I'm reading Peter Hart's The Great War: A Combat History of The First World War. I'm very new to studying history, but making my way. One thing that's stood out to me is how ill-prepared the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was for WW1. For example, referring to the end of 1915, Hart writes,

The French had continued to bear the brunt of the strain [...] on the Western Front[.] It was only their blood sacrifice that had given the BEF the time to gather its resources and train its men in the basic language of war.

When I think of Britain, I think of a dominant global empire. Was this not the case? Was Britain completely incompetent outside their navy? It seems Sir John French played a large role in the BEF's lackluster performance, but surely he was not solely responsible. Any insights?

  • 5
    Unprepared in what sense? The B.E.F. had better tactical doctrine, training, and leadership than the French Army, acquired during the Second Boer War as evidenced following Battle of Mons on 23 August when the Germans chose not to molest the B.E.F. further during its 400km in 13 days retreat to the Marne. What the French were seeking more of was quantity rather than quality. While great empires are generally acquired by conquest, they are held rather more by good government than force of arms. Commented Jun 30, 2023 at 10:18
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    WW1 turned out to be much different than what militaries expected at the time. You can't be prepared for the unthinkable respectively something unimaginable.
    – Dohn Joe
    Commented Jun 30, 2023 at 10:32
  • 1
    @PieterGeerkens About Mons, it's always been a wonder to me though why it's hailed as a great British victory and testament to British force of arms, yet the British would run so fast from that battle that they would fall out of the line as they careened to the south. I believe Sir French did not like what he saw there.
    – Smith
    Commented Jun 30, 2023 at 13:39
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    It is cost prohibitive (monetarily and politically) to pay and equip forces on the scale required for WWI without an immediate need to use them.
    – Yorik
    Commented Jun 30, 2023 at 14:48
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    What @Yorik said. For the UK it did made a lot more sense investing in the Navy (which did protect both the home islands and the trade routes) than in the Army, so its army was small (although very well trained). Compare to France, Germany and Russia, which could not be defended from one another by any navy. So the UK did not have a lot of political pressure towards building a big army.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Jun 30, 2023 at 16:00

4 Answers 4


The BEF was anything but ill-prepared

It was better trained, lead, equipped and prepared than most other armies. They learned that the hard way during the Second Boer War, when it certainly was ill prepared. The British army paid a heavy price in blood for it.

Why do people underestimate the BEF?

  • Procrastinating politicians

There were fully developed schedules for both the army and the navy to ship the BEF to France, where they would take up positions already prepared by the French. When war broke out civilians and politicians were suddenly scared for a possible German invasion. (Not operation Sea Lion, that's a war later.) Politicians demanded first that the entire BEF, then 4 and later 2 divisions, would remain in Britain to defend the nation.

That seriously hindered the transportation and deployment of the BEF, in time and logistics.

  • Size matters. (Not)

The BEF was an entirely professional force. Professional soldiers are much more expensive than drafted soldiers, that's why professional armies are always much smaller than drafted armies. Of course 1 million soldiers looks much more impressive than 100.000 soldiers on a parade ground.

What people tend to forget or ignore is that the maximum you can expect or demand from a drafted soldier is the minimum required from a professional soldier.

In real life expertise matters a heck of a lot. The British soldier was trained to shoot accurately and fast (the famous 'mad minute') which more than compensate for lack of numbers. They shot so fast (and accurate) during the retreat from Mons attacking German troops thought they were facing machine-gun fire. They consequently kept their distance from the BEF.

That retreat showed another aspect why professionals are better: they outran their German drafted opponents. Both put in maximum effort. The British in retreating, and the Germans in pursuing. Both did as as good as could be expected from them. But professionals can do and must do better than amateurs, which is what draftees essentially are.

The French losses during the same retreat were horrendous, while the BEF losses were serious but far more acceptable.

  • You can't have it both ways

The British relied for defense of the realm on the navy. The BEF was mainly for supporting colonial troops who were in trouble (like during the Boer War) or showing the flag.

The French had a small navy and a large army. They relied on the army for defense.

The Germans tried to do both: a large army and a large navy. That didn't work. Looking back with hindsight, if they had invested all that navy money in the army we'd be speaking German. That's what-if, we don't do that here.

In brief, the BEF was a small highly professional force that did an excellent job. It wasn't perfect, and certainly not prepared for what was to come. No army was, so that's irrelevant. There is a limit what you can do with small professional army against a huge drafted army. The BEF did pretty well.

Added, based on comments:

I'm looking at the BEF at the outset of the war. Not later on, as the BEF went through 3 separate phases: first it was an entire professional force (the focus of my answer). In 1915 it was almost completely wiped out and replaced by volunteer battalions, the "pal's battalions". Later on in the war those battalions were wiped out as well and replaced by conscription. The BEF in those three phases was entirely different, and cannot be compared with each other. Apart from that, the question states specifically: ...so ill prepared for WW1, not during WW1.

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    What you omit to mention is that the BEF in 1914 was a professional force but the BEF in 1915 was a much larger hastily conscripted force whose members had little time for training before being sent to France. Thus the French army still had to do most of the fighting until the new BEF of 1915 was prepared.
    – MAGolding
    Commented Jul 1, 2023 at 15:15
  • I would argue that the BEF was deficient in the weapon that really mattered: artillery, and specifically the modern howitzer.
    – Smith
    Commented Jul 1, 2023 at 22:45
  • @MAGolding In 1914 the French army had 71 divisions. The BEF had 6. In 1915 the BEF was an entirely different army (volunteers; 'pal's battalions') with 29 divisions. The French had expanded to 94 divisions. There was never any doubt the BEF was the junior partner.
    – Jos
    Commented Jul 1, 2023 at 23:52
  • Very good answer: the BEF was small but good because of its professionnal troops. Still, it lacked some heavy equipment, like artillery Commented Jul 4, 2023 at 19:08
  • The British navy was not there to defend the empire, The navy was large to defend the sea lanes which made the empire profitable. The sea lanes feed raw materials to British factories in the home islands and allowed the finished goods to be shipped back over seas. How did the navy help Britannia during the Ireland troubles, or the boer wars.
    – Earl
    Commented Jul 8, 2023 at 1:53

Question: When I think of Britain, I think of a dominant global empire. Was this not the case? Was Britain completely incompetent outside their navy? With respect to WWI.

Short Answer:

The 1914 British Army (975,000 men) was a quarter the size of France's or Germany, 17% of that of Russia. On top of that the Empire's army was needed elsewhere. This is reflected by it's anemic offering to the continent for War I (1914-1915, BEF had 250,000 men). France had casualties of 250,000 in a single battle during 1914. In a different time training and professionalism might have mitigated the lack of manpower, However in WWI when the tried and true professional tactic of charging across the open field and attacking the enemy, met the machine gun; experience was as much a liability as an asset. It would not hide the dearth of numbers.

Just prior to WWI, the British Empire was at the height of its power and global influence. It encompassed about a quarter of the world. It was the Worlds largest economy, the leading industrialized base, and of coarse the worlds largest Navy. And yet the British standing army, including reserves was small relative to France, Russia, and Germany. The British army just prior to WWI in 1914 including reserves consisted of 975,000 men. About a quarter of France and Germany's armies, and about 17% of that fielded by Russia. Worse still Britain could only bring about a quarter of their army to bare for the first two years of the war. Although Britain would ultimately out mobilize France during the war from 1914-1915 the British Expeditionary Force consisted of only 6 divisions or 250,000 men. Given France suffered 250,000 casualties (80,000 deaths) during 1 battle, first battle of the Marne (Sept 12, 1914) you can clearly see the problem.

Why was Britain so understaffed? Britain employed a small professional army to police it's empire. When WWI broke out it didn't negate the need for that police effort, remember Ireland war of Independence, Australia had an active Independent movement, Britain had fought two wars in South Africa in the last few decades, and South Africa's Boer population were culturally Dutch, German and pro German in WWI. India with a population greater than Britain could not be neglected either. Britain could not send their entire force to the Continent to fight WWI, many were already engaged in work important for the Empire.

Then what exposed BEF's manpower issue which might have been mitigated by experience, training and professionalism was the unprecedented carnage of WWI. Military technology had developed(**) since the last great power war, but Military tactics to overcome such advances had not. Thus the nature of WWI exasperated the lack of manpower in a time when the war was placing an overwhelming priority on manpower.

(**) Not only had the machine gun come of age, but also science had revolutionized the production of nitrogen necessary for the manufacture of munitions and explosives. No longer were industrialized nations limited by their access to guano (bat shit) to produce munitions, now countries could produce unlimited nitrogen out of thin air. see Habar Process


Short Answer

The BEF required a lot of time to expand at the outset and then to reconstitute itself after each major offensive. As such the BEF would go through periods of less fighting, which got on the nerves of the French. The French would chide the British about not fighting, and that they were doing all of the work - which is a charge that has some validity up to about 1916. In addition, the British tended to have a much higher ratio of soldier-to-front-footage than the French, which also got on French nerves.

Long Answer

The BEF entered the war with about 160,000 soldiers in France, compared to a French army of about 1.0 million and a German army of about 1.5 million on the Western front (Hart). More specifically, the French army of 1914 was standing at about 884,000 troops that could be expanded to about 1.7 million with immediate reserve call-up, and have another 1.1 million in the recruiting pipeline after that (Mosier).

The BEF had a long way to go in terms of manpower. It started with the 160k soldiers mentioned above. By January, it was 265k soldiers holding 40 km of front, on a Western front totaling 715 km (Mosier). In January of 1916, the British had 1.1 million soldiers on 96 km of front, of a total Western front of 646 km (Mosier).

Naturally, this was a sore point with the French, who were beginning to wonder why it was that the BEF required nearly as many troops to hold down a small portion of the front as they did to hold down the entire front. Mosier, pg 230.

As such, we can see that there was some friction between comrades as to the ratio of soldiers to footage of the front.

In terms of combat action, the French were also bearing a heavy burden.

After the early phase of the war, France had enough soldiers to continue to mount offensive operations on various sections of the front simultaneously. A quote by Jean Bernier in his piece La Piercee where offensives occurred "from Mametz and Carnoy to La Boisselle...Then...there was the Argonne, les Eparges, the bois d'Ailly, the bois Le Pretre..." And it is known that many offensives continued to occur, as it is well established that Joffre was energetic and forceful in applying them.

From casualty figures, in 1914 the French on the Western front are believed to have suffered 304,124 KIA, compared to 17,174 British KIA. For 1915, it is 210,879 French KIA to 66,415 British KIA (Mosier, pg 12). From this morbid calculus, we can see the losses of the early French offensives, and the very likely source of the quote in the OP.

The lack of preparation in the British Army shows up in other areas beyond simple manpower. The British were behind in artillery and shell production - two factors that were of vital importance in that war. According to Hart, in June of 1915, the British had only 71 heavy guns to 1,406 field guns (field guns being antiquated by this war, as indirect fire had come of age), and British shell production was a paltry 22k per day compared to French production of 100k and German-Austrian production of 250k.

As for Sir John French's role in this, it is very likely that he in fact saved the BEF in its early days. He was aware that in France he had the lion's share of his country's army, that it was a drop in the bucket compared to the quantities of French and German armies around him, and at Mons and Le Cateau quickly found that the Germans had enough firepower to destroy his army if given the chance. He therefore retreated as rapidly as possible to preserve the army, and talked about getting out of France altogether (from Young and Lawford's History of the British Army related through Mosier).

Further along in the war, politics would plague Sir John French's attempts to get the BEF up to strength and fighting on and for advantageous ground, while British and French political pressure would force him to squander his troops on dubious operations on very poor ground, and the litany of these debates and of French's sometimes dubious compromises is well documented in Hart.

Liddell Hart, B.H. A History of the First World War. PAN, 2014.

Mosier, John. The Myth of the Great War. HarperCollins, 2001.


The BEF (British Expeditionary Force) in 1914 was a small highly trained professional force but the BEF in 1915 was a much larger hastily conscripted force whose members had little time for training before being sent to France. Thus the French army still had to do most of the fighting until the new BEF of 1915 was ready.

What Britain needed (for the first time ever) in 1914 was a vast and highly trained professional army - which Britain could not have afforded. What they had in 1914 was a small and highly trained professional army. What they had in 1915 and later was a vast and hastily trained conscript army. Neither the old nor the new army was what Britain needed for the war, but what they could possibly have.

  • The Military service act was only given royal assent in January 1916 so there wouldn't have been any conscripts in the British army in 1915.
    – C'est Moi
    Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 20:04
  • The BEF in 1914-1915 was a mere 6 divisions, 250,000 troops. France and Russia would each independently suffer more casualties than the entire BEF from single battles in 1914, The First Battle of Marne, and the Battle of Galicia.
    – Earl
    Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 20:55

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