'New thinking on the front line'
An interview with Cpt. Alfred Walpole
July 27, 1915
I arrived at Captain Alfred Walpole's section of the Allied trenches by train on a misty Belgian weekday. The young private who escorted me to the forward positions politely withheld his comment as I flinched involuntarily under the intermittent shellfire. I sat down with Walpole in his sparsely decorated dugout, and we chatted over tea and hard tack biscuits.
Telegraph: You've made a name for yourself as one of the most innovative young leaders on the front. How have your ideas been received? Have you ruffled feathers?
Walpole: I think there's a lot of resistance to experimentation, to taking risks. Particularly among the established leadership. When I arrived in this sector a few months ago, it was clear to me that something had to change. There was this real sense among the rank and file that the whole enterprise was lacking direction.
Telegraph: And what was the learning you took away from that?
Walpole: It's a question of culture. The first thing I did was signal that I was open to conversation.
Telegraph: Oh yes?
Walpole: Yes. When there's more honesty in the queues for the latrine than there is in the heat of an offensive, you know that you've got a problem. That has to be fixed. I command 220-odd men, so it took some time to sit down with everyone. When people are afraid to speak up, it means that our greatest resource - our people - is being wasted. And I don't just mean in terms of their guts being blown apart by shrapnel. I mean their brains.
Telegraph: Their response?
Walpole: Overwhelmingly, a paralysing fear of death. And barbed wire. Shells and gas were big ones too - I've got the mind-maps here somewhere. And I told them, 'I'll be totally honest, these are not issues which will be resolved tomorrow. Unless of course you get shot tomorrow!' [He laughs]. But we keep up the conversation now. We check in. There's literally no door to my dugout. As a manager, that part of the job [communication] is never over, especially with such a high turnover of personnel.
Telegraph: I've heard about some other initiatives that have made a difference. Can you tell me about those?
Walpole: Yes, there's a few common-sense things. We had these things called 'communication trenches', but that was really a misnomer. Most of them were long and straight, with the occasional dogleg. Which is actually terrible for communication and idea-sharing. Tommy up on the left flank might never see Johnny over on the right. People are in their little silos. So we re-dug a lot of these trenches to encourage people to encounter each other more often. We're in a circle now, and we've put all the ammunition and shells in one big store right in the middle [he motions outside his door]. So we've got all these chance meetings happening. People who would normally never mingle. Lots of people are always congregating in large groups around the ammunition dump. It's great to see.
What it all means is that if one end of the sector comes up with an innovation, say how to build a more efficient scaling ladder, they're now more likely to pass that on to their comrades. In a traditional place of war, that'd never happen. We're challenging this ingrained vertical structure and mindset. Same with the flexible parapet allocations, open-plan dugouts, and the work-from-home provision we're trialing.
The fortnightly presentations have been a hit too. One of the regulars had an idea about using a sort of sea-saw apparatus to get over the wire, which we prototyped. Young Bolingbroke gave a great talk about how to kill a rat humanely. Poor blighter caught a bullet in the throat yesterday. Luckily I have his notes.
Telegraph: And the offensive changes?
Walpole: Ah yes. See, the conventional wisdom is that you send everyone over the top at once, maybe in three waves. Blow the whistle, off you go, etc [he makes whistle sounds and gestures]. All very top-down, very rigid. People felt stifled. It's really inconvenient since everyone has to align their schedules and there's a bottleneck in terms of resources. I've found that letting people go over the top in their own time achieves the same outcomes and places less pressure on infrastructure. You go over at the optimum time for you, and then you write your reflection afterwards.
Telegraph: And if people refuse to go over the top?
Walpole: I don't micromanage. That's not how people thrive. We've got to let the men feel empowered and trusted to claim responsibility for the war at a personal level. That's what it's all about. But if they really won't do it, we have a follow-up chat and yes, that's when they get shot.