Whilst the text is acronym-rich, it gives a fascinating account of how little battlefield support has actually changed in a century, the main difference being that asymmetric warfare brings the enemy into what had in the past been a relatively secure rear area. The essay was written by Captain (then Lieutenant) Rowan Dalglish RLC. Similar articles highlighting the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force will be featured in future issues of Focus.
With the third disbandment of 22 Close Support Sqn (this time as part of Army restructuring) falling in the same year as both their deployment to Afghanistan and the centenary of the First World War, it is a fitting time to look back at the squadron’s achievements then and now. There are a surprising number of similarities to be found. A comparison between the squadrons very first and most recent deployment serves as a good vehicle for analysing current experiences in Helmand in the wider context of Army logistic operations. The fundamental role of 22 Company/Sqn has remained the same across the century that separates its first and last deployment, that is to say, the movement of goods between the rear and the front of the battlefield.
22 Horse Transport Company, Army Service Corps1, as was, had quite an unusual war. They remained as one regular company throughout, and were deployed in almost every British location along the western front, from Mons in 1914 to the eventual occupation of the Rhineland in 1919. As the HQ Company for the 3 Division Column, they effectively performed the functions of a modern CSLR (Close Support Logistic Regiment) on operations, but for a whole division rather than just a brigade, which was the norm.2 The Company was mobilised on 5th August 1914, travelling to France from Bulford to arrive in time for the Battle of Mons.
They assisted in the retreat from Mons, picking up 970 stragglers in their horse-drawn GS wagons, the staple of British Army transport at the time. Based near Poperinghe for the first and second Battles of Ypres (completing gas drills for countering the new weapon in 1915), they moved down to the Somme in 1916, before making their way north up the front. In April 1917 they were put in their most dangerous position, suffering regular heavy shelling while based in Arras town, though this was a problem throughout the war, particularly with the new threat of German aerial bombardment. Based in Brandhoek near Ypres later that year, which, incidentally is where Capt Chavesse VC and Bar is buried, by 1918 they were advancing behind the Somme lines when the Armistice was called. They continued their advance through France, Belgium and Germany, and the diary finishes in October 1919 with the Coy just south of Cologne.
The modern 22 Close Support Squadron (22 CS Sqn) deployed on Op HERRICK 19 in January 2014, boosting the capacity of 2 Logistic Support Regiment (LSR) already in theatre. This is their first deployment to Afghanistan, where they provide logistic support to Task Force Helmand, as well as to the drawdown of bases across Central Helmand.
Conduct of operations
The first comparison here is in the length of time spent on operations. When 22 Coy mobilised in 1914, it was in the expectation that the war would be ‘over by Christmas’, which turned into a deployment of over five years, though it was rather easier to return home for ‘R and R’ than it is from Afghanistan. 22 CS Sqn, meanwhile, will spend only 3 months in theatre, but this deployment was preceded by a year of uncertainty, as manning requirements for the force in Helmand changed regularly.
Looking at the regimental structure, in 1914 3 Div Column had an HQ Company (22), and 4 other Companies operating as Close Support units. While there is no mention of numbers in the diary, looking at the sizes of the convoys, and the historical stability of the size of a manageable sub-unit, it seems likely that Company numbers are around the same as today, at around 90 to 100 soldiers. 2 LSR adopted a different structure for deployment (where it became the CSLR), changing from its barracks configuration of 2 Close Support Sqns, 1 General Support Sqn and an HQ Sqn, to just 1 Close Support Sqn (of 4 Troops) supported by the Regimental HQ and later bolstered by the addition of the 71 members of 22 CS Sqn (2 Transport Troops and 1 Force Protection Troop).
Clearly this structure is reactive to the number of dependent units. In 1914, each company (squadron equivalent) was assigned a brigade within the division to resupply. The sheer numbers dwarf the current size of the whole British Force in Afghanistan; in October of that year, divisional strength is recorded as 14,637 men and 5,364 horses, and a glance in the last chapter of the current Royal Logistic Corps Staff Handbook will highlight the substantial fodder requirements of working horses. 2 CSLR is concerned with the movement of materiel from just 4 locations, looking at the needs of around 500 UK personnel in each. This is the last deployment of a CSLR on Op HERRICK, so the numbers are particularly low as the last bases are being closed.
In 1914, unlike in Afghanistan, it was possible to requisition land and limited supplies from the locals. This was recorded at Mons, with an optimistic note that requisitioned goods were ‘To be paid [back] to the mayor after the War’. However, there is no evidence of civilian contract movement, and certainly not on the scale currently practiced in Helmand. In other words, not only was 22 Company helping to supply many more units than 22 CS Sqn, but it was supplying their every need, rather than just militarily sensitive items as now.
As a result of this larger number of dependent units, the convoys taking supplies from the railhead to the brigade ‘dumps’ (distribution points) had to be considerably more frequent. At the current tempo of operations, 22 CS Sqn in Afghanistan has been looking at around 50 vehicles going out once per week, of which around 25 are task vehicles, the others being recovery, support and close protection (armoured) vehicles. In November 1917 there were daily details of around 40 vehicles, of which around half would continue to ‘forward areas’; presumably beyond the brigade dump to behind the unit front lines. While on paper this is a more impressive record, it must be remembered that the distances involved were considerably smaller: round trips of around 30 km were usual, while the journey to and from Lashkar Gah involves a distance of around 240km, a longer time even considering the speed difference between a wagon’s 6 or 7kph and an EPLS’3 30kph deliberate speed limit.
On all operations, the enemy has a vote, and in the asymmetric battlespace of Helmand, the specific threat to Combat Logistic Patrols (CLPs) is considerably greater than it was in 1914. Then, the primary threat to convoys operating behind the lines was indirect fire, made particularly dangerous by the inevitable channelling caused by road use. ‘Hellfire Corner’, the 6-way crossroads east of Ypres, was one such particular threat area. Comparable are the bad-lands of the ‘Yakchal Shoulder’, a bend on the Highway 1, west of the turnings for Sangin and Lashkar Gah in Afghanistan. This is an area regularly seeded with the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) made notorious in Helmand, and the primary threat for CLPs. However, 22 CS Sqn must also take into account the possibility of complex attacks, involving small arms fire, RPGs, IEDs and suicide bombing, though fortunately, the most usual attacks involve well-aimed stones and fruit in the district centres of Gereshk and Lashkar Gah.
The diary entry of 14th June 1915 describes a typical road move for 22 Coy:
‘In the evening a convoy of 14 logistic vehicles carrying 10,000 rations had to proceed to 8th Infantry Bde HQ, east of Ypres. I placed Lieut. T W Richardson in command of the convoy, which left at 4.30 p.m. and returned at 1.30 a.m. the following morning. The rations were delivered and a receipt obtained.’
The threat level, however, negates the possibility of operating this way in Helmand. On occasion, a CLP might be the only presence in an area, effectively forming its own front line. This has generated a need for organic force protection, and a troop is dedicated to this task within the CLP (on only one occasion is a need for force protection mentioned for 22 Coy, and it was drafted from the infantry). In addition, the CLP is reliant on many outside agencies to provide force support: artillery reconnaissance and IDF capabilities, air assets to provide a ‘show of force’ deterrent and ground assets whose battlespace is being transited, not to mention reactive support, such as engineer and RLC route-proving and clearance capabilities and the reassurance of emergency medical evacuation.
In return, the CLP can provide intelligence on an area, as well as reconnoitring the ground. For example, the state of repair of the Gereshk Bridge over the Helmand River was a point of concern for the Royal Engineers, and CLPs regularly took photographs of it, so they could analyse the state of the ground and the bridge without having to mount their own operation to see it. More kinetically, earlier in the campaign it was common for CLPs to be given ‘block’ and ‘screen’ functions, in recognition of the effect a long and heavily armoured column of armoured vehicles could have on ground operations.
The consequence of this added complexity is that it is now very rare for a Lieutenant to be put in charge of a CLP, which as an All-Arms grouping of between 90 and 180 personnel is more normally commanded by a Captain or a Major. They would command the individual Logistic and Force Protection elements instead, which has knock-on effect for junior operational command; the force protection commander is the only junior officer able to lead his own troop, while the logistic commander controls the tasks in location. Their troop is allocated as part of a general pool of drivers in the squadron, and they have no effective control over them on the ground. Whether this will have detrimental effect on this generation of troop commanders when they reach sub-unit command remains to be seen.
The different equipment used had a knock-on effect on the work load of the soldiers, as well as the operational capabilities of the unit. As already mentioned the speed, as well as the range and lift of an EPLS, is wildly improved from a horse-drawn GS Wagon, the driving of which was a highly physical task. Manually unloading a GS wagon took around an hour and a half, while nowadays, a logistics commander can expect his soldiers to unload 150 tonnes of materiel in that time. Not only that, but the variety of lift capability is vastly improved; for example, the CSLR recovered a stricken Apache helicopter shortly after 22 CS Sqn had arrived in theatre. The rough equivalent could be a GS Wagon attempting to retrieve a field gun, and while picking up tanks is light work for the CSLR’s Heavy Equipment Transporters, a 1916 tank driver would laugh at a horse drawn wagon attempting to recover him.
Looking at the wider logistic picture, the Army Service Corps made use of Senior Supply Officers from the Column, who were attached to a Brigade HQ in the effective role of modern Brigade Logistic Liaison Officers. Their individual diaries provide logistic detail from the time, some of which makes for familiar reading, as in this complaint from 31st October 1914:
‘Am of the opinion that the numbers of rations which are to be issued daily to each unit should be given to Supply Officers solely by Brigade HQs – & no notice taken of the numbers sent by the units themselves as these are frequently incorrect.’
This provides an example of a situation where doctrine from Afghanistan has improved on a situation that caused problems for 22 Company 100 years ago, that is to say, the inaccuracies and misunderstandings arising from communications between individual units and their logistic suppliers. Now, the RLC makes use of Logistic Support Teams, made up of supply specialists from the CSLR, who are embedded in location with dependent units, thus removing the ‘Chinese Whispers’ element of misunderstanding between the different cap-badges, as well as assisting the unit’s quartermaster.
The first few months of the diary are full of such ‘lessons learnt’, as the Column familiarised itself with the best tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) for the war. The length of the HERRICK campaign has meant that TTPs from Afghanistan have filtered through into most of the soldier’s basic training, let alone into the mission specific training for operations. As a result, 22 CS Sqn has been much better prepared to hit the ground running, which is key to allowing much shorter periods in theatre, as well as combating the higher threat level.
The conventional warfare of WWI and the counter-insurgency in Afghanistan are very different operational contexts. However, the supply chains for both have been relatively static, which has allowed for a clearly defined theatre logistic laydown, and thus a surprisingly high number of similarities between Close Support operations a century apart. The increased threat has generated the most important doctrinal difference; the adoption of the Combat Logistic Patrol, which has made the transport element considerably more complex, and consequently, significant in the overall battle picture. This can only worsen a complaint still relevant from June 1915, that ‘Supply duties are as important as Transport and all officers should have knowledge of them.’ Plus ça change!
Everyday life on operations
Just as equipment care of trucks occupies most of a soldier’s time in 2014, so care of their horses was the primary concern for the soldiers of 1914. The BEF would have been completely unable to operate in Afghanistan as we do today, simply because of the lack of forage in an area small enough to be appropriately secured and protected. As a result, 22 Coy were fortunate; the need for fields to pasture the horses meant that they were rarely channelled into population centres to become targets for artillery, though aircraft were still a problem. Similarly, Camp Bastion is more isolated from threat in the desert, although as it is now larger than Lashkar Gah and Gereshk, it is a target in its own right.
In general, the routine was very similar. There were daily low-threat details running supplies from the railhead to the divisional supply dump, just as there are routine moves within Bastion. There were rifle inspections, foot drill, which has fortunately ceased on operations, care of the horses as opposed to equipment care, billet cleaning and of course, weekly and monthly returns.
The soldier of 1914, however, was working in much more arduous conditions. The frequency of the moves meant that there was rarely an opportunity to properly settle into a billet. Some of these were deeply unsuitable, and had to be changed for health reasons. The frequent references in the diary to the weather serve as a constant reminder that the men of 22 Coy ASC were required to ‘basha up’ regularly, and effectively lived outside for more than 5 years. On one notable occasion, a driver suffocate himself by sealing up the GS Wagon he had chosen to sleep in too effectively from the cold. The air-conditioned tents of Camp Bastion make for rather more comfortable surroundings and the only time a 22 CS Sqn soldier qualifies for the Unpleasant Living Allowance is when they are detached to spend time in the increasingly sparse and austere Forward Operating Bases as they shut down.
It is to be hoped that such situation as recorded on 11th February 1917 would be reversed by the conscientious modern officer: ‘Good billets found for the mess and the officers but poor for men and horses’. This reflects a fundamental difference in attitudes across the century, where officers would have received different food, have been allowed unregulated alcohol and the luxury of un-censored letters home amongst many other privileges. It is pleasing to note that the first thing to go in the downsizing of the CSLR accommodation was the Officers’ and Seniors’ Welfare tent.
One must beware of drawing trite comparisons, but overall, it is fair to say that the Coy were working harder in 1914 and in more unpleasant conditions, particularly in an environment where regular recorded accountability (i.e. paperwork) was minimal, and the work largely physical. The increased complexities of counter-insurgency, and the isolation of armoured cabs mean that more is expected of the individual soldier in 2014 in terms of ‘brain over brawn’. However, given the very low casualty figures over a 5 year campaign in WWI and more so as a percentage of total casualties, the level of risk was much lower. Even taking into account modern advances in protective equipment, a sqn deployed to Afghanistan for a similar continuous period would be lucky to escape so lightly. In other words, 22 Company had to work harder for longer, but were in less danger, doing a less ‘punchy’ job, than where 22 CS Sqn in 2014.
It is reassuring, however, to see how the capabilities of the close support squadron have been widened and improved in the intervening hundred years, whilst retaining the essential lessons learnt, maybe even from as far back as 22 Company’s foundation in 1903. The achievements of our forebears are made all the more impressive when placed in direct comparison with operations today, and the deployed 22 CS Sqn has a great deal to be proud of when looking back at their Great War counterparts, who struggled through day-to-day challenges that the modern soldier would still recognise. It is appropriate to close with a citation for bravery from 11 Oct 1917, not even a footnote within the context of the global war of 1914–19, but possibly a more accessible example for soldiers today as a result:
‘The following acts of gallantry having been performed by CSM Timeney & Dvr Jarvis […] On the night of the 29.30 Sept in the BRANDHOEK area, while hostile aircraft were dropping bombs of various sorts, incendiary & explosive – in the neighbourhood of Train coy camps an incendiary bomb fell between two G.S. wagons loaded with hay that were standing on the wagon of no 3 Coy. The hay caught fire & C.S.M. Timeney observing the fire at once ran to the wagon to extinguish the flames. He was joined by Dvr Jarvis & these two succeeded in extinguishing the fire. By their prompt action these two men undoubtedly prevented a serious loss of government property & in the discharge of this duty they did not allow themselves to be disturbed by further bombs falling close by.’