Monday, 18 March 2013

Playing the Game: The Junior Infantry Officer on the Western Front 1914-1918 - Christopher Moore-Bick

The information presented was written by Chris Buckham; however, it was published in The Canadian Military Journal. Therefore, the material is reproduced here by the author with the permission of the journal. If you would like to republish this information or refer to excerpts please contact the Editor CMJ ( Website for the Journal is:
Title: Playing the Game: The British Junior Infantry Officer on the Western Front 1914-1918
Author: Christopher Moore-Bick
ISBN: 978 1 906033 84 2
Publisher: Helion & Company Ltd, 2011
Pages: 328
Illustrations: b/w photographs 

          The period 1914-1918 was witness to an unprecedented expansion in the army of Great Britain. This epic transformation may be viewed not only in terms of numbers but also speed, breadth of employment and, one may effectively argue, represented the first revolution in military affairs from a technological perspective. During this time, in order to meet the demands of modern warfare, Britain was forced to expand its relatively tiny standing Army through augmentation of Territorial’s, “Kitcheners New Army”, volunteers and conscription. Each presented unique challenges that impacted and influenced the face of the British military as never before. Consistent through all of these upheavals were the challenges of fighting a war on a scale never before seen or imagined with technology that served not only to augment the ability of opposing armies to fight but also necessitated specific skill sets previously not required (ie machine guns, aircraft, tanks, communications etc) and the development of doctrine to support these capabilities.

       Christopher Moore-Bick’s book ‘Playing the Game’ addresses these issues from the perspective of the junior officer (2Lt, Lt and Capt). When one considers the vast array of literature surrounding the First World War a common theme tends to be that of the ‘lost generation’ or the ‘inability of the senior officers to deal with the challenges of the new realities of war’. What has not been addressed in any detail is the fact that despite all of the horrors of the trenches, Britain’s Army did not suffer any general collapse in morale or fighting spirit despite being made up largely of non-professionals. That this was so may be largely attributed to the skill and motivation of its junior officer corps; the leaders who were most closely associated with the soldiers on the front lines. What these factors were that defined and influenced the development of the generation of young men who made up this group is the focus of Moore-Bick’s book and why it is relevant to the military of today.

      Moore-Bick is not interested in the experiences of the officers in the actual front line (except in so far as they add dimension to the traits of the officers themselves). Instead he focuses on the environments that shaped their personalities (school, society, religion etc) and their sense of duty/obligation. Additionally, he draws distinctions between the different phases of the army’s expansion (standing professionals, volunteers of Kitchener, conscription). Specifically, he highlights how each group accepted, adapted and ultimately supported (in the sense of undertaking one’s responsibilities) the war effort and how these processes changed over the course of the war.

Drawing upon a vast array of primary source material including diaries, letters, journals and memoirs as well as a host of secondary and presently unpublished papers, Moore-Bick is able to paint for the reader a surprisingly complete picture of the views and thoughts of the junior officers who made up Britain’s army. Of particular interest is his analysis of the transition from civilian to soldier of these officers and how that influenced outlook and expectation. This ‘professionalization’ process had to take place under the most trying of circumstances within a very short period of time. That these men were able to adapt as quickly as they did is a testament to their psychological strength and the environments within which they developed. Another area that is addressed in depth is the impact of the public school system on the development of the psyche of these men. He reveals the role that the structure of the schools with their emphasis on loyalty to one’s peers and school, manliness in sports and the responsibilities of a system that resulted in early personal growth and development are revealed. The role of the ‘heroic’ figure in British literature is also incorporated into his analysis. What must be emphasized though, is the balance with which Moore-Bick approaches his subject. It was clear that as the war progressed, officers enlisted with a far different perspective of the war than those of 1914 and that they were being drawn from a much more varied and non-traditional pool (commissioning from the ranks, non-public schools, civilian professionals and older generations) yet still undertook their duties in a responsible and forthright manner. The author’s analysis and insight into his subject explains why this was the case and what influenced their decisions and development.
      Moore-Bick’s work has drawn attention to an aspect of the First World War that has seen little evaluation but whose importance and significance cannot be understated. Armies succeed or fail on the strength of their leadership, particularly at the junior officer and senior non-commissioned rank levels. The lessons to be gleaned from the experiences of the WW1 British junior officers in rapidly transitioning from a peace to a wartime footing in a very short period of time are many. While one may make the argument that the challenges were the same for WW2, I would contend that they were far more profound in WW1 due to the technological changes occurring during the period, the speed with which the standing army was required to expand and the lack of wartime experience amongst the general population (as was the case during expansion for WW2). This is Moore-Bick’s first publication and is an excellent addition to the professional’s library. I strongly recommend it and suggest that it should be read by those looking to expand their insight into the motivators and development of the junior leader.

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