Saturday, March 24, 2012

The BEF’s preparations for and conduct of the defensive battles during the spring of 1918 – Part 4


Back to Part 3

British Manpower Crisis

From early 1917 the British government was well aware of an impending manpower crisis.  This coupled with a growing political perception, not just by Lloyd George, that Haig was squandering British manpower on the Western Front brought about a step change in the British recruiting process at the end of 1917.  As early as April 1917 the War Cabinet was using recruiting as a mechanism in an attempt to modify Haig's strategy on the Western Front.  In a memorandum Sir Maurice Hankey, Secretary of the War Cabinet, stated that the War Cabinet’s recruiting policies were intended to keep:

‘the War Office short to compel the soldiers to adopt tactics that will reduce the waste of man-power…’.  Memorandum by Hankey, 18 Apr. 1917, P.R.O., London, CAB 63/24 – quoted in: Woodward, ‘Did Lloyd George Starve the British Army’, p. 244.

This failed, Haig despite promising the War Cabinet a step by step approach to his Third Ypres campaign, with the option to cease operations if they became too costly, continued with the offensive despite growing losses and diminishing returns. Additionally, the reverse at Cambrai, on the back of its initial lorded success, created a media led backlash at home at the military losses of 1917.  By the end of 1917 the BEF was exhausted and under strength.  The effect of the War Cabinets recruiting limitations were now being felt at the Front.  Estimates of the BEF shortfall ranged from 41,000 to 100,000 men (Woodward, ‘Did Lloyd George Starve the British Army’, pp. 247-248.).  From a political perspective Haig had reneged on his promise to the War Cabinet and had failed to husband his manpower.  The War Cabinet had no intention of increasing recruitment to replace Haig’s losses.  The political preference was to husband resources by going on the defensive on the Western Front and wait for the arrival of the Americans.  Both the British and the French knew that the Americans could make no significant contribution until they were trained.  This, due to Pershing’s refusal to agree any force amalgamation, would not be until 1919.

In July 1917 Brigadier General A. Campbell Geddes, Director of Recruiting, provided a report on recruiting to the War Cabinet that sought to balance the conflicting manpower needs of the Military and Civil sectors as Britain attempted to come to terms with the demands of a 'Total War' effort (Campbell Geddes, ‘The Theory and Practice of Recruiting’ War Cabinet Memorandum, 23 July 1917, National Archives CAB/24/20 Image No 0083.).  The decision to implement Geddes' manpower proposals was taken in the shadow of the ongoing conflict over the strategic direction of the war at the end of 1917.  Geddes' proposals marked an end to the ad hoc reviews of manpower and established clear principles of military recruitment.  To replace losses and sustain offensive operations the War Office sought 600,000 category ‘A’ recruits for 1918.  The newly established manpower committee chose to promise only 100,000.  ‘The order of priorities were, first shipbuilding and the manning of new naval craft; second, aeroplane and tank output; and third, the reinforcement of the British armies in France.’  This order of priorities underpinned the political decision to wait for the Americans by emphasizing the enlargement and protection of the north Atlantic shipping traffic.  (Keith Grieves, ‘Total War?: The quest for a British manpower policy, 1917-18, Journal of Strategic Studies, 9, (1), (March 1986) p. 86.).

By 1918 Britain was physically unable and politically unwilling to continue to supply manpower at the rate requested by the War Office to support Haig’s Western Front offensive aspirations.  Britain was running out of manpower in 1918.  Between January and November 1918 only 372,330 category 'A' men could be pulled from the civilian workforce (Woodward, ‘Did Lloyd George Starve the British Army’, p. 248.).  The rationalisation of the use of manpower between the front, factory and field was long overdue however the circumstances and timing of its implementation almost proved fatal.  In defence of the politicians it should be noted that the War Office had it within its gift to provide Haig with the necessary replacements.  Up to 449,000 category ‘A’ men already in uniform were held in Britain.  This figure included the mobile reserve which had been withdrawn to Britain by the General Staff following a statement by Haig that the BEF could contain any German attack for 18 days.  The mobile reserve alone could have made up Haig’s shortage of infantry (Woodward, ‘Did Lloyd George Starve the British Army’, p. 248 and 251.).

The BEF manpower shortage was most acute in the infantry units whose average effective strength was down to 36%.  With minimal reinforcements available the War Office directed the BEF to restructure from a 12 to a 9 battalion divisional structure.  Between mid January and 4 March 1918 115 battalions were broken up.  Of these 7 were converted to Pioneer battalions and 38 were amalgamated to form 19 new battalions.  The 10 dominion divisions were unaffected.  Included in the War Office directive was the limitation that only battalions of Kitchener's New Army, Volunteer or of 2nd Line Territorial origin should be abolished.  Gough's divisions comprised a significant number of these units and as a result a disproportionate percentage of the changes occurred in 5th Army.  Battalion unit cohesion and time away from training were not the only casualties:

' [The] Disruption caused by moving soldiers to new, unfamiliar units in unfamiliar formations and working with unfamiliar supporting arms, artillery in particular, has to be experienced to be understood.'.  P.R. Carey, The German Offensive on the Somme - 1918, Royal United Services Institute of New South Wales, p. 10.

The extension to the British front and the shortage of manpower undermined Haig’s 1918 offensive aspirations and seem to add weight to his external 'excuses' for the BEF failings in the spring of 1918.

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