History Goes On
'A steadily increasing blue strip':
Data-gathering and performance monitoring in the British Army on the Western Front, 1916-1918
Christopher Phillips | @DoctorCPhillips
The First World War has frequently been described as an industrial war. The conflict witnessed the widespread production and use of complex machines such as tanks and aeroplanes, and the application of sciences as diverse as chemistry and meteorology to the development of more effective and lethal weaponry by
the protagonists. Yet the war was also one of industrial methods, processes, and
procedures, and it was sustained through the pursuit of recognisable industrial goals such as productivity and efficiency. As George Thorpe recognised, by 1914 war had ‘become a business’. Alongside the infantry and artillery, ‘diagrams, graphs, and formulae’ were key components of eventual battlefield success.
From the summer of 1917 onwards, the numerical strength of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) underwent a gradual decline. Therefore, the efficient use of the available manpower in France became a factor of crucial importance to the continuation of the war effort. The twin requirements of economy in manpower and efficiency of effort required a fundamental reassessment of the working procedures of the cosmopolitan workforce employed in support of the front-line troops.
This paper draws upon the records created by the British Labour Corps during the conflict to demonstrate the methods by which the BEF harnessed and adapted the emerging managerial techniques of systematic management, and developed what Lisa Bud-Frierman has identified as an ‘information infrastructure’ to measure the output and productivity of a geographically dispersed workforce that ultimately numbered some 200,000 ‘employees’. The Labour Corps constructed systems of data capture, information management, and visual displays of quantitative data that were recognisably modern, and which relied for their smooth operation upon the input of skilled organisers drawn from British industry. The constant flow of data from the ‘workshop’ to the ‘boardroom’ informed the decision-making processes of the Labour Corps in the final two years of the war.
Christopher Phillips is a lecturer in international security at Aberystwyth University and the author of Civilian Specialists at War: Britain’s Transport Experts and the First World War (London: University of London Press, 2020). His research interests cover: the intersections between the military, the government, and private enterprise; the evolving public image of the British Army; and the challenges of coalition warfare. He has published material on the organisation of the British Army during the First World War across a variety of platforms, and his doctoral thesis was awarded the Donald
Coleman Prize by the Association of Business Historians in May 2016.
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