Military Strategy Magazine - Volume 8, Issue 1

Volume 8, Issue 1, Summer 2022 31 Table 1: Battlefield Coalition Performance, 1900-2003 Explaining the Impact of Experience: The Entente Why is it that prior collective fighting experience matters so much for increasing battlefield coalitions’ ability to win their engagements and advance larger strategic interests? The reasons aremyriad, butmany are rooted in the difficulty of coordinating combined military action. Consider the experience of British and French forces as they worked to form and employ multiple battlefield coalitions during the opening monthsWorldWar I. This is a situation inwhich one might expect relatively smooth and effective cooperation: both states contributing forces were great powers fighting a potentially existential war against another great power; the political leadership of the partners had signed the L’Entente Cordiale in 1904 and initiated military consultations after the first Moroccan crisis in 1905; the militaries themselves had deployed forces to fight alongside one another in multiple battles during the Boxer Rebellion only fourteen years previously; and the ground troops employed were relatively similar in terms of quality and skill, if not number. [x] Nevertheless, there was still considerable friction within the coalition that nearly undermined their initial collective fight in the First Battle of the Marne and, while dampened, was still not fully resolved nearly three months later when the First Battle of Ypres marked the end of the “Race to the Sea.” The roots of the Anglo-French problems may be found in their similar, but not identical, strategic aims. While both belligerents sought to thwart the German offensive and push the Kaiser’s forces back out of French and Belgian territory, the British also sought to preserve their relatively small continental force because they both lacked reinforcements and needed men to defend imperial outposts around the globe. As Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War for Britain, put it in his orders to Sir John French, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force: “the numerical strength of the British Force and its contingent reinforcement is strictly limited, and with this consideration kept steadily in view it will be obvious that the greatest care must be exercised towards a minimum of losses and wastage.”[xi] The logical consequence of this concern was that the British insisted on maintaining an extreme degree of autonomy in their coordinated operations with their coalition partners. In his orders to Sir John French, Kitchener continued, “I wish you distinctly to understand that your command is entirely an independent one, and that you will in no case come in any sense under the orders of any Allied General.”[xii] This British perspective differed significantly from that of the French, and particularly Joseph Joffre, the Commander-in-Chief of French forces on the Western Front, who believed that he possessed authority to command all Entente troops in the theatre.[xiii] This disagreement over who had operational command authority, and for what purposes, resulted in a drawn-out negotiation between the battlefield coalitions partners about where the British would be positioned in the Entente’s planned counter-offensive along the Marne in early September 1914. Especially because the British had just been mauled by the Germans during the battle at and retreat from Mons, Sir John French was obstinate in his insistence on both avoiding exposure in the upcoming operation and ensuring his ability to withdraw his forces if necessary. The dispute featured multiple French entreaties not only to the British commander, but also to Kitchener and others in London; multiple visits by Joffre to Sir John French’s headquarters during which he pleaded for British cooperation with his plan; and, ultimately, significant lastminute adjustments to the position of discrete units along the line.[xiv] The coalition partners’ bickering delayed the offensive and allowed the Germans more time to establish their defensive lines.[xv] Once the Marne offensive began, British and French forces worked well together, in large part because Sir John French willingly subordinated himself to Joffre for the duration of Practice Makes Perfect for Battlefield Coalitions Rosella Cappella Zielinski and Ryan Grauer