Friday, September 12, 2014

The British Army in World War I

At the outbreak of war in August of 1914 the one major power for whom the Germans had probably the least respect in terms of its army was Great Britain. In terms of size it was dwarfed by the French army and certainly had nowhere near the numbers of the massive Russian army. Whereas the Royal Navy had ruled the waves for centuries and had a reputation second to none, the army was not taken nearly so seriously. It was most frequently used in minor colonial wars which the Germans tended to discount as being victories won against enemies unworthy of serious consideration. When the subject of their intervention was broached to the Kaiser, he joked that he would simply send the police to arrest the British army as soon as they landed. To say that the British army was underestimated would be a gross exaggeration. Discounted and despised, the British army soon proved to the Germans just how wrong they had been. The British army may not have been as large as the French or as heavily armed as the Germans but in fact it was the British who had, man for man, probably the best army in the world in the summer of 1914. Their force was small but it was experienced, disciplined and magnificently trained. Years of colonial conflicts had left them with a body of soldiers who had great endurance and experience in what war was really like.

4th Bn Royal Fusiliers at Mons
During the initial German offensive across Belgium and into France, the British Expeditionary Force had their first major clash with the Germans at the battle of Mons and all myths about the British army were shattered immediately. No other soldiers in the world were as well drilled in handling a rifle as the British, none had a higher rate of fire than what the British could achieve. They stopped the Germans cold and caused the German leadership to greatly overestimate the number of machine-guns the British had available because their rifle fire was so rapid and deadly that it was mistaken for automatic weapons fire. Eventually, they were outflanked by the Germans and forced to fall back but they had proven themselves to be a force to be reckoned with and despite suffering a tactical defeat they had further thrown off the German timetable and so contributed mightily to thwarting the German plan for a rapid victory on the western front. In the beginning, the Kaiser had called them a “contemptible little army” and the veterans of that original BEF proudly took the insult as a compliment and referred to themselves thereafter as “The Old Contemptibles”.

The British contribution in those early days of the war, Mons, the first battle of the Marne and the “race to the sea” (holding on to Ypres) was out of all proportion to its size and they finally earned the grudging respect of their enemies. Unfortunately, that expert, tenacious, well-trained army of veterans was practically wiped out in the process, particularly in holding the Ypres salient. The old guard volunteers were just destroyed and so Britain was left with no other option but to follow the example of the continental powers and begin assembling a massive conscript army. These troops were, of course, inexperienced and there was not time to train them to the degree of the old army but they still showed the determined resilience that defined the character of the British people in those days. After trench warfare took hold on the western front, the BEF made the effort to break the stalemate with an attack at Neuve Chapelle in March 1915. Showing a willingness to embrace innovation that the British leadership seldom gets credit for, this attack saw the first use of photographic reconnaissance from the air, artillery timetables and “hurricane barrages” as well as having the infantry rehearse for their specific tasks. The results were both promising and disappointing as the attack went extremely well in the early stages only to fall apart due to logistical breakdown and the strength of the German defenses.

Sir John French
Next, in April, the Germans launched the second battle of Ypres and it was the BEF that caught the worst of it. The Germans made the first use of chemical warfare on the western front with this battle, spraying the field with chlorine gas. French colonial and reserve troops were at the center, along with some others, and fled from the asphyxiating cloud. A dangerous gap opened in the Allied lines that could have been disastrous. However, showing an almost inhuman level of discipline and courage, a thin khaki line of British and Canadian troops rushed into the gap and held the line, preventing a German breakthrough. The end of the year also saw a change in command with Field Marshal Sir John French being replaced by his subordinate Sir Douglas Haig. French had been prone to mood swings, being either gloomy or overly optimistic and had been unable to get along well with his French allies. Despite the reputation most Great War generals have for being callous butchers of common soldiers, French was actually criticized for being too careful with the lives of his men to the detriment of supporting the French in the overall war effort. He was sent home and would later preside over the suppression of the Easter Uprising in Ireland. At home, British leaders were appalled by the losses and divided between those who wanted to focus on the western front and those who wanted to utilize more limited offensives against the Austrians or Turks.

British 13th (Western) Division in Iraq, 1918
The Germans were having similar thoughts and did their best to use the size of the British Empire to their advantage, causing trouble in all parts of the world so as to force the British to disperse their strength. In Africa, British colonial troops from South Africa were able to conquer German Southwest Africa but were thwarted in German East Africa where an initial, predominately Indian, invasion force was all but annihilated at the battle of Tanga by a much smaller but brilliantly led German colonial army (consisting mostly of African troops). Britain also sent a token force to participate in the siege of the German colony in China alongside the Japanese and there were successes and failures in the Middle East. British troops were able to successfully defend the Suez Canal against an invasion by the Ottoman Turks who hoped to regain control of Egypt, however, a British drive into Iraq ended in disaster with the surrender of Kut-al-Amara; the largest surrender of British forces until Singapore succumbed to the Japanese in World War II. Also frustrating was the attack on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey, proposed by Winston Churchill. The British ground force also contained large numbers of troops from Australia and New Zealand and they fought with great courage and endurance. However, the German-led Turkish forces had an immense defensive advantage and it turned into a bloody stalemate until the British forces were eventually withdrawn after taking heavy losses.

Royal Irish Rifles at the Somme, 1916
However, back on the western front, the Germans who had started the war with nothing but contempt for the British army had come to see them as their primary enemy. Colonel General Erich von Falkenhayn stated that Britain was the real threat to Germany but that the only way to defeat them was to wipe out the French which would then force Britain to come to terms. This was part of his reasoning behind the monstrous Verdun offensive. Although they gave about as good as they got, it seemed that France was being “bled white” by the German onslaught and so they pressed Haig and the BEF to launch an offensive that would force the Germans to halt their attacks around Verdun. This was the Somme offensive of 1916. Britain had already been planning an attack but the Verdun offensive forced Haig to expand the operation and to rush his timeline forward. The result was a bloodbath. The British troops charged the German lines with impeccable discipline and determination and were slaughtered by the tens of thousands in doing so, 58,000 falling on the first day of battle alone. The real tragedy was that it went on for so long and in the end the Somme offensive lasted 142 days and cost the British Empire 415,000 men. It was technically a British victory in that it did force the Germans to relent at Verdun (though given their losses they could hardly have kept going for long anyway) and there was a minor advance of the lines. Most, however, agreed that it was not worth the tremendous human cost and mostly because of that offensive Haig is most often painted as a commander with all of the finesse of a bulldozer.

British Mark V heavy tank
Still, German losses had also been disastrous and the British had proven themselves capable of taking tremendous casualties and still carrying on. Increasingly, it would be the British army that was to dominate the Allied war effort on the western front. In 1917, in support of a French offensive that proved disastrous, British troops launched a diversionary attack which saw the Canadian Corps take Vimy Ridge. The Germans recognized credit where it was due and singled out a number of British and imperial forces for particular praise, or at least praise of a sort. The Canadians, they said, fought with all the ferocity of their own assault troops and after being on the receiving end of an attack by Scottish highlanders, nicknamed the kilt-clad demons the “ladies from Hell”. In an offensive in Flanders in 1917, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian troops all earned high praise and the British came very close to winning a breakthrough. It was not the decisive victory hoped for but it was still a much greater success than many realized at the time as it had inflicted devastating losses on the Germans that increasingly could not be made good. The British also showed their innovation again by making the first major use of armored warfare by using tanks to great effect at the first battle of Cambrai. However, as with the first German use of poison gas, inexperience prevented the new weapon from being as effective as it might have been. Aside from tanks, while the Germans were the first to master warfare in the air, the British were quick to adapt to combat in the skies as well. The Royal Flying Corps came to have 4,000 combat aircraft, including the Sopwith Camel, the most successful Allied aircraft of the war. British planes did reconnaissance work, bombed enemy targets, supported the infantry in ground attacks and defended London from German bombers. They also produced many legendary aces such as Canadian Billy Bishop with 72 victories and Britain’s Mick Mannock with 61 victories.

Sir Douglas Haig
In 1918 the British faced their greatest trial and greatest triumph. Russia was out of the war but the Americans were coming and Haig’s strategy of wearing the Germans down by attrition was paying off. Germany had the strength left for one more major offensive and this was launched in the spring, focusing on the point where the French and British armies met on the western front. The British Fifth and Third armies were hit hard and forced to retreat, however, while many were disheartened that the Germans were winning back in days the territory it had taken years for the Allies to gain, appearances could be deceiving. The British were falling back but kept order and discipline. They adapted to the situation and were ready to strike when the Germans could advance no further. The attempt to break the British army had failed and in desperation they turned toward the French but, by that time, lacked the strength to achieve a major victory. The German army was exhausted and the initiative swung to the Allies where it remained for the rest of the war. After stopping the Germans at the second battle of the Marne, the British attacked at Amiens with Canadian and Australian troops participating as well. The result was a stunning victory known as “the black day of the German Army” and after which the high command informed the Kaiser that the war was lost. Later, in the fall, the British managed to break the formidable Hindenburg Line, taking huge numbers of prisoners and forcing the Germans to sue for peace.

King George V at the grave of a British soldier
The Central Powers were finished and it would not have been possible without the skill and heroism of the British army. By the end of the war, the British had broken through the best of the German defenses, kept up an unrelenting pressure on Austria-Hungary in the Balkans and had driven the Turks out of Palestine and Syria where British agents had also roused the Arabs to revolt against their Ottoman rulers. And, of course, while this is about the army, it cannot go unmentioned how devastating an impact the blockade of Europe by the Royal Navy had on the ability of the Central Powers to carry on the war. It is unfortunate that so many continue to view the Great War as simply a long succession of dull commanders throwing away the lives of their men in frontal attacks to no result. The British army in particular showed great imagination and innovation in prosecuting the war. There were plenty of lives wasted to be sure but war is always wasteful and new ideas were adopted. The Canadian seizure of Vimy Ridge is an excellent example of adapting to the situation and the British quickly caught up to the Germans in the air and were quick to see the potential of tanks. In fact, many of the famous ideas of World War II most often associated with the Germans were based on British concepts. What is more, the British also learned their lessons well and realized that the tank, the airplane and the rapid offensive would be the way of the future, putting them in a much better position for the next war than their French allies who drew all the wrong conclusions from the conflict. The British army of World War I was a magnificent force that accomplished great things. The war itself was a tragedy but those men who served in the trenches, in the deserts and on the veldts were heroes whose memories should be honored by all subsequent generations.
Remember Always


  1. An excellent article, As usual! My Grandfather served as A Gunner in the Royal Field Artillery in Mesopotamia. And thank you for remembering Vimy Ridge. It is said by many that it was in that battle that Canada became a nation. For the first time, all Canadians, English, French and new immigrants fought as a unit and succeeded in days, where both the French and English had failed for months. We will rember them! Lest we forget!

  2. Great article! Thank you. rhaps the most popular poem read by British soldiers at the time was Ballad of the White Horse by Gilbert Keith Chesterton, who helped the British Empire with a propaganda campaign of real brilliance. The Times quoted the work during the Battle of the Somme as a Headline "I tell you naught for your comfort, yea not for your desire save that the sky grows darker yet, and the sea rises higher." Those honorable soldiers of the king might more properly weep for us Moderns, ruled by financiers and the new digital pens.


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