The myth of the dwindling battalion

In 2018, social media began to discuss a pair of photographs. They purport to show the same battalion when it went to war in 1914 and they way it was in 1918. In response to thephotos, social media responded with many of the old tropes: lions led by donkeys, they were all heroes, they did not know what they were fighting for. That kind of nonsense.

Said to be a battalion of the Cameron Highlanders at Edinburgh Castle. Presumably at or near the battalion’s design strength: I am not going to try to count them. But even that is questionable: most regiments maintained two battalions during peace time. One, on overseas garrison duty, was normally kept somewhere near full strength. The other, at home, was often as low as half-strength.
The second image appears to have been a digitally manipulated copy of the first, to suggest that the battalion on its return from war was down to a small number of men. It triggers emotions but is wholly misleading.

The reality is that if a battalion had its photograph taken in 1918 it would look numerically very similar to that of 1914. How could that be? Let’s consider what actualy happened.

The notion that a battalion simply dwindled in size due to casualties is highly misleading.

Things that would decrease the number of men in a battalion:

  • A battalion would lose men in combat (killed, captured by the enemy or wounded) or due to sickness.
  • It would also lose men who were discharged when they reached the end of their agreed term of engagement, and men who were transferred to more specialist units.
  • Sometimes men would be lost to a battalion due to transfers on reorganisation.
  • It would also lose men of the “other ranks” who were selcted to be trained and commissioned as officers.

At times, particularly after the major battles, the battalion would be well down on its full establishment. There are instances, for example in the First Battle of Ypres, where a battalion that had goine into action some 1000 strong was down to a few dozen. There are many instances where a battalion operated with just a few hundred men.

But that is not the end of the story.

Things that would increase the number of men in a battalion:

  • Wounded and sick men might return after a period of medical treatment.
  • Drafts of new men were sent out from home to bring the battalion back up in strength. New officers would also join. The army’s system was geared to maintaining the battalion at its design strength.

Let us illustrate at least part of this by looking at the 1st Battalion of the Cameron Highlanders, the unit presumably in the photograph. Its war diary reprted that in two weeks 14-31 October 1914 during the First Battle of Ypres, it sustained the loss of 38 officers and 1000 men. Pretty much the entire battalion. On 6 November 1914 it received a draft of an officer and 106 men. Another two officers and 150 men arrived twelve days later. Two officers and 100 men arrived on 22 November. And so on.

There were periods when the War Office struggled to maintain the flow of drafts to replace losses. This was notably in late 1914 and early 1915, and again from mid-1917 to the spring of 1918. It led to a manpower crisis and a reorganisation of the infantry in France. It can be argued that by then, the increase in firepower that a battalion possessed was more than offsetting the loss of manpower.

For those regular army battalions that arrived early in France and Flanders, to lose just say 950 of the 1000 over the course of the war, as suggested by the manipulated photo, would be considered to be light. Most sustained losses of a multiple of their strength, with those losses being in general made good by the arrival of drafts.


A soldier’s life

What was a battalion?

The manpower crisis