The Armies of 1914

The machine gun section of a British infantry battalion, 1914  (Imperial War Museum)

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At the beginning of the Great War the armies of the major belligerents were organized in roughly the same manner. First came the numbered field armies, consisting of a variable number of corps. The German Army in the west, for example, was organized into seven field armies, each controlling two to four corps depending on the tasks allotted to them. The corps was the basic tactical formation; it consisted of two or three infantry divisions plus various corps troops. These latter usually included a medium artillery regiment, a cavalry regiment, a pioneer (combat engineer) battalion, and various supply columns. The total strength of a corps was usually 70,000 to 80,000 men. Cavalry corps were similar in structure but substantially smaller.

Except for those of the British Army, infantry divisions were “square divisions,” so called because they embodied two brigades, each of two infantry regiments, each regiment with three or four battalions. The infantry divisions of the British Army (which did not recognize the regiment as a tactical echelon of command) were “triangular” with three brigades of four battalions each. The division artillery usually consisted of a brigade of two regiments with a total of eight to twelve batteries with 36 to 56 field guns and howitzers. Divisions also included a reconnaissance element—usually a horse cavalry squadron—and the division trains (supply and ammunition columns). By modern standards, the trains units allotted to the division were scanty, such assets being mostly concentrated at corps level. Though a few motor vehicles were present, most transport was horse drawn. The total strength of a 1914 infantry division was 16,000 to 20,000 men, depending on nationality. Cavalry divisions had a similar organization but a much lower strength: usually 8,000-10,000 men and 12 to 24 guns.

Field armies and corps sometimes has aviation squadrons attached, usually with six or eight airplanes, unarmed. Many commanders viewed these air units with skepticism, doubting their military value. But in the 1914 campaigns the airplane proved its worth, operating much more effectively than cavalry in the reconnaissance role . It was a French airplane, for instance, that spotted and reported "Kluck's turn," the redirection of the German Army's right wing that led to the Battle of the Marne.

The field armies of the belligerents embodied the divisions of the active army plus the first-line reserve divisions. The active divisions, consisting of long-service professional soldiers and the current intake of conscripts, were maintained in peacetime at two-thirds to full war strength. On mobilization, they absorbed such recently trained reservists as necessary to complete their organization. The reserve divisions, usually maintained in peacetime as cadres only, were brought up to war strength on mobilization by absorbing the bulk of the most recently trained reservists. In most cases the first-line reserve divisions were slightly smaller than the active divisions, for example with less artillery.

Older reservists formed the second-line reserve units: territorial or militia battalions and brigades for such duties as protecting lines of communication, guarding prisoners, garrisoning fortresses and the like. Usually they were armed with older weapons that had been replaced in the field army. In 1914, however, these second-line troops often found themselves pressed into service as combat troops.

Only the  British Army deviated from this standard pattern. As a relatively small all-volunteer force its reserve, consisting of men who’d completed their service and returned to civilian life, was only sufficient to bring the home-based part of the Regular Army (six infantry divisions, one cavalry division and two cavalry brigades) up to war strength, and to replace initial losses. The Territorial Force, somewhat analogous to the US National Guard, was a part-time volunteer organization whose members bore no obligation for foreign service, though when war came the great majority did volunteer to serve abroad. In 1914 many units of the Regular Army serving in the colonies were brought back to Britain, being replaced by Territorials.

The uniforms of the soldiers of 1914 present a varied picture. The British, the Russians and the Germans had already replaced the brightly colored uniforms of past times with khaki (for the first two) and gray-green (for the Germans) field uniforms. The Austro-Hungarian Army had done likewise, though its new blue-gray field uniform had been adopted with an eye to war on the mountainous frontier with Italy and proved rather too conspicuous for the Eastern Front. Only the French Army went to war in its traditional, highly visible colored uniforms— dark blue coats and madder-red trousers for the infantry of the line—not the least costly of the many mistakes it made in 1914. No army provided its soldiers with steel helmets.

Contemporary collector's card showing the uniforms of the French Army and Navy in 1914

The weapons in the hands of the soldiers of 1914 were few and basic by modern standards: the pistol, the rifle and bayonet, the machine gun and, for cavalry, the saber and lance. Machine guns were usually grouped in regimental machine gun companies (6-8 weapons), or battalion machine gun sections or platoons (2-4 weapons). Division artillery consisted mostly of light field guns with a caliber of 75mm to 80mm. Only the German and British divisions possessed significant numbers of modern light field howitzers capable of high-trajectory fire. Medium and heavy field artillery, such as it was, was controlled by the corps and armies, the Germans being somewhat better off than the others in this category of weaponry. In 1914 large numbers of heavy guns and howitzers permanently installed in fortresses were hurriedly dismounted and pressed into field service when the importance of heavy field artillery was realized.

Though such weapons were under development in the years leading up to 1914, no army as yet possessed the submachine guns, light machine guns, mortars, grenade launchers, etc. that would be in widespread use by 1918. Even so the firepower of an infantry battalion armed with magazine rifles was many times greater than that of its 1815 ancestor. Supplemented by machine guns and supported by artillery, a 1914 infantry battalion in defensive positions was capable of stopping an attacking force many times its own size. Only the German Army, however, had thought to equip its infantry with entrenching tools.

But the implications of this great increase in firepower were not fully understood. Most armies championed the tactical offensive, holding that a rapid, audacious attack could overcome any defense. Hence the emphasis, for example in the French Army, on the importance of high morale, an aggressive spirit and the bayonet. Small-unit tactics received little attention, professional soldiers believing that mass armies comprised of civilians in uniform would be incapable of executing complicated maneuvers under fire. Here again the British Army was exceptional, consisting as it did of well-trained professionals, many with considerable experience of colonial war.

Such were the armies that marched in August 1914—confident for the most part that the war would be over by Christmas.

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