A ‘mere six weeks’? A comparative study re-examining the longevity of infantry officers’ frontline service during the Great War

My latest article in War in History examines the length of time officers actually served in infantry units during the Great War

Veteran testimony after the Great War and current popular legend states that regimental officers in frontline infantry battalions during the Great War served around six weeks before death or injury ended their service. This article seeks to explore the veracity of these assertions by conducting a quantitative statistical survey of the longevity of officers who served in eight British and two Canadian infantry battalions on the Western Front during the Great War. The data presented in this study debunks the idea of the ‘six weeks’ myth as only 7 per cent of all episodes of service were six weeks or less. During 1914/1915, officers served on average just over five months, and this nearly doubled by 1918. Even during the intensive fighting of the Hundred Days in 1918, officers’ length of service was found to be longer than in earlier in the war. The increasing longevity of officer service over the course of the war may have been as a result of cumulative battlefield learning, support from experienced non-commissioned officers, the introduction of the left-out-of-battle system and tactical reform of platoons that made the platoon officer a co-ordinator rather than a personal leader. In addition, from 1916, the majority of officers joining infantry units under study were commissioned from the ranks and brought with them years of battlefield experience and military service which helped them survive.