The British Army in World War One, 1914 – 1918.
Uniforms, organization, leaders, strength and casualties.
In 1908 Haldane had reorganized the British army, forming the units at home into an Expeditionary Force, six infantry and one cavalry division totaling some 160,000 men, capable of supporting either the garrisons of the empire or a Continental ally. In 1905 staff talks with the French had been authorized, but had languished until, early in 1911, the Francophile Major-General Henry Wilson had come to the War Office as director of military operations. That August the crisis over Agadir had revealed an alarming divergence of war plans between the War Office, where Wilson had made detailed arrangements with the French for the deployment of the Expeditionary Force on the left of the 5th Army, and the Admiralty, which strongly opposed continental commitment of the army, though it did not have a properly worked out proposal to put in place of Henry Wilson’s. The Council of Imperial Defense had deferred formal decision, but allowed the War Office to continue planning with the French.
When in 1914 war was declared, there were those who thought that the Expeditionary Force should remain in Great Britain, or should go direct to Belgium in fulfillment of the British guarantee of neutrality, but it was too late now to change, and on 6th August the cabinet decided that it should go to France as planned, but without two of its divisions which would for the present remain in Great Britain.
Although small, the British army was well-trained and equipped On the South African veld Boer bullets had taught it something of the reality of firepower. Now the marksmanship of the infantry was in an entirely different class from that of continental armies. The cavalry, too, were armed with a proper rifle, not the neglected carbine of continental cavalry, and knew how to use it, but there peacetime reaction was setting in and the glamorous, futile charge coming back into fashion.
Called by the Germans an army of mercenaries and, more flatteringly, a perfect thing apart, the British army was recruited from volunteers, who enlisted for seven years followed by five in the reserve. Each battalion at home found drafts for another in the overseas empire, so that its men were often raw and its numbers short. There were experienced men in the divisions that went to France, but to see them all as hardened professionals is a mistake; some were young soldiers, others reservists grown soft in civil life.
Continuing an old tradition in modern shape, the Territorial Force and the Yeomanry had been organized by Haldane into a second-line army of fourteen divisions, far from fully trained or equipped, but a good deal more effective than many realized. Beyond that there were the older reservists and the militia as replacements, and the distant imperial garrisons and armies of India and the dominions.
Field Marshal Sir John French, commander-in-chief, British Expeditionary Force, had been a successful cavalry commander in South Africa, but at sixty-two was showing his age. Lieutenant-General Sir Douglas Haig, commanding the I Corps, French’s chief-of-staff in South Africa and Haldane’s assistant in the subsequent reforms, was able and ambitious, but inflexible and wedded to cavalry doctrine. Kitchener, now Secretary of State for war, a tremendous national figure, had flashes of insight amounting almost to genius but little appreciation of staff organization or civilian control. In general, British officers were efficient and devoted but narrow in outlook. However, a far higher proportion of them than of officers in France and Germany had experienced the reality of war.
GREAT BRITAIN (August 4, 1914 – November 11, 1918)
- Soldiers available on mobilization = 800,000
- Army strength during the war = 5,704,000
- KIA Military = 997,000
- Wounded Military = 2,300,000
References and literature
History of World War I (AJP Taylos, S.L. Mayer)
Army Uniforms of World War I (Andrew Mollo, Pierre Turner)
World War I Infantry in Colour Photographs (Laurent Mirouze)
The British Army 1914-18 (D.S.V. Fosten & R.J. Marrion)
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Weapons of World War I (Chris Bishop)
An Illustrated History of the Weapons of World War One (Ian Westwell)
Die Geschichte der Artillerie (John Batchelor, Ian Hogg)