British Troops being welcomed to France, 1914

British Troops being welcomed to France, 1914

British Troops being welcomed to France, 1914

British troops were very welcome when they arrived in France in 1914. Here we see part of the BEF being welcomed by French ladies on their arrival in France in August 1914.


Empire and Sea Power

In September 1715, John Erskine, Earl of Mar, raised the standard for a 'Jacobite' rising, intended to restore the exiled Stuart monarchy to the throne, and proclaimed James Francis Edward Stuart (James II's son) king of Scotland. The Jacobites were defeated by government forces at the battles of Sheriffmuir and Preston in November 1715. Three months later the rebellion had been quashed. The Jacobite leaders were impeached and some were executed.


Contents

Under pre-war plans, an expeditionary force was to be organised from among the Regular Army forces in the United Kingdom, with a strength of six infantry divisions and one cavalry division (72 infantry battalions and 14 cavalry regiments), plus support units.

It was planned that the seven divisions would be centrally controlled by General Headquarters and as such no plans were made for intermediate levels of command. One corps staff was maintained in peacetime, but the decision was made on mobilisation to create a second (and later a third) in order to better conform with the French command structure both of these had to be improvised.

At the time of mobilisation, there were significant fears of a German landing in force on the English east coast, and as such the decision was taken to hold back two divisions for home defence, and only send four, plus the cavalry division, to France for the present. The 4th was eventually despatched at the end of August, and the 6th in early September.

The initial Commander-in-Chief of the BEF was Field-Marshal Sir John French. His Chief of Staff was Lieutenant-General Sir A. J. Murray, with Major-General H. H. Wilson as his deputy. GSO 1 (Operations) was Colonel G. M. Harper, and GSO 1 (Intelligence) was Colonel G. M. W. Macdonogh.

The Adjutant-General was Major-General Sir C. F. N. Macready, with Major-General E. R. C. Graham as Deputy Adjutant-General and Colonel A. E. J. Cavendish as Assistant Adjutant-General. The Quartermaster-General was Major-General Sir W. R. Robertson, with Colonel C. T. Dawkins as Assistant Quartermaster-General. The Royal Artillery was commanded by Major-General W. F. L. Lindsay, and the Royal Engineers by Brigadier-General G. H. Fowke.

GHQ Troops, Royal Engineers Edit

General Headquarters Troops controlled the army group engineers. It had the following structure in 1914: [4]

  • 1st Bridging Train, Royal Engineers
  • 2nd Bridging Train, Royal Engineers
  • 1st Siege Company, Royal Monmouthshire Militia, Royal Engineers
  • 4th Siege Company, Royal Monmouthshire Militia, Royal Engineers
  • 1st Siege Company, Royal Anglesey Militia, Royal Engineers
  • 2nd Siege Company, Royal Anglesey Militia, Royal Engineers
  • 1st Ranging Section, Royal Engineers
  • Railway Transport Establishment
    • 8th Railway Company, Royal Engineers
    • 10th Railway Company, Royal Engineers
    • 2nd Railway Company, Royal Monmouthshire Militia, Royal Engineers
    • 3rd Railway Company, Royal Monmouthshire Militia, Royal Engineers
    • 3rd Railway Company, Royal Anglesey Militia, Royal Engineers

    There was no permanently established cavalry division in the British Army on mobilisation, the 1st through to 4th Cavalry Brigades were grouped together to form a division, whilst the 5th Cavalry Brigade remained as an independent unit.

    On 6 September, the 3rd Cavalry Brigade was detached to act jointly with the 5th, under the overall command of Brigadier-General Gough. This force was re-designated the 2nd Cavalry Division on 16 September.

    Cavalry Division Edit

    The Cavalry Division was commanded by Major-General Edmund Allenby, with Colonel John Vaughan as GSO 1 and Brigadier-General B. F. Drake commanding the Royal Horse Artillery.

    Independent brigade Edit

    I Corps was commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Douglas Haig. His senior staff officers were Brigadier-General J. E. Gough (Chief of Staff), Brigadier-General H. S. Horne (commanding Royal Artillery) and Brigadier-General S. R. Rice (commanding Royal Engineers).

    1st Division Edit

    1st Division was commanded by Major-General S. H. Lomax, with Colonel R. Fanshawe as GSO 1. Brigadier-General N. D. Findlay commanded the Royal Artillery, and Lieutenant-Colonel A. L. Schreiber commanded the Royal Engineers.

      (Brigadier-General F. I. Maxse)
      • 1st Coldstream Guards
      • 1st Scots Guards
      • 1st The Black Watch (Royal Highlanders)
      • 2nd The Royal Munster Fusiliers[7]
      • 2nd The Royal Sussex Regiment
      • 1st The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment
      • 1st The Northamptonshire Regiment
      • 2nd The King's Royal Rifle Corps
      • 1st The Queen's (Royal West Surrey Regiment)
      • 1st The South Wales Borderers
      • 1st The Gloucestershire Regiment
      • 2nd The Welch Regiment
      • Mounted Troops
        • A Squadron, 15th (The King's) Hussars
        • 1st Cyclist Company
          • 113th Battery, RFA
          • 114th Battery, RFA
          • 115th Battery, RFA
          • 116th Battery, RFA
          • 117th Battery, RFA
          • 118th Battery, RFA
          • 46th Battery, RFA
          • 51st Battery, RFA
          • 54th Battery, RFA
          • 30th (Howitzer) Battery, RFA
          • 40th (Howitzer) Battery, RFA
          • 57th (Howitzer) Battery, RFA
          • 23rd Field Company, RE
          • 26th Field Company, RE

          2nd Division Edit

          2nd Division was commanded by Major-General C. C. Monro, with Colonel Hon. F. Gordon as GSO 1. Brigadier-General E. M. Perceval commanded the Royal Artillery, and Lieutenant-Colonel R. H. H. Boys commanded the Royal Engineers.

            (Brigadier-General R. Scott-Kerr)
            • 2nd Grenadier Guards
            • 2nd Coldstream Guards
            • 3rd Coldstream Guards
            • 1st Irish Guards
            • 2nd The Worcestershire Regiment
            • 2nd The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry
            • 2nd The Highland Light Infantry
            • 2nd The Connaught Rangers
            • 1st The King's (Liverpool Regiment)
            • 2nd The South Staffordshire Regiment
            • 1st Princess Charlotte of Wales's (Royal Berkshire Regiment)
            • 1st The King's Royal Rifle Corps
            • Mounted Troops
              • B Squadron, 15th (The King's) Hussars
              • 2nd Cyclist Company
                • 22nd Battery, RFA
                • 50th Battery, RFA
                • 70th Battery, RFA
                • 15th Battery, RFA
                • 48th Battery, RFA
                • 71st Battery, RFA
                • 9th Battery, RFA
                • 16th Battery, RFA
                • 17th Battery, RFA
                • 47th (Howitzer) Battery, RFA
                • 56th (Howitzer) Battery, RFA
                • 60th (Howitzer) Battery, RFA
                • 5th Field Company, RE
                • 11th Field Company, RE

                II Corps was commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir James Grierson. His senior staff officers were Brigadier-General George Forestier-Walker (Chief of Staff), Brigadier-General A. H. Short (commanding Royal Artillery) and Brigadier-General A. E. Sandbach (commanding Royal Engineers).

                Lieutenant-General Grierson died on a train between Rouen and Amiens on 17 August General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien took over command at Bavai, on 21 August at 4pm.

                3rd Division Edit

                3rd Division was commanded by Major-General Hubert I. W. Hamilton, with Colonel F. R. F. Boileau as GSO 1. Brigadier-General F. D. V. Wing commanded the Royal Artillery, and Lieutenant-Colonel C. S. Wilson commanded the Royal Engineers.

                  (Brigadier-General F. W. N. McCracken)
                  • 3rd The Worcestershire Regiment
                  • 2nd The Prince of Wales's Volunteers (South Lancashire Regiment)
                  • 1st The Duke of Edinburgh's (Wiltshire Regiment)
                  • 2nd The Royal Irish Rifles
                  • 2nd The Royal Scots (Lothian Regiment)
                  • 2nd The Royal Irish Regiment
                  • 4th The Duke of Cambridge's Own (Middlesex Regiment)
                  • 1st The Gordon Highlanders[8]
                    (Brigadier-General F. C. Shaw)
                    • 1st The Northumberland Fusiliers
                    • 4th The Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment)
                    • 1st The Lincolnshire Regiment
                    • 1st The Royal Scots Fusiliers
                    • Mounted Troops
                      • C Squadron, 15th (The King's) Hussars
                      • 3rd Cyclist Company
                        • 107th Battery, RFA
                        • 108th Battery, RFA
                        • 109th Battery, RFA
                        • 6th Battery, RFA
                        • 23rd Battery, RFA
                        • 49th Battery, RFA
                        • 29th Battery, RFA
                        • 41st Battery, RFA
                        • 45th Battery, RFA
                        • 128th (Howitzer) Battery, RFA
                        • 129th (Howitzer) Battery, RFA
                        • 130th (Howitzer) Battery, RFA
                        • 56th Field Company, RE
                        • 57th Field Company, RE

                        5th Division Edit

                        5th Division was commanded by Major-General Sir C. Fergusson, with Lieutenant-Colonel C. F. Romer as GSO 1. Brigadier-General J. E. W. Headlam commanded the Royal Artillery, and Lieutenant-Colonel J. A. S. Tulloch commanded the Royal Engineers.

                          (Brigadier-General G. J. Cuthbert)
                          • 2nd The King's Own Scottish Borderers
                          • 2nd The Duke of Wellington's (West Riding Regiment)
                          • 1st The Queen's Own (Royal West Kent Regiment)
                          • 2nd The King's Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry)
                          • 2nd The Suffolk Regiment
                          • 1st The East Surrey Regiment
                          • 1st The Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry
                          • 2nd The Manchester Regiment
                          • 1st The Norfolk Regiment
                          • 1st The Bedfordshire Regiment
                          • 1st The Cheshire Regiment
                          • 1st The Dorsetshire Regiment
                          • Mounted Troops
                            • A Squadron, 19th (Queen Alexandra's Own Royal) Hussars
                            • 5th Cyclist Company
                              • 11th Battery, RFA
                              • 52nd Battery, RFA
                              • 80th Battery, RFA
                              • 119th Battery, RFA
                              • 120th Battery, RFA
                              • 121st Battery, RFA
                              • 122nd Battery, RFA
                              • 123rd Battery, RFA
                              • 124th Battery, RFA
                              • 37th (Howitzer) Battery, RFA
                              • 61st (Howitzer) Battery, RFA
                              • 65th (Howitzer) Battery, RFA
                              • 17th Field Company, RE
                              • 59th Field Company, RE

                              III Corps was formed in France on 31 August 1914, commanded by Major-General W. P. Pulteney. His senior staff officers were Brigadier-General J. P. Du Cane (Chief of Staff), Brigadier-General E. J. Phipps-Hornby (commanding Royal Artillery) and Brigadier-General F. M. Glubb (commanding Royal Engineers).

                              4th Division Edit

                              The 4th Division landed in France on the night of 22 August and 23. It was commanded by Major-General T. D'O. Snow, with Colonel J. E. Edmonds as GSO 1. Brigadier-General G. F. Milne commanded the Royal Artillery, and Lieutenant-Colonel H. B. Jones commanded the Royal Engineers.

                                (Brigadier-General J. A. L. Haldane)
                                • 1st The Royal Warwickshire Regiment
                                • 2nd Seaforth Highlanders (Ross-shire Buffs, The Duke of Albany's)
                                • 1st Princess Victoria's (Royal Irish Fusiliers)
                                • 2nd The Royal Dublin Fusiliers
                                • 1st Prince Albert's (Somerset Light Infantry)
                                • 1st The East Lancashire Regiment
                                • 1st The Hampshire Regiment
                                • 1st The Rifle Brigade (Prince Consort's Own)
                                • 1st King's Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment)
                                • 2nd The Lancashire Fusiliers
                                • 2nd The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers
                                • 2nd The Essex Regiment
                                • Mounted Troops
                                  • B Squadron, 19th (Queen Alexandra's Own Royal) Hussars
                                  • 4th Cyclist Company
                                    • 39th Battery, RFA
                                    • 68th Battery, RFA
                                    • 88th Battery, RFA
                                    • 125th Battery, RFA
                                    • 126th Battery, RFA
                                    • 127th Battery, RFA
                                    • 27th Battery, RFA
                                    • 134th Battery, RFA
                                    • 135th Battery, RFA
                                    • 31st (Howitzer) Battery, RFA
                                    • 35th (Howitzer) Battery, RFA
                                    • 55th (Howitzer) Battery, RFA
                                    • 7th Field Company, RE
                                    • 9th Field Company, RE

                                    6th Division Edit

                                    The 6th Division embarked for France on 8 and 9 September. It was commanded by Major-General J. L. Keir, with Colonel W. T. Furse as GSO 1. Brigadier-General W. L. H. Paget commanded the Royal Artillery, and Lieutenant-Colonel G. C. Kemp commanded the Royal Engineers.

                                      (Brigadier-General E. C. Ingouville-Williams)
                                      • 1st The Buffs (East Kent Regiment)
                                      • 1st The Leicestershire Regiment
                                      • 1st The King's (Shropshire Light Infantry)
                                      • 2nd The York and Lancaster Regiment
                                      • 1st The Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment)
                                      • 1st The Prince of Wales's (North Staffordshire Regiment)
                                      • 2nd The Prince of Wales's Leinster Regiment (Royal Canadians)
                                      • 3rd The Rifle Brigade (The Prince Consort's Own)
                                      • 1st The Prince of Wales's Own (West Yorkshire Regiment)
                                      • 1st The East Yorkshire Regiment
                                      • 2nd The Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment)
                                      • 2nd The Durham Light Infantry
                                      • Mounted Troops
                                        • C Squadron, 19th (Queen Alexandra's Own Royal) Hussars
                                        • 6th Cyclist Company
                                          • 21st Battery, RFA
                                          • 42nd Battery, RFA
                                          • 53rd Battery, RFA
                                          • 110th Battery, RFA
                                          • 111th Battery, RFA
                                          • 112th Battery, RFA
                                          • 24th Battery, RFA
                                          • 34th Battery, RFA
                                          • 72nd Battery, RFA
                                          • 43rd (Howitzer) Battery, RFA
                                          • 86th (Howitzer) Battery, RFA
                                          • 12th Field Company, RE
                                          • 38th Field Company, RE
                                            • No. 1 Siege Battery
                                            • No. 2 Siege Battery
                                            • No. 3 Siege Battery
                                            • No. 4 Siege Battery
                                            • No. 5 Siege Battery
                                            • No. 6 Siege Battery
                                            • 1st The Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders[7]

                                            Royal Flying Corps Edit

                                            The Royal Flying Corps units in France were commanded by Brigadier-General Sir David Henderson, with Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Sykes as his Chief of Staff.

                                            Lines of communication defence troops Edit

                                            A cavalry regiment contained three squadrons and was provided with two machine-guns. An infantry battalion contained four companies and two machine-guns.

                                            A Royal Horse Artillery battery contained six 13-pounder guns, whilst a Royal Field Artillery battery contained six 18-pounder guns, or six 4.5-inch howitzers. A heavy battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery contained four 60 pounder guns. Each battery had two ammunition wagons per gun, and each artillery brigade contained its own ammunition column.

                                            Each division received an anti-aircraft detachment of 1-pounder pom-pom guns in September, attached to the divisional artillery.

                                            The Cavalry Division had a total of 12 cavalry regiments in four brigades, and each infantry division had 12 battalions in three brigades. The strength of the Cavalry Division (not counting 5th Cavalry Brigade) came to 9,269 all ranks, with 9,815 horses, 24 13-pounder guns and 24 machine-guns. The strength of each infantry division came to 18,073 all ranks, with 5,592 horses, 76 guns and 24 machine-guns.

                                            In broad numeric terms, the British Expeditionary Force represented half the combat strength of the British Army as an imperial power, a sizeable portion of the army had to be kept aside for overseas garrisons. Home defence was expected to be provided by the volunteers of the Territorial Force and by the reserves.

                                            The total strength of the Regular Army in July was 125,000 men in the British Isles, with 75,000 in India and Burma and a further 33,000 in other overseas postings. The Army Reserve came to 145,000 men, with 64,000 in the Militia (or Special Reserve) and 272,000 in the Territorial Force.

                                            Home service Edit

                                            The peacetime regular establishment in the British Isles was eighty-one battalions of infantry — in theory, one battalion of each line regiment was deployed on home service and one on overseas service at any given point, rotating the battalions every few years — and nineteen regiments of cavalry.

                                            Aside from those earmarked for the Expeditionary Force, there were three battalions of Guards and eight of line infantry (including those in the Channel Islands) – roughly a division's worth. In the event, six battalions of these regulars were deployed to the Continent along with the Expeditionary Force, to act as army troops. The Border Regiment and Alexandra, Princess of Wales's Own (Yorkshire Regiment) had the unusual distinction of being the only two regular infantry regiments not to contribute troops to the Expeditionary Force both would first see action with 7th Division, which landed in October.

                                            Given the rioting that had occurred during the national strikes 1911–12, there was concern that there would be unrest in London at the outbreak of war. Consequently, three cavalry regiments — the 1st Life Guards, 2nd Life Guards, and Royal Horse Guards – were stationed in the London District and not earmarked for the Expeditionary Force these each provided a squadron for a composite regiment, which served with the 4th Cavalry Brigade. In addition, there were three Royal Field Artillery brigades, and a number of Royal Horse Artillery batteries, not earmarked for overseas service.

                                            After the Expeditionary Force had departed, this left a total regular establishment of three cavalry regiments (somewhat depleted) and five infantry battalions [12] – less than a tenth of the normal combat strength of the home forces, and mostly deployed around London. This defensive force would be supplemented by the units of the Territorial Force, which were called up on the outbreak of war — indeed, many were already embodied for their summer training when mobilisation was ordered — and by the Special Reserve.

                                            The Territorial Force was planned with a mobilisation strength of fourteen divisions, each structured along the lines of a regular division with twelve infantry battalions, four artillery brigades, two engineer companies, &c. – and fourteen brigades of Yeomanry cavalry. It was envisaged that these units would be used solely for home defence, though in the event almost all volunteered for overseas service the first battalions arrived on the Continent in November.

                                            Overseas service Edit

                                            Forty-eight battalions of infantry were serving in India – the equivalent of four regular divisions — with five in Malta, four in South Africa, four in Egypt, and a dozen in various other Imperial outposts. A further nine regular cavalry regiments were serving in India, with two in South Africa and one in Egypt.

                                            The forces in the rest of the British Empire were not expected to contribute to the Expeditionary Force. A sizeable proportion of these were part of the ten-division Army of India, a mixture of local forces and British regulars planning had begun in August 1913 to arrange how the Indian forces could be used in a European war, and a tentative plan had been made for two infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade to be added to the Expeditionary Force these were dispatched, in the event, but did not arrive in France until October.

                                            In the event, most of the overseas garrison units were withdrawn as soon as they could be replaced with Territorial battalions, and new regular divisions were formed piecemeal in the United Kingdom. None of these units arrived in time to see service with the Expeditionary Force.


                                            Borrowed Soldiers: The American 27th and 30th Divisions and the British Army on the Ypres Front, August-September 1918

                                            Ypres, or “Wipers,” as the British Tommies called the ancient Belgian city, is synonymous with World War I. An extraordinary number of lives were lost there and in the nearby salient during seemingly endless fighting over the course of four years. Numerous monuments and cemeteries dot the landscape and remind one of the horrors of war. One such monument pays tribute to the American 27th and 30th Divisions. These two divisions, comprised largely of National Guard troops, received their baptism of fire on 30 August-1 September 1918, when they engaged veteran German forces on one of the area’s highest points, Kemmel Hill, and the surrounding villages of Vierstraat, Vormezeele, and Wytschaete. The Germans had gained the positions in April of that year but were in retreat when the Americans arrived. Nonetheless, they refused to retire quietly and, in the process, taught the eager doughboys a lesson in combat along the Western Front.

                                            Ruins of St. Martin’s Church in Ypres, Belgium, ca. 1918. (War Dept.)

                                            When this operation commenced, the Americans were into the second phase of instruction by the best soldiers the Allies had to offer. Soon after arriving on the Western Front in the spring of 1918, the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) commander General John J. Pershing reluctantly sent the 27th and 30th Divisions to train with the British Army. It was his way of appeasing Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, who insisted that American doughboys amalgamate into the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to fill the ranks of his depleted army. Pershing, however, had other plans. He sought to form an independent army and resisted the constant pressure from Haig. It was only when the U.S. War Department accepted an offer from the British to transport American troops to Europe that Pershing allowed Americans to train with Haig’s Tommies. Additionally, Pershing agreed that the British would equip, feed, and arm his men, and that they could also be utilized at the front should an emergency arise. Under this program of training, ten American divisions spent time in the British sector as the American II Corps. The agreement also benefited the Americans since the War Department lacked the shipping to send troops overseas, nor did it have enough arms on hand to issue them to every soldier.

                                            Peace between the two commanders, however, was diminished when Pershing reassigned eight of the divisions to his newly organized American First Army. Pershing wanted all ten divisions back, but Haig vehemently protested and was allowed to keep two—the 27th and 30th. They remained behind as the AEF’s smallest corps.

                                            Haig now had about 50,000 fresh American soldiers to utilize as he saw fit. An AEF division comprised roughly 27,000 officers and men, but the 27th and 30th never reached this strength. Their artillery brigades arrived in France separately and were immediately assigned to First Army. Pershing also did not allot replacements to the 27th and 30th until after the Armistice, a sign that he considered them of lesser importance than his other divisions.

                                            Prior to arriving in France, the 27th Division trained at Camp Wadsworth, South Carolina, near Asheville, North Carolina, and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Most Army divisions were sent to the milder southern and southeastern United States for training. “Nights were bitterly cold, but the sun would be scorching hot during the day,” Private William F. Clarke, a member of the 104th Machine Gun Battalion, vividly recalled. It was not uncommon to come back from either “a day on the drill field or from a ten mile hike, perspiring profusely, and then almost freeze to death at night.”

                                            Major General John F. O’Ryan was the 27th Division’s commander and the highest-ranking National Guard officer to command such a large contingent of troops during the war. He was a disciplinarian and his troops were recognized for their professional demeanor that ranked alongside units of the Regular Army. The division was comprised of troops from all over New York, including men from some of New York City’s most prominent families, as well as farmers and laborers from all over the Empire State. Prior to service overseas, the New Yorkers were sent to the Mexican border in 1916 during the Punitive Expedition as the 6th Division, the only Guard unit organized in this fashion. The 27th Division adopted an insignia that consisted of a red-bordered black circle with the letters “NYD” in monogram with the stars of the constellation Orion, in honor of their commanding officer.

                                            The 30th Division was more typical of the National Guard. A composite of regiments from North and South Carolina, and Tennessee, the division came together at Camp Sevier, near Greenville, South Carolina. During the course of the war, nine different general officers commanded the division until the Army settled on a West Point classmate of Pershing, Major General Edward M. Lewis, who had previously led 3d Infantry Brigade, 2d Division. The 30th Division, nicknamed “Old Hickory” after President Andrew Jackson, included units whose lineage dated back to the War of 1812. Like those of the 27th, the regiments of the 30th Division regiments had served on the Mexican border during the Punitive Expedition.

                                            A soldier boy of the 71st Regiment Infantry, New York National Guard, saying good bye to his sweetheart as his regiment leaves for Camp Wadsworth, Spartanburg, S.C., where the New York Division trained for service. 1917. IFS.

                                            For more than eight months, both divisions underwent intense physical fitness training, conducted maneuvers in open warfare, and attended lectures from British and French officers sent to the United States as advisors. Units of the 27th and 30th Divisions began arriving in France during the last week of May 1918. Entering the ports of Calais and Brest, the Americans were welcomed to the war zone with the distant thunder of artillery pieces and nightly German air raids. After days of hard marching, both divisions were assigned to a sector behind the British front lines to begin training. To ensure compatibility with the British soldiers, the Americans were required to trade their beloved .30 caliber Model 1917 rifles for the Lee-Enfield Mark III.

                                            The training program designed specifically for these divisions consisted of ten weeks of instruction for infantry and machine gun troops to be carried out in three periods. First, they trained out of line for a minimum of four weeks, encompassing drill, musketry, and physical exercise. This included tutoring in the Lewis machine gun and other infantry weapons. Next, the Americans were to attach with British troops in the line for three weeks. Officers and noncommissioned officers would enter for a forty-eight-hour period, while the men joined up with British companies and platoons for shorter periods. Finally, each regiment was to train in a rear area for three to four weeks to provide more advanced instruction. There, the Americans would practice maneuvering battalions and companies. For the most part the doughboys and Tommies got along well. Not surprisingly though, the Americans complained about the British rations. Accustomed to American food served in large portions, they were instead issued a small meat ration, tea (instead of coffee), and cheese.

                                            During the second period of training, the 27th and 30th Divisions were assigned to the British Second Army for training and moved to their sector, southwest of Ypres, to organize and defend a portion of the East Poperinghe Line. The position took its name from the town of Poperhinghe, situated several kilometers north and consisting of an irregular system of unconnected trenches, strongholds, and pillboxes.

                                            During the first part of August, the 30th Division moved near Poperhinghe and Watou, where it came under the tactical control of the British II Corps, while the 27th assumed the second, or reserve, position in the British defenses near Kemmel Hill, under the command of British XIX Corps. This included Dickebusch Lake and the Scherpenberg areas.

                                            Eventually, the 30th advanced to the same reserve sector as the 27th, leaving both on the north face of the Lys salient, a front that covered 4,000 yards. The salient was formed in the Allied line south of Ypres in the spring of 1918 when the Germans attacked along the Lys River during Operation Georgette and took Kemmel Hill from the French. A British officer wrote that the “loss of Kemmel by the French is good we held it anyhow it should make them less uncivil.”

                                            The salient extended from Zillebeke Lake, at one time the chief water supply for Ypres, to the southeast of Voormezeele. It had been shaped by the fighting of First Ypres in 1914, and the subsequent fighting had created deep craters. The ground was very low, and shell holes became small pools. Surrounding the salient was the high ground—Observatory Ridge, Passchendaele Ridge, Messines-Wytschaete Ridge, and Kemmel Hill, all held by the Germans. These positions allowed the enemy a clear field of fire in all directions. An American observed that often the “men in the forward systems believed they were being shelled by their own artillery, when, as a matter of fact, the shells were from the enemy guns on the right and in the rear.”

                                            Battalions of the 30th Division’s 119th and 120th Infantry Regiments began occupying portions of the front in the Canal sector, ten miles southwest of Ypres. One regiment had its camp at “Dirty Bucket,” about four miles from Ypres. Soldiers were housed in huts built by the British in a grove of oak trees big enough to house an entire company (256 officers and men). Quarters were far from luxurious—a lack of cots or bunks meant soldiers slept on the floor. For the commanding and staff officers of the 27th and 30th, however, it was much different. The 27th maintained headquarters at Oudezeele, while the 30th Division set up its command in Watou, where O’Ryan and Lewis slept in relative comfort. Many of the divisions’ staff and senior regimental officers were housed in what were called “Armstrong Hut.” Collapsible and easily moved, the sides of the huts were banked with sand bags to protect the occupants from shrapnel and shell fragments should an artillery round burst nearby. The banks of sand bags were three feet high, “just enough to cover you when lying on the cot.”

                                            Wall scaling at Camp Wadsworth, S.C. Ca. 1918. Paul Thompson. (War Dept.)

                                            Both divisions were now only four miles from the front and well within range of enemy artillery. On 13 July, Private Robert P. Friedman, a member of the 102d Engineers, died as a result of wounds from German shellfire and became the first combat casualty suffered by the 27th Division. Friedman was one of many Jewish soldiers, both officers and enlisted men, in the 27th, and his loss was mourned by all in the division. The 30th Division had its first combat-related death a month earlier, when First Lieutenant Wily O. Bissett of the 119th Infantry, was killed in a similar manner on 17 June.

                                            In Belgium, the Americans witnessed the hardships suffered by the civilian population. Although shelling had all but destroyed the villages around Ypres, it failed to break the spirit of the Flemish people. As farmers continued to cultivate their fields, engineers from the American divisions on the East Poperinghe Defense Line were specifically instructed not to damage the crops. This was a difficult order to follow since the laying of wire entanglements near the front meant clearing some of the crops despite protests from the farmers.

                                            Over the course of several nights, 16-24 August, the 27th and 30th Divisions prepared for combat. The 30th Division ordered its 60th Infantry Brigade to take over the Canal sector from the British 33d Division, located on the north face of the Lys salient southwest of Ypres. The 119th Infantry was on the right side of the line, the 120th Infantry on its left. In reserve was the 59th Infantry Brigade (117th and 118th Infantry Regiments). A week later, the 53d Infantry Brigade (105th and 106th Infantry Regiments), 27th Division, relieved the British 6th Division in the Dickebusch sector. It took over the front and support positions with regiments side by side and the 54th Infantry Brigade (107th and 108th Infantry Regiments) in reserve. The British divisions left their artillery units to support the Americans.

                                            Troop movements, as well as the transport of supplies, were carried out by light railway and conducted during the night to avoid attracting fire from German artillery on Kemmel Hill. In advance of infantry and machine gun units were the 102d (27th Division) and 105th (30th Division) Engineers. They had the difficult and dangerous task of repairing pockmarked roads, made nearly impassable after three years of shellfire. Once the troops reached the front, they were quartered in wooden huts built by British engineers. Two squads of eight men, with a corporal in charge, slept in a hut, which one occupant described as spacious. To coordinate liaison between the infantry and the artillery, work details had to lay cable. This meant digging a six foot trench through the hard Flanders clay that was not unlike the soil of South Carolina.

                                            Each day involved surveillance from observation posts and airplanes. The first few days were reported as calm. A “quiet, inoffensive attitude,” is how a 30th Division officer summarized this period. Such calm, however, did not last. Suddenly, as the division’s historians noted, “the scene had now shifted to the battleground of the World War—a stern and terrible reality to the men of all ranks.” They were referring to night patrols sent out as far as 1,000 yards to probe enemy defenses. Troops patrolling too close to the German outpost lines were greeted with machine gun fire.

                                            At first, the Germans were unaware that Americans had entered the sector opposite them, but according to a prisoner interrogated at 27th Division headquarters, this changed when the rifle fire became “more brisk and haphazard.” When asked to elaborate, the soldier from the German 93d Infantry Regiment explained that soldiers “who have been in the war for some time only fire individually when they are sure they have a target, whereas new troops are apt to fire more or less constantly at night, whether or not they have a target.” The considerable shooting and muzzle flashes allowed the Germans to better pinpoint the American line of advance. Once they recognized that untested American troops were opposing them, it became a daily ritual to try their mettle by harassing them with artillery fire, lobbing shells into back areas to hit crossroads and villages.

                                            On 30 August, the enemy conducted a surprise move that further tested the doughboys. In the early morning, heavy clouds of smoke crept toward the American lines. An initial report said it was a gas attack, but further observation revealed the Germans were burning dumps of some kind to mask a withdrawal. A prisoner captured near Kemmel Hill confirmed the updated report when he told interrogators that troops were retiring to the Wytschaete-Messines Ridge. He claimed a new line was established in front of Armentieres, and that eight men per company in machine gun posts remained behind on Kemmel, where they were to give the impression of strength.

                                            That night British XIX Corps headquarters ordered O’Ryan to send patrols from his brigades to reconnoiter the left of the line, opposite the 30th Division. This order was not unexpected. Earlier in the day O’Ryan and Plumer met and the latter remarked casually after tea, “Oh, by the way, O’Ryan, how would you like to have a go at our friends on the ridge?” O’Ryan responded that “his men were there for that purpose,” and was then told by Plumer to have a word with his chief of staff. O’Ryan then discovered that the details of the plan and tentative corps order were already in place.

                                            O’Ryan went into action and instructed the 53d Brigade to move elements of the 105th and 106th Infantry Regiments toward the German trenches to determine the depth of the withdrawal. As they approached the German lines, there was minor resistance from scattered machine gun posts. The patrols were accompanied by members of the British 184th Tunneling Company, which checked the vacant enemy dugouts for mines and booby traps. After reaching the enemy positions, the patrols reported back to brigade headquarters that the prisoner’s statement was correct—the Germans had given up most of Kemmel Hill. Additional patrols were organized and told to be ready to advance in support of those sent out. Soon, the Americans were gearing up for their first battle as entire regiments.

                                            On 31 August, the British II Corps ordered the 30th Division to send out patrols in its sector to determine enemy strength and location. The division commander, Major General Lewis, chose the 60th Infantry Brigade and made it clear that if strong resistance was met, the brigade was to return to its entrenchments. Small parties from the 119th and 120th Infantry Regiments moved out, and like those of the 53d Brigade, found the German defenses at Kemmel Hill mostly abandoned. Additional parties from the 30th Division held nearby positions at the Voormezeele Switch and Lock 8 of the canal. The Germans were still close by in strength, so Lewis ordered his troops to hold tight and await further orders. Relaying messages was difficult because the Germans kept a close eye on the runners and frequently fired on them, so the Americans mostly communicated by wire. To ensure there was little delay in this method, the 105th Signal Battalion laid 15,000 feet of cable along this position to establish a forward communications post.

                                            At 0730 the next morning, Lewis gave the order to advance. After a brief barrage, a platoon of forty men from Company I, 120th Infantry, moved forward towards Lankhof Farm. There, the Germans had constructed a cluster of pillboxes in the ruins of an old farm building and positioned machine gunners and snipers. As the Americans advanced, the Germans withdrew to the canal and abandoned their defenses at the farm, suffering only two casualties. The platoon then pushed beyond the farm and established contact with the 119th Infantry advancing on the right of Lock 8. Artillery from the British 33d Division fired in support, but several rounds fell short, wounding a number of Americans.

                                            Friendly fire incidents were an unfortunate consequence of war, and the 30th Division had recently lost two men this way. In the first instance, First Lieutenant Robert H. Turner of the 115th Machine Gun Battalion was struck on 24 July by a shell from the 186 Battery, Royal Field Artillery, while he and another officer were on patrol near a Belgian chateau. In the second occurrence, Second Lieutenant Lowell T. Wasson of Company M, 120th Infantry, was shot by a private from his unit on 7 August. Wasson apparently became confused after returning from a patrol near Swan Chateau and had entered a listening post unannounced. The private guarding the post was ordered to fire on Wasson by his superiors, who thought the intruder was a German conducting a trench raid.

                                            With the 119th taking fire from both its own artillery support and the Germans, two more platoons from the 120th Infantry were sent forward to help relieve the chaotic situation. After advancing 1,000 yards, they retired, having lost touch with both flanks. The Germans complicated matters with fire from trench mortars and machine guns hidden in Ravine Wood. At 1000, 2d Battalion, 119th Infantry, advanced and held on against heavy resistance. During this action, a patrol that included Corporal Burt T. Forbes of Company I, was acting as a flank guard when a squad of eight Germans approached. As the enemy started setting up their machine guns, Forbes charged the Germans, single-handedly killing three and driving the other five away. For this act of bravery, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the French Croix de Guerre. Word of the action was sent to the rear by pigeon. It was the first time this means of communication had been used by the 30th. Remarkably, only one hour and five minutes elapsed between the time the message was sent, received and transmitted by the division staff.

                                            After intense fighting, the 30th Division’s contribution to the operation was over. It gained one square mile of ground, inflicted one hundred German casualties, and captured sixteen prisoners, two machine guns, one grenade launcher, and a small amount of ammunition and stores. Kemmel Hill was now in Allied hands and, as one doughboy remarked, “it sure is a blessed relief to move around without feeling the German eyes watching you.” In the process of taking this coveted piece of land, the 30th lost two officers and thirty-five men killed.

                                            In the 27th Division sector, the British XIX Corps ordered O’Ryan to begin advancing his division at 1000 on 31 August and occupy a line along the Vierstraat Switch, 1,000 yards from their present location. Patrols from the 106th Infantry advanced along the line until held up for three hours by machine guns concealed in numerous nests near Siege Farm. The Americans retaliated with their own machine guns, and artillery fire from the British 66th Division. By 1730, the Germans had been driven back and the objective gained.

                                            August ended as another bloody month on the Western Front, and September started off the same way. On the morning of 1 September, the 105th Infantry went forward on its right to pivot on the 30th Division at Vierstraat Village. As the Americans attempted to advance to the east crest of Vierstraat Ridge, the Germans continued to resist and drove the Americans back to the village. During the fighting, the doughboys used some creative methods to send messages to the rear the 102d Signal Battalion sent messages using pigeons and dogs. Amazingly, the dogs successfully maneuvered over broken ground, under heavy fire to deliver messages.

                                            Despite such valiant efforts, communication was still difficult, as reflected in a frantic field message sent from 1st Battalion, 105th Infantry: “Our new position very heavily shelled, making communications almost impossible…request that artillery open fire on hill opposite our new position.” Information on why the regiment was stalled did not reach brigade headquarters until late in the day on 1 September. Messages were delayed because shellfire had cut the forward communication wire. To help remedy the troubling situation, Corporal Kenneth M. McCann of the 102d Field Signal Battalion worked for seventy-two hours, while subjected to repeated gas bombardments and machine gun fire, to replace the forward line near Kemmel Hill. For his extraordinary efforts, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

                                            More discouraging news reached the rear from an officer observing at the front. On the left of the 106th Infantry, two battalions had become badly mixed up and crowded into the line. When word reached the 53d Infantry Brigade commander, Brigadier General Albert H. Blanding, he ordered the commander of the 106th, Colonel William A. Taylor, to the front to investigate. Taylor reported two hours later that the officer in command at the front, Major Harry S. Hildreth, had “apparently entirely lost control and seemed at a loss as to what to do.” Blanding ordered Taylor to immediately relieve Hildreth and take command. Not until daylight the following morning was the situation in hand. Hildreth was only temporarily reprimanded. He was lucky this was his only punishment since it was commonplace in the AEF, as well as the BEF, to permanently relieve commanders from their units for poor performance. Hildreth returned to battalion command in the 106th a few days later.

                                            On 1 September, Blanding ordered his brigade not to make a general attack, but to advance the front line as far as possible. With the help of artillery harassment, the two regiments moved forward, and by the afternoon of the next day, had captured the southern slope of Wytschaete Ridge. At noon on 2 September, Taylor phoned Blanding and requested permission to dig in on the line of the first objective and wait for relief. His request was denied. Instead, he was ordered to advance further, and after another day of hard fighting, the 106th permanently reoccupied the Chinese Trench, which ran between the Berghe and Byron Farms. By now, the Germans had retired in some strength to Wytschaete Ridge. The two-day operation ended with the 53d Brigade losing two officers and seventy-seven men killed, mostly from artillery fire.

                                            On 3 September, the Americans received withdrawal orders, and moved back from the Canal and Dickebusch sectors during the next two days. The British 41st Division relieved the 27th, and the British 35th Division took the sector vacated by the 30th. Relief of the 27th did not go smoothly. When the order reached the 53d Brigade, it was so far forward that it took a considerable amount of time to reach the light railways for transportation to the rear. After reaching the rear, the brigade found that the 41st Division was in the midst of moving forward, and considerable congestion ensued. Once behind the front lines, the soldiers of the 27th Division, looking forward to warm beds and clean uniforms, discovered that billeting and bathing facilities were hard to find. O’Ryan later wrote that provisions had been made for his men, “but the lack of time and other circumstances prevented it being done to the fullest extent.” For the men of 30th Division, it was also “rather a hard trip, but the men stood it well,” remembered the commander of the 105th Engineers. “The cars were dirty and those for the First Battalion had manure in them when they were backed on the siding. Our men had to clean them out and then buy straw to put on the bottom of the cars. I may be mistaken, but the trains the British use for a trip like this are better and cleaner cars. We seem to be the ‘Goats’.”

                                            In the rear, battalion and company commanders from both American divisions wrote after-action reports that provide a window into the seemingly chaotic American experience of being in the line for the first time. In one report, a lieutenant in the 119th Infantry complained that his platoon’s ammunition supply was defective, and for twenty-four hours, he had no reserve rounds. Another officer remarked how the supply of water that reached the front lines during the nights of 2-3 September was not enough for one platoon, and that “this shortage, which seems to exist in all parts of the line, is the greatest hardship the men have to bear.”

                                            Other mistakes were not so insignificant and showed the weaknesses in the divisions’ officer corps. Upon reaching an objective, a platoon commander could not communicate with his left flank because he did not have a telephone, lamp, pigeons, or even a signalman. “Liaison was poor,” he complained. “I had no ground flares, no panels, and no other means of getting in touch with aeroplanes.”

                                            Such mishaps by the doughboys were also observed by the opposing German troops. The commander of the German 8th Infantry Division, Major General Hamann, remarked in his battle report that “withdrawal of our line confronted the American troops with a task to which they were by no means equal.” When the 27th Division moved out of its quiet sector to pursue the Germans, Hamann wrote, “The inexperienced troops do not yet know how to utilize the terrain in movement, work their way forward during an attack, or choose the correct formation in the event the enemy opens artillery fire.”

                                            After the war, Hamann was more complimentary toward the New Yorkers. O’Ryan had written him to gather information for his book, The Story of the 27th, and the German officer responded, saying “reports reaching me from all sources, particularly from our artillery observation posts, were that your infantry was unusually energetic in their attack.”

                                            Enlisted men had plenty to say about the Ypres-Lys operation, and they wrote such thoughts in letters sent home, personal diaries, and memoirs. The sound of battle created a lasting memory for many soldiers. One soldier from Tennessee described the constant firing of machine guns as though it were “popcorn popping.” Another wrote how it seemed to him that the Germans knew the location of every trench, since they constantly harassed the Americans during the day with artillery fire. At night, their planes bombed the front and rear, and the “artificial camouflage provided what little deception was practiced upon the enemy.”

                                            The historian of Company K, 117th Infantry, recalled that “the night of the big barrage on Kemmel Hill was a night of discomfort and nervousness” among the men in his unit. Nerves were frayed, and one private recalled seeing a sergeant in his company advance cautiously with his rifle toward a noise in the rear that he insisted was caused by German soldiers conducting a raid. Moments later, he learned it was a trench rat retreating to its hole. Once the men of Company K actually participated in combat, they “were happier than we had been for many months, for the first battle experiences had been met with all the credit that was to have been expected, and we had not quailed at the smell of gunpowder.”

                                            Bravery by the American soldiers did not go unnoticed by the British. General Sir Herbert Plumer wrote O’Ryan that “the wonderful spirit that animated all ranks and the gallantry displayed in the minor engagements your division took part in with us foreshadowed the successes you would achieve later.” Plumer was indeed correct. The American II Corps would continue serve with the BEF and during the attack on the Hindenburg Line on 29 September 1918, with the Americans attached to the British Fourth Army. Despite taking significant casualties, the 27th and 30th Divisions spearheaded the attack and with help from the Australian Corps, pierced a vital portion of the German defenses along the St. Quentin Canal. Nevertheless, it was the operation in Ypres that helped define the two divisions. After World War I, the newly established American Battle Monuments Commission recognized this in 1927 by placing a marker on Vierstraat Ridge. It reads in part: “Erected by the United States of America to commemorate the service of American troops who fought in this vicinity.”


                                            British Troops being welcomed to France, 1914 - History

                                            The interactive parts of this resource no longer work, but it has been archived so you can continue using the rest of it.

                                            The main job of the British forces in 1914 and 1915 was to support the French. This is because the British Army was very small. In 1914, it had about 250,000 men scattered around the British Empire. In that year, the British sent 5 divisions (a division was usually about 15,000 men) to the front in France. The French army had 72 divisions and the Germans had 122 divisions. The French and Germans both had a system of compulsory military service. This meant all men served about 2 years in the army and gained some basic training and experience. Britain had no such system.

                                            Once war began, the British Army recruited furiously. By 1916, the army was about 1.5 million strong, but there were problems. The expansion was done at breakneck speed using enthusiastic but raw recruits. They had a little over a year's training and virtually no combat experience. Worse still, they were desperately short of experienced officers. More experienced soldiers knew how to find the best cover, how to advance as safely as possible and what to do if their commanding officer was killed (common in trench warfare).

                                            General Sir Douglas Haig, British Commander-in-Chief on the western front, was not really ready to attack in mid-1916. He wanted to wait until later in the year and attack in Flanders (not the Somme). However, his hand was forced. In February 1916, the Germans attacked the French fortress of Verdun. The attack intensified for the next four months until there was a danger that Verdun would fall and the Germans would break through the French lines. The British and French governments decided that Haig would have to attack at the Somme in July. This would be the first major battle of the war for the British Army.

                                            General Sir Henry Rawlinson's original plan of attack was simple. He intended to hit the front line of German defences with intense artillery bombardments to destroy German positions and kill large numbers of troops. The idea was to wear down the Germans in a war of attrition. The main weapon would be the artillery bombardment, but there would also be small-scale raids and attacks by British forces.

                                            Image 1
                                            Map of the Allied plan of attack at the Somme

                                            Haig was sure that the Germans would crumble and he wanted Rawlinson's plan to allow for this possibility. If this took place, then British forces could achieve the long awaited breakthrough. Cavalry could get behind the German defences, attack the Germans in the open and disrupt the road and rail links that kept the German troops supplied and reinforced.

                                            This change in plan caused problems because it meant the artillery bombardment was spread over a wider range of German defences and so did less damage than Rawlinson hoped. It also meant that the attacking infantry were more spread out than Rawlinson planned. This was a problem because they were inexperienced troops and there were few experienced officers. The commanders were concerned that there would be chaos if soldiers charged forward and lost contact with their officers. This was the main reason why orders were given to walk towards the enemy positions. As history now shows, these tactics were disastrous and the senior commanders contributed to the huge death toll during the attack. However, it is important to remember that Haig issued those orders because he felt he had little choice. Units with experienced officers usually adapted the tactics and suffered fewer casualties than units with inexperienced officers.

                                            The attack took place on 1 July 1916. For a week before that, a huge bombardment of German positions had been going on. Most of the British troops expected the German defences to be badly damaged, but it is a myth that they were told that the Germans would simply surrender.

                                            Haig underestimated the strength of the German defences and his changes to the plan weakened the impact of the bombardment. Another problem was that about 30% of the 1.7 million shells fired by the British did not go off. The attacking British troops met extremely strong artillery and machinegun fire from the German defenders. There were some important successes at the southern end of the attacking line, but the troops at the northern end suffered huge casualties. Around 20,000 were killed and around 40,000 wounded.

                                            Rawlinson was appalled by the losses on the first day and wanted to end the attack. However, Haig insisted that it should carry on. He was convinced that they had fatally weakened the Germans, although he had little evidence to support this view. Haig also had little choice because he had to relieve the pressure on Verdun.

                                            Haig was later criticised for wasting lives by throwing men at heavily defended trenches. In fact he varied his tactics when he could. For example, in September he used tanks for the first time in the war. The reality was, however, that Haig had few options. He had to relieve Verdun and he did not have the weapons that commanders in future wars would have – effective aircraft and reliable tanks.

                                            The battle continued until November 1916 when Haig called off the attack. An area of land about 25 km long and 6 km wide had been taken. British casualties ran at about 420,000 and French casualties were about 200,000. German casualties were about 500,000. This definitely weakened the Germans, but the Germans killed more Allied troops than they lost themselves. However, the pressure was off Verdun. The British troops who survived now had combat experience. The British and Allied forces also learnt many valuable lessons about trench warfare, which were put into action in 1917-18.

                                            There are few events in British history that carry as much significance as the Battle of the Somme. The battle has a dark reputation. The main reason for this is the heavy casualties.

                                            Whole villages or sections of towns lost a generation of young men. One of the most famous examples is Accrington in Lancashire. Their young men joined up together in 1915 to form a 'Pals' Battalion. Young men from local streets, factories, football and rugby teams joined up at the same time. The army thought that this local identity would make for good fighting units who would stick together in battle. There were other areas that supplied such units. The very first Pals Battalion was signed up in Liverpool. There were Birmingham, Manchester and Newcastle Pals. The 36th Division was made up mainly of Protestants from Ulster (mainly from the area which is Northern Ireland today). All of these units fought with great gallantry at the Somme. The trouble was it took only one heavy bombardment or one attack on a heavily defended position and a whole street or village lost its young men. Some parts of the country lost few or no young men, but this of course did not grab the headlines. The British Army changed its recruiting policy after the Battle of the Somme.

                                            Another controversy about the Battle of the Somme is whether the British commanders were to blame for the heavy losses because they were incompetent. The main accusations are usually directed at the British Commander-in-Chief, General Sir Douglas Haig. He is charged with not caring about the heavy casualties. He is also accused of failing to change his tactics when things were not going according to plan. He earned the unwanted title of 'the Butcher of the Somme'. But was this fair?

                                            The casualties at the Somme were heavy, but only by the standards of previous British wars. British casualties at the Somme were similar to the losses which German, Austrian, Russian and French troops had suffered in many of the battles of 1914-15. This battle had such a huge impact on Britain because Britain had never fought in a war like this before. Most of Britain's wars had been wars in the empire or battles at sea. In both cases, casualties tended to be relatively low.

                                            With hindsight, we can see that Haig made mistakes and the first day of the Somme was a disaster. However, we also have to look at the limited options open to him. He was told to relieve Verdun and this meant attacking the Germans. Haig made mistakes by altering Rawlinson's plan, but he could not foresee that 30% of the British shells would fail to explode. Haig was criticised for sending men to capture enemy trenches, but no politician or military leader came up with any alternatives in 1916. It is very telling that most people at the time did not share the hostility later expressed towards Haig.


                                            British Troops being welcomed to France, 1914 - History

                                            B y the end of November 1914 the crushing German advance that had swallowed the Low Countries and threatened France had been checked by the allies before it could reach Paris. The opposing armies stared at each other from a line of hastily built defensive trenches that began at the edge of the English Channel and continued to the border of Switzerland. Barbed wire and parapets defended the trenches and between them stretched a "No-Mans-Land" that in some areas was no more than 30 yards wide.

                                            British troops in the trenches

                                            Life in the trenches was abominable. Continuous sniping, machinegun fire and artillery shelling took a deadly toll. The misery was heightened by the ravages of Mother Nature, including rain, snow and cold. Many of the trenches, especially those in the low-lying British sector to the west, were continually flooded, exposing the troops to frost bite and "trench foot."

                                            This treacherous monotony was briefly interrupted during an unofficial and spontaneous "Christmas Truce" that began on Christmas Eve. Both sides had received Christmas packages of food and presents. The clear skies that ended the rain further lifted the spirits on both sides of no-mans-land.

                                            The Germans seem to have made the first move. During the evening of December 24 they delivered a chocolate cake to the British line accompanied by a note that proposed a cease fire so that the Germans could have a concert. The British accepted the proposal and offered some tobacco as their present to the Germans. The good will soon spread along the 27-mile length of the British line. Enemy soldiers shouted to one another from the trenches, joined in singing songs and soon met one another in the middle of no-mans-land to talk, exchange gifts and in some areas to take part in impromptu soccer matches.

                                            The high command on both sides took a dim view of the activities and orders were issued to stop the fraternizing with varying results. In some areas the truce ended Christmas Day in others the following day and in others it extended into January. One thing is for sure - it never happened again.

                                            "We and the Germans met in the middle of no-man's-land."

                                            Frank Richards was a British soldier who experienced the "Christmas Truce". We join his story on Christmas morning 1914:

                                            Buffalo Bill [the Company Commander] rushed into the trench and endeavoured to prevent it, but he was too late: the whole of the Company were now out, and so were the Germans. He had to accept the situation, so soon he and the other company officers climbed out too. We and the Germans met in the middle of no-man's-land. Their officers was also now out. Our officers exchanged greetings with them. One of the German officers said that he wished he had a camera to take a snapshot, but they were not allowed to carry cameras. Neither were our officers.

                                            We mucked in all day with one another. They were Saxons and some of them could speak English. By the look of them their trenches were in as bad a state as our own. One of their men, speaking in English, mentioned that he had worked in Brighton for some years and that he was fed up to the neck with this damned war and would be glad when it was all over. We told him that he wasn't the only one that was fed up with it. We did not allow them in our trench and they did not allow us in theirs.

                                            The German Company-Commander asked Buffalo Bill if he would accept a couple of barrels of beer and assured him that they would not make his men drunk. They had plenty of it in the brewery. He accepted the offer with thanks and a couple of their men rolled the barrels over and we took them into our trench. The German officer sent one of his men back to the trench, who appeared shortly after carrying a tray with bottles and glasses on it. Officers of both sides clinked glasses and drunk one another's health. Buffalo Bill had presented them with a plum pudding just before. The officers came to an understanding that the unofficial truce would end at midnight. At dusk we went back to our respective trenches.

                                            British and German troops
                                            mingle in No Mans Land
                                            Christmas 1914
                                            . The two barrels of beer were drunk, and the German officer was right: if it was possible for a man to have drunk the two barrels himself he would have bursted before he had got drunk. French beer was rotten stuff.

                                            Just before midnight we all made it up not to commence firing before they did. At night there was always plenty of firing by both sides if there were no working parties or patrols out. Mr Richardson, a young officer who had just joined the Battalion and was now a platoon officer in my company wrote a poem during the night about the Briton and the Bosche meeting in no-man's-land on Christmas Day, which he read out to us. A few days later it was published in The Times or Morning Post, I believe.

                                            During the whole of Boxing Day [the day after Christmas] we never fired a shot, and they the same, each side seemed to be waiting for the other to set the ball a-rolling. One of their men shouted across in English and inquired how we had enjoyed the beer. We shouted back and told him it was very weak but that we were very grateful for it. We were conversing off and on during the whole of the day.

                                            We were relieved that evening at dusk by a battalion of another brigade. We were mighty surprised as we had heard no whisper of any relief during the day. We told the men who relieved us how we had spent the last couple of days with the enemy, and they told us that by what they had been told the whole of the British troops in the line, with one or two exceptions, had mucked in with the enemy. They had only been out of action themselves forty-eight hours after being twenty-eight days in the front-line trenches. They also told us that the French people had heard how we had spent Christmas Day and were saying all manner of nasty things about the British Army."

                                            References:
                                            This eyewitness account appears in Richards, Frank, Old Soldiers Never Die (1933) Keegan, John, The First World War (1999) Simkins, Peter, World War I, the Western Front (1991).


                                            World War One

                                            The origins of conscription and the ‘citizen-soldier’

                                            The First World War was fought predominantly by conscript armies fielding millions of ‘citizen-soldiers’. The origins of this type of military lay in the levée en masse (mass mobilisation) organised by the French revolutionary regime at the end of the 18th century, the first modern force built on the idea that all male citizens had a duty to bear arms in defence of their nation. However, it was France’s rival Prussia which improved and systemised the military model, developing a new form of universal short-service peacetime conscription. After spectacular victories over Austria and France in 1866 and 1871, this provided the organisational template for other continental European armies. Austria-Hungary imitated it in 1868, France in 1872 and Russia in 1874. Britain and the United States, which relied primarily on their navies for security, were alone among the major powers in remaining with small professional armies.

                                            How conscription worked

                                            Short-service systems of conscription obliged healthy male citizens to undergo a relatively brief period of military training in their youth and then made them subject for much of the rest of their adult lives to call up for refresher courses or for service in an emergency. The exact terms of service varied from country to country but Germany’s system provides a good example. There, men were drafted at age 20 for two or three years of peacetime training in the active army. While all had an obligation to serve, financial limitations meant in practice that only a little over half of each male year group was conscripted. After training, men were released into civilian life but could be called back to the army until they reached the age of 45. In between, men passed through various reserve categories. Those who had most recently completed their training belonged to the first-line reserve for five years, where they could expect to be redrafted early in the event of crisis. Later, they were allocated for a decade to the second-line Landwehr. The third-line Landsturm was the oldest band of reservists, intended mainly for rear-line duties in a major war. The short-service conscript system offered two major advantages. First, it created a large pool of trained manpower that could quickly augment the standing army in an emergency. In August 1914, the German army needed just 12 days to expand from 808,280 to 3,502,700 soldiers. Second, in a long conflict, the system offered an organisational framework capable of deploying nearly the entire manpower of a state as soldiers. Conscript forces became true ‘nations in arms’ in 1914-18. 55% of male Italians and Bulgarians aged 18 to 50 were called to military service. Elsewhere the proportions were even higher: 63% of military-aged men in Serbia, 78% in Austro-Hungary and 81% of military-aged men in France and Germany served.

                                            The picture book of the Landsturm Man

                                            Detail of an illustration from The picture book of the Landsturm Man (1917).

                                            War volunteers and enlistment motivations

                                            While conscript armies proved indispensable, and even the British in 1916 and the Americans in 1917 began to draft men, significant numbers of volunteers also served in the First World War. Most famously, in Britain 2,675,149 men volunteered, the vast majority in the first half of hostilities. However, even countries with long traditions of conscription also had large volunteering movements. In Germany, around half a million men came forward. The great rush was at the start of the war: in the first 10 days 143,922 men enlisted in Prussian units alone. France’s voluntary enlistments were smaller but steadier, reaching 187,905 men by the end of hostilities. In multinational Austria-Hungary, men appear to have been less willing to volunteer for the Emperor’s army, although they promptly obeyed call up orders. Some nationalist movements did recruit successfully, however. The Polish Legionaries, the largest of these forces, had 21,000 volunteers by 1917. While volunteers tended to be disproportionately middle-class, their motives for joining the army may not have been so different from those of conscripts. Patriotic duty appears to have been a prime motivation for both groups, although coercion was also influential. Volunteers were not subject to the legal sanctions faced by conscripts who disobeyed drafting orders but they might be exposed to considerable social pressure to enlist. For small minorities, economic factors or lust for action and adventure were important. These recruits, whether conscripts or volunteers, were ‘citizen-soldiers’, whose attachment to their societies and stake in their states’ existence go far to explain the tremendous resilience of the armies of 1914-18.


                                            A Comprehensive World War One Timeline

                                            Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and his wife, had decided to inspect Austro-Hungarian troops in Bosnia. The date chosen for the inspection was a national day in Bosnia. The Black Hand supplied a group of students with weapons for an assassination attempt to mark the occasion.

                                            A Serbian nationalist student, Gavrilo Princip, assassinated the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, when their open car stopped at a corner on its way out of the town.

                                            Although Russia was allied with Serbia, Germany did not believe that she would mobilise and offered to support Austria if necessary.

                                            However, Russia did mobilise and, through their alliance with France, called on the French to mobilise.

                                            Despite a French counter-attack that saw the deaths of many Frenchmen on the battlefields at Ardennes, the Germans continued to march into France. They were eventually halted by the allies at the river Marne.

                                            British troops had advanced from the northern coast of France to the Belgian town of Mons. Although they initially held off the Germans, they were soon forced to retreat.

                                            The British lost a huge number of men at the first battle of Ypres.

                                            By Christmas, all hopes that the war would be over had gone and the holiday saw men of both sides digging themselves into the trenches of theWestern Front.

                                            Although British losses were heavier than the German, the battle had alarmed both the Kaiser and the German Admiral Scheer and they decided to keep their fleet consigned to harbour for the remainder of the war.

                                            This article is part of our extensive collection of articles on the Great War. Click here to see our comprehensive article on World War 1.


                                            British Troops being welcomed to France, 1914 - History

                                            The actions of the colonist in response to the Townshend Act convinced the British that they needed troops in Boston to help maintain order. Lord Hillsborough, Secretary of State for the Colonies, dispatched two regiments-(4,000 troops), to restore order in Boston. The daily contact between British soldiers and colonists served to worsen relations.

                                            The decision by the British to dispatch troops to Boston was one of their worst decisions, in an entire series of bad moves, that helped make the eventual independence of America inevitable. The British government reacted to the Americans, and specifically to the Massachusetts opposition to the Townshend act by dispatching troops to Boston. This might have been the correct policy if the opposition was just made up of a few firebrands. The British, however, misread the opposition, which was wide spread.

                                            The announcement that British troops were arriving created immediate resentment among the colonists. The idea that British troops were coming, not to defend the colonists in times of war, but the pacify them, seemed inconceivable to many. In addition, the idea that troops of the standing army, many of whom did not have a reputation for high moral standards, would be living in their city on a daily basis filled many Bostonians with dread. 

                                            In the end of September 1768 troop ships, accompanied by British men of war, arrived in Boston Harbor. The troops disembarked and initially encamped on the Boston Commons, as well as, in the Court House, and in Faneuil Hall. Friction immediately broke out when the Governor offered the troops Manufactory House as a barracks. The inhabitants of the Manufactory House refused to be evicted and the troops were forced to find other locations.

                                            The British officers had no trouble finding lodging and being accepted into the Bostonian Society. This was not the case, however, with their soldiers. The British soldiers were consumers of both large quantities of rum and prostitutes. Both these activities were an anathema to the rather puritan population of Boston. Worse still was the harsh discipline meted out to British soldiers.

                                            The British had a major problem with desertions. In the first few months of their stay in Boston, 70 troops deserted and found their way into the interior of the colony. Placing sentries on the outskirts of the city to stop deserters did nothing but inflame colonists further. Finally, General Gage, who had taken command of the British troops in Boston, ordered the next deserters be captured executed. That tragic fate fell on a young deserter named Ames. He was executed on the Boson Commons after and elaborate ceremony. This act disgusted the general population of Boston, even more than the regular whipping of British soldiers on the same location for infractions against army rules. 

                                            The colonists' views of the average British soldier varied from resentment to pity. However, while on duty, an almost guerilla war seemed to rage between the soldiers and the colonists. This, of course, eventually resulted in the most well-known and tragic action, known as "the Boston Massacre".

                                            From the moment the British forces entered Boston to the moment they were forced by colonial troops to leave seven years later, their presence did the British no good. The extended British troop presence only served to bring the day of American independence closer.


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