The Early War British Army
Dr. Gavin Hughes

' We did not like the order to retire at Mons. We knew we were doing better than the Germans...' - Anon. Rifleman, King's Royal Rifle Corps, August 1914


At first glance, whilst the khaki-clad ranks of the B.E.F. may not be as visually exciting as their French or German counterparts, their distinct character makes them a delight to paint and game with. The B.E.F. of 1914 to 1915 was aggressive in attack, philosophical in retreat and resolute in defence. The men who were 'Out Since Mons' captured the public imagination and won the respect of allies and enemies alike. What follows is a brief introduction to the background of the early infantry of the British Expeditionary Force, with a few suggestions and ideas for recreating units and some of its smaller actions.

On the eve of the Great War, the British Regular Army was a small but disciplined force of professionals. They were highly trained in musketry, notoriously steady under fire and had veteran experience of fighting in campaign theatres throughout the world. However, even the experience of garrison and active duties within the Empire could not prepare them for the war to come. Despite their innate professionalism, the B.E.F. found themselves repeatedly outnumbered by an equally determined and competent enemy . Under such circumstances, the 'wasting away' of one of the finest military forces in the world was as inevitable as it seemed inconceivable.

In August 1914, the United Kingdom was split into seven military Commands and each had Regular, Special Reserve and Territorial forces assigned to them. There were sixty-nine infantry Regiments of the Line and four Regiments of Guards in 1914; the Grenadier, the Coldstream, the Scots and the Irish (the fifth Regiment of Guards, the Welsh, was raised in February 1916). Upon mobilisation, the Army had 125,000 officers and other ranks on its Regular Establishment. These formed Britain's 'contemptible little army' sent to France, the six infantry divisions and one cavalry division that comprised the British Expeditionary Force. A testimony to their conduct is shown by the fact that, by the end of 1914, the British Expeditionary Force had suffered some 90,000 casualties.

Strengthening these Regular forces were the Territorials, a separate and fully self- supporting volunteer army. Most Regiments from Great Britain had associated Territorial Force battalions (raised in 1908) and this expanded the regimental strength considerably. The Irish Infantry Regiments had no designated Territorial battalions, nor did the Royal Fusiliers (although the 1st - 4th Battalions of the London Regiment were affiliated to them), King's Royal Rifle Corps or the Rifle Brigade. Although these troops were meant to be only used within the British Isles, the vast majority (some 90%) volunteered for 'Imperial Service' overseas and prided themselves on being the Regular's successors. Some suggestions for recreating specific 1915 Territorial Force units might be the 4th (Carmarthen) battalion of the Welch Regiment; the 5th (Grimsby) battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment; the 5th (Chelmsford) battalion, Essex Regiment or the 7th (Exeter) battalion, the Devonshire Regiment.

The battalions themselves were usually commanded by a Lieutenant-Colonel and were officially 1,000 strong, with a fighting strength of around 800 men. In theory, this allowed for the retention of battalion reserves (euphemistically called the 'Battle Surplus'), during an assault. In practice, these became the core of men that would reform a shattered battalion after they had been engaged by the enemy. A battalion strength of 600-800 men was common and was sometimes less during prolonged assaults. In 1914, each battalion also had its own Machine-gun Section, comprising of two guns, one officer and twelve other ranks. This organisation remained until late 1915, when the sections were reformed into attached Machine-Gun Companies under Divisional command. Otherwise, battalions consisted of five Companies, of four rifle companies and one headquarters company, each commanded by a Major. Again, in practice, the Company could be commanded by Captains, Lieutenants or even 2nd Lieutenants, due to the large number of officer casualties. A Company's strength stood between 227 and 240 men, divided into four platoons of 60 men each. These platoons were commanded by a junior officer but could also be led by a senior NCO (generally a sergeant or corporal) and were split into four rifle sections of five to nine men, commanded by junior NCOs.

As there are currently many excellent research works available on uniforms (and some are recommended at the end), only the briefest of details are hinted at here. The standard uniform for infantry of the B.E.F., with the notable exception of most Scottish units, was the 1902 General Service khaki tunic, trousers, cap (with or without metal 'stiffener') and puttees. Another service cap, with earflaps which buttoned across the crown, was issued in 1915 and this, along with the unstiffened original issue, became known as a 'Gorblimey'.

The common tunic had brass buttons (black for Rifles) and the only variation between most regiments was the capbadge and brass shoulder titles. Thus, soldiers from the Royal Irish Fusiliers or Princess Patricia's Light Infantry, the first Canadian regiment to arrive at the Front (in January 1915), all looked very similar on active service. This changed with the arrival of Kitchener's 'New Armies' in 1915 and their introduction of coloured Battle insignia and patches. Another exception was that Guards' officers wore their rank 'stars' on their epaulets, whilst officers of the line wore theirs on their cuffs. For the very keen of eyesight, Renegade models have an appealing variation in capbadges which allow you to recreate specific Regimental units. If you are feeling particularly adventurous, you could even try painting the silver 'Imperial Service' badge (worn on the right breast) for your Territorials!

British personal equipment for the War was the 1908 pattern webbing, usually of an olive-khaki colour and with three to five pouches on either side of the clasp. An emergency 1914 pattern was also issued for some battalions during periods of increased demand after mobilisation. This was in brown leather, with two ammunition pouches on either side of the belt clasp. British soldiers were encouraged to fight with the bayonet in any hand-to-hand struggle, to such an extent that firing at close quarters was actively discouraged. One British infantry training manual, although of the mid-war period, taught that "...the enemy should be killed with the bayonet. Firing should be avoided... [as a bullet passing ] ...through an opponent's body, may kill a friend who happens to be in the line of fire." ['Bayonet Training' p.19, 1916] Like many European armies, High Command believed that the bayonet was the weapon that best summarised British fighting capabilities. Yet, as a popular joke at the time reflected, a Tommy would probably end up using his bayonet just as much to open 'plum and apple' jam tins as he would against the enemy.

The standard British Army rifle of the war was the excellent SMLE (Short Magazine Lee Enfield), which was backed up by the equally durable Webley .45 revolver. The B.E.F. were widely respected for their skill at arms and ability to fire twelve to fifteen aimed rounds a minute whilst under fire themselves. Whilst musketry had always been a celebrated characteristic of the British Army, during the first months of the war it became a near legendary quality. It was this ability to pour a phenomenal rate of fire upon the enemy that so astonished the Germans at Mons and helped to delay their advance at Le Cateau. It was also this ability, combined with the resilience of the B.E.F., that aided in the numerous engagements and skirmishes during the Retreat from Mons, the crossing of the Aisne, the 'Race to the Sea' and Ypres.

Whilst the story of Mons is often repeated, as it was the British Army's first major battle with the Germans, its importance cannot be stressed enough. The British, with 80,000 men and 300 guns, defended a 21 mile line against over 160,000 Germans to their front, combined with 60,000 Germans, with 230 guns, enfilading on their left. The 4th Royal Fusiliers, held onto a vital section of the Mons-Conde canal outside Nimy village, along with the 4th Middlesex on their right (near Oubourg - with the Royal West Kents to their right) in spite of repeated German attacks and heavy shelling. Eventually, the British Army was forced to withdraw but, despite being vastly outnumbered, it inflicted some 3,000 casualties on the Germans, suffering 1,600 in return. The effect of Mons on the B.E.F. is shown by the 4th Middlesex Regiment, which survived the battle with only a few hundred men and two officers - the Colonel and a shell-shocked subaltern.

Days later, in an effort to slow down this powerful German advance, a desperate rearguard action began at Le Cateau. British II Corps (commanded by General Smith- Dorrien), now split and isolated from I Corps (under General Haig), held Von Kluck's entire German First Army at bay, allowing the rest of the B.E.F. to escape. Despite being a direct disobeyance of General Sir John French's orders, it was a masterly operation. It was not without cost, however. It lasted eleven gruelling hours and British casualties stood at some 8,000 men. During the tale-end of the battle, the order to finally retire was sent out. However, as the Germans were making a concerted effort to clear the ground around Le Cateau, the British slit-trenches were being raked by shellfire and the runners which were sent had difficulty getting through. Consequently, some battalions did not receive their orders and one such unit, a combined force of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and Suffolks, held onto their position for nine hours before finally being overwhelmed.

The following months witnessed the long retreat from Mons, the bitterly fought 'Race to the Sea' and eventually the battle which saw the 'Death of the Regulars' - First Ypres. To this background, the first Territorial units began to arrive in Flanders, proudly stepping into the empty spaces left by their parent Regiments and intent on upholding their traditions. At Ypres, in October, the 750 strong 'London Scottish', the first Territorial unit to enter the war, enthusiastically charged Messines ridge and received 300 casualties in the process. Those Regulars who witnessed the London Scots returning in twos and threes from the battle, were furious and appalled. The action at Messines had ushered in a new era of the Great War, one that would have been unimaginable in August 1914: the destruction of the Regular Army and the seemingly inevitable total commitment of the country's Volunteers. A year later and the 'old sweats' of the British Expeditionary Force had all but disappeared. Yet, in their place, stood the eager volunteers from the Territorials and 'New Armies', just waiting for the opportunity to avenge them.

Suggested further reading:

Below is a brief selection of some highly recommended works on the B.E.F from 1914-1915:

Chapell, M. - British Battle Insignia 1, 1914-1918, No.182 (Osprey, 1986)

Fosten, D.S.V. & Marrion, R.J. - The British Army 1914-1918, No.81 (Osprey, 1978)

MacDonald, L. - 1914 [Penguin, 1987] and 1915: The Death of Innocence [BCA, 1993]

Mollo, A. - Army Uniforms of World War 1 , (Blandford, 1977)

Robbins, K. - The First World War (Oxford University Press, 1993)

Westlake, R. - British Territorial Units 1914-1918, No. 245 (Osprey, 1991)

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