Evolution of the Infantry Squad 1914-1945

The basic unit of maneuver in world's modern armies by 1939 was the squad - ten or so men armed with rifles and usually a light machine gun.1 It was not always this way, however, and this organization represented the end of an evolutionary process brought about by technological change and tactical requirements during the First World War.


In 1914 the basic unit of maneuver was the infantry company, 150 or 200 men strong. They were sometimes subdivided into platoons of 30 or 40 men, but in many armies - the British certainly - they were used mainly for administrative purposes, often with no permanent leader. Pre-war British Army manuals divided the company into a firing-line and supports. The goal was not to win firefights, but “to bring such a superiority of fire to bear on the enemy as to make the advance to close quarters possible.”2 Battles were to be finished with the bayonet, not the musketry that was the pride of British Army.

One of the very first board wargames on a tactical scale was Soldiers: Tactical Combat in 1914-15, released by SPI as a boxed game in 1972 (collectors will note it was also shipped via envelope, and there were three different box variants, the most common actually being little more than a black counter tray with clear plastic lid holding the contents inside.)

The game accurately reflected the state of tactical training in this period, and basic unit of maneuver in the game, as in life, was the company. Also included in the game were machine gun companies and platoons, cavalry squadrons, and artillery batteries/platoons. In the early period of the war, artillery doctrine was as firmly rooted in the last century as infantry and cavalry doctrine, and guns were often sited in the front line and expected to fire over open sights in direct support of infantry. The onset of positional warfare in the opening months of the war changed all that. But that was in the future in 1914-15, and infantry doctrine remained rooted in maneuvering entire companies at a time.

A classic example of company level doctrine was Kitcheners' Wood on 21-22 April 1915. Two Canadian battalions formed company waves on a frontage of just 300 yards as per their instruction manuals, each wave two companies strong with two ranks twenty yards apart. Thirty yards separated each of the four waves. They were trained to advance at walking pace, arm's length apart; the company commander's whistle would bring them shoulder-to-shoulder, firing "two rounds rapid" from the hip before charging home with cold steel. They had practiced this on Salisbury Plain for weeks. "No one questioned its practicality in the face of massed machine-gun fire."3

They set off in darkness over 400 yards of open ground. The advance stopped halfway at a tall wire-strewn hedge. There had been no time for reconnaissance, and now none for stealth. Noisily bashing through, when alerted German machine gunners in the Wood opened fire, the men charged. Both units intermixed in a frenzied assault similar to that of the ill-disciplined Highlanders at Culloden 169 years before. It was all over in under fifteen minutes. Both battalions had mustered 1600 men at the start line; six hours later, with the Germans driven out and counter-attacks beaten off, only 461 were left able to fight.4

At right is a representation of this situation were it to be portrayed in Advanced Squad Leader. Each counter represents a 10-man squad. To achieve the necessary frontage, five such squads would have to be stacked into each hex (representing 40 metres of terrain from side to side). ASL players will recognize the dubious prospects of facing an enemy armed with machine guns when your infantry is overstacked five squads to a hex, two battalions compressed into an area just 28 hexes in area. For those actually wanting to simulate this in ASL, pre-1917 British tactics, would likely need to include Human Wave (A25.23) rules combined with a form of Platoon Movement (D14.23) for infantry. It would not be fun to play.

By late 1914 the Germans were already feeling their way towards the all-arms teams they called Stosstruppen, or "stormtroopers." So were some French divisions. Unlike the German army, with its powerful tradition of decentralization and individual initiative, the British Army believed in centralization of tactical doctrine...headquarters periodically reminded senior officers that the 1914 manuals were still in effect.5

The Somme

Reluctance to change was well-illustrated on 1 July 1916, and even though some divisions performed very well on a day that 60,000 men were killed or wounded, institutional resistance was still a force to be reckoned with.

On 17 May 1916, Rawlinson issued a pamphlet, Fourth Army Tactical Notes, directing that this be read by all ranks down to...company commander level. These notes called for an attack in extended line: 'the leading lines should not be more than 100 yards apart and the men in each line should be extended at two or three paces' interval, the number of lines depending on the distance and the nature of the objective.6

But according to Martin Middlebrook, the British were starting to learn by then; the following examples all come from that same 1 July 1916 attack that had been so costly over so much of the front:

At Gommecourt...Attacking from the south, the 56th (London) Division had performed brilliantly. Making use of (a) new trench they had dug in No Man's Land and a smoke-screen, four battalions had captured the whole of the German front-line system...


The leading battalions (of the 36th (Ulster) Division) had been ordered out from the wood just before 7.30 A.M. and laid down near the German trenches...At zero hour the British barrage lifted. Bugles blew the "Advance". Up sprang the Ulstermen and, without forming up in the waves adopted by other divisions, they rushed the German front line.....By a combination of sensible tactics and Irish dash, the prize that eluded so many, the capture of a long section of the German front line, had been accomplished.7

Rediscovering Platoons

Two and a half months later, training memos still announced that the company was the basic unit of attack. Even if the solution of smaller tactical entities had been obvious, there was a severe shortage of leadership; casualties among junior officers and senior NCOs were terrifiyingly high. Nonetheless, in the months following the Somme, the British

...rediscovered platoons. Officially they had always been there, thirty or forty men commanded by a lieutenant, with a couple of sergeants to assist him. In practice, pre-1917 tactics and the lack of reliable, experienced officers persuaded ...battalions to rely on companies, with junior officers assigned duties at a company commander's convenience.8

Companies were now formed into four platoons on a permanent basis, further divided into four squads. Officers, sergeants, and even corporal squad leaders were permanently assigned. HMGs went into specialized units, replaced in the infantry battalions by the Lewis Gun - one per platoon by 1917. One squad in the platoon would carry the heavy Lewis along with its bulky ammunition pans. The second squad specialized in grenades, a third in rifle grenades, and the fourth were riflemen.

Instead of companies advancing in line, halting until flanks were safe or the artillery had dealt with a problem, attacking infantry could maneuver against an enemy post that held them up. An infantry company would have four teams, each capable of fighting its own small battle. Leaders and men would know each other and, through briefings and rehearsals, all would know what to do. It had taken a long time, but ... infantry would be organized and trained to fight their own battles and not to be patriotic automata.9

By war's end, the British Army fought with true combined arms teams of tanks, artillery, machineguns, and even air support, co-ordinated at times by wireless, and at the centre of it all was the infantry.

In 1914 it was an arm which had prided itself on accurate rifle-fire which paved the way for assault in line. By the war's end, if it could not perhaps produce thousand-yard hits...it could generate a blizzard of close-range fire...and develop attacks with platoons and s(quads) shoving their way forward with fire and manoeuvre.10

The Germans had lagged behind in developing a light machine gun adopting the MG 08/15 while the French and Americans adopted the lighter Chauchat, with the Americans eventually implementing the excellent Browning Automatic Rifle very late in the war. However, the Germans re-organized their infantry by 1918, so that the machineguns were part of combined-arms groups. Just as the British and French had done, small assault detachments, as few as eight men with a dedicated NCO to lead them, were being used with great effectiveness.11

The Second World War

The mistaken belief that the Germans invented modern warfare in 1939 ignores just how good the 1918 British Army had been. Sadly for the British, many of their techniques had to be relearned after the start of the Second World War. What was not forgotten in the interwar period was the value of the LMG and the organization of the squad. By 1939, however, the Germans had taken the technological lead. The British had replaced the cumbersome Lewis with a true LMG, the Bren, in 1937. The new Bren was intended to provide their seven man squads covering fire. The Germans did things the other way round, with riflemen of a 10-man squad supporting the LMG. For the Germans, this weapon was the MG34, the first truly general purpose machine gun, capable of sustained fire of between 600 and 900 rounds per minute and, with the correct attachments (such as a tripod, telescopic sight, spare barrels, "assault" ammunition drum, etc.), capable of use in light, medium, heavy, vehicle mount and anti-aircraft roles.

The MG34 as configured for both the heavy and light role.
US Army photo

The British infantry platoon had been reduced to three squads between the wars. Experience in France and in North Africa led to the final squad organization; an increase to ten men and the adoption of a submachine gun for squad leaders. But even as this final structure evolved, the thorny problem remained of what the squad was supposed to do, and how they should be trained. Revisions to an official manual on tactics started in April 1942 were only finalized by March 1944.12

What was clear was that the specialist squad of 1918 was gone. The transformation to all-purpose squads is evidenced by Battle Questionnaires completed by company officers who describe a dizzying array of weapons systems their men were expected to use. In addition to rifles, LMGs and SMGs, each man took as many grenades (fragmentation and smoke) as he could carry. While the rifle grenade was still on inventory, a platoon relied instead on the 2-inch mortar for smoke, high explosive, and illumination, kept at platoon HQ along with an anti-tank rifle (replaced in 1943 with the Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank (PIAT), which sometimes doubled as a mortar).13

In action, the new squads rarely fought with more than six men. Aside from well-documented manpower shortages, the Left Out of Battle (LOB) system devised during the Great War was the main reason. Perhaps another legacy of the Somme, this ensured key men sat out major attacks to preserve a trained nucleus to rebuild on in the event of a disaster. If a battalion, company or platoon commander personally led an attack, his second in command remained back. Even individual squads left one or two men behind.

Battle Drill

British infantry training was revitalized in 1942 by their 47th Division, who adopted what they called Battle Drill. In its most basic form, this taught infantry squads how to react under fire. The new mantra became “Down, Crawl, Observe, Fire”, the immediate actions for riflemen under fire. Basic routines were developed for tactical situations, and the squad leader found himself in a position of importance undreamed of by 1914 NCOs. He ordered basic maneuvers based on his own assessments - usually a flanking by the rifle team with the Bren providing cover. It was even simple enough to be taught as a parade ground drill.14

I found as a Section Leader, I had to keep yelling at my men, "five yards!"...Most of our marches were in single file, one-third of a Platoon at a time, with a Section Leader, usually a Corporal, out in front. Each man in his section was supposed to be five yards behind the man in front. But nature being what it is, men were inclined to crowd up...When a section Leader started the advance, he would say "follow me" and at the same time he made a motion with one arm...What I didn't figure out until years after the war was over was that the section Leader was the most vulnerable position.15

This dispersal made command difficult to exert; a 1914 company commander could control tightly packed waves of men, but his 1944 counterpart would often not be able to see most of his men at any given time. Much was left to the squad leader to carry out on his own. The British rifle squad historically divided into a Bren Team of three men and a Rifle Team with the rest of the squad under the squad leader. Battle Drill taught the squad leader what to do with his teams, but it became much more. Obstacle courses, speed marches and hardening training were added, including visits to animal slaughterhouses to get men used to the sights of battle. Training was done “at the double” with full equipment. Reactions at all levels were mixed; some soldiers felt the lessons useless and unrealistic. General Montgomery (and some noted historians) felt it was a crutch preventing companies from perfecting company maneuvers (the advance, the relief in place, the passage of obstacles, etc.) by its focus on the platoon and squad. Battle Drill fell in and out of favour during the war, as the British armies struggled to convert largely civilian armies into tactical equals of the Germans.

Two methods of attack crystallized in British battle schools; in October 1942 a handbook outlined both the pepper-pot method, and the lane method. The former involved splitting squads into three groups, one group moving forward 20 yards while the other two covered their movements, leapfrogging forward in this manner until on the objective. Critics felt the Bren Gun remained too idle, and for this reason the “lane method” of attack was developed, illustrated in ASL terms below.

At the centre are extra Bren Gun teams, either from supporting rifle platoons, or in this case dismounted Brens drawn from the Carrier Platoon. On the left flank (at the top of the illustration), the Platoon Sergeant keeps the PIAT under command while the Platoon Commander prepares to lead his squad, with 2-inch mortar, forward. On the right flank (at the bottom of the illustration), the other two squads of the platoon also prepare to advance. The manual gives a frontage of 250 yards, which is accurate in our example, but gives 600 yards from the LMG teams to the objective. In support are three-inch mortars, not visible here, and sited off map to the left.

The first image shows how the attack was supposed to develop, according to the manual. The leading squads would move forward and deploy, with LMG teams and mortars providing cover (and smoke). In the second image, we see the LMGs have moved forward so that all LMGs are on line and firing. Infantry from follow up platoons advance from behind to exploit the successful assault indicated by red arrows.16

Unfortunately, the lane method was almost impossible to co-ordinate effectively; one historian knows of but a single instance of it being performed successfully in an actual battle.17 No matter what method was employed to get infantry forward, a major concern was that once the individual soldier had done his drills there was often nothing to be seen to shoot at, with entrenched German soldiers all but invisible. There also continued to be an over-reliance on artillery support - a holdover attitude from the First World War - with wide belief that heavy guns made infantry tactics a non-issue.

One British General, writing in 1948, felt that the infantry should advance under covering fire and defeat the enemy at close range, with any and all covering firepower generated by the artillery and separate MG battalions. He felt that “the (squad), platoon and company fire-and-movement tactics comprehended in battle drill were wrong in principle, and that the role of the infantry should be little different from the role they had been intended to perform on 1 July 1916.” He further suggested equipping infantry with a bayonet and rifles sighted out only to 200 yards, leaving all other types of weapons in the hands of specialists. His model was not adopted, but there is some irony in that it was the Somme that precipitated major changes in infantry organization in the first place!18

In the end, while the importance of the squad as the basic unit of maneuver was well known by 1944, the best methods for training and utilizing those squads were never fully realized by the British. The United States Marine Corps pushed forward based on tactical requirements in the Pacific, and broke the squad down even further, in some cases to three separate teams, each with its own Browning Automatic Rifle. The US rifle squads in both the Army and the Marines were equipped completely with semi-automatic and automatic weapons by 1944, and numbered twelve or thirteen men. Games like Close Assault and its contemporary-era sequel, Firepower, sought to examine the nitty gritty of actual man-for-man organizational schemes. The great irony of the most successful of all the tactical board games, Squad Leader, is that it is so inaptly named given that the player never actually commands any squads. But these are all topics for future articles.


  1. In actual fact, the British squad has always been called a "section" but for purposes of this article "squad" is substituted.
  2. Holmes, Richard. Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front 1914-1918 (HarperCollins UK, 2005 ISBN 978-0007137527) p.381
  3. Dancocks, Daniel G. Gallant Canadians: The Story of the Tenth Canadian Infantry Battalion 1914-1919 p.27
  4. Ibid, pp.33-34
  5. Morton, Desmond. When Your Number's Up: Canadians in the First World War, p.164
  6. Neillands, Robin. The Great War Generals, p.240
  7. Middlebrook, Martin. First Day on the Somme
  8. Morton, Ibid, p.164
  9. Ibid, p.164
  10. Tommy p.394
  11. Bull, Stephen. World War I Trench Warfare (2) 1916-18 (Osprey Publishing Ltd. 2002)
  12. Place, Timothy Harrison. Military Training in the British Army, 1940-1944 From Dunkirk to D-Day, p. 9
  13. Original Battle Questionnaires on file in The Calgary Highlanders Regimental Archives.
  14. Hogg, Ian V. and Mike Chappell. "The Bren Gun", article in Military Illustrated
  15. Unpublished memoir of Acting Corporal Bill Powell, Calgary Highlanders 1944-45.
  16. The Instructor's Handbook on Fieldcraft and Battle Drill (GHQ Home Forces, 1942), pp 164-166
  17. Place, Ibid, p.69
  18. Ibid, p.79



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