The British Army and the First World War

5 mins read
The British Army and the First World War
Ian Beckett, Timothy Bowman, and Mark Connelly
CUP, £19.99 (pbk)
ISBN 978-0521183741

My heart sank slightly when I was asked to review this book. I expected yet another dirge about needless casualties, poor generalship, a reworking of ‘lions led by donkeys’. But, no, I was completely wrong: pusillanimous poets do not get a look in; instead we get rigorous analysis of facts, the figures that support them, and, refreshingly, a proper explanation of the fabric of the Army and the officers and men who fought – and won Britain’s greatest war.

I should not have been surprised, as the authors have impeccable qualifications and impressive track records. Ian Beckett, Timothy Bowman, and Mark Connelly all come from the University of Kent and are, clearly, very used to working together and synthesising their material. As a result, they have produced a densely written and beautifully researched book that discards many of the populist theories and digs deeply into the core of the Army.

However, the title of the book should more properly be ‘The British Army on the Western Front’. The authors make no apologies for failing to study the other fronts and campaigns in detail, dedicating one short chapter at the end of the work to other theatres such as the Dardanelles and East Africa. Very properly, they underline the fact that a great proportion of the manpower used there was not British, and that another volume, at least, would be required to tackle the subject.

This chapter does, however, set the Western Front in strategic context, and is particularly good, if brief, about the British involvement in Italy after Caporetto. A little more could have been made of the withdrawal of Plumer’s troops from the dying stages of Third Ypres, but Italy is an important campaign that is usually neglected.

I think, though, that there is one serious fault in this chapter. The Easter Rising of 1916 is dealt with in just over two pages: it merits more. While the only substantive, formed body to be deployed was 59th (2nd North Midland) Division, operations in an almost entirely urban setting, against guerrillas, in the midst of civilians, and under the eyes of the press (both friendly and enemy) was a new challenge for the Army.

The military aspects of the Dublin insurrection are insignificant compared with the mighty efforts elsewhere, but the political ramifications were huge and were highly relevant to much of the Army’s post-war activity. As the authors put it, ‘Maxwell, supposedly appointed because of his experience of dealing with civil-military relations in Egypt, did enormous damage in undermining support for the Irish Parliamentary Party and encouraging many Irish nationalists to support Sinn Fein, which was to triumph in the general election of 1918.’

But that is all we get. An assessment from the writers of how much time and attention was paid to the Irish events in France in 1916, what contingency planning was put in place for future crises, and whether the staff had either the time or the inclination to draw lessons from it would have been both welcome and instructive.

Pleasingly, before assessments are made of the fighting year by year, the reader is given a detailed analysis of how the Army was recruited, trained, and equipped before it was deployed.

The authors analyse how the staff had estimated that there would be 40% casualties in the first six months of fighting, with 65-75% in the first 12 months. The reality was about 63% in the first three months, and by October 1914 there was ‘barely one officer and about 30 men left in infantry battalions from those who had embarked in August 1914’.

When the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) deployed, about 60% of the Regular Army was made up of Regular Reservists, yet the ‘Regular’ nature of the old battalions was nurtured and kept alive despite their being obliged to absorb new recruits and troops from disbanded New Army battalions.

It is here that the authors score heavily. Perhaps it is speaking to the khaki geek in me, but I have seen no other book that tries to explain under exactly what conditions of service a soldier could enlist from 1914 onwards. The fact that many wartime volunteers were technically Regulars who served under a special engagement for three years, ‘or the duration’, is fascinating.

Similarly, the workings of the old militia battalions, dubbed ‘Special Reserve’ from 1908 onwards, is engrossing. The fact that these men existed quite separately from the Territorial Force and continued to enlist as Special Reservists explains much about the new drafts that were sent forward to reinforce the old Regular battalions.

Similarly, I found the explanation of how the Territorial Force was organised and mobilised to be very useful. The apparently needlessly complex system of numbering Territorial battalions and regiments, 1/5, 2/5, and so on is explained by the fact that a Territorial belonged, essentially, to a different army – an army governed, fed with men, and organised by local bodies to whom the battalions, to all intents and purposes, belonged.

It varied from county to county, but certain designated numbers (usually 5th, 6th, and sometimes 7th and 8th) were exclusively Territorial numbers, so, when extra battalions were raised, the title 2/7 was given rather than, say, ‘9th’, which was a number used by New Army formations. It is complex, but in this book it is, at last, properly explained.

Less thorough, though, is the authors’ explanation of why there was such intense suspicion of the Territorial Force. When the Regulars were shot away at Mons and afterwards, there was a standing force of Territorials (some of whom had already deployed and proved themselves with the original BEF), who, while not perfectly trained, were at least manned, equipped, and organised to deploy. Yet it took until Loos in the autumn of 1915 before the first Territorial Division, 46th (1st North Midland) Division took its place in the line.

Kitchener described the TF to Lord Grey as a ‘Town Clerk’s army’, and both Sassoon and Graves are scathing about Territorials in their memoirs; there is little doubt that significant friction existed. Indeed, it was significant enough for Lord Kitchener to be empowered to raise, train, and organise a couple of hundred thousand ‘citizen soldiers’ before the already embodied Territorial Force was deployed en masse. A fuller explanation of why this resentment existed, and its effect on the efficiency of the Army, would have been most welcome.

Developing this theme, there is an excellent and full chapter entitled ‘Citizen Soldiers’ that examines, among many other aspects, trade unionism, the habit of subservience among the British working classes, the adaptability of the class system to military service, and the disproportionate interest shown by modern society in the tiny number of judicial executions just (0.0006% of the wartime Army).

Uncharacteristically, here, there are one or two disjointed passages, while the unsupported claim that ‘French officers showed none of the concern for their men’s welfare so inculcated in the British system’ slightly mars an absorbing chapter.

A crucial and excellently written chapter on ‘British Strategy and the British Army’ creates a platform for the meat of this book, the chapters on the Western Front by year. That front is well known and widely studied, but lights are shone from fresh angles by the three authors on less well understood but significant incidents.

For instance, the dismissal of Smith-Dorrien and subsequent events surrounding the Ypres Salient is just one of several seminal episodes that are very well handled. Similarly, within this framework, the authors make the point that by 1918 the British Army was regarded as the best in France and Flanders – yet the best of a bad bunch, for the French and German armies had been destroyed and rebuilt on a scale which had not been necessary for the British.

My criticisms are really only nit-picks, for this is a towering piece of work that deserves a place on the desk of every serious military historian. The authors should be congratulated for work that breaks new ground.

Patrick Mercer

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