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Think You Know The British Tommy? Meet His Compatriots

With the final year of the First World War centenary now upon us, the Forces Network takes a look at how front-line British soldiers...

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Many of us imagine a similar image when we think of Tommy Atkins - the colloquial common soldier or British Tommy of World War I.

There were the leather shoes on his feet, the puttied ankles and calves, rifle with webbing and pack and that iconic steel Brodie helmet on his head.

But this picture, sometimes used anachronistically to represent the British squaddie at any point in the war, is only accurate for part of it.

Like the French and Germans, the British only introduced steel shrapnel helmets after the emergence of wide-scale trench warfare - the original 'Brodie' first coming into use in late 1915. They were a response to the head wounds this new kind of fighting made more likely.

Before that, service caps had been the norm for the British, and even these had two distinct looks.

In 1914, the smart but non-protective caps were worn as they had been intended, but once the war of movement stagnated these became a liability. The flat tops reflected light, making the wearers easier targets for snipers. Thus, the wire around the edge was removed to give the hat a softer more irregular look.

Western Front
These three soldiers wear service caps as they were originally issued, with smart, firm edges (image: worldwar1postcards.com)

There were also far more significant differences between British soldiers not readily apparent to the naked eye.

The iconic picture of the typical British World War I infantryman is wrong not just because his uniform changed. It’s also wrong because there was not one kind of British soldier - in fact, there were four distinct versions of Mr Tommy Atkins.

While the French and Germans had a system of enlistment that cut across their whole societies and incorporated regulars and reserves from the get-go, the British experience was one of waves of different kinds of troops. And, perhaps a bit counter-intuitively, Tommy 1.0 was probably the best of all the models.

That is because the pre-war regulars, and the reservists who would bolster them, are generally thought of as having been the most professionally trained and equipped army at the war’s outset. These men were young and fit, but experienced – the average age being 28.

Having learnt from the 1899-1902 Boer War, they wore brown-green khaki uniforms, comparatively better suited to the terrain than the German field grey, and infinitely more sensible than the bright-red French pantaloons.

There were, though, minor drawbacks to the British uniform, as Rosie Serdiville and John Sadler make clear in ‘Tommies: The British Army in the Trenches’:

“Tommy went to war in coarse heavy wool tunic and trousers, robust but chafing. He had a woollen issue shirt and underwear, the shirt so rough that many shaved it before use.”

Their rifle, the Mark III Short-Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE), was also the best infantry weapon and soldiers were trained to maximise its use. Marksmanship and rapid fire were prized, with 15 aimed shots per minute being the norm for any soldier (A pre-war champ shooter managed a record of 38).

But, while they were well trained and equipped, the British still faced an enormous disadvantage: There were far too few of them.

Half of Britain’s army battalions were off garrisoning its vast empire, and the timeframe for recalling them from India, for example, might be up to three weeks.

As an island nation with the Channel as a buffer, a vast continental army was not nearly as essential for the British as her neighbours and, as it happened, conscription was anathema to Britain’s pre-war Liberal government.

So when war broke out in 1914, only four divisions of infantry, one of cavalry and an independent cavalry brigade could be mustered to stand alongside and up to France and Germany’s vast hordes of troops.

The BEF's (British Expeditionary Force) four infantry divisions were divided in half and assigned to two corps. Each division itself contained 12 battalions, arrayed in three brigades of four.

Battalions are the basic building block of any army, and the structure of the First World War British infantry battalion, 750-1,000 strong, is explained by Sadler and Serdiville:

“This was commanded by a colonel… an honorary position… (with) day-to-day command… vested in the lieutenant-colonel. As a rough rule, some 10 per cent of a battalion strength was kept in reserve, left out of the battle”. Unaware of how amusing it might sound to future squaddies, this was abbreviated ‘LOOB’.

There was an HQ (Headquarters) element commanded by a major, and four companies, ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’, all led by captains.

Being very square units, the four companies themselves had four platoons (1 to 4), commanded by a second lieutenant with a sergeant and eight other NCOs – Non Commissioned Officers - and 32 privates. These men made up the bulk of a platoon’s four sections and were led by a corporal and lance corporal. 

These arrangements were, of course, textbook strength and layout, something that was about to become largely theoretical as the BEF reeled from its first major shock of the war.

At the Battle of Mons, the 80,000-strong British army would be significantly outnumbered. Part of an Anglo-Belgian-French force facing close to 1 million Germans (just three of the 10 armies they had on the Western Front). With the Belgians keeping a portion of the German army busy around Antwerp, the situation further south got decidedly more desperate when the French pulled back and the British did not. Thankfully, the intervention of the liaison officer Lieutenant Edward Spears allowed the British to realise this and to stop their advance into what would have been a giant trap.

The subsequent defensive battle and the retreat that followed would cost the British over 10,000 casualties. The Germans sustained more, but their greater numbers meant this impacted them less.

And things had started so well for the British. 

While the Germans were being sniped at by defiant Belgians, their enemies were receiving heroes’ welcomes:

“On 5 October 1914, the Northumberland Hussars sailed on the Minneapolis from Southampton for an uneventful night passage to Zeebrugge. ‘The morrow broke cold and wet as we steamed slowly into harbour… It was late in the afternoon before we set off down a long typical Belgian road toward Bruges. Our reception… was ecstatic. At every hamlet along that poplar-lined stretch of pave the inhabitants would raise a cheer for “les Anglais” while little urchins would clamour for buttons & badges… pretty girls would almost drag us from our saddles to kiss us and to shake our hands’.”

Now they were running for their lives back down those same poplar-lined roads, albeit in a well-executed and thoroughly organised fashion.

The ordered retreat would eventually be turned around under the leadership of France’s General Joffre at the Marne and the ‘race to the sea’ would commence, as each side tried to outflank the other, defensive lines – forerunners of proper trenches – springing up in their wake.

Of these engagements, theFirst Battle of Ypres is the most famous, or perhaps infamous, as the ‘graveyard of the Old Contemptibles’ (from Kaiser Wilhelm’s reference to Britain’s ‘contemptibly small’ army). 

But the ‘contemptible little army’ was about to get a lot bigger. 

As well as the two additional infantry divisions promptly shipped to France from England, Tommy 2.0 would consist of the 14 Territorial Force (TF) divisions that would soon be fed into the war, backed up by 14 yeomanry brigades (volunteer cavalry).

USAF on parade
USAF personnel holding their rifles in the ‘sloped arms’ position (Image: Airman 1st Class Ashley Steffen)

These men were part-timers, ‘Saturday night soldiers’, and their involvement was meant to be contingent on an actual invasion of Britain. Permission had to be sought to send them to France, but in practice, this was no obstacle:

“When the call to volunteer for overseas service went out, all flocked. The pressure was subtle but considerable. As the battalion paraded, officers called for all who were willing to serve abroad to ‘slope arms’. Everyone did.”

The year 1915 would be the baptism of fire for many of them, though this is a comparatively overlooked year, with much attention having been paid to the Gallipoli campaign

In reality, the BEF was very active on the Western Front too, participating in the battles of Aubers Ridge, Festubert, Second Givenchy, Neuve Chappelle and Loos. There was also the Battle of Hill 60, notable for the first use of mining warfare by the British, and the Second Battle of Ypres when the Germans attacked in April.

A retrospective look at the First World War that includes an analysis of the Battle of Loos

Second Ypres featured the first major use of gas by the Germans, which caused a huge number of casualties. One eyewitness to the British casualties was Herbert Waugh, who was himself wounded:

“At a field ambulance station he was fed with warm, sweet tea, Tommy’s universal remedy, bread and marmalade. A hazardous series of lifts by various conveyances eventually saw him back to Vlamertinghe. Painted images of long-dead saints flickered by candlelight as they gazed benignly down on scores of British wounded in an overcrowded church, huddled on chairs, prone on stretchers.”

The full extent of the casualties taken soon became known:

“When the survivors of 149 Brigade were relieved next day, they had lost… 42 officers (including their commander) and 1,912 other ranks, roughly two thirds of their total strength. They were the first Territorials to go into action as a full brigade… these unlikely soldiers had not faltered and had paid the full, terrible price of their blood passage.”

The Allied line did not completely buckle but it was flattened as the salient was pushed back somewhat closer to Ypres. From their new positions, the Germans would be able to shell the town

Waugh also pops up elsewhere in Sadler and Serdville’s book. It appears that he and his comrades had come to France in 1915 ready not just for the ‘adventure’ of battle, but also for plenty of sex. 

This was presumably borne out of tales they had heard of women flinging themselves at “les Anglais” when they had arrived in 1914:

“(The) expectation (of men like Waugh) was that the damsels of France and Belgium would be lining up to surrender their favours. In this they would be disappointed. Tommy found the forward areas devoid of females and those he met in lanes and billets to the rear proved less than glamorous: ‘Such girls as he encountered wore clogs, dressed like agricultural labourers, smelt of stables and byres and looked with reserve and suspicion at anything in a khaki uniform’.”

Tommy 3.0 consisted of the 1,190,000 volunteers who answered War Minister Horatio Kitchener’s call in 1914.

Many were sent to different parts of the British Empire (some would see action at Gallipoli) and others were given a chance to settle in, as it were, on 'quiet' sectors of the Western Front before 'the big push' of 1916.

Allied leaders had intended to launch coordinated attacks on the Germans from all sides that year, but those best-laid plans were frustrated when the Germans struck at Verdunin February. 

This would keep much of the French army tied down for most of the year, forcing Britain’s citizen army to be the principle protagonist at the Somme that summer. 

Out of its 141-day length, the Battle of the Somme’s worst day would be its first.

When the pre-attack bombardment failed to destroy German dugouts or entirely take out wire or enemy artillery, the attackers were exposed to murderous retaliation when the whistles blew at Zero Hour (7:30 am):

“Many (didn’t) survive long enough even to get out of the British trenches. Scything machine-gun fire and a hurricane of shells had winnowed those who did.”

It has been pointed out that frontline action like that on the Somme, though a huge part of the popular perception of the war, was actually rather atypical of Tommy’s experience. 

This is true. Only a fraction of a British soldier’s time was spent in the front line, and only a portion of that in large-scale attacks.

But he still spent much of his time in the trenches, and cold and wet weather made this an act of sometimes extreme endurance in and of itself, as Arthur Roberts attested to at Ypres in 1917:

“The sides of the trench were of such shifting nature that frames of wire netting were required to hold them up. The least touch caused slime to ooze through. The bottom was on average covered by a foot of water; plainly speaking what was being misnamed as a trench, was only a common ditch.”

Once initial trench lines had been established, the game of defence soon escalated, with vast networks springing up behind them, requiring a huge body of troops to garrison them. This continuous line, an earthen fortress from the North Sea to the Swiss border, would be multiplied many times over by command, support, reserve and communication trenches behind the front line. 

The system was also duplicated two or three times, leading to several trench systems miles behind the one facing the enemy. This all meant that by 1918 the 475-mile frontier was the tip of a much larger iceberg. Laid end to end, all the trenches snaking their way through France and Belgium were 25,000 miles, four and a half times longer than the Great Wall of China.

As Hew Strachan has pointed out, mud, lice and rats aside, trenches saved lives and the real danger came when troops went over the top. The gripe of many in the PBI (‘Poor Bloody Infantry’) was that this happened far more often than one might think from a casual reading of just the major battles. This is something Lewis gunner Charles Moss reminds us of:

“Dispatches sent by war correspondents to the censored capitalist press never did justice, or gave reasonable insight into the actions of the rankers… how we used to laugh and scoff at the War Office threadbare communiqué ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’.”

Just as the phrase fails to mention the death of the protagonist of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of the same name, so too was much action going on for men like Moss during these relatively ‘quiet’ periods:

“(There) had been terrific bombardments, bombing raids, fighting patrols, wiring parties, trench digging, mine tunnelling and many other dangerous activities, especially at night that meant hard work, constant courage, ceaseless vigilance, disciplined conduct, the loss of life and limb…”

How more lessons about a soldier’s physical and mental condition in the First World War are being applied today

Despite these (perfectly understandable) complaints, one area where the British soldier did fairly well was food. 

It was not always appetizing, of course, as one soldier, R A Urquhart, makes clear. He and others had displayed gallantry in battle and were not quite as well rewarded for it as they had hoped:

“When we reached base we were told we would be mentioned in dispatches and that the cooks were preparing for us a very special meal. When it arrived we were unable to enjoy it as it had been sent up in petrol cans! The meal was cold rice pudding, flavoured with petrol.”

Various accounts attest to water sometimes being conveyed to the lines in petrol cans as well, and a very nasty aftertaste being experienced by many of those who drank it.

But at least Tommy actually had plenty of grub, even if it did not always taste good. That was more than could be said for the Germans, struggling especially through the ‘turnip winter’ of 1916-17. 

Behind the lines, British troops could obtain tinned fruit, salmon or sardines as well as veg, or even cakes:

“The network of estaminets which would be so crucial to the comfort of men in the trenches was starting to be established by this time. People who had lost their living to the fighting now began to provide services for troops running small cafes where Tommy could try exotic delights like vin blanc (white wine) for the first time. One Belgian dish really caught on and was taken home: egg and chips.”

Back at the front, Allied attacks would step up in 1917, with the British alone initiating four large-scale assaults. 

There was the impressive Vimy Ridgeoperation, marked by the blowing of several huge mines. It was part of the larger Battle of Arras, which itself was part of a larger French assault, the Nivelle Offensive. The general, who’d shown skill winning back ground at Verdun, over promised and under delivered the following year. His failure to breakthrough and the huge number of dead he used up trying to do so would the last straws that sparked a wave of mutinies. 

This was kept secret. Had the Germans found out, they would certainly have attacked and very possibly overrun the French. Douglas Haig, though, would come to hear that things were not exactly holding together with his allies. 

He would use this later as justification for his attacks that summer and autumn as part of the campaign called the Third Battle of Ypres, first at Messines Ridge – marked by spectacular mines just like Vimy – and then at Passchendaele. This was the name of a village that was captured in the final phase of the battle. 

In ‘Passchendaele: A New History’, Nick Lloyd lists British casualties for the battle as being 245,000, to 240,000 German. (And compared to the staggering 420,000 the BEF had sustained over the course of the Somme offensive the previous year). 

For their part, Sadler and Serdiville say German losses are thought to have been higher than British ones, but that this is disputed, with the political consensus being closer to 400,000 on each side. A lot, for no breakthrough.

Lloyd also notes that French commander Phillippe Petain had warned Haig not to make the same mistake as Nivelle – namely, provoking a mutiny from huge numbers of casualties sustained in the pursuit of overly ambitious objectives. 

This was an important point, particularly since just holding onto ground was extremely trying in a place as wet and cold and violent as the Ypres salient. Again, Arthur Roberts attests to this:

“The trenches were taking on a more battered look and the dead men lying in them were getting more numerous as we went forward. The trenches had been so badly shelled that in some places we were walking in the open, where big shell holes had taken the place of that bit of trench. In the surviving lengths, dead men were so numerous it was impossible to proceed without walking on them. This section of trenches was awful. One moment we were wading up to our middles in water, the next we were wobbling and balancing over the bodies of our unfortunate comrades.”

Britain would not experience anything like France’s wide-scale rebellion, but there was a small uprising at a British training camp at Etaples in September of that year. 

Mutiny or not, so many men had died by this point that the British had gone through their supply of volunteers.

Tommy 4.0, the final wave, would consist of the conscripts that had begun being drafted in 1916, the first of whom arrived in the trenches during 1917.

But the war's penultimate year would not end on a downer for the British. In late November, an attack spearheaded by hundreds of tanks at Cambrai saw the BEF push deep into the German lines. The captured ground was soon retaken, but the action proved just what a well-coordinated all-arms plan of infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft could do. 

Unfortunately, it would be the Germans who conducted the next well-coordinated large-scale attack, and when they did, far more ground was taken than at Cambrai.

In the spring of 1918, Kaiserschlacht, or ‘the Kaiser’s battle’ - Operation Michael - commenced.

It was intended to win the war at a stroke before the Americans could arrive in greater numbers and tip the balance of power irreversibly in the Allies’ favour. 

The British Army’s assessment on the importance of tanks, artillery and communication (covered below) in WW1 attacks

Because Russia had left the war in 1917, this freed up huge numbers of German troops in the east to be transferred to the Western Front. When they were unleashed, it created a dire situation for British troops caught up in the maelstrom, reflected by Haig’s desperate order on April 11:

“There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the Freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment.”

The initial German gains were impressive, but, like Cambrai, they too would be reversed. Having punched through the French and British lines into open country beyond, the momentum would soon run out. Attackers found themselves getting beyond the range of their artillery support and without many of their best troops left (because they’d been killed in the initial assaults). 

Those left over, less-disciplined, hungry (because of the Allied blockade) and surrounded by the relative cornucopia of Allied food stocks, were more inclined to loiter and gorge themselves on what they found.

Real-time communication was also impossible at this point – the Germans were beyond their field telephones and the wires that connected them were fragile and sometimes blown up by shellfire in any case. 

In short, these men were confronting the First World War attacker’s ultimate paradox: Any offensive required vast numbers of troops and supporting guns to really succeed, but, before the invention of radios, controlling and coordinating such an enterprise was virtually impossible. 

As the German advance slowed, the Allied line, although broken, reformed and held – and then the pendulum swung the other way. 

The Allies counter-attacked in a grand effort known as the Hundred Days Offensive between August and November. Many more Tommies would die during this period, and even for those who survived, the advance would prove to be psychologically as well as physically testing. 

Once again, Urquhart, of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, was there:

“As we marched, or should I say trekked… it became clearer, and we were able to see what was around us. We found ourselves walking on what we thought were discarded greatcoats and tunics. Eventually, we became aware of the situation and realised we were walking over the bodies of French and Germans who had been killed during the fighting earlier in the year.”

It got worse:

“The surface of the road had been flattened by vehicles and in several places only the buttons of the uniforms along with scraps of cloth were visible as if they had been hurriedly buried or just run over and pressed down. Near the end of the road, an arm with a gloved, clenched hand was raised up from the elbow as if giving a signal to halt. It was a ghastly sight.”

The effort culminated in a German capitulation and signing of the armistice. At 11/11/11, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918, the fighting finally ceased… for about 20 years. The 'war to end all wars' it most certainly was not.

Article produced with the kind assistance of Dr Stephen Bull.

To learn more about the British soldier’s experience of the Western Front, read ‘Tommies: The British Army in the Trenches’ by Rosie Serdiville and John Sadler.

Cover image from Worldwar1postcards.com, where you can find more First World War images.

Op Reflect’s final take on how the First World War’s lessons can be applied today