Britain ready to fight

East Yorkshire Wagoners in preparation to join the British Expeditionary Force.
East Yorkshire Wagoners in preparation to join the British Expeditionary Force.

Written by Dr Jack Binns

The most common popular reaction to the outbreak of war, in Scarborough as elsewhere in Britain, was shock and disbelief. Wars were fought by foreigners and they took place thousands of miles away in China or South Africa: they did not happen to us here and now.

Though a war with Germany had been long predicted and even described imaginatively as in Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands (1903), the speed and suddenness of events in the first days of August 1914 took almost everyone by surprise.

Also, the country had been deceived and distracted by imminent threats of domestic rather than foreign violence. When the archbishop of York, Cosmo Gordon Lang, warned his parishioners at the end of 1913 that they were about to enter “a very fateful year”, he and they were thinking of industrial rather than international warfare, waged by striking trade unionists and militant suffragettes, not invading Germans.

Yet the greatest peril to peace in 1914 came from Belfast, not Berlin. As late as July 24, the Buckingham palace conference, called to end the deadlock caused by the Home Rule Bill in Ulster, itself broke down. Asked what the result of this failure would be, one of the chief government negotiators, Winston Churchill, replied, “Blood, blood”.

So for some an external war with Germany, which for its duration reconciled disgruntled workers, fearsome feminists and irate Irishmen on the edge of civil war, was almost welcome. Prime Minister Asquith’s young, witty mistress, Venetia Stanley, joked that it was like cutting off your head to cure a headache, a desperate, self-destructive remedy. There is no more certain solution to internal dissension than a common outside threat and this one on August 4, 1914, was present and real.

On the other hand, there were some in positions of authority who had already made appropriate preparations in advance of a continental war. One such local visionary was Sir Mark Sykes of Sledmere. After military service in South Africa, he was convinced that in any future war there would be a great deficit of land transport. Ships and railways could not bring troops and all their supplies up to the battlefields and the few motor vehicles available needed roads: a future army would depend on horse-drawn carriers.

So Sir Mark persuaded his friends at the War Office that, in the event of a European war, they could call upon the experienced and trustworthy services of his estate’s workers and tenants. In 1913 the War Office began to pay annual bounties of between one and four sovereigns to men graded by Sykes as “wagoner”, “foreman” and “roadmaster”. The wagoners called their gold sovereign “the silly quid”, since all they had to do for it was drive a cart round a figure of eight course within a specific time. No doubt few of them ever imagined that shortly they would have to do more than that to earn their money.

Syke’s wagoners were mobilized early in the morning of August 6. By 8pm that same evening more than 800 of them from the Yorkshire Wolds had reported to the Army Service Corps headquarters at Bradford. Two days later at Aldershot, they were kitted out with uniforms, given some basic military training, and made ready to serve the British Expeditionary Force when it set out to France. Fortunately, the war had waited for most of the harvest to be in.

Compared with the conscripted regular and reserve armies of the other great European powers, allied and enemy, Britain’s entirely volunteer force was minuscule. The Tsar’s peacetime Russian army of nearly one and a half million soldiers could be expanded to five million when mobilized for war. Austria-Hungary could count on nearly two million conscripts, though they were a multi-national amalgam of Germans, Magyars, Czechs, Poles, Ukrainians, Italians and several sorts of South Slavs. The French had about four million trained men and the Germans five.

In all four cases, a professional, full-time army could be supplemented by a huge trained reserve. For example, every adult male German was liable to two or three years full-time duty, followed by four or five in the regular reserve, by 12 in the Landwehr, and finally up to the age of 45 in the Landsturm. In other words, every able-bodied German was at the disposal of the Kaiser’s imperial army for up to 27 years!

In the greatest contrast and in the absence of conscription, the British army lacked size, prestige and priority. Seapower alone was thought sufficient for home security and imperial defence abroad. Since Waterloo, a century ago, it had fought in only one European war, the Crimean (1853-6), where it had been outnumbered by its French ally. Even as a colonial police force, fighting Afghans, Zulus or Sudanese dervish, the British soldier depended heavily on indigenous auxiliaries, such as Indian Sikhs and Gurkhas. Against a modern, advanced European enemy it was untested. The Royal Navy was the senior service; the army came a poor second.

However, as Secretary of State for War between 1905 and 1912, RB Haldane had transformed the old-fashioned British army to make it ready for continental warfare. Educated in Germany and fluent in German language and culture, Haldane created a miniature model of the Kaiser’s military machine.

Though vigorously advocated by Lord Roberts and his National Service League, peacetime conscription was still out of the question. Instead, Haldane established an Expeditionary Force of 160,000 regulars: six fully-equipped infantry divisions and a division of cavalry prepared to cross the Channel within 15 days of the outbreak of war. To support and supplement the BEF there was to be a reserve of ex-regulars and for home defence a new Territorial army of 300,000 men drawn from the old militias and volunteers. What this “funny little army” lacked in numbers, it compensated in discipline, physical fitness, camaraderie and musketry skill. In the words of the official military history of the Great War, the BEF was “the best trained, best organised and best equipped” army Britain had ever sent abroad.