In August, 1914, the British Army went to war. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was the best Britain could send to complement the French Army. It was arguably the best military formation in Europe at that time. On 19 August, 1914, the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany, King of Prussia, gave orders to his General Staff:
It is my Royal and Imperial Command that you concentrate your energies, for the immediate present upon one single purpose, and that is that you address all your skill and all the valour of my soldiers to exterminate the treacherous English first; walk over General French's contemptible little Army1.
It cost the two armies dear in the lives of their soldiers, but the survivors of the British Force, Regular soldiers to a man, took to themselves the title 'The Old Contemptibles' and wore it with pride at their achievements. Although they were later awarded a special campaign medal, the 1914 (Mons) Star, that nickname remained their own badge of courage and fortitude. Although much has been written about the Retreat from Mons, there is little about the men themselves, but it is their story that made this period of history a glorious one and not, as it easily could have been, a disaster.
The Army of 1914 was a product of its time. The officers were of the upper and upper-middle classes, and the soldiers of the lower-middle and lower classes. This division was of long standing and it was rare for a common soldier to gain a commission and rarer still to reach Field Rank (Major or above). However it is seen and interpreted today, this division was accepted as a fact before 1914, being seen as the natural order of society. Both commissioned and 'other ranks' were trained well, albeit in different ways and means. All fitted into the organisation which had been honed from years of fighting abroad, mainly in the upkeep of the Empire. The mistakes and failings of the Second Boer War2(1899 – 1902) had been taken to heart and the subsequent reforms had moulded the British Army into a well-drilled, professional team. This training preparation and teamwork would pay dividends in the first months of the Great War.
In the 19th Century, the soldier was seen as a necessary evil. The longer he was out of the country the better. Since the main threat to Great Britain was a sea-borne invasion, the strength and technology of the Royal Navy was the primary defence. There was no need for a large standing army for defence purposes. The social situation was little changed in 1914, but there were changes to the way soldiers were paid and their conduct out of barracks. Life as a soldier was seen as a retrograde step for most of the population of Britain, but it was better than the workhouse, there being no unemployment benefit at the time. Unfortunately, it was also a way out of prison for some petty criminals, being offered the chance to 'start afresh' with the Regular Army. This variety of rehabilitation was dying out in 1914, but it set the public view of soldiers for many years to come. The soldier saw this in the same light as Rudyard Kipling wrote:
... For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' 'Chuck him out, the brute!'
But it's 'Saviour of 'is country,' when the guns begin to shoot.
The soldier was trained to obey orders without undue questioning. This does not mean he was, for example, like the German army soldier who was trained in unquestioning obedience. Those who only obey orders cannot continue when no orders are received. The British Army has always prided itself on the fact that, with leaders gone, the British soldier usually continues under his own steam. In guards regiments, when the Lance Sergeants and Lance Corporals are gone, the senior soldier takes control. The training received by all regular soldiers enabled them to anticipate orders and, given certain situations, act without orders. It was all part of the job of a professional soldier.
The soldier that went to France and Belgium in August 1914 was a regular soldier, that is, a professional soldier who signed on for a minimum of seven years with the colours and five in reserve. Some were veterans of the Boer War and most had seen active service somewhere in the Empire. The Infantryman was still paid a shilling (5p) a day for his services. All, no matter what their background, were good shots, were capable of marching long distances in full marching order, and were ingrained with the British Army's philosophy of 'offence before defence'.
Officers were no less professional, but their 'service' was by commission. It could be held for as long as necessary or resigned; the worst were forced to resign. The purchasing of commissions was ended in 1871 and all were now granted after training. Officers were encouraged to ride to hounds as even infantry officers rode by horse into battle. Cavalry regiments even required officers to own two or three horses of their own. Much emphasis was put on gentlemanly conduct but, unlike most other armies, the British officer was to look after his men first and put himself last. However, he usually had a 'batman' or servant to look after his needs in the field, which made this condition less of an ordeal.
Of the other units in the Army, the Special Reserve (the old Militia) supplied volunteers to reinforce the regular battalions and the Territorials were designated Home Defence. The Territorials were given the option of Home Defence or Overseas Service with the regulars and almost to a man they volunteered for Overseas Service. However, they did not participate in any front-line action until October 19143. Although the emphasis in this entry is on the Infantryman; the Cavalry, Artillery , Engineers and the support troops of the BEF were trained and maintained in a similar fashion.
The Weapons and Equipment
The Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) rifle was the universal long arm of the Army. It was a bolt-action weapon of .303" calibre and weighed a fraction under 9lbs unloaded. It had two noteworthy features, a magazine of ten rounds (twice as many as the opposition) and a short, rapid action. It was, without doubt, the fastest firing rifle of the war. The regulars were trained to fire 15 aimed shots per minute and expected to put at least 80% on target. Many could fire more, up to 25 per minute, although accuracy suffered. For close quarter combat, it had a detachable 17" bayonet and, of course, a brass reinforced butt. Other weapons available were the Maxim Machine Gun, issued two per battalion and the Hand Grenade Mark I4. The machine gun was used for point defence and for defending restricted approach routes. It was thus essentially a defensive weapon.
Collective fire, at company or platoon strength, was directed onto suitable targets from about 600 yards out to 1200 yards. Under 600 yards, it was an individual fire task directed by section or platoon commanders. The philosophy of defence was to decimate the enemy formations with rifle fire before they could advance to close quarters, destroying his morale and the will to fight, then attack the remnants.
Each infantryman carried 150 rounds in his webbing equipment, 100 rounds in pouches for ready use, and a bandoleer of 50 rounds in the haversack. The Pattern 1908 equipment was designed for fighting in and, despite its apparent complexity, was comfortable to wear and distributed the weight evenly. Included in the infantryman's burden was a water bottle on the right-hand side, containing two pints of water; a small haversack worn on the left-hand side in full marching order, which contained rations and washing and shaving gear; and lying over a bayonet an entrenching tool handle suspended from the belt, and the entrenching tool itself in a pouch across the back on the belt. The weight was distributed by wide shoulder straps, which crossed at the back. Attached to these, in full marching order, was a large haversack containing ammunition, clothing, greatcoat and 'comforts'. The weight was about 55lbs. The complete equipment could be taken off as one unit. This was particularly useful on the march as instructions stated that it was to be removed on the rest halts along the route. No steel helmet was issued at this time.
His uniform was khaki serge, consisting of a short-skirted jacket with pockets, trousers to match and puttees - a long khaki 'bandage' which reached from boot to knee to protect the legs and trousers. Boots were originally brown for field service, but black became the standard colour within a short time. The cap was of the same khaki serge, with a stiffened crown and peak. Buttons were brass or blackened brass, depending on the regiment, carrying the regimental badge. The regiment also defined the cap badge and the shoulder titles placed on the epaulets.
The training publication Infantry Training 1914 put the object of infantry training as:
... to make him, mentally and physically, a better man than his adversary on the field of battle.
This was done in a methodical, prescribed manner that built the soldier rather than destroy the man. Discipline was the order of the day to build team spirit and obedience. They learned to march, rest, then march again and again. An emphasis was made on the 'soldierly spirit' during the initial training. The development of the soldierly spirit in the recruit was encouraged:
To bear fatigue, privation and danger cheerfully
To imbue him with a sense of honour
To give him confidence in his superiors and comrades
To increase his powers of initiative, self-confidence and self-restraint
To train him to obey orders or to act in the absence of orders for the advantage of his regiment under all conditions
To produce such a high degree of courage and disregard of self, that in the stress of battle he will use his brains and his weapons coolly and to the best advantage
To impress on him that, as long as he is physically capable of fighting, surrender to the enemy is a disgraceful act
To teach him how to act in combination with his comrades in order to defeat the enemy
A tall order? Perhaps, but it was done and it was done well. Remember that the BEF were professional soldiers and prided themselves in the fact that they were the Best. No other Army could come near to their standards and they would prove it. They represented the British and their Empire and no one, not even the Kaiser and his large and disciplined Army, would be able to walk over them with impunity.
History can tell the rest. Although greatly outnumbered, 70,000 British faced 160,000 German troops, and always in danger of being outflanked, the BEF delayed the advance of the German Right Flank. It was not a victory of attack, but a victory of defence. Often hurried defensive lines were used to hold and delay the German advance. So fast and accurate was the rifle fire that the Germans believed it was machine gun fire and refused to believe anything to the contrary for decades afterwards. This section of the battlefield, the Retreat from Mons, cost 7812 killed and just over 7200 wounded and missing.
After the Battle of the Marne and the First Battle of Yprès the casualties were:
Britain 85,000 of an army of 160,000
France 850,000 of an army of 1 million
Germany 677,000 of an army of 1,500, 000
The old regular army ceased to exist, the soldiers killed, wounded, crippled or transferred to training duties. Its place was taken by reservists and Territorials. The Great War itself was a catalyst of change in society and the situation would never again be exactly as it was in 1914.