Training to be a soldier

Growth of the army drives need for expansion of training

One of the forgotten wonders of the Great War is how Britain transformed its small, professional soldiery into a mass citizen army. The army needed to be massively increased in size to meet the needs of the war strategy. But exactly how were millions of working-class lads from the industrial cities, agricultural workers from the shires and middle-class clerks turned into a war-winning force in a relatively short timeframe?

Training at home before going overseas

Much development work had been done on the training syllabus in the period since the Boer War. The principles and details of training were laid down in the Field Service Regulations and in army publications such as “Infantry Training 1914”. Training for ordinary Tommies began with basic training for physical fitness, drill, march discipline, essential field craft, and so on. Later, as the soldier specialised (in the infantry, for example, as a rifleman, machine gunner, rifle grenadier, signaller or bomber) he would receive courses of instruction relevant to his role. Especially as he was approaching being warned for the active fronts, he would receive basic training in first aid, gas defence, wiring and other aspects. Basic training taught a man individual and unit discipline, how to follow commands, how to march, some basic field skills and how to safely handle his weapons. But many men, especially the volunteers, believed there was too much ‘bull’, designed to suppress the individual spirit, ingenuity and initiative out of a man. Many men arrived at the fighting fronts utterly unprepared for the experience.

This wonderful picture of men of the 14th (Service) Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers was taken while they were carrying out basic training at Halton Park near Tring. It has been kindly provided by William Embleton, whose grandfather Jacob won the Military Medal while serving with the battalion.

Training continues overseas

Once they had arrived overseas and were closer to the front, the more informal training at unit level and the often shocking experience of combat conditions meant that a man soon learned, or died. Training carried on intensively when a unit was out of the line. Not only was this necessary because there was a high turnover of men in any given unit, but the tactics and technologies of the war developed very rapidly. The training syllabus and the organisational structure for delivering it were developed hugely during the war. Whole new training schools developed, to which men would be sent for specialist training. Much of this develoment is recognised as the contribution of, amongst others, Major Generals Ivor Maxse and Arthur Solly-Flood. Among the innovations was detailed attack practice in large and small formations. Units enjoying a period at rest would often tell immediately so-called ‘assault training’ began that they were due for inclusion in an offensive.

In France and Flanders, training became wholly focused on the prevailing conditions of trench warfare, and on the Allied position of taking the offensive. The skills required for open warfare and the defensive were gradually lost during the period 1915-1917, a not insignificant cause of casualties and tactical defeat in places in early 1918. Training and learning were rapidly reorganised and the British Army became a highly proficient, mobile, force capable of “all arms” battles in 1918.

Training schedules can often be found in the war diary of a unit in the field.

Facilities for training: at home

Having men to train was one thing: having somewhere to house and train them quite another. The training facilities of the regular army, at barracks in Great Britain, Ireland, India and elsewhere in Empire, were soon overwhelmed by the numbers of men being recruited in 1914 and again when conscription was introduced in 1916. It became very clear that additional training places and accommodation for the men would be required. At first, large public buildings such as church and local halls, schools and warehouses were taken over – in many cases offered up by the local authority, church wardens etc – for both purposes. Thousands of men were also billeted in private homes. Gradually, new camps were constructed. Some of them were vast affairs, with their own canteens, hospitals, post offices, clubs and so on. Many such camps were developed, with principal concentrations at Salisbury Plain, Cannock Chase (Rugeley and Brocton) in Staffordshire, Nottinghamshire (Clipstone being the main centre), East Anglia and the North Wales coast.

Facilities for training: overseas

Once the fighting area on the Western Front was stabilised, new facilities for training were established in the rear areas in France. They varied enormously. Some were huge camps of huts housing thousands of men, either on their way from basic training in England to a posting to a unit, or in the process of returning from wound or hospital. The best example is the notorious “Bull Ring” at Etaples. Others were specialist schools, some of which were accommodated in large houses, public buildings, etc. The primary training base for operations in the Middle East was in Egypt, around the many camps at Kantara and around Cairo and Alexandria.

Bombing party practising throwing bombs over a traverse at the training school, Wisques, near St. Omer, 28 August, 1916. Imperial War Museum image Q4156.

Bombing party practising throwing bombs over a traverse at the training school, Wisques, near St. Omer, 28 August, 1916. Imperial War Museum image Q4156.