The Composition of the British Expeditionary Force WWI

British Expeditionary Force 1914

The infantry battalion was the basic unit of the British Expeditionary Force throughout the First World War. The soldier’s battalion was one of two or three in a regiment, closely tied to a particular county or city, and commonly reinforcing ties by incorporating the county or city name in its title. The regiment itself was not a unit in the line of battle; it was the ‘parent’ of a number of battalions, usually two. In pre-war days one battalion would be based at home and the other based in the colonies, usually India, Africa, the Caribbean or in the East. The regiment was the soldier’s ‘family’ unit, to which he owed his primary military loyalty and to which he returned throughout his career. During the war the regiments raised battalions according to the ability of their regional connections to support them. Thus The London Regiment, The Durham Light Infantry and the Manchester Regiment raised dozens of battalions, whilst other regiments were able to raise fewer.

The battalion had its own command structure for all management purposes. For the individual soldier this structure started with his section.

The platoon section was the most basic level of command, eight or ten men under command of a corporal. This group, a sub-unit, was the daily horizon of the private soldier, and if the regiment was his family, his section comrades were his siblings. In a tight-knit local regiment a man might and often did find himself serving in a section with men he had known from his school days. Three sections formed a platoon.

Each infantry platoon or cavalry troop was commanded by a lieutenant or more junior second lieutenant. The infantry platoon was about forty to fifty men, in three sections, with a small platoon headquarters. The platoon commander led the platoon, assisted by his platoon serjeant, who managed it. It was usually a newly commissioned officer’s first appointment, whereas a peacetime serjeant would commonly be a veteran who had enlisted when his officer was a small child. Few serjeants aspired to be officers, and the social gulf was rarely bridged.

The infantry company, cavalry squadron or artillery battery was commanded by a major or senior captain and had its own headquarters team, also dealing with logistics. The primary role of this unit was to put rifles or guns to work. This level was the command centre for managing four platoons of infantry or troops of cavalry, or two half-batteries of artillery. Apart from controlling the fighting operations of four platoons, company headquarters provided a vital link between those fighting platoons and the supplies of ammunition, food and the other necessities of warfare.

The battalion. A lieutenant colonel in command was assisted by about thirty other officers in the command of almost 1,000 men. There were four rifle companies and various specialist groups as part of battalion headquarters. The adjutant was a senior captain responsible for daily management of battalion headquarters. The regimental serjeant major, the senior non-commissioned officer, was responsible for day-to-day discipline as well as management of the serjeants and other senior ranks who managed the battalion under the officers’ leadership. The quartermaster and his staff ran the stores, catering and other logistics. Communications were a personnel-intensive part of battalion headquarters, because the only way to deliver orders and information was to employ ‘runners’. The battalion had a small medical staff attached to its headquarters, typically a doctor who was an officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps, perhaps a medical serjeant from the same corps, and a small number of medical orderlies. In battle the demand for stretcher-bearers would always be very heavy, and it was the traditional role of the battalion’s peacetime bandsmen to serve as stretcher-bearers when the need arose.

The cavalry system was a little different. A cavalry regiment was smaller, about 600 men, but with identical command functions. The major difference was of course that the cavalry regiment was wholly dependent on horses. The demands of over 600 horses, with attendant farriers, vets and feeding needs, were at least as complex as providing for a like number of men. It has been said that the movement of forage was the largest single logistical undertaking of any army in the war. The cavalry regiment was composed of squadrons and troops instead of the companies and platoons of the infantry.

Artillery was different again. The artillery was dispersed across the whole army, with brigades, batteries and troops or half-batteries, instead of battalions, companies and platoons. A significant further difference was that whilst infantry and cavalry units were rarely broken up to serve in small numbers, the artillery battery was very often a semi-autonomous unit serving in support of an infantry division or brigade. Batteries of light artillery had six guns or howitzers, in two half-batteries. Light artillery generally meant Royal Horse Artillery supporting cavalry brigades or Royal Field Artillery supporting infantry brigades. Heavy artillery of The Royal Garrison Artillery was found at divisional or corps level and usually had four or six guns in two half-batteries. By August 1915 the first giant railway guns or howitzers had been delivered to France, and these batteries had two guns or howitzers, usually of 12-inch calibre. The long-gun designs were adapted from those used in the dreadnought class battleships and had an effective range of 25,000 yards.

The brigade was a brigadier general’s command, the first level at which generals exercised day to day control, and where command was exercised outside the ‘family’ structure of the unit. The brigade is the first level at which the group is called a formation rather than a unit. The brigade consisted of four infantry battalions or three cavalry regiments commanded by a small headquarters team. At the beginning of the war the whole brigade headquarters might be as few as four or five officers, although the demands of a horse-based officer corps might bring a dozen or more grooms, soldier-servants and other supporters. Brigades tended to be closely-knit; the Guards brigades absolutely did not have any non-Guards battalions in them, likewise the Ulster brigades of the New Army were exclusive to Ulster battalions. With its four battalions, a brigade was about 4,000 strong, although the increasing need for specialist warfare skills raised this ‘establishment’ number to nearer 5,000 as the war progressed. Some brigades were almost an extension of their battalions in local affiliation. As an example, 92 Brigade, which suffered at Serre on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Somme, was composed of four battalions of the East Yorkshire Regiment. The 10th, 11th 12th and 13th Battalions of the regiment were the four Pals battalions raised in Hull, so when the brigade suffered heavy casualties the effect on the people of Hull, coping with about 1,600 casualties as the result of one morning’s action, was very severe.

A division is the formation that controls brigades, but importantly is the first level at which the concept of combined arms warfare comes into the picture. A major general, the commander, had three brigades, say 12,000 men, a separate pioneer battalion, another 1,000 men, substantial elements of artillery of different kinds, and elements of engineers, signals units, supply train, veterinary and medical support. In total the divisional commander had about 18,000 men in his division. This is a relatively stable formation, and brigades within divisions tended to stay together for the duration of the war. As with brigades, some divisions had strong ties to particular local regions. This particularly applied to the 36th (Ulster) Division.

The army corps is the next level in the upward chain of command. At this level of command a lieutenant general is a significant battle manager, in terms of his control, the scale of his responsibilities and the resources available to him. These resources were less defined than those available to lower-level commanders. A corps might have one, two, three or more divisions under command for a particular action, and then lose some of them or acquire others as events developed. It would have its own artillery, as well as that of divisions under corps command, and then be allocated yet more, for a specific offensive, but then lose its own to a more pressing demand elsewhere. Before a major offensive action, the corps might receive added numbers of railway troops, pioneers, medical resources and perhaps a cavalry division to exploit the breakthrough following an attack. It might lose many of those resources again as demands ebbed and flowed. Thus a corps might number anything from 40,000 to 100,000 men or more.

An army is a fully functional freestanding entity. The general is a highly important figure, with influence over all aspects of the battle, from planning to execution and exploitation. He is responsible for every aspect of conduct of the battle in his area of command. The army commander may have one or two or more corps under command, and he is responsible for the whole conduct of war in his area of responsibility. For example, the medical chain now stretches back from the regimental aid post with a unit at the front, past the casualty clearing stations of the larger formations and right back to the field hospitals. Railways and canal transport, battle training schools, repair workshops and even bakeries and butcheries all came under an army’s command. Air operations came firmly into the picture at army level, even if tactically controlled further down the chain of command. The British Expeditionary Force began as a single army with two corps and a mounted division. By the halfway point of the war there were five British and Empire armies on the Western Front alone. Each was four or five times the size of the original BEF.

Within the context of any set-piece battle, it is worth comparing the difference in responsibility between a divisional commander’s and his superior’s on the first day of the battle. For example, for the Somme battle General Sir Henry Rawlinson, as army commander, was responsible for planning and directing a battle, which at different times involved fifty-two infantry divisions spread over a front of about 14 miles. He was responsible for every aspect, both logistical and fighting. Logistics included supplying food, water, shelter, fuel, animal fodder, ammunition, and every last item needed by men living in the inhospitable climate of the front line and its support areas and care of the wounded from regimental aid post to delivery to base hospital or back to the UK. Under GHQ’s strategic direction, he managed artillery support, the use of the air service, front-line attack, and defence of captured objectives. All this lasted from the first planning to implementing Haig’s final decision to ‘close down’ the battle five months later. At any moment, a divisional general would have one task to undertake, perhaps to capture a village or strongpoint on the first day of the battle, before others would take over the next part of the plan. Many generals found that the leap in responsibility, as they went from peacetime command of a battalion or even a company to war-time command of a brigade or division or even higher formation, was too great for their abilities. It was not the fault of the man but an inevitable fact that the whole British and Empire war effort had developed at a speed and to a scale that had been unimaginable to all but one person, Kitchener, at the beginning, and everyone was learning as they went along.

Left to right, generals French, Joffre and Haig behind the front. Lt-General Henry Wilson is second from right

The final, highest level of field command was the Commander-in-Chief, originally Sir John French but latterly Sir Douglas Haig. He had the strategic responsibility for conducting the war on the Western Front and the final tactical say in terms of approving plans for major offensives and actions. However, he also answered to the nation and government for the employment and safety of the whole British army and had large responsibility for joint conduct of the war with his French and other allied commanders. The Commander-in-Chief was also heavily aware of his responsibilities to the many nations whose soldiers fought under his command. We know well the Canadian, Australian and New Zealand achievements, but overlook all too easily the front line contributions of India, Portugal, South Africa and other nations. Chinese, Indian and Egyptian labour corps also fell under his responsibility. Haig’s was a truly imperial force.

A large General Headquarters supported the Commander-in-Chief. The BEF headquarters was at Montreuil, near Le Touquet. As the war developed, the number working here increased to about 2,000 as the BEF itself grew and as the complexity of war increased. The Commander-in-Chief depended on this staff for the flow of information and expert advice that enabled him to conduct the war on the Western Front.

The senior staff officer was the Chief of the General Staff, the Commander-in-Chief’s right-hand man, who was responsible for the efficient management of GHQ. The Adjutant General was responsible for administration, personnel matters and organisation throughout the BEF. Heading the branches of the staff were heads of individual arms, such as air service, artillery and infantry, heads of support arms such as engineering, medical services, intelligence, transport and logistics, legal services and many other disciplines.

A feature of Haig’s GHQ was that he himself was never reluctant to employ ‘civilians in uniform’ as heads of department if he thought he could improve the efficiency of his staff by doing so. One of his key heads of department was Eric Geddes, Deputy General Manager of the North Eastern Railway Company, but with no military experience. In mid-1916 Haig arranged for him to be commissioned as a major general and gave him charge of all transport resources of the BEF. It was a much-needed appointment, because for all Rawlinson’s planning and attention to detail, the railways and other transport links were overwhelmed by the demands placed on them as the Battle of The Somme developed into its second and later months.

1 thought on “The Composition of the British Expeditionary Force WWI

  1. The Brits do like doing things a little differently. With the US Army, cavalry regiments were usually at 12 companies (troops after 1880). Squadrons would have 3-4 companies/troops. Regiments would be comprised of three squadrons with support elements.
    And squadrons are equated to battalions.

    Like

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