Home > CMH > Vol. 14 (2005) > Iss. 4
The Myth of the Learning Curve: Tactics and Training in the 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade, 1916-1918
Canadian military historians generally accept that during the First World War the Canadian military improved over time. This idea of a “learning curve” suggests that Canadians began the war as inexperienced colonial volunteers and, as the Corps gained experience on the battlefield, commanders and ordinary soldiers alike learned from their mistakes and successes and improved combat tactics from battle to battle and from year to year.1 Several different approaches to this argument are evident in the literature. Tim Cook and Bill Rawling both published works in the mid-1990s that argue technology was the impetus behind this process of learning. On the other hand, Shane Schreiber, James McWilliams and R. James Steel have focused on what they see as the ultimate success of the learning curve: the August 1918 Battle of Amiens.2 However, while technology played an important role in the conduct of the war, and the Battle of Amiens was indeed a significant Allied victory, one question remains: where is the hard evidence that this learning curve exists?
One of the best ways to find evidence of “learning,” a largely abstract process, is through an examination of training. Because training is meant to impart specific knowledge, during the Great War written training instructions and orders were spelled out in minute and explicit detail and the lessons that were to be learned from various exercises were highlighted.
While many excellent works have been produced on the Canadian Expeditionary Force, there is still room for further scholarship. Until recently, training has been a sorely neglected subject in the historiography. In recent years historians such as such as Andrew Iarocci and David Campbell have begun to re-examine training as a means of measuring and evaluating the learning curve.3 This paper builds on the work of previous scholars and extends some of their arguments while challenging others. It examines the training of the 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade for the battles of the Somme and Amiens, as well as the official training manuals, to look at tactical change over time. It argues that while combat became more complex and “all arms” oriented, the basic tactical concepts of 1916 essentially remained the same in 1918. Except for terminology and the addition of new weapons, little changed in how the 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade was taught to fight between the Somme and Amiens. Indeed, while new weapons were utilized and emphasized in training, they were merely integrated into existing tactical doctrine and had little appreciable impact on what was envisioned as the key to battlefield success.
Humphries, Mark Osborne "The Myth of the Learning Curve: Tactics and Training in the 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade, 1916-1918." Canadian Military History 14, 4 (2005)