'Of no earthly use': The 2nd Line Territorial Force divisions and the Western Front by William Mitchinson
08 Feb

Following its creation in September 1914, anxiety over the supposed inadequate state of the 2nd Line was aired frequently in parliament and the press over the subsequent two years. There was also significant discontent within the ranks of the 2nd Line divisions themselves. Many of its infantry battalions filled quickly but with an apparent indifference towards the new divisions, the War Office preferred to concentrate on training and equipping the New Armies. Many of those men who chose to enlist in the new units undoubtedly did so in the knowledge they were in all likelihood joining what would develop into even more of a Cinderella force than its oft-ridiculed parent units.

In 1916, the War Office made decisions about which of the ostensibly fourteen 2nd Line divisions should be deployed overseas and which should be retained in the United Kingdom. The first two divisions destined for the Western Front embarked for France in 1916; they were followed between six and eight months later by a further five divisions. One division was broken up in 1916, followed by another a year later because a dearth of recruits had made them unsustainable; five others, for similar reasons, never left the British Isles. This reorganization was the final dashing of hopes of those who had long dreamt of a Territorial Army in France composed entirely of TF divisions.

Generally, little was expected of those 2nd Line divisions deployed to the Western Front. This early assumption was apparently confirmed by the complete failure of 61st (2/South Midland) Division to capture any ground during the Fromelles debacle. It came as something of a surprise, therefore, to those who had doubted the worth of the force when two 2nd Line divisions were heavily involved in the capture of Bullecourt. A further surprise came when another of its formations burst into and through the formidable defences of the Hindenburg Line.

When, in early 1918, the War Office decided to reduce the number of battalions in the divisions of the BEF, the 2nd Line battalions were among the obvious choices for disbanding. Later that year, two of its divisions were reduced to training cadres and then reconstituted with several imported battalions which made them unrecognizable as TF formations. When the armistice came and demobilization began the 2nd Line units were disbanded and passed into albeit, temporary, history. In the post-war era a belief persisted in some quarters that although the TF as a whole had done vital work and performed beyond expectations, raising the 2nd Line had been an error of judgement, strategy and policy. The fact that the divisions had not gone overseas until 1916 and 1917, and the perception that they were little better than labour or line holding formations, fuelled the continued belief that their men and resources would have been better applied to divisions of the Regular Army.

By examining their performance in selected engagements the lecture offers a preliminary assessment of the qualities of the 2nd Line divisions and attempts to draw conclusions about whether they deserved their generally ambivalent reputations.

The Armoury (TA Centre), Armoury Street, Stockport, Cheshire SK3 8AB
08 Feb 2019 19:30