Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Getting Ready for War: Training in the British Army

"This Space Reserved for a Fit Man." British War Poster, color lithograph, 1915. Library of Congress.
As an avid runner and swimmer, I have been wondering lately what the typical physical training experience was for the British soldier. How fit was the average recruit? What was "boot camp" like for newly fledged members of the British Army? I write with some initial findings from the fascinating world of physical training during the Great War.

When the British Army authorities, needing every available man, examined the young men of England, they found that four out of five of them had something wrong...that was worthy of note.
--Good Housekeeping, 1920 article: "The League for Longer Life."
The above remark from a 1920 Good Housekeeping article on physical health in the post-war period refers to the Report Upon the Physical Examination of Men of Military Age that was conducted by the British Ministry of National Service in 1917-18 and published in 1920. Apparently, the examination revealed that British men were not quite in ideal shape during the war. It is perhaps unsurprising that the millions of recruits who had never been in the military prior to the war were not physically prepared for battle, however. Britain's Army was relatively small prior to the outbreak of the Great War, so the physical preparedness and experience that would have accompanied service were not necessarily typical. 

If your men are raw, you will have to go slow just at first till they all know what is expected of them.

Training--physical and mental--sought to remedy the greenness of recruits. According to Chris Baker's excellent website, The Long, Long, Trail:
Training for ordinary tommies began with basic training for physical fitness, drill, march discipline, essential field craft, and so on. Later, as the soldier specialised (in the infantry, for example, as a rifleman, machine gunner, rifle grenadier, signaller or bomber) he would receive courses of instruction relevant to his role. Especially as he was approaching being warned for the active fronts, he would receive basic training in first aid, gas defence, wiring and other aspects. This training continued when he was on active service.

It is unclear what combat scenario, as reflected in the following image of "telegraphists leap-frog[ging] over each other in a training exercise," is being anticipated! I jest, of course--as the telegraphists are going through mandatory physical exercises that would have been de rigueur for everyone joining the Army.  

New realities of combat, like trench warfare, were the impetus for development of new training methods. Edward Kirkpatrick's 1914 book, The Training of an Infantry Company mentions rifle and bayonet skills, and various drill orders as the components of soldiers' initial education. Learning to operate as a united body was essential for recruits, both for safety and for discipline on the battlefield. Addressing the officers who would conduct exercises, Kirkpatrick remarks
[K]eep up the same smartness, and quick obedience to orders, which are exacted in close order drills, in order that the men may become truly disciplined, and not merely so in appearance...(10)
Andrew Carrick Gow. Volunteers Drilling in the Courtyard at Burlington House, 1915.
Imperial War Museum. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 5217)

Importantly, Kirkpatrick notes the problem of adequate training space, which, due to the huge numbers of recruits (and later, conscripts) to the Army, was difficult to find. Contemporary photographs taken at recruitment offices show vast crowds of willing and eager young men who rushed to "join up" in the war's early days.

To deal with the overwhelming number of men and the problem of where they were to live and train, Baker writes, "[a]t first, large public buildings such as church and local halls, schools and warehouses were taken over - in many cases offered up by the local authority, church wardens etc - for both purposes. Thousands of men were also billeted in private home[s]." Training exercises were thus carried out all over the homefront, and there are some fascinating images of soldiers marching alongside curious civilians in locations like London's Regent's Park.

Over the course of the war, however, training camps were constructed both at home in England and on the front.

The grimmer aspects of the report on the physical condition of British soldiers did not reflect the willingness and courage of recruits. Furthermore, I cannot recall how many memoirs and other personal accounts of the war have made me marvel at their details of hardship and sacrifice. How anyone survived even a day on the front and lived to tell the tale is beyond me. One post on a vast topic like military training hardly suffices, so it will be drill time at "Ghosts of 1914" again soon.

© Fiona Robinson

Sources and further reading:

Wikipedia: "Regent's Park":

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