Jump to content


Photo

1St Ypres - The Battle That Destroyed The Professional British Army?


  • Please log in to reply
12 replies to this topic

#1 Colin Williams

Colin Williams

    Faible Tonnage

  • Members
  • PipPip
  • 6,394 posts

Posted 13 November 2014 - 2000 PM

October and November mark the 100th anniversary of the 1st Battle of Ypres, when Falkenhayn sent most of the remaining reserve units available to the German Army on a drive to the Channel ports, primarily right through the BEF. As recorded by Anthony Farrar-Hockley in his book "Death of an Army", the BEF that redeployed in Flanders from the Aisne front had made up most of the crippling losses from Mons, Le Cateau, and the Aisne through the recall of reservists and the arrival of active units from the far-flung reaches of the Empire. These replacements, along with the arrival of the Indian Corps, gave the British a stronger force on paper than the original 5-division BEF, although unit cohesion was still an issue for battalions that had been fighting since late August and were dealing with significant turnover in personnel.

 

By the end of the Ypres fighting in late November, just about most of the battalions in the BEF had been reduced to cadre strength, with the most serious losses falling on the field officers and NCOs who both the most dynamic leaders and the foundation for the future Army. Coming on the heals of the earlier losses, this meant that the professional British Army had essentially ceased to exist as a coherent force.From this point on the fighting would be done by territorials and Kitchener's volunteers, supported and directed by a leavening of prewar professionals. 

 

Given this impact, which would affect the British Army both in WW1 and WW2, shouldn't history rate Falkenhayn's offensive as a strategic success, despite the failure to take the Channel ports? Deploying the reserve corps elsewhere, say against the Russians or the French, would not have offered any decisive opportunities, and it would have left the British with a core, professional force able to conduct far more effective offensive operations in 1915 and 1916.

 


  • 0

#2 BillB

BillB

    Scooter Trash Gunphobic, apparently

  • Members
  • PipPip
  • 12,140 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:English East Midlander in Glasgow, UK
  • Interests:most things military, military modelling, Vespa motor scooters, Staffordshire Bull Terriers

Posted 13 November 2014 - 2114 PM

October and November mark the 100th anniversary of the 1st Battle of Ypres, when Falkenhayn sent most of the remaining reserve units available to the German Army on a drive to the Channel ports, primarily right through the BEF. As recorded by Anthony Farrar-Hockley in his book "Death of an Army", the BEF that redeployed in Flanders from the Aisne front had made up most of the crippling losses from Mons, Le Cateau, and the Aisne through the recall of reservists and the arrival of active units from the far-flung reaches of the Empire. These replacements, along with the arrival of the Indian Corps, gave the British a stronger force on paper than the original 5-division BEF, although unit cohesion was still an issue for battalions that had been fighting since late August and were dealing with significant turnover in personnel.

 

By the end of the Ypres fighting in late November, just about most of the battalions in the BEF had been reduced to cadre strength, with the most serious losses falling on the field officers and NCOs who both the most dynamic leaders and the foundation for the future Army. Coming on the heals of the earlier losses, this meant that the professional British Army had essentially ceased to exist as a coherent force.From this point on the fighting would be done by territorials and Kitchener's volunteers, supported and directed by a leavening of prewar professionals. 

 

Given this impact, which would affect the British Army both in WW1 and WW2, shouldn't history rate Falkenhayn's offensive as a strategic success, despite the failure to take the Channel ports? Deploying the reserve corps elsewhere, say against the Russians or the French, would not have offered any decisive opportunities, and it would have left the British with a core, professional force able to conduct far more effective offensive operations in 1915 and 1916.

 

I don't agree ith the assessment that the BA had "...essentially ceased to exist as a coherent force"; you are equating the BEF with the entire BA which it wasn't. More importantly, I don't see how the pre-war Regulars would have been able to "...conduct far more effective offensive operations in 1915 and 1916". The presence of more pre-war Regulars wouldn't have prevented the shell shortage of 1915 or been able to cope with the tactical constraints & conditions prevailing at Loos etc, and they would not have been able to provide the numbers for the Somme, so you'd still have been dependent on Kitchener's New Armies in any case.

 

BillB


  • 0

#3 Adam_S

Adam_S

    Crew

  • Members
  • PipPip
  • 1,059 posts

Posted 13 November 2014 - 2147 PM

Most of the guys doing the fighting in 1915 were territorials rather than pals' battalions and the like anyway. Like Bill said, I'm not sure that the Old Contempables would have done much better with the shell shortage etc. than what happened historically.

 

You could perhaps make a case that a stronger cardre of long service veterans might have helped Kitchener's New Armies in 1916 but equally I think there's a good chance that even if 1st Ypres didn't happen then the original BEF would have been pissed away in offensives in 1915 anyway.

 

I watched an interesting documentary about WW1 recently that put it quite nicely, if somewhat depressingly. Basically, it was suggested that Britain fielded 4 armies in the First World War. First there was the pre-war regular army but by 1914 most of them were gone. Then there were the territorials and by the end of 1915 most of them were gone too. Next came Kitchener's recruits and by the end of 1916 many of them were gone leaving Britain to fight the offensives in 1917 and 1918 with an increasingly conscript based army instead.


  • 0

#4 Dawes

Dawes

    Crew

  • Members
  • PipPip
  • 2,173 posts

Posted 14 November 2014 - 1756 PM

Is "Death Of An Army" a fairly concise treatment of the topic?


  • 0

#5 R011

R011

    Member

  • Members
  • PipPip
  • 5,981 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Posted 15 November 2014 - 0104 AM

To give an idea of what happened to those units, the 2nd Battalion, the Bedfordshire Regiment, suffered some 6,600 casualties during the war of which 1,600 were fatal.  As far as I know, they weren't unique.  Even so, that doesn't mean all the pre-war Regulars were killed.  My grandfather, for instance, served throughout the war from the time the battalion landed in France until he was demobbed.


  • 0

#6 Colin Williams

Colin Williams

    Faible Tonnage

  • Members
  • PipPip
  • 6,394 posts

Posted 16 November 2014 - 0128 AM

 

October and November mark the 100th anniversary of the 1st Battle of Ypres, when Falkenhayn sent most of the remaining reserve units available to the German Army on a drive to the Channel ports, primarily right through the BEF. As recorded by Anthony Farrar-Hockley in his book "Death of an Army", the BEF that redeployed in Flanders from the Aisne front had made up most of the crippling losses from Mons, Le Cateau, and the Aisne through the recall of reservists and the arrival of active units from the far-flung reaches of the Empire. These replacements, along with the arrival of the Indian Corps, gave the British a stronger force on paper than the original 5-division BEF, although unit cohesion was still an issue for battalions that had been fighting since late August and were dealing with significant turnover in personnel.

 

By the end of the Ypres fighting in late November, just about most of the battalions in the BEF had been reduced to cadre strength, with the most serious losses falling on the field officers and NCOs who both the most dynamic leaders and the foundation for the future Army. Coming on the heals of the earlier losses, this meant that the professional British Army had essentially ceased to exist as a coherent force.From this point on the fighting would be done by territorials and Kitchener's volunteers, supported and directed by a leavening of prewar professionals. 

 

Given this impact, which would affect the British Army both in WW1 and WW2, shouldn't history rate Falkenhayn's offensive as a strategic success, despite the failure to take the Channel ports? Deploying the reserve corps elsewhere, say against the Russians or the French, would not have offered any decisive opportunities, and it would have left the British with a core, professional force able to conduct far more effective offensive operations in 1915 and 1916.

 

I don't agree ith the assessment that the BA had "...essentially ceased to exist as a coherent force"; you are equating the BEF with the entire BA which it wasn't. More importantly, I don't see how the pre-war Regulars would have been able to "...conduct far more effective offensive operations in 1915 and 1916". The presence of more pre-war Regulars wouldn't have prevented the shell shortage of 1915 or been able to cope with the tactical constraints & conditions prevailing at Loos etc, and they would not have been able to provide the numbers for the Somme, so you'd still have been dependent on Kitchener's New Armies in any case.

 

BillB

 

 

I agree it's debatable whether the BEF would have been able to fight with more success in 1915 given the shell and gun shortage, but at the same time there is no question that it helps to have professional, experienced soldiers available to train and lead territorials and new recruits. Did a little bit of background reading and came up with some basic numbers, although there is some disagreement/inconsistency.

 

Casualties - Sources seem to agree that the British suffered ~90,000 to 100,000 casualties in 1914, almost all of which were incurred by the active Army and the replacements that reached the BEF from the Reserve. Given that the BEF lost no major units to encirclement and capture, nor was it's defensive line ever broken to the point that the Germans overran rear areas, the majority of those casualties would have been among the infantry, probably on the order of 70,000 to 80,000. In addition, ~26,000 were evacuated back to Britain due to illness.

 

British Army Strength in 1914 - According to one source, the British Army in 1914 had an active complement of 247,000 men, with approximately 160,000 in the infantry, spread among 157 battalions. According to another, the 1914 Infantry establishment was 134,000 men, with an actual strength of 126,000. For the time being, let's stick with the number of 126,000. The Army Reserve totaled  145,000 men who were liable to be called up upon mobilization. I don't know what fraction were infantry. The total number of Special Reserve troops was established at 77,000 but there was an actual strength of 61,000, with almost all of the shortfall in the infantry arm. Similarly, the Territorial Army had an establishment of 303,000 but only had a strength of 258,000, again with the shortfall in the infantry. Neither the Special Reserve nor Territorial Army played a major role in 1914.

 

Components in 1914 Fighting - If, as with the rest of the Army, the Army Reserve had more than half of its strength in infantry, one can guess ~80,000 infantry available upon mobilization, and since these would presumably be available in Great Britain, than the BEF should have been backed up by a reserve of nearly 100% in infantry. However, reports from the time indicate that units absorbed almost all of their reserve soldiers in order to come up to war establishment. The same source that cites a prewar active infantry strength of 126,000 men indicates that more than 50% of the infantry in the 1914 BEF came from the reserve. I suspect that number may represent the total across the entire year after casualties and replacements are taken into account. Nonetheless, it seems that the BEF's active battalions were significantly understrength at the time war broke out, more than the 126,000 strength vs. 134,000 establishment figures would indicate. 

 

Impact on the Army - The bottom line is that the "professional" infantry available to the British Army in 1914 was a total of 126,000 active and some fraction of 145,000 in the Army Reserve. I will assume ~50% as 75,000, giving a total of ~200,000. Of these ~80,000 became casualties, and as a rough estimate ~15,000 were invalided home due to illness. Consequently, on average the infantry had been reduced by something on the order of 50% relative to the entire army. Most of this impact would have been on the "home" battalions, with those on overseas service suffering their share in 1915 on the western front and in Gallipoli. As in other wars, these losses would have fallen disproportionately on the officers and NCOs, the men who were most needed to build the mass army Britain needed for the war effort. An example of this shortage is illustrated by the experience of Winston Churchill, who had seen active service in the cavalry in the 1890s and spent time with the Yeomanry in the decades before the war. With only a short amount of seasoning in the nature of trench warfare, he was assigned to command an infantry battalion in 1915, where he was known for many good qualities but also a near complete inability to give proper commands to the men, calling out incomprehensible cavalry commands during combat. Politics aside, men like Churchill were thrust into their positions because there weren't anything like enough experienced infantry officers to go around. Most of them were dead, wounded or captured at Mons, Le Cateau, or Ypres.


  • 0

#7 Richard Lindquist

Richard Lindquist

    Purveyor of flints to General Washington

  • Members
  • PipPip
  • 10,273 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:Lighthouse Point, FL, USA
  • Interests:military hardware, military history

Posted 15 December 2014 - 1947 PM

With the need to replace casualties in the regular force and rebuild the home battalions of the BEF, the officer and NCO cadres for Kitchener's Army had to come largely from "dugouts" of the Boer Woer.


  • 0

#8 BillB

BillB

    Scooter Trash Gunphobic, apparently

  • Members
  • PipPip
  • 12,140 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:English East Midlander in Glasgow, UK
  • Interests:most things military, military modelling, Vespa motor scooters, Staffordshire Bull Terriers

Posted 18 December 2014 - 0926 AM

 

 

October and November mark the 100th anniversary of the 1st Battle of Ypres, when Falkenhayn sent most of the remaining reserve units available to the German Army on a drive to the Channel ports, primarily right through the BEF. As recorded by Anthony Farrar-Hockley in his book "Death of an Army", the BEF that redeployed in Flanders from the Aisne front had made up most of the crippling losses from Mons, Le Cateau, and the Aisne through the recall of reservists and the arrival of active units from the far-flung reaches of the Empire. These replacements, along with the arrival of the Indian Corps, gave the British a stronger force on paper than the original 5-division BEF, although unit cohesion was still an issue for battalions that had been fighting since late August and were dealing with significant turnover in personnel.

 

By the end of the Ypres fighting in late November, just about most of the battalions in the BEF had been reduced to cadre strength, with the most serious losses falling on the field officers and NCOs who both the most dynamic leaders and the foundation for the future Army. Coming on the heals of the earlier losses, this meant that the professional British Army had essentially ceased to exist as a coherent force.From this point on the fighting would be done by territorials and Kitchener's volunteers, supported and directed by a leavening of prewar professionals. 

 

Given this impact, which would affect the British Army both in WW1 and WW2, shouldn't history rate Falkenhayn's offensive as a strategic success, despite the failure to take the Channel ports? Deploying the reserve corps elsewhere, say against the Russians or the French, would not have offered any decisive opportunities, and it would have left the British with a core, professional force able to conduct far more effective offensive operations in 1915 and 1916.

 

I don't agree ith the assessment that the BA had "...essentially ceased to exist as a coherent force"; you are equating the BEF with the entire BA which it wasn't. More importantly, I don't see how the pre-war Regulars would have been able to "...conduct far more effective offensive operations in 1915 and 1916". The presence of more pre-war Regulars wouldn't have prevented the shell shortage of 1915 or been able to cope with the tactical constraints & conditions prevailing at Loos etc, and they would not have been able to provide the numbers for the Somme, so you'd still have been dependent on Kitchener's New Armies in any case.

 

BillB

 

 

I agree it's debatable whether the BEF would have been able to fight with more success in 1915 given the shell and gun shortage, but at the same time there is no question that it helps to have professional, experienced soldiers available to train and lead territorials and new recruits. Did a little bit of background reading and came up with some basic numbers, although there is some disagreement/inconsistency. SNIP

Ref the bolded bit, I think there is a question. What skills exactly did your "professional, experienced [regular] soldiers" have to teach the TF and New Army? The bulk of the BEF casualties were incurred fighting a war of manoeuvre that was not to break out again until the 100 Days in 1918, and the war of 1915/16/17 was a totally different ball game to 1914/18 The surviving Regulars from within & without the BEF were therefore marginally better trained if at all to fight that kind of war than the TF or New Army. As Richard rightly points out, they were initially obliged to employ so-called dug-outs from the Boer War to make up the officer & NCO numbers in the New Army, but as the focus of the BA up to 1914 was Imperial Policing - which is where the bulk of the Army''s inf strength was 1914 - I'd argue that on that basis the dug-outs & recalled reservists were almost as well trained and experienced to train folk for the post-1914 Western Front as the surviving Regulars from the BEF. 

 

IIRC there were lots of complaints before the 1917 mutiny about the standard and focus of training in the base establishments around Etaples being irrelevant to what was happening at the front, and apart from the gas training I believe those establishments were staffed & run by Regulars and/or along pre-War Regular lines. The simple fact is that the kind of war that developed on the Western Front from 1914 caught the British Army out along with all the others, and everybody had to start again from scratch to meet this totally unforeseen set of circumstances. For the British this meant not only adapting and adopting to meet the new circumstances, but raising the largest volunteer army in their history augmented latterly with conscripts. The New Army numbered 2.5 million men by the end of 1915, and training that number of men from scratch was going to take a considerable amount of time even if you could've employed all 247,000 pre-war Regulars as instructors and if the latter had actually possessed the requisite skills & experience...

 

BillB 


  • 0

#9 Colin

Colin

    Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 16,286 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:Vancouver, Canada
  • Interests:tanks, old and new AFV's, Landrovers, diving, hovercrafts

Posted 18 December 2014 - 1107 AM

Those regulars would likely have made a bigger impact outside the main part of the Western Front


  • 0

#10 BillB

BillB

    Scooter Trash Gunphobic, apparently

  • Members
  • PipPip
  • 12,140 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:English East Midlander in Glasgow, UK
  • Interests:most things military, military modelling, Vespa motor scooters, Staffordshire Bull Terriers

Posted 18 December 2014 - 1204 PM

Those regulars would likely have made a bigger impact outside the main part of the Western Front

In what way exactly?

 

BillB


  • 0

#11 Colin

Colin

    Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 16,286 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:Vancouver, Canada
  • Interests:tanks, old and new AFV's, Landrovers, diving, hovercrafts

Posted 18 December 2014 - 2054 PM

Arabia and any other places they deployed


  • 0

#12 Adam_S

Adam_S

    Crew

  • Members
  • PipPip
  • 1,059 posts

Posted 19 December 2014 - 0050 AM

I was under the impression that the problem with Boer War veterans wasn't that they weren't well trained exactly but rather that they were well trained in Boer War tactics and that things like machine guns or fire and move tactics had, for the most part, largely passed them by,


  • 0

#13 snafu_72

snafu_72

    Crew

  • Members
  • PipPip
  • 383 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:East of the Missouri and west of the Mississippi.

Posted 19 December 2014 - 1759 PM

Since the adage is that generals fight this war using last the last war's tactics, the prevailing manpower available, and advanced weaponry and technology. In any case WWI started with the idea that it would be "over by Christmas" and when it dragged on for another 4 years it took a tremendous slice out of an entire generation of men across the world. 


  • 0




0 user(s) are reading this topic

0 members, 0 guests, 0 anonymous users