So let's get beyond the fluff and ask ourselves what the British army looked like, what could happen to it.
In 1850, the British army could look back with some pride on a good century. It had beaten Napoleon, not only peripheral armies in a peripheral theatre, but Napoleon himself, at Waterloo. (We could quibble that it was at least as much the Prussians, but are any of the national participants ashamed of being at the Battle of Leipzig?) It had, if not beaten the Americans in the vast expanses of the North American continent, at least stalemated them in 1812--15. And it had conquered in India, again and again.
The pattern of this army was simple enough. As with other really wearing physical jobs, soldiering was a 20 year career. A young man of 19 was ready to build the muscles needed to run or ride up the side of a mountain and clear out a sangar, and a man of 40 was too old for it. Just as in modern professional sports, but also in the life of an agricultural labourer, of virtually everyone of this era, those first 20 years of employment were supposed to build the skills required to land a less arduous position later on --or kill you.
Or, there was a third option: a pension. Bismarck, of course, set the national pension as starting at 65, but a pension vests depending on money invested and the size of the retirement group. Nineteenth century soldiers were cheap to pension off, because they died a lot, because their employer was reasonably fiscally responsible, and because expectations about pensions weren't high. It would be a good idea for these men to have something to fall back on, but from the government's point of view, it was a worthwhile investment. Veterans begging in the street were bad for recruiting, and bad for politics.
Apart from people living longer, two things happened over the next 20 years to call this system of a "long service" army into question. The first was the Indian Mutiny of 1856. Although there were plenty enough British troops in India to quell the Mutiny in the end, it was a chastening experience. From now on, the British government of India would aim to brigade one British infantry battalion or cavalry regiment with two Indian battalions or regiments. The Indian army would be one-third British, and all officers and all artillerists would be British. The last ensured that a disproportionate number of the soldiers who learned useful trades in India would be British. Was that planned? I don't know yet. More importantly, the size of the Indian Army, and thus the problem of Indian security, put a floor on the strength of the British army, and specified its force structure.
The second challenge came in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870--1. The British government of the time watched in trepidation as Prussian armies changed the balance of power in Europe. Was this a threat to Britain? That part was not clear. What was clear was that there was nothing that the government could do about it, because it had no soldiers to send over to France to fight for either sided. It turned out that all the battalions and regiments living in barracks in England were understrength, having been combed out to supply men for India. (Except the Guards, who were the ultimate resort against London riots.) The French had exactly the same problem. Less obviously, they had particular problems raising technical troops, so that their infantry and cavalry marched to war without enough waggons. Long-service armies did not work.
There was a clear need to change the nature of the British army. And that was what happened in what called, after the Secretary of State for War, Lord Caldwell, the Caldwell Reforms. From now on, the British army would consist of linked units of three battalions. There would be two battalions at home, and one battalion in India. The battalions at home would contain the young recruits and the old, soon-to-be-discharbed, and so could not be mobilised for war. However, service periods were also changed. From now on, infantrymen would serve 7 years with the colours, and 5 years with the reserves. Thirty seemed like the oldest one could reasonably expect a recalled civilian to quickly adapt back to military life, but, much more importantly, the government could no longer afford pensions for all, and thirty seemed the oldest that even the most callous government could kick a man out on the street and expect him to land on his feet.
The Army Reserve was still not big enough for all the social and military purposes that having an army could entail. A bunch of green recruits getting ready to go to India were not the kind of men who could be turned out of the barracks and sent to quell a riot, which could happen in Manchester just as easily as London. That, among other things, is how Britain eventually got its Territorial Army. And the notion of an army mobilising to a predictable schedule was a little naive. You chould mark the day the steamer was to sail for India on the calendar, but not so much the day that the next war would start. There might be a sudden need for young men, and the colonel could provide it, by letting his brother, local squire know. That worthy would promptly show up on the doorstep with some young men that no-one would miss, and the army was up to strength. I know that you're probably thinking of ne'er do-wells given the choice between gaol and the army, but the fact was that there were always surplus boys in need of work. It's the oldest fact in the world of unemployment, and especially serious in an agricultural economy with frequent seasonal changes in the labour supply. So pretty soon colonel and squire would have got together and formalised the arrangement anyway, even if the War Office had not. And thus was born the Special Reserve of young men who were part-time soldiers quite outside the official arrangements of the Territorial Army.
Overall, the system didn't work very well in 1914. The Special Reserve and Army Reserve went to war, but the Secretary of State for War (that would be Lord Kitchener, he of the "I Want You" poster) had little confidence in the Territorials. Kitchener was a very smart man, one of the last of the great generation of military engineer commander-in-chiefs who ran the army during the Nineteenth Century, just before the very short-lived takeover by cavalry generals that I might write about someday, since the common wisdom on it is so very wrong. Anyway, if he thought that the Territorials were too ill-trained to go to war under their prewar organisation, he was probably right.
Instead, at the end of 1914, the British line was held by the Indian Corps, IV Corps, III Corps, II Corps, I Corps. A cavalry division was attached to II Corps, with the Cavalry Corps in reserve. In this large force there were 22 Territorial battalions and 6 Yeomanry regiments (for complicated reasons, there was a different kind of Territorial Army for the cavalry only, this "Yeomanry," and for more, complicated reasons, the equivalent formation to an infantry battalion in a Commonwealth army is a cavalry regiment. It's confusing, but go with it.) This force totalled 9 British and 2 Indian infantry divisions under two army headquarters, with no less than 3 British and 2 Indian cavalry divisions, including 2 Indian infantry and 2 Indian cavalry divisions. (22—3). In January the army was joined by 28th Division, a new Regular army formation of battalions returning from India, and in February by 1st Canadian Division and the very first Territorial (46th) division, thus bringing the army up on the 27th day of the 7th calendar month of the war to a strength of 13 British and Canadian infantry divisions, 3 British cavalry divisions and 2 each Indian infantry and cavalry divisions, all one-third and more "British" in composition, but with only about 36 Territorial battalions.
General Edmonds, (with G. C. Wynne) Military Operations: France and Flanders, 1915: Winter 1914—15: The Battle of Neuve Chapelle: The Battle of Ypres in 1927 2nd ed. (London: MacMillan, 1937).
Why worry about what the British-Indian-Canadian army in Flanders looked like in the late winter of 1915? The best of all possible reasons: so we can understand why it looked as it did on 10 May 1940. The thing is, the population of Britain had not changed very much in the interim, and so the supply of manpower for recruitment had not changed, either. The Indian army was exactly as large as it was in 1914, so the ostensible size of the British army was fixed. Well, actually, it was a little understrength, since 6 infantry battalions had been demobilised to cover the loss of Irish recruits when Ireland became independent and created its own army. The War Office had been promising to reraise these battalions for years by 1939, but nothing had been done about it. Conversely, it had raised some tank battalions.
So the army was falling behind its obligations to soldiers (for time in Britain), and to India. Worse, India has more, and more serious, riots than London or Manchester, and to suppress them, it seemed as though the Indian Army needed cavalry. And that meant that British cavalry regiments had to form their old one-third of the complement. That's a lot of cavalry.
But let's go back to the end of WWI, even if no-one could have seen that coming when the incoming Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field-Marshal Wilson, sat down at his desk to explain to his field commander, Douglas Haig, just how Haig was going to deal with the flood of Russian troops who would revitalise the German army in the 1919 campaigning season. Wilson spelled out the simple fact that some think Haig never quite got. There were not that many men to go around. What was more, it was not uncommon for the infantry battalions of a division to be relieved and rotated back to the rear to absorb reinforcements several times over, while the tanks, artillery, aviation, and machine gun battalions attached to the division were kept forward --not because the army was minded to be unfair, but because they had not suffered casualties requiring rotation. The infantry was dying in the trenches, while meanwhile the British army did not even have as many machine guns as their allies. And, back home, industry was short of men to make machine guns and artillery. Haig needed to find a way of doing without infantry.
(See Brigadier General Sir James E. Edwards, History of the Great War: Military Operations in France and Belgium, vol. 4, 8th August–26th September: The Franco-British Offensive (London: HMSO, 1947). The Memorandum, entitled “Memorandum of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff,” is included as Appendix V, 527–49.
Switch forward to 1934, and the army was over 50% infantry. That was more than in WWI, because the men were needed in India. But were they? IN 1934, a war broke out with the Waziris along the frontier. It was not exactly a First World War, more like one of projecting firepower into difficult, mountainous terrain in order to winkle the Waziris out of their strongpoints. But substitute mud for mountains, and it is not an entirely different kind of war from the Western Front. So the Waziri Force consisted of:
1 regiment of cavalry and one detachment, 5 batteries RA and 5 independent gun sections, 4 British infantry battalions and 33 Indian battalions and 6 companies, 4 RA Signals Sections, 3 Base Engineer Parks, 9 RE Field Companies, 2 RE Army Troops companies, 3 Royal Construction Battalions, 3 Signals Detachments, 3 Divisional Signals, 2 RA Ammo Columns; in the RASC, 2 Supply Issue sections, 3 independent bakery subsections, 3 independent butchery sections, 2 railhead supply detachments, 16 supply depot sections, 7 POL sections, 3 cattle supply sections, 15 animal transport companies, mule, light detachment ATC, camel, 2 motor ambulance units, 2 30 cwt mechanical transport sections, 4 3t motor transport sections, 2 unidentified, 2 detachments, independent mechanical transport Co.s attached to field batteries (howitzer) RA, assorted medical and vet units, 1 ordnance field cos, plus postal, rest camp, provost, military accounting, works, canteens, transport, military grass farms, and military dairy farms. (gasp). And note that there are British officers attached to most of these units.
It simplifies things to note that the RAF OB is confined to 1 Group HQ, 3 wings, incl, 4 bomber squadrons, 2 Bomber Transport sq, 3 Army Co-op squadrons, 1 AAF flight.
It's helpful to note that the British army was failing to make recruiting targets in 1934, and having trouble getting rid of men at the end of their career. The best explanation for that was that the army looked like a bad job that no-one wanted, and that no-one wanted to leave. The paradox is best explained by all those infantrymen, who apparently didn't even do that much work in Waziristan! They were not learning a useful skill in the ranks, were not earning a pension, and apparently were not even staying in the ranks --all the random personnel in all those administrative tail organisation were being recruited from somewhere, often the infantry. The army had too much infantry: 108 battalions in the interwar period.
Parliament had noticed this. That was why it had funded three schools dedicated to giving soldiers some vocational training in the last six months of their army career. Hopefully, you'd made arrangements by that time. If you hadn't, these schools would give you some job prospects. Unfortunately, no-one wanted to go to two of the three schools, which taught would-be agricultural labourers. No-one was dumb enough to have failed to notice that there weren't many jobs for agricultural labourers anymore. The final school taught introductory construction trades. It did well, but it was a narrower field. With a little distance, we can see that the army should have been teaching men to be linesmen, heavy duty mechanics, truck drivers and radio repairmen --but it is not exactly obvious that it should have been doing that at the end of their careers, because those were the kinds of skills --unlike rifle toting-- that the Waziristan force actually needed!
And if that were true of the infantry, how much more so the 23 regiments of cavalry! As early as 1928, a cavalry regiment had been put into armoured cars, and as the 30s went on, mechanical mounts were found for more and more cavalry. That would not work in India, unless and until the Indian army was put in tanks. Yet could you really take a cavalry regiment that was runnig around in armoured cars in Europe, and put them in horses in India? A solution was finally found in 1938. The whole Indian cavalry would "mechanise--" somehow, at Britis expense. At the outbreak of war, there were only two British cavalry regiments still on horse, essentially tied to the last two (British) regiments in India not yet mechanised. That said, it's getting a little late, here.
And there was a hidden problem here. One can ride around in armoured vehicles all day long, but at the end of the day, someone has to take them to the garage and maintain them. You can train a man to drive a tank and due light maintenance fairly quickly. A complete engine rebuild is another matter, but you need to do a great many of those if you are actually going to field tanks and trucks! In the British army in 1939, that job was going to, in burgeoning numbers, practically everyone who wanted to do it.
That wasn't an unprecedented or even a mistaken thing to do. For many years, the Indian State Railways had recruited new mechanics by basically shanghaiing any soldier who wandered through the works. If he worked out, he would be moved over to the workshops, and get a training that would stand him in for life. And if his infantry battalion went off to bash Waziris a little understrength, it was only getting a head start on the other ones. By 1939, the shanghaiing was well under way. The Royal Engineers had a (Transportation) section that originally reflected the fact that there was no (British State) Railways. Nowadays, some of them (repaired) trucks, instead., Obviously the Royal Army Service Corps, which had a lot of trucks, had a (Repair) section. So did the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, because it had always been in charge of fixing guns, and nowadays the guns were towed by tractors. (Like tractor-trailers, not the things that farmers have. Except for farmers who are truckers, mind you.)
This all sounds like a bit of mishmash, and midway through WWII, it was all rationalised into the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, by then one of the largest single branches of the army. It was a mishmash, of course. The internal combustion engine was taking over the army in every sector, and the War Office was rolling with events. In the process, it failed to notice the real problem here: the lack of any sign of Infantry (Repair). It's not that there had to be any such organisation. It was that the men were coming out of the technical branches to fix trucks. Where they needed to come out of the infantry. In the spring, 1939 defence budget, the Secretary of State for War finally did something about this. The "Special Reserve" had long since been changed into a "Supplementary Reserve" to meet the needs of all the branches for a few extra boys at the outbreak of war. Now he took that structure and gave the Royal Engineers (Transportation) the authorisation to raise the largest branch of the Supplementary Reserve. It was way too late to turn an authorisation into manpower, so there are two things to note here. The first is that this recognition that there just weren't enough grease monkeys for war conditions came so late. The second is that the organisation that in 1913 existed to take boys out of the fields had been turned by 1939 into an organisation that existed to take boys out of factories.
That's a metaphor for the changes that had taken place in Britain in the interwar years, not some kind of revelation. But it does come back to issues of recruiting and that fatal day in May. But first I want to talk about cavalry and tanks.
Hmm... I think I'm going to have to come back to this.
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- From Now On, No Defeats: Alamein, III: "Look for me at dawn on the third day."
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