The BEF which went to France in 1914 to support the French Army was not a conscript army (unlike the French & German armies) but more like a colonial police force. By the autumn of 1918, the BEF had changed out of all recognition – it was a well-tuned instrument. The right people were in the right place, the doctrine of warfare was as well-known as a well-rehearsed script, and, with 100 days of hard fighting behind it, it was a group of semi-professional men & women who had rehearsed whatever was required.
The idea of a large standing army had been unacceptable since the 17th century and the rule of the Major-Generals during Cromwell’s protectorate. The battles of the 19th century (against Napoleon in France & Spain, in Crimea as allies of the French against the Russians, and at the end of the century against the Boers in South Africa) did nothing to prepare the British for Continental warfare of the 20th century. The BEF, sent to France in August 1914, was very small by Continental standards. Half of the entire army had been spread over the colonies and would only return to Britain once they had been replaced by members of the Territorial Force, who had taken the oath to serve abroad. Small, the BEF might have been, but they did play their part in disrupting the German invasion of France. By November 1914, the BEF were busy protecting the Channel ports and disrupting the German advance at Ypres.
Kitchener played his part in expanding the Army by recruiting volunteers. His plan did not include expanding the Territorial Force. Kitchener wanted a new set of volunteers to be trained to fight in France within 2 or 3 years as he never believed the war would be a short offensive and be ‘over by Christmas’. Where this term originated is not known, it is merely another commonly accepted myth that the leaders of the army ‘got it wrong’ in 1914. When the flow of volunteers began to slow, the government introduced conscription.
January 1916, once conscription had been introduced (Military Service Act), all single men (aged between 18 and 40) were liable to be called up for military service unless they were widowed with children or ministers of a religion.
By 1916 the BEF had grown in size (to over 2 million men) and was second in size only to the LCC (London County Council). In fact, the BEF now had people performing all the tasks of the LCC as well as fighting the German army. This was a 14-fold increase since 1914. The army had to be reconfigured to take into account the increase in artillery and the requirement for engineers -for both their increase was so much more than that in the infantry. By 1918 the labour corps comprised 14% of the BEF, so many more men were required to ensure that the fighting man was adequately supplied with all he needed. An ‘all arms battle’ was not possible in 1914 but had become a reality in 1918. In 1918, the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service were combined to form the Royal Air Force. The RAF was the largest air-force on the Western Front and could co-ordinate defence, bombing & reconnaissance. With the advent of reliable shells and target recognition, the artillery section of the BEF could out perform their opponents. Development of tanks was an ongoing problem as each ‘Mark’ might outperform its predecessor, but demand for steel & engines was always greater than production, so that there were never sufficient tanks for each attack.
The planning for each attack, organised and prepared in secret, involved co-ordinated artillery, RAF support, infantry (supported by tanks) with sufficient machine guns and grenades adequately supported by excellent logistics, resulted in success after success during the last 100 days. The attacks were carried out by experienced men acting from a well prepared and well-rehearsed ‘script’. Each attack was ‘wound down’ after German resistance stiffened and a different Army was instructed to carry out a similar attack on a different section of the Front Line. By late September, Marshal Foch, the generalissimo of the Allied armies, was able to instruct his armies to attack together so the Germans were facing attacks from all five armies of the BEF, the French armies and the AEF.
The First World War was a short war but the BEF required a long preparation time. What started as a colonial police force required rapid expansion by 14-fold while fighting a confidant enemy. This new army required time for the advent of experienced confidant leaders to come forward, and for the proper ‘kit’ to carry out the task allotted – the defeat of the German Army in the field. This defeat was only possible by large scale effective attacks which were well-prepared, well-supported and led by the right people in the right place.
Report by Peter Palmer