By Alex Saunt

(Major Alex Saunt MBE served with the Light Infantry and with the SAS in Libya, Borneo, Northern Ireland, Germany and Denmark. He was awarded an MBE for his courage).

The story of the expansion and development of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) 1914-1918 and how the Contemptible Little Army became a huge, effective machine.


The possible conception: In 1904 King Edward, having decided our pretty frosty relationship with France should be improved, went to Paris with the Queen. As they were driven through the streets their reception was, well rather quiet. But they went to the theatre that evening and afterwards went backstage to meet the cast.  There the King exercised his charm, particularly on the young ladies, which strangely enough, was favourably reported. The next day they went to the races which again drew a favourable response. Out of this successful visit the Entente Cordiale was born.

Army staff talks with the French started in 1906 and by 1911 had resulted in a plan, but not a treaty, to send the BEF to the area of Mauburg and Le Cateau to extend the French line westwards should a war with Germany break out.

The BEF’s strength and days after mobilisation to arrive were not stated. Previously the War Office had plans to send a BEF, consisting of 6 Infantry Divisions and 1 of Cavalry, to possible trouble spots which included the North West Frontier of India, South Africa and Canada.

Secretary of State Haldane’s reform of the Army started in 1908. He chose two military advisors, one of whom was Haig, clearly already a marked man.  Haig was very well connected, a cavalryman from the Scottish Whisky family, who had been to University which was then unusual for an Army officer. 

Haldane reorganised the Army into two distinctive entities: a Regular Element geared to produce the Expeditionary Force and to police the Empire, and a part-time Territorial Force, for Home Defence, to expand and support the Army, and to take the field itself after 6 months Post Mobilisation Training. 

He had a census of horses and motor vehicles taken for requisitioning. 30,000 horses went with the BEF.  By 1917 there were 436,000 horses and mules with the BEF, only about 50,000 of these with the cavalry, the vast majority pulling guns or wagons.  In August 1914 the Army Service Corps had 507 vehicles, by 1918 the BEF had 22,000 trucks, not counting the tractors for the Heavy Artillery.


In 1914 the Regular Army after mobilisation numbered 460,000, add the Territorial Force of 240,000, and it could field 700,000 compared to the Germans 4.5 million. They had conscription and further training resulting in an enormous pool of trained men. Their other advantage was that they had only one thing to think about - Continental Warfare, whereas that had been our last consideration, policing the Empire coming first.

On Deployment the BEF had 4 Infantry Divisions and 1 of Cavalry, a total of about 100,000 men and 30,000 Horses. In 1917 it would have about 1.7 million men.

An Infantry Division had 18,000 men; 12,000 Infantry in 12 Battalions in 3 Brigades each of 4 Battalions.  It had 24 machine guns and 76 guns plus Engineers and Medicals.  A Pioneer Battalion, which could act as fighting Infantry, would be added, but its Cavalry Squadron and Cyclist Company would soon be withdrawn. Corps would later have a Cyclist Battalion.  

A Cavalry Division had 9,000 men, 10,000 horses, 24 machine guns, 24 guns and supporting troops. 

These 4 Infantry Divisions, organised into 2 Corps, one commanded by Haig, had increased by Christmas 1914 to 12, by the Somme to 53, and later to about 63. 

Of these Infantry Divisions: 

  • 13 were Regulars 
  • About 19 from the Territorial Force
  • 30 from the New Armies.

Plus from the Empire:

2 from India, 4 from Canada, 5 from Australia, 1 from New Zealand, but only a brigade from South Africa, as they were also deployed on their continent.   The Indian ones were withdrawn in 1915 and some of the British Divisions were sent to, or brought back from, at various times Italy, Gallipoli, Salonika, Palestine, or Mesopotamia.


The Official History states in Volume 4, 1918, on page 515 ‘On the whole the leading of the Canadian and Australian  officers and NCOs was superior to that of the British regimental cadres, and no doubt for the reason that they had been selected for their practical experience and power over men and not for theoretical proficiency and general education’.

Elsewhere it is stated ‘During 3rd Ypres, the Canadians were not qualitatively ‘better’ than their Imperial or Australian counterparts except in one crucial respect: they understood that if artillery power defined operational success or failure then it was roads and rail that defined that firepower.’

Australia never had conscription, but Canada and New Zealand almost certainly introduced it in 1918, after immense arguments.


The retreat from Mons to the Marne and the battle there were followed by the Allied advance to the Aisne and the start of trench warfare there, in which the BEF was involved until early October 1914 when it was transferred by train to Flanders in order to simplify its communications to the Channel Ports.

The BEF was formed into 2 Armies by the end of 1914, one commanded by Haig, and into 5 Armies for most of the War. Haig took command of the BEF in late 1915 from Sir John French who joked as he left his headquarters in St Omer that his knighthood would be ‘Lord Sent Homer!’

The instruction from the War Office to the BEF’s Commanders should be stressed, that their chief job was to co-operate with the French. Thus it was the French who decided where and when the Somme would be fought including its zero hour, all against Haig’s preference.



On mobilisation about 40% were Reservists.    Of these 13 Divisions 8 were formed from troops stationed in Britain, and 5 from Empire Garrisons as soon as Territorials could replace them, then add the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division formed from Royal Marines and surplus sailors, and the Guards Division which was formed in 1915, the same year as the Welsh Guards came into being.   


Pre-war it had 14 Infantry Divisions and 14 Yeomanry Brigades, but it was under strength and under trained. The Territorial Force men were not liable for foreign service, unless they volunteered, or were volunteered…   They were deployed in 1915.


Kitchener, realising that the Army would need massive expansion, decided to raise new Divisions, instead of relying on expanding the Territorial Force.  By January 1915 500,000 volunteers had been formed into 30 Divisions. There were immense problems equipping and training them. There were initially no officers, NCOs nor instructors, let alone weapons. But they were deployed before the Somme.


The PALS Battalions were part of the New Army, the difference between them and the other New Army Battalions was that they were raised, clothed and equipped by corporations of large cities and were composed of men from a particular area or profession. This allowed them to serve with their friends - as examples: the Stockbrokers Battalion became the 10th Royal Fusiliers, and the North Eastern Railway Battalion became the 17th Northumberland Fusiliers. In one Brigade its 4 Battalions were known as ‘The Hull Commercials’, ‘The Hull Tradesmen’, ‘The Hull Sportsmen’ and for want of a better name ‘The Hull T’others.’   

The War Office, which could not provide for all the volunteers, was delighted with this arrangement, which contributed 38% of the New Armies.  


Was introduced in January 1916, however, of the 5.7 million men who served in the Army, almost half were volunteers rather than conscripts.


Lloyd George wished to raise a Welsh Army Corps, but the numbers and Kitchener did not allow this.  Instead there was the 38th (Welsh) Division which was shattered at Mametz Wood early in the Somme.


The question of Home Rule had been causing enormous problems before the war, including the Curragh incident outside Dublin where in March 1914 60 Cavalry officers threatened to resign rather than be employed to coerce Ulster into accepting Home Rule.  In Ulster it led to the creation of the Ulster Volunteer force under Edward Carson and in the south to that of the Irish National Volunteers, both arming. The Curragh incident led to the resignation of the Secretary of State for War, Sir Jack Seely, and the Chief of Imperial General Staff, Sir John French.

When the House of Commons passed the Home Rule Bill in September 1914, suspended to the War’s End, Ireland supported our war effort and 3 Irish divisions were formed: the 10th and 16th from the South, and the 36th from Ulster, semi-trained by the Ulster Volunteer Force which performed so magnificently on the first day of the Somme. (Scottish Divisions were the 9th, 15th and 51st, all New Army, like the Irish ones.) 

Ireland was excluded from Conscription, although Westminster unsuccessfully tried to introduce it in 1918.  Having produced the largest percentage of volunteers in Britain, Belfast had no need of it! The Easter Rising in 1916 in Dublin seems to have had very little adverse effect on the Irish War Effort.



The 1 Cavalry Division deployed in August 1914 had increased to 5 by 1916, and was reduced to 3 in early 1918 after the 2 Indian ones were sent to Palestine.  The British cavalry was better than the German: it had Boer War experience; it was trained to fight dismounted as infantry as well as mounted; it carried the infantry rifle rather than the shorter range carbine; and it wore khaki uniforms instead of colourful ones and it did not wear funny hats. 

However, trenches negated its previous primary roles, reconnaissance and the charge.  Nevertheless the Cavalry were kept on the Western Front in large numbers due to Haig’s fixation on creating a breakthrough for them to exploit, but this never occurred. 

However there were times when they played a vital role:

On at least two in extremis occasions the Cavalry held the line dismounted; one was in October 1914 during 1st Ypres when the Household Cavalry held parts of Messines Ridge and lost heavily, decimating England’s aristocracy.  And another was in early 1918 during the massive German Offensives when the Cavalry was vital in plugging the gaps in our lines.

In 1918 Brigadier General Jack Seely, a larger than life character, who had been a Member of Parliament and Secretary of State for War until he lost his job as a result of the support he gave the Curragh ‘Mutineers’, and who had been appointed Commander of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, was called upon to delay the enemy’s advance which was on the point of getting too near to our vital railway centre at Amiens. 

Seely had to attack German infantry in Moreuil Wood.  He sent some of his force into the wood, mounted for speed, which then fought dismounted. One Squadron was sent around the wood to cut off the Germans.  There they rode down the 200 enemy troops they found in the open. This cavalry action may have saved Amiens but the cost was about 50% casualties.

A book was written about Seely’s horse, Warrior, how he and Seely went to France in August 1914, survived four years of bombs and bullets, and returned after the war to the area around Mottistone in the south west part of Isle of Wight, where they rode on together until they had a combined age of 100. And interestingly, the MP for Isle of Wight is currently, June 2018, still a Seely.     


In 1914 the Army had 24,000, by 1918 the BEF had 350,000.

Amongst the Royal Engineers many tasks, besides building and demolishing things:

  • They would assist the Infantry to consolidate newly won positions. 
  • They ran the railroads and the inland waterways.
  • They supplied the water….. at the Somme for 300,000 men and 40,000 horses.
  • They were responsible for meteorology, surveying and mapping. Their mapping departments grew from precisely 4 persons to over 4,000.
  • They provided all communications above Battalion level.
  • They delivered gas by cylinders and Livens projectors. The latter, used in masses and sometimes railway mounted, could produce such a concentration of gas that it could defeat the best German gas-mask.    

Later these projectors were able to fire incendiary bombs.   

And later again the Engineers were responsible for camouflage and searchlights.

They could, and often had to act as Infantry, and they tunnelled.


In 1914 we had no capability but by 1917 there were 33 Tunnelling Companies.

Their creation can be credited to a civilian, ‘Empire Jack’ Sir John Norton-Griffiths, a larger than life entrepreneur, Member of Parliament, Territorial Force Officer, and millionaire businessman.  He wrote to the War Office proposing the formation of special Companies of what he called ‘Moles’. This was agreed and within days in February 1915 ‘Clay Kickers’ from his company digging sewers under Manchester were enlisted and tunnelling. They hardly had uniforms, couldn’t drill, were issued with rifles which remained a mystery to them and certainly were not given ammunition. Our miners got the upper hand, being allowed to concentrate on tunnelling and to stay in one area.

Around Ypres the strata was clay and sand with trapped water, on the Somme it was chalk, so different techniques were required. At the Somme each bit had to be gently and quietly eased out. At Ypres mining was quicker but had to be waterproofed.



A lateral gallery with listening posts would be dug just in front of our Front. If enemy mining was detected, a subsurface charge would be blown. 


2 types, the first to destroy whatever lay above it. The second, a Fougasse, to create a high crater rim to prevent or provide observation.

The tunnellers could also blow covered approaches across no man’s land for the Infantry, and dig Russian Saps, i.e. shallow tunnels to forward positions for short range weapons.

Initially mining was directed at inflicting casualties but later to support our assaults.

For example: the Lochnagar Mine was one of 17 blown on the first day of the Somme. In June 1917 at Messines 19 mines were blown.

On the first day of the Somme, a covered approach across no man’s land to the right of La Boiselle allowed the small lodgement that we had gained, to be maintained, because it could be supplied and strengthened. Otherwise this would have been impossible as artillery and machine gun fire was sweeping no man’s land. 

Six Russian saps were used by the 30th Division on this day on the right of our assault front where we had the most success. In these Stokes mortars added to the bombardment just before Z hour.   

The scale of the mining was astonishing; in June 1916 when mining was at its height, the Germans on our Front blew 126 and we blew 101. During the Advance in the last hundred days, tunnellers were tasked with checking for delayed action devices and booby traps. Tunnels were seldom more than 100 feet down. In clay, they might be driven in 30 feet in a day, in chalk 3 feet. They were seldom longer than 1,000 yards.


Artillery was the main killer not machine gun. True, that the latter was the main killer during our attacks but the Artillery killed all the time.  Our Artillery massively increased: its manpower from 20,000 to 550,000; its field guns, those that supported the Infantry and Cavalry, rose from 500 to over 5,000; its ‘Heavies’, that is guns, but mainly howitzers, with calibres from 6” to 15”, increased from 24 to over 1,200; and Trench Mortars, well we had none to start with but by the end we had hundreds of light 3”, the 6” Newton and the 9.45” Flying Pig.                    


At the start we had shrapnel and high explosive.  


This was first used at 2nd Ypres by the Germans in April 1915. We first deployed it at Loos in September that year where it was discharged through 5,000 awkward heavy cylinders, and later by Livens Projectors, basically a huge and simple mortar, usually dug in dozens as a time. During the Somme, gas would start to be delivered by shell. 


Previously delivered by cylinders or projectors, smoke could also be dispersed, albeit in smaller quantities, by shell which arrived during the Somme. In 1918 Incendiary shells were added to the pick and mix. 


First, the Field Artillery was not yet wholly convinced that guns should be hidden, with their fire controlled by forward observers. At Le Cateau in August 1914 this led to some 18 pounder batteries being positioned in view of the enemy. The result was that they were slaughtered and 38 guns lost. Secondly, the 13 and 18 pounders initially had only shrapnel and no high explosive (HE), but this was soon addressed. Finally, there was the Shell Shortage.  Charles Repington, the Times Correspondent, reported its adverse effect at the Battle of Aubers Ridge in May 1915, and this contributed to the fall of the Asquith Government. 

The Artillery did learn to position their pieces well back and hidden, and this they normally did. However later in the war, mortars and a few field guns might go forward with the Infantry to take on strong points or machine guns with direct fire. This was prevalent during the big advances of the last 100 days.      

At the start of our assaults our Artillery would be overwhelming, but as the Infantry advanced further this effectiveness deteriorated. This was due to the difficulty of getting the guns forward and to lack of information - where had our Infantry got to and where was their opposition?   (Effective Ranges: 18 pounders, 6,500 yards; 4.5” howitzers, 7,000; heavier howitzers, 5,000-15,000).    


The preparatory 7 day bombardment fired 1.5 million shells, insufficient to deal with the enormous number of targets, often strongly constructed in the chalk.   More Heavies had arrived. However, the rush to produce them led to defects: for instance, the 2 x 9.2” howitzers intended to pummel Thiepval were put out of action by a premature, and the battlefield was littered with duds.

On the Somme our Artillery was becoming overpowering and causing very heavy casualties.  John Masefield wrote home ‘In an area 13 X 9 miles no single tree was left’. (This is from Warminster to Wilton and from the Nadder north to Shrewton.)  The effects of this were, first that the Germans had to send reinforcements from Verdun to the Somme and secondly, they had to give up trench lines because we would destroy them and instead turned to a defence in depth with many lines.  These were not lines of trenches. Each ‘line’ consisted of an outpost zone, a main battle zone and behind that a zone for counter attack forces. Each zone would be 2 to 3,000 yards in depth, with a similar distance between them, and containing strong points, often concreted, much wire, some trenches and individual firing points, often in shell holes. 


The Somme also saw the introduction of the Creeping Barrage. This meant our Infantry could win ‘the vital race to the parapet,’ that is between Germans emerging from their dugouts when our bombardment ceased and setting up their weapons, and our Infantry arriving there. Therefore the Infantry would advance just behind the Creeping Barrage, sometimes within 40 yards, as it closed up to and reached the German lines.  Beyond it our Artillery would be engaging many areas with a delightful mix of high explosive and shrapnel souped up with a bit of gas.

Prior to the introduction of the Creeping Barrage the main theory of the assault had been ‘towards the close of bombardment, shortly before Zero hour, the Artillery would put down an intense barrage on the enemy front trenches.  At Z hour, when the Infantry advanced, this barrage would be lifted and dropped on the next trench’. This theory did not allow us to win the race to the parapet.

The delay in introducing the Creeping Barrage was because it was considered too difficult, but the ever-increasing sophistication of our gunnery meant it could now be handled.   The creeping barrage could consist of up to 7 lines of exploding shells; the nearest lines fired by 18 pounders or 4.5” howitzers and the deeper lines by heavier artillery. The speed of its advance, between 2 and 8 minutes for 100 yards, depended on circumstances and mud in particular.     


Was often used.  The ‘Chinese Assault’ would be where our bombardment would cease, and the Germans, expecting an assault, would man their parapets only to be caught by a renewed barrage.     


Is the enormously important neutralisation of the enemy’s artillery, but locating their positions could be difficult.  It could be achieved by artillery forward observation officers, a very dangerous job. The final instruction from one battery commander was; ‘and remember, boy, your main job today is to stay alive’.  

They might be located by aircraft or by flash spotting, but this became more difficult after the Germans introduced a flashless propellant and began putting out dummy flashes.   


To thank for this we have L/Cpl Bragg and Cpl Tucker, both eminent physicists.   

Bragg developed a system with microphones set up in a line over two miles.  Eventually 40 lines could be established. By 1917 the system had been perfected, it could filter out unwanted sounds, and locate enemy guns within 50 yards.    

Final success in sound Ranging was achieved by Cpl Tucker.  He realized that the gun-wave (inaudible to humans) had to be recorded, as opposed to the gun-noise.  This was detected by a fine platinum wire with an electrical current flowing through it. A breeze (gun-wave) cooled the wire, decreasing its electrical resistance, thus giving a faint electrical signal.  Sound ranging was hopeless during major British Artillery barrages, but ideal at Cambrai when our guns had been silent before the attack. The team would meet every two months when they presented technical papers, posed for photographs and concluded with a binge of heroic magnitude.    Sound Ranging had a theoretical maximum effective range of 9,000 yards. Nevertheless, at Vimy Ridge in April 1917 it located a heavy howitzer 11 miles behind the front, at 3rd Ypres it found 190 guns in the first three weeks of the battle and at Cambrai they located all major pieces of German artillery.   But it did not work when the wind was blowing towards the German lines.

Also it could discover the calibre and muzzle velocity of the gun, to indicate when it fired and where its shells fell, to indicate the fall of shot of our shells in relation to the enemy battery, and to calibrate our own field guns.    


The instantaneous 106 fuse, introduced in 1916, cut wire more effectively, because its blast went horizontally, whereas the blast of its predecessor, the 101 fuse, had gone more vertically after it had dug itself slightly into the ground.   

1917 saw the introduction of Predicted FireThat is take the bearing and distance from the map, feed in other calculations and fire knowing you would hit the target.  These other calculations included: frequent met’ reports with the conditions at various altitudes, how worn the barrel was, and how hot, the characteristics of each batch of shells, and the calibration of each gun.   Before that, guns usually had to be pre-registered on their target, which forfeited surprise. Now, with our short duration predicted barrage, the Germans would no longer have sufficient warning of our attack to position their reserves.  Now they had to be strong everywhere, and this their manpower situation prevented.    

But not until 1917 would Haig have enough artillery to launch one major offensive after another. 

The growing power of our artillery is illustrated by a German letter from Messines in June 1917 ‘All night we lie ready for action with our gas masks on.  The wounded and gas cases are carried off in batches. There are many killed by gas. We are quite powerless against the English’, and that was before our 19 huge mines had been blown.   


The Germans first used gas in April 1915 and ourselves that September. We first used Chlorine gas, then mixed it with Phosgene, which made it spread better. These only affected the eyes, nose, mouth and lungs. They were rarely fatal and could take 48 hours to take effect.  Then in 1917 the Germans introduced Mustard gas, to which we responded in the following year. This caused blisters on skin, not only on the face, eyes, throat or lungs, but also elsewhere like legs. It was therefore the most effective of all gases. Gas was rarely a killer, but it had a huge psychological and nuisance effect. About 5% of our gas casualties were fatal or permanently invalided.

Respirators or masks steadily became more effective although the very notion of trying to fit masks to terrified horses in a muddy wagon line at two o’clock in the morning beggar’s belief.   


Despite the Battalion’s two Vickers machine guns being increased to four in 1915 their advocates argued that they needed centralised control and deployment.   This they got when the Machine Gun Corps was formed in October 1915. 

During 1916 the Battalion’s Vickers were replaced by the Lewis gun and the Machine Gun Corps appeared as Companies, with 16 Vickers, attached to each Brigade.  In 1917 it appeared as Battalions, with 64 guns, for each Division. Examples of their deployment: a machine gun company at High Wood on the Somme gave a sustained barrage for 12 hours onto an area 2000 yards away to prevent counter attacks.  At Vimy Ridge in April 1917 the Canadian Corps’ attack, on a 4-mile front, had 150 Vickers, grouped in 8-gun Batteries, firing to create a bullet-swept zone 400 yards ahead of the creeping barrage. (Alan Brooke, our Chief of the Imperial General Staff in WW2, was on the staff of their Corps Artillery).

Later there were also a few Motorised Machine Gun Brigades, beefed up with medium mortars, infantry and sometimes armoured cars.  


Early in the war it comprised 54% of the BEF, by its end 36%.  This reduction was due to the development of other techniques.   It became a matter of manning the equipment rather than equipping the man. The manpower shortage in the winter of 1917-18 led to the number of Battalions in a Brigade being reduced from 4 to 3, except in Empire Divisions and the Guards.


In 1914, a battalion only had its rifles plus 2 machine guns, which were increased to 4 in 1915.  Hand grenades: In 1914 we started with dangerous home-made devices. But in 1915 the satisfactory Mills bomb appeared.   By the end, hand grenades/bombs could be incendiary, smoke or tear gas besides high explosive. Bombs were often used for bombing up trenches, ‘throwing bombs over a traverse and then following up with the bayonet or entrenching tool’.  They were also used for throwing down dugouts. One often reads of attacks stalling or defence failing because they had run out of bombs.

In 1916 came the rifle grenade, fired from the rifle – range: 60-200 yards.  It could be either a Mills bomb or a smaller grenade, and high explosive or phosphorous.    It could also be an excellent coloured grenade for indicating the Infantry’s position. That same year the Lewis machine gun, light and portable at 28lbs came into use.  Eventually Battalions had 36, including 2 per platoon.     

And Battalions would often have the light 3” Stokes mortar, attached from Brigade.  

Development of the light mortar:

  • 2 Inventors, both called Stokes, one successful.
  • 2” Stokes ‘Toffee Apple’, divisional medium trench mortar, 60 lbs bomb, 500 yards.
  • 3” Stokes, brigade light trench mortar, initially 400 yards, HE, smoke, incendiary.
  • 4” Stokes, for the Royal Engineer’s Special Brigade, gas, HE, smoke or incendiary, range: initially up to 500 yards, later 1,500. 

By the war’s end, the Battalion could generate a blizzard of fire.    


In 1914: short rushes supported by its own rifle fire and machine guns and Artillery, then a charge.

By 1916: the Infantry’s primary assault formation was a series of successive linear waves, covered by Artillery.

The following year, due to the new German defensive layout in depth, the platoon might advance in a diamond formation, or a line of skirmishers with worms behind. If the Battalion  advanced in waves, these might have different roles: the first could consist of fighting platoons, the second of mopping up platoons, followed by support ones and finally by carrying ones.  Or, another tactic or formation for the platoon: Manoeuvre and Assault teams:  

SCOUTS + + + +



MOPPERS UP   +     + +    + + +   +

Also, in 1917 at Divisional level, Bite and Hold attacks were perfected.   These were attacks with much more limited objectives, therefore, within range of our artillery.   The Germans had no answer to them. Their drawback was that whilst they enabled us to break in, the time they took to mount meant we did not have time to break out.        

Then in 1918  came the All Arms Attack: with the infantry, artillery, mortars, tanks, machine guns and aircraft all working together.   Also, in 1918, the platoon was usually split into two half platoons of 15-20 men each. Each half platoon consisting of a section of Lewis gunners and a mixed section of riflemen and rifle-bombers.  The bombing (hand grenade) section having disappeared since almost all persons now carried bombs. 

The most successful pre-dawn attack by 4 Divisions at the Somme on the 14 July should be mentioned.   This was a novelty and a risky one. Haig doubted it could be done, especially by inexperienced troops, and had to be persuaded.   It involved a night approach of over 1,000 yards by 22,000 men of the six assaulting Brigades, in order to form up within 500 yards of the German lines.  There staff officers and markers from Battalions laid out tapes for the troops to form up on. This was screened by Lewis gun detachments 200 or 300 yards further forward occupying shell holes made for the purpose by 6” howitzers.   The assault was preceded by only a 5-minute intense bombardment to ensure surprise.  


Initially, on the Aisne in September 1914, we had only short sections of disconnected trench, by that Christmas, a continuous line, then later a maze.   By 1918 we were copying the German’s defence in depth.  

Out on the Aisne there was no barbed wire so we nicked it from farmers’ fields.  Sandbags, timber, and trench periscopes were unavailable, and picks and shovels were worth their weight in gold.  

When trench warfare started there was such an insatiable demand for trench stores that inventors, some eccentric or mad, rushed to meet it, often with downright dangerous devices, and so did London stores.  The Army and Navy Stores had a Weapons Department which supplied Siegfried Sassoon with a pistol and wire cutters, and Gamages advertised their patent trench catapult.

The standard routine was 4 days in the Front Line.  Then 4 in the Support Trenches, followed by 4 in Reserve Trenches.   But when under extreme pressure, weeks would be spent in the line.


The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was established in 1912. In 1914 the Royal Naval Air Service separated. In April 1918 both were incorporated into the Royal Air Force under Major General Trenchard. The RFC went to war with 63 aircraft. By the end it had 1,700. They also operated Observation or Kite Balloons.  At up to 4,000 feet these were located about three miles behind the front. They communicated by telephone cable. Their two-man crew had parachutes, whereas the aircraft crews did not; parachutes were too bulky and might encourage crews to abandon their machines too early.   


Reconnaissance was possibly the RFC’s primary role. It was aircraft that spotted the German Schlieffen Plan advance on Mons and later the gaps between their armies approaching the Marne that persuaded Joffre, the French commander, to cease retreating and take the offensive.

They also spotted for the artillery, but how to get sightings to the ground?

At first, a note would be dropped, or they could report by Morse with a lamp.  In 1915 a wireless was installed, but it was only Morse and one way, air to ground.  Not until late 1917 were planes equipped with two-way voice radio.    


Was another role.  At first the observer leant over the side to take his picture.  Later a mounted camera was installed. By mid-1915 photographic plates, filmed at 16,000’ would cover some 2 to 3 miles in sharp detail and take 18 successive photos.  Most operational planning would be based on these. By the war’s end there were 5,000 photographic interpreters. 

Eventually aircraft supported infantry attacks by machine gunning and bombing, dropping smoke bombs and resupplies, and by reporting their progress.  Initially the aircraft were unarmed unless the crew took up a rifle or pistol. This gave way to machine guns firing through the propeller. In 1917 bombing of rear areas became common. The RFC usually had air superiority except during major German efforts and when they introduced new aircraft.          


Tanks were the long-sought answer to the dreadful trinity of wire, trench and machine gun. This wire could consist of three belts each over 30 yards thick. Tanks were armed with a mixture of 6 pounder guns and machine guns. The earliest models had a maximum speed over perfect ground was 4 mph, and a radius of action of possibly up to 20 miles. They bogged down very easily and were mechanically unreliable. Their 9-man crew suffered from heat and fumes and wore masks as protection from the metal splinters blown off the interior by rifle or machine gun fire.     

Our tanks first saw action during the Somme, 49 were deployed, of which only 36 even made it to the start line, 14 later ditched or broke down, but the remainder caused panic and helped the infantry enormously. 

In 1917 at 3rd Ypres, Passchendaele, the ground was usually too soft for them but on one occasion 9 tanks advanced up a single road and overcame the garrisons of 5 huge blockhouses.  At Cambrai in late 1917 470 tanks were deployed, some being supply tanks carrying resupplies, mortars, ammunition and trench stores to help consolidate newly captured ground.  A supply tank could carry a load that otherwise would have required 300 men to carry. Others tanks were equipped with wirelesses to keep higher command informed.  

The Whippet, a lighter, faster, at 8 mph, tank appeared in 1917. We produced 2,600 tanks.  The Germans produced 100 A7Vs, all except 20 being used as supply vehicles. We placed too much emphasis on firing the 6 pounder while on the move.  Ultimately the tank of 1916-18 was considerably less potent in practice than its propagandists would like us to believe. 

Initially the tanks had formed the Heavy Branch of the Machine Gun Corps.  In 1917 the Heavy Branch was separated from the rest of the Corps and given the official status as the Tank Corps.  In early 1918 the corps had 16 battalions of fighting tanks, each with 36 tanks, 1 battalion of armoured cars, 2 of gun-carrying tanks, and 5 of supply tanks. 


They would assemble behind our lines and be guided forward at night at the last minute with their noise being drowned by artillery or aircraft. Tanks would usually proceed the infantry, they worked in sections of three or four.  One tactic was, having mashed any wire, they would swing parallel to the trench and shoot it up before continuing. 


Mainly the field gun, but also rifles and machine guns with armour piercing rounds, or bundles of grenades, and occasionally mines.    At Cambrai, the Germans rushed up 

Lorry-borne ack-ack guns and the tanks suffered appalling casualties.


Brigade and Divisional HQs expanded enormously during the war.    Anthony Eden in 1918 at the age of 21 was the youngest Brigade Major in the BEF. 

Next up was Corps HQ.  This level of command was new to the BEF.   To start with the BEF had 2 Corps and 19 by the end, each usually containing 2 to 4 Divisions.     

The main thing about Army HQs was that they grew to structures with powerful assets, particularly artillery, which they could shift about to support the main effort, some artillery having been withdrawn from Divisions.  

Finally, the BEF’s General HQ, (GHQ).  This did not exist before the war except on exercises.  In the scorching heat of August 1914, the Chief of its General Staff, General Murray, was discovered worried, not by the situation displayed by the enormous maps spread out on the floor of his hotel room, but by the fact that chambermaids kept coming into the room and he only had his pants on.   But GHQ grew like Topsy, to 3,000 by the end.

Its main Chief of Staff, Kiggell, was too loyal to stand up to Haig, and was replaced after 3rd Ypres by Lawrence, an ex-Boer war major, who had left the Army and made a fortune in business, to which he could return and therefore had more freedom to question Haig’s judgements.  He was therefore a ‘dug out’ and one of the successful minority. He had previously been a Brigade and then a Divisional commander in Gallipoli and with the BEF.

But in the British Army only Regulars commanded Divisions or higher, unlike the Australians or Canadians, who of course only had very few Regulars in peacetime. Monash, who had been a civilian engineer and part-time soldier, rose to command the Australian Corps, and the huge profane Currie, who had had questionable business practices as a civilian when in the Militia, came to command the Canadian Corps.    


Rawlinson, Plumer:  Infantry

Horne: Gunner

Gough, Allenby, Byng, Birdwood, (Haig): Cavalry


Sometimes headquarters were in chateaus, but sometimes in a cold damp dugout or damaged barns.   Of the about 1,200 generals who served in the BEF, more than 200 were wounded and no less than 58 killed.  Many were ‘degummed’ or ‘stellenbosched’, i.e. dismissed, sent home. By the end of 1914, Division and Brigade staff officers were instructed not to go forward, as 36% of them had already become casualties, and their experience was just too valuable to lose.

The expression ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ deserves some explanation.  The enormous expansion of the BEF led to it becoming a massive deskilled organisation, that is until the Somme, which lasted four months, where there was much brutal on the job learning.    

For instance, at Loos, in September 1915, in the two New Army Divisions that attacked disastrously on the 2nd day, only 1 of the 2 Division Commanders was a Regular, similarly only 2 of the 6 Brigade Commanders, and only 1 of the 26 Battalion Commanders.   The rest were ‘dug outs’, dug out of retirement, who should instead have been sitting comfortably at home, and only 30 of all the 26 Battalions’ officers were Regulars, the rest being wartime volunteers.   The same would have applied to the Divisional and Brigade staffs.    

However, a few dug outs were excellent.   Besides Lawrence, another was Sir Bryan Mahon, a retired cavalry general, who was chosen to command the 10th (Irish) Division, who had a number of mild eccentricities which won him the affection of his troops, who smoked incessantly, spoke to almost everyone he met and who sat his horse like a subaltern.


Allenby, Commander of the 3rd  Army , a cavalryman with a foul temper, when he left his HQ the staff would send out a warning message: BBL – bloody bull loose.

Birdwood, another British Cavalry General, who commanded the ANZACs in Gallipoli, and the Australian Corps in France, endeared himself to his troops by his very relaxed sense of dress.   One day he was walking amongst them and was not recognised by an Aussi, who was hauled over the coals for not saluting his General Birdwood. His reply was something like ‘Sorry, I didn’t recognise him.   Why doesn’t he have feathers sticking out of his tail like any decent bird would’. 

Then there was a Corps Commander’s attempt to be well known within his command.  Hunter-Weston, known as Hunter-Bunter, decided to wish troops departing on a leave train a Merry Christmas.   An aide would open the carriage door and the general would intone “I am Lieutenant General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston, Member of Parliament, your Corps Commander and I wish you a Merry Christmas”.   From the smoky fug of the interior came the reply “and I am the Prince of Wales and I wish you’d shut the bloody door”.    

General Shute was the unpopular commander of the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division. He was a stickler for convention, and had difficulty with Naval traditions and appears to have had an obsession regarding latrines.  His critical inspections of the trenches were very badly received within the division. A.P Herbert who was then a Sub-Lieutenant in Shute’s Division, and later a novelist and Member of Parliament, wrote the following poem. 

The General inspecting the trenches

Exclaimed with a horrified shout,

I refuse to command a Division

Which leaves its excreta about’

But nobody took any notice, 

No one was prepared to refute,

That the presence of shit was congenial

Compared to the presence of Shute.

And certain responsible critics

Made haste to apply to his words, 

Observing that his staff advisors

Consisted entirely of turds.

For shit may be shot at odd corners

And paper supplied there to suit,

But shit would be shot without mourners

If somebody shot that shit Shute.


GHQ had 6 Intelligence staff officers in 1914. In 1918 it had 23. Charteris was its head from January 1916 to January 1918 and is generally considered to have been too optimistic.  He was followed, briefly by Lawrence, and then by Cox, Butler and Clive. Dedicated Intelligence Corps staff were added, slowly and unevenly, from 1915 onwards, and downwards through Army and Corps HQs and then Divisions and Brigades, and even to some Battalions. 

The Intelligence Corps was formed in 1914, before the war. Their personnel would often work in tandem with dedicated Intelligence staff officers.  The Corps was augmented by civilian assistants: military experience optional, drawn from all walks of civilian life, German/French essential, brains too. They were mainly interested in the size, location, intentions, morale and doctrine of German Army opposing BEF. 

SOURCES:  Frontline – observation. 

Prisoner/deserter interrogation -  the most productive. A deserter in Holland provided the holy grail of the German Field Post Office Directory for which he was paid £100. 

Debris: letters, pay books, papers.    Dedicated ‘searchers’, established in 1916, would examine corpses, captured HQs and communication sites. 

RFC spotting.

RFC aerial photographs.

Flash Spotting and Sound Ranging.

Signals intelligence from telephones and wireless, including the breaking of codes.

Spies: In 1909 the Secret Service Bureau was formed.   After the German Invasion of Belgium, it usually reported via Holland and England.    In October 1914 GHQ also became involved in running espionage systems in Belgium. As native locals near the frontline could not be bribed, Belgian refugees in England were employed to start with.  Other methods tried included the insertion, by aircraft or parachute, of agents with pigeons, but this was rare and problematic.

Intelligence from Holland or Belgium took time to reach GHQ.   

Intelligence provided by agents on troop train movement and German rest areas in the rear was very important in enabling GHQ to build up a very accurate German Order of Battle.


This was the responsibility of the Royal Engineers Signal Service, that is from Battalion upwards.   Our ability, or more often inability to communicate, seriously affected operations.

In 1914: a Battalion’s signallers were equipped with differently coloured flags, heliographs, and signalling lamps and telescopes.  These were soon left by the wayside during the Retreat from Mons. At the higher level the BEF was going to rely on land-line telegraph, which during the rapid retreat was impractical.  Instead they had to rely on the French telephone network, despatch riders, requisitioned vehicles and the horse.

In 1915 with trench warfare, military land line telephones took over.   Although the supply vastly increased it could never keep up with demand, and so kleptomania became a confirmed habit and Willie Bragg’s specialised lines to his microphones were frequently pillaged.

In 1916 a standardised grid layout of lines was adopted, whereby each Division would have a centralised cable running from front to rear with side branches at the level of batteries, Brigades, other Divisions and Heavy Artillery HQs.  If the front line advanced, new side branches could be added. 


It did pin down HQs. Cables strung up on poles or fixed to the sides of trenches were too vulnerable. Therefore, they had to be buried, manually, not less than 6’ to protect them from artillery fire. 13,000 miles of it was used for the battle of Cambrai alone.           

It was vulnerable to phone-tapping.  The answer to which was, besides voice security, to double-check the insulation of cables against earthing and not to use this system within a mile of German trenches.   Therefore, one of the alternative systems, the Fuller Phone, which transmitted its signals through the earth and which was more secure, was used forward of Brigade.  

During our attacks it was vital to know to where the infantry had got.  Imagine the difficulties: obscuring smoke and dust and sometimes a featureless waste of a landscape.  Signal cables laid forward were usually cut by shellfire or our movements. Runners took time and often did not get through and as precautions against being hit, had coloured braid on both arms for identification and always carried the message in the top left pocket to aid retrieval.  Waving flags was a bit dodgy. Also used were lamps, flares, coloured rockets and shiny disks on the backs of the infantrymen, and last but certainly not least, pigeons. Our emphasis on their use can be judged by the fact that during our retreat in March 1918 40 pigeon lofts were captured. There was one unfortunate brigadier who was desperately anxious to know how his battalions’ attack were faring and was waiting tensely for a news-bearing pigeon. Eventually one arrived and the message was hurriedly taken from its leg and rushed to the waiting Brigadier, who read ‘I am fed up with carrying this bloody bird around France’.         

There was therefore usually a delay in the reporting of accurate information to the higher commands from the advancing infantry, from which all belligerents suffered, which meant that opportunities arising from fleeting opportunities could not be taken, and many disasters could not be prevented.


In 1915 heavy, cumbersome and unreliable wireless sets were confined to linking GHQ with Corps. By 1917 wirelesses were appearing, but they were very bulky, weighed 100lbs and were short ranged, 7,000 yards.   They were sometimes placed in Signals Tanks to report back on the Infantry’s progress.


Only three people have won the VC twice.  The first was a Captain Upham of the New Zealand Infantry who won his in WW2 in Crete and at Alamein.

The other two were WW1 RAMC officers:

The better known of these is Noel Chavasse, the medical officer of the Liverpool Scottish, who won his first on the Somme and his second, posthumously, at the 3rd Ypres, besides an MC in 1915.    The other was Arthur Martin-Leake with his first VC earned in the Boer War.

The most decorated other rank in the BEF was L/Cpl Bill Coltman, a nonconformist stretcher bearer in a North Staffordshire Battalion. He was awarded a VC, two Distinguish Conduct Medals, the next best thing, and two Military Medals.   Somehow, he survived and returned to gardening, which he probably found rather quiet.   

The Royal Amy Medical Corps expanded from 20,000 to 144,000. Its organisation worked on the principle of going forward to collect the wounded. At the first stage was the Regimental Aid Post (RAP) with Battalions.  Its stretcher bearers would collect the wounded and the Regimental Medical Officer and his 1 or 2 RAMC assistants would do their best for them.

Next, the Brigade’s Field Ambulance provided three Dressing Stations, some within a couple of miles of the Front.  A Division would therefore have 3 Field Ambulances. Their stretcher bearers would go forward to collect the wounded from the RAP, unless they could walk back, and prepare them for their removal to the Casualty Clearing Station, the CCS.   Normally there would be one of these for each Corps, but this would be much increased before major offensives, like at 3rd Ypres where the additional ones were given names such as Bandaghem, Mendighem and Dozinghem.

The CCS would collect the wounded via tramways, light railways, horse or later motor ambulances.  It was soon realised that surgical intervention should be available as soon as possible, in particular for wound excision to control Tetanus and Gas Gangrene.  So, this was brought forward from the Base Hospitals to the CCS and sometimes to the Dressing Stations of the Field Ambulances.

Some CCS specialised in head or chest cases, the abdomen, or fractured thighs, or gas.  A CCS could handle 1,000 wounded at a time and were often grouped together and seldom less than 7 miles from the Front, usually situated near railway sidings or roads, in tents or buildings. 

From the CCS wounded would go by train or barge to the Base Hospitals.  During the Somme an average of 240 ambulance trains a week ran, each taking about 350 casualties.  By then these were specialised trains, of which the BEF had about 40 by 1918. Barges were used when jolting had to be avoided and time was not of the essence.  

Base hospitals were often near the coast.  From them certain cases would be evacuated to England, to Blighty, a Hindustani word for home, on special hospital ships.  It is interesting to note that the ship taking King George to England after he had had a bad fall, was mined on her next voyage.  

In 1917 there were 300,000 hospital beds in Britain for the wounded.  One of the medical advances was the use of X rays which went further forward as the war progressed.   


An analysis of causes of wounds for one day during the 3rd Ypres shows 36% high explosive, 27% bullet, 20% shrapnel, 14% uncertain, 1.94% gas, 0.7% grenade and 0.16% bayonet.  

Some 12% of the British Army's ordinary soldiers were killed during the war, compared with 17% of its officers.  Eton alone lost more than 1,000 former pupils - 20% of those who served. UK wartime Prime Minister Herbert Asquith lost a son, while future Prime Minister Andrew Bonar Law lost two. Anthony Eden lost two brothers, another brother was terribly wounded, and an uncle was captured.

Venereal Disease: 400,000 cases were treated during WW1. VD was regarded as a misdemeanour as it was a preventable disease.  Treatment took a month or more. Initially men had been repatriated to England for treatment but as the scale of the casualties rose, orders were given that all cases were to be treated in France until the soldiers were fit to return to their units. 


To finish this medical section without mentioning women would be utterly wrong.   Many thousands served in France with Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, or with other organisations such as the Red Cross, besides the many who assisted in Voluntary Aid Detachments (VAD), usually as care assistants, or in Motor Ambulance Convoys as drivers.   In 1917 the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was formed and 9,000 served in France engaged in clerical, mechanical, or cookery work.   


63 Chaplains went with the BEF in August 1914.  By the end about 1,700 had served, of whom 176 were killed.    Two won the VC with the BEF, the most famous, possibly, being the Revd Hardy, Church of England.  Being over 50 and in poor health he had to pester the Authorities to accept him. Initially employed in the base areas, he managed in December 1916 to get himself appointed chaplain to a Lincolnshire Battalion.  There is a poignant photograph of him receiving the VC from the King in France, to add to his DSO and MC, all earned within 11 months, and watched by his daughter in the VAD. He was killed soon after.


Animals: horses, mules, canaries, mice, pigeons and dogs. Canaries and mice helped the tunnellers by detecting if poisonous fumes were present underground. Pigeons carried messages, and dogs too occasionally, although the BEF used them less than the Germans.

Mules were more resistant to conditions and required less fodder than horses.  The average wastage of horses and mules was 2% per week.

Mobile Veterinary Sections were located with each Cavalry Brigade and Infantry Division.

There were also Veterinary Evacuation Stations.  By 1918 there were 25 Veterinary hospitals each capable of looking after 2,000 horses or mules, all helped by the RSPCA.  At the end of the War most horses were sold to local dealers, only a few lucky ones were brought home. In Palestine the Australian Light Horse, when they were told their horses would not be going home with them, decided to have a monumental last day of races and then shot them all.


The Army’s pre-war logistics relied on the well proven but ad hoc system based on pragmatic staff officers providing a system suited to wherever they might find themselves.    This made sense considering the wide range of places to which they might be deployed. But it certainly did not prepare the Army for a war of this scale, intensity and duration.

Two things did not help in August 1914: first, the Army’s logistics organisation existed on paper only until mobilisation. Secondly, the Retreat from Mons was not down its line of communications which ran south west to Le Havre, instead it was south.    Imagine being in charge of taking supplies to the retreating BEF; it’s a new job, your team is new as well, you don’t know where the BEF is because of poor communications, you don’t speak French and their maps leave much to the imagination.  

In 1914 and 1915 everything was in short supply and hugely increased orders had been placed with factories.  New ones were being constructed, and those abroad were being given whopping orders, but they all took time to deliver.  

The Ministry of Munitions, under Lloyd George, created in the spring of 1915, soon included Trench Warfare and Munitions Invention Departments, and just pre-war there had been tentative steps towards state-sponsored laboratories.  Sir John French set up the GHQ Invention Committee in early 1915.

The pre-war annual production of boots was 250,000,    By December 1914 an order was placed for 7.8 million.

Come the Somme in 1916 and this ad hoc system was collapsing.  It just could not cope with the enormous amount of material now being sent to the much-increased BEF.  

Civilian expertise was the answer.  Sir Eric Geddes, who had been the general manager of the North Eastern Railways and who had advised the War Office pre-war, was appointed Director-General of Transportation for the BEF, with the honorary rank of major general.   He appointed civilian experts to run the docks, railways, inland waterways, light railways and roads:


The supply problem was now in France, not in the factories.   So much stuff was arriving on ships that it could not be handled.   So, Geddes arranged with the French for more dock space to be under our control and for cargoes to be loaded in England in such a way that they could be unloaded straight on to trains, rather than via warehouses. 


Two problems were solved. First, control of the railways in our sector was acquired from the French, and secondly, more railways, engines and rolling stock were obtained.   It had been estimated early in 1917 that to maintain simultaneous attacks by three armies, whilst merely holding the rest of the front, 200 trains per day to all railheads would be required, but the number achieved never exceeded 160.   By the War’s end 4,500 miles of track would be laid, and the BEF would have 1,500 engines and 54,000 wagons.   


Further use was made of them.  By the end of 1916 564 vessels, all operated by the Royal Engineers, were in use. 


These ran forward from the main railheads.  Better and more extensive use began to be made of them.  Often they would run directly to heavy artillery positions to simplify ammunition supply.  These, Decauville, light railways should not be confused with tramways, which ran even further forward, and on which ran small ‘carts’ , usually pulled by men or horses. 


The French rural roads were not built to take heavy army traffic and collapsed.    Under Geddes’ influence more and stronger roads were laid. This was just as well as on the Somme Front, one of our two armies there, the 4th, on a front of less than 10 miles, had nearly 5,000 lorries, which together with enemy shelling and the moving forward of our heavy artillery had been making an awful mess of them. 


Early on, lack of unskilled labour in the rear areas caused great difficulties.  Local personnel were unavailable, having been conscripted. The organisation of labour was fragmented and rather inefficient until the BEF formed a Directorate of Labour in December 1916, which during 1917 was expanded. 

Besides British labour and POWs, 145,000 foreign labourers were employed, of whom the Chinese Labour Corps is possibly the best known and of whom the BEF eventually employed 95,000 and the French 40,000.  

There was a very wide variety of jobs for the labour, working in French quarries for example.  There were salvage companies and tank track repair depots. They worked on the roads and railways and in the docks, and 20,000 Canadian lumbermen were employed in French and British forests by 1918.  The BEF’s labour corps had about 400,000 in 1918.

It may be said that Geddes’ reforms and the proper organisation of Labour staved off a potential collapse of the logistics and developed a system that would enable Haig to plan and operate without fear of supply restrictions for the rest of the War.   



This was their last chance to force the Allies to the peace table by defeating the English, before the Americans arrived in strength. It was possible because the Russian Revolution of 1917 meant Germany could send massive reinforcements to the Western Front from the east, where roughly one third of their army had usually been deployed.


21 MARCH Against the BEF’s right wing, mainly the 5th Army, but also the 3rd, next to it, on a 50-mile Front.

9 APRIL In FLANDERS, against us 

MAY-JULY 3 or so major attacks against the French sector to the south east of the BEF.

In APRIL 5 of our Divisions had been sent to ‘quiet’ parts of the French sector to recover and to relieve French Divisions so they could be put into reserve.  In fact, they took the full force of the German assault on Chemin des Dames on 27 May. Here, because of its gallant stand in the Bois des Buttes the 2nd Battalion, Devonshires was awarded the Croix de Guerre.  All of these attacks – to cause the Allies to use up or misdeploy their reserves - were in preparation for the killer blow which was, again, to be in Flanders against us.  This was where we had little ground to yield before all our base establishments would be within range of the German artillery. Unfortunately for the Germans their preparatory attacks and the French counter attacks in July meant they had insufficient divisions left to mount it.  


The causes of the BEF having such a bad time in the German attack of 21 March, which continued for about 2 weeks, were:


Great superiority, 44 Divisions to 11, and a very violent and excellent bombardment. 

Plenty of time over the winter for training and preparation.   Fog hid their attack.


Morale at its lowest and tired. The onset of disillusionment and weariness.

Reorganisation of Infantry Brigades: the War Office had named 141 Battalions which were to be scrapped or merged, and these were spread unevenly between our Brigades.   This caused immense re-organisational and morale difficulties.

Haig was forced to take over more of the line from the French.

The Allies were forced to support Italy after Caporetto, where Rommel made his name.

Russia, Italy and France had cracked in 1917.  But on the other hand Austria-Hungary had put out peace feelers.

There was insufficient time and manpower to improve incomplete French positions, and little time for training in the new defence system; we were now copying the German Defence in Depth.   In fact the BEF was inexperienced in defence, having been on the attack for most of the war.     

General Gough’s 5th Army, on our right flank, was the most thinly held, because it was the least important part of the BEF’s Front, being furthest from the Channel Ports, and this army bore the brunt of the German assault.   

Finally there was the manpower shortage.  This was mainly due to the opinion and policies of Lloyd George, the Prime Minister.   (He had tried in February 1917 to place Haig and the BEF under French control, because he thought they were militarily more professional.)

This manpower shortage and the dire situation resulting from the German attack on 21 March forced the War Cabinet, within days, to decide what reinforcements could and should be sent to the BEF.  The result was an immediate and steady increase that led, by the end of August, to over a half a million increase in the BEF’S strength. Various sources: those under 19 but over 18 and a half could now be sent to the BEF; the upper age limit for Conscription was raised from 41 to 50 for ‘light jobs’, and to 55 for some special cases, i.e. doctors; the number of exemptions granted from Conscription was reduced; the number of battle-ready troops in England and those who had been sent to work in factories and mines were also culled; all men under 25 in the Civil Service were conscripted; and some troops were sent to the BEF from Salonika, Italy and Palestine.


On 26 March Foch was given authority to co-ordinate British and French forces.   On 3 April he was given strengthened powers - the strategic direction of military operations (of British, French and US forces, of Italian Forces on 2 May, and later of the Belgians).  We were happy with this, because the situation was so serious. The results included a much more flexible use of reserves, French reserves sent to support us and vice versa.  


In July Foch firmed up plans for the Allies to take the offensive since they now had the initiative and the morale and numerical superiority, the Germans having shot their bolt. Thus, the 8th August became one of the decisive days of the war, the black day of the German Army according to Ludendorf, with the BEF’s All Arms Offensive, with a French Army under our 4th Army’s command, driving the enemy clear of Amiens.   It was the start of the last 100 days pursuit of the Germans.

German defence during this pursuit was usually conducted by scattered machine guns and individual field guns (which got our tanks); their Infantry by now being fairly unreliable, their morale having suffered badly from their failures and heavy casualties, their lack of materials, the ever strengthening Allies, to the near-starvation on their Home Front and the influence of the Bolshevik Revolution.   The Germans now based much of their defence on fortified villages and farms. The BEF’s pursuit was usually conducted by divisional advance guards supported by artillery, machine guns, cavalry, armoured cars and if weather permitted, aircraft.   

Bad and demolished roads, booby traps, delayed action explosive devices, and the difficulty in bringing forward railways, and the deteriorating weather slowed the advance.


By 1918 the BEF was incomparably more skilled and technological than in 1914.  Its casualties, though horrendous, were matched by those of the other belligerents.   Nevertheless, the BEF stuck to its guns through thick and thin, and never gave up or mutinied, unlike some of the other armies.  Its performance is worthy of our immense admiration. 

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead.  Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

John McCrae, May 1915 

A Canadian surgeon with the BEF who died in 1918 from Pneumonia



Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (between Germany and the Bolsheviks in March 1918 was draconian: 25% of Russian territory, 45% of its population, and 75% coal and iron acquired by Germany.

The difference between the Western and Eastern Fronts: the relationship between mass, firepower and space.  

All men over 35 left in the east by Germany, those in the west transferred to the east, in preparation for their big efforts in the spring of 1918.

German success in Russia, Serbia and Rumania led to some increase in demands on her military in 1918.  

Romania joined Allies in the summer of 1916 and was quickly defeated.


346 were shot by the British Army including 37 for murder and 25 Canadians (Aussies no death penalty, unless for desertion and if the Governor General approved) out of 3,080 who were given the death penalty.   4 types of court martial: regimental, district, general or field general, and only the last was used on active service and only it could impose the death penalty which had to be ratified by the C-in-C, Haig, who would confirm or commute to a prison sentence. Offences for death sentence: desertion, cowardice, sleeping at post, striking a superior officer…….

PAY 1914

Private 1 shilling per day 

Sergeant 2s 4d

Lieutenant 6s.

PAY 1917

Private 1s 3d per day

There were Trade and Proficiency payments and an ‘Overseas’ allowance (1d) as well as supplements for families.  Pensions: total disability £1, 13s per week, smaller percentages for lesser disability.


Initially for 1 week every 15 months, with extra days for those going further.   Certainly, senior officers got home more frequently than privates. At some time this was raised to 10 days.  From 1.11.17 raised to 14 days. July 1917 50,000 were on leave any one time. January 1918 this was 80,000.


Many New Army officers were granted commissions without any officer training, especially if they had been to a public school.    They had to learn on the job. Early on, if they had been in an Officer Training Unit (OTU), either at university, Inns of Court, or a public or grammar school, this would get them a temporary commission.  

In 1915 Young Officer Companies were established, and in 1916 Officer Cadet Battalions were formed, where the potential officer would spend 4 months.  Sandhurst and Woolwich were expanded, probably for those who had opted for a Regular Commission. The Staff College also, in the early days, trained new officers, as well as staff officers. 


Special Reserve:  6 months in barracks, 7 years on the Reserve with one month’s camp per year.

The Germans were on the defensive for most of the War except for 4 major exceptions - August 1914, April 1915 (2nd Ypres), Verdun February – November 1916 and the Offensives of 1918.  

Artillery formation: ‘widely extended lines of sections in files’. 

‘A massively expanded army, particularly one that had been improvised as rapidly and chaotically as the BEF, surely needed guidance, and it got it, if only too much, varied and sometimes contradictorily.’

The best book on the BEF?  Tommy by the late Richard Holmes who latterly lived in Kilmington.


It often varied during the war.

Infantry: They were probably usually better trained, until 1917 – 1918. 

Machine Guns: They had an early lead, having started with dedicated companies and battalions.  Unsure about later.

Artillery: They had a preponderance to start with. Our gunners probably later became the more skilled and certainly the more numerous.

Engineers: Certainly with tunnelling ours were better.

Generals and Staff: After ours had learnt the art of World War, ours were probably as good as, if not better than theirs.

Communications: Unknown. Germans used wirelesses more than us, possibly because they were short of copper, because of the Blockade of Germany, for telephone/telegraph lines.

Aircraft: We usually had control of the skies.

Tanks: We had superiority. The Germans, usually being on the defensive, possibly thought they had less need for them.

Medical: Don’t know, but they were sometimes short of medical supplies because of the blockade.  

Logistics: Our logistical support was probably better, if only because we could get labour and supplies from the rest of the world and they could not.

IMAGE: 1st Reserve Regiment of Cavalry in training, Aldershot, 1914 (NAM 1240770 Out of Copyright.