The Operational and Tactical Performance and Development of the 56th (London) Division on the Western Front"
My current research subject is the operational and tactical performance and development of the 56th (London) Division on the Western Front between the years 1916 and 1918. The perfomance of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the Western Front during the First World War has always been a hotly debated, emotive and controversial subject and remains a live debate. Many recent 'revisionist' historians have adopted the idea that the BEF embarked on a 'learning curve' during the war years. This concept suggests that the BEF had to adapt to a large-scale continental war for which it was originally ill-equipped, increasing massively in size from 6 to over 60 divisions, and gaining invaluable experience and expertise whilst in constant contact with the enemy. This 'learning curve' was uneven but did mean that by the summer of 1918 the BEF was arguably the most effective force in the field. A division, as the highest level of homogenous command in the BEF, is a formation that can be analysed within the context of this general idea.
My dissertation will consider whether or not the 56th (London) Division experienced such a 'learning curve'. It will assess how effectively the Division performed, in exactly what circumstances it had to function, what tactics it employed, how effectively the command structure worked, and ultimately whether it evolved into a superior fighting force as the war progressed. This will be done through three operational case studies with one from each of the years in question. 56th Division is a particularly interesting formation to analyze. As a first-line territorial formation, the Division existed before the war and many of its units saw active service before it became a coherent serving Division for the first time in February 1916. As a result, in 1916 it was made up of largely experienced battalions, unlike many newly raised New Army divisions. 56th Division saw service in most of the major operations between 1916 and 1918 and had a distinct ethos derived from its London based battalions, many of which had a strong sense of 'esprit de corps'. But such an atmosphere could be eroded by casualties and reinforcements that were inexperienced conscripts rather than volunteers and who were not always Londoners. More importantly, this could also interrupt the tactical development of the Division. My research will reveal if the core expertise of the Division, held within the senior officers and staff and developed by new training and tactics, improved sufficiently to ensure that the Division as a whole continued to improve as the war progressed.
My research will be using both the vast and varied array of secondary material and, most importantly, the extensive collection of primary documents. The existence of a divisional history and unit histories for ten of the twelve battalions within the Division means that my work will not be a simple narrative of the Division's service. The relevant war diaries from Corps level down to the battalions of 56th Division, tactical notes, training manuals, operational orders and reports will provide the official picture of the Division's experience. My research will also utilise the evidence provided by the personal papers of the soldiers and officers of 56th Division, providing a more vivid and complete impression of the Division's performance. Combined with other divisional studies, this research will add greatly to the knowledge of the BEF's operational performance and will perhaps reveal that even formations that did not acquire an 'elite' reputation were of a good standard, suggesting that the BEF did become a highly effective fighting force during the course of the war.