The British Army Mobilises
British mobilisation began in earnest on the 5th August, unlike its European counterparts who fielded massive conscript armies the British Army was made up of long-serving professional soldiers who volunteered to join the army. The result was an extremely professional, well trained and disciplined force. The regular army in 1914, amounted to some 247,500 soldiers, of which approximately half were posted to overseas garrisons across the British Empire from India to South Africa. It is fair to describe Britain’s army in 1914 as a colonial one, best suited to campaigns in far flung corners of the Empire where lightly equipped, small, mobile forces were needed. It was dwarfed in comparison to the massive continental armies of France, Germany, Russia and Austria.
In addition to the regular army the British Army could call upon an additional ~470,000 reservists who made up the Territorial Force and the Special Reserve. The average infantryman enlisted for seven years and if he decided not to stay with the colours at the end of his enlistment he would spend another five years as a reservist. In 1907, these reserve forces had been reorganised by the Territorial and Reserve Forces Act. By 1914, the Special Reserve was made up of 101 infantry battalions, 33 artillery regiments and two engineer regiments numbering some 64,000 men by August 1914. Members of the Special Reserve spent an initial six months training full time following which they would train for a month each year.
These reserves were coupled with Regular Army units to whom in time of war they would supply drafts of replacements in time of war. On paper the Territorial Force consisted of some 269,000 men making up 207 battalions of infantry and 55 regiments of yeomanry (cavalry) with a further 190 batteries of volunteer artillerymen with various branches of the artillery. These units were grouped into 14 regional infantry divisions and a further 14 regional yeomanry brigades. Every Territorial Force battalion was attached to a regular army regiment and the men trained in the evenings and one weekend a month. This gave the average British Army regiment a theoretical establishment of two regular battalions (on paper numbering 970 men - one of which was invariably deployed on active colonial service), a Special Reserve battalion and one or more Territorial Force battalions.
When the general mobilisation was called on the 5th each reservist was responsible for making his own way to his regiment’s barracks. His reporting instructions were printed inside his army identity papers, instructing him to make his way to his regimental depot to be issued with uniform and equipment. He would then make his way with a railway warrant to his mustering battalion. If the reservist did not have enough money to reach his regiment’s depot he could report to the nearest post office and request a subsistence allowance of five shillings. This system proved surprisingly well organised with the first reservists reaching their battalions on the 6th August, just two days after the declaration of war.
On the 7th August, third day of the mobilisation, the first British troops arrived in France. These soldiers were support troops who would prepare the way, readying lines of communication and camps. The British Expeditionary Force’s main force began crossing the Channel on the 12th, but they would not reach Belgium and be ready for action until the 20th.
The majority of the British troops joining the expeditionary force were transported south for at least part of their march by train with 1,800 trains dedicated to the task in the first five days of the mobilisation.
Two railway lines terminated in Southampton, the main embarkation port, with another was built in just three days connecting Southampton Station to the harbour terminus. Approximately 20,000 tons a day were moved to the ships at the docks. At the peak of the mobilisation 90 trains a day arrived at the port’s terminus to off load troops. It took just ten days to transport the BEF across the Channel but all of Britain’s ports would continue to be busy throughout the war transporting men, equipment and supplies back and forth.
The British Expeditionary Force had originally been intended to sail for Europe with six infantry divisions, however fearing a surprise invasion of Britain by German forces the sixth division was held in reserve. As such the BEF arrived in France with five infantry divisions, one division of cavalry and 430 guns including 13-pounders of the Royal Horse Artillery and 18-pounders, 4.5 inch howitzers and several heavy 60-pounders of the Royal Artillery brigaded with the infantry. On paper each division should have been equipped with 24 machine guns with each battalion fielding two this gave the BEF a total of just over 140 Vickers Machine Guns in the field, far short of the massive number fielded by the German Army.
On paper the BEF numbered ~110,000 men in reality the infantry numbered some 66,000 while the cavalry had a sabre strength of 7,600 the rest of the men were support and logistical troops. Each infantry division was made up of three brigades with each brigade numbering approximately twelve battalions of infantry. The cavalry division was made up of twelve regiments grouped in four brigades. Almost every regiment in the British Army which had a battalion based in the British Isles was represented in the expeditionary force. The BEF was commanded by Field Marshall Sir John French who had broad instructions to assist the French and Belgian armies in resisting the German invasion. The expeditionary force was split into two corps, one commanded by General Sir Douglas Haig and the other by General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien while the independent cavalry division was commanded by Major General Edmund Allenby.
By the 18th August, the BEF was advancing into Belgium, communications with their French allies on their right flank were poor and after a short meeting between Field Marshal French and General Charles Lanrezac commanding the French Fifth Army it was decided the two armies would advance in tandem. The 23rd August found the British army holding a line along the Mons–Condé Canal. It was at Mons that the British army first engaged the enemy holding them off but eventually being forced to fall back when their flank was exposed by Lanrezac’s retreating Fifth Army which had failed to inform the BEF that they were retiring. The retreat from Mons saw the British begin a 175 mile, two week long fighting retreat before falling back on the River Marne with the French.
By November 1914, approximately 90% of the original British Expeditionary Force had been killed or wounded with the official number of casualties standing at 89,864, most of them infantry. The cream of the professional British Army of 1914 had been killed in just four months fighting. Their places were filled by a new army of volunteers stirred by patriotism and an eagerness to fight in late 1914 and early 1915. Between September 1914 and December 1915, millions of volunteers answered the call but the toll of war was too great and by January 1916, the British government was forced to introduce conscription. The men of the BEF who embarked for France in the first weeks of August 1914, would have hardly recognised the British Army of 1918.
Image One Source - 1st Battalion, Irish Guards fill their webbing with their 150 rounds of ammunition and prepare to leave Wellington Barracks, Westminster on, 6th August 1914. The Battalion arrived in France as part of the British Expeditionary Force on 13th August 1914. (IWM)
Image Two Source - The 1st Life Guards prepare to leave Hyde Park Barracks and head to war, on 15th August 1914 (IWM)
Image Three Source - A dismounted cavalry draft of the 1st Life Guards (IWM)
Image Four Source - Reservists of the Grenadier Guards re-enlisting on the outbreak of War, queue for a medical inspection at Wellington Barracks, Chelsea, London. Picture by Mrs Broom, dated as 5th August 1914. (IWM)
Image Five Source - A mounted cavalry draft of the 1st Life Guards with Captain Gerrard Leigh in the foreground (IWM)
Image Six Source - The Harrogate Territorials marching to the station en route to York on 5th August, 1914
Image Seven Source - Men of The 1st Battalion, Monmouthshire Regiment march down Stow Hill Newport on being mobilised at the outbreak of War
Image Eight Source - British Infantry at Birmingham New Street Station
Image Nine Source - King George taking the salute of the 2nd Battalion, Grenadier Guards as they passed Buckingham Palace returning from a route march in August 1914
Image Ten Source - Crowds watch as troops of the Queen’s Royal Regiment board a train at Dorking station, 5th August 1914
1914: Fight the Good Fight, A. Mallinson, (2013)
Tommy, R. Holmes, (2004)
Britain & Her Army, C. Barnett, (1970)
The Making of the British Army, A. Mallinson, (2009)
The Old Contemptibles: The British Expeditionary Force, 1914, R. Neillands, (2004)