Posted 03 March 2007 - 04:40 PM
Touching on the issue of recruits, it is possible that some Pals may have gained the impression that the British Army was made up almost entirely of raw recruits who came over to France after March 1918. Clearly this was not the case, and this was not the point being made when this issue has been discussed in this thread. It may be helpful to note that several British units were not significantly involved in defending against the German attacks. By significantly, I mean that these units suffered very few casualties. In some cases, this is because their sector was not attacked. In some cases, they were attacked but beat off the Germans with relative ease. In some cases, the units were overseas or in Italy when the Spring offensives started, and came back to the Western Front.
There were some British divisions that were very very severely affected. When you read the British Official History volumes relating to this period, these divisions and their composite units, you will come across a convention adopted the authors. Due to the severe losses, a division will be renamed divn; a brigade becomes bde. It is a very powerful reminder of what these units suffered. Some units, such as the South African Brigade 'ceased to be.' In their magnificent last stand at Marrières Wood, the brigade 'surrendered. Less than 100 unwounded prisoners [from the whole brigade] fell to the enemy; the rest were killed or crippled or lost, all but the little group of details and stragglers now in transport lines.' Like most units, however, this was not the whole picture. 'Two companies of the South Africans had gone astray on the night of the 22nd and had since been fighting with other brigades. There were also the parties left behind in the Brown Line on that date, which had been unable to rejoin their units, and there were the posts which Dawson had flung out on his right flank on the 23rd, and which had lost their road in the last withdrawal. These oddments, along with the details and the transport of the Brigade, collected that evening half-way between Bray and Maricourt, and on the following day were formed into a composite battalion of three companies... The fighting strength was some 450 rifles.'
By April 2, the South African Brigade was out of the line. The unit history takes up the account:
'It detrained at Abeele and moved into the Ridgewood area. Every man who could be found was brought from England, and during the next few days drafts to the number of 17 officers and 945 other ranks arrived. The reorganization of the Brigade was immediately begun. Presently, the Brigade had a strength of 39 officers and 1,472 other ranks.'
'Drafts' should not be taken to mean raw recruits. The example of the South African Brigade cannot be seen as a template for what happened to British units, though many of these did have some men who were back in England on leave or in training when Operation Michael started. Thus, some experienced men re-entered their parent units or were drafted into other units that had been depleted. These included men who had recovered from wounds.
Like the South African Brigade, there were whole divisions that virtually ceased to exist. The 9th (Scottish) Division is one such. It ended up fighting in the Somme and Lys battles of 1918. The divisional history details the terrible hammering. Finally, at the end of April, the division could begin to recover. It was an example of a unit that was almost entirely rebuilt with new recruits. The author wrote:
'During the greater part of May, the Ninth after leaving Poperinghe was resting and reorganising near St Omer. DHQ [Divisional Headquarters] were at Blaringhem, and the brigades were in neighbouring villages except the 27th, which was in camp at Lumbres. After three weeks of constant training and good weather, the Division, now largely composed of youths little more than eighteen years of age, was ready to return to the line, and on the night of the 25th May the 26th Brigade with the 9th Scottish Rifles attached, relieved the Thirty-first division near Meteren.
As the summer started, 'the attitude of the Division was one of active defence. Patrolling was assiduous; screened by the tall corn, small parties left our lines every day to examine the enemy's positions. Raids for the purpose of securing identifications were constantly carried out, and as the youngsters of the Division gained experience and learned the lie of the country they became adepts in the art of surprising posts.'
As time went by, the size of the raids increased but it was not until 19th July that a relatively major attack was undertaken - the capture of the village of Meteren, which had been lost in the Battle of the Lys. The account bears repeating because it illustrates how learning occurred, and how the nature of warfare had changed with respect to infantry involvement:
'The commanding ground on which the village stood and its proximity to the line rendered it desirable that our front should be advanced beyond the village. Our experience at Longueval [in the Battle of the Somme 1916] suggested the necessity of thoroughly demolishing Meteren; it was therefore systematically bombarded to prevent the consolidation of the position by the enemy and to level the walls and so allow the creeping barrage to go through the village without danger to the assailants. For a fortnight previous to the attack, "heavies", field-guns, and trench mortars poured a never-ending stream of missiles into Meteren and completely flattened it.
As it had been decided that the infantry would attack under a smoke-barrage, bombardments with HE and smoke, accompanied by the discharge of gas from projectors took place with a view to leading the enemy to associate our use of smoke with gas.
The operation of the 19th July was a brilliant triumph, and increased immensely the enthusiasm and confidence of the young soldiers, to whose dashing fearlessness the victory was mainly due. Our losses, with the exception of the Black Watch, were small compared to our gains.'
The divisional history also notes another key aspect of training at this time, which is supported by Lord Moyne's account in 'Staff Officer: The Diaries of Lord Moyne 1914-1918'. This is the widespread training of American troops. Thus, not only were the new British recruits being actively trained, but so were the newly arrived Americans.
In early May, Lord Moyne was a Staff Officer with a brigade in 25th Division. This division was also involved in multiple battles, including the Chemin des Dames offensive. Like other British divisions in this quiet area, it was meant to be recovering in safety. 'As usual on arriving in a new area, we at once got to work to construct rifle ranges...', which points to the ongoing importance attached to training. 'The attack prophesied by Bethell took place shortly after I left the Division and so little was left that the old 25th Division, as I knew it, was finally broken up.' The remnants of the division will have been posted to other divisions, making up some of the drafts into those divisions.
Lord Moyne took up a new Staff post in the 66th Division. 'We were one of the four Divisions who had been sent south on account of their exceptionally heavy casualties in the recent fighting. The other Divisions had arrived a few days ahead of us and it was thus probable that we should have a week or two of quiet during which to receive our drafts and to get reorganized. The 66th Division had now been organized on a Cadre basis (ie a nucleus to which miscellaneous units would be drafted)'. Lord Moyne details how the Cadres were then involved in training up two American divisions. Then, on 2 August, he noted in this diary 'during this time GHQ had apparently made up their minds to make us up into a permanent new Division with the troops from the East whom we were training, and the original cadres of the 66th Division were gradually broken up and dispersed.' On the troops from Palestine, Lord Moyne commented 'the officers certainly seem much more civilized than those which one finds in Battalions who have been long in France. The men, too, are better educated and far finer physically than the new levies to fill the cadres of the BEF.'
I hope these snippets give a broader picture of what was happening to new recruits and to depleted units. The final point to emphasize is that there was a considerable period of time in which training could take place in the field, bearing in mind that the first major attacks involving significant numbers of British units in the last 100 days did not take place until August.