely serve to sharpen up the reality of the forces' initial clumsiness.

The most favourable opportunities for trying out schemes on the above lines would probably occur during that period of company training known as the Company March; and since the smaller the unit the easier it is to interest and instruct the individual soldier, the Company March is an event which might perhaps be prolonged. Instead of a period of two days being allotted to it, this might be extended to cover six days and matters arranged so that as many Companies as possible from as many different regiments as possible should go out at the same time. In order to make such a programme feasible two sets of conditions non-existent at present would be required: (I) enough ground would have to be made available for the companies to manoeuvre on; (2) a central authority would have to be created to co-ordinate the marches and exercises. In connection with (I), the answer depends on the question as to whether there is any unsurmountable reason why companies should not be able to use what is called on training "private ground." Is it too much to hope that the days may be speeded when the people of the countryside will cease to regard the approach of the soldier with dismay and forebodings? Prejudice against the soldier, if prejudice it be, is out of place and out of date to-day. It is true that he still has manners to learn towards the landowner; but the education of the latter also permits of overhaul. The same landowner who is prepared to allow five packs of hounds and three hundred horsemen to career about his pastures once a week for five months of the year is too often horrified by the prospect of a hundred other humans in uniform halting in his back yard for ten minutes, though he knows that they can neither break his fences, churn his fallows, nor run his stock. The reason for the difference in his attitude is no doubt largely a matter of tradition—a powerful factor operating in these two instances in precisely opposite directions. Nevertheless the countryman is susceptible to reason and, if properly canvassed, might by degrees be induced to make a change in this outlook.

The Field-Firing Range

Let us now consider what could be done nearer home in order to confront the soldier with a livelier picture of the reasons for his existence. Of all the factors which concern the soldier on the battefield the most important one is the question of fire. Yet of all the subjects which he touches in peace, fire is possibly the one which he knows least about. His only experience of it is gained on the ordinary target range, and, though this range may be a very useful place for the education of young soldiers, for a fully trained man it is an institution which is the absolute negation of realism and truth in every aspect of its conception, construction, and employment. If the infantryman is to learn something of the rifleman's art as distinct from considering him as a tire-producing automaton, then he will not get much help from the target range. Having shown him there, in the first year of his service, that by holding his rifle straight and pressing the trigger correctly he can hit a large, gaudy, and stationary object, he might then be shown that this will avail him little if under other circumstances he cannot find the target before it finds him: the leisurely feat he so often performed on the well-groomed firing points of Old England may, under less happy conditions, prove to be something of a delusion. The elaborate ritual which is carried out annually on our ranges, occupying some three weeks or so, is regarded as one of the corner-stones of our military efficiency. Here we go right back into the XVIIth century, when the efficiency of the British musketeers was the terror of European infantry. It was musketry then and it is "musketry" to-day. Musketry and mysticism have tended to become synonymous. Shooting has become sentimentalized. The annual course and all kinds of shooting competitions are regarded primarily for their value in generating esprit de corps. They are carried out under conditions which bear no resemblance whatever to the battle-field. The annual course is akin to a drill competition in close order. It is traditional, therefore it is good. Groups of fine shots from different units compete with one another, and the credit of the winners is diffused and appropriated amongst their hundreds of comrades, some of whom cannot hit a haystack. No one thinks for a moment of the possibility of the target retaliating; of it resorting to such base subterfuge as camouflage; of it being blotted out by smoke; or of it moving forward or running away. There are perfect gentlemen on both sides; the wicket is also perfect, and only one side bats. That a man must know how to shoot none can deny. But none are prepared to leave it at that. It is natural that under the perfect conditions prevailing on the ordinary range, every nerve should be strained to produce results which under war conditions must be fictitious. Much worthy energy is expended as well as much S.A.A.; every form of roll is kept except a casualty roll. The field-firing range supplies, we think, the answer to the drawbacks suggested above. But it will never come into its own until, firstly, it is made much more elaborate; and secondly, until its status is raised sufficiently so that it is no longer regarded as a second and lesser phase in a soldier's shooting education. The targets to be used on the field-firing range might be so made as to bear a closer resemblance to an "enemy" than they can be said to do at present. They could be backed with coloured canvas, invisible from the front, to be used for scoring purposes, and be so constructed that they could be moved to any part of the range, and therefore cease to appear day after day and week after week in the selfsame place. When a group of targets is raised a' blank-firing attachment should come into action with it to represent the fire being delivered by that section of the enemy. The number of rounds thus fired by the enemy must be set off against the number of hits scored by the troops, and some form of balance struck; because, if the enemy have been in action for a dozen seconds before the section leader has his men on to them, they are the more likely of the two parties to profit by the exchange. The enemy should be made as mobile as possible, and not consist merely of that apparently immortal seven whose yellow smocks never grow dirty, and who always appear as if "sized" for a ceremonial parade, and with their dressing taken up by the right.

The man of destiny on the battlefield is, according to our system, the section leader. He controls and directs the fire. For the three weeks of the musketry season, however, he is ignored, and then towards the end of it he may get his section under his hand on the field-firing range for half an hour. If he learns anything during this experience it is to realize how incompetent he is through lack of practice to direct the fire of his section really well. Small blame to him. If all his men are marksmen and he is not up to his job, then the results obtained will be no better than if his section had been composed of second-class shots. But the matter does not end there, unless the section commander can be rendered impervious to bullets. Every man in the section must be an expert fire director, and the higher the shooting standard the higher must be the director's capacity. fire control and shooting are indivisible. For the above reasons it is suggested that the field-firing range should be the only one, though in saying this we have not by a long way exhausted its possibilities. These are very numerous, and amongst them will be found opportunities for Ieleasing tear gas unexpectedly, and for teaching the man the use of such workaday tools as hand grenades and smoke bombs, articles which nine out of ten soldiers have probably never seen closely, much less touched.

There may be many to whom the suggestion—that the field-firing range might displace the other—will appear peculiarly offensive. Some of the arguments, however, put forward in support of the normal range appear to contain more glory than truth. They revolve round the sublime story of the men of 1914, Whose rapid fire drew forth the admiration of the enemy. Nobody can dispute that. But when we seek to apply this reasoning to present-day conditions one gets a feeling that all is not well with it. Our men in 1914 used their rifles well because they had nothing else to use, and they were presented with targets the like of which had never been seen before, and probably never will be again. In the war of the future the machine gun and the light automatic will do the work formerly required of the rifleman, after the manner in which the steam loom displaced the hand. The infantryman, therefore, will cease to be primarily, as heretofore, a fire-producing agency which requires him to be static, and will revert to his true and ancient role, which is that of closing with the enemy. If he is still to be expected to do this on his feet, then, more than ever before, will he need to study beforehand the art of movement and the technique of sharpshooting.

The field-firing range, then, gives the infantryman scope to play a more individualistic role; the circumstances of the future will probably compel him to do that, and to break with the spirit of cohesion formerly so characteristic of his arm: independence of outlook and action will be his greatest assets, perhaps one might say his only hope; if there is any truth in this then the field-firing range is the only place in peace-time where he can develop these qualities.