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Wednesday, 15 April 2009
The Nature of the British Army prior to 1914, Eight 'undred fightin' Englishmen, the Colonel, and the Band, Part 2
Topic: AIF - DMC - British

The Nature of the British Army prior to 1914

Part 2, Eight 'undred fightin' Englishmen, the Colonel, and the Band

 

An extract from Holmes, R., Riding the Retreat, London, 1995, pp. 42 - 49.

 

Eight 'undred fightin' Englishmen, the Colonel, and the Band

So much for the creature's physiology. Now let us look at its behaviour, and stand beside one of those endless poplar-lined roads of northern France to watch the infantry come by, trudging to a hundred destinations but a common fate: most of the soldiers we see will be dead or wounded before the year is over. At the head of the battalion column rides the commanding officer, a lieutenant-colonel in khaki barathea tunic, Bedford cord breeches and high, brown field-boots, the splash of medal ribbons marking him out as a man who smelt powder in South Africa over a decade before. He is already well into his middle years, and that thoughtful look may tell us that he already knows what others suspect: he is not quite the man he was, more worrier, now, than warrior, with late nights and early starts far more of a strain than when he was chasing de Wet or mounting bridge-guard in the Karroo.

The colonel has a little headquarters. His adjutant, a captain, rides with him; his second-in-command, a major, is enjoined by regulations to follow at the rear of the battalion as whipper-in, but do not be surprised if he escapes from the dust to trot forward for a pipe and a chat. The pioneers under their sergeant - the only man in the battalion allowed to wear a beard - stump along behind, on hand in case a gate needs taking off its hinges or a broken-down wagon has to be heaved onto the verge. Next comes the Corps of Drums, fighting soldiers as well as musicians, ready to strike up `The Young May Moon' or `It's a Long Way to Tipperary' if they are from an English regiment, or to set fingers to chanters for `Black Bear' or 'Hielan' Laddie' if they are Scots.

The buglers are both notice-board and public address system. Their calls regulate the day in barracks and camp, and even now we may hear them on the battlefield. Soldiers have memorised the calls by putting words to them. There is an official version, inevitably corrupted. `Come and do your guard, my boys! Come and do your guard! You've had fourteen nights in bed, so it won't be hard' suggests Trumpet and Bugle Sounds for the Army. `Come and do a picket, boys, come and do a guard! You think it's fucking easy but you'll find it's fucking hard' chant the irreverent soldiery. Such rudery was international. Russian cavalrymen remembered the call for `Mount' by giving it the words `The devil got hold of me, and I mounted a nun'.

The unmistakable figure of the Regimental Sergeant-Major, a warrant officer and the battalion's senior non-commissioned member, strides along ahead of the leading rifle company. Each of the four companies has a nominal strength of six officers and 221 men. A major or captain, mounted like the officers at the head of the column, commands each company, with a captain as his second-in-command. The subalterns - lieutenants and second-lieutenants - command the four platoons, each consisting of a sergeant and forty-six men, and subdivided into a small headquarters and four ten-man sections under a corporal.

This organisation is unfamiliar to many of the soldiers in its four-deep ranks. For although the British Army, unique amongst the combatant powers, has no conscripts, not all its soldiers are regulars. Many are reservists, snatched back from civil life. Frank Richards had served eight years with the colours and had become a timberman's assistant in a mine. He was enjoying a beer with his mates in the Castle Hotel at Blaina when somebody came in with the news that the police sergeant was hanging up a notice recalling reservists. Richards duly reported to his Regimental : Depot at Wrexham the following day, having stayed at a nearby pub till `stop tap' and arriving at-the barracks `in a jovial state.' He was posted to and Royal Welch Fusiliers, and recalled that his fellow reservists were `a little muddled' by the four-company organisation, having been used to the Pre-1913 eight-company system.

Not only has the new organisation robbed half the battalion's captains of their former status as company commanders - James Jack, junior captain in his Cameronian battalion, finds himself leading a platoon - but the company commander's erstwhile right-hand man, the colour-sergeant, has also declined in importance. With the change to, four companies, the four senior colour-sergeants in each battalion became company sergeant-majors, although it will not be until 1915 that they receive their own badge of rank - a crown on the cuff - and the status of Warrant Officer Class 2. The four juniors retain the rank of colour-sergeant and have. become company' quartermaster-sergeants, responsible for administration within their companies.

Toiling along at the rear come the odds and sods. Here is the medical officer, a lieutenant or captain attached from the Royal Army Medical Corps, with his sergeant and stretcher-bearers, the latter the regiment's bandsmen (serious musicians, these, not the fife and' drum boys at the head of the column) who have returned their instrument; to store on mobilisation. There are the signallers, encumbered with semaphore flags, heliographs, field telephones and cable. The machine-gun officer, his sergeant and twelve men accompany the battalion's two .303 belt-fed Maxim machine-guns. These are old models with brass cooling jackets round their barrels; the new Vickers gun has been introduced but few are to be seen. Each gun is carried on a two-wheeled wagon which tows a two-wheeled limber; there are 3,500 rounds with each and a reserve of 8,000 on a third wagon. Ammunition carts, five in all, carry some 100,000 rounds more, forming a regimental reserve of 100 rounds per man.

Last, but by his own practised reckoning anything but least, comes the quartermaster. He has been commissioned from the ranks; not too long ago he was the regimental sergeant-major. He is the colonel's logistic staff officer, though call him that and you will have your fortune told in a way no soothsayer would risk. The quartermaster is responsible for the receipt, safe-keeping and issue of food, clothing, ammunition and much else besides. His myrmidons, headed by the regimental' quartermaster-sergeant, have a cushioned and knowing look, for if you spend your life counting blankets you do not want for an extra one when the nights grow chilly. The quartermaster's impedimenta travels on the horse-drawn GS (general service) wagons that rumble along with the cookers and water-cart at the very end of this long and -martial snake.

The battalion is marching at ease. The men have undone the collars of their khaki tunics, rifles are carried anyhow, and stubby little pipes jut beneath many a-moustache. A few push their luck by smoking cigarettes; pipes are permitted on the line of march but cigarettes are not, though as Private Harry Beaumont, shouldering his pack with 1st Queen's Own Royal West Kent, remembered, `this rule was unfair, and died a natural death on the first day'. Marching at ease; but not an easy march. The road is high-cambered pave, made of four inch square granite blocks set half an inch apart. Some of the younger regulars find the going hard, and not a few of the reservists are in real difficulties. On 21 August Count Gleichen, commanding 15th Infantry Brigade, reported that there were many stragglers after a fifteen-mile march: `all of them reservists ... They had every intention of keeping up, of course, but simply could not.'

Packs are another problem. The men wear 1908 pattern webbing equipment, much better, as any old soldier will tell you, than the leather it replaced. Shoulder straps suspend ammunition pouches: five left; five right, with ten rounds in each. Another twenty rounds are carried in the haversack which is on the left hip, balancing the water-bottle, blue enamelled tin covered in khaki felt, on the right. The entrenching tool hangs at the base of the spine, its handle strapped to the bayonet scabbard beneath the haversack. The pack hangs squarely in the middle of the back. Crammed with spare clothing -- a 'worsted cardigan jacket', spare grey flannel shirt, socks, underwear, and here and there a board for the forbidden gambling game of Crown and Anchor - it brings the total weight carried, by Harry Beaumont's reckoning, to almost eighty pounds. Small wonder that as his battalion moved up on a scorching day: `within an hour [we] began to feel the effects of the intense heat. Some were more or less in a state of collapse, and had to be supported by their comrades, while others carried their rifles.'

His rifle was the infantry soldier's raison d'être. The .303 Short Magazine Lee-Enfield weighed 8lb 10½ oz and was 3ft 8½ ins long.

Its magazine held ten rounds, loaded by thumbing in two five-round dips. The British infantryman of 1914 Could dispose of these to good effect. He fired 250 rounds on his annual musketry course, which consisted of slow, rapid and snap practices at ranges up to 60o yards. In the `mad minute' he was expected to fire fifteen rounds at a target 300 yards away, and Major Frederick Myatt suggests that: `there were very few infantryman who could not put all their shots into a two-foot (6I-centimetre) circle in that time; many indeed could almost double that rate of fire with no appreciable loss of accuracy'. Field Service Regulations 1909 described ranges of 600 yards and under as being `close' as far as infantry was concerned; 600 to 1,400 was 'effective', 1,400 to 2,000 (the limit of the standard backsight) was `long', and only 2,000 to 2,800 was `distant'.

The soldiers who tramp past us take their musketry seriously. Proficiency brings extra pay: `How do I stand for, Marksman?' was the urgent question as butt-markers passed the scores down the range telephone. Officers fired the same course as their men, and were expected to do well. 'There is nothing so disgusting', said Major-General Thompson Capper, `as an officer who is a second class shot'. When young George Ashurst, who joined the Lancashire Fusiliers in 1913, scored nineteen points out of a possible twenty at 60o yards, his colonel gave him five shillings on the spot. Officers carry sword and pistol. Swords have been sharpened by the armourer on mobilisation, but few will kill Germans: Lieutenant George Roupell of the East Surreys will find that his comes in handy for beating prone soldiers on the backside and telling them to fire low.

The fact that the sword and magazine rifle - ancient and modem yet again - were carried in such close proximity emphasises the dilemma facing the armies of 1914. There was widespread recognition that the firepower revolution brought with it the risk of very heavy casualties. In 1912 General Friedrich von Bernhardi warned: `Anyone who thinks that great tactical successes can be achieved in modern war without staking a great deal of human life is, I believe, very much mistaken'. For his part, on mobilisation young Hanbury-Sparrow expected `a short war with heavy officer casualties. I warned my parents to prepare themselves not to see me again.'

Theorists and practitioners were unsure whether firepower favoured attack or defence. The Polish banker, Jan Bloch, author of the perceptive Future War, declared that it simply ruled out frontal attack, and British experience in South Africa seemed to prove that Bloch was right: both British and French infantry regulations were modified to reflect the reality of the fire-swept battlefield. But it was not that simple. The weight of military opinion believed that wars were won by offensive action, and it followed that an army which allowed itself to be paralysed by firepower –‘acute transvaalitis' - could not expect to win. Moreover, as Colonel Charles Ardant du Picq had acutely observed even before the Franco-Prussian War, on the new battlefield `cohesion is no longer ensured by mutual observation'. What would happen if these loose, flexible formations met the enemy's fire? Officers would be unable to lead effectively, and soldiers' courage would not be buttressed by the close physical proximity of comrades. Men - short-term conscripts, most of them - would go to ground and not get up again; impulsion would be gone and stalemate would result.

The reaction was predictable. If war was not to be mere sterile butchery, soldiers must be imbued with the desire to press to close quarters and win. This would prove costly in the short term, but it was preferable to have a short, bloody and victorious war than a long and inconclusive conflict. In Germany, von Bernhardi proclaimed that `those troops will prove superior who can bear greater losses than the others', and in France, General Joffre (chief of the general staff and commander-in-chief designate from 1911) demanded 'the spirit of the offensive'. All this, as its proponents recognised, called for more than merely the transformation of military training: it demanded the forging of a new national will.
This task was already well under way in Germany, where society was infused by a pervasive militarism that made `a young officer into a god, a reserve officer into a demi-god'. In France, the popular novelist Ernest Psichari demanded `a proud and violent army'. The philosopher Henri Bergson expounded to huge audiences his conviction that the creative urge, not natural selection, lay at the heart of evolution: what better way to show l’élan vital than to impose your will on an enemy in battle.

In Britain, the `unconquerable and determined offensive spirit' was championed by Thompson Capper, an infantry officer who had entered Staff College in 1896, and became inspector-general of infantry in February 1914. Capper believed that German tactical doctrine, which emphasised attacking the enemy's flanks and rear, was superior to French teaching. However, he argued that victory was essentially a matter of morale, of `determination to conquer or die'. Like continental theorists, he argued that `organised abnegation of self' was the basis of the offensive spirit, and felt that this must be reflected in the community at large, attributing Germany's success in 1870-71 to her schoolmasters who had imbued youth with national ethics.

Though Capper's position was more extreme than -that of many, of his colleagues, he was not exceptional in demanding a national revival. The National Service League argued vigorously in favour of national service rather than more restrictive professional soldiering. Popular culture radiated the new mood. Guy du Maurier's play, An Englishman's Castle, warned of invasion by a thinly-veiled Germanic enemy, and Erskine Childers' best-selling book, The Riddle of the Sands, was a spy story with the Germans as its villains.

In the decade before 194 military doctrine was recast on both sides of the Channel. Although the most extreme expression of offensive spirit was contained in the French Regulations Of 19113 which declared that: The French Army ... recognises no law save that of the offensive', the British were scarcely more measured. The 1909 edition of Field Service Regulations abandoned the cautious note which pervaded the 1905 edition, written while the Boer War was fresh in the collective memory. The new regulations proclaimed that-. `Success in war depends more on moral than on physical qualities', and added that `decisive success in battle can only be gained by a vigorous offensive'. This view was echoed in the regulations for the individual arms. Infantry Training 1914 was unequivocal, and made a rare excursion into bold type to lend emphasis to crucial points:

The main essential to success in battle is to dose with the enemy; cost what it may ... The object of infantry in attack is therefore to get to close quarters as quickly as possible, and the leading lines must not delay the advance by halting to fire until compelled by the enemy to do so ... The object of fire in the attack, whether of artillery, machine guns, or infantry, is to bring such a superiority of fire to bear on the enemy as to make the advance to close quarters possible.

A battalion might push a company or two forward to form a firing line and its immediate supports while the remaining companies waited in reserve. The forward companies, assisted by artillery and machine-guns, would set about winning the fire fight. The slackening of the enemy's fire and the sight of demoralised individuals sloping off to the rear would prompt the local commander to order his bugler to sound the charge. And now we slip back a century: `the call will be taken up by all buglers, and all neighbouring units will join in the charge as quickly as possible. During the delivery of the assault the men will cheer, bugles be sounded, and pipes played.' Successful assault would be followed by relentless pursuit: the enemy's army would be broken and the war won.

Defence, in contrast, could not in itself produce a decisive result and was acceptable only as an adjunct to offensive action: firepower would enable a commander to reduce the forces committed to a specific sector and thus free them for an attack elsewhere. `The choice of a position and its preparation must therefore be made with a view to economising the power expended on defence in order that the power of offence may be increased,' declared Infantry Training.

Our thoughtful colonel, then, has much on his mind. Experience has taught him just what damage his battalion's firepower can do, but his training emphasises the need to `demand the impossible and not think of sparing his men'. As the campaign develops he will find his resolve sorely tried, all the more because he is so close - physically and psychologically - to the battalion he commands. The first casualty will be his sense of perspective, his ability to balance his loyalty between the sweating column behind him and the chain of command stretching above him.
He answers to a brigadier-general, who commands four such battalions with the aid of a small staff headed by his brigade-major. Count Gleichen (soon to avoid his title's foreign ring by styling himself Lord Edward Gleichen) noted that his brigade numbered 127 officers, 3,958 men, 258 horses and 74 vehicles when it was ready to leave for France. It is not until we ascend to the next level of command, the division, that we see the beginnings of a combined arms force. The major-general commanding it has a colonel as his chief of staff - officially General Staff Officer Grade 1, abbreviated to GSO1. Full colonels are rare birds in the British army of 1914. In the French and German armies they command three-battalion infantry regiments, and have lieutenant-colonels as their second-in-commands and majors commanding their battalions. In the British army the word `regiment' has no tactical significance in the infantry: different battalions of the same regiment are seldom in the same brigade in 1914.

 

Previous: The Nature of the British Army prior to 1914, Something old, something new, Part 1

Next: The Nature of the British Army prior to 1914, Down in the lead with the wheel at the flog, Part 3

 

Further Reading:

British Army involvement with the Desert Mounted Corps

 


Citation: The Nature of the British Army prior to 1914, Eight 'undred fightin' Englishmen, the Colonel, and the Band, Part 2

Posted by Project Leader at 12:01 AM EADT
Updated: Friday, 1 May 2009 3:01 PM EADT

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