Manpower crisis 1918

The overstretched British Army in France came close to defeat in March and April 1918. A shortage of manpower, when 100s of 1000s of men were being held at home, was a key factor. It led to the very brink of catastrophe.

In early October 1917, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George asked Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig to consider an extension of the line on the Western Front. He did not tell Haig that he had in fact already agreed with the French to do this. Haig reported on 8 October: he insisted that in view of the now-doubtful power of the French army to resist a German attack that all other British fronts should be placed on the defensive; all remaining force should be concentrated on the Western Front and take an offensive stance; the 62 Divisions now in France should be brought up to full strength and that the occupied line should not be extended.

When Haig submitted his report to Lloyd George, he was conscious that the army in France was already significantly below planned establishment. The BEF was in the middle of fighting its third major engagement of the year (Arras, Messines, Ypres) and replacement drafts were not keeping up with losses. Haig was by now 70-80,000 men short in the infantry alone. The Army Council had been pressing insistently on the Government the need for more men, all through the second half of the year.

The War Office drops a bombshell

On 3 November 1917 the War Office informed Haig that they would not be able to replace expected losses. The current shortfall of 70-80000 would be closer to 256000 by 31 October 1918. Privately, Haig and his GHQ staff believed the gap might be as high as 460000.

Cabinet Committee on manpower places the army well down the priority list

The allocation of Britain's overstretched manpower was a most complex question. The needs of industrial production and the various armed forces needed to be appropriately balanced. A Government Committee - of whom no member represented the military - decided that the priority for manpower should be [1] the fighting needs of the Navy and Air Force; [2] shipbuilding; [3] tank and aeroplane production; [4] food production, timber felling. The army did not rate a mention.

Lloyd George's favoured Eastern adventures place high demand on manpower

Alongside the 62 under-strength Divisions facing the main enemy on the main front in France, the army was by now also providing 4 Divisions in Salonika, 10 in Egypt and Palestine, 1 in Mesopotamia, and 3 on garrison duties in India. 8 Divisions plus 13 Cyclist Battalions were being kept in England to fight off an enemy assault [which of course never came and never was remotely contemplated]. Haig was ordered to send 5 Divisions from France to Italy in late 1917 too.

Without sufficient reinforcements, the army in France has to be restructured

On 24 November 1917 Haig advised the War Office that unless more troops were forthcoming, he would have to break up 15 of his 57 Divisions to bring the remaining formations back up to strength. The Cabinet Committee on manpower disagreed and proposed an alternative, reduction from 12 infantry battalions to 9 in every Division. The military members of the Army Council protested against this move - which affected every regiment of infantry and cut through an organisational structure for which every officer and man had been trained - but to no avail. The army moved to the 9-battalion structure in early 1918 and was still coming to terms with its effects well into the year.

Fewer men, but more line ... and the enemy rapidly growing in strength

Even though his available strength was dwindling, Haig had to extend the line occupied by the army. This was carried out at a time when enemy strength was growing daily as a result of the collapse of the Eastern front. The USA was moving troops to France at last, but it would be many months before they represented a large-scale effective fighting force. The scene was being set for disaster, which eventually happened when the enemy struck in March 1918. The undermanned Fifth Army was virtually destroyed and the front on the Somme fell back 40 miles.

Parliament asks questions about the disaster on the Somme

On the very day the enemy launched their second offensive - 9 April - Lloyd George and Lord Curzon made speeches in the House of Commons and Lords respectively, dealing with the awful reverse suffered in particular by Fifth Army. The Prime Minister said that the British Army had been stronger on 1 January 1918 than it had been on the same day in 1917. He also noted that all except 3 of the Divisions in Egypt and Palestine contained a very small proportion of white troops. A few days later, on 23 April, Bonar Law responded with the formal, considered Government position in answer to a written question about the extension of the British front on the Somme. Bonar Law said that this matter had not been dealt with at all by the Supreme War Council at Versailles. Furthermore, "There is not the smallest justification for the suggestion that this portion of the line was taken over contrary to the judgement of Sir William Robertson and Sir Douglas Haig".

The Army senses that the politicians are denying responsibility

The senior officers of the army smelled a rat. The "frocks" were covering up, denying that anything they had done had led to disaster, and by implication pointing the finger at the Generals and even at the troops themselves.

And it was not just the frocks who were covering up. Sir Henry Wilson, who by agreeing with and supporting Lloyd George's strategic ideas had already manoeuvred his way to the post of Chief of the Imperial General Staff in place of Robertson, was also deeply implicated. Wilson would have known full well, as he was the British Permanent Military Representative at the Supreme War Council at the time, that the extension of the line had been not only discussed but proposed by him and his peers.

Freddy Maurice decides to challenge Lloyd George

MauriceMajor-General Frederick Maurice had been Director of Military Operations under Robertson. He had seen at first hand how the Prime Minister's Eastern ventures and the extension of the British line had been driven by Lloyd George and Wilson in spite of protest by Haig. He had himself predicted the Somme disaster and had made his views clear for many months. He was convinced that the Government was leading the army and the country to defeat. He took an extraordinary step of tremendous moral courage. He decided to forsake his career by publicly challenging what was going on. He did this alone, without reference even to his family.

Maurice's letter appears in the Press

On 6 May 1918 Maurice wrote to The Times, The Morning Post, Daily News, Daily Chronicle and Daily Telegraph, all of which except the latter published his letter the next day. He had in fact previously written to Wilson appointing out the inconsistencies and downright falsehoods in the politicians statements, but had received no reply. He wrote:

Sir,
My attention has been called to answers given in the House of Commons on 23 April by Mr Bonar Law to questions put by Mr G. Lambert, Colonel Burn and Mr Pringle [Members of Parliament], as to the extension of the British front in France. (Hansard, Volume 105, no. 34, page 851 [the official minutes of Parliamentary proceedings]). These answers contain certain misstatements which in sum give a totally misleading impression of what occurred.

This is not the place to enter into a discussion as to all the facts, but Hansard's report concludes: 'Mr Pringle - Was this matter entered into at the Versailles War Council at any time?' 'Mr Bonar Law - This particular matter was not dealt with at all by the Versailles War council'. I was at Versailles when the question was decided by the Supreme War Council to whom it had been referred.

This is the latest in a series of misstatements which have been made recently in the House of Commons by the present Government. On 9th April the Prime Minister said: 'What was the position at the beginning of the battle? Notwithstanding the heavy casualties in 1917 the Army in France was considerably stronger on 1 January 1918 than on 1 January 1917'. (Hansard, Vol. 104, no 24, page 1328). That statement implies that Sir Douglas Haig's fighting strength had not been diminished on the eve of the great battle which began on 21 March. That is not correct.

Again in the same speech the Prime Minister said: 'In Mesopotamia there is only one white Division at all, and in Egypt and Palestine there are only three white divisions, the rest are either Indians or mixed with a very very small proportion of British troops in these Divisions - I am referring to infantry Divisions'. This is not correct.

Now Sir, this letter is not the result of military conspiracy. It has been seen by no soldier. I am by descent and conviction as sincere a democrat as the Prime Minister and the last thing I desire is to see the government of our country in the hands of soldiers. My reasons for taking this very grave step of writing this letter are that the statements quoted above are known to a large number of soldiers to be incorrect, and this knowledge is breeding such distrust of the Government as can only end in impairing the splendid morale of our troops at a time when everything possible should be done to raise it.

I have therefore decided, fully realising the consequences to myself, that my duty as a citizen must override my duty as a soldier, and I ask you to publish this letter in the hope that Parliament may see fit to order an investigation into the statements I have made.

I am, Yours faithfully
F. Maurice Major-General
20 Kensington Park Gardens
6 May, 1918

The letter had originally referred to the fact that at Versailles, although Maurice had not been in the room when these issues were discussed, had received the agenda and complete verbatim reports. This reference was struck out by the official censor as being a reference to secret documents.

Actual manpower available on the Western Front 1st January 1917 and 1918

British Forces in France
Fighting Troops
Non-Fighting Troops
Labour
Total
British
Coloured (Indian Cavalry)
British
Coloured
British
Coloured
1-1-17
1,069,831
8,876
217,533
2,704
0
0
1,298,944
1-1-18
969,293
11,544
295,334
2,256
190,197
108,203
1,576,817
Dominion Forces in France
1-1-17
204,989
0
22,249
0
0
0
227,238
1-1-18
217,205
0
56,945
0
0
0
274,150
Total British and Dominion Forces in France
1-1-17
1,274,820
8,876
239,782
2,704
0
0
1,526,182
1-1-18
1,186,488
11,544
352,279
2,256
190,197
108,203
1,850,967
It should be noted that the Labour Corps did not exist until the middle of 1917.

It can be seen from these official figures that while Lloyd George was right in that the total British strength in France had risen by some 324000 men, the mix had changed. The effective fighting strength had fallen by as much as 7% in the year. It was this, plus the large extra commitment in terms of line to be held, that worried the army and was a serious contributory factor to the inability to hold the enemy in March 1918. Much further correspondence later on demonstrates that there is no question that Lloyd George was in possession of correct facts, and chose the facts he used in Parliament very carefully.

Haig privately thinks Maurice has made a mistake

In his private papers, on 7 May Haig noted "Reuter states Gen. Maurice has written to the papers. This is a grave mistake. No one can be both a soldier and a politician at the same time. We soldiers have to do our duty and keep silent, trusting Ministers to protect us". Four days later he wrote to his wife "Poor Maurice! How terrible to see the House of Commons so easily taken in by a clap-trap speech by Lloyd George. The House is really losing its reputation as an assembly of common-sense Britishers. However I don't suppose Maurice has done with LG yet".

Lloyd George bites back and Freddy Maurice is sacked

As Maurice later said, "I was not prepared for the methods pursued by the Government to defeat my request for an enquiry". The Prime Minister accused him of not having made any representations before going to the Press; that Maurice had not been in a position to know what happened at Versailles even though he had been there; and that the figures quoted had been supplied by Maurice's office. None of these rebuttals were true. But one man against the Government is an unequal struggle. Of course, no enquiry ever took place.

On 7 May the Army Council wrote to Maurice to ask why he had written the way he had. He replied that he recognised his act had breached regulations but it was a matter of conscience. Four days later Maurice was placed on retired pay. The lone voice that had bravely suggested that the Government was being deceitful and denying its clear culpability in the shocking defeat of the army in March and April 1918 was effectively silenced. Maurice was hired as military correspondent for the Daily Chronicle. Five months later Lloyd George himself bought that newspaper firm, from money he had personally raised through the sale of honours and awards. In modern language we would call these bribes.

Grudges ran deep with the Prime Minister. In 1925 Maurice, who was by now a distinguished military historian, applied for the recently vacant seat of Chichele Professor of Military History at the University of Oxford. He was rejected in favour of Ernest Swinton, a man whose claim was much less sound. Why? Sir Maurice Hankey, a member of the Board of Electors and Secretary of the Cabinet had informed his fellow members that Maurice 'was persona non grata with the Admiralty and the War Office'. Maurice was always convinced that Lloyd George had put him up to this.

Manpower crisis? What manpower crisis? The men were there all along ...

From 21 March to 31 August 1918 another 544000 troops were sent to France, of which 419000 were A-grade fighting troops. This does not include another 100000 who came through movement of Divisions from Italy and the reduction in force of Divisions in Egypt, Palestine and Salonika.

Useful bibliography

  • "The Maurice Case", from the papers of Major-General Sir Frederick Maurice, edited by Nancy Maurice, with an appreciation by Major-General Sir Edward Spiers. Published by Leo Cooper 1972.