Saturday, 13 March 2021

Futile Exercise? I don’t think so!

When I ordered my copy of REPORT ON FOREIGN MANOEUVRES IN 1912, I also purchased a copy of Simon Batten's FUTILE EXERCISE?: THE BRITISH ARMY'S PREPARATIONS FOR WAR 1902-1914. This examines the various British Army manoeuvres conducted between the end of the Boer War and the outbreak of the Great War, a period that saw the lessons of the former impact upon the training and deployment of the army, as well as the rise to the top of their profession of many of the men who would later command the British Army during the Great War.

The book contains the following sections and chapters:

  • Foreword (by Dr Spencer Jones of the Department of War Studies, University of Wolverhampton)
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • 1. The British Army and Manoeuvres
  • 2. Invading Essex: The 1904 Manoeuvres
  • 3. Manoeuvres 1904-1912
  • 4. Haig v Grierson: The 1912 Manoeuvres
  • 5. The 1913 Exercise
  • 6. Foreign Manoeuvres, Foreign Wars
  • 7. 1914: The B.E.F. goes to war
  • 8. Conclusion
  • Appendix: Order of Battle for the 1912 Army Manoeuvres
  • Bibliography

The Military Manoeuvres Act of 1897 and the purchase of large tracts of land (40,000 acres in 1897 and a total of 42,000 acres by 1900) on Salisbury Plain enabled the British Army to do something that it had previously only be able to do rarely; namely, to regularly deploy and train larger formations of troops than had hitherto been possible, not just in the area around Aldershot, but across the country.

The week-long 1898 manoeuvres saw two Army Corps (each comprising three infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade, and respectively led by Sir Redvers Buller [Blue] and the Duke of Connaught [Red]) fighting it out on Salisbury Plain. Sir Redvers Buller's Corps was beaten ... something that did not bode well when the Second Boer War broke out in October of the following year.

The Second Boer War threw up a number of lessons that the British Army had to address, and there were attempts to widen the scope and area over which the manoeuvres took place.

  • 1903: The manoeuvres covered not only Salisbury Plain but also parts of Hampshire, Oxfordshire, and Berkshire.
  • 1904: Concerns were expressed that the area normally used for the manoeuvres (Salisbury Plain and the surrounding counties) was not typical of the terrain over which any counter-invasion fighting might take place (e.g. the Essex coast and countryside). This concern may well have arisen because of the publication of Erskine Childer's THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS in 1903. As a result, the 1904 Army Manoeuvres saw an 'invasion' of Essex between Clacton and Holland-on-Sea being countered by a smaller body of defenders.
  • 1905, 1906, and 1907: These manoeuvres took place on Salisbury Plain as well as parts of Wiltshire and the West Country.
  • 1908: These manoeuvres took place in area centred on Hampshire.
  • 1909: These manoeuvres took place in the areas around Cheltenham, Swindon, and Oxford.
  • 1910 and 1911: These manoeuvres were planned to take place on Salisbury Plain as well as parts of Wiltshire and the West Country, but they were cancelled in 1911 due to a national drought.
  • 1912: These manoeuvres revisited the invasion scenario of 1904, with a notional invasion having taken place between Hunstanton and Well-next-the-sea. Red Army (the attackers) were led by General Haig whilst the defenders (Blue Army) was under concentrated around Cambridge and under the command of General Grierson. Red Army's objective was London, and both sides were given biplanes and dirigibles to use for reconnaissance.
  • 1913: These manoeuvres were officially termed an exercise, as the troops involved followed a specific movement plan and timetable that was intended to lead to a pre-arranged result. It involved a larger force (Brown, led by Sir John French) pursuing a much smaller force (White, commanded by Major General Monro), and took place in an area that included Buckinghamshire and South Northamptonshire. Unlike previous annual manoeuvres, which were 'designed to test the capabilities of Commanders and Staffs opposed to one another', this exercise was conducted to assess the working of GHQ and the Army Headquarters.
  • 1914: Cancelled due to the outbreak of the Great War.

When reading this book, one is conscious of the fact that it spans a period between two wars, and that these manoeuvres were intended to ensure that the lessons of the first of those wars (the Second Boer War) were embedded into the way the British Army would perform in the next war (the Great War). They also showed how the changing situation on the continent was incorporated into the Army's thinking and training, and that the threat of invasion was taken seriously.

FUTILE EXERCISE?: THE BRITISH ARMY'S PREPARATIONS FOR WAR 1902-1914 was written by Simon Batten and published in 2018 by Helion & Company (ISBN 978 1 911512 85 1).


  1. This looks a terrific read. Do you know of one dealing with the 1920/30s?

    1. Tradgardmastare,

      I’ve enjoyed reading it, especially as I know several of the areas used for the manoeuvres quite well.

      I’ve read a book that covered the story of the experimental armoured force that was set up during the interwar period, but cannot remember what it was called. I think that it might have been published by Pen & Sword Publishing, but I cannot find it on their current list.

      All the best,


  2. Thanks for the review and this sounds great and has been added to my list to buy:)

    1. Steve J.,

      It was not something that I knew anything about until Nick Huband sent me the photos of his Peter Laing figures, but I am glad that I have found out a lot more, especially as it has given me ideas for potential campaigns I could fight. Maps in a variety of scales of the areas used for the manoeuvres are very easy to get hold of, something that is not always true of places that real wars are fought over!

      All the best,


  3. Interesting sounding book. Have you read the similar volume from Dr. Spencer Jones? I'd be interested in how they compare.



    1. Pete.,

      I have not read it yet, but I may do so if you think that I will find it interesting.

      All the best,


  4. An excellent book and a very good read, made more interesting as I know some of the areas the exercises used.

    1. Tim Gow,

      Whilst reading it, I wondered if Knuston Hall was ever used by the Army during the various annual manoeuvres that took place in Northamptonshire. If it was, it might make the basis of an interesting COW game.

      All the best,



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