Training to be a soldier

How were soldiers prepared for World War One? Dr Jonathan Boff examines the stages of training undertaken by the millions of soldiers across the British, German and French armies.
Every single one of the 65 million men mobilised to fight in the First World War had to be trained before being sent into battle. What was training like? It is hard to generalise. There was no single experience of training. Different people had different experiences, depending on who they were, when and where they joined up, what unit they joined, where they were sent, and how easily they adapted to their new life. Look, for instance, at what happened to two men who volunteered early in the war. Private Tomkinson (18th Battalion, Manchester Regiment) began his military career cleaning up the old amusement park which was to become his battalion’s barracks and did not receive a uniform and boots for months. This was typical of the shortages that confronted recruits to Kitchener’s army, as Peter Simkins discusses here . Nonetheless, by the time his unit went to France in October 1915, it had received ‘13 months good sound training’.[1] In contrast, Herbert Sulzbach, who joined the German army in August 1914, found himself in the front line just four weeks later, after only the most rudimentary training. Still, some common themes emerge, and this article will concentrate on those who joined from 1916 on, after the initial ‘rush to the colours’ had died down and the training system had settled into a groove.

Notes by Roland Gerard Garvin recording the military training that he received at Chelsea in December 1914.

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Basic training 

New recruits in all armies were first put through three months of basic training. The aim of this course was: to build up physical fitness and confidence; instil discipline and obedience; and teach the fundamental military skills necessary to function in the army.

A typical day started with Reveille (a bugle or trumpet call to wake the soldiers and call them to duty) at 5.30 a.m. After tidying up and cleaning their quarters and having a brew, at 6.30 recruits would parade for an hour and a half to work on their fitness. After breakfast at 8, the morning was spent drilling on the parade square, learning, for instance, to march, form fours and about turn . Between 12.15 and 2 p.m. the men took lunch before returning for more drill in the afternoon until 4.15. The unlucky might be detailed off for fatigues or work parties thereafter, but otherwise recruits were off duty, although they might have to spend time cleaning kit and shining boots. In large garrison towns like Aldershot, there were leisure facilities in the shape of the ‘Smith-Dorrien Soldiers’ Home’, with a billiards room, a library, recreation rooms, private baths and a buffet. More remote locations might have nothing similar.

After a few weeks of this, training began to get more advanced. Soldiers began to learn the basics of movement in the field and were introduced to night operations and route marching. Later would come weapons handling, marksmanship and digging trenches. 

Roland Gerard Garvin’s notes from April 1915 explain the course of military instruction and lectures received at Staff College in Camberley, Surrey.

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Moving on

The next stage might well include several weeks or even months of specialist training, for instance to be a machine gunner, a signaller or a cook. In particular, British men under 19, and so not yet eligible to be sent overseas, would often have their training topped up in this way until they were old enough to go abroad.

German infantrymen would be shipped to large recruit depots at places like Beverloo in northern Belgium, where their fitness and skills were checked and brought up to local standards. Training related more directly to the situations they were likely to face in the line and included field exercises and hand-to-hand combat, as well as route-marching and more drill. The length of time they spent in places like Beverloo varied with how quickly the men learnt and how urgently replacements were needed at the front. In times of crisis, they might be there no more than two or three weeks. The British equivalent was a series of large depots at places like Étaples. 

From the transit camps at Beverloo or Étaples, soldiers were sent on to a corps or divisional depot. They normally waited here until the next time the unit they were to join was pulled back into reserve, when they would be sent up to them. There would normally be a few days for new replacements to train with, and be integrated into, their units, practising simple tactical drills and manoeuvres, before returning to the trenches.

So, new recruits in both the British and German armies underwent a progressive system of training designed, as far as possible, to equip them with the skills needed to survive on the modern battlefield and to perform their missions. Grumbles about the quality of new men, often from pre-war regulars, remained common. The system was not without problems and did not always operate perfectly. But it often avoided the Second World War situation of green replacements coming up in the evening to a unit engaged on the front line, only to be killed before breakfast without anyone even learning their name. 

Apprenticeship at arms

On-the-job training formed a major part of the soldier’s life. Inexperienced divisions were inserted into quiet sectors of the line to learn their trade. Whenever units came back from the front to rest, they trained. Route marches maintained fitness. Individual skills were brushed up. Training then built up: platoons were to practice ‘movement from cover to cover, the advance under fire, the combination of fire and movement, the use of Lewis or Hotchkiss guns, bombs and rifle-bombs, and the assault, culminating with the occupation and organization of captured ground for defence’.[2] Then companies, battalions and, if time allowed, even brigades and whole divisions were to exercise together. Training might aim to refresh basic skills; to pick up new techniques learnt from experience elsewhere; or, indeed, to rehearse for specific operations over mock-ups of the enemy defences. For example, the Canadian Corps did this prior to its successful attack on Vimy Ridge in April 1917.

Specialist schools  

Finally, a whole network of schools grew up to teach specialist skills, either to equip individuals for a new role, or so they could go back to their units and train others. Thus, men might find themselves sent off to learn, for example: how to command a platoon or company; the skills of a sniper; the use of wireless; or of Lewis guns. The subaltern Charles Carrington, serving with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, spent 21 days on courses of this kind in 1916 (compared with 65 days in the front line).

The proof of the pudding

Training millions-strong armies posed an immense challenge to all the armies of the First World War. Time, space, kit and experienced instructors: all were in short supply early in the war, and mistakes inevitably occurred. As the war wore on, however, all sides devoted considerable attention and resources to training their men. A sensible, progressive system evolved. It was never perfect. Could it ever have been? Inevitably, its effects were often patchy. But by 1917 and 1918 it was capable in a few months of producing, from citizen conscripts, the highly professional forces that mastered modern warfare.

Footnotes

[1] Unpublished diary. Thanks to James Hopkinson for permission to use this. 

[2] General Staff, SS 152 Instructions for the Training of the British Armies in France (January 1918), p. 17

Jonathan Boff
  • Jonathan Boff
  • Dr Jonathan Boff is Lecturer in History at the University of Birmingham, where he leads the Centre for First World War Studies and teaches the only master’s degree programme in the country dedicated to Britain’s part in the First World War. His book, Winning and Losing on the Western Front, was published in 2012. He is currently working on a study of the German army in 1914-18.