British Army in the First World War

In the early part of the 20th century, the British Army was a fairly small professional body of volunteer regular soldiers. After the Boer War, the British war minister, Richard Haldane, created the British Expeditionary Army, in case it was necessary to take part in a foreign war.

By August 1914, Britain had 247,432 regular troops. About 120,000 of these were in the British Expeditionary Army and the rest were stationed abroad. There were soldiers in all Britain's overseas possessions except the white dominions of Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Lord Kitchener was appointed war minister on the outbreak of the First World War. He immediately began a recruiting campaign for volunteer regular troops. At first this was very successful with an average of 33,000 men joining every day. This created serious equipment and training problems and until 1916 the British Army remained short of guns, ammunition and uniforms.

By January 1916 over 2.6 million men had volunteered for the British Army. The military leaders insisted that more men were needed and so Parliament decided to pass the Military Service Act. This was extremely controversial and resulted in the Non-Conscription Fellowship being formed.

The British Army had 1.6 million men wounded during the First World War. Approximately 662,000 were killed and another 140,000 were recorded as missing, presumed dead.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Oliver Lyttelton, From Peace to War (1968)

When Sir Douglas Haig succeeded to the command of the British Expeditionary Force, a much more professional outlook was apparent. He was an intellectual soldier, and versed in his profession. Unfortunately, he too was indoctrinated with the belief that the West was first and last. On the German side, Falkenhayn's insistance on the Verdun offensive, which Von Hoffmann so acidly derided, matched the Allied mistakes.

Sir Douglas Haig is an underrated commander, partly because to regain the initiative was virtually impossible when he succeeded to the command, partly because the subordinate generals, his instruments, were not, with few exceptions, of high rofessional calibre, partly because the citizen army had little battle experience until 1916.

My own criticism of the High Command would not be sweeping, but would be confined to three faults.

The first was that an obsession for ground, as such, grew up, and permeated the minds of all the junior formations. Capture a pig-sty at the bottom of a hill, overlooked from three sides by the enemy, the sump for the local drainage, and hold it we must and did. Any local commander who wished to withdraw 500 yards to the ridge behind him would have been in danger of being relieved of his command. Even to suggest it provoked questions about his competence and his courage. The large-scale example was, of course, the holding of the Ypres salient: a military folly of the first order. "Ah, public opinion in France, Belgium and Great Britain would not have stood the shock of a withdrawal," would have been the argument. Yet that same public opinion remained steadfast and unshaken when we had to evacuate the Dardanelles.

Secondly, it must be confessed that many of the subordinate generals, at least as high as corps commanders, had little or no experience of handling large bodies of troops and had not, by their past or training, been able to replace experience by professional or theoretical knowledge of their art.

Lastly, arrangements and dispositions were made which tended to increase the disabilities under which many corps and divisional commanders suffered. For example, the system which often made the H.Q. of an Army Corps a static H.Q., through which passed different divisions as they relieved others, was a fundamental mistake. Administratively it had many advantages: tactically, psychologically and from the military standpoint it had none. Corps commanders settled into their chateaux like freeholders, not temporary tenants: their staff with them: the paper work grew comfortably under the military version of Parkinson's Law. No esprit de corps could be built up: none of the troops knew to which corps they belonged. Furthermore, this static bureaucracy got out of touch with the troops and the conditions under which they lived, fought and died. In all my time I only saw one corps commander further up than Brigade H.Q.: he was Sir Julian Byng.

(2) Robert Graves wrote about his experiences of the First World War in his autobiography, Goodbye to all That. This passage refers to an attack where the battalion suffered very heavy casualties. Only three junior officers, Choate, Henry and Hill survived.

Hill told me the story. The Colonel and Adjutant were sitting down to a meat pie when Hill arrived. Henry said: "Come to report, sir. Ourselves and about ninety men of all companies."

They looked up. "So you have survived, have you?" the Colonel said. "Well all the rest are dead. I suppose Mr. Choate had better command what's left of 'A'. The bombing officer (he had not gone over, but remained at headquarters) will command what's left of 'B'. Mr. Henry goes to 'C' Company. Mr. Hill to 'D'. Let me know where to find you if you are needed. Good night."

Not having being offered a piece of meat pie or a drink of whisky, they saluted and went miserably out. The Adjutant called them back, Mr. Hill, Mr. Henry."

Hill said he expected a change of mind of mind as to the propriety with which hospitality could be offered by a regular Colonel and Adjutant to a temporary second lieutenant in distress. But it was only: "Mr. Hill, Mr. Henry, I saw some men in the trench just now with their shoulder-straps unbuttoned. See that this does not occur in future."

(3) Arthur Savage, who fought in the First World War, interviewed by Terry Cunningham in 1993.

Of course, what really died in that war was youth, a generation of young men. In my street where I grew up one family lost six sons, all killed in France. The population was out of balance. All through the twenties and thirties a massive surplus of women because so many men had been killed. There were simply thousands of lonely women who grew old alone and never married because they lost their men in the war and the children grew up fatherless. The effects were far reaching. So many people were broken and lost for the rest of their lives. Mind you, all the war leaders lived to a ripe old age.

(4) Richard Aldington, Death of a Hero (1929)

Winterbourne hated the war as much as ever, hated all the blather about it, profoundly distrusted the motives of the War partisans, and hated the Army. But he liked the soldiers, the War soldiers, not as soldiers but as men. He respected them. He was with them. With them, because they were men with fine qualities, because they had endured great hardships and dangers with simplicity, because they had parried those hardships and dangers not by hating the men who were supposed to be their enemies, but by developing a comradeship among themselves. They had every excuse for turning into brutes, and they hadn't done it. True, they were degenerating in certain ways, they were getting coarse and rough and a bit animal, but with amazing simplicity and unpretentiousness they had retained and developed a certain essential humanity and manhood. With them, then, to the end, because of their manhood and humanity. With them, too, because their manhood and humanity existed in spite of the War and not because of it. They had saved something from a gigantic wreck, and what they had saved was immensely important - manhood and comradeship, their essential integrity as men, their essential brotherhood as men.

(5) Cyril Falls, The First World War (1960)

I wanted to show what the war meant to my generation, so large a part of which - and so much of the best of it - lost their lives in it. I wanted to commemorate the spirit in which these men served and fought. The modern intellectual is inclined to look with impatience on the ardour with which they went to war. To him it is obsolete. If so, I must be obsolete too. Looking back, the intensity - and dare I add the purity - of that spirit still moves me deeply. I speak particularly of the combatants, including leaders and staff. In the circumstances of that war a large proportion of men in uniform might almost as well have been company directors, clerks, grocers' assistants or street cleaners at home, for the most part useful, but martial only in appearance and not even always that.

I find in the soldiers other virtues beside courage and self-sacrifice. Though their ardour became blunted, their comradeship never died. Then, though barbarity enters into all wars, they were in general remarkably free from this wickedness that soils the name of patriot.