***Just to note in advance, the process called ‘Battle Procedure’ is something that has gone through a bunch of reincarnations over the years in the CAF, and exists under various other names in various other armies. So what I’m going to be discussing here should sound familiar to most military readers, even though the terminology and details may be off by a bit (especially in the CAF where we have a tendency to re-invent the wheel every few years).***
Battle Procedure – originally called Battle Drills – is a process by which a commander develops a fully fleshed out plan to attack or defend a piece of ground that they have not previously had the chance to see. It depends on rapidly gathering information, delegating tasks, and using a predictable orders format and established SOPs as a foundation to upon which to built a unique plan, tailored to the situation before them. Part improv, part fill-in-the-blanks, the process consists of a series of questions that need to be answered and tasks that need to be carried out or delegated in order for a commander to gain the necessary information to formulate a plan, and communicate this plan to their subordinates in real time.
I’m not going to speak for Commissioned Officers, not being one myself. But for us non-commissioned ranks, we first get introduced to Battle Procedure in our PLQ (Primary Leadership Qualification) course. Here it’s usually presented as a massive and seemingly arbitrary list of tasks and orders formats that we are required to follow exactly, often with very little explanation. Usually we’re left with questions like ‘What’s really the difference between a concept of ops and scheme of manoeuvre?’ as we struggle to lead a four-man recce patrol across the Mattawa plains at CFB Petawawa.
Which is unfortunate, because there’s actually some interesting stuff there.
Battle Procedure was first developed in WW I as the Canadian Corps moved beyond the carefully rehearsed, set-piece, ‘bite and hold’ operations (such as at Vimy Ridge) to what we now know as ‘fire and movement’ (as seen during the ‘100 days’ that ended the War). ‘Bite and hold’ was a good way to overrun a strong point and achieve limited penetration of the enemy lines. It consisted of carefully studying the enemy position and drawing up elaborate assault plans which would be rehearsed meticulously before the attack. The usual result would be a complex but overwhelming attack that would seize the objective, after which point the operation would shift to one of defence as the Corps would be hit with the inevitable German counter-attack.
The problem with ‘bite and hold’ was that as soon as the Corps pushed beyond its limited objective, it entered unknown territory for which they hadn’t rehearsed. Meanwhile the enemy would be throwing up new lines of defence which, although maybe not as elaborate as the original strong point, was just as capable of being lethal to an under-prepared force. As a result, ‘bite and hold’ was at best, a strategy for limited objectives. The Canadian Corps (as well as all the other formations along the Western Front) had to come up with a way to fast-track the planning process so that they could achieve the effect of meticulous preparation without losing significant amounts of time.
The classic example is an infantry battalion on the advance that, through casualties and exhaustion, is no longer able to keep attacking and will need a fresh battalion to pass through to take over the attack. Since there was no way to predict where and when this was likely to happen, the second battalion taking over the advance would likely have a matter of hours, maybe a day at most in which to prepare. And this planning would have to take place even as they moved up through the lead battalion to reach their start line.
So basically the idea works like this: As the lead battalion starts to lose steam, the commander of the reserve battalion gets a warning order from higher (the Brigade Commander): ‘Prepare to take over the advance at approximately XXXX hrs. Your likely objectives will be AA and BB. You will have YYYY and ZZZZ in support.’ The battalion commander takes a look at a map, does a rough time estimate as to how long it will take to throw together a plan, then passes on his own warning order to his company commanders (the next level of leadership beneath him). ‘Prepare to take over the advance and capture AA and BB. Meet me at XXxx hrs for further orders.’
The battalion then starts to form his plan. A lot of this will involve gathering information, sometimes through reports and scouts, but often in person. He will likely have to travel to the front to meet with the commander of the battalion he is relieving to get a first hand perspective of what’s happening. He may even go further and travel to the front line itself (or some place he can observe the front from a distance) to see the ground itself and how it matches up with the map. Supporting arms commanders (such as artillery and engineers) will have to be linked up to his headquarters, and plans will need to be made for how their support will be distributed across the battalion’s objectives.
By the time the battalion commander meets with his company commanders…he doesn’t have an actual detailed plan. Instead, what he has is a set of objectives within the battalion’s area of responsibility and an idea how he wants to divide it up. The company commanders will receive their objectives, study the map and do their own time estimates, then pass on their own warning orders to their platoon commanders before setting off to study their objectives and further refine the plans that the battalion commander has given them.
This process is then repeated with the company commanders giving the platoon commanders their objectives (which are all parts of the company objectives imposed by the battalion commander). The platoon commanders then begin their own battle procedure, creating a battle plan for their platoon objectives to suite the company commander’s needs.
The battalion commander’s job doesn’t end with assigning objectives for his company commanders, however. As they launch their own battle procedure, the battalion commander is now hustling to make their job easier. He’ll be gathering more information and resources, pushing them downwards to the company level as they come in. Along the way the company commanders will be keeping him up to date about their developing plans through a process called ‘back briefings’ and as they raise questions and concerns, he will do his best to address them.
‘A-Coy’s objectives seems to have a lot of barbed wire? Okay I’ll talk to the artillery liaison to see if we can get some heavy concentrations to cut it. If that fails we’ll attach more engineers to assist with wire cutting. B-Coy says they’re facing wide open ground with little cover? Okay we got the tanks moving up to support this attack. They’ll be assigned to you. Expect their liaison to be at your HQ shortly. C-Coy is facing several concrete pillboxes? I’ll get on the phone to the 8-inch gun batteries to see if we can prioritize them as targets.’
The same thing, on a much more local scale, happens between the company commanders and their subordinate platoon commanders.
The end result is a highly detailed plan coming together through concurrent activity at all levels in the chain of command. Priorities and responsibilities get imposed from higher, solutions work their way up from below.
Essentially, by employing every level of the chain of command, the planning process could be sped up immeasurably. Further to that, there was the added advantage that junior commanders got exposed to the higher level planning process earlier in their careers.
Given the hideous death tolls of the Western Front, officer careers tended to be somewhat accelerated.
Delegation and trust is the key to Battle Procedure. The higher commander cannot generate a detailed plan for all their subordinates to follow. At least not in a time frame that could allow for the pace of the battle to be sustained. But they can break the objective up into manageable pieces for those subordinates to start building their own plans. And those subordinates can break these pieces down even further for their subordinates.
The commander will make a guess as to who will need what resources in order to accomplish the tasks, and if that guess is wrong the subordinate commanders can identify this and ask for more (and hopefully get it). The main thing is that the plan comes together on all levels almost simultaneously, with leadership from the General all the way down to a newly promoted Lance Corporal contributing in some way or another.1
For my money, this is the real challenge of higher level leadership. You set out the parameters, provide as much support and information as humanly possible, then unleash your subordinates so you can step back and watch helplessly as they do the job their way.
This is hard to do.
On a personal note, I’m just reaching the point in my career where I’m having to do this on a much smaller scale as an NCO. It’s a moment that totally takes your best qualities as a leader and plays them against you. The guys you’re giving orders to NCOs who are just like you used to be, and if you’re doing your job right, you have to let them do the job their way. Sure you can advise and mentor them (and you should), and if one of the subordinates is inexperienced you can try to manage their tasks to build their experience.
But if it turns out they’re not up for the job, you can’t step in and do their job for them. Because you’re in charge of everything, and you have no business getting tangled up in one local task and leaving the rest of your people without leadership.
Now there’s a lot more to Battle Procedure than this, and I have a feeling that I’m going to be revisiting this topic as things go on. But for now, here are the key takeaways: To be a good leader you have to trust your subordinates. To be a good leader, you have to push information downwards early and quickly so your subordinates can contribute to the planning process. Most importantly, to be a good leader you have to accept the fact that, the higher up you are, the less direct control you’re going to have. And this is a good thing!!!
Keep this in mind as we carry on into Douglas Bland’s Uprising.
***Featured image found here at canadianmilitaryhistory.ca. Gen Currie with Gen MacBrien during a training exercise in 1917. Photo by William Rider-Rider.***
1 ‘Maps to Lance Corporals!’ was actually a kind of battle cry for Vimy Ridge, where then-Canadian Corps commander Gen Julian Byng took the radical step of _gasp_ telling enlisted men and NCOs what the objectives were, and letting them have their own maps. It sounds really basic today, but this was mind-blowing during the Great War.