War history: Volunteers responded to the call to arms - ready to fight the Germans and defend our freedom
13:11 18 August 2014
This week Galloway’s resident military historian and chairman of the International Guild of Battlefield Guides, Mike Peters, looks at the mobilisation of Suffolk’s Army Reservists and the weekend volunteers of the previously untried Territorial Force.
In last week’s column I talked about the last few days of peace in August 1914 and the mood among the men who filled the ranks of Britain’s small but highly professional Army.
The regulars as they were known were well trained and relatively well equipped, if you read last week’s column you may remember the letter home written by Lance Corporal Albert Croft on the eve of Britain’s declaration of war.
The young Halesworth man was confident in the ability of his comrades and spoke of high spirits among the men of the 2nd Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment. We will pick up the story of Albert Croft and the regulars in the coming weeks and months.
This week I thought that EADT readers might be interested in two equally important groups of men who rushed to the colours to fight alongside the full-time professional soldiers of the Regular Army. The men I am talking about are the ex-soldiers of the Army Reserve and the volunteers of the Territorial Force; these men were in uniform well before the launch of Lord Kitchener’s famous recruiting campaign was even launched. The mobilisation of these officers and soldiers was all part of an extremely well thought-out plan that had been years in the making.
In the weeks before the outbreak of war 100 years ago this month, numerous soldiers, government officials and clerks were faced with the titanic task of preparing Britain and its Empire for war. Thankfully comprehensive instructions were already in place and readily to hand. A carefully worked out timetable for Britain’s transition to war was outlined in a government pamphlet known as the War Book.
Work had begun on a centralised mobilisation plan in 1911, even though Britain had no binding agreement to go to war alongside the French, planning was done in consultation with the French High Command.
The assumption was that should Britain enter a war in Europe alongside the French, a British Expeditionary Force would be landed on the left flank of the French Armies close to the Belgian border. The mobilisation and delivery of such an expeditionary force was a complex and logistically challenging prospect. The detail of how this might be achieved was contained in the War Book.
Every government department held copies of the War Book its chapters outlined the actions to be taken during the build up to war – the precautionary stage and on the declaration of war – the war stage. Each department held its own internal war book, in order to minimise delay, these copies even contained pre-drafted telegrams that only required signature before being released.
Among this multitude of historic telegrams were the orders directing the Royal Navy and the Army to mobilise for war.
As far as the Army was concerned a vital component of this plan was the recall of reservists to the colours and the mobilisation of the Territorial Force (TF). Each of these groups had distinctly different roles within the overall War Office plan. The reservists were vital to ensuring that the regular army were fully manned before they crossed the English Channel. Army Reservists would report directly to barracks were they would immediately reinforce their parent regiment.
In addition to the calling up of reservists, the mobilisation of the Territorial Force for home defence was intended to guarantee the release of Regular Army formations, which, bolstered by reservists would form the BEF and make the crossing to France. In the case of East Anglia, Territorial battalions from Essex, Norfolk, Suffolk, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire would make up the 54th (East Anglian) Division.
Many of these units were actually on their annual summer training camps as war clouds loomed. With war seemingly inevitable the unusual decision was taken to send the territorials home. This apparently illogical order was issued to speed up the mobilisation plan, the territorials were sent home to await delivery of their individual notification of mobilisation.
The Territorial Force numbered 200,000 men and was well organised, by 9th August 1914 artillery units from the Territorial Force and infantry from the Special Reserve were in position around all major British ports. The Territorial Force had also deployed 14 divisions like our own 54th (East Anglian) Division to coastal defence positions by 18 August 1914.
These deployments were not for show; the threat of invasion or raids by German troops was considered a real one. East Anglians were now acutely aware that Norwich was the closest English city to Germany and that our North Sea ports were attractive targets for the Imperial German Navy.
Although originally intended for home service, the TF would not rest on its laurels in Britain for long, prior to the outbreak of war 17,500 territorials had already volunteered for overseas service. In September 1914 the men of the Territorial Force were given the option to volunteer for overseas service.
The response was overwhelmingly positive, if 60% of a battalion volunteered it was re-designated as a General Service Battalion and taken under direct control of the War Office. The enthusiasm among the territorials was such that every single battalion met the criteria for General Service.
Those individuals who refused to serve overseas were moved to home service units and replaced with new volunteers. These battalions of weekend soldiers would soon find themselves in action alongside their regular and reservist counterparts on the Western Front.