Our country needed them

Our country needed them

Few of us can have families who were not touched by World War One. Neil Storey explains how the men joined up and what sort of training they would have had

Neil Storey, military and social historian

Neil Storey

military and social historian

When war was declared at 11pm on 4 August 1914 it was greeted by many with cheering and singing in the streets akin to New Year’s Eve. The generation who had grown up through the late Victorian and Edwardian eras saw it as their duty to serve or at least do something for the war effort.

volunteers for the Tyneside Irish
Some of the original volunteers for the Tyneside Irish in Kitchener’s Army 1914. No uniforms or badges were immediately available for these men so a strip of ribbon worn around their left arm was all they had to show they had enlisted

Many officers and men were already serving in the Territorial Force and were immediately on stand-by for mobilisation to their war stations, Army Reservists were called to rejoin the colours and thousands volunteered to join the forces from ‘civvy street’. Confidence was high and many believed the war really would be over by Christmas and patriotically rushed to join up.

First World War recruitment poster
First World War recruitment poster calling for volunteers

One of the few senior officers who was unconvinced the war would be brought to a swift conclusion was the newly appointed Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl of Khartoum, a national war hero who had come to prominence during the colonial wars of the late 19th century. To have sufficient numbers of trained soldiers (conscription was only introduced in British in 1916), Kitchener knew he would have to step up recruitment for the all-volunteer army. Kitchener wanted a New Army, with soldiers who were proud to say that they were ‘Kitchener’s men’.

On 11 August 1914 Kitchener’s famous call to arms, ‘Your King and Country Need You’, was published. This called for 100,000 men between the ages of 19 and 30 to enlist; former soldiers were accepted up to the age of 45. Both middle-aged and young men adjusted their ages in order to enlist. A tale familiar in most parts of the country tells of young, well-built lads presenting themselves to recruiting sergeants, admitting to be 16 years old (but would pass for 19), and being told to go out, then come back in and tell me different. By 21 August Kitchener had his first 100,000 recruits and what became known as ‘K1’, the first six divisions of the ‘New Army’, were approved by the War Office.

A call to arms

By September 1914, an average 33,000 recruits were enlisting nationally on a daily basis. Men could volunteer for their chosen regiment, usually their local line infantry regiment or one with family history; while others might choose a corps such as the Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers, Army Service Corps or Royal Army Medical Corps. Basic pay was a shilling a week with ‘Separation Allowances’ for married men or those with family responsibilities.

A typical advert for soldiers’ comforts
A typical advert for soldiers’ comforts that could be bought by those at home and sent out to soldiers 'at the front’ during World War One

‘Kitchener Men’ were drafted for training to their local county infantry regiments but would not usually be allocated battalions immediately. Troops reporting to their allocated barracks and depots were rapidly disillusioned when they were told that there were no uniforms for them. Indeed, there was frequently not enough room to house all the recruits. Some were provided with accommodation under canvas; others were simply handed groundsheets and a blanket and told to make the best of it, sleeping on floors or in countryside close to the barracks until accommodation could be found in barns, maltings or other commandeered buildings. In some areas lucky soldiers were put up by local families at the Army’s expense. Other recruits decided to walk home and come back again early in the morning for their first parade.

At its most basic level, training was designed to teach recruits to obey orders. The recruits would first be put through their paces (often in their ‘civvies’) with foot drill on the parade ground, route marches and exercise, progressing to physical training apparatus such as vaulting horses and Indian clubs if available. They would also be instructed on how to make their beds, and smarten whatever kit they had by folding it properly and ensuring the brasses were polished, the equipment blancoed or polished and made ready for their daily inspection, be they under canvas or in barracks. Skill at arms was also taught: musketry instructors would train the men to shoot on rifle ranges or into butts and the men would also be taught how to fight using a rifle and bayonet.

Use of the bayonet being taught to young soldiers
Use of the bayonet being taught to young soldiers c1915

The time spent by new recruits in basic training during the war varied greatly, from a few days to a few weeks before the soldier would be sent to his battalion. Every county regiment had its own ‘Kitchener’ Service Battalions and many of the men who had enlisted into their county regiment did indeed serve with them. However, there was no guarantee and many others were often saddened to be separated from their comrades as they were sent off to serve in another county regiment which had a greater need for them. Hence many people have ancestors who were born and bred in one county but ended up serving in a county regiment from a very different part of the country.

When the need for uniforms and equipment was at its most acute in the early years of the war, ‘Kitchener Blue’ uniforms were issued as a stop-gap. Drawn from the stores of the Post Office or even prisons these uniforms were pretty shapeless and had often been rapidly dyed blue and if it got wet would frequently stain the solider wearing it. Shortages of cap badges meant its place could be taken by collar or shoulder titles at times; some had to get on with none. Eventually the correct khaki uniforms and equipment, did arrive, albeit piecemeal.

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Soldier’s kit layout for members of Training Reserve Battalions in 1916
Soldier’s kit layout for members of Training Reserve Battalions in 1916. The equipment shown is the 1914 Pattern made from leather that was brought in as a substitute for the 1908 webbing during the equipment shortages of 1914 but it ended up being used for most of the war and many soldiers went into combat wearing it.

The basic standard uniform and equipment of a British ‘Tommy’ consisted of:

  • a Service Dress (SD) cap
  • a 1902 Pattern Service Dress tunic and trousers
  • a greatcoat
  • a pair of long puttees worn between the ankle and just below the knee
  • a pair of reverse leather ammunition boots
  • a Brodie shrapnel helmet (introduced 1916)
  • a gas hood (introduced 1915) or small box respirator (introduced 1916).
  • a set of 1908 Pattern Web Equipment, which in ‘battle order’ would consist of a haversack, cross straps, belt, a pair of carriers, cartridge (ammunition pouches) with three charger clips in the top pouches and two in each of the lower ones, an entrenching tool and a water bottle.

In his kit a soldier would be issued a knife, fork and spoon and mess tins, wash roll including soap, comb, razor and toothbrush, a ground sheet or rain cape for inclement weather, and rations such as a tin of bully beef or a hard tack biscuit. He may also have some non-issue ‘comforts’ such as a balaclava, gloves or a scarf.

In ‘marching order’, with greatcoat and large pack, a soldier could be carrying up to 70lbs (32kg). He would also be armed with a Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) No 1 Mark III rifle, which in the hands of a trained rifleman was capable of firing 20 to 30 aimed rounds a minute, and a bayonet.

From May 1915, most of the ‘Kitchener battalions’ were sent to the Western Front. Training in trench warfare under simulated battle conditions began as soon as they arrived. Each unit spent about a month in training and everyone became expert in digging trenches and latrine pits. Under the supervision of bawling Sergeant Instructors, the men fixed bayonets and ran to stab and skewer sacks filled with straw hung from gallows, practised firing at targets with the faces of German soldiers printed upon them, and threw both live and practice grenades to prepare them for ‘bombing raids’ across ‘no man’s land’. Selected men were trained on machine guns, in sniping, advanced signalling and firing trench mortars.

When moved ‘up the line’, the infantry battalions would begin a routine rotation of about a week in support and a week on the front line, then two weeks or so in reserve trenches (timings would vary according to the pressures of the sector at that time). There would be an occasional release back to rest camp between front line action and a return to the trenches. A soldier was lucky to receive two weeks’ leave a year and would only be allowed extra days to attend the funeral of very close family members.

Timeline: WWI

4 August 1914
Great Britain declares war with Germany at 11.00pm
11 August 1914
Kitchener’s famous call to arms, ‘Your King and Country Need You’, was published
23 August 1914
The Battle of Mons – the first engagement between the British and German forces on the Western Front
25 April 1915
Landings at Anzac Cove and Cape Helles on the Gallipoli Peninsular
2 March 1916
The Military Service Act 1916 the first statute of full conscription in British military history came into force
1 July 1916
First Day of The Battle of the Somme – almost 60,000 casualties suffered by the British Army on this day
31 May – 1 June 1916
Battle of Jutland – major engagement between British and German Navies fought in the North Sea off Denmark
17 April 1917
The Second Battle of Gaza, Southern Palestine
31 July – 6 November 1917
Battle of Passchendaele, Western Front
8 August –11 November 1918
Battle of Passchendaele, Western Front
11 November 1918
Armistice declared at 11.00am

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