The Old Contemptibles

L’Armée Britannique 1914

Artillerie à cheval britannique, 1914

Before describing l’Armée Britannique as it was en 1914, it would be well to consider its development in earlier years. Until la "Guerre du Kaiser" the strength of l’Armée Britannique never compared avec that of the Continental Armies. The reason for this is threefold. First, the traditional mission de l’Armée Britannique was home defense, et since the Navy was large, no great stress was laid on numbers in the ground forces. A second point to consider is the tradition of small expeditionary forces which were sent to the continent to maintain the balance of power over several hundred years. During these years it was found to be expedient to hire allies to do the greater share of fighting, while the fleet strangled the commerce of the beligerent trying to subdue Europe. A third factor in reducing the number of troops in the United Kingdom was the growth of Empire which spread the greater part of the part of the Army permanently over Asia, Africa et l’Inde.(1)

Compulsory service has been used only once, prior aux Grande Guerre. The regular Army was therefore always a professional one. Its smallness gave it an entirely different character from that of the Continental levies. Its Regiments, which in some cases traced ancestry back to 1660, composed of long-serving soldiers; were well known to one another. In particular, Regimental History, was a strong point, about which; even the most hardened Sergeant-Major could become emotional. Every unit developed a personality, as evident in the sportsfield as well as on the campaigns. Also national characteristics gave a variety of valuable qualities to the regiments, but all were to be known to be self-reliant et stubborn. According to historiens, the "efficiency et morale de l’Armée Britannique as a whole were higher than ever before.(2)

Prior to the Guerres Napoléoniennes, specialized units of light infantry, dragons légers et artillerie à cheval were formed, which required initiative et intelligence on the part of the common soldier. After Waterloo, changes were slow in coming, but one sign of improvement was being made, was the abolition of all the Grenadier et light infantry companies in each Regiment. This act demanded a higher state of training in all companies. But it was not until glaring deficiencies became public at the time de la Guerre de Crimée that reform became accepted. En 1871 several far reaching changes were being made. The Purchase system for commissions et promotions were abolished. Also Regiments were married to provide one Battalion at home for one abroad. In addition Army life was made more attractive, avec better lodging, food, et pay, as well as a reduction in term of enlistment to 6 yrs. in the active et 6 in the reserve. As a result the Army grew younger et the older misfits were weeded out.(3)

In 1881 the Cardwell Reforms were passed into law by Parliament. The reforms continued the pairing of Regiments which was started en 1871. New names were given the Regiments et the separate Regiments became the 1re et 2e bataillons of one Regiment. A 3e bataillon de milice, et further bataillons in the Territorial Force were provided.

As well as these reforms helped, les guerres coloniales were indispensable in preparing l’Armée Britannique for the conflict of 1914. As late as 1898 the Army used a hollow square(4) formation to revitalize the Army in everyday tactics in the face of modern weapons. Improvement was made in methods of attack, defense, and withdrawal. And an absolute necessity for good shooting became apparent.

As a result de la Guerre des Boers the infantry learned to shoot et to dig; the cavalry learned to move in small groups et to leave their horses behind in action; the artillery adopted shields for their canons et learned to seek shelter. The infantry was also fitted avec a new weapon: the Lee Enfield shortened model. Its bolt-action was the quickest in the world et les Allemands were astonished at the speed avec which their attacking infantry were morn down at Mons. La Guerre des Boers was in addition a rehearsal in the working et organizing together of large numbers of troops scattered over a larger scale.(5)

On 1905 Richard Burton Haldane was appointed Secretary of State for War, he immediately started work on a reorganization of the Army avec the funds available. About 1905 a General Staff was set up et Divisional Organizations developed. Eventually seven regular divisions were created et fourteen territorial divisions as well as fifteen Yeomanry brigades. By 1909 the Committee of Imperial Defense worked out in precise detail all necessary action to be taken on the outbreak of war.(6)

The manpower resources(7) en 1914 were divided into seven classes:

  1. Serving Regulars
  2. Regular Army Reserve
  3. Regular Army Reserve of Officiers
  4. Special Reserve
  5. Territorial Force
  6. Territorial Force Reserve
  7. National Reserve

In Octobre of 1913 the Home Establishment numbered 125,209 soldiers, les unités indiennes 77,130, autres troupes coloniales 34,619 et la réserve 145,000. Upon mobilization 270,000 were available in the United Kingdom. In comparison les Allemands had a total of about 10,000,000 hommes avec some extent of military training.(8)

The military training of the field forces in England were hampered by too little equipment et not enough men. Whenever a Division went out for training it had to borrow men, horses et equipment from other organizations.(9) It is somewhat ironic that the annual maneuver for the Calvary Division en 1914 were to take the form of retirement of a force before an enemy of superior strength, involving the passage of the River Severn. However, the river turned out to be the Aisne, Somme et Marne Rivers in Northern France.(10) By 1914 l’Armée Britannique was comparable to the other European Armies. Le "Poilu" français carried a Lebel Model 1886 bolt-action rifle with forestock tube magazine, portait red trousers et carried a large assortment of equipments. "Le fantassin française presented a picture at odds avec the swift charges demanded by the offensive à outrance. Yet, very et significantly et unlike l’Allemand, he marched avec la baïonnette au canon..."(11) In comparison, le soldat allemand was armed with the 1898 Mauser clip-fed, bolt-action rifle et portaient un uniforme field-gray.

In many respects les soldats allemands were better equipped et trained than their opposite numbers. However, Hans was burdened avec over confidence, et accustomed to strict discipline, which broke down, quant ses officiers tombaient.(12) Le Tommy britannique fell between, avec his excellent Lee-Enfield, clip-fed, bolt-action rifle et uniforme kaki. "Much more individualistic in outlook than les Allemands ou Français, he had been taught et partially understood the importance of fast, accurate rifle fire, of advance by fire et movement, et of cover et concealment."(13)

This was the situation in the above armies en 1914. The major powers were waiting for a chance to demonstrate the efficiency of their armed might. In Juillet the excuse was found et by Août fourth, approximately ten million soldiers were on the march in a collision course. In the preceding years, la Grande-Bretagne et France had come to an agreement to oppose attempts allemands to overrun Belgium. Plans had been drawn up, et on the 3rd of Août, la mobilisation britannique was ordered. The main parties began to cross the channel on the 12th et by the 17th the whole force of four Infantry Divisions et one Calvary Division was landed.(14) Some argument developed about the positioning of the BEF. Kitchener believed les Allemands were making their main effort in the North, et wished to keep the tiny BEF from the main onslaught. He proposed to concentrate at Amiens, but being overruled the BEF was ordered to concentrate at Maubeuge 70 miles further inland. This was accomplished just in time, on Août 20th, thanks to efficient transport et because les Belges held up les Allemands four to five days longer than expected.

Although Kitchener lost on the prior point, he did manage to withhold the 4th et the 6th Divisions to meet the possibility of the BEF being wiped out.(15) By this time les 1re et 2e armées allemandes were pouring through Liege et fanning out into the Belgium according to plan. On the 22nd les I & II Corps Britanniques were moving into battle stations near Mons on the left de la 5e Armée Française. Le front britannique was 21 miles long. Les quatre divisions britanniques faced huit divisions allemandes, six of which, in fact, made their attacks against two (3e & 5e Divisions Britanniques in the Mons area. The advance allemande was made in densely crowded lines, much to the satisfaction des Britanniques.(16)

After several bloody repulses, les Allemands forced les Britanniques back to their second positions behind the Conde-Mons Canal. During the early hours of the 24th l’armée française retreated leaving the BEF stranded. Sir John French then decided to do likewise. The retreat continued to Le Cateau avec les Allemands hot on their heels. The II Corps took the brunt of the fighting et some small units were captured in the confusion of the retreat. The troops were without food during the 23rd to 25th et on various states of exhaustion. The inability of the troops to continue the retreat forced Smith-Dorrien to fight at Le Cateau. The odds were not good, only 55,000 Britanniques opposed 140,000 Allemands. By mid-afternoon avec the right et left flanks folding, Smith-Dorrien ordered a general retreat. By evening the 2nd Corps et the 4th division, which had but just arrived, began a sixteen mile retreat in the dark. That day the 4th division had lost a quarter of its combat strength et the whole force about 8,000 pertes.(17)

By the morning of the 27th, les Britanniques had completely broken contact, et Kluck, commanding la 1re Armée Allemande, was in considerable doubt as to which way they had retired. Meanwhile Joffre ordered la 5e Armée Française to attack across the BEF’s front to relieve the pressure sur les Britanniques. After much haggling the attack took place only to be broken off as les Allemands pressed forward. With the 5th Army being caught in a converging attack by the 1st, 2nd, et 3rd Armies, Joffre authorized another withdrawal.

At this time, Kluck thought les Britanniques were beaten et retreating towards the channel. He therefore turned his attention to defeating the français. The 1st et 2nd Armies changed direction from southwest to due south. The purpose of this move was to find le flanc français et turn it east from Paris. Meanwhile Joffre was rushing troops from his right to the left et forming them into the 6th et 9th Armies. His intention was to counter-attack as soon as possible, but the progress des Allemands caused him to postpone this attack. He authorized his forces to withdraw as far south as the Seine River. Les Allemands followed recklessly. Kluck left an understrength Reserve Corps to guard his flank. By the 5th of Septembre, Kluck realized his predicament et started to withdraw his units from the Marne. Meanwhile Joffre’s counter-offensive was planned for the 6th. Joffre hoped to envelope les Allemands on both flanks. His 6e Armée Française was to attack east from Paris, les Britanniques north from below the Marne et la 5e Armée Française northwest.(19)

Had this attack succeeded, les Allemands would have been stopped cold. However, General Gronau attacked la 6e Armée avec his 4e Corps de Réserve Allemand, threw the offensive off balance, withdrew, dug in et sent for help. This movement took the element of surprise out of the attacks et les Allemands hurried to plug the holes in their line. However, Kluck’s retreat to support his flank left a gap between him et the 2nd Army. Into this gap marched le Corps Expéditionnaire Britannique. Although the BEF had suffered 10% pertes, replacements were rapidly filling the ranks, equipment was being issued et the troops were ready to fight.(20)

This movement caused les Allemands to fall back further et to fortify their lines. Allied attacks upon these prepared positions quickly developed into a stalemate et both sides then reached for the sea. Activity fell off somewhat due to the exhaustion of wartime reserves of ammunition, supplies et equipment.

The late arrival of the BEF allowed it to perform a vital service at Mons et Le Cateau. This movement stopped Kluck’s envelopment de la 5e Armée Française, which could have spelled disaster for the whole front. At the Marne, the BEF frustrated l’attaque de la 1re Armée allemande on l’armée française et prevented further outflanking attempts contre la 5e Armée Française.(21)

By the 15th of Novembre, barely 1 officier et 30 hommes par bataillon survived from the original force. This was just sufficient to maintain the framework of the Army in the field et to train the new Army at home.(22)

"One more tribute, from sir John Fortescue, l’historien de l’Armée Britannique, must be added--’With some knowledge de l’histoire militaire Britannique, the present writer unhesitatingly declares the work of the »Old Comtemptibles« to have been the grandest ever done, in every respect, by any Armée Britannique..."(23)

Max A Forsythe

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1 Barnes, R. Money, L’Armée Britannique de 1914, (London: Seely Service & Co., 1968), p. 13.

2 Ibid ., p. 15.

3 Ibid ., p. 19.

4 Ibid ., p. 21.

5 Ibid ., pp. 22-26.

6 Ibid ., pp. 30-32.

7 Ibid ., p. 33.

8 Ibid ., p. 46; et also in Marshall, S. L. A., The American Heritage History of World War I, (New York: Dell, 1966), p. 54.

9 Barnes, R. Money, L’Armée Britannique de 1914, p. 36

10 Bonham-Carter, Victor, The Strategy of Victory 1914-1918, ( New York: Holt, 1964), P. 84.

11 Asprey, Robert B., The First Bataille de the Marne, (New York: Lippincot, 1962), P. 27

12 Ibid., p. 15.; for a comparison between a German Corps and an English Division see the appendix. Information for these diagrams taken from Hoffschimdt, E.J. & Tantum, W.H., German Army & Navy Uniforms & Insignia 1871-1918, (Old Greenwhich, Conn: We Inc., 1968), p. 43; Rankin, Robert H., Helmets et Headress of the Imperial German Army 1870-1918, (Publication info unknown); et from The Avalon Hill Company, 1914 Battle Manual, (Baltimore, Avalon Hill, 1968), p. 26

13 Asprey, Robert B, The First Bataille de the Marne, p. 28

14 Bonham-Carter, Victor, TheStrategy of Victory, p. 85

15 Ibid., p. 87

16 Barnes, R Money, L’Armée Britannique de 1914, p 79; et also in Esposito, Vincent J. Editor, The West Point Atlas of American Wars, II ( New York: Praeger, 1964), opposite map 5.

17 Asprey, Robert B, The First Bataille de the Marne, pp.58-71; Barnes R. Money, L’Armée Britannique de 1914, p. 88-90 et ; Esposito, Vincent, The West Point Atlas, opposite map 7.

18 Esposito, Vincent, The West Point Atlas, opposite map 8.

19 Ibid., opposite maps 9 et 10

20 Ibid., opposite maps 11 et 12.

21 Barnes, R. Money, L’Armée Britannique de 1914, p. 106

22 Bonham-Carter, Victor, The Strategy of Victory, p.98

23 Barnes, R Money, L’Armée Britannique de 1914, p.108