A century ago today saw the formal end of the First Battle of Ypres, what was essentially the First World War’s introduction to what the Western Front was going to become. Five weeks of combat produced almost 210,000 casualties among the Belgians, British, French and Germans who fought there, but gave very little advantage to either side.
Some 56,000 of those casualties were British, and First Ypres was the last in a succession of meat grinders that chewed up the veteran soldiers of the British Army. Unlike the legend of the Kindermord (the supposed massacre of a disproportionate green German teenaged conscripts, when in reality only about a third of Germany’s casualties matched that description), the death of Britain’s old professional infantry is largely true. Yet this was not the only slaughter of professionals that year.
Britain and Russia: Europe’s Professional Soldiers
Following the experience of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, armies in Europe had by and large adopted the Prussian system of using the standing army as a training school to churn out legions of reservists who could be mobilized in wartime. Terms of service were typically two or three years. The only notable exceptions were Britain, which retained a volunteer, professional army, and Russia, which kept its conscripts in uniform so long as to make them professional soldiers.
Tsarist Russia had fed its army using conscription since at least the days of Peter the Great, and for a long time being tapped for the Tsar’s army was for life. Villages would send off conscripts with a ritual that strongly resembled a funeral, because for all intents and purposes the drafted man was never coming back, lost to the community whether he lived or died. By 1914 the term of military service had been reduced to six years plus nine years in the reserves, twice as long as in any other country at the time and longer than modern volunteer military contracts as well. For all intents and purposes, the 1914 Tsarist army was a professional force, but not a volunteer one.
The “Old Contemptibles” of the pre-war British Army were all-volunteer, something that gave them the reputation of recruiting from the dregs of British society. Despite this, the British Army had a proud tradition of producing tough, well-trained infantry. A Napoleonic marshal was once quoted as saying “The British infantryman is the best in the world, and thankfully there aren’t that many of them.” In 1914, His Majesty’s riflemen could get off 20 to 30 shots per minute with their Lee-Enfield rifles, and at the Battle of Mons the Germans thought they were opposed by massed machine guns and not infantry armed with bolt-action rifles.
Whereas the relatively small British Expeditionary Force of regulars and reservists was chewed up by its experiences in France and Belgium, the Tsar’s force of six-year soldiers had been annihilated in battles with Austria and by the twin disasters of Tannenberg and the Marsurian Lakes.
The thing about highly trained professional warriors is that they are hard to replace, something both the British and the Russians found out. The British attempted to retain its all-volunteer ways for a time, but even so their salty cadres of rankers and sergeants was gone, and with it went the skill base of their army. The best infantrymen in the world were gone, and many have written, both then and now, that the British Army never quite got back that which went with them.
For the Tsar, the slaughter of his professional soldiers in a matter of months meant something more than the loss of skills, experience and effectiveness. Those conscripts were the bulwark of his regime, their devotion to his dynasty and the Orthodox Church reinforced by years of indoctrination. While the abominable treatment of the common Russian soldier during the war would have guaranteed the eventual alienation of even this Pillar of Tsarism in time, 1914 knocked it out all at once.