Research Notes – The Great War (7) The British Expeditionary Force

I’m researching The Great War for my current work in progress: a historical novel set during that time. To write the period accurately, I’ve been reading and studying the war and the surrounding events. I hope you find these bits of information as interesting as I do. ~ Meg

At the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, the British were an unknown quantity. Their Liberal government was horrified at the prospect of war. The Germans were counting on that queasiness to overrule the British commitment to uphold Belgian neutrality as promised under the London Treaty of 1839. The German invasion of France, as dictated by The Schlieffen Plan, depended on the armies being able to swing south through Belgium. On August 2, 1914, Germany demanded right of passage for their troops to march through Belgium. The Belgians refused. The Germans came anyway and Belgium found itself at war.

The British responded by delivering an ultimatum. Germany ignored it. They had delivered their own ultimatum to Belgium, in which they promised to leave their territory upon cessation of hostilities and to make reparations for any damage caused by the troops. No one believed that for a minute. Belgian Premier Charles de Broqueville said, “If Germany is victorious, Belgium, whatever her attitude, will be annexed to the German Empire.”

German troops entered Belgium on August 3, 1914 and Britain declared war on August 4th. Britain would enter a war in which she had not been directly affronted. German Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke knew the British would enter the war with or without Belgian violation. He said, “[England] … fears German hegemony and true to her policy of maintaining a balance of power will do all she can to check the increase of German power.”

The B.E.F. – British Expeditionary Force had first been organized in 1907. Behind the scenes, an inner circle of the British government had made greater commitments to France in case of war than was widely known to the public. Nevertheless, the commitment to the cause was to be rather small: four infantry divisions plus cavalry and artillery; no more than 100,000 men. Compared to the 2 million invading Germans, this was a drop in the bucket. However, in the beginning, British involvement was as important for what it symbolized -allegiance with France- as for what it actually contributed. When asked the minimum number of British troops with which France would be content, the politician Georges Clemenceau famously replied, “One, and we shall take good care to get him killed.” The British plan largely consisted of falling in on the French left flank and following their lead.

By the time the B.E.F. reached position in Mauberge on August 20, the fighting was well under way. France’s offensive in Lorraine was in trouble and Belgium was being destroyed.

27 thoughts on “Research Notes – The Great War (7) The British Expeditionary Force

  1. Neat stuff. A fascinating book to write. You know I love my history. I’m not sure if mentioned this to you b4, but sometimes I write academic articles and the odd example papers for professors, as well as editing/proofreading students works/portfolio etc.

    One war I recently studied from the soldiers POV was the American Civil war. The reason I mention this is b/c I learned some disturbing facts. If we back to the Napoleonic Wars in the earlier 1800’s, soldiers died of sickness such as dystentry, measles, cholera, TB , whatever. This occurred at a rate of 5:1. So only 1 out if every 5 soldiers made it to the battle field, where he likely died from his wounds, by amputation, or infection.

    These odds slightly improved by the US Civil war to 3 to 1. Soldiers who came from the country side in the Union abd Confederate armies were most at risk. And 3 died, while the 1leftk went to thr battle field where most died of injuries and infection as well. In a terrible sort of irony, antibiotics were discovered ten-years after the Civil War ended (1865). By the end of the Civil Warm, doctors and soldiers realized that hygiene, better medicinal practices, and keeping wounds clean with boiled hot water, and not using the same cloths, bandages etc. from other soldiers, was necessary as these caused infection, causing many deaths. Also, many civil war camps, drank polluted water to begin with. However, water was more contaminated when these soldiers dug their camps latrines. The facial matter, dangerous bacteria’s etc, got into tthese camps water sources underground. So, many men died quickly of dysentery. Along with measles, and some other illnesses.

    (There is also the first recognition of PTSD in a sense during this war called ‘Nostalgia’ where a soldiers yearning for Home and their old life, physically and mentally are effected until they could not function, didn’t eat, drink, etc. but basically lay down and died, b/c their experiences had damaged them so terribly.)

    I’m noting all this because 30 years later, in WWI, there still exists this issue for many soldiers, not making it combat in the trenches or becoming very ill in the trenches; dying before they got to fight as a soldier. Not just with ‘trench foot’ but other disease b/c of living conditions and also vaccines being relatively new. I’m not even sure many soldiers or anyone,would have had these vaccines until the late 1920’s & 1930’s or if they would have chosen to have the vaccine? You might know about this?

    Anyways, these inoculations would prevent polio, cholera, measles etc. From what I skimmed on WWI for this Civil War project, more soldiers were still dying of disease and infection, than those who survived to fight in large battles such as Vimmy Ridge In WWII. As a side note, Canadian troops were very much involved in WWI, due to their connection to England. We do & did consider her our Queen (a figurehead) as a commonwealth nation, so Canadians went to fight such as Dunkirk and Vimmy Ridgr. And in France, part of France is actually considered Canadian soil due to sacrifices of Canadians troops there.

    To end— It was not until WWII, that more soldiers died in combat, than from diseases and infectious wounds. In WWII soldiers have vaccinations, have access to antibiotics and pencillian. They about hygiene, living conditions, and there’s more info out on microbiology and how germs effect people. It’s sad these men died in combat or by disease, in any war. But at least more WWI and WWII soldiers (especially) died fighting, not from massive infection, dyssentry, or measles,

    In the USCivil war, and even before Napoleon’s wars, we have a better idea that in most wars in past history, a lot of men died so huge armies were raised and needed for different battles and causes Many died suffering from illness, not the supposed ‘glory’ of fighting in combat. Your article made me think of this, as at the cusp of WWI, many men still face disease and infection on a large scale.


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    1. Excellent information, Mandi! The conditions at the front were very much a factor in attrition of the troops. They had lice and fleas and all the diseases that came along with that. Tuberculosis was still a plague and of course, several strains of the flu which mutated quickly. There is evidence that the poison gas contributed to the spread of the Spanish flu which made lungs more vulnerable to the disease. Anyway, yes the war was definitely more than just armed conflict. Thanks for sharing all this information with us!

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  2. One important fact to mention at the outbreak of WW1 is that the British Army, although comparatively small, was the only fully professional force in the field, comprising of full-time volunteer troops rather than the conscripted masses in Germany, France, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Russia. Undermining their professionalism was a lack of machine guns and high-arc howitzers (almost all British artillery was line-of-sight), which the Germans possessed in huge numbers. By 1916 conscription had been introduced in the UK and by 1917 the British Army began to put into practise all of the painful lessons of the previous 3 years (including the disaster of the Somme offensive). The French had been fought to a standstill and troops began mutinying in 1917, putting more pressure on the British & Empire forces (including Aussies, Kiwis, Canadians, South Africans and Indians). By 1918 Britain had an army of over 4 million men, the largest navy and the largest air force in the world, as well as brutally effective tactics at breaking through heavily defended German trenches using state-of-the-art artillery, tanks, air support and flexible platoon units.
    That’s a hell of a change from the original BEF in 1914.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes! It certainly is! More about the BEF as I move along. It was an entirely different war by the time it finished. From the technology to the attitudes of the soldiers. No more glorious war. That is interesting about the artillery. I’ll have to read up on that a little more. I did read that one of the things that slowed all the armies down was a lack of standardization in rail sizes. The tracks were inconsistent and troops and supplies had to be repeatedly offloaded and reloaded to new trains.

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      1. The thing that fascinated me was the endgame. Four years of grim, immobile trench warfare brought to an end in 100 days by a series of devastating attacks on the German front lines, mainly by the British / Aussies / Canadians but made possible by knowing that the US was supporting the exhausted French further south (who had borne the brunt of the war on the Western Front). I definitely recommend this book:
        Another weird fact about the logistics element of WW1 – the British hired Chinese labour to support the war effort in northern France:

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I love reading your notes. You’re so good at boiling down so many details into such a readable package. And everyone’s comments are so well informed too! Fascinating stuff. I love history but don’t have the patience to wade through most history books. I’m curious about the sources you’re using for your research. I’d love a list (just a few of your favorites – I don’t expect you to post a full-on bibliography!) Sorry if you’ve already mentioned them somewhere along the line and I missed it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Rita! I have several books: A Short History of WWI, The Guns Of August, The Smithsonian History of WWI in Photography, plus books of war letters and Men Who March Away which is a collection of war poems. I’m also watching “Our War” a documentary on Netflix – you might want to check that out for brevity’s sake!

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  4. I am constantly amazed at how Belgium – a neutral country at the time – became the centre of so much appalling destruction during WW1. There are a few articles on my website on this topic, should you be interested Meg.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Denzil. I’d be very interested in reading. I visited Belgium in 2013 and spent some time exploring the area around Ypres. It gave me the inspiration to write a story involving the war. I’ll be over to find you!

      Liked by 1 person

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