Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, August 4, 2014

Why Did the Original BEF Deploy Two Fewer Divisions Than Had Been Promised?

I've always wondered about why the BEF at Mons had only four infantry divisions rather than six promised. I recently stumbled across the answer in Sir John French's otherwise poorly regarded memoir, 1914.

On Wednesday, August 5th, a Council of War was held at 10, Downing Street, under the Presidency of the Prime Minister. Nearly all the members of the Cabinet were present, whilst Lord Roberts, Lord Kitchener, Sir Charles Douglas, Sir Douglas Haig, the late Sir James Grierson, General (now Sir Henry) Wilson and myself were directed to attend. To the best of my recollection the two main subjects discussed were:

1. The composition of the Expeditionary Force.
2. The point of concentration for the British Forces on their arrival in France.

As regards 1:
It was generally felt that we were under some obligation to France to send as strong an army as we could, and there was an idea that one Cavalry Division and six Divisions of all arms had been promised. As to the exact number, it did not appear that we were under any definite obligation, but it was unanimously agreed that we should do all we could. The question to be decided was how many troops it was necessary to keep in this country adequately to guard our shores against attempted invasion and, if need be, to maintain internal order.

Mr. Churchill briefly described the actual situation of the Navy. He pointed out that the threat of war had come upon us at a most opportune moment as regards his own Department, because, only two or three weeks before, the Fleet had been partially mobilised, and large reserves called up for the great Naval Review by His Majesty at Spithead and the extensive naval manoeuvres which followed it. So far as the Navy was concerned, he considered Home Defence reasonably secure; but this consideration did not suffice to absolve us from the necessity of keeping a certain number of troops at home. After this discussion it was decided that two Divisions must for the moment remain behind, and that one Cavalry Division and four Divisions of all arms should be sent out as speedily as possible. This meant a force of approximately 100,000 men.


  1. This implies that GB had only 6 divisions total at the outbreak of war. Sounds like the U. S.

  2. Britain was in a pinch. It had a large army- but it was scattered around the globe. A large force was tied down in Ireland- which was seething with revolt. There were large forces in India and Africa, too far away to be of immediate use. But they were doing this on the fly so to speak- and the available units in England were mainly in the regimental depots training fresh troops. Additionally England had seen little unit training above Battalion or Brigade level in years. Most of their wars were small colonial fights, where Battalions were the biggest formations. Many units of set divisions had never actually paraded all together with the other elements of the division. This five division force was the largest combined force the British had massed since the Boar War a decade before.

    The fact that it could quickly field a force of even that size was a testiment to the professionalism of the Army organizationally. In combat there were, of course, many initial teething and command problems- but overall those early BEF units " The old Contemptables" did a fine job given what they had to face.

    The US of course has a long history of demobilizing its army's after every major war- they did it after the 1st Gulf War, and are doing so as they wind down this current one. It has always been US Policy to minimize the military between wars. Normally we have small peacetime armies. We kept a large standing military dutring the long cold war but it was very expensive to do. The British Empire also did that- the cost of even the small army that it had was high , so they minimized it until there was an actual need. It is a common truth with Empires. Armys are expensive. So Nations go thin and cheap most of the time. It only has consiquence if a World War were to suddenly happen across the channel and you were caught with too small a force. As happened in 1914 to England initially.

  3. Seems like French had little regard fro the Territorials. He must have changed his mind because Territorials were in action on the Western Front by November.