The British regular army of 1914-1918

What was the regular army?

The regular army is the name applied to the units and formations of men who joined the army for a paid job - professional soldiers. Up to the declaration of war, most men joining the regular army enlisted for a total of twelve years, made up of a period of full time service with the colours followed by a period on reserve. Although the make up of these twelve years was adjusted on a few occasions between 1902 and 1914, in general the term was seven years colour service and then five years on reserve.

It was also possible join the Special Reserve of the regular army, which did not require full time colour service in peace time. For details of this and the reserve service commitments of the regular soldier, see Reserves and reservists

Once mobilisation was ordered on 5 August 1914 and Lord Kitchener had introduced A call to arms, all men enlisting into the army - unless they went into the Territorial Force - could now choose to join on "general service" terms, which meant full time service for three years or the duration of the war, whichever longer. These men were, strictly, of the regular army.

The introduction of conscription by the Military Service Act in 1916 meant that all future enlistments were for "general service", for the duration.

What made the regular army distinctive?

The Regiments and Corps of the pre-war regular army protected their traditions with fierce pride, which rubbed off on the part-time volunteer units of the Territorial Force and even on the war time volunteers and conscripts. The regular units were naturally the first to go to war and they formed the bedrock for the expansion of the army. There was a degree of professional pride: the regulars smartness of dress, drill and marching, and efficiency in the field tended them to regard the newcomers as "Fred Karno's Army". Losses of men in the regular units soon meant that the regular ranks were filled with 'amateurs' and the regular distinction was inevitably blurred. But the men who joined the regular units as amateurs made sure that the fighting traditions were carried on, and regular units were able to retain an air of superiority to the end.

Not equipped for a major Continental-scale war

Before the Great War the British regular army was very small in comparison with those of its European neighbours. The army's main role since the conclusion of the Second Boer War in South Africa between 1899-1902 was policing of the British Empire, 'upon which the sun never set'. Britain's traditional armed strength lay in the Royal Navy and there was no preconceived intention to commit a large army to a Continental war.

Army planning in the crisis years leading up to 1914 had provided for a small Expeditionary Force (BEF) of six infantry divisions, equipped as a mobile force that could be deployed anywhere needed. Following reforms carried out after the poor performance in South Africa, this small army could be considered to be among the best in terms of equipment and training, although in many respects of armament - critically as it turned out, especially in heavy artillery - it fell well short of the Germans. Informal discussions took place with the French army following the establishment of the Entente in 1906. They concluded that the most likely war scenario envisaged a German attack on France, in which case the BEF would take up a position to the left of the French front - a small adjunct to the mighty French army; indeed one no bigger (if perhaps with greater promise) than that of the Belgian army. Great Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, following the German invasion of Belgium.

On 4 August 1914, almost half of the British Army was overseas, spread around the garrisons of Empire.

The first British Expeditionary Force

In the last days of peace, the British Government committed only four - not six - infantry divisions to the Expeditionary Force going to France. There were genuine fears of German invasion of the home country, and troops would be needed. Ireland was also still a cause for concern. Mobilisation of the BEF and embarkation for France proceeded faultlessly, and all men and equipment moved across the Channel as planned. They moved swiftly into position and first encountered the enemy at Mons on 23 August 1914.

The original BEF comprised
1st Division | 2nd Division | 3rd Division | 5th Division |
1st Cavalry Division | 2nd Cavalry Division. plus lines of communication, Corps and Army troops and HQ.

Completing the "Old Contemptibles"

The 4th Division, which was already mobilised in England in accordance with pre-war planning, moved to France just in time to take part in the defensive stand made at Le Cateau on 26 August 1914. The 6th Division, similarly ready, also moved out and joined the BEF. They missed the great retreat but took part in the advance to the Aisne. Meanwhile, many battalions of the regular army were ordered to move from various stations around the Empire. Those among the earliest to arrive in England had sailed from Malta, South Africa, and Gibraltar. They were formed up into the 7th Division, arguably amongst the strongest formations assembled by the British, consisting of trained soldiers, needing fewer reservists to be made up to full strength. The 7th Division was initially ordered to the defence of Antwerp and landed at Zeebrugge on 6 October 1914 - but it was soon moved to the vicinity of Ypres where it played a central role in the first defensive battle there. All of the Divisions named thus far were very heavily engaged in these early days of the war; indeed by the close of the First Battle of Ypres, they were all but destroyed. They took great pride in their achievements, and were always known as The Old Contemptibles.

The 1914 expansion of the BEF comprised
4th Division | 6th Division | 7th Division | 3rd Cavalry Division.

From the furthest outposts of Empire

It took much longer for those units posted in India, Burma and other Empire posts in the Far East, and Bermuda and other places in the Caribbean, to arrive in England. Not only was the journey longer but their places had first to be filled by Territorial battalions which had to equip and prepare for overseas service and then take the long outward journeys. Eventually, however, four more Divisions were built and composed of regular soldiers. The 8th, 27th and 28th were deployed on the Western Front during early 1915, seeing their first major action at Ypres. The 29th Division was committed to the amphibious assault on Gallipoli. (Note: the Divisional numbers 9 to 26 had in the intervening period been allotted to the New Armies raised under Kitchener's call to arms).

The further expansion of the BEF comprised
8th Division | 27th Division | 28th Division | 29th Division.

It was during very late 1914 and early 1915 that the enormous scale and strength of the British Empire came to the rescue of the small and by now beleaguered regular British Army on the Western Front. During this time came the Indian Corps, composed of a mixture of British regular and Indian Army troops. They took over a significant portion of the line then occupied by the British, and took part in the early battles of 1915. The first Canadian contingent also arrived at this time. Elsewhere, Australian and New Zealand troops were being assembled in Egypt, initially destined for the Western Front but eventually being ordered to their everlasting fame on Gallipoli. Some British regular units remained with the Indian Army, taking part in the actions in Mesopotamia.

tipTip: Can I tell if my soldier was in the regular army? This is not as easy as you might think, unless you have the man's service record and it shows enlistment on regular terms. The vast majority of men who had 1914 embarkation dates shown on their medal index cards were of the regular army, although large numbers were Special Reservists rather than serving regulars or recalled from the army reserve.