The Old Contemptibles

The British Army 1914

British Horse Artillery, 1914.

Before describing the British Army as it was in 1914, it would be well to consider its development in earlier years. Until the "Kaiser’s War" the strength of the British Army never compared with that of the Continental Armies. The reason for this is threefold. First, the traditional mission of the British Army was home defense, and 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 and India.(1)

Compulsory service has been used only once, prior to the "Great War". 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 and stubborn. According to historians, the "efficiency and morale of the British Army as a whole were higher than ever before.(2)

Prior to the Napoleonic Wars, specialized units of light infantry, light dragoons and horse artillery were formed, which required initiative and 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 and 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 of the Crimean War that reform became accepted. In 1871 several far reaching changes were being made. The Purchase system for commissions and promotions were abolished. Also Regiments were married to provide one Battalion at home for one abroad. In addition Army life was made more attractive, with better lodging, food, and pay, as well as a reduction in term of enlistment to 6 yrs. in the active and 6 in the reserve. As a result the Army grew younger and 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 in 1871. New names were given the Regiments and the separate Regiments became the 1st and the 2nd Battalions of one Regiment. A 3rd Battalion of militia, and further Battalions in the Territorial Force were provided.

As well as these reforms helped, the Colonial Wars were indispensable in preparing the British Army 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 withdrawel. And an absolute necessity for good shooting became apparent.

As a result of the Boer War the infantry learned to shoot and to dig; the cavalry learned to move in small groups and to leave their horses behind in action; the artillery adopted shields for their guns and learned to seek shelter. The infantry was also fitted with a new weapon: the Lee Enfield shortened model. Its bolt-action was the quickest in the world and the Germans were astonished at the speed with which their attacking infantry were morn down at Mons. The Boer War was in addition a rehearsal in the working and 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 with the funds available. About 1905 a General Staff was set up and Divisional Organizations developed. Eventually seven regular divisions were created and 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) in 1914 were divided into seven classes:

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

In October of 1913 the Home Establishment numbered 125,209 soldiers, the Indian units 77,130, other colonial troops 34,619 and the Reserve 145,000. Upon mobilization 270,000 were available in the United Kingdom. In comparison the Germans had a total of about 10,000,000 men with some extent of military training.(8)

The military training of the field forces in England were hampered by too little equipment and not enough men. Whenever a Division went out for training it had to borrow men, horses and equipment from other organizations.(9) It is somewhat ironic that the annual manœuvre for the Calvary Division in 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 and Marne Rivers in Northern France.(10) By 1914 the British Army was comparable to the other European Armies. The French "Poilu" carried a Lebel Model 1886 bolt-action rifle with forestock tube magazine, wore red trousers and carried a large assortment of equipments. "The French Infantryman presented a picture at odds with the swift charges demanded by the offensive à outrance. Yet, very and significantly and unlike the German, he marched with fixed bayonet..."(11) In comparison, the German soldier was armed with the 1898 Mauser clip-fed, bolt-action rifle and wore a Field Grey uniform.

In many respects the German soldiers were better equipped and trained than their opposite numbers. However, Hans was burdened with over confidence, and accustomed to strict discipline, which broke down, when his officers fell casualty.(12) The British Tommy fell between, with his excellent Lee-Enfield, clip-fed, bolt-action rifle and Khaki uniform. "Much more individualistic in outlook than the Germans or Frenchman, he had been taught and partially understood the importance of fast, accurate rifle fire, of advance by fire and movement, and of cover and concealment."(13)

This was the situation in the above armies in 1914. The major powers were waiting for a chance to demonstrate the efficiency of their armed might. In July the excuse was found and by August fourth, approximately ten million soldiers were on the march in a collision course. In the preceding years, Great Britain and France had come to an agreement to oppose German attempts to overrun Belgium. Plans had been drawn up, and on the 3rd of August, British mobilization was ordered. The main parties began to cross the channel on the 12th and by the 17th the whole force of four Infantry Divisions and one Calvary Division was landed.(14) Some argument developed about the positioning of the BEF. Kitchener believed the Germans were making their main effort in the North, and 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 August 20th, thanks to efficient transport and because the Belgian’s held up the Germans four to five days longer than expected.

Although Kitchener lost on the prior point, he did manage to withhold the 4th and the 6th Divisions to meet the possibility of the BEF being wiped out.(15) By this time the German 1st and 2nd Armies were pouring through Liege and fanning out into the Belgium according to plan. On the 22nd the British I & II Corps were moving into battle stations near Mons on the left on the French 5th Army. The British front was 21 miles long. The four British divisions faced eight German ones, six of which, in fact, made their attacks against two (3rd & 5th British Divisions in the Mons area. The German advance was made in densely crowded lines, much to the satisfaction of the British.(16)

After several bloody repulses, the Germans forced the British back to their second positions behind the Conde-Mons Canal. During the early hours of the 24th the French Army retreated leaving the BEF stranded. Sir John French then decided to do likewise. The retreat continued to Le Cateau with the Germans hot on their heels. The II Corps took the brunt of the fighting and some small units were captured in the confusion of the retreat. The troops were without food during the 23rd to 25th and 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 British opposed 140,000 Germans. By mid-afternoon with the right and left flanks folding, Smith-Dorrien ordered a general retreat. By evening the 2nd Corps and 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 and the whole force about 8,000 casualties.(17)

By the morning of the 27th, the British had completely broken contact, and Kluck, commanding the German 1st Army, was in considerable doubt as to which way they had retired. Meanwhile Joffre ordered the French 5th Army to attack across the BEF’s front to relieve the pressure on the British. After much haggling the attack took place only to be broken off as the Germans pressed forward. With the 5th Army being caught in a converging attack by the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Armies, Joffre authorized another withdrawel.

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

Had this attack succeeded, the Germans would have been stopped cold. However, General Gronau attacked the 6th Army with his 4th German Reserve Corps, threw the offensive off balance, withdrew, dug in and sent for help. This movement took the element of surprise out of the attacks and the Germans hurried to plug the holes in their line. However, Kluck’s retreat to support his flank left a gap between him and the 2nd Army. Into this gap marched the British Expeditionary Force. Although the BEF had suffered 10 % casualties, replacements were rapidly filling the ranks, equipment was being issued and the troops were ready to fight.(20)

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

The late arrival of the BEF allowed it to perform a vital service at Mons and Le Cateau. This movement stopped Kluck’s envelopment of the French 5th Army, which could have spelled disaster for the whole front. At the Marne, the BEF frustrated the German 1st Army on the French Army and prevented further outflanking attempts against the French 5th Army.(21)

By the 15th of November, barely 1 officer and 30 men in each Battalion survived from the original force. This was just sufficient to maintain the framework of the Army in the field and to train the new Army at home.(22)

"One more tribute, from sir John Fortescue, the historian of the British Army, must be added--’With some knowledge of British Military history, the present writer unhesitatingly declares the work of the «Old Comtemptibles» to have been the grandest ever done, in every respect, by any British Army..."(23)

Max A Forsythe

World War One Miniatures


1 Barnes, R. Money, The British Army of 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; and also in Marshall, S. L. A., The American Heritage History of World War I, (New York: Dell, 1966), p. 54.

9 Barnes, R. Money, The British Amry of 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 Battle of 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 and Headress of the Imperial German Army 1870–1918, (Publication info unknown); and from The Avalon Hill Company, 1914 Battle Manual, (Baltimore, Avalon Hill, 1968), p. 26

13 Asprey, Robert B, The First Battle of the Marne, p. 28

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

15 Ibid., p. 87

16 Barnes, R Money, The British Army of 1914, p 79; and 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 Battle of the Marne, pp.58-71; Barnes R. Money, The British Army of 1914, p. 88-90 and ; Esposito, Vincent, The West Point Atlas, opposite map 7.

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

19 Ibid., opposite maps 9 and 10

20 Ibid., opposite maps 11 and 12.

21 Barnes, R. Money, The British Army of 1914, p. 106

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

23 Barnes, R Money, The British Army of 1914, p.108