If Ye Break Faith

This blog is dedicated to the promotion of educating about the Canadian experience of World War One. To discover who we are as a nation in the 21st Century, we must understand our past.


Thursday, 25 August 2011

Order of Battle

I cannot over-emphasise the importance of networking.  As you know, I had been hoping on a submission to a literary agent to bear fruit.  When this didn't come to pass, I found myself rethinking the potential presentation of this project.  It was through Twitter that I first became aware of  Warfare Magazine, and through that example the possibility of interactive online publication began take hold.  The format of the magazine tied in with niche advertising is a brilliant marriage.  I contacted the editor to express my support and as such have been invited to make a submission introducing my work to their audience.  I'm absolutely thrilled, and will keep you all in the loop as to when my article goes to print.  While I'm touching on the subject of networking; plans are still afoot to begin posting video blogs, though I'm not working with a definite time frame to when those will be available.  In the meantime, there is still my Twitter feed and Facebook Group.  In light of beginning a more interactive experience, I'm looking forward to doing a post with a dedicated Q&A section, so please forward your questions, comments and suggestions here.


One of the things about military history that I find too often left without adequate explanation is the way in which armies are organised.  In this column, I myself have been guilty of bandying about such terms as "Battalion", "Corps" and "Division" and not accompanying them with a definition.  It's unfair to assume that the reader is familiar with these elements and what size and type of organisation they denote.  Failure to clarify those terms makes the subject mater less accessible to those with less of a military background.


Military formations, especially as related to British and Empire forces went through a period of drastic change during the First World War.  Partly this was due to the unprecedented size of armed bodies taking to the field while the way in which warfare itself was evolving both strategically and technically necessitated a change in basic organisation.  Larger bodies such as Armies and Corps had not been used much prior to the war as it was rare that such numbers of troops would be deployed at any one time.  Their emergence in the war required a great deal of dedicated positions of staff and command at high levels that heretofore had not existed, a new experience for what had been a lean professional force before the onset of the war.  With this came a process of learning; of mistakes and successes whose lessons when absorbed would aid in the victory on the Western Front and provided a doctrine that would be a benefit during the Second World War.


It is a long standing military maxim that states there is no such thing as an individual, so troop order starts at the lowest level of team structure, which for the infantry in the Great War was the Section.  This was a body of eight or ten men, under the command of a junior NCO, usually a Corporal.  It's purpose was to take the fight to the enemy and during the war each Section in a Platoon provided a specialised task.  There was a Lewis Gun Section that gave mobile fire support, a Rifle Grenade Section to soften objectives from a distance with specially propelled grenades, a Bombing Section equipped with hand grenades and aided with bayonet men to clear trenches, bunkers and other hard points and a Rifle Section which would close with the enemy to deliver aimed direct fire, with the support of the other three.  Four Sections made up a Platoon which was further staffed by a Sergeant as second in command, a junior officer (known as a "subaltern") in command along with his batman (a personal valet responsible for the officer's well-being) and perhaps a couple of runners to communicate messages back and forth to the next level of command, the Company.  This made the number of men in a Platoon about forty.  There were usually four Platoons in a Company (identified by either a letter or number designation, ie "A" Coy) plus staff which included the Company Commander, usually a Captain or Major, his second in command, their batmen and runners and the Company Sergeant-Major.  A Sergeant-Major is the highest ranking NCO with the particular formation to which he is named and whose responsibility is the welfare and treatment of all enlisted personnel in that formation.  He would often have the longest service experience, inclusive of the officers and even though subordinate to them was relied upon for his advice and expertise.  The Company at around 160-180 men was a soldier's immediate home, but not near so important as the next level, the Battalion.


In regards to Canadian organisation, the term Battalion is more or less synonymous with Regiment.  While British Regiments tended to have two or even three Battalions under it, with the CEF  the ratio was usually one-to-one, hence a lot of confusion regarding these two elements.  The Battalion, commanded by a Lt. Colonel would be comprised of a Headquarters Detachment of support staff, Regimental Sergeant-Major, Chaplain and Surgeon and four Companies.  Each Battalion has it's own particular identity, unique heraldry and traditions, though many were raised for the war and demobilised afterwards, so tended to be more generic.  Longer standing units, typically from the Militia had a deeper traditional element, but one always felt a pride and belonging to his own regardless of its establishment.  A soldier in his time in the army is likely to move from platoon or company as the need arises but would rarely leave his battalion.


Battalions are fairly self contained bodies, but lack certain elements that enable them to do their job entirely.  Trench mortars and heavy machine guns would be attached with two or more Battalions (usually not more than four) that, along with its own headquarters staff would make up a Brigade, commanded by a Brigadier General.  At this point we are discussing formations numbering about 4 000.  This is a rough number as supporting elements would and were attached or detached as required


Three Brigades along with supporting arms such as artillery, cavalry (and later, armour), engineers, supply transportation and medical services comprised a Division, which again had a headquarters staff with coordinating officers to the attached supports and was commanded by a Major General.  Two or more (again, typically four) Divisions with further attachments of supporting arms made a Corps.  Unless otherwise designated (such as Canadian Corps, or ANZAC's) Corps were usually identified by use of Roman numerals.  We are now referring to numbers nearing fifty thousand, though it was more likely to be less depending on acquisition of resources and attrition.  A Corps was commanded by a Lt. General and aided by his staff.  It was the Corps that signified the highest level of organisation for Canadians during the war, and the Canadian Corps, once established in late 1915 fell under command of 2nd British Army.  An Army as an element consists of two or more (again, usually four until reorganisations late in the war reduced the number to three) Corps.  A full General commanded an Army and was only subordinate to the Commander in Chief, Field Marshall Haig, who at the top of the chain had five Armies under him, all in all more than a million men and officers at any one time in the field.


It's difficult to visualise.  I myself have never been in the field with a larger force than a battalion, and even that number of individuals left quite an impression.  It remains to my imagination to wonder how awe-inspiring higher and larger formations must have been, so many thousands all working towards one clear purpose.

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