After the Boer War, Richard Haldane, the War Minister, spearheaded a reform of the British Army. Hindered by a nation obsessed with its Navy, and a political system opposed to conscription, the opportunity to grow the army was limited, so instead Haldane concentrated on modernisation and training, with the aim of building an elite force of 6 infantry divisions and 1 cavalry division, all available for rapid mobilisation as a British Expedition Force (BEF) in mainland Europe. Backed, if needed, by a reserve of 14 Territorial divisions of volunteers.
The overseas portion of the British Army – specifically those armies in India, Egypt, South Africa and the Middle East lost out big time in this re-structure and overhaul. Despite the fact that over half of the total strength of the army was stationed overseas, these forces were often starved of men, equipment and resources in order to bolster the BEF.
At the outbreak of war in August 1914 the BEF was about 120,000 strong and ready to go. They had seen the European heavyweights poke each other in the eye and were ready to get stuck in. Unfortunately, whilst they were expertly trained – especially in the use of the rifle, in which they were probably the best in the world, they were trained for a mobile war, and did not have huge numbers of artillery, machine guns, mortars or grenades.
So, with big smiles and a sense of adventure, the BEF boarded trains and headed off to Belgium. The sentiment of the time was that it would ‘be all over by Christmas’ and it will all be a jolly good escapade. However they marched straight towards an enemy that had already forced the armies of Belgium and France to run and hide. Germany was hugely superior in numbers, had more artillery, more bombs, and more shells, she also knew how to ‘dig in’ and form strong defensive positions.
However despite the odds, the BEF put up a huge fight and frustrated the on rushing German army. This can be seen clearly in the famous “Order of the Day” given by the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, on the 19th August, 1914:-
“It is my Royal and Imperial Command that you concentrate your energies,
for the immediate present upon one single purpose,
and that is that you address all your skill and all the valour of my soldiers,
to exterminate first, the treacherous English,
walk over General French’s contemptible little Army.”
With typical British humour, the BEF gladly embraced being called contemptible, and from that day on they would be forever known as ‘The Old Contemptibles’.
The BEF fought heroically, In an after-action report, one Prussian officer estimated that the British had at least 28 machine guns per battalion. In reality, they had only TWO machine guns per battalion. All that firepower came from bolt-action rifles in the hands of men well-trained in their use.
Despite lacking men, guns and ammunition, the BEF managed to halt the German Army and put a very large British spanner in the wheel that was the Schlieffen Plan. The German advance had been stopped. Paris had been saved. It came at a cost though. By the end of 1914, the original BEF had been practically wiped out.
The survivors of The Old Contemptibles were rightly proud of what they had achieved between August 5th and November 22nd 1914. In 1925, Captain John Patrick Danny, RFA, founded the Old Contemptibles Association for veterans of the BEF. At its height it had 178 UK branches and 14 overseas and produced its own magazine.