An Expeditionary Army: The Mirror of 1914

Colonel JP Riley DSO MA Chief of Staff
HQ 1st Armoured Division 1998


As the British armed forces develop their expeditionary role in these closing years of the twentieth century, the process of development of an expeditionary capability in the first decade of this century offers some interesting parallels. In geography, of course, the situation was a reversal of the present circumstances: where eyes are now turning away from the continent of Europe after more than fifty years of European peace, in 1902, although imperial matters remained the first priority, British eyes began to turn back to the continent after almost a century of absence. That said, however, the commitment of an expeditionary force to France and Belgium in 1914 was in historical terms entirely consistent with the thread of British foreign and defence policy since the reign of Elizabeth I. Examples as diverse as the Expedition to the Netherlands in 1585, Marlborough’s wars, and the campaign of the Hundred Days in 1815 may be cited. There are others. Continental commitments, especially in the Low Countries, were undertaken whenever British interests on the continent were felt to justify it, or at times through the desire to defend British maritime interests by distracting powers (especially France, the Netherlands and Spain) which might build up naval forces that could threaten those interests. This consideration could drive involvement even though as was to be the case in 1914, Britain itself was not directly threatened. And yet at the close of the South African War in 1902 such a commitment seemed far off. Not only was Britain entirely without European allies, but her preoccupations lay with the maintenance of the Empire the naval strength which underpinned it.

From Empire To Continental Commitment, 1902 - 1907

British statesmen were not, therefore, primarily conscious of imperial power in 1902, but rather of imperial weakness in the sense of far flung commitments which had to be defended. Joseph Chamberlain at the Imperial Conference in 1902 spoke of:

". . . a weary Titan staggering under the too vast orb of its own fate. " 1

Prime Minister Balfour therefore assembled a Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) for the first time in 1902 to consider problems of the Empire as a whole. 2   Two pre-eminent issues stood out. First, the defence of the British mainland against invasion from the continent (at that time, France); and secondly the defence of India against attack by Russia. A subsidiary problem was the security of the route through the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Of these, the greatest threat was that posed to India as the Russian fleet and railway network expanded. The importance of India to Britain should not be underestimated. The Viceroy, Lord Curzon wrote at this time - in a view widely held (and borne out, arguably, after 1947) – that:

"As long as we rule India we are the greatest power in the world. If we lose it we shall drop straight away to a third rate power." 3

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that in the eighty meetings of the CID between 1902 and 1905, the defence of India was addressed at more than fifty. This created no little tension:

"It is a terrific task to remain the greatest naval power when naval powers are year by year increasing in strength and at the same time be a military power strong enough to meet the greatest military power in Asia." 4

"It was estimated by several authorities that India, whose garrison consisted of 75,000 British troops and 150,000 Indian, would require a reinforcement of 30,000 men from Britain immediately in the event of a crisis, and 70,000 more for a prolonged war . 5   Indeed the work of the Extraordinary Committee under Lord Esher between November 1903 and February 1904, 6  and the Sub Committee of the CID under Lord Morley in 1907 which formalised the requirement for a military organisation at home capable of sending 100,000 men to India in the first year of a war, 7  were aimed precisely at this perceived continued threat to India. Esher himself wrote in 1905 that the Army:

“. . . is not to be organised for the defence of these shores, but is intended to take the field, at any threatened point where the interests of the Empire are imperilled, and especially on the North-West Frontier of India.” 8

Thus the organisation of an expeditionary force on these lines which was begun in 1906 – 1907 would be at first, at least in the opinion of Parliament, the British public and the CID, destined for India. Esher’s report, however, had other far reaching effects. Among its findings, it urged legal status for the CID, the employment of a full time secretary, the establishment of an Army Council, the abolition of the post of Commander-in-Chief, provisions for a General Staff, and the decentralisation of army administration. The first three were established almost immediately by Balfour; the rest followed. 9

While regular army reinforcement was thus aimed at India, the defence of Britain was at this time to be in the hands of the Fleet backed up by a Militia and Volunteer force should naval protection alone prove inadequate. A study by the CID in 1908 assessed that a home army should be 70,000 Volunteers and Militia backed by up to two divisions of regular troops,10   a target never actually met. There was also, and remained, a body of opinion led by The National Service League which propounded conscription as the basis of a mass army to defend the country, but this never achieved official backing. Balfour’s view was that Britain’s continental neighbours had only one war to fear: a war on a large scale, with their own neighbours, and so they needed large armies available to be called up in times of threat to the homeland. By contrast in Britain:

“Our Army is wanted for purposes abroad . . . it is necessarily a professional army . . . because of the limited nature of its function - to strike at a distance – it ought to be of strictly limited dimensions.” 11

There were also wider currents moving. It was a remarkable achievement of British diplomacy between 1902 and 1907, that it succeeded in creating a situation in which Britain was capable of fighting a major war by reducing the diversity of the calls on military planners to a minimum. From an early date it was assumed that under no circumstances would a war be fought with USA, and this led to the closure of naval bases in Canada and West Indies. 12   In January 1902 an Anglo Japanese five-year defence agreement was reached, 13  which enabled the Royal Navy to concentrate in Europe with only one Far East Fleet based on Singapore. In 1904, the settlement of various rancorous colonial differences was made with France, from which sprang the Entente Cordiale; and in 1907 came the beginning of a relationship with Russia. 14  So whereas in 1902 the British Empire had stood in isolation, by 1907 it was on increasingly friendly terms with its traditional rivals France and Russia. This produced relief for both the Army and the Royal Navy, since both had for some time had eyes on a more formidable foe - Germany.

When a new Liberal government ousted Balfour’s Conservatives in 1906, 15  they brought with them liberal and radical thinking in which the idea of influencing the balance of power in Europe was alien. At about the same time, however, in the wake of the Japanese defeat of Russia in 1905, the Germans openly challenged the French at Tangier, provoking the first of a series of crises which led up to war in 1914. 16   But in Britain, despite the progress made by its diplomacy, popular and official opinion remained deeply hostile to military involvement on the continent - so much so that even when war broke out in 1914 it was by no means a foregone conclusion that a British Expeditionary Force (BEF) would actually be committed, even allowing for the existence of antagonism between the two countries which the series of crises had engendered. This can be ascribed to a number of causes. First, unless the Germans invaded Belgium, there was no binding alliance or treaty forcing such a committal; nor was there a single political group capable of pushing such a policy; thirdly, a great section of parliamentary opinion, chiefly Liberal, was greatly disinclined to fight for France; and fourthly, financial opinion in the City did not support it. 17

As early as 1906, the embryonic British Imperial General Staff had urged the need to reconstitute Russia as a counterweight to Germany, 18  and had begun to espouse the idea of creating an effective expeditionary army of up to 200,000 men. This had its origins in a series of studies in the preceding year, 1905, which examined the feasibility of British military intervention on the Continent in the event of involvement in a Franco-German war. Study focused on what contribution a British army could make to redressing the military balance, and especially on the moral effect of British troops fighting alongside French, even though in comparatively small numbers. A war game was played which estimated the involvement of 473,000 German troops in an attack on France - but only four corps operating west of the Meuse, 19  a serious under-estimation. But this war game did much to lay the basis of British strategic thinking for the next nine years, for it deduced correctly that the main weight of a German attack on France would come through the Low Countries, and that if British help was to be effective it would have to be prompt. In September 1905, Balfour gave official authorisation to study the military implications of a violation of Belgian neutrality, the resulting memorandum stated that:

“An efficient Army of 120,000 troops might just have the effect of preventing important German successes on the Franco-German frontier and of leading up to the situation that Germany, crushed at sea, also felt herself impotent on land. . ." 20

Subsequently, Balfour authorised contact for preliminary staff talks with the French which lasted from 15 December 1905 to 31 December 1906, in order to begin preliminary work on:

“. . . arrangements for the mobilisation and transport to the northern French ports of [an expeditionary force] of 120,000 men.” 21

On 18 January 1906, Anglo-Belgian staff talks lasting three months began, for the Belgians, well aware of the threat posed by Germany and of their guarantees under the Treaty of London (1831), 22  were anxious to see British troops in Belgium as soon as possible after landing in France.

In spite of their misgivings, these discussions were taken forward by the Liberals. Sir Edward Grey, the Liberal Foreign Secretary, fearing the growth of German power, resolved that Britain would not face Germany alone, 23  and backed by Secretary for War Richard Haldane, advised Prime Minister Campbell-Bannerman to continue the Anglo-French military co-operation; indeed the relationship with France grew so rapidly that:

“By 1907 the preservation of the Entente Cordiale had become the cardinal feature of Grey’s diplomacy. . ." 24

The Maritime View

Although the tide of events was, by 1907, swinging strongly towards a continental commitment, the view of the Royal Navy, and especially of the First Sea Lord, Fisher, was somewhat different. Naval planning for operations against Germany proceeded in isolation from that of the Army. In essence, it held that the likely scale of military involvement in the Low Countries would be too little, too late: the best means of influencing the outcome of war was therefore by the adoption of a maritime strategy of sea control as espoused by Mahan, 25  destruction of the German High Seas Fleet; blockade; seizure of German colonies; and by amphibious action against the German Baltic coast and Heligoland. 26  This last activity might usefully divert the German main attack in France and Belgium, but its true rationale lay in the creation of conditions favourable to the conduct of a naval battle by mounting a threat sufficient to force the German fleet to fight in the open sea. This, it was believed, should therefore be the main preoccupation of the Army:

“No action by the Navy alone can do France any good . . . we should be bound to devote the whole military forces of the country to endeavour to create a diversion on the coast of Germany in France’s favour; also, in view of the rapidity with which events moved in the war of 1870, any diversion to be effective must be made at once.” 27

In government, Esher was the champion of this school of thought, as he favoured the idea of maintaining independent action, including the holding of Antwerp and Heligoland, remarking, for example, that

“By the precipitate alignment of our army with that of the French we forego the advantages of sea power.” 28

To resolve the issue and settle matters a Sub-Committee of the CID was set up in October 1908 consisting, at various times, of Asquith, Haldane, McKenna, Hardinge, Ewart, Nicholson, Slade, Bethell, French, Crewe, Esher, and Fisher. In this forum the debate on fighting in France as opposed to the maintenance of an independent, maritime, strategy, was carried on, and the Army’s case summed up in a telling paragraph which indicated how far thinking had come since 1902 - that a continental commitment by a field army was the best way:

“. . . to maintain the traditional policy of upholding the balance of power in Europe. According as the strength and efficiency of our military forces increase or decrease, so does the value of our friendship to any continental nation.” 29

The issue was duly resolved in favour of the commitment to an expeditionary force since although the Admiralty continued to espouse blockade and amphibious operations, the CID accepted that before these could be effective, France would be defeated. 30

“The Army had won an important victory in the ill-defined realm of civil-military policy formulation. Three years after its foundation the Expeditionary Force was now recognised as having a European function.” 31

Further clarification was still necessary as late as August 1911. Fisher, however, never fully accepted his defeat and indeed virtually boycotted the CID thereafter, remarking that:

“Our soldiers are grotesque in their absurd idea of war, but, happily they are powerless. It is Antwerp we shall seize.” 32

The Commitment Made, 1907 - 1914

So from late 1905 onwards, the Imperial General Staff concentrated ever harder on the problems of a war with Germany. The armament, training and organisation of the army were shaped accordingly. General Sir Henry Wilson is generally credited with being a decisive influence here, through his friendship with Foch which began when they were commandants of their respective staff colleges in 1909, 33  and pushed on when Wilson became Director of Military Operations. However it is clear that the CID had reached conclusions identical with those later put forward by Wilson as early as 1908. These were based on the War Game, and then on outline knowledge of The Schlieffen Plan as modified by von Moltke in 1909. The original plan had called for sixteen corps, five cavalry divisions and a force of Landwehr in Belgium north of the Meuse. Moltke had reduced this to twelve corps but cut out the need to deal with the Dutch Army by avoiding invasion of the Netherlands, and reduced the troops required to invest Antwerp. 34 It was still a formidable threat.

From 1909 therefore Army and RN plans were based on the assumption that a German attack on France or Belgium would be a casus belli for Britain, and that the BEF would fall in on the French left flank. Ports, routes and concentration areas were allocated accordingly. This planning derived directly from the political calculation that a German victory would upset the balance of power, and that the presence of a British force at the decisive point would be enough to tip the scales in favour of the French. The BEF was not to be a Prussian-style force but a small, mobile and strategically decisive balancing force: 35

". . . to make up for the inadequacy of the French Armies for their great task of defending the entire French frontier . . ." 36

This however was not revealed by Asquith or his government to Parliament or the public, and he was rescued from embarrassment only by the German violation of Belgian neutrality which Britain as a guarantor of the 1831 treaty could not ignore

Initially, the conclusions of the Imperial General Staff specified a BEF of four divisions (in two corps) and a cavalry division to reinforce the left flank of the French Army, landing in France and ready for action on the twentieth day after mobilisation. In 1911, however, the Wilson-Dubail memorandum specified 150,000 troops under French command in six divisions and one cavalry division, with two additional mounted brigades. 37  Thus the Force which was produced would, once the reforms of Lord Esher and of Haldane had done their work, and with the effort of the Imperial General Staff:

"Mobilise for service overseas a force consisting of four cavalry brigades and six divisions (each of three brigades) with the necessary troops for Lines of Communication, or roughly 150,000 officers and men. Of these about 50,000 would be regulars serving with the Colours, about 70,000 reservists, and about 30,000 men employed on a militia basis.” 38

The character of this expeditionary force also determined its structure. This was no longer to be a simple matter of shipping individual battalions around the world in small ships to reinforce existing garrisons, but a concept unknown since 1815: a large force, transported to the continent by a short ferry crossing, after only fifteen days allowed for mobilisation. Therefore the army had to be organised in peace to meet the emergency and grouped for continental warfare. For this reason, therefore, a divisional rather than a corps structure was adopted as the organisational basis of the BEF. 39  The detailed organisation of the BEF and its component divisions is set out in Tables A and B, which show that the army was as far as possible organised for a continental war at the highest intensity, but of limited duration. This organisation is further expanded in Table C which shows the considerable logistic arrangements in place at corps level a result of lessons learned in South Africa. It is of note here that the use of motor transport was already understood and used in conjunction with railways for the conveyance of supplies to the army, albeit that horse transport was still used to distribute logistic stocks below divisional level. 40  Further evidence of the application of technology to organisation and tactics is shown in Table D, which illustrates the incorporation of signal and machine-gun troops into the cavalry division. From the details of this organisation and its equipment it is clear that the British Army had learned an important lesson from South Africa, which the French and Germans had not learned from 1870 – 1871, but would do so in 1914: that Napoleonic massed manoeuvre was not possible in the face of modern firepower. 41

In spite of this progress, the tendency of the Liberal Party in government to demand a reduction in the Army Estimates continued to prove a problem for Haldane. 42  In May 1908 Churchill and Lloyd George tried to reduce the size of the BEF, but failed. By 1911, Churchill had accepted the size and shape of the Force, and the principle of its role as a balancing force mentioned above, remarking that:

“The decisive military operations will be those between Germany and France . . . Six British Divisions . . . is a material factor of significance. Its value is out of all proportion to its actual numerical strength.” 43

In this, Churchill did expose the risk involved in the maintenance of such a small Force engaged in continental war. Wellington in the Peninsular had been well aware that if he lost his small army, it could not be replaced. Similarly, the scale of war in 1914 was determined by the trained manpower available to the major protagonists: France 3.3 million, Germany 2.73 million, Russia 3.9 million, Austria-Hungary 2.3 million. 44  The six British divisions could be dwarfed by the French ability to mobilise eighty five divisions, and Germany’s (albeit to fight on two fronts) 110. 45  The BEF therefore stood open to the charge that it was merely a political expedient bearing little correspondence to actual needs or obligations. 46  Nor was it sustainable in anything but a short war.

Sir William Nicholson, the CIGS in 1906, put his finger on the nub of this issue when he said:

"History teaches us that the crises of war on a large scale do not always - I might say do not generally - occur at the beginning of a campaign" 47

In April 1906 it was estimated that the BEF would need up to 50,000 men in drafts trained and ready to replace the expected losses in a continental war. It was, however, abundantly clear that the existing structure of the Regular Reserves, Militia and Volunteers could not cope with this scale of reinforcement, dealing with which became one of the major achievements of the Haldane Reforms:

"If we engaged in a war of great severity and prolonged existence, what provision is made for further support and for expansion if necessary? The answer under the present circumstances is that provision is deficient . . ." 48

To remedy this situation, Haldane first re-formed the Militia into the Special Reserve, allocating seventy-four militia infantry battalions, one per line regiment as its 3rd Battalion, as draft finders; an additional twenty-four formed militia infantry battalions to relieve regular troops in garrison overseas, and a number of militia combat support and combat service support units. 49  This was an important step since the overseas garrisons contained the up-to-strength units of the army while those at home which were to form the regular element of the BEF were often under strength. Associated with this was the structure of the regular reserve and the associated mobilisation procedures. By 1914, the standard regular army engagement was seven years with the Colours and five in the reserve, 50  which had produced an available manpower of 145,090. 51  An efficient recall and mobilisation process existed, by which men knew to which unit they belonged, and this was backed up by a comprehensive movement plan and reception plan at regimental and corps depots. When put to the test in 1914, the system in general worked extremely smoothly. Secondly, Haldane paved the way for The Territorial and Reserve Forces Act (1907). This re-formed the Volunteer forces into The Territorial Force (TF), linked directly to the Regulars. The TF would comprise fourteen divisions and fourteen Yeomanry brigades organised on the regular army model, 52  and offered the great advantage that it was organised on a war establishment basis and therefore more complete than regular divisions in peacetime. 53  The TF would be mobilised in order to train for war and be ready after six months. It came into being on 1 April 1908 with an Establishment of 302,199. By 1 June it had reached 144,620; by 1 December 207,000; and by 25 February 1910, 276,618. 54

Thus the structure and organisation was well thought out. What was unclear in terms of the continental commitment was the command and control arrangements which would be necessary. No preliminary discussions at the operational level had taken place, and so the French assumed - wrongly - that the BEF would come under the orders of the French C-in-C. 55  Sir John French’s instructions, on the other hand, were far from clear and stated that he should:

"support and co-operate with the French Army . . . every effort will be made to coincide with the wishes of our French Ally [but the] gravest consideration [should be given to any] forward movement . . . where your Force may be unduly exposed to attack." 56

Any such decision on forward movement had to be refereed to Kitchener. The only really clear statement of intent in these instructions stated that:
“I wish you distinctly to understand that your command is entirely an independent one, and that in no case will you come under the orders of any Allied general.” 57

This was not communicated to the French government or high command and the result was considerable resentment and misunderstanding.

1914 and Beyond

Even in 1914 there was a view among politicians that:

"The role of the BEF was to stake Britain’s claim in the post-war political settlement. She would use her political and financial muscle as the principal means of supporting her allies." 58

There was also a view even among Cabinet ministers, as among the general public, that:

"The dispatch of the BEF was . . . an amphibious operation which could be rapidly terminated if it appeared that the force was in serious danger." 59

In other words, it was just a continuation of traditional practice. Certainly the strategy of the continental commitment as it developed 60  did lead Britain into four years of bloody warfare on the Western Front - but the possible alternatives of coalition building, blockade, or amphibious operations do not stand up to close inspection – nor did they do so at the time: the Imperial General Staff assessment that a contest would be decided early on in mass clashes on Franco-German frontier was in the event very near the truth.

By 1914 the BEF was thus well organised for its limited task and backed by a sufficient machinery of reserves and the TF to keep it in the field for a limited time. But when it was committed in 1914 it was not considered by many that its size would grow as it did during the course of the ensuing war. The instructions to Sir John French are quite clear in this respect:

"The numerical strength of the British Force and its contingent reinforcements is strictly limited, and with this consideration kept steadily in view it will be obvious that the greatest care must be exercised towards a minimum of loss and wastage . . ." 61

But although widely held, this view was not universal. As early as 1911 Lord Kitchener, who would become Secretary for War in 1914, estimated that a Great War would last at least three years, and in this he differed markedly from his Cabinet colleagues. He also believed that British military strength would not be fully deployed until 1917 62 . In 1914 Kitchener took immediate steps to expand the Army. On mobilisation, the Regular Army, Regular Reserve, Special Reserve and the Territorial Force combined provided a total of 700,000 men. 63  This figure Kitchener viewed – correctly – as unsuited to anything but the short and limited war for which it had been designed. On 7 August 1914, therefore, Parliament approved an initial increase of 500,000 men, by which Kitchener aimed to create:

"Such a force as would enable us continuously to reinforce our troops in the field by fresh divisions . . . so that at the conclusive period of the war we should have the maximum trained fighting army this country could produce." 64

Moreover by June 1915, with stalemate on Western front, a real choice had to be made between total commitment in the West or retaining some freedom of action: the residue of Fisher’s thinking still manifested itself in detachments to the Mediterranean and Middle East (although not at the price of the naval balance in the North Sea) and although these might have knocked out Germany’s ally Turkey, they could also by weakening the Western Front, have lost Britain’s major ally, France. Although Churchill won the argument in the short term, and the Dardenelles campaign was duly launched, Kitchener was in no doubt as to the only possible course of action, that Britain should:

". . . act with all our energy and do our utmost to help the French." 65

This commitment to the Anglo-French alliance lay at the very heart of Kitchener’s policy and is something for which he received little acclaim until recent times, due mainly to his support for what were to be abortive and costly offensive operations in France in 1915 66

It was with Kitchener therefore that total commitment began. The best known result was the New Armies, although more significantly in the long term, Kitchener understood the effect on operations of fighting in a coalition. 67  Even so, operations elsewhere for Imperial gain continued throughout the war: the grand design of replacing British influence or direct rule on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire was, it can be argued, seen by the Imperial War Cabinet as preferable to the disagreeable necessity of the Western Front. Despite the commitment to the continent, therefore, it was in 1921 that the British Empire reached its greatest territorial extent.


A. Organisation of the BEF. 68
B. Composition Brigades and Divisions. 69 
C. Organisation of I Corps Showing Logistic Arrangements 70
D. Introduction of Signal and MG troops into the Cavalry Division. 71 

Primary Sources
PRO CAB/1/7/740 – Cabinet Office Papers,
PRO CAB /18/24 dated 19 December 1905 – Cabinet Office Papers
Expeditionary Force War Establishments for 1910 – 1911 (HMSO, London, Issued with Army Orders, 1 January 1911).
Expeditionary Force War Establishments for 1914 (HMSO, London, Issued with Army Orders, 1 January 1914).
Memorandum by the Secretary of State for War on Army Reorganisations, 30 July 1906 (Haldane Report) (Parliament Command Paper 2993).
Report of the War Office (Reconstitution) Committee, 1904 (Esher Report) (Parliament Command Paper 1932).

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George Monger The End of Isolation (London, 1963).
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Copyright © 1998 Jonathon Riley

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