"The Old Contemptibles"

Before the outbreak of the First World War, the British Army was quite small, numbering around 250,000 men as opposed to the French and German Armies which were substantially larger (~775,000 and ~870,000 men respectively). Kaiser Wilhelm is said to have referred to the British Army as that “contemptible little army” in an order issued 19 August 1914. Naturally, the British soldiers began to call themselves “the contemptibles” which quickly became “the old contemptibles” and when used in historical writing is a specific reference to the 250,000 men of the Regular British Army at the beginning of World War One.

The Old Contemptibles. “A” Company of the 4th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers (9th Brigade, 3rd Division) on 22 August, 1914, resting in the square at Mons, Belgium, the day before the Battle of Mons. Minutes after this photo was taken the company moved into position at Nimy on the bank of the Mons-Condé Canal.

In spite of Kaiser Bill’s contempt, these men were as good as any men in the Prussian Army. Because of their long term enlistments of 12 years, British regulars were well trained and disciplined professional soldiers who excelled at what was then known as “musketry.” Unlike other armies of that era, the British Army spent a lot of time on the firing range. During their off duty hours men could practice their shooting as much as they wanted with all the ammunition supplied by the army.

Numerous awards were available to men who could shoot well and consequently British regulars could fire an average of fifteen aimed rounds a minute from their .303 caliber Lee-Enfield rifles. Many could fire more (the rifles had a ten round magazine). Given their ability to lay down highly accurate and rapid fire, small groups of regular British soldiers often held off much larger formations.

This was particularly true in a series of engagements which took place during the First Battle of Ypres in Western Belgium. German infantry were constantly being held up solely by rifle fire from British units who were suffering from a shortage of artillery. Time and again the Germans charged only to be repulsed. Nonetheless, the British took heavy casualties because of their constant and disorganized movement directed by an incompetent high command which had the effect of exposing the British soldiers to punishing German artillery fire.

At an engagement close by the Belgium village of Langemark, the British infantry, firing their rifles like mad, mowed down the attacking Germans. Later the Germans called this engagement “the Massacre of the Innocents of Ypres,” claiming that most of the German soldiers killed in action were young and inexperienced reservists, most of whom were deeply idealistic university students. That begs the question: “if they were so idealistic, what they hell were they doing in Belgium?”

Langemarck was destroyed during the 1st Divisions repulse of the German reserve infantry on 22 October. Stories that German student soldiers marched into battle singing songs are myth, although heavy casualties, owing to inadequate tactics, were suffered.

The Boer War had taught British soldiers to dig and dig deep whenever they had the time to do so. At Langemark, much of their trench line was shallow but other parts were deeper. In memoirs, we learn that often the young German soldiers with Rilke in one hand and binoculars in the other, could not even see the British soldiers. But if one were foolish enough to step out of cover to get a better view, then one ended up shredded by English bullets. I’ve never been to the battlefield but a number of German families later built memorials to their sons killed in the engagement at Langemark during the First Battle of Ypres in Western Belgium. It is said to be a place of great melancholy.

It would take another war for the Germans to learn to stay on their side of the border.

The British Regular Army, “the Old Contemptibles,” was destroyed in the first year of the war.

British trench near the Albert–Bapaume road at Ovillers-la-Boisselle, July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme.

[Images courtesy of Wikimedia.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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