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Collective Training; the past, the present and the future

As part of the Army Warfighting Experiment 2021 the real work has now started on Salisbury Plain as soldiers get their hands on what the future might look like, but where did it all start?

For hundreds of years soldiers have undertaken collective training to prepare them for the battlefield. Using a progressive collective training system, soldiers are exposed to situations that they will realistically face in conflict.

Drill was an early form of collective training and was a way of moving fighting troops in close formations. Armies in the classical period between the 8th century BC and 6th century AD from the Greco-Roman civilizations are known to have conducted collective training.

The first official drill manual of the English standing army, ‘An Abridgment of the English Military Discipline’ was printed in 1676, it mapped out a drill system, words of command, pike and shot formations and minor tactics for cavalry, dragoons, grenadiers and foot soldiers.

Drill and combat training only became separate activities in the 20th century, but even now both have a shared function of promoting a prompt and collective response to orders.  

“British troops are now for the first time in a position to indulge in peace manoeuvres, under something like the same conditions as those enjoyed by the Continental armies.” THE GRAPHIC, 3RD SEPT 1898.

Artillery has always been a sophisticated form of combat requiring training to quickly move and fire canons. During the 1640s and the civil war, several manuals on how to use artillery were printed.  

The Royal Artillery has carried out collective training since its formation in 1716. The need to practice at battery level has been a constant as artillery is almost never used individually. The mobile horse artillery needed to integrate logistics to support the artillery, soldiers, and horses.   

Until the mid-1860s there had been no suggestions or manoeuvres anywhere in the country, making Britain the only European Power not to hold large-scale exercises. In 1897, 40,000 acres of Salisbury Plain were acquired by the Government suitable for deploying large bodies of infantry and horse-drawn artillery but the Military Manoeuvres Act did not come in to force until August 1898, only two weeks before the 1898 autumn manoeuvres.(1) 

This was a significant milestone for the British Army in that it wasn’t the first collective training exercise, but the largest to date involving 54,000 men of all arms, almost 10,000 horses and 226 guns.

It attracted immense public interest at the time, the Under Secretary of State for War was asked in Parliament whether ‘any facilities can be given to see the concluding field day of the troops at Salisbury Plain.’ A roped enclosure on Beacon Hill, near Bulford, a natural point of vantage for sightseers was set up where Members of the House of Commons could watch the march past on 8th September 1898.

It took two and a half hours for them to pass the saluting base, in front of 80,000 spectators, and from that point collective training became enshrined as we headed for a new century, and the Great and Second World Wars.

“… will always form a landmark in the history of military development.” The Graphic, 3rd Sept 1898.

Collective training in the 21st century has come a very long way. Nowadays it is the process by which individuals are formed into teams of increasing size, complexity, and capability to ensure proficiency for operational deployment.

Methods range from a small group activities, the research and discussion of a topic to Combined Arms Live Firing Exercises (CALFEX) in which live weapon systems are employed, allowing artillery, armour infantry and air to operate/practice in the same battlespace for a common outcome.

Of the 13 commonly recognised collective training methods, battlefield studies can be a valuable tool, comparisons can be drawn between the conduct of past operations and how the same effect might be achieved through the employment of modern capabilities.

So, what’s next? The British Army’s Warfighting Experiment 2021 will look at how the British Army can make collective training fit for future purpose. Working with industry partners using immersive, complex and multifaceted technology such as Augmented and Virtual Reality, our soldiers are getting the unrivalled opportunity to test, feedback and influence the direction of travel of collective training for future soldiers in the years to come.

(1) Wiltshire and the Great War: Training the Empire’s Soldiers by T.S. Crawford. Training for a future war c1.