ARTICLE FOR YOUNG PERSONS
Regiments, Battalions, Brigades, what does it all mean ?
Army Numbers and Common Terminology
How many men is that ?
Introduction and Preface
I can recall, when I was about 10 or 12, first getting a bit interested in the
two world wars, what had happened, why did people talk about it as much as they
did and in the way that they did. That was back in the 1950s and 1960s, and I was
one of those children who came along in those first couple of generations after
the end of the Second War. I had a grandad that had taken part in the First
War, though my own father had been too young for the second. Even so, the
military and its terminology were all about me, all about all us young lads
especially, in those 20 or so years after the Second War. Most of my teachers
had served somewhere in the military. I learnt it all almost like learning a
new language, without concious thought.
Numbers, and maths in general, were never my strong point, and it was a long
while before I could really grasp the huge numbers involved in both of those
tragic wars. I grew up hearing about battalions and regiments, brigades and
divisions, but only had the faintest idea of the actual numbers involved with
those impressive names. I vaguely knew that they increased in size in the
order I've just written them, but just how many men were in a regiment, or a
brigade, was beyond my understanding. It was .. a helluva lot.
I can now see, by viewing the blogs on the internet, just how much people are
as confused as I was back then by the usage of such massive numbers, the names
of so many obscure army regiments, and how many people, even adults, find it
hard today to get a grasp on what it is all about. These WW1 anniversary years
are going to see a massive increase in articles, programmes, stories about the
First War in particular. Some younger folks, maybe some older ones too, would
appreciate a sort of rough guide to how it all worked as far as the numbers are
concerned, and the terminology of how we speak or write them.
Before we get to grips with that particular terminology, let me mention
something else. Throughout this article, you will hear me talk about the First
World War in various ways. Don't get hung up about how to write it yourself, or
its correct 'title', for all these methods are correct, all depending on
whether you are abbreviating, or being formal. You can use words, or numbers,
ie, 1st World War, World War One, WW1, and so on. It is also correct to refer
to those four years as 'The Great War', as I often do in this article. That's
mostly because that was how I was brought up, when it was still spoken of in that
way by my elders that served in it, and also because it was exactly that. Even
though the Second War was fought by more countries on a more global scale, and
yes, arguably had many more overall casualties world-wide, we can still call
that First War "The Great War."
Equally, if you say 'The First War', that is also correct, but usually in
context of what you are specifically talking about. We use exactly the same
formats for the Second War. When you hear historians talk of the 'last war',
as in " . . . the international situation before the last war", they mean the
Second War. The word
is taken as read, so we really mean before the
last world war
. That needs clarifying because we've had several wars since then, Korean,
Falklands, Iraq, etc, but thankfully none of them were 'world' wars. You get my
It may also help if I suggest that you may need to read some parts of this
article again, even several times, to get the full benefit of the information
below. It's not all that straightforward, and again when looking at the
internet, I can see on several blogs how folks trying to explain this can get
into a real tangle. It's not that what they explain is wrong, or their facts
are incorrect, it's that they then don't go on to explain further. Sometimes,
in explaining all this, it's a more of a case of what to leave out.
I hope that I've avoided the worst of those errors, but it is a fact of life
that with something so complicated, using terminology long since gone from
common usage, explaining one point, or one part of something, leads to even
further questions on yet something else. Believe me, I have tried to keep it
uncomplicated. I'm as old now as my grandad was when I first questioned him
about his part in The Great War, and I hope I've given the explanation he would
have given me .. had I listened long enough.
So this article is meant to help young people in particular to get some grasp
of the numbers involved when we are talking about 'the military', and in this
case, specifically the army. If the explanations here help some adults too, that's all to
the good. Most folk today have nothing to do with the military, nor personally
know anyone alive who served in it. But many of you had ancestors that did,
and maybe you're just now getting curious enough to want to know what they did,
where they went, and more besides. To understand those records, when you find
them, you'll need a good bit of this information below. I was fortunate when I started to research my grandfather's war service, a good half of the acronyms and terms were already familiar. But I still had to do a heck of a lot of research, really serious reading, to understand the rest .. and me from a family with a military background on both sides and a smidgeon of military training myself!
You can either learn the basics fairly quickly by reading on below, and reading
this whole article will take about an hour. Or you can do as I suspect many
will do, leave here and go on puzzling and guessing and wondering about the
scrawled initials and terms on your own relative's documents, medal cards,
service record, etc, as you find them. And then in a year or so, you'll
perhaps recall seeing this page, and come back to it for a crash course in what
you wished you had took note of to start with. Reading on should ultimately
save you some time. I've done that, been there.
What is a Battalion, and how many men .. ?
I did gather fairly early on that a battalion was somewhere in the region of a
thousand men, and can be as little as around 800. But that can depend on which
numbers are being counted. Before WW1, a battalion at peacetime 'established'
strength was 1,007 men to be precise. That figure could be much less if the
battalion was not up to it's established strength, and that became more the
case during WW1 when few battalions were at full strength for any length of
But even that is not a figure set in stone, it did vary a bit, both from
regiment to regiment, even from army to army. Foreign armies arrange their
numbers in their own ways, but by and large, the numbers are broadly similar.
A note here on other armies: the only two other armies whose figures you are
likely to come across for some time are the Americans, our allies in both wars,
and the Germans, our foe, likewise in both wars. For our purposes, we'll deal
mainly with the British army, and how it's basic organisation roughly
translates into the numbers of any one unit. Please note the word 'roughly',
for we are not dealing with hard and fast figures. Very few facts in history
are hard and fast, especially military history.
I mention the word 'unit', for that is perhaps the most basic term that can be
used to describe any body of men. This generally refers to a battalion. When a
man was said to have been on leave and then 'rejoined his unit', it generally
meant his battalion, but could also mean his company. Going down in size, the
battalion was further split into companies, usually about 4, and each of those
was also a unit. It is an overall term, a broad term, and it's meaning is
usually understood in the context in which it is used at the time.
So, let's talk numbers.
We'll use the battalion as our basis, for just about every man in the army was
in a battalion of one sort or another, and even within current day military
circles, it's still understood to be the basic formation of men that can fight
collectively and be reasonably self-contained when deployed into the field of
battle. Not that a battalion could do everything all by itself, for even they
need other support, such as transport, medical services, cooks and field
kitchens, or artillery support. Some of those services also are organised into
battalions, but for our purpose here, to grasp the basic numbers, we'll just
talk about infantry.
And here specifically, we'll see the numbers that were used at the time of the
First War, or also commonly called in my young days, The Great War.
Battalion = roughly about a 1,000 - but can be a lot less
Company = roughly 200 men
Platoon = roughly 50 men
Section = 10 to 14 men
The 1,000 men for a full battalion would include HQ staff. (more on HQ staffs
An easy way for you to equate military numbers is to compare them to what
you're already familiar with, for instance the numbers of pupils in your
school. If you went to a junior school of around 200 pupils, you can easily see
how that would relate to one full company in the army.
You can see in your mind's eye a company of soldiers formed up on parade on
your largest playground, one soldier replacing one pupil. You probably formed
up in 'lines', long snakes of pupils where one snake equated to one class. The
soldiers would have lined up in very neat 'ranks', side by side, of perhaps 20
men. Going 10 ranks deep would give you the 200 in a company. Going just a
little smaller still, there may be 4 platoons within that company, of about 50
Even that could be broken down into sections of around 10 to 14 men, and there
we have arrived at the smallest unit, other than two or three-man teams used
for specialist work. Sections didn't always have names, or if they did, they
would be after the regiment's own battle honours of previous wars. But usually,
they were simply called after their particular job or trade, so you could have
a rifle section, mortar section, wiring section for the laying of barbed wire,
or even a machine gun section when there were fewer of those weapons in the
Going back up the scale, the 4 usual platoons in a company were usually
designated by a letter, A, B, C or D, and this tended to be a common system
across all battalions and in most regiments, a system still largely used today.
Companies would also mostly use names, of battle honours, or names of previous
famous or much venerated commanders, in a similar way that many pupils would
have 'House Names' at school. If you are at a senior school or academy of say,
a 1,000 pupils, you can roughly equate that to a battalion of 4 companies, plus
a Headquarters company.
Any small group of men lined up on parade was termed a 'squad', and that could
be just a section, a platoon, a small part of a full company. And that term,
by the way, is also where we get the term 'squaddie' from. Every man is a
squaddie when he joins, an ordinary ranker, having no rank at all other than
private, shown in short as Pte. In military histories, and battalion diaries,
you will often see the initials OR in reports, alongside NCO, being Other Ranks
and Non-Commissioned Officers. A lance-corporal is the first and most junior of
the NCO ranks; all below are Other Ranks, being privates.
But we're not finished there. By and large, there were 4 infantry battalions to
a regiment. That was in peacetime, but when placed on a war footing,
recruitment increased numbers in the First War to 10 battalions or even more,
sometimes a lot more. The East Yorkshire Regiment had 15 battalions by the end
of the war, and some other regiments had more than that. The most I can recall
seeing is 28, though that was unusual. We have to remember that by the time
numbers got that high, most of the earlier battalions had ceased to exist,
wiped out, apart from small numbers of survivors who would be absorbed into
another battalion to make its strength up. Going back to the numbers in your
school, we can see that in a city with 4 academies or senior schools, you could
then also equate the total number of pupils to the number of men in the average
regiment with 4 battalions.
But, these are rough figures, and in truth, most regiments would be less than
4,000 men most of the time. By and large, 4 battalions each at full strength
would come to around 4,000 men, but that would include HQ and other support
staff. I'm not being sexist here, for we are talking of all men. Yes, there
were women's units, particularly in the Second War, but all our fighting units,
our combatants, were most definitely men. Women were, most definitely,
non-combatants and served in support roles in garrisons or bases, being
typists, clerks, messengers, drivers, signallers and communications and a
myriad of other work and trades. The Women's Army Corps, later Royal so styled
WRAC, did the vast majority of this work for the regular army. The WRNS and
WRAF did much the same for the navy and air force respectively.
Regimental HQ and Garrison
Many of those HQ staff were what could be called 'garrison staff', being those
men who stayed behind to man the garrison when the battalions were sent off to
war in Europe or other foreign climes. They would be the clerks and
administrators who ran the offices, handled the mail to and from the troops,
organised replacement men, as well as who could go home on leave and when. HQ
would consist of the colonel in command of the regiment, his deputies or
lieutenant-colonels in command of each battalion, and an adjutant, often a
major, in charge of all the offices and admin. He, with his clerks, would deal
with the CO's correspondance and communications, all soldiers' records, sick
lists, leave entitlements, ordering of cookhouse stores as well as ammunition and ordnance, the whole range of admin work in running a regiment.
The adjutant was in effect the head of Personnel, or in today's terminology
the HR department.
Each battalion would also have an adjutant, usually a captain, working directly
under their CO, the lieutenant-colonel. The adjutant's office was like a
mini-HR department, again dealing with soldier's records and their own sick
lists. The adjutant's office would be where the men obtained their leave
chits, 'chitties', the official scrap of paper a man had to carry with him
showing his entitlement to be on leave, away from camp, stamped with the
adjutant's office stamp. Failure to produce one, when challenged by a
policeman or military police usually meant at least some time in the cells
somewhere. The first two numbered battalions in all regiments were regular
soldiers, and one battalion would be at home on garrison duty at any one time.
Other men and NCOs would be running the stores, for the issue of uniforms,
equipment and weapons, and yet more men organising the wagons and transport, as
well as looking after the many horses that pulled them. At the start of the
First War, most regiments were still reliant on a tremendous number of horses
for transport, so there were huge numbers of grooms and stable staff. The
British Army still had regiments that had 'wagon trains'. There could often be
more horses in a regiment than men, especially artillery regiments where huge
numbers were required to haul the big guns. Indeed, there was an 'Army Remount Service', in effect another regiment or 'corps' whose specific role was to supply replacement horses and mounts, and a good many men served in their depots scattered throughout an army. They would have been men who were 'good with horses', former draymen, carters, ploughmen and farmworkers.
The garrison would be the main barracks in the county, usually in the county
town or city, containing sleeping quarters in huge dormitories in barrack
blocks, offices, cookhouse and dining halls, stables, stores, armouries and
everything else. The garrison would be the regiment's main base or home, and
evolved from the days of castles. Victorian garrisons often had stylised
battlements and buttresses and looked very fortified, even if they would no
longer withstand even mild cannon fire. In fact, architecturally, they were not
unsimilar to the huge, forbidding brick-built prisons of Victorian times, and
for many soldiers, not much different in purpose. The high walls and huge gates were still
meant to prevent men getting out. Most cities, and a lot of large towns, still
have their old garrison buildings, often now occupied by local TA units. There
are three I know of in Hull alone, two of which have buildings dating to WW1 or
When a battalion returned from a tour of duty abroad, often after two years or
more, their garrison is where they would usually return to. It was home, and
meant home leave and good food. The accomodation within most county barracks
would only accomodate one battalion at a time. For one battalion was always
'away', posted abroad or on duties in other parts of the UK, very often Ireland
in those days. As one battalion came home, the current 'home battalion' would
be off somewhere else. In Victorian times, that was very often to India.
Some regiments had only two or three battalions, and much depended on the areas
they recruited from. A large county, with say two cities, would have more men
wanting to join the army, and would generally have 2 full-time battalions of
professional soldiers, plus maybe 1 or 2 reserve battalions. These were
part-time soldiers, living at home with their families and employed in ordinary
jobs, but who joined because they liked soldiering or army life. Reserve
battalions would go on annual camps for their training, and it was all good fun
for a working man normally confined to the noisy and dirty factories of a city.
It meant a fortnight's fresh air and fun, as well as hard work, and for many it
was almost a holiday.
We can almost equate a fortnight's summer camp with the pre-WW1 Territorial
Army to similarly run camps in later years of the boy scouts and cubs. Of
course, those old soldiers would also quickly and most firmly point out that their camps were
no picnic, the discipline and training being of a far higher order than
anything scouts did. And of course, they were dealing with firearms, guns of
all sizes, live ammunition and a good deal of danger. Accidents did happen, sometimes fatal, but
the point is that scout camps were based on military lines in that they were
under canvas, with field kitchens and cookhouses, and were themselves a direct
descendant of military camps. Lord Baden-Powell had been an army officer in the
Boer War and the similarities were quite deliberate. Scout camps or TA camps,
by and large, men and boys alike loved them.
Reserves, TF or TA
Now we've come to talking of reserves, we need to go back a bit and speak of
pre-WW1 history. Recently, these men are what we called the Territorial Army
(TA) but are now being renamed the Army Reserve. Before the First War, the TA
had only been re-formed with that name in around 1908-10. Before that, it was
called 'The Territorial Force'. You will often see reference in old army
records, including those of men who later served in The Great War, to the
initials TF, and for these, you can effectively read TA. Previously, local
squires or dignitaries with wealth often formed their own bodies of men for
local defence, often named after them or their family name. It had been like
that since before the Civil War of the 1640s.
Militia or Yeomanry ?
By Victorian times, they were the local 'Militia', raised for local defence, to
maintain civil order over and above what the police force of those times could
manage. Many local barracks or garrisons were constructed to accommodate their
own county militia. They were also commonly called 'Yeomanry', being mostly
local farmers, or yeomen, and labourers, and also organised into regiments,
later with county names. They would put down a riot or civil insurrection at
the point of a sword or gun, rather than the truncheon and handcuffs used to
enforce order by the police of those times. It was a system that descended from medieval days
of feudal knights and squires where a local knight would form his own regiment
to serve the king, raised from the very men that worked his fields and estates
The part-time Territorial Forces were born from those sort of roots.
Our full-time army was mainly formed from many of those separate units of
county militias and yeomanry that were the mainstay of local defence since well
before the Napoleonic wars of the early 1800s. Many counties had regiments
that were not actually named after them, but had numbers, or were named after
the squire or knight who had first raised them and who often became their first
commander, or colonel.
From Numbered Regiments to County Regiments
So we could have the 15th Regiment of Foot, and they became the East Yorkshire
Regiment. That old number would denote their order of seniority in the wider
British army. The Guards regiments, such as the Coldstreams or Grenadiers,
were then and still are the senior foot regiments, and that is why they
generally have the ongoing honour of supplying the sovereign's foot guards at
the palaces, or her escort to and from state occasions.
After the Guards come, in descending order, all the other regiments of the
army, each one generally consisting of around 4 battalions. Most regiments
then were either of 'foot', or 'horse', so the title of a regiment also denoted
whether they were foot soldiers of the infantry, or mounted soldiers of the
cavalry. Most cavalry regiments, the hussars and lancers, were senior to those
of the infantry, and so took precedence on parade. The Royal Horse Guards were
senior then, above all other mounted or foot regiments, and still are.
Around 1880, those many 'regiments of foot' were organised on a more
county-wide basis, so the 15th Regiment of Foot became the East Yorkshire
Regiment. The numbers either side were the 14th Regiment of Foot, who became
the West Yorkshires and senior, and the 16th who were the Bedfordshire and
Hertfordshire Regiment and junior to the East Yorks. After them came the 17th,
the Leicestershire Regiment, and so on down the line. Just as we have Beds &
Herts for short, we usually refer to our local regiment simply as the East
Yorks, and let's say we were talking of the 2nd Battalion, we would write that
as 2nd East Yorkshires, or 2/East Yorks, even 2/EY for very short. So if you
happen to see a reference to the 3/B&H, it was not Benson & Hedges, was it.
There were many other regiments that you will come across with just as obscure
initials, especially where neighbouring counties shared a regiment, but you'll
catch on quicker than you think. D&D were the Devon & Dorsets, Ox & Bucks are
almost self explanitory, whereas RWF was for Royal Welch Fusiliers, and many,
many more. Sometimes, such initials are the only clue to a man's regiment on
his medal card in the National Archives. And you will see all sorts, right
across the range. Just because a man came from Hull, or Beverley or
Withernsea, didn't automatically mean he went into the East Yorks. Far from it,
and you will find local men in just about all and any county regiment across
the whole British army. You'd be surprised how many local men served with the
Durham Light Infantry (DLI) or the Northumberland Fusiliers (NF) and how many 'Geordies' served in the East Yorks.
The amount of movement of men between regiments, just filling 'dead men's shoes,' is remarkable.
In the First War, if you read of say, the 6th Northants, that tells you where
their home garrison was, where most of those men were recruited from and that
there had already been five battalions raised before them, with perhaps three
extra battalions raised just for the duration of the war. Two full-time
battalions would have existed already, and at least one reserve, or militia,
battalion. There was often a fourth, a training, battalion, but not
The vast majority of the numbers of the British army were county or city
battalions, so there would for instance, be the Manchester Regiment recruited
mainly in that city, as well as the East Lancashires, and the Lancashire
Fusiliers, a different unit altogether. Some counties had more than one
regiment taking their name, and as we've seen, two counties could also share a
regimental name. But, in all cases, the numbers of men were broadly the same.
The Study Gets Serious Now
If you have read this far, then I know you are seriously interested in the
subject and really do want to understand the terminologies of the First War and
learn as much as you can. For now, it gets far more complicated, and the
numbers can be eye-watering. So let's crack on, as they say.
We can now see that we are leaving those simple-to-understand round numbers and
getting more into the area of those larger numbers that get progressively
harder to grasp and imagine in the ''mind's eye'', numbers with lots of naughts
on the end. From now on, numbers of school pupils in any one school will be
almost meaningless when speaking of units of the army larger than a regiment.
The next formation above a regiment is a brigade. This also brings us to the
names of ranks of the more senior commanders, who led who, and who was senior
to who. It will also be seen that the actual names of the larger units often
gives us the name of the rank of their commander or leader. Thus a brigade
would be commanded by a brigadier-general, though later this was abbreviated to
just brigadier, a rank still used today. As we've already seen, a regiment
would usually be commanded by a colonel, and each battalion within would be
commanded by that colonel's next junior officer, being a lieutenant-colonel.
They are styled Col and Lt-Col respectively.
It is a strange anomaly of the English language, and our usage, that as we go
higher in the ranks of the military, the ranks appear to reverse, and often the
longest name of a rank isn't necessarily the highest. So a lieutenant-colonel
was, and still is, junior to a colonel. A major-general sounds very mighty and
grand, but is in fact two ranks junior to a general. More on that later. But
you can easily find pages giving the definition of ranks in the army on the
web, along with their badges and insignia, the stars (also called pips) and
crowns they wore on sleeve or shoulder.
This page is a good one:
There were 3 or 4 infantry battalions to a peacetime brigade, making perhaps
some 4,000 men complete with HQ staff. It did vary, but they were the most
common numbers used. That would suggest they were all from one regiment, but
it was not always so. The 4 battalions would often be from differing regiments,
but later in the war, when a regiment might have gone up to 10 battalions, one
could find 3 or 4 from the same regiment serving together in one brigade.
Going further up the scale, 3 brigades would then form a division.
Unfortunately, to complicate matters, we have to realise that there was no such
thing as a typical wartime brigade nor a typical wartime division. The total
number of battalions in a brigade were often as much as 8 or even 10 when
cavalry and artillery battalions were added into the mix along with the
infantry. To find out which battalions served with each other in any one
division, you would need to consult the Order of Battle for WW1, freely
available in various sites on the web. The Long, Long Trail is the best:
and gives a full listing of all units of the British army throughout WW1, from
battalion strength upwards, in their 'Order of Battle,' along with the dates
they were formed, or disbanded, and the battles and major actions they took
The Western Front Association also has a website with a very useful table
showing the divisional structure of the army at that time at
Whereas an infantry brigade, with it's 4 battalions, numbered around 4,000 men,
a full division comprising 3 infantry brigades plus almost as many men again of
artillery, medics, signals and transport units, the total could easily top 15 -
18,000 troops all told.
The division was the next formation above brigade, usually consisting of those
3 or 4 brigades just mentioned, and it's perhaps fair to say that with the
division we have arrived at the smallest unit that was just about
self-contained, with all the different types of fighting men and equipment that
could be considered self-supporting. Thus for the first time, you would have a
unit that comprised not only all the infantry needed to hold quite a large
section of a front line, or take its part in a major battle, but all the
required artillery, cavalry, transport, engineers, medical, and a host of other
services too, including all the HQ staff required to run the whole outfit. In
total, around 60,000 men.
Another term you will frequently come across is the 'Divisional Train', alluded
to earlier mentioned wagon trains. Nothing to do with railways in this case,
it literally was the divisional wagon train of horse drawn wagons used when a
division was on the move. The divisional train itself could employ a couple of
hundred men, say company strength, and several dozen horses, usually draught
horses as used by breweries, carriers or on farms. Shire horses, Suffolk Punch,
Clydesdale, were all breeds commonly used or commandeered by the army just to
pull the enormous number of wagons. And then there were thousands of similar
heavy horses used to pull the guns. But that is another story.
By the end of the war, most of the divisional train in most divisions had gone
over to motor transport, and such large scale usage of horses in the British
army was coming to an end. So a soldier recorded as a driver, say in the Army
Service Corps (another corps!) could have been a man good with horses at the
start of the war, and driving primitive motor lorries by the end. It was
exactly the same situation with ambulances, horse drawn in the main at the
beginning, and motor ambulances by the end.
It was a steep learning curve, and they had to learn fast. Many of your great-grandfathers and uncles never took a driving test, not in the way we know them now. A man would learn to drive a motor lorry in the army, sometimes almost teaching himself the rudimentary controls. Before the mid-1930s when formal driving tests came in, he would be discharged to often go on to gain a job driving a van, lorry, even a bus or tram. He would have an army form (another chitty) showing he had been trained to drive, but when formal civilian licenses were introduced, he would 'inherit' his license without any further testing. This proceedure was called 'grandfather's rights', in effect gaining official authority to do a job they were already doing. I've worked with several such men who never took a formal driving test, even on a bus. They were already doing the job, and were simply given their paper 'book-style' license and badge. These guys had driven lorries in the army or air force, often under fire, and knew their onions.
The division was perhaps also, with those sort of numbers, the largest unit
that could be administered in the field with reasonable efficiency with the
technology such as it existed at the time. Telephones were still primitive,
field telephones being notably unreliable, and radio had yet to come into its
own. This was an army that still depended on runners and despatch riders,
whether on motorbike, cycle or horse, with the one concession to technology
perhaps being the telegraph. There comes a point where the organisation of any
large unit reaches a point of maximum efficiency, where the logistics of
organising food, billetting and accomodation, training and transport and
everything else that goes with it is so huge that to grow any bigger just
doesn't make sense. With regard to an army, it was also a question of how fast
it could move, either to keep up with an enemy, or retreat from him. It was
more simple to just form a new division.
For instance, in the 101st Brigade, which was just one part of the 34th
Division, we have a formation of battalions seen as it was more towards the end
of the war.
To use the shortened version of their titles, we have in the infantry of the
101st Brigade these units, or battalions:
1/4 Royal Sussex
2/Loyal North Lancs
There are 7 battalions there, but not all of them would be 'in the line' or at
the front at the same time. At any one time, perhaps 3 battalions were in the
line, a couple in reserve just behind the lines, and a further one or two on
rest and recuperation well behind the lines in the nearest big town that could
accomodate them. Each battalion in its turn would be taken out of the line for
a rest. Consistant killing, or what was then termed 'constant aggression
towards the enemy', was wearing on most men, and regular rests were the order
of the day if whole regiments were not to fall to fatigue. Tired and worn out
troops can barely fight, let alone be expected to win.
Additionally, after a battle, or serious enemy shelling or advances into our
lines, whole battalions were removed early and replaced by their reserves in
order for a badly mauled battalion to go back to the infantry base depots to be
replenished with fresh troops. If a great number of men had been lost, it was often the case a good many horses had too. This would also be when a battalion would be replenished with horses from the Army Remount Service referred to above. It's worth restating the point here about those that worked with horses, as there were huge numbers of them. The Army Service Corps was the main regiment that supplied most transport services to the whole army, both divisional wagon trains with horses in the early days of the war, and driving motor lorries and vans as the war progressed and armies became more 'mechanised. Tens and tens of thousands of men served there and the chances of finding a relative that served in the ASC, later in WW2 the RASC, are extremely high.
To explain battalion numbers further, the battalions with two numbers, like
2nd/4th Queens, denotes that they were reserve battalions within their
regiments, often part of the new army raised by Lord Kitchener in 1915. The
list above shows them taking their place in the line beside regular troops, and
used as such. The Loyal North Lancs were known in their own county as 'The
Loyals', but there were also several other regiments that had been bestowed
that same designation as Loyal, usually given by a past sovereign in
recognition of especially loyal service in past wars or centuries. The more
you read and see about the war, the more you will get used to it. It really is
So to add to those infantry units in the 34th Division, there were also the
101st Machine Gun Company (MGC)
101st Trench Mortar Battery (TMB).
For those of you getting into researching your own family histories, many of
you will come across those initials. Vast numbers of men served, and were
killed, in machine gun companies and trench mortar batteries. They quickly
came to be seen as essential additions to any infantry battalion in the line.
It's worth mentioning at this point that, although a trench mortar battery were
not infantry, they often drew their men from infantry battalions, and such a
battery was about equal in numbers to a battalion itself. By later in the war,
there would have been several trench mortars in a battery, at intervals of
every few hundred yards along the front, each requiring a lot of men to man it,
to carry and load the shells.
When it comes to machine guns, it were the Germans who first taught us the
effectiveness of such deadly weapons, to our great cost, and German units were
very well equipped with these almost from the start. Early on, theirs were
generally the better and more recent models, quicker firing, easier to load and
handle. And by far the more deadly. It was some time before our troops were
equipped with anything like the numbers of machine guns we would see and take
for granted later in the war. At the very start, most county battalions had
just two, each requiring sometimes three or four men as a team to carry and
fire it. This is a good example of how, as the war progressed, everything
involving numbers went up and up, like a sinister form of inflation. More and
more of everything is a good generalisation in WW1, including casualties.
Next up, we come to some seriously mind-boggling numbers now. This next 'unit'
is harder to describe and explain, partly because of it's French name, which we
incoporated into English for some years before WW1. This is the 'Corps'.
Don't pronouce the last two letters, neither the 'p' nor the 's'. Pronounced
Cor, as in cor blimey. It is both singular, and plural as the spelling
suggests, and the word takes as its root the Latin/French word corpus, meaning
a body. From which we have the English word corpse, also meaning a body, but
in a different context. It literally means here 'a body of men'. A huge body it
In the military context, a corps is a unit of an army comprising two or more
divisions, but usually two, and that is the context with which we are mainly
concerned. But it has to be understood that certain units within the armed
forces are also styled 'Corps', as part of their title, so we have the Corps of
Royal Engineers, the Royal Army Medical Corps, the Vetinary Corps and the Royal
Flying Corps, amongst others. When used in that case, the name denotes a
speciality within the military, as those regimental names suggest.
All of those units just mentioned are also found within the divisional
structure and so may be also part of a corps, or specifically an 'army corps'.
Usually given a number, and in the case of France and Belgium and our army on
the Western Front, we had a lot of army corps, numbered and styled 1st Army
Corps, 2nd Army Corps, and so on. For short, we would often see it written as
1 Corps, 5 Corps, etc, and when the number gets higher, just as often with
roman numerals. The highest number I've seen of a corps in France is XXII. It
would be spoken of as 22nd Corps.
So, how many men were there in a corps? Well, two divisions, each of 3
brigades gives us very nearly 50,000 men for a round answer, though perhaps
just a little short of that in many cases. Or, to equate to schools in the
simplest sense, imagine ALL the acadamies and secondary schools in five cities
the size of Hull, all gathered together in a massive field. It's not easy. It
used to take a train of ten coaches to move a battalion of 1,000+ men down to
the ports to embark on troopships for France. Could we imagine 50 such trains,
leaving Hull Paragon to go off to war, packed full of soldiers. For there, we
would have the equivalent of a corps. Different people will have different
ways of imagining so many people, and you will soon develop yours.
Which then brings us up to the largest unit in the field, being an army. Here
we have another word in common English usage that for military purposes also
has two meanings. Of course, the whole land forces of any country's military
is its army, used in the sense most civilians understand. But an army is also
a term used to denote a very large force in the field, which may or may not be
the whole of one nation's land forces. Britain had several armies, and again,
each of them was numbered, and they were also commonly termed as an 'Army
So in the usage you will usually see when talking of the army in France and
Belgium, you will find we had up to five armies in the field, and even they
were not the whole of the wider British army. We had as many men again
deployed all around the world, in India, the Middle East, Africa, as well as
garrisons in the Far East in Singapore, Hong Kong and many other places. There
was one whole army sent to the Dardanelles, for instance, not numbered in that
case but styled the 'British Salonika Army.'
Each of those armies in France comprised two Army Corps, plus HQ. I mention
these HQ staff each time because they were a considerable body of men in their
own right, up to 150 men, from the general commanding down to the lowliest
clerk, signaller, despatch rider or driver. Each brigade, division, and corps
had it's own HQ. Then of course, there was the GHQ over and above all of them.
Over all of those five armies in France were also a General Headquarters,
styled GHQ, first commanded by General Sir John French, then from late 1915,
commanded by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. They were appointed by the War
Office, and styled General Officer Commanding (GOC), and it would be he who
would literally command the whole lot, being all British and Empire forces in
the field in that particular theatre of war. Later in the war, that included a
considerable number of men from the Canadian, Australian and New Zealand
armies, and a massive number - thousands - of Indians. I'm not sure if even the Americans, when they arrived, were not also
under overall British command. Someone will tell me. It is known that when the Canadians arrived in France to fight alongside us, there was a huge row over whose command they would be under.
The British 1st Army and 2nd Army comprised the original British Expeditionary
Force, BEF for short, that was sent to France in August of 1914 right at the
start of hostilities. They didn't go of their own accord, but as a request to
our government from the French to help them face the Germans, and from the
Belgians who had actually been invaded at that point. In the case of Belgium,
we were fulfilling a treaty obligation. We had promised to help defend Belgium from any aggressor or invader, and we kept our promise. That's how the war started, and why it was we who declared war on Germany. They invaded Belgium first, and killed a great many civilians in the first days. We were honour bound to help, and help we did.
Those five armies were fluid in numbers throughout the war, so it's impossible
to say exactly how many men passed through those various HQs as they went to
their various brigades, divisions and corps. Those most senior generals,
styled field marshals, had under their command some 250,000 men at any one
time, and later in the war, even more than that. On the ascending rank of
generals, we had major-general, lieutenant-general, then just plain general.
The only rank senior after that was a field-marshall. But at the lower end of
the officer's ranks, a lieutenant was junior to a major. But not when he was a
general. You can see how it can be confusing, until you get used to it.
In total, Britain had around 5.5 million men under arms over that 4 year
period, and added to that were several hundred thousand more of men of the
wider Empire. India, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa and Canada, and
most of the smaller colonies all provided troops for the general war effort.
Just under a million British and Empire men, and a considerable number of
women in other units such as nursing, and administrative staff, were killed in
the conflict, of which something over 700,000 were from the UK, in all three
armed services. It may be hard to believe, but no-one can claim to know any
exact figures, not even the government, and historians argue about them
constantly. Like many statistics, it all depends on how you measure them.
So those are the numbers, and some basic organisation and terminology. Which, I
hope, will help you to understand wider matters of The Great War, whether for a
deeper understanding of your family history and the unit your great-grandad or
great-uncle served in, or for a wider understanding of all that went on, the
battles, defeats and retreats. In fact, to understand much of what led to the
final victory that finally vanquished the deadliest of enemies, and what that
victory cost. There's a lot of politics in there too, if you want to get into
it, and when it comes to discussion or understanding of the war's causes, and
its aftermath, the politics can't be avoided I'm afraid. Failed politics are
what start wars in the first place, always did and always will.
The great shame of it all was that the numbers lost were so great that it had
to be styled The Great War by the generation that took part, for there had been
none greater prior to that. The scale of killing, the sheer cost in human
misery, let alone financial cost to this nation, eclipsed any previous war by
several factors of ten, let alone the same costs endured by the aggrieved
European countries, primarily France and Belgium.
It's the size of those numbers, the scale of the killing and misery, that makes
it all even 100 years later still so raw in this nation's emotions. Why we
remember, why we take so much trouble over cemeteries, keeping graves clean,
why for many people, it still hurts. The armistice, and the terms the Germans
had to accept, were meant to make absolutely sure that the same tragedy could
never happen again. And they did mean 'never', seriously they did.
The next great shame was that, just 21 years later, it did have to be all done
again. For the very same reasons, and against the very same enemy. That alone
should have taught us as a nation that we should never, never ever, say .. ..
webmaster. Feb 2014.