The British Expeditionary Force in World War I

Updated on September 3, 2019
Kaili Bisson profile image

Kaili is a student of history and of WWI. She has researched BEF and Canadian battles and has visited WWI battle sites, including Gallipoli.

Pontoon section of British engineers disembarked on the quay at Boulogne.
Pontoon section of British engineers disembarked on the quay at Boulogne. | Source

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. The Entente Cordiale proved to be strong through both the first Moroccan crisis and the second.
  5. 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.

Young Winston

What post did a young Winston Churchill hold at the beginning of WW1?

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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.

French troops in Morocco during the Agadir Crisis, March 30, 1912
French troops in Morocco during the Agadir Crisis, March 30, 1912 | Source

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.

SMS Panther
SMS Panther | Source

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 on a recruitment poster.
Lord Kitchener on a recruitment poster. | Source

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 Recruits Joining Up

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

© 2014 Kaili Bisson


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    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      5 years ago from Canada

      Hi are so welcome. It is a subject that I find really much going on that lead up to all of this. And still so much going on today...

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Wow! I am getting so much more history here, through you. It is really tying things together so much better. Thanks for the insights, Kaili!

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      5 years ago from Canada

      Hi teaches, you are most welcome. We can only hope that common sense prevails going forward.

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      5 years ago from Canada

      Hi James. I think Morocco is a beautiful country with wonderful friendly people. One of my fondest memories ever is flying in a small plane over the Atlas mountains on the way to Ouarzazate. Amazing.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      5 years ago

      If we could only look back at what was to understand what to do for future peace. Thanks for sharing this important part of history.

    • James-wolve profile image

      Tijani Achamlal 

      5 years ago from Morocco

      wow that' s great.I hope you got some good impressions about it...I live in the north, Nador ..I don't know if you have ever heard about it..not so far from favorite city of Paul Boles

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      5 years ago from Canada

      Hi Nell and thank you. Yes, much dealing going on in the background. I do hope we learn from our past...sometimes when you listen to the news, it doesn't seem we have learned our lessons well.

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      5 years ago from Canada

      Hi are so right. Some problems were not resolved by WW1, and so we had a second world war with even more young men having to go to war.

      btw...I love Morocco. I have visited Agadir, Marrakesh and Ouarzazate.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      5 years ago from England

      Fascinating read Kaili, so many complicated alliances, sometimes together, other times with others, it's a wonder we don't all end up fighting each other. Thank goodness that's in the past, but we must never forget how the wars start and try every way to stop it next time, nell

    • James-wolve profile image

      Tijani Achamlal 

      5 years ago from Morocco

      and many more in WW2 ..Really so sad !

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      5 years ago from Canada

      Hello James, you are so right. And millions died in WW1 alone...very sad.

    • James-wolve profile image

      Tijani Achamlal 

      5 years ago from Morocco

      War has never solved anything. It creates financial problems for all the parties involved, creates sadness, resentment, and most devastatingly: people die.

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      5 years ago from Canada

      Hello MsDora, you are most welcome. Kitchener was a real no-nonsense kind of guy. I often wonder what would have happened had he not met an untimely death.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      5 years ago from The Caribbean

      Thank you for the history lesson, and especially for highlighting Lord Kitchener, who deserves to be known.

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      5 years ago from Canada

      Hi Dr Bill, so true. We can learn a lot by understanding history.

    • DrBillSmithWriter profile image

      William Leverne Smith 

      5 years ago from Hollister, MO

      I hate war, even the thought of war. But, we must understand how these earlier wars began to have any chance of preventing another! ;-)


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