The development of the British Army

ImprimerTwitterFacebookGoogle+

The British Army was a small professional army, unusual when compared to the massive conscript armies of the continent, and suffered considerable losses in the first few months of the war which placed it in a difficult and subordinate position in relation to its French ally. However from 1915 onwards it began to grow rapidly in strength thanks to a revamped organization. Posted to French Flanders since the autumn of 1914, British troops were soon to relieve the French in Artois, in early 1916, and thereafter accumulated a wide front to defend which stretched from Ypres in the north to the Somme in the south. Their responsibilities on the front increased rapidly.

Indeed, in April 1915 they had only thirty-six kilometres of the Western Front to defend but by September this had more than doubled to seventy-five kilometres when they took control of the Gohelle Plain and the sector of Vimy, and by the spring of 1916 they were stationed along eighty-five kilometres of the front. Amounting to ten divisions in late 1914, the size of the British Army grew to be fifty-nine divisions at the end of 1916 and by the summer of 1916 the British Army had shaken off its secondary status and had become a determining force in the defence of the Western Front.

The considerable growth of the British Army was down to a call for volunteers and, later, conscription. It was accompanied by a relentless effort to increase the army's firepower and industrialists were encouraged to manufacture heavy machine-guns (Vickers) and lighter versions (Lewis), hand grenades, and artillery of all calibres. In October 1915 a specialist force was created, the Machine Gun Corps, to operate the heavy machine-guns and by 1918 it comprised 130,000 men. After the slaughter of the early stages of the war British officers, like their French and German counterparts, became aware of the huge role artillery could play in the fighting and how it could neutralize the enemy's ever more sophisticated defences.

At the beginning of the war the Germans were undeniably the leaders in the field; however the British took stock of their inferiority after the reverses in the spring of 1915 at Neuve-Chapelle, Ypres and Festubert and subsequently embarked upon a sustained effort to manufacture weapons and swell the ranks of the Royal Artillery. The results were spectacular: with 93,000 men in August 1914, the artillery corps numbered 548,000 by the end of the war and ordinance had increased from 410 guns to 6,406...

The term "British Army" not only referred to combatants from the United Kingdom but also to those who came from the British Overseas Territories of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. These Commonwealth soldiers soon gained a reputation for endurance and enthusiasm, qualities which earned them the right to lead the attack in numerous offensives.

Yves LE MANER,
Director of La Coupole
History and Remembrance Centre of Northern France