Mobilisation – The War Diaries Begin
100 years ago, in the summer of 1914, the British Regular Army of just under 250,000 men was scattered around the Empire, with nearly half deployed overseas. On 4th August 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany after its rejection of the British ultimatum over the neutrality of Belgium. Mobilisation orders were issued and the war diaries were officially started. Day 1 of mobilisation was 5th August.
Some Units made an even earlier start on their war diary. The 1st Battalion the Royal Warwickshire Regiment’s starts on 29 July, for example, with the entry “Precautionary Period. Det left for Sheerness, 10.45 pm, 9 officers, 340 R&F” (rank and file). Part of the plan for this precautionary period was for some units to be sent to key coastal areas in case of immediate invasion and this move was probably part of that plan. In succeeding days the battalion diary entries include “all officers & men recalled from leave” and “all men pending transfer to Army Reserve recalled”.
Most units had to recall reservists, men who had had some full time service and now retained an obligation for call-up if their country decided it needed them. The speed with which reservists returned to units, considering the limitations of the times, is impressive. 1 Berkshires were in Aldershot and their war diary records 103 reservists arrived on day 1 of mobilisation, 438 on day 2 and 33 on day 3. By 11.30 p.m. on day 3 (7th August) they reported that their mobilisation was complete and on 11th August the Battalion was inspected by the King and Queen which must have been a shock for returning reservists who might have been away from the spit and polish of the Army for nearly 5 years in some cases.
The war diary of 8th Brigade Royal Field Artillery shows them in Kildare, Ireland in early August when the order to mobilise is received. Equipment is issued and reservists recalled to the Colours begin to arrive. The author comments that the reservist gunners are good but that the drivers are “indifferent .. unaccustomed to riding and driving for some years”. Presumably many had returned after service to civilian occupations that involved neither! 50 horses arrived, described as “soft and straight from grass .. and will probably gall easily” This Unit seems also to have lost a number of their NCOs who were promoted to fill gaps in other units and the diarist notes rather sarcastically that “In future the various grades of NCO for the Ammunition Column should be maintained in place”.
Units also did their best to carry out training for their newly arrived men. The war diary of 16 Field Ambulance RAMC describes an incident on a training exercise while the Battalion were still in Cork waiting for orders to move, where “two teams took fright and bolted .. due to the inexperience of the drivers and the untrained horses”. Damage was caused both to the Unit’s equipment and to a civilian cart (for which they had to pay £15) and one man was seriously injured jumping off a wagon.
Some reservists could have been out of the regular army for years and there was a degree of effort made to at least get them all to shoot a rifle before they went to France. Some didn’t get much chance. For example, 2nd Battalion the Welsh Regiment’s diary describes 5th August as their first day of mobilisation. By 7 August all personnel are present and over the next few days the rejoined reservists get to shoot just 20 rounds each on the ranges. They left by train for Southampton on August 12th and embarked for France the same evening.
Others were a bit luckier with their musketry training. 1st Battalion Royal West Surrey Regiment reported that by 7th August they’d had 580 reservists rejoin then at Borden and that “Half the Battalion at a time proceeded to the range where the following practices were fired by every man, 100 yards (grouping) and 300 yards slow and rapid”.
Some Units which were already in England found they still had to transport their reservists the length of the country to join them. Trains were requisitioned under Emergency War Orders and individual reservists could show their ID at any Post Office to get 5 shillings travel expenses or go to any station to get a rail warrant. 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders were in Plymouth on 4th August when at 5.20 p.m. the war diary notes “Order to mobilise received by telephone and acknowledged”. By 13th August they had received 547 reservists from their depot in Aberdeen and they then proceeded by train to Southampton and embarked for Boulogne where they arrived early on the morning of the 14th and proceeded straight to a rest camp.
During the mobilisation process there was of course a great deal of equipment to be issued both to the regulars and to the returning reservists. One of the most problematic issues, which would prove to be all too serious in the days of the retreat from Mons that would follow, was getting boots to fit the returning reservists and getting the boots broken in before they left for France. The diary of the 2nd Battalion Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment complains on 8th August about the “very inadequate allowance of boot oil allowed by the Regulations in the Mobilisation Stores” and says they have had to “purchase large stocks of castor and neatsfoot oil to ensure the reservists’ boots could be well dressed and softened” after getting reports from the Companies of problems on the short training marches they had been undertaking.
There seems to have been almost a holiday feel in the departure of some Units. The war diary of 1 Irish Guards, describes a parade in barracks on August 11th where they were inspected by their Colonel, Field Marshall Roberts who gave a farewell speech. Then on the following day they left on two trains from Nine Elms Station, one half of the Battalion at 7.15 and the other half at 8.30 and “The Band played the right half of the Battalion as far as Vauxhall Bridge and then returned to play the left half Battalion to the station”.
In the next few weeks, the roughly 80,000 men making up the first wave of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) would take part in the Battle of Mons and become forever immortalised as the “Old Contemptibles”. Most of them expected the war to be over by Christmas and sadly for many of them it would be – although they would manage to stop the German advance at the Marne, losses would be so great that the pre-war Regular Army would effectively cease to exist and things would never be quite the same again.