Second Lieutenant Duff Cooper and the practice of Auftragstaktik, 1918
Every now and then an old battle resurrects itself to rage across social media about the origins and practice of the word Auftragstaktik. In these short, vicious fire-fights one side is invariably defended by a group of tactical afficionados (mainly American) deeply drunk of a kool-aid that worships everything German. I’ve never really understood this, but there it is. As my friend James Holland is fond of reminding us, just because German soldiers looked better (to some) it doesn’t mean they fought better. I would have imagined that the cauldron that was Normandy in 1944 would have dispelled this myth long ago. Hey ho.
Yes, it’s a German word, but so too is angst, delicatessen, doppelganger, eiderdown, ersatz, hamster and kindergarten. Just because a word is German, doesn’t mean that it’s meaning is too. While it is true that General Helmuth von Moltke, the Chief of the Prussian General Staff during the Franco-Prussian War, came up with a definition of Auftragstaktik ‘as the actions a subordinate took in the absence of orders that supported the senior commander’s intent’ it is simply not true that the development of initiative among junior officers, operating within the overall context of their commander’s stated objectives, was a solely or exclusively German feature of warfighting either at this time or before. The story of Britain’s small wars of the Nineteenth Century is one in which individual initiative, intelligently deployed, was much prized. Auftragstaktik was certainly not an exclusively German feature of the Great War, especially in 1917 and 1918.
Over the last year or so General the Lord Dannatt and I have been writing an account of the transition of the British Army from a phenomenally powerful warfighting machine in 1918 to something that was a little less effective in 1940. The book, Victory to Defeat, The British Army 1918-1940 – will be published in September. While writing the book it was fascinating to observe just how dramatically different – and effective – were approaches to warfighting in parts of the British Army 1917 and 1918 to those which were applied, for lots of good reasons, in 1916. If you are interested in looking at the subject in more detail there is a plethora of superb material available, work by Spencer Jones, Gary Sheffield, Nick Lloyd and Robin Prior among others being strongly recommended.
But one of the best ways to see this change is through the diaries of the men who fought. One such was Second Lieutenant Duff Cooper, Third Battalion Grenadier Guards, whose diary, Old Men Forget, contains a series of illuminating vignettes about his time on the Western Front during the final year of the war. On the afternoon of 20 August 1918 Cooper sat with the other officers of his battalion at Saulty on the Somme. They had gathered to hear Lieutenant Colonel Andrew ‘Bulgy’ Thorne, their Commanding Officer, give his final instructions for the forthcoming battle. In his diary the young platoon commander recorded that it sounded like a ‘hazardous enterprise’ although he nevertheless felt confident. The men of 10 Platoon were in good fettle. They had been well-trained, the previous weeks being a busy whirl of preparation for the forthcoming battle to break the Hindenburg Line. After a hasty meal he and the men of his battalion were transported by trucks the twelve miles to Hendecourt-lès-Ransart, a few miles south of Arras. The objective of the first phase of the attack was the railway line running south from Arras to Albert. The Grenadier Guards were to secure a position on the railway line about three miles south-east at the village of Moyenneville. At Hendecourt they moved off to their assembly areas to await the ‘off’, which was to be twenty minutes after the artillery barrage began at 5 a.m. the following morning. Tea and biscuits awaited them, and as the night mist settled over the village the men completed final preparations, priming grenades, loading magazines for the Lewis guns and getting rid of all extraneous items from their webbing and packs. It would be left behind at the start point, to be looked after by the company quartermaster sergeant. The only kit they were to carry was ammunition (bags of Lewis gun magazines and grenades) and water. As they worked, Cooper chatted with his men. All, he noted, were cheerful. When there was nothing else to do, most fell asleep, their heads on their knapsacks or on sacks full of primed hand grenades – the ubiquitous No 36 ‘Mills bomb’. A few remained awake, talking quietly to each other over shared cigarettes and endless mugs of hot tea.
When, at the designated time the barrage began, after several hours of quiet over the battlefield, it was the loudest he had ever heard. At 5.20 a.m. on the dot, without any whistles, bugles or shouted exhortations, the men arose from the ground and advanced into the darkness, going forward in groups around the two Lewis gun teams. The mist was so thick that Cooper’s usual recourse – to follow the stars – didn’t work, and the platoon very quickly got lost. In fact they strayed far to the south of their axis of advance. The battlefield was all confusion, but it didn’t seem to matter. 10 Platoon, as they had been instructed, just keep going in what Cooper hoped to be the right direction. Every now and again they bumped into groups of men from other battalions. His diary recorded:
We met an officer in the Coldstream with a platoon. He said the Scots Guards had failed to get their objective, that everyone was lost and that the trench we were in was full of Germans. I said I would work down the trench, which I thought was Moyblain, our first objective, and clear it of the enemy. We went on, and presently I met Alec Robartes and Fryer. The latter was commanding No. 2 Company, which should have been in support of our No. 3 Company, but which had, although I did not know it at the time, already got in advance of it. After this I pressed on alone with my platoon, guiding myself roughly by the sound of our guns behind us. We were occasionally held up by machine-gun fire and we met one or two stray parties of Scots Guards without officers. Finally we met a fairly large party of the Shropshires, who I knew should be on our right. The officer with them did not know where he was, but we agreed to go on together.
Occasionally small groups of enemy were discovered in trenches and posts scattered across a deep battlefield. The concentrated Lewis gun fire usually quickly disposed of any potential opposition. When a trench needed to be taken the machine guns would attack from one side and grenadiers – men with especially strengthened Lee Enfield rifles with grenade attachments on their muzzles, capable of throwing a Mills bomb up to 200 yards – would attack from another. The assault sections – men with rifles and bags full of grenades – would only crawl up to the enemy trench under the cover of machine guns and the bombs fired by the grenadiers. Cooper found no difficulty in clearing enemy trenches. Each they attacked, fell. After an initial fight most enemy surrendered, the prisoners being sent back to the rear, before the platoon gathered itself together and continued on.
They knew they couldn’t miss their objective, the railway line running south from Arras. They’d been practising on models carefully built in the ground for the past week. After a while Cooper realised that he’d drifted far to the right, bumping up to the village of Courcelles le Comte. He needed to move left. As he did so they encountered a machine-gun firing straight down the road at them along the obvious route for him to take. The broken bodies of its earlier victims lay scattered on the road. Just then a lone Mark V tank trundled up through the early morning mist, also lost. Calling for its assistance, the tank advanced up the road and dealt with the machine-gun, the rest of 10 Platoon following on either side of the road through the fields. Reaching their objective, a building on the railway embankment, the Lewis guns made short work of the German defenders, those not being killed tumbling out with their hands raised.
So went Cooper’s war. As Douglas Haig was to note in his diary, by 1918 it had been a platoon commander’s war. Despite the expected confusion of the battlefield Cooper did what he had been instructed: carry on forward in the direction of the objective, only fighting those enemy that directly imperilled his advance. The artillery barrage had opened the battle for them by targeting enemy machine gun positions, command and control bunkers and artillery positions, as well as plastering the front trenches of the Hindenburg Line. The aim was to knock out the German defender’s ability to strike back against the hundreds of dispersed platoons of British troops infiltrating through and behind the German positions. Cooper’s men were told not to stay and fight for individual trenches if they didn’t need to, but to keep pressing on; isolated enemy positions could be cleared up later by troops following behind. This was no longer a linear battlefield with everyone going forward in choreographed unison, but one in which semi-autonomous groups of machine-gun and grenade equipped infantry infiltrated their way forward to objectives far to the enemy’s rear. The short bombardment was not designed to destroy the enemy trenches, but simply to provide the opportunity for the British assault platoons to get into and across the first German positions while their occupants were still down in their deep bunkers underground.
The wider battle in which Duff Cooper fought and distinguished himself – he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his exploits in August 1918, an unusual award for a platoon commander – was a very different one to that remains firmly lodged in Britain’s corporate cultural memory of the Great War. The shoulder to shoulder infantry advance that for most people captures the horror of the battle of the Somme on its inglorious first day on 1 July 1916, had long disappeared. Battalions were given objectives to secure and a considerable degree of latitude in how to achieve them. In the case of Duff Cooper’s battalion of the Grenadier Guards on 20 August the plan entailed two forward companies advancing towards the railway line under a creeping barrage, supported by tanks. A heavy initial artillery barrage would send the Germans scurrying for the safety of their deep bunkers, there to await an attack, they thought, perhaps several days later. On this occasion, however, the British assault platoons would be in the enemy front line trenches long before the enemy were aware of their presence. Companies and their platoons were expected to fight their way forward, independently if necessary, relying on the initiative of their junior leaders, who would make decisions based on their training and the circumstances of the battlefield as they found it. Once the first two companies had secured their positions, two further companies would pass through each of them, carrying on the advance to the next bound. During this advance they would be supported by the rifle and machine gun fire of the first two companies, who by now would have dug themselves into hasty ‘shell scrapes’, prepared to see off any attempt by the enemy at a counter-attack and to protect themselves from incoming artillery fire.
Each of the ten platoons deployed for the attack (about forty men in each) were based around four sections, three of riflemen/grenadiers and one with two of the portable gas-operated Lewis machine-guns introduced in 1916. The rifle sections were equipped with rifles, hand grenades (No 36 or ‘Mills bombs’) and dedicated rifles adapted with cup-dischargers, which threw the Mills bomb on a seven second fuse up to two hundred yards. Rifles were now subordinate to the hand grenade and the cup-discharger. Rather than being riflemen in the old sense, in which the bullet and bayonet were an infantryman’s standard weapon, the men were now effectively machine-gunners or grenadiers, weighed down with hessian or canvas sacks full of grenades for hand throwing and firing from the cup-dischargers attached to the ends of rifles. In the machine-gun section rifles were secondary, self-defence weapons only, the men grouped around the two guns. Two gunners were responsible for firing the weapon, with two or three men supporting each gun by carrying, changing and re-filling its 47-round circular magazines. The old (pre-1916) concept of a platoon consisting of three or four equal sections of riflemen equipped with a Lee Enfield rife and bayonet had passed into history, at least on the Western Front. The 1918 version of the infantry platoon was one in which the primary weapons were the machine-gun and grenade, the men converted into machine gunners, grenadiers and ammunition mules.
The only way to make these tactics work was by empowering the men, and especially the junior leaders, to make tactical or on-the-ground decisions within the overall context of the commander’s plan. Auftragstaktik was very much a feature of the British command philosophy at the taking of the Hindenburg Line during these dramatic Hundred Days battles, though few would have known of or heard of the word. But as the Hindenburg Line in 1918 showed, having the word didn’t make one any better at using its meaning in practice.
 Captain the Hon. A.G. Agar-Robartes M.C., adjutant and Captain E.R.M. Fryer M.C., commanding No 1 Company.
 These were men of the 7th Battalion King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, advancing on the right of the Grenadier Guards.
 Gary Sheffield and John Bourne (eds) Douglas Haig: War Diaries and Letters 1914-1918 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2006), diary entry for Monday 29 July 1918.
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