The Crisis of the European Armies at the Start of the First World War

History Hit

4 mins

05 Nov 2018

The heavy casualties inflicted at the start of the First World War caused a crisis for the armies of Europe. With many experienced and professional soldiers dead or wounded, governments were forced to rely increasingly on reserves, recruits and conscripts.

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the British Army was the only sizeable European force to be entirely professionalised. It was small but well-trained, in keeping with Britain’s status as a naval power.

In contrast, most European armies were organised on the principle of universal conscription. Most men served a short compulsory period on active service, then were on-call as reservists. Consequently these militaries, especially that of Germany, were composed of battle-hardened soldiers supported by large numbers of reserves.

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The British Expeditionary Force

At the outbreak of war the British army was comparably small: 247,500 regular troops, 224,000 reservists and 268,000 territorials were available.

When the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) landed in France in 1914 it comprised only 84 battalions of 1,000 soldiers each. Heavy casualties among the BEF soon left only 35 battalions which comprised more than 200 men.

The story goes that Kaiser Wilhelm II dismissed the size and quality of the BEF in August 1914, giving this order to his generals:

It is my Royal and Imperial Command that you concentrate your energies for the immediate present upon one single purpose, and that is… to exterminate first the treacherous English and walk over General French’s contemptible little army.

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The BEF survivors soon called themselves ‘The Contemptibles’ in honour of the Kaiser’s remarks. In fact, the Kaiser later denied ever making such a statement and it was likely produced at the British headquarters to spur on the BEF.

Recruitment drive

As the BEF’s numbers dwindled, Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener was tasked with recruiting more men. Conscription ran contrary to British liberal traditions, so Kitchener began a successful campaign to enlist volunteers into his New Army. By September 1914 around 30,000 men were signing up every day. By January 1916, 2.6 million men had volunteered to join the British army.

Lord Kithener’s Recruitment Poster

Kitchener’s New Army and the British Territorial Forces bolstered the BEF, and Britain could now field an army of similar size to the European powers.

Owing to heavy casualties the British government was eventually forced to introduce conscription in 1916 through the Military Service Acts. All men aged 18 to 41 had to serve, and by the end of the war nearly 2.5 million men had been conscripted. Conscription was not popular, and over 200,000 demonstrated in Trafalgar Square against it.

The British colonial forces

After war began, the British increasingly called on men from its colonies, especially from India. Over one million Indian troops served overseas during the First World War.

Sir Claude Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army in 1942, stated that the British ‘couldn’t have come through’ the First World War without the Indian Army. The British victory at Neuve Chapelle in 1915 was heavily reliant on Indian soldiers.

Indian Cavalry on the Western front 1914.

The German reservists

At the outbreak of the Great War, the German army could field around 700,000 regulars. German High Command also called up their reservists to complement their full-time soldiers, and 3.8 million more men were mobilised.

However, the German reserves had little military experience and suffered heavily on the Western Front. This was especially true during the First Battle of Ypres (October to November 1914), when the Germans relied heavily on their volunteer reservists, many of whom were students.

During Ypres, at the Battle of Langemarck, these reservists made several mass attacks on British lines. They had been heartened by their superior numbers, heavy artillery fire and a misbelief that their enemy were inexperienced fighters.

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Their optimism soon proved ill-founded and the reservists were unable to compare to the British army, which was still largely comprised of professional soldiers.  Around 70% of the German volunteer reservists were killed in the attacks. It became known in Germany as ‘der Kindermord bei Ypern’, ‘the Massacre of the Innocents at Ypres’.

Austro-Hungarian problems

treatment of ww1 prisoners

Austrian POWs in Russia, 1915.

The Austro-Hungarian army was organised on similar lines to the German forces, and their large numbers of reservists were soon called into action. After mobilisation 3.2 million men were ready to fight, and by 1918 nearly 8 million men had served in the fighting forces.

Unfortunately, Austro-Hungarian veteran forces, technology and expenditure were insufficient. Their artillery was particularly inadequate: at times in 1914 their guns were limited to firing only four shells per day. They had only 42 military planes throughout the whole war.

The Austro-Hungarian leadership also failed to unite the diverse forces from across their sprawling empire. Their Slavic soldiers frequently deserted to the Serbians and Russians. The Austro-Hungarians even suffered from a cholera epidemic which killed many and lead others to feign illness to escape the front.

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Eventually, the insufficiently armed forces of the Austro-Hungarians would be badly defeated by the Russians during the Brusilov Offensive of 1916. Their army’s collapse in 1918 precipitated the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

French difficulties

In July 1914 the French forces were composed of its Active Army, (men aged 20 to 23) and varying types of reserves from previous members of the Active Army (men aged 23 to 40s). Once war began France rapidly levied 2.9 million men.

The French sustained heavy casualties while desperately defending their country in 1914. During the First Battle of the Marne they suffered 250,000 casualties in only six days. These losses soon forced the French government to conscript new recruits and deploy men in their late 40s.

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France’s casualties during the First World War reached 6.2 million, and the brutality of the fighting took its toll on its soldiers. After the failure of the 1916 Nivelle Offensive there were numerous mutinies in the French Army. Over 35,000 soldiers from 68 divisions refused to fight, demanding a respite from combat until fresh troops arrived from America.