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

Sunday, October 12, 2014

What Was an "Old Contemptible"?

Memorial at Westminster Abbey, London

To qualify as an "Old Contemptible" a British Army soldier would have to have seen active service actually in France and Flanders between 5 August and 22 November 1914. For this he would qualify for the medal known as the 1914 Star. This medal was introduced in 1917. In 1919 a clasp bearing the qualifying dates was authorized and given to soldiers who had actually been under fire between those dates. It was also known as the "Mons Star"

The Mons Star

It is widely believed that the "Old Contemptibles" derived their honorable title from the famous "Order of the Day" given by the Kaiser at his headquarters, Aix-la-Chappelle, on 19 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."

There can be no question that the most successful slogan for recruiting purposes issued during the whole course of the war was the phrase "The contemptible little army", said to have been used by the Kaiser in reference to the British Expeditionary Force. It very naturally created a passionate feeling of resentment throughout the country. Detailed information on the make-up of the original BEF can be found at the website of the Western Front Association:

Memorial photo from Steve Miller; details from the Old Contemptibles Association


  1. I'd always understood the comment to be 'contemptiBLY little army', which is undoubtedly true.

  2. The hyperlink doesn't work

    1. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. The Old Contemptibles Association website seems to have disappeared almost over night. I've replaced the link with one that is operational — at least of 12 October — but it does not have information on the "lie."

  3. The crest on the bottom of the Westminster Abbey memorial is that of The Old Contemptibles Association, a non-military group founded in 1925.

  4. The "Old Contemptibles" were perhaps the most experienced when it came to practical soldiering. Many of these men had served at one time or another in India where at any moment a tactical exercise could become the real thing if trouble flared up on the Northwest
    Frontier or any other part of Britain's empire

  5. My Grandfather Abner Perkins served in India and then was in the BEF he was awarded the Mons Star and was an Old Contemptible, he was a career soldier. All of his medals were buried with him when he died in 1965. I would love to find out more about his life in the Army. I believe he was in various regiments, Norfolk, Suffolk and Lincolnshire. He was a lovely man.

  6. According to my Great Grandad Alan Charles Young’s medal roll card he was in the 2nd Worc rgt and was awarded the 1914 Star. I would love to find out any information on him, could anyone point me in the right direction?