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Saturday, 11 April 2009
The Nature of the British Army prior to 1914, As rations came to hand, Part 6
Topic: AIF - DMC - British

The Nature of the British Army prior to 1914

Part 6, As rations came to hand


An extract from Holmes, R., Riding the Retreat, London, 1995, pp. 66 - 69.


As rations came to hand

LIt is sometimes said that most British officers are `G snobs', fascinated by operations but scorning logistics. Until the army slipped painfully into line with NATO terminology in the 1980s the staff . was divided into three branches. Its A Staff, working under the adjutant-general, were responsible for administration and discipline. The G Staff, under the chief of staff, dealt with operational matters and were traditionally the most prestigious branch. The Q Staff, responsible to the quartermaster-general, did for the force as a whole what the quartermaster did for his battalion: they fed and watered it, and issued it with everything from ammunition to zinc ointment. Logisticians are the Cinderellas of warfare. Nobody pays much attention to them when they succeed; ask someone with a nodding acquaintance with military history to name three famous logisticians and watch him turn pale. When they fail, colonels fulminate, privates curse and horses die.

In 1914, logisticians had the task of patching together ancient and modern. Men and supplies could be moved by rail with unparalleled efficiency, but the gap between railhead and fighting troops had to be bridged by road transport. Each British infantry division had a Divisional Train, horsed wagons of the Army Service Corps - nicknamed Ally Sloper's Cavalry, after a popular music-hall character. An Army Troops Train was controlled directly by GHQ, and in-the rearward world of the Inspector-General of Communications an assortment of Divisional Supply Columns, Field Butcheries and Field Bakeries plied their trade. The Divisional Supply Columns were motorised, and were responsible for taking stores up to a nominated rendezvous where they met the divisional trains who hauled their loads forward to refilling points where units collected their requirements.

As the war went on, ammunition came to dominate logistics. In 1914, however, ammunition requirements were relatively modest. A British i8-pounder had 24 rounds in limbers, 152 in battery wagons, 76 in brigade ammunition columns and 126 in divisional ammunition columns, a total of 378 rounds. Holdings in ammunition parks and depots took the total to 1,000 rounds per gun in the theatre of operations. In 1916, the 4th Army's 18-pounders had 1,000 rounds per gun actually on the gun position before the bombardment started for the Battle of the Somme, and British gunners fired four and a quarter million shells during the preliminary bombardment for the Third Battle of Ypres. Despite the grotesque appetite of the guns, fodder for horses was the heaviest item sent to France during the war: 5,438,602 tons of it, as opposed to 5,253,538 tons of ammunition. In August 194, von Muck's First Army, with which the BEF had most of its dealings, had 84,00o horses consuming almost two million pounds of fodder every day. The BEF needed rather less than half this but the provision of fodder was a constant drag on the line of supply. Reduce horses' rations and the whole army's efficiency dwindled, for without fit, full horses neither men nor guns could be properly fed.

And without horses little could be done for soldiers whose luck ran out. Pre-war assessments envisaged heavy casualties. For example, if fighting went on for a year (the longest period deemed credible), the 327 cavalry officers serving with the BEF would have incurred such `wastage' that another 227 would be required: About one-third of casualties would be killed, one-third badly wounded and one-third slightly wounded. When a man was hit immediate aid came from within his own unit. Infantry Training dourly informed the casualty that he was to place his unexpended ammunition in a conspicuous place for his comrades to use, and went on to warn that `no man is permitted to leave his platoon in action to take wounded to the rear ...' Walking wounded would make their own way back, and the battalion's stretcher-bearers would collect immobile wounded and take them to the Regimental Aid Post. There the doctor would do what he could for them, and make a quick estimate of their chances. Some could be saved only by speedy evacuation. Others could be patched up to wait their turn. An unlucky few were already beyond- hope, and were given morphia or chloroform.

We must spare a thought for medical officers, who required every inch of their professional armour-plate to cope with the decisions which faced them in a busy aid post, with old friends arriving in extremis. Arthur Osburn was a seasoned regular and had served in South Africa, but found his resolve tested to destruction by:

one big man whose ear-splitting screams were racking the nerves of those less seriously wounded, whose lives we were trying to save ... In spite of the drenching dose of chloroform it was a long time before that six-foot-three of agonised humanity stopped screaming. Perhaps it would have been more merciful to have shot the worst and obviously fatal cases at once, as some of the wounded and some of the spectators urged me to do.

Other medical officers were more matter-of-fact, even when faced with horrors like this. Henry Owens was a hunting doctor from Norfolk who volunteered on the outbreak of war, telling the War Office that: `I wanted to see something of the war, if possible as soon as possible, and wanted some job with a horse to ride in it'. He was commissioned a temporary lieutenant in the RAMC and posted to 3rd Cavalry Field Ambulance. His diary suggests that he coped by walling up the awful aspects of his job in the very back of his mind. Horses, food, and the French countryside in late summer all feature more prominently than the business of the day, though stark juxtapositions hint at the burden on his shoulders. `Had to see a staff officer, a major,' he wrote on 27 August, `who had just shot himself in the head with a revolver in a motor car. He was still living. Had a very nice tea here.'

Field ambulances, like that in which Owens served, were allocated on a scale of three per infantry division and four for the cavalry division, so that one could be deployed with each brigade. A field ambulance had three sections, each comprising a bearer subdivision and a tent subdivision. The bearer subdivisions would go forward to recover wounded who might already have been treated by their regimental medical officer, and would take them back to the tent subdivision which constituted an Advanced Dressing Station. The wounded were moved back, in horsed ambulances, to Clearing Hospitals. (soon renamed Casualty Clearing Stations) which sent them to general hospitals or ambulance trains.

As all a division's brigades would normally not be in action at the same time, it was often possible for a brigade to be supported by more than one field ambulance. However, a major battle like Le Gateau simply swamped the available medical facilities. For most wounded the ancient aspects of the war - painful journeys on stretchers or across a comrade's back, confusing waits in crowded aid posts or dressing stations, and the unspoken competition for the attentions of an exhausted doctor - were, more apparent than the modern.

Men who were beyond help were buried in the field, sometimes in a civilian cemetery if one was close by. In the early stages of the war, procedures for identifying the dead and marking graves were poorly developed: indeed, as Fabian Ware, founding father of the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission was to discover, there was no proper army policy for noting and maintaining grave sites. Things were not helped by the fact that British killed in the retreat were hastily buried by their chums or interred by Germans who were trying to cope with mountains of their own dead. The mechanics of casualty identification had not been brought up to date: the soldier's Pay Book gave all his relevant details but was easily damaged or rendered illegible by damp. Officers had no pay books and, unless they had chosen to wear privately-purchased identity discs or bracelets, identifying their bodies was often a matter of grisly speculation beside an open grave, under the fetid breath of war at its most ancient.


Previous: The Nature of the British Army prior to 1914, Blow the trumpet, draw the sword, Part 5

Next: No further parts.


Further Reading:

British Army involvement with the Desert Mounted Corps


Citation: The Nature of the British Army prior to 1914, As rations came to hand, Part 6

Posted by Project Leader at 12:01 AM EADT
Updated: Friday, 1 May 2009 2:58 PM EADT

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