THE BRITISH ARMY &
THE FIRST WORLD WAR 1914-1918
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WHAT IS A BATTALION?
For most soldiers of the British Army, it was the Battalion, rather than the Regiment, that was their home. Regiments never fought as Regiments, but as individual numbered Battalions, themselves attached to Brigades and Divisions (and sometimes other formations as well). Some soldiers served with the same battalion throughout their army career; others served in many different ones. But what was a Battalion?
Composition of An Infantry Battalion
On the outbreak of the First World War, a battalion at full War Establishment was comprised of 1,107 officers and men. Commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel, it had a Headquarters, Machine Gun section and four Companies.
The Headquarters was made up of the Commanding Officer, his Second in Command, an Adjutant (a kind of 'battalion staff officer'), the Quartermaster, plus the Orderley Room staff, Pioneers, Signallers, and Stretcher Bearers. There would also be a Medical Officer and a Padre. The Medical Officer might have some attachments from the Royal Army Medical Corps, and there would also be an Armourer from the Army Ordnance Corps. In total there were 4 officers, 1 Warrant Officer (the Regimental Sergeant Major), eight Sergeants and 61 Other Ranks; plus the Medical Officer and the Padre, and a Transport Officer if one had been appointed.
The Machine Gun Section had two Maxim Guns, probably of Boer War vintage, and was commanded by a Second Lieutenant or a Lieutenant. He had one Sergeant and sixteen men under his command.
The Infantry Company was normally lettered
from A to D (in some regiments this was W - Z), and was commanded by a Major or
Captain. He had a Second in Command, normally a Captain. There was also a
Company Sergeant Major, and a Company Quarter Master Sergeant. In total there
were 227 officers and men in a Company.
The Company was split into four Platoons, each one numbered. Nos 1 - 4 always served in A Company, Nos 5 - 8 in B, Nos 9 - 12 in C, and Nos 13 - 16 in D. The composition of a Platoon was 1 officer, 8 Sergeants, 10 Corporals, 4 Drummers, 4 Batmen and 188 Privates. Each Platoon was commanded by a Second Lieutenant or a Lieutenant, with a Platoon Sergeant as his right hand man. His Platoon was made up of four Sections, of twelve men, each commanded by a Non Commission Officer (NCO) - usually a Corporal.
War Changes to the Battalion
Few Battalions were up to strength when the war broke out in August 1914, even in the Regular Army. For example the 2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers was comprised of only 20 officers and 580 men on 4th August 1914. In the Territorial Force (T.F.) it was often even worse, with many battalions well below 500 officers and men. In the Regular Army the battalions were brought up to full strength by Reservists (soldiers who had left the army, but could be called back in time of war). In the T.F. immediate recruitment of war time volunteers brought the strength up. Most T.F. battalions were also still on the old eight Company system (lettered normally A - H), and this was changed to the normal four shortly afterwards.
As the war progressed the strength of a battalion varied greatly as men became casualties, went sick or were transferred. Heavy losses throughout the war meant that by the time of the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, the average infantry Battalion was around 450 officers and men; less than half its pre-war establishment.
In February 1915 the Machine Gun Section had its strength increased from two to four Machine Guns, and the old Maxims were gradually replaced by the Vickers Machine Gun. In October 1915, the Machine Gun Section in every battalion was disbanded, and the personnel transferred with their equipment to the newly formed Machine Gun Corps. The Vickers were replaced at battalion level by the Lewis light machine gun. Initially there were four in every Battalion, in a Lewis Gun Section and commanded by Second Lieutenant or a Lieutenant. Battle experience made the British Army realise it needed extra firepower, and by 1918 there were 36 Lewis Guns in every battalion.
Other changes included increasing the number of Stretcher Bearers, particularly as casualties amongst this section were often very high. Casualties on the battlefield also led to the adoption, from around the Battle of Loos in September 1915 onwards of leaving behind the "ten percent"; this was approximately ten percent of a full strength battalion that would be left out of battle at the time of an attack or major offensive, so that if there were heavy losses, the battalion could be rebuilt using this nucleus. Despite the horrors of war, many soldiers were not happy at being left behind at the time of a Big Push.
ŠPaul Reed 2004