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BEF 1914: Best trained, best organised and best equipped?


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Brig Gen J Edmonds CB says in his Introduction to the Official History of the War: Military Operations: France and Belgium Part 1:

"In every respect the Expeditionary Force of 1914 was incomparably the best trained, best organised and best equipped British Army which ever went forth to war".

Like all great quotes, it is the forgotten second line that is telling:

"Except in the matter of co-operation between aeroplanes and artillery, and the use of machine guns, its training would stand comparison in all respects with that of the Germans".

I am not sure that I would agree with either statement. In absolute terms no doubt the equipment of 1914 was better than previous wars - it would be difficult for technology to go backwards, so arguably his grand statement is rather hollow....., but relative to other Armies I suspect this argument would not always stand up. It is the first claim that I think stretches the facts somewhat. Something in the order of 60% of the Army were Reservists who had minimal annual training. Some had left the Army 9 years previously and some had even served in the regulars another 4 years further back. The numbers are quite startling and the contemporary accounts attest to the fact that most of the Infantry Reservists had to be trained on basic equipment that had been introduced in the years between most of the reservists leaving the Regulars and the outbreak of war. There are some fascinating stories of the quality of the Reservists and given they were more than half of the BEF the other 40% must have been astonishingly good.

Equipment as basic as boots became a major factor. The BEF during the retreat marched around 17 miles a day according to the many march tables left in contemporary accounts. The diaries are full of accounts of ill-fitting boots and chronic problems with blistered feet during mobilisation training route-marches, during deployments and especially during the retreat. It is probably the most common observation among the diarists that the men's feet were in a very poor state. Something as simple as correctly fitted boots and boots that were worn in (arguably part of training and preparedness) had a significant impact on the Army's efficiency.

Familiarity and efficiency with basic equipment was only one part of the problem for more than half of the men who disembarked in France in August 1914. Fitness (a sub-set of training) was a major issue, particularly marching fitness. Most of the diaries recorded the bitter casualty rates from men dropping out of the line and Battalions saw it as a mark of pride if no-one fell out during a march. The bare stats show the vast majority were Reservists who had 'gone soft' (diarists' terminology) and were not hardened to marching up to 20 miles a day. Clearly closely linked to the boots issue.

Reading accounts of the BEF is seems likely that the indomitable spirit and strength of mind of the British Soldiers overcame many of the physical problems created by lack of training - among the Reservists in particular.

If anyone has any thoughts on other factors such as basic equipment (I recall most believed one particular type of French artillery was the best for example), levels of training, marksmanship (were the British better - some of the diaries suggest Reservists' marksmanship was poor which given they were 60% of the Infantry is worth investigating... etc etc. I would be particularly interested in the organisational aspect. The little reading I have done on this might suggest that formation HQs had very little practise at what they would need to be good at. There is also the aspect of retaining knowlegde. Not an example pertinent to the BEF but the MEF seemed not to have learned or remembered much from the 1907 'Invasion of Essex' and the lessons learned from this amphibious exercise.

My sense is that Mobilisation went staggeringly well, and after that bits of the machinery started to fail. Any thoughts would be very welcome. MG

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The Field Craft and Tactics at unit and subunit level would seem to have been more refined than those of the German units who attacked in massed ranks in the early engagements. this amazed the British soldiers and officers.

On the subject of boots I have read that by the Marne counter attack the boots of the reservists had been broken in and two weeks of hard marching had toughened them up and improved their fitness. By comparison Bloem mentions that his men were having problems with worn out boots at about the same time, although they had probably marched a bit further having detrained near the Belgian border.

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Martin

Despite the fact that you are busily crushing dreams I have nursed for lo these many years about the BEF in 1914, I am really enjoying the series of threads now running on this period. :thumbsup:

David

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Martin

Despite the fact that you are busily crushing dreams I have nursed for lo these many years about the BEF in 1914, I am really enjoying the series of threads now running on this period. :thumbsup:

David

Not crushing dreams....just asking ill-informed questions :)

As you are an educator I would hope that you would appreciate that getting nearer the facts would be of interest rather than allowing the next generation learn from the likes of the BBC...

MG

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Not crushing dreams....just asking ill-informed questions :)

As you are an educator I would hope that you would appreciate that getting nearer the facts would be of interest rather than allowing the next generation learn from the likes of the BBC...

MG

Of course. We should always be picking up the pebbles on the beach of knowledge :hypocrite:

David

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But not, I trust, ignoring the great ocean of truth lying undiscovered before us.

Ron

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My sense is that Mobilisation went staggeringly well, and after that bits of the machinery started to fail. Any thoughts would be very welcome. MG

Martin, Charles Messenger did a very good talk on the mobilisation process at the GWF Conference in March and came to a similar conclusion. There were little glitches like the planners not realising that ships take longer to load at high tide but they managed to get almost all the troops to the assembly areas around Mauberge in time to bump into the German left hook.

Pete.

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Probably if the phrase 'in hindsight' had been applied it may have helped understand the meaning, at the beginning of the war aviation was in its infancy, indeed, even the aircraft were primitive with its role being reconnaissance in a limited role. Whether machine guns, aircraft or artillery were used effectively in a new type of war that was evolving rapidly is a moot point. In the early days of the BEF, discipline and courage were the additional ingredients that gave the 'Old Contemptibles' their place in British history.

khaki

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I have only recently started reading about 1914 battles in any detail. One thing that stands out is the inability of the Germans to break through the British lines in any meaningful way even when they had numerical advantages of up to 7-1, often superior artillery support and the British had minimal defensive positions. There are obviously a number of factors that contributed towards this but the marksmenship, discipline and bravery of the BEF is clear.

Neil

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Martin, Charles Messenger did a very good talk on the mobilisation process at the GWF Conference in March and came to a similar conclusion. There were little glitches like the planners not realising that ships take longer to load at high tide but they managed to get almost all the troops to the assembly areas around Mauberge in time to bump into the German left hook.

Pete.

Pete. Thank you for flagging this. Charles very kindly sent me the script for his speech as I could not make it to the GWF conf. I would agree that the content is very good. His book "Call to Arms" is a very valuable read.

On ships there is a very good example of one of these glitches with the 2/KOYLI who were delayed a whole day and then the unloading took much longer. All the equipment they needed had been loaded first and was under a lot of equipment that was not immediately necessary. Basic errors in planning and staff-work etc. The Battalion was separated from its Brigade for three days in total due to poor logistics. Not a major problem but perhaps shows that very basic elements were not functioning properly.

My understanding is that the BEF arrived days behind schedule at the front line despite the very slick mobilisation phase. Once mobilised the bEF took rather longer than expected to concentrate in france before moving off. MG

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To illustrate my point on the Reservists, here is the return made by the 2nd Bn Suffolk Regt. Most of these men had a destiny with fate on 26th Aug at Le Cateau where the bttalion was enveloped.

Offficers..............................................................27

Regulars...........................................................563

Army Reservists (9 & 3)....................................154

Army Reservists (8 & 4)......................................49

Army Reservists (7 & 5)......................................27

Army Reservists (3 & 9)....................................178

Total Other Ranks............................................971

In this particular case the Reservists formed 42% of the Battalion which was exceptionally low. Some Scottish battalions had a ratio as high as 70%. From the sample of the Suffolks the average amount of time that had passed since the Reservists had left the regulars was 5 years and 10 months (weighted average). Given the fact that they had the absolute minimum of training, one can begin to see the magnitude of the problem. In the grand scheme of things the Suffolks were doing pretty well to have less than 50% of their men from the Reserves.

MG

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Hello Martin

I think you need to keep two factors very firmly in mind.

The first is that Edmonds was a professional soldier writing predominantly for a professional military readership (although his work is very accessible top the general reader). The purpose was so that the lessons learned during the war could be assimilated by the military establishment in time to itest and ntroduce improvements in time for any future conflict.

The second is that the first half of the quote is explicitly a comparison with other British armies which "went forth to war". The second half of the quote clearly reinforces that the first half did not seek to make comparisons with the German, French or any other armies.

On the whole, the mobilisation process worked smoothly. Yes, there were some instances such as that involving the packing of 2/KOYLI's equipment, but with 78 infantry battalions, 17 cavalry regiments, 28 artillerybrigades and scores of other smaller units, it would be unrealistic to expect total perfection.

I don't think the BEF arrived particularly late at the concentration area, bearing in mind that they were totally in the hands of the French authorities for the train timetable, and that the original plans needed to be revised in the light of the German advance. I am assuming that Wilson's/Edmonds' statement that less than 10% of the 343 trains arrived at Amiens - the advanced bse - more than half an our late, was a true statement.

A worthwhile discussion, anyway. Thank you for starting it.

Ron

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Hello Martin

I think you need to keep two factors very firmly in mind.

The first is that Edmonds was a professional soldier writing predominantly for a professional military readership (although his work is very readable top the general reader). The purpose was so that the lessons learned during the war could be assimilated by the military establishment in time to itest and ntroduce improvements in time for any future conflict.

The second is that the first half of the quote is explicitly a comparison with other British armies which "went forth to war". The second half of the quote clearly reinforces that the first half did not seek to make comparisons with the German, French or any other armies.

On the whole, the mobilisation process worked smoothly. Yes, there were some instances such as that involving the packing of 2/KOYLI's equipment, but with 78 infantry battalions, 17 cavalry regiments, 28 artillerybrigades and scores of other smaller units, it would be unrealistic to expect total perfection.

I don't think the BEF arrived particularly late at the concentration area, bearing in mind that they were totally in the hands of the French authorities for the train timetable, and that the original plans needed to be revised in the light of the German advance. I am assuming that Wilson's/Edmonds' statement that less than 10% of the 343 trains arrived at Amiens - the advanced bse - arrived more than half an our late, was a true statement.

A worthwhile discussion, anyway. Thank you for starting it.

Ron

Ron

Thanks for your thoughts You make some very good points.

I highlighted the original quote as it is so often used. That it was the best trained British Army is a rather obvious statement and doesn't really need to be made by Edmonds If the BEF wasn't better equipped than the men who went to the Boer War or the Crimean War and the dozen little wars in between it would be rather startling. So I wonder why he even makes the statement. It is I think a poorly worded marker that is really trying to say The British Army was very well trained, organised and equipped. It is interesting that he immediately flips from comparing the BEF to other British Armies by making the comparison to the German Army.

The problems faced by the BEF can be traced back to Haldane's reforms which in turn can be traced back to budgets and pressure from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Doctrine dictated that the Army would mobilise with reservists but the reservists had hardly any training. Going to war with out of condition half-trained men is something the OH whitewashed. If there was one big lesson from 1914 it was to ensure that if an Army is so dependent on Reservists, it needs to ensure their training is sufficient

As late as Dec 1914 Battalions were still receiving men who could not operate their rifles efficiently and had not been properly trained. 1st Bn The Royal Irish Rifles:

23rd Oct 1914. Some difficulty experienced in obtaining the new equipment harness etc. The Battalion found a draft composed of about 200 NCOs and Riflemen from the 3rd Bn ROYAL IRISH RIFLES and Reservists awaiting them in camp and 12 attached Officers. The men from the Reserve were found to be very indifferently drilled and seem to have a poor musketry training. The Reservists had to become acquainted with a new (to them) rifle. During the period of refitting, the Brigade parades somewhat hindered this process and the men, after nearly a year in ADEN and a sea voyage, were not in marching form.
23rd Dec 1914. Draft of 64 NCOs and Riflemen joined the Battalion in the trenches. The report by the Company Officers on these drafts up to date is:
Physique: Fairly good
General efficiency: Fair (Special Reserve indifferent)
Musketry*: Not up to standard. Regular Reservists rusty and Special Reserve could not work their bolts well but improved with special instruction in the trenches.
* Some cases where Special Reserve had only fired Table A.
Equipment: Good. Same as Regular Army. Some men had Mark I Rifle converted.
Discipline: Very poor.
MG
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Hello Martin

I think you need to keep two factors very firmly in mind.

The first is that Edmonds was a professional soldier writing predominantly for a professional military readership (although his work is very accessible top the general reader). The purpose was so that the lessons learned during the war could be assimilated by the military establishment in time to test and introduce improvements in time for any future conflict.

Hi Ron, I don't think this was the actual brief. Edmonds was writing a popular description and one that could be for the professional military readership, he was trying to do both in one publication, and there in is one of the conflicts of the British OH. It was public, and lobbying was done against him not to be too openly critical since it was public, a problem that would not of happened if it had been a publication for official use only. If you read Andrew Green and Bond "The First World War and British Military History" he was more robust at pushing back than most given him credit for.

I am not aware what pressure Churchill brought to bea,r but if you read about what happened with the Second World War ones, it might have been considerable.

In my opinion they should have produced both.

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The objective of 'official Histories' was always to an aid to military education - sales were secondary and small print runs not infrequent.

The question of boots is interesting. I have seen it recorded that on leaving the army, and going onto the reserve, it was customary to store a tracing of the foot, rather than trust the soldiers advice as to his foot size. The tracing was supposed to be used when boots were issued. Whether this was a formal arrangement or a 'local' one I have been unable to discover.

In view of the many reservists in the ranks of all first divisions to join the BEF there was simply not enough time for men whose feet were soft from civilian life in new boots _ and they were hard things to break in - to get march fit. A problem which might, but it seems had not, have been taken into account.. Clearly the problems during the retreat were fed back to the UK. During mobilisation Thompson Capper instituted a long series of route marches before the 7th INf DIv was sent to Belgium. In consequence despite very hard marching to Ypres the number of men falling out was amazingly low.

Equally I think that the army probably was the best ever sent abroad up to that point - As ever it was just far to small, too dependent on reservists, and lacking in appreciation for 20th century war. Some how, asymetrically speaking, I see a reflection of the hills of Afgan and the sands of ...

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Neil

Your points (Post 9) regarding the BEF's defensive ability are noted and I concur. To what do you attribute the BEF's inability to break through the German lines on the Aisne heights in any meaningful way, in particular given that the German defenders who forced marched there had barely time to catch their breath, never mind dig any holes before the British were on them?

Jack.

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The objective of 'official Histories' was always to an aid to military education - sales were secondary and small print runs not infrequent.

Not in the case of the Great War Official Histories, both Higham and Green discuss the dual purpose in depth, quoting from Green page 12

"The dual purpose, then, of the Official History, as argued consistently by those who conceived and produced it was very clear. Firstly it was to use the government's monopoly of confidential information to provide a readable account for the public which would at the same time act as an antidote to unofficial accounts which had sought to criticise the government or the army. Secondly of no less importance, it was to provide a work of educational value to future military officers and strategists....."

He then goes into the impact of the two conflicting requirements, basically you can't defend against criticisms and then draw lessons.

If you look a Great War Official Histories compared ones done for other wars these are all done as a response to the demand from the public for an account as well. The UK ones where originally going to be the Western Front and Gallipoli. Are you telling me the Australian ones where not done for the people but to learn military lessons, or the Canadian ones, which stalled at the first volume and then under pressure in the 60's Stacey did a one volume narrative. Clearly not true, whislt the 2nd World Ones are quite different, the lessons of the dual objectives had been learnt.

Nor are sales ever secondary to the accounts for the general reader, the government launched volumes near anniversaries, and when Roskill went backwards to join up the Corbetts and his with Naval Policy Between the Wars using official files it nearly became an HMSO but was not because of the cost of getting out of the deal with the publishers he had already struck a agreement with. Finally the print runs for the early UK Volumes and all the Australian ones where very healthy and made very good money. And I know some like Rhineland had 100 copies printed but that is an anomaly.

Here in lies the great shame of the UK ones, they should have done two, 1) a popular narrative and 2) a staff history.

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Neil

Your points (Post 9) regarding the BEF's defensive ability are noted and I concur. To what do you attribute the BEF's inability to break through the German lines on the Aisne heights in any meaningful way, in particular given that the German defenders who forced marched there had barely time to catch their breath, never mind dig any holes before the British were on them?

Jack.

To be honest Jack I know nothing about it so I have just ordered one of Jerry Murland's books on the subject to give me some insight.

Neil

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Neil

I suspect that that answer is that in both cases the defensive was so much stronger than the offensive at that time that the slightest bit of a shell scrape or trench gave the defenders an enormous advantage, enabling them to pick off attackers in the open with relative ease. It was not unique to 1914. The same advantage applied during the American Civil War fifty years earlier, even though the weapons then were still rifled muskets with a very low rate of fire.

Jack

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Not in the case of the Great War Official Histories, both Higham and Green discuss the dual purpose in depth, quoting from Green page 12

"The dual purpose, then, of the Official History, as argued consistently by those who conceived and produced it was very clear. Firstly it was to use the government's monopoly of confidential information to provide a readable account for the public which would at the same time act as an antidote to unofficial accounts which had sought to criticise the government or the army. Secondly of no less importance, it was to provide a work of educational value to future military officers and strategists....."

I have to say I am surprised to read the educational reason for the volumes was only the secondary purpose and I have read Green! albeit a few years back.

I have dipped into most of the volumes covering the WF at some stage as I expect many of us have and even if it was meant for public consumption, my memory of getting to grips with the rather dry text, would suggest it may have been written with more of the second purpose in mind.

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Hello MartH

I take your point but I'm inclined to agree with Jonathan that what Higham and Green call the secondary purpose, the military education aspect, was actually the primary purpose, if not by a large margin. As regards producing two separate editions, I don't think that would have been feasible, given that the OH was produced during times of great financial stringency, complicated later by the advent of WW2. You only need to look at "1917 Volume 2", covering Third Ypres, to see how the job was skimped in the volumes produced later.

Ron

PS. Congratulations, Martin, on your promotion!

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Of course. We should always be picking up the pebbles on the beach of knowledge :hypocrite:

David

But Matthew Arnold cautioned that we shant pick up the pebbles on Dover Beach-"-where ignorant armies clash by night..."

Trelawney

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