Training to be a soldier

Pre-war training for the infantry

  • Recruits of the regular army trained for three months at their regimental depots before being posted to whichever of that regiment’s battalions was on home service at the time. (Up to 1908, this would be cut short if the recruit had already completed the preliminary training when serving with the Militia).
  • His training would continue once posted to a battalion. Typically, the man would be posted to whichever of that regiment’s battalions was on garrison service overseas after accumulating about 18-24 months of service. This sometimes happened because the home service battalion was sent overseas at the appropriate time, in whuch case he would usually remain with it. His training would contnue while he was overseas.
  • Regulars who completed their full time period of service (“colour service”) went onto reserve for the rest of their engagement and were obliged to attend for annual training.
  • Recruits to the Special Reserve carried out five months of full time training at the regimental depot, after which they were obliged to attend for annual training.
  • Recruits to the Territorial Force carried out preliminary training at their unit’s depot and would then attend evening and weekend drills and, if possible, the summer camps.

These methods remained in place once the war had begun, although the Territorial Force was embodied and remained on full time service, and the men serving in the regular army or special reserves were mobilised and also full time.

Growth of the army drives need for expansion of training

One of the wonders of the Great War is how Britain transformed its small, professional soldiery into a mass citizen army in a relatively short timescale. The army needed to be massively increased in size to meet the needs of the war strategy. The raising of Lord Kitchener’s “new armies” placed an unprecedented demand on accommodation for training; experienced men who could carry out that training of the new recruits; uniform and equipment of all sorts.

  • The regiments raised new units of the regular army, designated as “service” units and only intended to exist for the duration of the war. Until they finally received orders to go overseas on active service, they essentially acted as training units and spent all of their time in this activity.
  • Most regiments also raised new reserve units of the Territorial Force, known as the “second line” and eventually also a third and even fourth line. Some of them were sent overseas in 1916 and 1917, while others remained at home throughout the war. While at home, they had the dual role of training men who would eventually be posted to the “first line” and in being considered as part of the home defence force.

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. 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. The material and experience shortages in the newly raised units also led to a general reduction in the quality of training delivered – even though the men of these units often had far more time in training that the pre-war syllabus demanded.  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.

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.

The introduction of the Training Reserve

On 1 September 1916 the infantry training system was significantly modified, with the creation of the Training Reserve.

During 1917 this system was modified again: the Training Reserve remodelled.

These changes brought a more unified, structured, standardised approach which proved to be highly efficient in providing the new recruit with a good standard of basic training.

Training continues overseas

Once they had arrived overseas, the man’s training continued.

  • Men of drafts that were sent at first to an Infantry Base Depot would continue in drilling and training until they were posted to join a unit in the field. This would also be true of men who were sent to these depots after being discharged from hospital.
  • When a man had joined a unit (or if he had been with the original contingent when that unit first went overseas) his training carried on intensively when his 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 overseas 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 development 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: 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.


Syllabus of infantry training for Junior Training Reserve, Young Soldier and Graduated Battalions

Syllabus of infantry training for senior Training Reserve and Reserve Garrison Battalions