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Mobilization A to Z23 Nov. 2002
R. A Forczyk
- Published on Amazon.com
At first glance, a book about the mobilization of British infantry divisions in the First World War might not seem like a very interesting subject. Look again, and note that this book is written by Martin Middlebrook, one of the most readable authors on the First World War. Middlebrook initially pulled this material together as a reference guide intended only for his own purposes, but then realized that he had the essence of a viable book and decided to publish it. As with any Middlebrook effort, the result is worthwhile. The value of this book, beyond the mere enumeration of data on every British division in the war, is that it serves to explain the strengths and weakness of the British Army in the First World War - much of which was attributable to mobilization policies. Your Country Needs You consists of eight chapters, with the first six covering the different types of infantry divisions: regulars, the New Army, the Pals, the First-Line and Second-Line Territorials. The last two chapters cover the changing army after 1916 and the final year of the war. Two appendices detail the wartime expansion of a typical British regiment and the casualties suffered by each British regiment in the war. Only infantry units from the Home Islands are covered, but Middlebrook does address other Commonwealth forces and support units when appropriate. The 200+ photographs in the volume are also excellent and many have not appeared elsewhere (e.g. a photo of a British army recruiting desk in New York City circa 1915 - apparently the "neutral" USA allowed Allied recruiting of their nationals in our country). Middlebrook provides an entry detailing the formation, composition and deployment of each of the 65 infantry divisions that saw active service in the First World War, although the regulars receive far-less coverage than the newly-raised units. Although Middlebrook is loathe to criticize the British mobilization effort, which was able to increase the army from 6 to 65 divisions in less than two years, it is apparent that mistakes made in the program severely degraded Britain's ability to conduct sustained combat operations on the continent. Before the war, Lord Haldane had established the Territorials (similar to the US National Guard) and an Officer Training Corps (OTC) to provide for a mobilization base to backstop the tiny regular army. However, Haldane was replaced at the start of the war by Field Marshal Kitchener, who decided to improvise an ad hoc force known as "the New Army." On top of this, volunteer units known as "Pal" units were raised by various localities and Kitchener decided to incorporate them into his New Army structure. The result was three different sources of infantry divisions, all forming from different manpower sources and with varying training standards. Furthermore, there was a severe shortage of trained officers, NCOs, and support units to fully equip the new units. Most of the New Army units had to rely on over-age "Dug Out" officers who were clueless about modern combat conditions and over 100,000 direct commissions were given to create "instant" junior officers; consequently, the new units had very low quality leadership in many cases. Eventually, Kitchener was able to deploy 30 New Army divisions and 28 Territorials, but the reader will be left to ponder whether Britain's war effort might have benefited from fewer divisions of better quality. Ultimately, the hastily raised and trained nature of the New Army probably contributed to the appalling losses at the Somme and Ypres. Another problem that Middlebrook discusses is the serious manpower mismanagement evident in the British mobilization plan. First, the British government was overly generous with exemptions and fully one-third of the available manpower sat at the war in the industrial and agricultural sectors. Second, the regional nature of British regiments caused problems when these regions could not sustain replacements to keep their regiments near full-strength; the Scottish and Irish units were particularly difficult to keep up, and many battalions were woefully under-strength by 1917. Britain initially relied on volunteers to sustain its ground combat forces but by March 1916 this pool of volunteers had dwindled and conscription was introduced. It is also interesting that the British manpower system broke down and was unable to keep units near full-strength even before the massive losses of the Somme and Passchendaele. Conscription changed the British Army by diluting regional characteristics and loyalties. Heavy losses in 1916-1917 caused the British to combine depleted units, shift many units around and further alter the character of their divisions. Middlebrook also discusses the issue of whether Lloyd George "hid" infantry units in England to prevent Haig from squandering more British lives in futile offensives in Flanders. The short answer is no. Many accounts of the First World War suggest otherwise and claim that George's manpower parsimony contributed to the near-fatal weakness of the British Army in France in 1918, but Middlebrook's data tells a different story. In fact, the most of the 200,000 or so British troops in the UK in 1918 were mostly very low quality Second-Line Territorial units that never fully formed. On the other hand, Middlebrook makes the point that the British had over 100,000 troops in India as well as five cavalry divisions in Europe that might have made excellent replacements (Haig the cavalryman, refused to break up his beloved horsed units no matter how archaic and useless). Instead, the British muddled through their manpower mess and often had to rely on improvised solutions, like "Bantam" divisions made up of men five feet tall (or less). The story of the mobilization of the British Army is important to understanding Britain's combat role in the First World War, and Middlebrook tells the story in an exceptional manner.