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British expeditionary force (act. 1914) or BEF was the title given to the forces of the British army dispatched from Great Britain to fight in France and Belgium in the opening months of the First World War. Officially this title continued to be applied to British forces serving in France and Belgium to the end of the war; but in common usage the title British expeditionary force is reserved for those troops who volunteered for the regular army before the war, and who fought in 1914.

The BEF was created under Richard Burdon Haldane, as secretary of state for war 1905–12, drawing particularly on the military advice of Douglas Haig. On mobilization in 1914 it consisted of a general headquarters, three army corps, each of two infantry divisions, a large cavalry division of four brigades, and a fifth independent cavalry brigade. It was famously characterized in 1922 by the army's official historian, James Edmonds, who himself served with the BEF, as ‘incomparably the best trained, best organized, and best equipped British Army which ever went forth to war’ (Edmonds, 1.10).

Thanks largely to the work of Henry Wilson at the War Office from 1910 onwards, the French in 1914 were expecting the BEF to play a part in their overall war plans with Germany. On 5 August 1914 the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, at a council of war decided as a precaution that at first only two army corps and the cavalry should be sent to France, although the third army corps followed shortly afterwards, a total of about 100,000 men. By October 1914 a further army corps of two more infantry divisions had been created and sent to join the BEF, together with three further cavalry brigades, allowing a cavalry corps of three divisions to be formed as well. As many of the troops were reservists, recalled from civilian life on the outbreak of war (men like Private Frank Richards, author of one of the finest memoirs of the 1914 campaign), these forces represented virtually the remaining available strength of the regular army in 1914.

Several generals of the BEF were killed or died in action in 1914, but those that survived provided many of the officers who held high or important commands in the British army for the rest of the war. In some cases their careers had already crossed for some years, and relationships had formed that greatly influenced their behaviour in battle in 1914. At BEF general headquarters the commander-in-chief was Field Marshal Sir John French, and his chief of staff was Lieutenant-General Sir Archibald Murray (commander of the Egyptian expeditionary force 1916–17). French had poor relations with Murray, not having been allowed as his chief of staff Major-General Henry Wilson (chief of the imperial general staff 1918), and he kept Wilson at general headquarters as a ‘second chief of staff’. Of the BEF's principal staff officers, the quartermaster-general was Major-General Sir William Robertson (chief of the imperial general staff 1915–18), the chief intelligence officer was Colonel George Macdonogh (director of military intelligence 1916–18), and the adjutant-general was Major-General Sir (Cecil Frederick) Nevil Macready (adjutant-general of the forces 1916–18). The general officer commanding the 1st corps (1st and 2nd infantry divisions) of the BEF was General Sir Douglas Haig (French's successor 1915–18), and his chief of artillery was Brigadier-General Henry Horne (commander of the First Army 1916–18).

Within the 1st infantry division the commander of the 1st (guards) brigade was Ivor Maxse (inspector-general of training 1918), while the commander of the 2nd division was Major-General Charles Monro (commander-in-chief in India 1916–20). The 2nd corps (3rd and 5th infantry divisions) was originally commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir James Grierson, who died of a heart attack on 17 August. French requested General Sir Herbert Plumer (commander of the Second Army 1915–18) as his replacement, but was overruled by Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, appointed secretary of state for war, who sent General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien. The BEF's 3rd corps (4th and 6th infantry divisions), which joined it in late August and early September 1914, was commanded by Major-General William Pulteney, who very unusually remained in command of this corps through most of the war. Its 4th corps, commanded by Major-General Sir Henry Rawlinson (commander of the Fourth Army 1916–18), joined the BEF in September 1914 with the 7th infantry division, followed by the 8th infantry division in October.

The original cavalry division (renamed 1st cavalry division in September 1914) was commanded by Major-General Edmund Allenby (commander of the Egyptian expeditionary force 1917–18). Its 3rd cavalry brigade was commanded by Brigadier-General Hubert Gough (commander of the Fifth Army 1916–18), whose brother Brigadier-General John Gough was Haig's chief staff officer in the 1st corps. In September 1914 the new cavalry corps was created under Allenby, with Hubert Gough commanding the 2nd cavalry division. The 3rd cavalry division joined the BEF in October 1914, commanded by Major-General the Hon. Julian Byng (commander of the Third Army 1917–18).

The 1914 campaign had an impact on relationships between commanders. French's relations with Kitchener deteriorated, in part because he believed Kitchener behaved as a de facto commander-in-chief of the British army rather than as a politician. The campaign deepened Haig's belief that French was unfit to be commander-in-chief of the BEF, and in 1915 he successfully intrigued against him. The performances of Horne and Hubert Gough in 1914 confirmed their status as Haig's protégés, and both prospered in 1915 and 1916. Maxse by contrast lost Haig's confidence as a result of an incident in August 1914, but largely regained it thanks to his competence in commanding a new army division on the Somme in 1916.

More junior officer survivors of the BEF went on to fill many important ‘middle management’ command and staff posts in the greatly expanded British army of 1915–18. Edward Spears, a junior (although influential) liaison officer in 1914, went on to perform similar roles at much more senior levels in both world wars. Tom Bridges led a squadron of cavalry in August 1914 but by the end of 1915 had risen to command an infantry division. Bernard Montgomery, an infantry lieutenant in August 1914, was by the end of the war a lieutenant-colonel and chief of staff of a division. Many more of the British army's higher commanders of the Second World War also served (and in most cases gained their first combat experience) as junior officers in the BEF of 1914, including Lord Gort [see Vereker, John Standish Surtees Prendergast], Harold Alexander, Alan Brooke, and Edmund Ironside.

The BEF was very small in comparison to the armies of its French allies and its German enemies, and its contribution to the wider battles of 1914 was symbolic and political more than military, although its presence as a high-quality formation at critical times and places meant that it sometimes played a much greater role. Conforming to the French plan, it deployed northwards from France into Belgium and fought its first battle against superior German forces at Mons on 23 August. Heavily outnumbered, the BEF then began its ‘retreat from Mons’, which took on semi-legendary aspects even at the time. On 26 August, Smith-Dorrien's 2nd corps fought an independent delaying action at the battle of Le Cateau, successfully checking the Germans before retreating again. Although the retreat was complicated by sometimes controversial command decisions, the BEF was never again seriously troubled by the German pursuit. It played an important part in the decisive French counterattack at the battle of the Marne on 7–10 September, and as the German retreat began it fought again at the battle of the Aisne on 12–15 September. The BEF was then transferred to the Ypres area to be closer to the English Channel, and took part in the first battle of Ypres, 19 October – 22 November, helping prevent a final German attempt to break through in 1914. By this date, in addition to its regular reinforcements, the BEF had been reinforced by troops of the Indian army and the first units of the Territorial Force. The ranks of the latter included some individuals who found fame in other spheres, notably the future Hollywood actors Ronald Colman and Basil Rathbone and the writer Henry Williamson. By the end of the year the BEF's casualties since the start of the war were in excess of 85,000. Others, like the poet Julian Grenfell, survived this campaign only to die in a subsequent battle.

The BEF and its achievements have been the subject of often romantic legends, starting with the claims in 1914 of an appearance by a mystical ‘angel of Mons’, and the ‘phantom bowmen’ or ‘riders’ who were said to be seen accompanying the retreat. The first battle of Ypres (‘Wipers’ to the troops that fought there) has been characterized as the graveyard and sacrifice of the old pre-war British army. The ethos of the troops was often one of deprecating humour. Bruce Bairnsfather, who served as an infantry officer, captured the spirit of the men under his command in the walrus-moustached cartoon character Old Bill. On 19 August, Kaiser Wilhelm II, in a disputed phrase exacerbated by some inspired British translation, issued an ‘order of the day’ for his troops to ‘walk over General French's contemptible little army’, leading to the survivors of the BEF adopting the semi-official title the Old Contemptibles. Another German practice, of describing in their propaganda the volunteer British forces as mercenaries, led A. E. Housman, on the third anniversary of the first battle of Ypres, to write his poem ‘Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries’ for the BEF of 1914.

Stephen Badsey

Sources  

A. F. Becke, Order of battle of divisions, 5 pts (1935) · J. E. Edmonds, ed., Military operations, France and Belgium, 1914, 1, History of the Great War (1922) · E. A. James, British regiments, 1914–18 (1998) · E. Hamilton, The first seven divisions (1916) · R. Money Barnes, The British army of 1914 (1968) · J. Terraine, Mons (1960)