The British Expeditionary Force in World War I
The British Army at the Beginning of WWI
After Britain declared war on Germany at 11pm London time on August 4th, 1914, the British forces began planning for the voyage that would take them to the European continent.
Britain's standing army of professional soldiers numbered just over 247,000 troops when the war was declared, and approximately half of these were garrisoned in different parts of the British Empire around the world.
How was Britain ever going to raise an army strong enough to face Germany?
Facts About the Anglo-French War Plan
- Though the Entente Cordiale signed between Britain and France in 1904 made no mention of the two countries formally aligning from a military perspective in the event of war, there was a “soft” understanding on both sides that they would cooperate against a common enemy.
- When Russia went to war against the Japanese in 1904, Britain and France both found themselves on the verge of being pulled into that conflict, as Britain was allied with Japan and France was firmly allied with Russia.
- With Russia’s defeat at the hands of the Japanese, France was left exposed and alone in Europe, since her ally Russia was weak and bloodied after the rout she had suffered.
- The Entente Cordiale proved to be strong through both the first Moroccan crisis and the second.
- Talks to come up with an Anglo-French war plan were so secret, even the majority of the members of the British Parliament were not informed. One who was included as a member of the Imperial Defense Committee was the young Home Secretary, Winston Churchill.
What post did a young Winston Churchill hold at the beginning of WW1?
Britain and France Get Serious About War Plans
It was Germany that provided the impetus to get France and England talking formally about joint military coordination. The Tangier Crisis (First Moroccan Crisis) in 1905 and The Agadir Crisis (Second Moroccan Crisis) in 1911, both precipitated by Germany, are considered to be among the many causes of WW1.
The German Kaiser arrived in Tangier, Morocco in March 1905, ostensibly to support the Sultan of Morocco in his bid to regain control of his country, which was in revolt. This visit was seen by the French as being a direct threat, not only to their own influence in Morocco, but to their relationship with Britain, which also had strong ties to the Sultan. Many believed that Germany would use the summer of 1905, when Russia was so bloodied and weak from its war with Japan, to start a new war against France.
It was in 1909 that real plans for joint military coordination were kick-started by Brigadier General Henry Wilson of Britain and General Ferdinand Foch of France.
The two men held a common belief that war with Germany would come again – soon – and over several years and numerous visits across the channel, they not only laid the ground work for military cooperation between their countries, but also became fast friends. Even after Foch was no longer commandant of the École Supérieure de la Guerre, Wilson worked with Joffre and others on the French General Staff to create their joint plan. The plan was drawn up in secret, with only a very few men involved on both sides. Save for a few members, even the British Cabinet was unaware of what was on the drawing board.
The Agadir Crisis 1911
It was The Agadir Crisis (Second Moroccan Crisis) in 1911 that helped firm up the Anglo-French plans. As France prepared to send troops to Morocco to help the Sultan put down rebels and protect France's own interests in the country, Germany too was worried about her interests in north Africa, and sent the warship Panzer (Panther) to Agadir. War was on everyone’s mind, and what became clear, as it had been during the First Moroccan Crisis, was that the Entente Cordiale between Britain and France was strong.
General Wilson and his counterpart French General Dubail finalized war plans that included the number of troops and cavalry that Britain would commit in the event of war. By early 1914, every logistical detail had been worked out, from transportation to billeting and feeding of men and horses.
And just in time, as it turned out.
Lord Kitchener of Khartoum
Britain was going to war, and she needed an experienced general to lead her through it. Lord Kitchener was just that man.
Horatio Herbert Kitchener was raised in Switzerland, and had actually served France during the Franco-Prussian War. After taking up residence in Britain, he had joined the Royal Engineers in 1871. His military service included a decisive battle that ended up securing the Sudan under an agreement with Egypt, effectively made Sudan a British colony, and serving as Chief of Staff during the Second Boer War.
He was also pro-France and spoke French fluently.
British, French and German Troops Mobilize for War
British Troops Arrive in France
On the morning of Tuesday, August 4th, the professional soldiers in Britain had been ordered to mobilize.
Field Marshall Lord Kitchener, Britain’s newly appointed Secretary of State for War, had not been involved in drawing up the joint Anglo-French war plans, and was already concerned that the promised men and horses – six regular divisions and one cavalry division – would not be nearly enough to have any sort of impact against the German juggernaut. He let his objections be known in a final meeting of The War Council.
Kitchener believed that the war was not going to be a short one, and that if Britain was going to have any positive impact, it would need to raise an army approximately equal to those of the French and Germans; a full 70-75 divisions.
He also thought it was sheer madness to send off the whole professional army to France. Who would train the legions of men required? What would happen if all of these men were wiped out?
Kitchener also believed that the best chance for success was not in adopting an offensive posture, as the French Plan XVII called for, but in mounting a defensive counter attack against the Germans.
He dragged Sir John French, Commander in Chief, along to a final meeting with the British Prime Minister. A compromise of sorts was worked out during that hastily called and heated discussion. Four divisions were to embark immediately; 80,000 troops along with 30,000 horses and the required field and machine guns.
On August 9th, the first of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) set sail, destined for ports in Rouen, Boulogne and Havre.
You are leaving home to fight for the safety and the honour of my Empire.— King George V
Questions & Answers
© 2014 Kaili Bisson