An Essay Regarding the British Army 1800-2000
The largest volunteer army we have ever put into the field in The Great War.
1. Opening Remarks
Although Cromwell and General Fairfax formed the disciplined new Model Army in the mid-17th Century, being our first standing Army, the strength of that Army was not seen again in England after Cromwell until Sir John Churchill and his campaign against Louis XIV of France in the Low Countries and North Eastern France in the early 18th Century. Churchill was successful. Essentially after Cromwell the British Army reacted to the moves of the enemies of Britain although there were standing regiments. Several regiments might be disbanded when their job was done e.g. The Black Watch in the 17th Century and then reformed in the 18th Century. The British regular Army in the early 19th Century and later was not as powerful as that of France, Austria or Prussia. Indeed that was the case up to the outbreak of World War I. The Cromwellian military experience was frowned upon in the 18th Century and the cost of a standing Army was rejected as wrong in principle. We relied upon our Royal Navy to secure the seas and the Empire, supported by our small volunteer Army e.g. American War of Independence in 1770’s where we put our regular Army in the field and our Colonists and the King George III’s Army were defeated by those struggling for independence. We learned not to repeat the same mistake in our Empire control until the Boer War in South Africa 1899-1902. Another vain attempt to rule our so called empire.
2. The 19th Century Experience
Comparatively few British Soldiers (regulars) defeated the French in the Peninsular War 1809-1814 (Spain) after a false start at Corunna (Retreat) North Western Spain when the Royal Navy evacuated the British Army after the Commander Sir John Moore was killed by French grapeshot. Wellington masterminded this peninsular campaign as Wellesley before the great victory of Waterloo which he won with an inexperienced conscript Army against Bonaparte in 1815.
3. After Waterloo – Internal Strife
The Duke of Wellington as he became was very influential in England and greatly admired for his generalship and was to hold the highest political office. (First Lord of the Treasury i.e. Prime Minister). England was in a state of unrest and disorder following Waterloo: why?
- Unemployment amongst disaffected former soldiers who had left our army and been disbanded.
- Luddites (opposing new industrial textile machinery) (criminal damage).
- Agitation for electoral reform to widen the franchise. (Meetings and Orators e.g. Orator Hunt).
- A new working class in the Black Country and Lancashire in particular.
- Famine in Ireland
Unrest broke out in Peterloo, Manchester and St Georges Fields South London and Bristol. It was suppressed by the Army and militias who remained loyal to the Crown but with certain loss of life on the civilian side. The question was would the Army and militia stay loyal to the Ruling Class? Only just and it was a thin redline. If the agitators had overwhelmed the militia and the Army then disorder would have broken out. The troops and their officers held the day in the early 19th Century for democracy later in the century under Gladstone and Disraeli. Reason prevailed thank God. England remained at peace in the 1820’s and 1830’s despite unrest.
4. Crimea, Indian Mutiny (1850’s) and South African War 1899-1902
All these wars were fought with expeditionary forces. Even in the mutiny the British Indian Army was reinforced by Sir Colin Campbell. They, all three conflicts were bought to good outcomes for the British Army. We still had no large conscript standing Army.
5. France 1914-18
In 1914 time was running out but Haldane had reformed the army in time for the outbreak of war in August. The old contemptibles did well in August and September 1914 but the British Territorial Army, created by Haldane, was vital to reinforce our sector in 1914. The British Expeditionary force lacked numbers compared to Kaiser’s Armies and France’s Armies on the all-important Western Front in 1914. We were minor players until 1916 when Kitchener’s powerful and numerous volunteer armies appeared in the trenches and took over a significant part of the front relieving the grateful French. The Germans knew we British were opposing them and an attack was coming on the Somme (1916). When the attack came it was at a walking pace with horrendous casualties due to withering machine gun fire from the German lines and despite heavy bombardment of their positions by British Artillery. The troops on the British side did not demur or crack they followed their officers to their deaths on the Somme in 1916 in the best British military tradition. Their example of sacrifice was followed throughout Franco British Armies later in the war. It takes real courage to make that stand and the British Army did all that could be asked of it in summer of 1916. As the war dragged on into 1917 in Flanders the same British discipline was evident. In 1916 the leadership of the purist General Haig was well received by the rank and file. Ultimately the British Army advanced to the German defensive Hindenberg Line in 1918 still with Haig in command. Thank God the British Army and Haig were still standing. This was the biggest volunteer Army we had ever put in the field and it was now partially conscripted in 1917-18. Even in World War II the total armies we committed to North Africa, Italy and France were smaller.
6. The Second World War
Our naval supremacy and superiority in the air decided matters once our Army had been defeated in the field in May 1940 in France. We re-entered France with the USA in June 1944 and by 1945 Spring the Germans had been defeated but they fought with characteristic obstinacy. Arnhem was a well-executed paratroop drop frustrated by the undetected presence of Panzer tanks and German forces in the drop zones. The British paratroopers fought with real bravery – in the end it was a bridge too far – but only by a very small margin. The British and Americans had to fight all the way across the Rhine to the German surrender on Lunenberg Heath in Northern Germany in the west.
I am concerned with major conflicts not in withdrawals from our colonies or policing trouble spots e.g. in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan. The British Army is unlikely to face another conflagration on the scale of World War I or World War II. History is history but the achievements of the British Army in WWI like the record of the French Armies as well in that war goes beyond folklore to the awe inspiring. No praise is too great for those volunteer British soldiers who did not turn and run or break up or mutiny or simply lie down. They steadily walked into the face of death itself without hesitation. On the Somme in 1916 they did not expect what happened to them and their comrades but they did not waver or falter and they paid the price when the harsh reality dawned. Kitchener was absolutely right to raise a volunteer army in 1915 in accordance with the mood of the country. Conscription was unthinkable in 1915 but crucial in 1916 after he died. The Unknown Soldier and unknown grave reminds us of the sacrifice of these hundreds of thousands on the British Army side in the Great War. Our countrymen we salute them - they died for their comrades and their officers and Generals and staff in HQ and their country’s pride in their undaunted final sacrifice. We will never forget them and our gratitude will be unceasing.
Pro patria mortem decorem est. (It is honourable to die for your country). That is the spirit of our Army, as in the Roman Army of antiquity.