Vanishing Battalions: The Nature, Impact and Implications of British Infantry Reorganisation prior to the German Spring Offensives of 1918

Here is another abstract from our forthcoming book.

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Disputes concerning the structure of the British Armies in France (BAF),[1] alongside a concomitant disagreement over manpower provision, rumbled on during most of 1917. Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, backed by the Army Council, argued for the status quo and maintenance of formations at full strength. Dissenting was the War Cabinet, directed by the Prime Minister, counselling economy in men, reduction in division establishments and the redirection of resources from the Western Front. Deliberations on how best to proceed were brought to a close around the end of the year when it became clear that manpower requirements would not be met. There was no option but to stand on the defensive in the new campaigning season and, in January 1918, the War Cabinet’s conclusion was manifested in its direction for each infantry division in Haig’s command to give up three battalions. The command and staffs of the BAF just got on with the job and set about meeting the considerably increased organizational and tactical challenges inherent in such changed circumstances. Haig knew they were planning a defence against an ever-stronger and capable opponent which, if successful, would ensure Germany lost her offensive gamble and force a favourable peace.

This essay’s intention is to provide a fresh contribution to debates concerning British preparations – between the cessation of offensive operations in 1917 and the opening of the German spring offensives – for defence of the Western Front. By examining the mechanism(s) through which infantry reductions were effected, it will seek to assess the strategic and tactical impact of such establishment change and, for the first time, quantify any resulting dislocation. Its ultimate goal is to facilitate a more complete comparative analysis of British units and formations engaged in the struggles of March and April 1918.

By Simon Justice, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

[1] British forces which landed in France during the early period of the war were termed the ‘British Expeditionary Force’ or ‘BEF’. By 1918 this was not the official usage and contemporary correspondence between H.M. Government and Sir Douglas Haig refers to the British forces as the ‘British Armies in France’ and Haig as Field-Marshal Commanding-in-Chief the same.

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