Ministry of Defence
Ministry of Defence

Lest We Forget
British Legion
The Royal British Legion


These extracts taken from ‘An Illustrated Companion to the First World War’ by Anthony Bruce.
Published by Michael Joseph, London ISBN 0-7181-2781-1


Unlike its continental counterparts, the British army of 1914 was a small, professional force which relied on voluntary recruitment. Its size reflected the government’s belief that the Royal Navy would make the major British contribution to a war in Europe. Its participation in the land war was to be confined to the British Expeditionary Force, a highly trained professional army of 150,000 men (six infantry and one cavalry divisions), commanded by Sir John French.

The force, which was positioned on the left of the French line, played a more prominent role in the initial fighting than its small size might have sug­gested. It fought delaying actions at Mons and Le Cateau before making a key manoeuvre during the Battle of the Marne which threatened the flank of the German First Army. Casualty rates were high, with 86,237 men being killed or injured in 1914. One of its major strengths was its standard of rifle shooting, which was ‘unique amongst the world’s armies’. In fact, during the Battle of Mons, the enemy believed that it was facing machine-guns rather than the rapid rifle fire of British troops. However, its technical skills were not matched by realistic tactical doctrines: it failed to acknowledge the power of fire defence or the fact that the cavalry was largely redundant in modern warfare.

As trench warfare began late in 1914 it quickly became clear that the war would not be over by Christmas as most British soldiers had originally expected. France could not defend a front of 400 miles alone and Britain was now faced with the need for a massive expansion of its army from the original 200,000 men to 2 million to cover the sector between Ypres and Givenchy. Under Lord Kitchener’s direction, a mass volunteer army was created, 1,186,350 recruits having joined up by the end of 1914. The effectiveness of Kitchener’s ‘New Armies’ was undermined by poor training facilities many experienced professionals having been lost in the first few months of the war and acute shortages of artillery ammunition and other equipment required in trench warfare.

The British were unable to convert their industry to the production of munitions quickly enough and for a time were forced to rely on American imports, often of poor quality. The build-up in British strength in the Flanders trenches was therefore slow and the army’s contribution in 1915 was relatively small. BEF launched two offensives Neuve Chapelle and Artois-Loos during the year, and the failure of the latter brought French’s period in command to an end. He was replaced by Sir Douglas Haig who remained in command until the end of the war.

Haig’s name is, of course, closely associated with the costly war of attrition on the Western Front, of which the First Battle of the Somme was the first major example during his command. It was described as the ‘glory and the graveyard of Kitchener’s army’. Rising casualty figures and insufficient volunteers had already led to the introduction of conscription in Britain in January 1916. At that time there were 987,000 British troops in France, along with strong contingents from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other parts of the Empire. Total wartime enlistment from all sources in Great Britain came to nearly 5 million, representing nearly 25 per cent of the male population.

Conscription provided the manpower for the costly battles of 1917 Messines, Third Ypres and Cambrai when Britain played the leading role in offensive action after the virtual collapse of the French army. These all ended in disappointment but marked the arrival of the tank as a major weapon. Lloyd George’s disenchantment with the strategy of attrition led to the dismissal of the Chief of Staff, Sir William Robertson, and restrictions on the supply of men to the Western Front. At the same time the British share of the front had been extended and, by the beginning of 1918, 60 British divisions faced nearly 100 German.

The British line held during Ludendorf's first offensive of 1918 although it was pushed back to within 30 miles of the sea. Now under a unified Allied command and heavily reinforced, the British army, equipped with over 450 tanks, won the famous victory at Amiens (‘the black day of the German army’) on 8 August 1918. During the concluding operations of the war the British army played a major role, breaking the Hindenburg Line and recovering all the territory lost by the British in 1914. Victory on the Western Front had been secured at a cost of nearly 350,000 British casualties.

British troops, with major support from imperial forces, were also involved in campaigns against Turkey in Gallipoli, Palestine and Mesopotamia. With the possible exception of the Gallipoli expedi­tion, none of these campaigns had any prospect of directly affecting the outcome of the war in Europe, but involved the diversion of resources from the main front. Gallipoli was badly managed, costly in human life and duplicated the siege conditions of the Western Front. Imperial troops also captured the German colonial possessions in Africa, with the exception of German East Africa, where operations continued until the end of the war.

Lt Col John McCrae

Lt Col John McCrae was a doctor in the CAMC. Of Scottish descent, he served as a MO in Boer War, and then during WW1. He was at Essex Farm CCS, doing extraordinary work. According to the story (there are numerous versions) his friend was blown to pieces by a German shell close to the CCS. In the absence of a padre, John McCrae conducted a burial service and then on 3rd May 1915 McCrae composed one of the most famous and popular poems to come from the war. Later he was posted to Boulogne to a hospital, and died shortly afterwards of pneumonia.

IN FLANDERS FIELDS the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Poppies in a Field - Ken and Pam Linge
Photograph Copyright © Ken and Pam Linge 2003

Photograph Copyright © Lynda Smith 2003


The total cost of the war, in terms of military dead and wounded, can only be estimated very imprecisely . because of omissions and inaccuracies in the official records of some of the belligerents. Up to 13 million combatants may have been killed on the battlefield or died from disease, but some authorities give a significantly lower figure


The casualties in an army the size ours is at the present day are tremendous, and the work of recording and reporting them is far from easy. After a long battle, which has perhaps spread over a wide area, confusion is caused by the numbers of officers and men who have disappeared so completely that no trace of their whereabouts remains. It is absolutely necessary, before including a soldier’s name in a casualty list to identify him beyond any doubt, and his name, initials, Regimental number and unit, and exactly what has happened to him, have to be recorded faithfully. This work is done at the base. A number of men are set apart from each unit, and to these is set the task of checking and verifying all information received about each man of their unit mentioned in the casualty list. These staffs maintain a complete history of each man in their unit from the day he joins till he leaves the Army, and identification is much helped by means of the records they have prepared. And when one remembers that something like thirty copies of casualty lists are sent to England daily, which amounts at times to over 3,000 sheets of typewritten names, the magnitude of this task cannot be denied. The wills of dead soldiers, and the proper disposal of their effects, and supplying the graves of the fallen with wooden crosses, with the name and date of death stencilled on, are the last duties performed for a soldier by the Adjutant-General’s Department.

Mid-Sussex Times 25th January 1916.

The losses of individual countries between 1914-18 were as follows:





British Empire *
















United States
















*(includes Australia, New Zealand, Canada and other Empire countries of the time) - see Voluntary Aid Detachment


The failure of the Allies or the Germans to outflank the other during the 'Race to the Sea' (15 September- 24 November) marked the end of the war of movement on the Western Front. Separated by a narrow strip of land, the opposing armies created a line of static trenches that ran from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border, passing across northern France. A strange episode in the history of trench warfare was the Christmas truce of 1914 during which British and German troops left their positions and fraternised for several days. During the first winter both sides consolidated their initial positions by joining unconnected trenches together. The trench system typically consisted of three lines - front, support and reserve trenches - in close proximity; they were linked by communication trenches to the rear areas. Normally about seven feet in depth, the trenches had a parapet of earth or sand bags to protect the defending troops from the enemy's small arms fire.

Accommodation for the rank and tile was very primitive at first and often consisted of no more than a hole in the trench wall. Protection was gradually improved but it was not until 1916 that the Allies provided a shell-proof cover, although the Germans had introduced a concrete dug-out during the previous year. Troops normally spent eight days at a time in accommodation of this kind, with a similar period in reserve before moving into rest camp.

At the front they were in constant danger from artillery shells, mortars and snipers' bullets. They also faced aerial attack as the war progressed. Food was very restricted because of supply problems and disease was rife in the damp, rat-infested conditions. Many troops suffered from 'trench foot', a painful swelling of the feet.

At the heart of this defensive system was the heavy machine-gun, which dominated the battlefield with its continuous fire. The Germans, who pursued a largely defensive strategy until 1918, were the acknowledged masters of machine-gun tactics. Heavy howitzers firing high explosive shells also had an important defensive role, but the principal task of artillery was to prepare the ground for major infantry assaults. Another essential feature of the trench system was the barbed wire that both sides laid in no man's land, separating the opposing armies which were normally no more than 250 yards apart. With troops protected from direct attack from small arms fire, a number of specialist weapons quickly appeared, including hand grenades and mortars.

From 1915 the British and French launched a series of offensives designed to recover the territory lost in 1914. Each attack followed a similar pattern. An artillery bombardment marked the beginning of an offensive. Once it had softened up the enemy's front line, troops cut gaps in the barbed wire, and the infantry moved forward across no man's land. Before 1918 they were rarely able to do more than breach the first defensive line before the momentum of the offensive had been lost. Artillery could not completely obliterate the enemy's forward positions and the superiority of the surviving defensive weapons, when combined with a ready supply of reserves, ensured that the attacking infantry was pushed back with heavy losses. As a result, the temporary trenches of 1914-15 became permanent and a breakthrough did not materialise until 1918.

In the absence of an alternative strategy, the war of attrition continued, with losses mounting rapidly as various methods of overcoming the deadlock were sought. Gas was used by both sides hut soon lost its impact with the development of counter-measures. Tunnelling was an important feature of trench warfare but it was a slow and costly method of gaining ground. The most notable example of the use of tunnelling was the Messines ridge operation (June 1917) when nearly a million pounds of high explosive were detonated.

Artillery bombardments assumed massive proportions as German defences were strengthened, while gunnery techniques were gradually improved. Important use was made of the rolling barrage and aerial reconnaissance. However, defensive measures were also evolving during the war, the most important innovation being the German system of defence in depth. The Hindenburg Line, which was constructed in 1917, replaced the earlier linear trench lines. Consisting of three defensive areas several miles in depth, it constituted a formidable barrier to an attacking force. It did not seek to defend every inch of ground but tried to prevent the enemy advancing through the zones. One of its main features was the removal of the majority of the defending troops out of enemy artillery range.

The Allied equivalent to this flexible system was still under construction when the Germans launched their offensive against the Allied trenches in the spring of 1918. Using new techniques to overcome the power of the defence, including a surprise artillery bombardment, storm troops and highly flexible tactics, the Germans at first seemed to have achieved a breakthrough. However, the effective Allied deployment of reserves and German logistical problems - transport and supply - meant that the Allied line still remained unbroken. The counter-offensive that followed the last German assault in July finally broke the trench barrier. The combined effect of the tank, which presented 'an offensive antidote to defensive strength' and overwhelming Allied numerical superiority together restored the war of movement on the Western Front.


The French were the first combatants to use chemical weapons, firing tear gas grenades as early as August 1914. At Neuve Chapelle, in October 1914, the Germans fired shrapnel shells treated with a chemical irritant and (luring the following January they used tear gas shells on the Eastern Front. However, poisonous gas was not used on a significant scale until 22 April 1915, when the Germans used chlorine against British and French positions on the Ypres salient. More than 500 cylinders were opened and their contents - 168 tons of pressurised chlorine gas -were forced by wind on to the Allied line. Chlorine results in death if inhaled for more than a minute or two and this first operation cost the lives of 5,000 troops, with another 10,000 injured. The attack produced a break in the line but the Germans, without sufficient reserves, were unable to exploit their success; the opportunity for a decisive result did not reoccur because an antidote was soon to be available.

The first chlorine attack led almost immediately to the development of fairly primitive protective measures: within days handkerchiefs soaked in bicarbonate of soda were in use. A more elaborate device - the small box respirator - did not appear until August 1916; it was subject to continuous improvement and in its final form incorporated chemical solutions and charcoal filters to neutralise the weapon.

Following the first British use of chlorine gas - at Artois-Loos, on 25 September 1915 - it was employed frequently by both sides. One of its major disadvantages was the fact that it could be blown back on to the positions of those making the attack, as indeed happened at Loos. This difficulty was overcome when the Germans started, in July 1915, enclosing chlorine in an artillery shell; mortar and projector shells were also used by both sides for this purpose.

There was also a need to respond to improvements in respirator design by introducing new types of gas. Phosgene, which first appeared in December 1915, is, like chlorine, a choking gas, but is more deadly. Mustard gas, first introduced to the battlefield by the Germans in July 1917, was the most widely used toxic substance of the war. Odourless and virtually colourless, it causes severe burning to the skin and respiratory system; it evaporates slowly and effective protection is difficult.

Gas was regarded by the combatants as a useful 'tactical accessory', rather than as a weapon that might itself have ended the deadlock of trench warfare on the Western Front. Germany's reputation was damaged by her first use of gas, although 'both experience and statistics proved it be the least inhumane of modern weapons'. Gas attacks caused at least a million casualties during the war.

First World War Casualties from Gas
Total Casualties
Commonwealth Forces
(Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, et al)
United States
Austria - Hungary


Military aviation was still in its infancy when the First World War began, only 11 years after the Wright brothers' flight. Its role was expected to be limited to reconnaissance activities in support of ground forces and the number of operational aircraft available to the air forces of the major powers was small. During the initial war of movement on the Western Front, they quickly demonstrated their value in providing ground forces with regular information about enemy troop dispositions. As trench warfare developed towards the end of 1914, the cavalry was unable to carry out its traditional reconnaissance role and aircraft provided the only reliable source of information about the enemy's activities.

Once aerial photography was introduced it was possible to build up a more systematic picture of the enemy's trench system than had been possible by direct personal observation. As heavy artillery became increasingly important in the trenches, the role of the air services was expanded to include the spotting of enemy batteries and the ranging of guns on to targets.

With aircraft demonstrating their value over the trenches of the Western Front, each side sought to protect its own machines and destroy the opposition. The typical two-seater tractor biplane of the period was not designed for air combat and initially fighting in the air was sporadic. Hand-held weapons were widely used at first, although observers were soon equipped with machine-guns. However, real air combat could not begin until specially designed fighter aircraft had been developed. These needed to be equipped with forward-firing machine-guns synchronised to fire through the airscrew. The French had fitted a crude device to the Morane Saulnier L in the spring of 1915, but it was the Germans who produced the first effective synchronising mechanism. It was first used on the Fokker El monoplane and quickly transformed Germany's position in the air.

The RFC's reconnaissance machines were not equipped to deal with this challenge and their opponents had established air superiority towards the end of 1915. The first German fighter aces, notably Boelcke and Immelmann, developed the tactics that were to provide the basis of aerial combat for the remainder of the war. Changes in organisation soon followed as the first specialist fighter units appeared and formation flying was developed. The primary tactical unit was to be the flight of six aircraft.

The British and French responded by developing their own new machines, including the notable Nieuport Scout, and by continuing offensive action over German territory even in the most unfavourable circumstances. As a result, the Germans lost their early dominance and suffered badly at Verdun and during the Battle of the Somme, and Allied reconnaissance machines were able to operate with little risk of interception. In response the German air force was reorganised and re-equipped with fast and manoeuvrable D-type fighters, which were produced in much larger quantities. By the end of 1916 the Allies had again lost the initiative and suffered heavily as a result. 'Bloody April' 1917 was the lowest point in the fortunes of the RFC.

The arrival of the Sopwith Camel, the SE5 and other machines gradually redressed the balance. In the final phase of the war both sides massed large numbers of aircraft together in an attempt to achieve dominance over the battlefields. Despite the introduction of new machines, including the fine Fokker DVII, the Germans were unable to match the Allies' supply of manpower and material in the closing months of the war and they lost control of the skies permanently. In these favourable circumstances, the use of machine-guns and bombs against enemy troops became increasingly important in the Allied offensives of 1918.

The development of strategic bombing was another major feature of the air war. Both Britain and Germany launched air strikes against their opponents' territory during the first few months of the war, although it was not until 1915 that regular sorties by Zeppelins began. There were 51 airship raids on England during the period 1915-18, causing over 550 civilian deaths. When the airship became vulnerable to attack because of improvements in aircraft performance the Germans switched to the new heavy bomber - the Gotha IV - that had been developed. Raids on England began in May 1917 and continued for a year, although improved British air defences forced the enemy to abandon daylight bombing after a few months. The RFC responded with its own strategic bombing programme but the scale of its operations never matched expectations.

Neither side secured any real gains from these campaigns although the future potential of striking directly at an enemy's human and industrial resources had been established. Innovation was also a feature of naval aviation during the war. The British service pioneered strategic bombing and demonstrated the potential of anti-submarine patrols. There were also numerous experiments in operating aircraft from ships, although their immediate operational impact was limited.

During the course of the First World War the role of the air services of the major powers had been transformed: by the end of the war they were separate services operating independently in a variety of roles rather than as the reconnaissance branches of their respective armies. The creation of the Royal Air Force in April 1918 as an independent service in its own right was a recognition of this change. A measure of their impact was the fact that, by 1918, armies could no longer 'operate successfully without air superiority having first been achieved over the battlefield'.


Liege, Battle of,
  Arras, Battle of, 1917
Mulhouse, Battle of,
  Aisne River, Second Battle of the, 1917
Namur, Siege of,
  Messines, Battle of, 1917
Frontiers of France, Battles of,
  Ypres, Third Battle of, 1917
Le Cateau, Battle of,
  Cambrai, Battle of, 1917
Manic, Battle of the,
  Somme Offensive, 1918
Aisne River, First Battle of the,
  Lys Offensive, 1918
Antwerp, Siege of,
  Aisne River, Third Battle of the, 1918
Ypres, First Battle of,
  Cantigny, Battle of, 1918
Champagne, First Battle of,
  Belleau Wood, Battle of, 1918
Neuve-Chapelle, Battle of,
  Noyon-Montdidier Offensive, 1918
Ypres, Second Battle of,
  Marne, Second Battle of the, 1918
Artois, Battle of,
  Amiens Offensive, 1918
Champagne, Second Battle of,
  St-Mihiel Offensive, 1918
Artois-Loos, Battle of,
  Meuse-Argonne Offensive, 1918
Verdun, Battle of,
  Cambrai-Saint Quentin Offensive, 1918
Somme, Battle of the,

Last updated 28 October, 2022

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