The Crisis of Professional Armies in The Great War

Week 13 of the Mediakraft Networks YouTube show The Great War, written and presented by Indiana Neidell.

Although strictly speaking the British army was the only European army to be entirely professional at the outbreak of WWI even the conscript armies of the other nations were comprised of regular soldiers with decent training and combat experience. By November however these armies had lost too many men and new recruits were brought in.

The British Volunteers

At the outbreak of war the British had the smallest but best trained army. When John French arrive in France his forces comprised 84 battalions of 1000 men each by November only 35 had 200 men or more and 18 had fewer than 100. Consequently the British turned to conscripts with little training and no experience.

The British Colonial Forces

As well as conscripting men from within Britain the British also increasingly summoned men from it colonies. At Neuve Chapelle in 1915 for instance the British victory was heavily reliant on Indian soldiers. The colonial forces were professional soldiers but their increasing prominence on the western front showed that the professional army of Britain itself was insufficient to  sustain the war alone.

The German Volunteers

It was the Germans volunteers however, who suffered the worst losses in November. In the Battle of Ypres the Germans relied heavily on volunteer reservists. They were unable to compare to the British forces in that battle who still comprised many of the professionals from before the war and suffered heavy losses. It became known in Germany as ‘der Kindermord bei Ypern’ – the massacre of the innocents at Ypres.

The Austrian Collapse

Defeatism was setting in among the Austrians after a long string of defeats to the Russians. A munitions shortage had set in and each artillery piece was limited to only 4 shells a day. This situation deteriorated as a cholera epidemic swept the Austrian army killing many and leading many more to feign illness to get away from the front. Cholera wasn’t the only pretext under which men were deserting; Slavic soldiers had now taken to joining the Russians whom they felt to be their true countrymen just as many had defected to Serbia earlier in the war.

Alex is a history student at King's College London focusing on Europe and the Near East in the Middle Ages. He currently works writing and editing content for madefromhistory.