When Britain entered the war in August of 1914, the force she sent abroad to fight the German Army was one entirely made up of volunteers, many of whom had fought in conflicts around the Empire and had an average age in the mid-30’s.
By the end of the conflict, the army was composed largely of conscripts with an average age of 19, with 250,000 underage soldiers serving in France and Belgium. They deployed tanks and fighter aircraft and modern fighting tactics. It was an utterly transformed force.
In 1914, officers were mostly from the ruling classes; privates and lieutenants from the working classes. This is how it had been for hundreds of years and were it not for the First World War, might have continued much longer.
Officers were very visible on a battlefield because they (usually) carried no rifle, only a pistol. This made them very easy to spot and, therefore, kill. German soldiers were trained to spot officers and take them out as quickly as possible because once an officer is killed, the men have no leader and cannot fight as well. Upwards of 50% of British officers were killed or wounded during the war, as opposed to about 11% for regular enlisted men. This decimated both the ruling classes and the officer corps.
As a consequence of high casualty rates and plenty of opportunities for valour, many working class men were promoted to high ranks, and the officer corps recruited from the working classes for what was essentially the first time. Britain had finally followed Napoleon in having a truly professional army, where the men held the ranks they (roughly) deserved.
At the beginning of the conflict, it was expected that large groups of armed men would line up and face each other across a battlefield and fight. The biggest and strongest force would win. The terrain of Belgium and Northern France showed this tactic to be incompatible with the newly invented machine gun. Flat terrain, high rates of fire and endless mud made fighting and organising large groups of men a logistical and ineffective nightmare.
By the end of the war, smaller groups of more independent soldiers led by squad leaders were fighting each other. Able to react quickly and trained to use a variety of weapons, the British soldier of 1918 was a much more independent, instinctive fighter than his predecessor in 1914.
While the British Establishment never took criticism well, eventually they had to cede to different ways of organising the Army. The German Army’s effectiveness came partly from the way that suggestions and criticisms were passed up the line and acted upon by the leaders. This was not the case for the British, who learned the hard way to have a less rigid way of doing things and to listen to what the soldiers were saying about how to fight.
Tanks and Aircraft
First used on the Battle of the Somme in 1917, the tank eventually broke the stalemate of the conflict, punching through lines that were impassable to more vulnerable men. Aeroplanes had begun the war as little more than scouts, now they had machine guns, powerful engines and manoeuvrability unheard of before the war. Tactics had to change to accommodate new technology, no longer could men advance behind a walking artillery barrage; now artillery, tanks, aircraft and soldiers had to be coordinated to use them effectively. Intelligence from aircraft was passed via telephone to the forward ranks, who followed in the cover of tanks into the battlefield, seizing objectives and attempting to hold them. This was much different from the massed frontal attacks of a few years previous. Vast numbers of men, tanks and planes were still used, but they had more independence.
Hundreds of thousands of troops from around the Empire came to fight Britain’s war. Hundreds of thousands died. The Canadians, ANZACS (Australian and New Zealand), Indian, Nepali, African and Irish soldiers who came to make up a large part of the British Army left indelible marks on the language, food, culture, and spirit of the British Army.
The large influx of foreign fighters impressed the British public and soldiers alike, with the Gurkhas and Sikhs being particularly valiant on the battlefield. The ideas of colonial superiority, already on the wane, were further weakened by the determination, skill, and courage of those peoples that Britain had subjugated.
From volunteers to conscripts, professionals to boys with guns, walking into battle to running after tanks, the British Army was changed, and changed utterly. Officers promoted on merit, advanced technology employed to greatest effect, higher pay, better conditions, improved healthcare and recognition of the effects of war on the men who had fought it.
The British Army had changed, and brought change back to Britain when conflict ended. Surgical techniques, antiseptics, wound treatments were all improved drastically by the war and benefited the public in later years. Britain’s Empire was on the wane, she was in debt and she was wounded, but the Army was, by 1918, the finest fighting force the world had ever seen.