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A Note on Military Formations

Military terminology can be a bit bewildering to the uninitiated, in particular the size of units and how they were organised. During the First World War the British Army was organised into a number of different units which contained other units, in effect like a series of Russian Dolls. There were a number of specialist units but the following organisation concentrates on the infantry divisions, as it was these in which the seven combat battalions of the Bedfordshire Regiment found themselves.

The smallest unit of organisation was the section, which contained a non commissioned officer (lance corporal, corporal, lance sergeant or sergeant), who commanded the unit and between five and nine private soldiers. Four sections comprised a platoon, commanded by a 2nd lieutenant, also called a subaltern, or a lieutenant and four platoons comprised a company, usually commanded by a captain, which also included a company headquarters unit with a subaltern, a platoon sergeant, runner and batman (servant to the subaltern) who doubled as a second runner.

A battalion, commanded by a colonel, lietnenat colonel or major, comprised four companies plus a headquarters unit for a total theoretical strength of 30 officers and 977 other ranks. In practice, numbers varied from a thousand or so at full strength down to a few hundred after a heavy action or at a time of sickness. A regiment comprised a number of battalions, not all of which fought on active service. Regiments were not part of the field organisation, in other words, they did not take the field as a regiment but saw their battalions divided and placed in number of different brigades, no two battalions of the Bedfordshire regiment ever serving in the same brigade, although occasionally, with larger regiments comprising twenty or thirty battalions, brigades were made up entirely of units from one regiment.

A brigade comprised four battalions and was commanded by a Brigadier, an officer of general rank, often also called a Brigadier General. As an example of a brigade structure, the 54th Infantry Brigade from July 1915 to early 1918 comprised: 7th Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment; 6th Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment; 11th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers and 12th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment. In 1918 the number of battalions in a brigade was cut to three because Prime Minister David Lloyd-George refused to release the latest batch of recruits into what he saw as senseless slaughter. This diminution of strength caused the army serious problems in the great series of German atacks which began on 21st March that year. 54th Infantry Brigade lost 12th Middlesex, disbanded, and 7th Bedfords, which was amalgamated with 2nd Battalion, which had been much reduced in strength.

A division, commanded by a Major General, comprised three infantry brigades and one battalion used as pioneer troops, digging ditches, for example - a division thus comprised thirteen battalions before 1918. It also included a number of batteries of artillery, units of machine gunners, cavalry and cyclists, to act as scouts, messengers and in other tasks needing mobility, engineers, doctors and medical orderlies, veterinary sections, workshop troops and the Army Service Corps. From two to five divisions formed a corps and from two to five corps formed an army. There were eventually five British armies on the Western Front as well as others in Egypt and Palestine, Italy and the Balkans.