Going Over The Top: Kitchener's Army

By David Flin

Perhaps the single most iconic image of WWI is that of the recruiting poster, with Kitchener’s finger pointing to the viewer, and the words: “Your country needs you.” It was part of the drive in Britain for volunteers for the New Army, more usually called Kitchener’s Army.

Kitchener had predicted that, far from the popular belief that the war would be over by Christmas 1914, it would be a long, drawn-out, brutal war. His view was that the arrival in Europe of a large force of well-trained and well-led troops when the enemy had become exhausted would be a decisive blow against the Central Powers.

So far, it’s not a bad idea. Kitchener fought to get it approved, and succeeded. It was at this point that errors crept in that culminated in the first day of the Somme.

First of all, he blocked any attempts to disperse these New Army battalions into existing divisions, where they could have learned from experienced soldiers. The Commander-in-Chief of the BEF, Field Marshall French, wanted to introduce these New Army battalions alongside experienced units, but Kitchener persuaded the Government that this would weaken the potential of the New Army. Kitchener didn’t trust the existing Territorial Force, and didn’t use it in his New Army. He believed the Territorial Force wouldn’t fight, because he felt the French “territorials” had fought poorly in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.

It was at about this point that idiocy began to take control. By tradition, the British army recruited on a regimental basis, and the recruit would first go to the regimental depot to collect kit, before travelling to the main training camps for basic training, and then return to the battalion.

Unfortunately, the system couldn’t cope with the influx of volunteers. Because Kitchener had insisted on keeping these volunteers from being incorporated into existing units, he had them formed up into battalions nominally attached to existing regiments, but kept separate from them.

There was a shortage of uniforms, and whatever else one might call what they wore, “uniform” is not the first word to come to mind. Old stored red uniforms were issued, along with emergency blue uniforms, cardboard caps, civilian clothes with regimental badges sewn on.

In and of itself, this wouldn’t have been a problem, merely something to provide amusing photographs showing this ad-hoc mixture of clothing for later generations to laugh at.

First World War wooden rifle. This image is licenced under the IWM Non Commercial Licence, © IWM (FIR 8162)

More significantly, there was a shortage of equipment for training. Rifles, ammunition, artillery, everything was going to the troops at the front as a first priority. That meant that training was carried out using improvised substitutes. Some trained with wooden rifles, and those destined for the artillery generally trained on wooden pieces. In some cases, old ceremonial cannons and museum pieces were called into service for artillerymen to practise on.

The shortage of ammunition ensured that training was inadequate. Even when they had been issued with real rifles, there wasn’t the ammunition to spare to train them how to shoot. British Army riflemen at the start of the war were required to be able to shoot a minimum of 15 aimed rounds a minute, and many could achieve more. At the Battle of Mons in 1914, when facing British regular troops, the German army came up against that rifle fire, and was “shot flat.”

Fifteen aimed arounds a minute was the minimum standard for every soldier in the British Army in 1914, and this was achieved through constant practise. There was constant practise so that it becomes automatic.

Unfortunately, the shortage of ammunition meant that many soldiers in the New Army hadn’t fired 15 rounds in total during training before they went to France. Inevitably, they weren’t skilled riflemen. Gunners hadn’t actually fired a gun. And when they went to France, they went as self-contained Divisions, so they didn’t have experienced soldiers to learn from when they reached the front lines.

Field Marshall French and General Haig protested, but Kitchener persuaded the British Government that maintaining the New Army as separate entities from those already there would retain their fighting spirit.

Things were worse. There was a shortage of qualified instructors. The Government called up retired officers, and any officers from the Indian Army who happened to be in the UK at the time. Inevitably, these training officers were at best outdated. Anthony Eden, who went through the process, described how the training was predicated on lessons learned from the Boer War, based on open movement warfare. Information coming back from France about trench warfare was dismissed as “a temporary situation.”

Part of the temporary situation at the Somme in 1916

Junior officers undergoing training realised very quickly that the training was inadequate, and fortunately, official pamphlets entitled: “Notes from the Front” were distributed. Harold Macmillan, also undergoing training, remarked that these were less than useful. One such pamphlet explained how “Officers of Field rank on entering balloons are not expected to wear spurs.”

Things were worse. The tradition in the British Army was for NCOs to be selected from the available men. Under peacetime conditions, this was not a problem; those so selected were experienced soldiers, men who had worked their way through the non-commissioned ranks. However, Kitchener was adamant that esprit de corps would be enhanced by maintaining the tradition for the New Army. That meant choosing sergeants from among the volunteers; sergeants with no more experience than anyone else.

Things were worse. It was decided that OTC (Officer Training Corps) at a good school was sufficient training for a junior officer, and hundreds of such public schoolboys were given commissions straight away.

Things were worse. Kitchener opposed the promotion of NCOs to the rank of officer. He did not approve of non-gentlemen in a leadership role. “Temporary gentlemen” was the disparaging term used, and he believed no good could come from such.

Kitchener meeting wounded soldiers in 1915. A lot worse was to come.

Of course, it was idiocy. One rule of the Great War was that rank was not a clear guidance to social status. While making his way to Number 12 Casualty Clearing Station, Second Lieutenant John Glubb tipped the medical corporal who carried his bag for him. The RAMC corporal was the Earl of Crawford, the Premier Earl of Scotland who, being too old for a commission, had enlisted as a private in the medical corps, the only branch that would take him at his age of 43. The Earl had refused the offer of the Viceroyalty of India in order to enlist as a private.

The volunteers, of whatever rank, were enthusiastic. Undertrained, ill-equipped, what training they’d had was just plain useless for the conditions they were to face, kept apart from experienced units for as long as possible. But they were enthusiastic.

Fast forward to 1 July, 1916. The New Army was to be given its first exposure to taking part in a major attack. Inexperienced, unable to advance in anything other than a steady walk, unable to fire and move. Knowing the quality of the troops doing the advancing, the plan was for an intense artillery bombardment, greater than any before in history, to destroy the German forces in the first objectives. Destroy the enemy by shellfire, eliminate all opposition, and the New Army could advance to take and hold these empty positions. It was a not unreasonable plan, given the quality of the forces involved.

Unfortunately for the New Army, the artillery wasn’t as effective as hoped, and as the New Army advanced, the machine guns opened up. The result can be seen in War Memorials all over Britain. 60,000 men of the British Army paid the price of Kitchener’s training methods.

Kitchener drowned when the ship he was on, HMS Hampshire, was sunk on 5 June, 1916, so he never got to witness the butchery inflicted on the New Army. With his death, new training procedures were introduced, and the New Army could become a powerful force.

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow