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Call to Arms: The British Army 1914-1918

Call to Arms: The British Army 1914-1918
By Charles Messenger
Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005, £30
ISBN: 0 297 846 957

Reviewed by John Lee for the British Commission for Military History.

What a very interesting book this is! As an exercise you should stop what you are doing for ten minutes and try and think what would be involved in turning a small professional army engaged mainly in imperial policing, into a mass citizens’ army engaged in a worldwide, industrialized struggle with the greatest military power of the day. Oh, and for good measure your government, and the people it represents, resent paying any and all taxation, especially when ‘wasted’ on defence.

Where would you begin? How to cope with the flood of volunteers and then, when they dwindle away, how to direct the human resources of the nation to best effect? Where to find the directing brains for all this effort? How to cope with the sudden demand for more of everything on scales that beggar belief and defy all previous predictions? How to cope with the myriad and wholly new demands of a new kind of warfare that seems to spring from the lurid writings of that Mr H. G. Wells?!

Our fellow BCMH member, Charles Messenger, has given us a valuable study of the British Army in the First World War as seen by the Adjutant General’s department. He covers most thoroughly everything organised by the ‘A’ side of the Staff; all matters relating to personnel (and not ‘G’ side -Operations- or ‘Q’ side – logistics). He again makes the point elucidated by Ian Malcolm Brown that the ‘G’ Staff was invariably run quite separately from the ‘A and Q’ Staffs; something that did not begin and end at Gallipoli!!

Everything relating to recruitment is here, from pre-war regular volunteers to the mobilization of the reserves, the extraordinary doubling and tripling of the Territorial Force and that wholly unforeseen creation of the New Armies. Every aspect of unit organization is discussed. An appendix lists 35 different organizations to which an ‘infantryman’ might be posted, from Agricultural Companies to Young Soldiers’ Battalions. He covers the demand for new specialists to be organized and trained; shows the important role of women in the uniformed services in releasing men for active service; treats fully the enormous problem of the need for labour forces on the Western Front (whose numbers rise from 100,000 in 1917 to 395,000 in Jan. 1919).

There are excellent chapters on officer selection and training, both regimental and staff, and on aspects of discipline, the medical services, welfare and morale of the troops (give them plenty of food, leave and mail – we score well on two out of the three) and on the contentious issue of honours and awards.

Did you know that in April 1917 the Army Postal services were handling 125,000 parcels a day for the BEF (which total went down as the canteens increased and improved); that while American and Australian units had one dentist per 1,000 men, the British ‘got by’ on 1 per 10,000; that 25% of the entire medical profession was in uniform by July 1915?
He treats all the controversial issues – executions, mutiny, conscientious objection, homosexuality, racism – with massive amounts of sanity and reason. The mix of official sources and personal memoirs to illustrate the points he makes throughout is finely balanced, and encyclopaedic.

I urge you to add this to your library a.s.a.p. In its whole 574 pages I only noted that Tim Harington should be spelled with one ‘r’, not two!! And, of course, I have my own reasons for wishing that he hadn’t called the infamous Aragon ‘Ian Hamilton’s headquarters ship’! It was principally the location for the Naval Transport Officers and their sybaritic staff. And what about an appendix that lists 14 pages of acronyms, from AA (Army Act and/or Anti Aircraft) to ZMC (Zion Mule Corps). How useful is that?!

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