August 2013

The Bulletin of the Birmingham Branch of the WFA

Compiled by Bob Butcher

THE BEF  1914

Before the Haldane Reforms our expeditionary forces were hurriedly improvised and despatched amid scenes of confusion. Haldane therefore organised the Army at Home into a permanent expeditionary force capable of taking the field within a short time of mobilisation. There were enough infantry battalions at Home to provide six divisions with a few left over which would be used as L of C defence troops. The primary peacetime role of battalions at Home was to provide drafts for their sister battalions garrisoning the Empire. Thus the size of the BEF was set by the number of troops necessary to ensure that the natives of the Empire continued to enjoy the benefits of British rule—whether they liked it or not!

Battalions at Home were usually not up to even the Home Peace Establishment so would need to be brought up to strength with reservists and it is recorded that roughly half the rank and file of the original BEF battalions were in fact reservists.

Some units were only to be formed upon mobilisation. Royal Artillery reservists, for example, formed the ammunition columns for the regular divisions and the staffs of Military and Veterinary hospitals in the UK formed the expeditionary medical and veterinary units. These were carefully pre-planned moves so that in peacetime all personnel knew what their post would be and, moreover, on reporting to the designated station would find n store there everything needed for the unit to take the field. The horses would soon be delivered, in one case before their Army Service Corps drivers arrived

It was not originally visualised that there would be a corps level of command so that when it was decided to adopt the system at the last minute to conform to French practice, the corps HQs had to be improvised.

The cavalry were stationed throughout the UK in brigades of three regiments and upon mobilisation four were used to form a cavalry division whilst the fifth went to France as an independent brigade. Two regiments were temporarily dispersed in order to provide each of the six divisions with a cavalry squadron for reconnaissance and screening work.

It was thus intended that the BEF would consist of GHQ and troops; three corps each of two divisions; a cavalry division; a cavalry brigade and L of C troops including five infantry battalions as defence troops. In the event the normally realistic Kitchener held two divisions back until the Territorials had taken up their war stations for fear of invasion. One of these divisions followed the first wave a few weeks later and the other in September.

The BEF (less two divisions) had assembled in its planned area by 20 August, just over two

weeks from when the order to mobilise was issued. They would have been there sooner had not the Government delayed its departure until after the Territorials had been brought back from their annual camps (See the May Brumration).

In September the first non-divisional artillery arrived in the form of some 6 inch howitzers which became army troops available to be allocated to corps where and when necessary.

Also in September the first Territorial infantry and Yeomanry arrived but as individual units and not in their parent brigades and divisions. The infantry were initially used to relieve the defence troops which then formed another brigade -- the 19th— but were soon drawn into the fighting. The four brigade x Cavalry Division proved to be unwieldy so a second cavalry division was formed from one of its brigades, the independent cavalry brigade and a brigade formed from a Yeomanry regiment and the two regiments that had been providing divisional cavalry squadrons for the infantry divisions, having themselves been relieved by two Special Reserve horse regiments.

At Home another infantry division and a further cavalry division were formed from the few regular troops still in the UK and those brought home from overseas. In October both landed in Belgium with the aim of relieving Antwerp but they were too late. Despite having been reinforced by the improvised Royal Naval Division, the hard-pressed Belgians had been forced to withdraw from that city. It was a case of too little, too late—the sailors were too little and the regulars were too late. The RN Division (less a brigade that was interned in Holland) returned to Britain and the two regular divisions, now constituting a corps, joined the main body of the BEF whereupon the Cavalry Corps was formed from the three British cavalry divisions in the BEF.

In November another division formed from regulars brought back from overseas joined the BEF. The following month another such division joined. It contained the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, the first of the Dominion troops to arrive in the theatre. It consisted of former British soldiers who had immigrated to Canada and now answered the Mother Country's call. It is said that every regiment in the British Army was represented in its ranks.

The Indian Corps and the Indian Cavalry Corps, each of two divisions, arrived in December. Indian brigades consisted of one British and two Indian battalions or regiments although the artillery in each case was British. The original BEF had now grown to five corps (including the Indian); two cavalry corps (including the Indian); eleven infantry divisions (including two Indian); and five cavalry divisions (including two Indian) so that on 26 December it was split into two armies.

The BEF was still `regular' (including reservists and Special Reservists) but there were seven Yeomanry regiments, three Royal Engineers Special Reserve companies and twenty-three Territorial infantry battalions serving in it. The Territorial battalions were mostly attached to regular brigades in an attempt to compensate for the weakness of the regular battalions.

By the end of the year the BEF had suffered nearly 100,000 killed, wounded, prisoner or missing, in addition to 78,567 non-battle casualties due to accident or disease. One probably typical battalion had suffered such heavy casualties that it was the equivalent to being destroyed twice over.

Bob Butcher

 

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