War history: The 1914 Army recruits who signed up looking for financial security
13:38 11 August 2014
The German Kaiser apparently described Britain’s soldiers as ‘a contemptible little army’. One of his senior commanders called the force ‘a perfect thing apart’. Who was right?, asks Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian, as he looks at men like Albert Croft.
In August, 1914, Great Britain was a naval superpower. The Royal Navy patrolled every ocean and sea in the world. Britain had enough ships to match any two navies in the world combined. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, had already recalled naval reservists and the Royal Navy was on a war footing.
The British Army, however, was a very different proposition. In peacetime, the Regular Army was dwarfed by the navy; its total strength was 247,000, of which 129,000 were stationed in Britain. The remainder was scattered across the globe, policing the British empire. However, in spite of its small size in comparison to the Royal Navy and the armies of France and Germany, the British Army had undergone sweeping reforms and was very modern in its outlook.
The men that filled the ranks of the army in 1914 were not too dissimilar from the professional soldiers of today. Men enlisted for a wide variety of personal and financial reasons, the majority looking for a job and a regular income.
If you wanted to enlist, you had to be aged between 19 and 38 years and the minimum height restriction was five feet three inches. On successful completion of medical examinations, recruits enlisted for seven years’ service, with a mandatory five years after that on the national reserve list. Huge numbers of these reservists were mobilized in August, 1914.
Training was well thought out and focused on fitness, marksmanship and field craft. The uniforms and equipment issued were of a good standard and in many cases superior to those of the continental armies.
Pay and living conditions had been subject to extensive reviews and reform. A new recruit could expect to be paid the princely sum of a shilling a day; that is £0.05 in today’s currency. This wage was subject to deductions for food, lost equipment and of course disciplinary fines.
However, there were numerous ways to improve your financial lot as a soldier. The army paid extra allowances for gaining additional qualifications and marksmanship. If a private stayed out of trouble, he could reasonably be expected to be promoted to lance corporal in two years and possibly make corporal after four years of good behaviour. Should our recruit reach the lofty heights of sergeant, he could stay in the army for up to 21 years – a career for life.
One young man from Suffolk who followed this career path in 1912 was Albert Croft. Just before war broke out in 1914, Albert was a young lance corporal with the 2nd Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment at the Curragh training camp in Ireland.
This pencil-written letter home to his mother in Halesworth was completed just before Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914. Albert’s words give the reader an idea of the responsibility he felt to his men as a lance corporal and an insight into the mood of the Suffolks on the eve of war:
My Dear Mother,
I may not get a chance to write later in the week as we have received orders to mobilize for war and we are confined to barracks until we move away. It all depends on what action Germany takes in regard to Belgium, whether we fight or not. All the troops are in high spirits and I am sure we should win, the Germans are acting far from right and they will know all about it before this is over. The banks have stopped payment so I don’t know if I shall lose my money. If you read the paper you will know when we go and where to, we belong to the 14th Brigade, 5th Division of 2nd Army Corps. Cheer up and don’t worry. I am rather young to lead men, but I shall do my best as a soldier if it comes to the worst. Kiss all the children for me and I will write again if I get the chance. I am quite well and hope you are the same when this reaches home.
Goodbye dear Mother
with love from your affectionate son
Very shortly after writing this letter Albert, and the men of the 2nd Battalion, Suffolk Regiment embarked on troop ships and crossed the English Channel to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. There, after less than two weeks, he and his comrades would stand resolutely in the path of the seemingly unstoppable German war machine. The Suffolks were destined to fight in one of the most desperate battles of 1914.
For more on Suffolk’s contribution to the First World War, visit our 100th anniversary page