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September 17, 2019

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Combat Information Center

Briefing - Flattening the Hierarchy: Some Early Twentieth Century Attempts

Often heard of late is the call for armed forces to “flatten the hierarchy” in order to meet the demands of “Information Age Warfare.” Well, perhaps military organizations are a mite bureaucratic. But ours is not the first generation that has heard this mantra.

By 1900 the "Prussian model" of military organization had been adopted by virtually everyone in world. Armies were divided into army corps, each usually of two divisions, with each division composed of two brigades of two regiments, plus an artillery brigade and some divisional troops, for a field strength of c. 40,000 - 45,000 men. Even the U.S. Army, which hardly had 100,000 men, had adopted this “table of organization,” at least on paper, as demonstrated by its organization of several army corps on roughly this model in 1898, and by those states a sufficiently large National Guard as to permit the formation of a division, such as Pennsylvania and New York.

But from about 1900 several armies considered the possibility of abolishing the corps or the division as an intermediate level of organization. The reasons were varied. Some armies saw the measure as facilitating communications or increasing operational flexibility, by cutting out a command echelon. Some other armies saw such a reorganization as a way to make more effective use of scarce trained staff and technical personnel. There were quite a number of proposals, several of which were actually implemented.

1905. The French Army experimented with a corps that comprised four "general commands," in effect mixed brigades, consisting of infantry, artillery, and other arms. The idea was to abolish the division as a command echelon, assigning divisional assets directly to corps or to each of the four infantry brigades, which were themselves would be directly subordinated to corps.

1907. The Netherlands Army conducted field trials of a reorganized divisional structure that would have eliminated the corps (of c. 38,000 men in two divisions, each of two brigades), replacing it with divisions of three brigades, totaling c. 22,000 troops, a measure that was actually adopted in 1915.

1908. Bulgaria abolished the corps and reorganized its army into nine "divisions d'armee." Each of the new divisions effectively had about half the assets of one of the older corps, plus an additional brigade of infantry, for a total of about c. 30,000 men, a practice that served well during World War I.

1912. Ever tinkering with his beloved “Plan,” retired German Chief-of-the-Great General Staff Alfred von Schlieffen proposed abolishing the 25 active and 22 reserve corps in the German Army (totaling 72 infantry divisions, each of two brigades), and replace them with 51 divisions d'armee, each of which would have had about 57-percent of the manpower (c. 25,000 vs. 44,0000), 63-percent of the artillery, and 75-percent of the machineguns of the old corps that they replaced.

1912. Belgium reorganized its field army into six divisions d'armee, each of three or four infantry brigades, for a total of 25,000-30,000 troops, a measure that proved somewhat clumsy in practice, but endured until the army was reorganized in 1916.

Although some of the minor European armies adopted a new organization that abolished one echelon, none of the major ones did. By 1915 the exigencies of war led most European armies to reorganize their divisions in order to reduce their size, usually from two brigades of two regiments each to three regiments operating directly under division, which effectively eliminating one command echelon. Oddly, the although the German Army adopted a “triangular” divisional organization, it did not abolish the brigade; the three regiments in each division were subordinated to a single brigade commander, on the theory that his presence would give the division commander a freer hand, an organizational oddity that endured into World War II.

The “triangular” organization increased flexibility in trench warfare, since a division could have one regiment in the line, one in reserve, one in the rear, and economized on staff officers, communications systems, and so forth. .

Despite the almost universal switch to triangular divisions, when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, it did so with very large "square divisions." Initially of 28,000 men, these were later reduced to about 24,000, but were still much larger than contemporary British, French, and German divisions, which were running 11,000-12,000 troops. American units were so large that French generals habitually treated American division commanders as if they were corps commanders, and American brigade commanders as if they were division commanders when holding staff conferences.

The principal reason that the U.S. Army clung to the square division was that the army, hardly 150,000 men on the eve of the war, had a serious shortage of trained officers of all types, especially staff offices, and by using larger formations fewer such personnel were needed to command the divisions. Certainly Gen. John J. Pershing did not think this was model of organization was an ideal one. When he was forming the A.E.F., he managed to restructure the existing plans for divisional organization, as embodied in the National Defense Act of 1916, which had called for divisions of three infantry brigades totaling 42,000 men. And after the war, when he was Chief of Staff of the Army, he laid foundation for conversion to triangular division, though it was not actually adopted until the eve of the next world war.

 

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