Organisation of the British Army

A few notes on the organization of the Army on the lead up and during the War are of some value as to understanding the various formations and units available for Home Defence.


The British Army on the outbreak of WW1 was the result of the work of two reformers – Cardwell and Haldane.


Cardwell became Secretary of state of War in 1868 just after the disaster of the Crimean War and at a time of the growth of Prussian military power. Following the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian Wars, it was recognized that the British Army needed to be completely remodeled to bring it up to a modern standard.  


The Armed forces at that time consisted of the Regular Army and two classes of Regular Army Reserves, of which the first class could be sent abroad, the second class being retained for Home Service. Additional reserves were the Militia and Volunteers. The Militia was not under the full control of the War Office but merely under the executive   direction of the Inspector-General of Reserve Forces– it was called out in time of War and raised by the county Lord-Lieutenants; the officers received their commission from the respective Lord –Lieutenant. The Volunteers could only be called out in the case of invasion.


Cardwell recognized that a modern Army would have to be of a size that could undertake the tasks required of it and also be highly trained and equipped with modern weapons.  He considered that what was needed was a small professional Army that could be rapidly expanded in times of emergency.


He achieved this by fixing the time a man served with the Army, part in the Regular Army and part in the Reserve (six years in each). Obviously the shorter time a man served in the Colours, the more men available for the Reserve.  Another major reform was to divide the Army into a series of ‘linked battalions’ – completely interchangeable with both officers and men. One battalion would serve a term overseas while the other remained at home and acted as a feeder. This system remained more or less in place until 1947, when the linked battalion system was suspended.  Cardwell divided the country into 70 districts and allotted two battalions to each.


Cardwell also bought the Militia and Volunteers into the reserve system by affiliating them to the battalion in the relevant district.   Each district was allotted a quota of artillery, cavalry and other arms, all under the command of a Major General commanding the district. In this way a county regiment formed a homogeneous whole. So for example, the East Blankshires could be made up of the 1st and 2nd (Regular) East Blankshires, the 3rd and 4th (Militia) East Blankshires and 5th (Volunteers) East Blankshires.


The Esher Committee, appointed to come up with recommendations to reorganize the War Office following the Boer War, bought about the next set of reforms. It was largely concerned with the administrative side, bringing about changes to the War Office and Defence Committees. However, with regards to the Army, an important reform was decentralization by dividing the country into five military Commands – Aldershot, Northern, Eastern, Western and Ireland. Each Command (except Ireland) was further divided into two districts, each under a Major-General.


With the War Office overhauled, it was necessary to further modernize the Army on the operational side. Germany was growing in power and as well as maintaining an enormous Army,  it was considered the number of her capital ships might equal Britain’s in 1915 at the rate she was expanding her Navy. War clouds were indeed gathering over Europe.


The next set of major reforms was the work of the Mr R.B. Haldane, the newly appointed secretary of State of War following the Liberals victory in the 1906 General Election.  Haldane had two tackle two important issues:

  • Reserves for the Regulars were quickly exhausted during the Boer War – there was a need to ensure sufficient reserves in the future

  • The British Army was still a small professional Army more suited for Colonial duties – if War should break out in Europe it was not equipped for such a War.


In carrying out his reforms, Haldane accepted the argument of the “Blue Water School” – so long as Britain had a Navy that ruled the waves no enemy could mount a serious invasion attempt.   Britain would have time to expand and train its Regular Army.  Compulsory service would be unnecessary (in this point he was proved to be wrong); sufficient volunteers would come forward and be trained and equipped in the months following the outbreak of War.


A new Expeditionary Force was established, consisting of six infantry divisions and four cavalry brigades, along with artillery and engineers, which was to be kept fully equipped and in the event of War could be dispatched overseas in a matter of days.


His main reform was to reduce the three tier system of the Cardwell scheme (Regular, Militia and Volunteer) to a two tier system. This was achieved firstly by a complete overhaul of the Militia – it was put under the control of the War Office and converted into a reserve for the Regular Army. Each Regular battalion would have its own ancillary Militia battalion, which in time of War could either be sent overseas or stay at home and act as a feeder battalion. The title Militia was abolished and replaced by the name ‘Special Reserve’.


Secondly, the Volunteers were overhauled – they were now to be organized on a Divisional basis, trained and equipped just as the Regulars. There would be 14 such divisions in all, which were to be known as ‘Territorial’ divisions.   Each division was placed under the supervision of a County Territorial Association, the Lord-Lieutenants having lost the Militia becoming Presidents of these Associations.  In times of War, the whole division would be mobilized for six months training. The expansion of the Regular Army was to be wholly carried out through the Territorial system as Haldane was confident that volunteers would “wish to go abroad” and take their part in the theatre of war – “it might be that they would not only go in their battalions, but in their brigades and even in their divisions”. In this, he was proved right.


On the outbreak of War, Haldane’s plans were put in place and the Expeditionary Force sent overseas and the 14 Territorial divisions recruited up to War establishment.  Haldane was right about volunteers wanting to serve overseas – practically the whole Territorial force volunteered, so it was soon decided that all Territorial units would form a second-line, which in early 1915 was organized into another 14 divisions.     Each Territorial unit was also ordered to form a third-line to act as a reserve for the 1st and 2nd line.


During the summer of 1915 battalions made up of Territorials from the third- line unfit for overseas service or who had not volunteered for overseas service were raised, known as Provisional Battalions.   By 1916 there were 41 Provisional Battalions serving in ten Provisional Brigades. The 6th, 8th and 9th Provisional Brigades were used to make up the new Home Service Divisions (71st, 72nd and 73rd) in November 1916. Almost all of these battalions were disbanded when the Graduated battalions (see below) were posted to the Home Service divisions. On 1st January 1917 the Provisional Battalions became numbered Home Service Territorial battalions. The remaining Provisional Brigades were numbered from 221st to 227th Brigade and later became known as Mixed Brigades. They were stationed on the East Coast until the end of the war.


However in one respect there was a major change to Haldane’s scheme, made by Kitchener who had a dislike for the “Saturday Afternoon Soldiers”.  He considered that the War would last at least three years and that Britain would need an Army of 70 Divisions.  Instead of expanding the Army through the Territorials as envisaged by Haldane, he instead set in motion a new scheme to expand the Regular Army – by assigning each Line Regiment a “Service” battalion. The initial Service battalions formed the 9th to 26th Divisions of the three new armies (often abbreviated as K1, K2 and K3).  A further series of Service battalions were raised from the reserve battalions to form the original Forth Army, but the divisions in this Army were later broken up, the battalions forming reserves for the three new armies.


The Service battalions were more attractive to men than the Territorials, as the Service battalions were classed as Regulars. This dual system led to a continual struggle between the War office and the County Territorial Associations and probably delayed the time it took for full mobilization.


Some Service battalions were designated as Garrison Battalions, allocated to coast defence. The strain on these Garrison Battalions of providing drafts for overseas and at the same time providing troops for coast defence led to the formation of Home Service Garrison Battalions, with an establishment made up of lower category men and officers unfit for overseas service.


In 1916 a new reserve, called the Training Reserve, was set up to provide reserves to battalions that could not be met from the Regimental reserves.  The Training Reserve was made up of second- line and Local Reserve battalions of the New Army Service battalions, which could no longer cope with the new recruits generated by conscription.  The Reserve battalions of the Regulars and Territorials were maintained, recruits posted to them until they were up to strength and then to the Training Reserve.  


In 1917 Young Soldier Battalions were formed, taking men aged 18 and one month; after basic training they were posted in companies to Graduated battalions. It was further decided that Graduated battalions would be used for Home Defence while they completed their training. The Graduated battalions were posted to the eight Home Service divisions, replacing second- line and Home Service Territorial battalions which were disbanded.


In early 1918 the Home Service divisions were reduced from eight to four, all composed of Graduated battalions except for one brigade.


Mention should be made of the Officer Training Corps established in 1908, one of Haldane’s reforms. This was a scheme to ensure an adequate supply of officers by forming cadet contingents at Universities and Public Schools. However this reserve was quickly exhausted at the start of the War and the scheme underwent a number of revisions.  By 1916 a new system was established by the formation of Officer Cadet Units. It was decided to grant temporary commissions only to those who had passed through the Officer Cadets unless they had previous service as an officer. Admission to the Officer Cadets required service in the ranks or passing through an O.T.C contingent and recommended by a senior officer in both cases.  By June 1916 there were a dozen Cadet Battalions and by July 1917 there were 22 battalions.


Finally the contribution to Home Defence of the Volunteer Training Corps should also be noted.  After war had been declared, numerous unofficial “town guards” and volunteer defence associations sprang up, often organized by ex Regular or Volunteer officers.   These were made up of men over military age, and had a role not unlike that of the Home Guard in WW2. At first these units were not officially recognized and had to be self funding and provide their own uniforms – which could not be khaki. An armband, “GR”, was required to be worn by all members, the only Government issue of kit until 1916.  It was attempted to make the Volunteers official with a private members bill in 1915, but it was discovered that in fact the Volunteer Act of 1863 had never been repealed and the Volunteers officially became Volunteer Regiments in July 1915. In August 1916 the Volunteer Regiments were incorporated into the County Regiment system.  With the Volunteer Act 1916 (an addition to enforce conscription), exempted men could be ordered to join the Volunteers.   Officers of the Volunteers now received King’s commissions and could wear the normal khaki uniforms of army officers. The role of the Volunteers was to provide the garrison of major towns, vulnerable points, constructing defences, helping with the harvest, fire fighting and transportation of the wounded.  In 1918 the Volunteers undertook coast defence duties at the height of the German Spring Offensives. Many men passed through the Volunteers into the army, and Lord Harris on April 18th 1918 remarked “The Volunteer Force as it is now is superior to what the Territorial Force was before the war”.


It can be seen that there were substantial numbers of troops in the UK at any one time potentially available for Home Defence. Although all the New Army and Territorial divisions had gone overseas by 1917, there were still 1,700,000 troops (1,505,000 British and 195,000 Dominions) in the UK made up of the various reserve formations and units albeit in various stages of training.