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Thursday, 16 April 2009
The Nature of the British Army prior to 1914, Something old, something new, Part 1
Topic: AIF - DMC - British

The Nature of the British Army prior to 1914

Part 1, Something old, something new


An extract from Holmes, R., Riding the Retreat, London, 1995, pp. 26 - 42.


Something old, something new

The armies of August 1914 were a pastiche of ancient and modem. The killing-power that thumped from Lee-Enfield, Mauser and Lebel, clattered out of Maxim, Spandau and Hotchkiss, and spun away from 18-pdr, 75mm and 77mm, was a quantum leap from that used in the previous major European conflict, the Franco-Prussian War of i87o-7r. But in so many other respects 1914 would not have been beyond the comprehension of Wellington or Marlborough. Although railways whisked men to concentration areas with a comfort their grandfathers would have envied, once they had detrained they were scarcely more mobile than the warriors of Agincourt or Crecy.

Communications, too, were as much Marlburian as modern. Guglielmo Marconi had sent a radio signal across the Atlantic in 1901, and in 1910 the murderer Hawley Harvey Crippen was arrested in mid-Atlantic after a suspicious captain contacted Scotland Yard by radio. There were radios in the armies of 1914 - the BEF had a single wireless section - but they were almost useless for communication below army level, and sometimes did more harm than good: the cataclysmic Russian defeat at Tannenberg was made possible because the Germans listened to radio conversations and learnt at the Russian 1st and 2nd Armies would be unable to offer mutual support.

The civilian telephone system was invaluable, armies were good at laying cable of their own, and signallers wagged away with semaphore flags or winked, when weather permitted, with heliographs. Yet the worse the crisis, the harder it was to communicate. Shellfire cut land-line and tore down telephone poles, and semaphore and heliograph had acute limitations on a fire-swept battlefield. When a senior officer sought to command in mobile battle he was back in the eighteenth century. He could go forward himself and risk becoming a casualty. Some seventy British generals were killed or died of wounds on the Western Front during the war; four were killed and one mortally wounded in its first six months. It was a natural impulse for a man used to riding with a forward seat to push on and take command in person, but he might perish in the attempt, depriving his men of leadership just when they needed it most. Gallopers, motor-cycle dispatch riders, cyclists and runners helped, but there were times when a desperate rearguard fought on to extinction, unaware 'that orders for withdrawal lay in a dead man's pocket somewhere behind it.

“The British Expeditionary Force, in whose steps I rode, was a creature as distinctive as the spotted hyena or the two-toed sloth, and if we are to make much sense of its behaviour we must indulge in a little basic zoology. The beast was conceived in that burst of military reform which followed a lacklustre performance in the South African War of 1899 - 1902, when Britain had flexed all her imperial muscle to defeat the tiny armies of the Boer republics and irregulars who drew the war out into an enervating guerrilla struggle.

Almost no part of the military organism emerged from the war undamaged. The Army's central direction, unevenly balanced between the Secretary of State at the War Office and the Commander in Chief at Horse Guards, failed to exercise effective strategic control. Commanders were brave but unschooled: the replacement of Sir Revers Buller by Lord Roberts, with the dour and monkish Kitchener as his Chief of Staff, brought some improvement, but even this formidable pair made avoidable errors.

Each arm of the service had a mixed record. The artillery used tactics not unworthy of Waterloo and was outclassed by the few Krupp guns in the hands of regular Boer gunners. The cavalry tried valiantly to take sword and lance to the Queen's enemies, but its record in horse-mastership was appalling: 326,000 horses perished, one officer calculating that his regiment used up a horse every three and a half miles, expending 3,750 animals in all. The infantry often showed its traditional steadiness under fire, but there was a woeful catalogue of frontal attacks and dawn surprises, and it was uncomfortably true that Boer civilians generally shot better than British regulars. Volunteers flocked to the colours – ‘Cook's son, Duke's son, son of a belted Earl' - but poor training took its toll, and the song `The Boers have got my Daddy' became lamentably popular in the music-halls.

The post-war reforms, chiefly associated with R. B. Haldane, who became Secretary of State for War when the new Liberal government took office in late i9os, had both political and military motives. It was becoming increasingly clear that Britain's main military and economic rival was Germany, not France, and that German aggression in Europe would be a more likely casus belli than friction with Russia on the North-West Frontier of India. In i9o4 Britain and France concluded a friendly understanding, the `entente cordiale', and in igo6 Haldane authorised the Director of Military Operations, head of one of the three branches of the newly-formed General Staff, to open unofficial `conversations' with the French. The Army had its own reasons for welcoming these discussions, for commitment to a continental strategy would help ensure its own funding and status, whereas a more traditional view of defence priorities gave pride of place to the Navy. In 1910 Major-General Henry Wilson, an ardent Francophile, became Director of Military Operations, and under his tutelage plans for sending an expeditionary force to France were finalised.

The Expeditionary Force, Britain's first-line army, was to consist of six infantry divisions and one cavalry division: we shall see, very shortly, just what these comprised. There was no operational reason for making the force this size: it was simply the largest that could fit within the confines of a tight military budget. General Headquarters (GHQ) did not exist in peacetime, but the senior officers who were to join it knew of their dormant appointments and carried out war games (in the rather dusty surrounding of the gymnasium at Sandhurst) as well as manoeuvres in open country. There were no permanent corps headquarters linking GHQ and the divisions, although Aldershot command provided the nucleus of one corps staff. It was only on mobilisation that the decision was taken to corps to conform with French practice and there was, in cc, a good degree of improvisation.

'The departure of the Expeditionary Force would denude Britain tegular soldiers, and the Boer War had shown that the hotchpotch of non-regular troops - Yeomanry, Volunteers and Militia needed radical reform before it would be fit to undertake major unassisted. Following Haldane's remorseless logic, the defence the national territory was entrusted to a remodelled second-line y, the Territorial Force (TF). This came into being on 1 April 1908, and comprised fourteen brigades of Yeomanry cavalry and fourteen divisions of infantry. Its officers and men served part-time, with a fortnight's annual camp and assorted training weekends and drill nights. There was a small full-time cadre, and they divisions ere commanded by regular major-generals with regular staffs. There was much muttering about the TF's efficiency or lack of it. 'The conscription lobby, with Lord Roberts as its most influential advocate, argued that the Territorials were a pale substitute for the compulsory service which the worsening international situation urgently demanded. Many professional soldiers argued that some tasks were inherently too complex for non-regulars, and there was a heated debate over the wisdom of giving Territorials their own artillery. Falling numbers and lack of experience - in 1913 the TF was 66,000 below its establishment strength of 300,000, and eighty per cent of its members had served for less than four years - caused further concern. It was assumed that six months' training would be required before the TF could take the field, and during that time an element of the Expeditionary Force would have to be retained within the United Kingdom. We shall not encounter the Territorials on our march, because none arrived in France in time to fight in August or September. Yet though they were not liable for overseas service and were expected to require six months' training, the first of them were in action by October and acquitted themselves far better than their detractors could ever have expected. Sir John French, commander-in-chief of the BEF, freely admitted that `we could not have held the line without them'.

The TF swept together the Yeomanry and Volunteers. The Militia, always closer to the Regular Army than the Volunteers were, emerged as the Special Reserve. Each infantry regiment had its Special Reserve battalion, usually the 3rd, whose officers and men served for an initial period of six months and then returned for a fortnight each year. They joined their regiments on mobilisation, and provided drafts,, as required, for the regular battalions. Similar arrangements applied in other arms and services and there were, quite exceptionally, two Special Reserve cavalry regiments, the North Irish Horse and the South Irish Horse, who provided GHQ with its mounted squadrons in 1914.

The reform of army training began with the publication of Colonel G. F. R. Henderson's Combined Training in 1902. The Directorate of Army Training was one of the three branches of the new General Stag, and in 1909 Field Service Regulations appeared in two pails,, the first covering operations and the second organisation and administration. It is impossible to read Field Service Regulations without being struck by their good sense. They pay particular attention to co-operation between arms, and stress the contribution which relatively new devices like machine-guns and aircraft could make to the battle. In 1914 there was a rewritten version of every arm's training pamphlet and by and large these publications embodied the best of recent experience and sound judgement. Where they erred it was generally in attempting to superimpose offensive theory on the realities of firepower, and there was, as we shall see, some excuse for this.

New weapons and equipment arrived. The artillery obtained the excellent 13-pdr and 18-pdr quick-firers, the infantry the Short Magazine Lee Enfield, and the cavalry, in the shape of the 1908 pattern, the most effective sword it ever carried. New khaki uniform appeared in 1902, initially worn with the peakless Brodrick cap which perished unlamented to be replaced by the familiar peaked field service cap with its brown leather chin-strap.

It is one thing to lay a shiny veneer of reform on an army, but another to ensure that change seeps into every drill-shed and barrack room. For all the efforts of Haldane and his supporters, in some respects the Army changed little. Its regimental system remained that bequeathed it by Cardwell's reforms of the early 1880s. These had combined pairs of numbered regiments into the 1st and 2nd battalions of a regiment with a county connection. As we look back with shining eyes at all those bright cap-badges, most now gone for ever, we should not lose sight of the fact that they were initially accepted with misgivings. There were anguished demands for the return of `our numbers wreathed in glory', and an officer of the 67th Regiment declared that `damned names mean nothing', and furiously refused `to come to anything called a Hampshire Regimental Dinner. My compliments, Sir, and be damned'.

The essence of Cardwell's system was that one battalion would serve at home and train recruits which were sent out to the other battalion abroad. In practice, home battalions were almost constantly under strength. In May 1914 the Regular Army was 10,932 men, or 6%, short of its establishment, and it was predicted that changes in corms of service and recruitment trends would soon take this to at least 19,000. Most men who enlisted in the Army were unemployed, and only half even laid claim to a trade. This was scarcely surprising, for the Army was very poorly paid. An infantry private received weekly pay of 11s 4½ d on joining, a full 2s a week less than an agricultural labourer. A cavalryman got 2d a day more. Proficiency pay and the bonus that came with good conduct badges (more easily lost than won) would increase this. Conversely, deductions ate into it: 6d a week went to the towel club (so that the soldier could dry himself after a bath), 6d a week to the -barber's club, and so on. After an initial free issue of uniform, replacement items had to be bought from a quarterly allowance: a soldier received any unspent balance but could easily find himself in arrears, especially if an unscrupulous quartermaster sergeant `put him down' for unused items in order to balance his books.

Most recruits came from a life of hardship and grinding poverty, which often showed in rickety limbs, hollow chests and tubercular coughs: just over half would-be recruits failed their medical examination in 1910. There were more `town casuals' than unskilled agricultural workers, and the ranks of many an infantry regiment with a broad-acre set to its shoulders and perhaps `The Farmer's Boy' as its march were actually filled with urban unemployed. The same was true of the cavalry: the 16th Lancers recruited in the west Midlands, but was known as `The Brummagem Spearmen'. One sample of fifty men who enlisted into the cavalry between 1908 and 1912 shows that forty-one came from towns and cities and only nine from the countryside. David Ascoli is probably right to suggest that most country boys understood the work-creating nature of the horse far too well to risk becoming trapped in the world of wheelbarrows and muck-heaps.

London not only filled its local regiments like the Royal Fusiliers and the Middlesex - both of them reflected their fertile recruiting areas by having four regular battalions. It also sent Cockneys far a field, where they turned up as killed highlanders, trewsed lowlanders and quick-stepping riflemen. Birmingham, with more young men than jobs, produced not just rank upon rank of Royal Warwicks but also more than its fair share of Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Captain Robert Graves recalled his company sergeant-major, a Birmingham man, giving a stern ticking-off-to a German who had been captured with a collection of lurid photographs. There were Irishmen everywhere, not only in Irish regiments, horse and foot, but also in, overtly English ones: not for nothing was the York and Lancaster Regiment styled (safely out of earshot of its members who were likely to respond to slights with a playful tap) the Cork and Doncaster. The King's Liverpool Regiment and the Manchester Regiment snapped up many an Irish lad not long after he stepped off the Liverpool ferry.

Reasons for taking the King's shilling varied. Often it was `unemployment and the need for food' as one 1913 recruit put it. But sometimes, perhaps rather more often than historians are inclined to admit, a young man's taste for adventure, and a need to feel valued and valuable, persuaded him to go for a soldier. William Nicholson had been well educated at a Board School and had a job as a telegraph messenger. His grandfather had charged with the 13th Light Dragoons at Balaklava and three of his uncles were regular NCOs. Family opinions, which so often militated against enlistment - the future Field-Marshal Sir William Robertson's mother said that she would rather bury him than see him in a red coat - encouraged him to join. `I was also attracted,' he admitted, `by the full-dress uniform of mounted regiments.' Herbert Wootton felt much the same. He was:

Very keen on becoming a soldier. I had two uncles, both regulars who served through the South African War of 1899-1902. As a youngster I was thrilled with their stories. I became a keen reader of G. A. Henty's books on war, and later read Rudyard Kipling's books. I loved to be in the company of old soldiers.

Sometimes family tradition or personal preference made a man's choice of regiment quite specific. R. A. Lloyd joined the Life Guards in 1911. It was not a difficult decision, for: `I had always wanted to be a soldier, and a cavalryman at that.' R. G. Garrod would have agreed. He was a junior clerk when he saw `a gorgeous figure in blue with yellow braid and clinking spurs and said to myself "that's for me. .." ' Fred Milton, in contrast, simply fell into the Army. He was a farm worker at South Brent, and went off with a friend one Saturday to see the bright lights of Newton Abbot. `About four o'clock we were spied by a recruiting sergeant', he remembered, `and within a couple of hours we found ourselves in the Devons. And I stayed there for twenty-two years.'

John Lucy and his brother Denis had `gone a bit wild' after their mother died.

We were tired of fathers, of advice from relations, of bottled coffee essence, of school, of newspaper offices. The soft accents and slow movements of the small farmers who swarmed in the streets of our dull southern Irish town, the cattle, fowl, eggs, butter, bacon, and the talk of politics filled us with loathing.

They enlisted in the Royal Irish Rifles, and found its ranks filled largely with `scallywags and minor adventurers', as well as a few strange characters:

There was a taciturn sergeant from Waterford who was conversant with the intricacies of higher mathematics ... There was an ex-divinity student with literary tastes, who drank much beer and affected an obvious pretence to gentle birth; a national school teacher; a man who had absconded from a colonial bank; a few decent sons of farmers.

What Private Frank Richard's of the Royal Welch Fusiliers termed ‘booze and fillies' were a constant preoccupation. George Barrow was commissioned in 1884 and joined the Connaught Rangers in India. `Drink', he wrote sadly, `was the besetting sin of the Connaught men.' But then, few regiments had a fiercer reputation for drinking and fighting. In 1916 a benevolent lady visited a Ranger in hospital. `This is a terrible war, my poor man,' she lamented. `Yes ma'am,' he replied, "tis a terrible war, but 'tis better than no war at all.' The Army Temperance Society - its adherents unkindly termed `tea busters' or `bun wallahs' by the beery majority - made some impact on the drunkenness which ravaged the Victorian army. The Garrison Institute Coffee Shop offered heat, light and newspapers at trivial cost, but the wet canteen continued to do a roaring trade. In 1912-13, 9,230 men were fined for drunkenness, and this figure is the tip of the iceberg, for many offenders were dealt with less formally by NCOs, or received other punishments from company commanders. Drink was a constant lure. The 11th Hussars' history ruefully acknowledges that as soon as the regiment disembarked in France it discovered that the Hangar des Cotons - a huge warehouse which contained their brigade -`also accommodated the BEF's rum casks, and two men fell to the temptation'. A Field General Court Martial awarded the miscreants three months' imprisonment apiece.

Fillies were at least as much of a problem. Although soldiers might marry, they could only `marry on strength' if vacancies for wives existed. Marrying `off the strength' meant that the happy couple were not entitled to accommodation and when the regiment moved the family had to follow at its expense. In practice, this meant that only senior NCOs were married, and most soldiers had to take their pleasures as they found them. There was a good deal of dalliance with housemaids and the like, which often ended with an identification parade, the regiment drawn up for the unlucky girl to peregrinate tearfully along its nervous ranks to identify the author of her woes.

Some brief pleasure could be had from ladies of the town. The fortress-like red-brick barracks built to house regimental depots in the Cardwell era - Brock Barracks in Reading, Roussillon Barracks in Chichester or Le Marchant Barracks at Devizes - were partly surrounded by iron railings which were far enough apart for commerce to be carried on between them. The lady pocketed the proffered 6d - there was much heavy humour about the fact that this was a marksman's daily proficiency pay - and backed gingerly onto the railings while her client made the appropriate arrangements from his side.

The appetite for fillies grew rather than diminished with war. Frank Richards recalled that most of his comrades left cap and collar badges with the French girls they had been walking out with at Vicq, in their concentration area. `I expect in some cases [they] had also left other souvenirs which would be a blessing or a curse to the ladies concerned,' he added. The imminence of death could infuse a wild urgency into such relationships. Sergei Kournakoff, an officer in the Caucasian Native Cavalry Division, argued that `slaughter and procreation are blood-kin'. In early 1915, an officer going up into the line at Ypres saw a young Highlander making passionate love to a shop assistant, impelled, perhaps, to create a new life as his own seemed so terribly fragile.

We should be neither surprised nor shocked by this, for Kipling was right to warn his readers that `single men in barracks don't grow into plaster saints'. But, equally, we should guard against the easy assumption that every regular soldier was a beer-swilling, filly-faking thug. I never cease to be struck by the very high quality of so many of the letters and diaries left by pre-war regulars. William Nicolson's elegant copperplate pays eloquent tribute to the achievements of his Board School. Ernest Shephard, a regular NCO in the Dorsets, left school at fourteen, yet his diaries are not only beautifully written but testify to a lively intellect. After hearing Professor Atkins of Cambridge University speak on the position of Turkey in Europe and the Slav question in the canteen at Blendecques he wrote: `I should very much like to get the chief points of these lectures in their sequence for study at leisure.' R. A. Lloyd read for his degree at London University while a serving Life Guard NCO, and eventually left the army to become a schoolmaster.

If the BEF's soldiers came from backgrounds which had changed little since Wellington's day, the origins of its officers, too, would not have surprised the Duke. Most came from traditional officer producing backgrounds - the peerage, gentry, military families, the clergy and the professions, with a smaller admixture from commerce and industry. `The county communities continued to provide the bulk of officers in the early twentieth century,' suggests Edward Spiers. `Within their confines an uncomplicated patriotism and sense of duty flourished alongside an unbridled enthusiasm for field sports.' The officer corps was two-thirds rural, in part because of the tendency of families who had made their money in industry to set the seal on social ascent by buying estates and becoming landed gentry. While service in the ranks was the kiss of death to a middleclass boy, a commission was entirely the reverse. Service as an officer conferred status and respect and, in brusquely practical terms, was one of the few alternatives open to a youth who failed the competitive examinations to the Indian Civil Service but wished to pursue a `gentleman's' career.

Well over half of regular officers came from public schools. Many had `army classes' which specifically prepared boys for entrance to The Royal Military College Sandhurst (for infantry and cavalry) and the Royal Military Academy Woolwich (for gunners and sappers). Most had Officers' Training Corps which granted certificates of military training to diligent cadets and thereby eased entry into the Regular Army, Special Reserve and Territorial Force. The OTCs did not produce as many officers as Haldane hoped, but his assumption that many ex-cadets would come forward to take commission in the event of war was amply justified, as rolls of honour in chapel and cloister proudly proclaim. When the Bishop of Malvern dedicated the war memorial of Malvern College he described the loss of public school boys in the war as `the wiping out of a generation'. It was an understandable exaggeration, though the truth was scarcely less sombre: when J. M. Winter examined what he termed `the slaughter of social elites', he concluded that public schools lost on average one boy killed for every five who served.

Neither the public schools nor the military crammers who often took over where they failed in an effort to get a boy into Sandhurst or Woolwich were hugely successful in purely educational terms. The 1902 Akers-Douglas Committee on military education reported that most young men seeking commissions were `deficient in general education'. But the Army valued public schools precisely because of those qualities which impelled so many public school boys to volunteer in 194. As we approach the end of a century littered with blighted hopes and broken promises it is easy to poke fun at public schools with their emphasis- on self-denial, team spirit and manly sports. The fact remains that public schools did produce young men inculcated with loyalty and prepared to accept responsibility; in short, first-rate officer material.

But a more tangible commodity was required. In order to pass into the Indian Army from Sandhurst or the Royal Engineers from Woolwich a cadet had to come towards the top of the order of merit. This did not simply reflect a desire to serve in India or to master the intricacies of field engineering; it was because it was impossible to accept a commission in a British infantry or cavalry regiment or the Royal Artillery without private means. A subaltern had to meet initial costs (of say £200 in the infantry and £600 in the cavalry) to provide his uniform and other requisites, and then maintain his uniform, pay a soldier-servant, meet a monthly mess-bill, the costs of field sports and the incidental expenses of moving from one garrison to another.

Expenses varied from regiment to regiment. In 1913 E. G. W. Harrison survived as a gunner subaltern on an allowance of £i8 per annum, which brought his annual income to £92. Survived is exactly the word because, as he admitted, `Mess bill without a drink or a cigarette [was) £6 monthly, soldier servant and washing £1 monthly, so a penny bus fare was a matter of deep consideration,. Alan Hanbury-Sparrow joined the Royal Berkshires with an allowance of E175 per annum, a little above the £160 per annum that a 1903 War Office committee estimated to be the minimum necessary allowance for a line infantry officer: the Footguards demanded at the very least £40o a year.

The cavalry was even more expensive because an officer had to provide at least one charger and could scarcely avoid hunting and playing polo. He might just scrape by with a private income of £300 a year, but the average was some £600-£700, nearly eight times a second-lieutenant's annual pay and twice a lieutenant-colonel's. When he wrote Our Cavalry in 1912, Major-General M. F. Rimington acknowledged that it was becoming increasingly difficult to find the right sort of cavalry officer. The new seriousness which had infected the mounted arm meant that work was getting harder. Once an officer could hunt every day but now, Rimington observed with alarm, officers were expected to work till 1.00 or even 3.00 p.m. `We particularly want the hunting breed of man,' he declared, `because he goes into danger for the love of it ... we draw on a class who have not been used to much brain work ... the young officer should for choice be country bred,' fond of sport, a 'trier' and there must be some private income.'

In the years before the First World War, a series of committees reviewed allowances because it was becoming harder to find an adequate number of cavalry officers, and resignations from the cavalry reached epidemic proportions. The 1905 Hutchinson Committee concluded that: `The average English boy would prefer cavalry to other branches of the Service if he could afford it, and this is confirmed by the fact that there is no difficulty finding recruits for the Indian cavalry'. It recommended that an officer should receive his field service kit; chargers and saddlery at public expense, and although the cost of serving in the cavalry was reduced it remained so high as to deter many young men. There was a serious shortage of cavalry officers in 1914. A total of 792 were required, but only 632, including reservists, were available at home - a shortfall of 20.2 per cent.

The young officer spent the first few months of his commissioned service back amongst the new boys, learning his trade with the recruits until he was deemed competent to take charge of his platoon. At first he might find life in the mess rather frosty. Second-lieutenants were known collectively as warts - for a wart is a useless-fleshy excrescence - and some officers saw `toning up the warts' as part of their duty, just as prefects had kept the fags on their toes. The overwhelming majority of a regiment's officers lived in the mess. It was said that `subalterns must not marry; captains might marry, majors ought to marry and lieutenant-colonels must marry'. Officers were older than we might expect: there were subalterns in their thirties and captains in their forties. As a young officer became more confident, and ran with the wolf-pack below the salt, he would grow to appreciate the informal style that prevailed in most messes. There was no sirring in the mess in most of the infantry and cavalry: officers called one another by their surnames (first names or nicknames were for close friends) and the commanding officer was ‘colonel'.

There was inevitably a gulf between the officer and the men he commanded. In many regiments a private soldier could not address an officer without an NCO acting as go-between. John Lucy thought that `the pre-war officer, despite his pleasant fancy to the contrary, was not very much in touch with his men, whose temper and habits were better known to the non-commissioned officers'. R. A. Lloyd made precisely the same point. His commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel E. B. Cook, `was a thorough gentleman, sympathetic and approachable'. However, `If he had a fault, it was that, in common with all the senior officers, he did not get about enough among the men. Hence much that he would never have tolerated went on in the regiment without his knowledge.'

This remoteness should be kept in proportion, and in any event war quickly broke it down. Ernest Shephard was genuinely delighted when his company commander was decorated. 'He is a real sample of the Regular "Officer and Gentleman",' he wrote in his diary. `One of the old 1st Bn officers. Absolutely fearless and first and last thought for his men.' Later, when Captain Algeo was reported missing, Shephard lamented: `The loss of my gallant Captain to the Battalion, my Company and myself cannot be estimated. He was the bravest officer I have met. ..'

In good units mutual affection and respect bridged the barriers of rank. Indeed, in some respects the British army, for all the rigidity of its hierarchy, was actually less class-conscious than the German army. Five hundred warrant officers and NCOs were commissioned in the first month of the war, and as the war went on the officers' mess was enriched by a steady flow of sergeants. Alan HanburySparrow thought that Colour-Sergeant Foster, who became sniping officer and then adjutant when he himself was commanding officer, was: `most valuable ... He must have killed over twenty German snipers and had his warnings been taken seriously about the location of enemy MGs, the 8th Division would never have lost so heavily on the first day of the Somme.'

Ernest Shephard was commissioned in November 19x6, and wrote proudly that: `The man who passes through the ranks to a commissioned rank is the better for his experience.' He commanded a company as a second-lieutenant, but had precious little opportunity to savour his new star. His company was counter-attacked after taking an objective: professional to the last, he told the commander of a flanking company to fall back because the position was untenable, and died as German infantry swarmed in with stick-bomb and bayonet. John Lucy, too, was commissioned, and as he mounted the steps to the officers' mess he looked back at his chum, Big Jim, motionless against the lighted windows of the sergeants' mess. `I was proud now to be an officer,' he mused, `but prouder far to have been a Regular sergeant with those chaps.'

An officer's first months with his battalion were anything but easy, but most private soldiers found the first months of their service decidedly hard. The Lucy brothers `became insensitive, bored and revolted and talked seriously of deserting after three months of the life. R.G. Garrod spent weeks at foot drill before he even saw a horse, and was not allowed to walk out in the frogged tunic which had so attracted him until he had perfected picking up a dropped whip or glove: the braces of his leg-hugging overalls were so tight that he had to cushion them with cotton wool to prevent them from chafing his shoulders. Then he was allocated a horse, and with it came the repetitious drudgery associated with that noble beast: `First sponge out eyes, nose and dock, then pick out feet, then start to brush, using only the brush on the horse, while the curry comb, held in the left hand, was used only for cleaning the brush'.

Horse maintenance dominated the day in the cavalry and artillery. Routine varied from regiment to regiment and with the time of year, but a young soldier in a mounted regiment would find his dawn-to-dusk existence crammed full of saddle-soap and stable forks. Reveille was at 5.30 a.m., and beds were made up and rooms swept before warning for stables sounded at 5.45. First stables was at 6.00: horses were mucked out and groomed before breakfast and the squadron leader's inspection. Men spent the first half of the morning in the riding school, before another round of stables at 11.00 a.m., followed by saddlery cleaning till lunch at 12.45 P.M. Afternoon work began at 2.00 p.m., and might consist of foot drill and gymnastics. The day's third stables began at 4.45, and the `tea 044V and more kit cleaning followed it. By 9.00 p.m. our hero was free to walk out if he had permission to do so and could pass the guard commander's inspection, but with only an hour to lights out he might be forgiven for collapsing on his bed.

After about six months of this unrelenting pressure, most of it applied by NCOs, men changed. Physically, because a combination of regular food and exercise filled them out. `I felt really fit,' remembered George Ashurst, `with the cross-country running and the gym exercises we had daily ...' Mounted men toughened up after those hours in the riding school. Private Garrod (private soldiers in line cavalry were not officially called troopers till 1922, though the term `troopers' was used for cavalrymen generically) graduated from the recruit ride to exercises in the Abbey Field in Colchester: `To practise figure of eight, jumping, balloon bursting, and taking the rings, which was a really interesting exercise as there was a great competition to see who could get the most rings on his sword blade'. He was promoted to first class ride, with spurs, sword, rifle and double reins, and took fencing lessons --- although this meant that he missed tea - gaining the mounted skill-at-arms proficiency badge of crossed swords and the extra 6d a day that went with it. By the end of the process, as he recalled: `we were very well trained in horsemanship, doing attack riding, vaulting, which entails jumping off your horse at full gallop and leaping up again into the saddle. We took jumps with no reins and no stirrups, just with .folded arms.'

Mentally, men changed as self-confidence and pride hardened, and the pervasive discipline seemed less obtrusive. John Lucy linked these physical and mental transitions: `Our bodies developed and our backs straightened according to plan. We marched instead of walking, and we forced on ourselves that rigidity of limb and poker face that marks the professional soldier. Pride of arms possessed us, and we discovered that our regiment was a regiment, and then some.'

The regimental system defied logic. It was intended to bring men from the same area together; but, as we have seen, often failed to do so. It also strove to promote cohesion on active service by ensuring that robust bonds of mateship held men together. While this may have worked well enough for colonial soldiering, it was not uniformly successful in 1914. About half the BEF's soldiers were reservists, and in some battalions the proportion was much higher. 4th Battalion, The Royal Fusiliers, which was to be one of the three hardest-hit units at Mons, needed 734 reservists to bring it up to war establishment.

Yet the system conferred tangible benefits, in great measure because it gratified that heartfelt British need: to belong to a tribe with its own distinctive war-paint. It was, in part, a club for the officers, and the prevalence of royal colonels-in-chief - The Kaiser had 1st Royal Dragoons - gave membership a cachet no money could buy. It helped put a rural patina on new money, and conferred a county connection which underlined a family's ascent from `trade'.

For soldiers, the regiment was a team which trained hard for a rough game. It was much more than simply what the psychologist Wilfred Trotter called `a body solidly united for a single purpose'. The body had existed for centuries, and would abide when those who composed it at any one time did not. Suffering and even death could be minimised by being placed in a regimental context. The system encouraged men to emulate not only the bravery of their comrades to left and right but the achievements of their ancestors. Sir Henry Lawrence, who defended the Residency at Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny, argued that: `Courage goes much by opinion, and many a man behaves as a hero or a coward according as how he considers he is expected to behave'. The regimental system bestowed this expectation of courage on men who, in the harshest terms of social analysis, were often grubby urchins or feckless bumpkins. It gave them, perhaps for the only time in their lives, something to look up to, something to admire, even something to worship.

Instead of showing team loyalty by a coloured scarf, the point was made by cap-badge and shoulder title. Past successes were borne as battle honours on the colours and recalled on Regimental Days. Sometimes past disasters were tricked out in such dazzling heroism that they became victories of a kind. The Footguards remembered that they had beaten the French Guards at Fontenoy (1745), but forgot that the French had won the battle. The Royal Berkshires were rightly proud of Maiwand (1880). Whimsical portrayals of their last stand graced everything from the officers' mess to corporals' bunks: the group even included a dog, Maiwand Bobby, a terrier-like chap of uncertain parentage who survived the battle only to perish beneath a cab outside the regimental depot in the Oxford Road, Reading: It was an uncomfortable fact, however, that the Afghans had actually won Maiwand. Most regimental tradition was carried, sometimes with a good deal of sleight of hand, back beyond the Cardwell reforms. Much Was simply invented. The Royal Sussex wore the Roussillon Plume as part of its cap-badge, having allegedly won it from the Roussillon Regiment at Quebec in 1759. The Roussillon Regiment, alas, did not wear a plume. We probably have to thank a quick-thinking Commanding Officer -`Won it from the French, Sir' - for the survival of what began as an unofficial bit of campaign costume jewellery, feathers stuck in hats to show that I was -there and you were not.

Charles Wilson - subsequently ennobled as Lord Moran - who was commissioned into the RAMC in October 1914 and spent much of the war as a Regimental Medical Officer with the Royal Fusiliers argued that: `Loyalty to a fine battalion may take hold of a man and stiffen his purpose'. His experiences helped him write The Anatomy of Courage, in which he argued that regimental loyalty helped deepen a man's well of courage. The regiment was `the source of their strength, their abiding faith, it was the last of all the creeds that in historical times have steeled men against death'. Bill Slim, junior officer in the First World War and army commander in the Second, declared that: `The moral strength of the British army is in the sum of all these family or clan loyalties. They are the foundations of the British soldier's stubborn valour.' The regimental system was not the only reason why the BEF fought hard in August 1914 and there were times when all its strengths could not prevent men from running or surrendering. But it was one of the BEF's unmistakable characteristics, and made its own unique contribution to enabling men to cope with the trials of that lime-kiln summer.


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


Further Reading:

British Army involvement with the Desert Mounted Corps


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

Posted by Project Leader at 12:01 AM EADT
Updated: Friday, 1 May 2009 3:00 PM EADT

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