The name self-adopted by British troops belonging to the regular army in 1914, the term was supposedly derived from a comment made by the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II.
The Kaiser, upon hearing that German forces were being held up in France while en route to the French capital, is said to have exclaimed his exasperation of "Sir John French's contemptible little army"
The Kaiser's comment may have stemmed from anxiety surrounding execution of the German Schlieffen Plan designed to knock France out of the war within six weeks of its inception, as well as reflecting his opinion of the size of Britain's pre-war regular army (which was rather smaller than the major continental armies). Any delay to the German Army's progress was therefore of concern.
Interestingly the term is also said to origin from a mistranslation of a letter from the Kaiser to the commander of the German First Army Alexander von Kluck, in which he supposedly wrote: "It is my Royal and Imperial command that you concentrate your energies for the immediate present upon one single purpose, and that is that you address your skill and all the valour of my soldiers to exterminate the treacherous English, and walk over French's contemptibly small army."
Whatever the actual origin the British regulars were delighted thereafter to be referred to as 'The Old Contemptibles' and named their post-war veterans' association accordingly.
The regular army is the name applied to the units and formations of men who joined the army for a paid job - professional soldiers. Up to the declaration of war, most men joining the regular army enlisted for a total of twelve years, made up of a period of full time service with the colours followed by a period on reserve. Although the make up of these twelve years was adjusted on a few occasions between 1902 and 1914, in general the term was seven years colour service and then five years on reserve.
Once mobilisation was ordered on 5 August 1914 and Lord Kitchener had introduced A call to arms, all men enlisting into the army - unless they went into the Territorial Force - could now choose to join on "general service" terms, which meant full time service for three years or the duration of the war, whichever longer. These men were, strictly, of the regular army.
The introduction of conscription by the Military Service Act in 1916 meant that all future enlistments were for "general service", for the duration.
What made the regular army distinctive?
The Regiments and Corps of the pre-war regular army protected their traditions with fierce pride, which rubbed off on the part-time volunteer units of the Territorial Force and even on the war time volunteers and conscripts. The regular units were naturally the first to go to war and they formed the bedrock for the expansion of the army. There was a degree of professional pride: the regulars smartness of dress, drill and marching, and efficiency in the field tended them to regard the newcomers as "Fred Karno's Army". Losses of men in the regular units soon meant that the regular ranks were filled with 'amateurs' and the regular distinction was inevitably blurred. But the men who joined the regular units as amateurs made sure that the fighting traditions were carried on, and regular units were able to retain an air of superiority to the end.
Not equipped for a major Continental-scale war
Before the Great War the British regular army was very small in comparison with those of its European neighbours. The army's main role since the conclusion of the Second Boer War in South Africa between 1899-1902 was policing of the British Empire, 'upon which the sun never set'. Britain's traditional armed strength lay in the Royal Navy and there was no preconceived intention to commit a large army to a Continental war.
Army planning in the crisis years leading up to 1914 had provided for a small Expeditionary Force (BEF) of six infantry divisions, equipped as a mobile force that could be deployed anywhere needed. Following reforms carried out after the poor performance in South Africa, this small army could be considered to be among the best in terms of equipment and training, although in many respects of armament - critically as it turned out, especially in heavy artillery - it fell well short of the Germans. Informal discussions took place with the French army following the establishment of the Entente in 1906. They concluded that the most likely war scenario envisaged a German attack on France, in which case the BEF would take up a position to the left of the French front - a small adjunct to the mighty French army; indeed one no bigger (if perhaps with greater promise) than that of the Belgian army. Great Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, following the German invasion of Belgium.
On 4 August 1914, almost half of the British Army was overseas, spread around the garrisons of Empire.
The first British Expeditionary Force
In the last days of peace, the British Government committed only four - not six - infantry divisions to the Expeditionary Force going to France. There were genuine fears of German invasion of the home country, and troops would be needed. Ireland was also still a cause for concern. Mobilisation of the BEF and embarkation for France proceeded faultlessly, and all men and equipment moved across the Channel as planned. They moved swiftly into position and first encountered the enemy at Mons on 23 August 1914.
The original BEF comprised of:
1st Division | 2nd Division | 3rd Division | 5th Division |
1st Cavalry Division | 2nd Cavalry Division. plus lines of communication, Corps and Army troops and HQ.
Completing the "Old Contemptibles"
The 4th Division, which was already mobilised in England in accordance with pre-war planning, moved to France just in time to take part in the defensive stand made at Le Cateau on 26 August 1914. The 6th Division, similarly ready, also moved out and joined the BEF. They missed the great retreat but took part in the advance to the Aisne. Meanwhile, many battalions of the regular army were ordered to move from various stations around the Empire. Those among the earliest to arrive in England had sailed from Malta, South Africa, and Gibraltar. They were formed up into the 7th Division, arguably amongst the strongest formations assembled by the British, consisting of trained soldiers, needing fewer reservists to be made up to full strength. The 7th Division was initially ordered to the defence of Antwerp and landed at Zeebrugge on 6 October 1914 - but it was soon moved to the vicinity of Ypres where it played a central role in the first defensive battle there. All of the Divisions named thus far were very heavily engaged in these early days of the war; indeed by the close of the First Battle of Ypres, they were all but destroyed. They took great pride in their achievements, and were always known as The Old Contemptibles.
Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d8, Spirit d8, Strength d6, Vigor d6
Skills: Fighting d8, Intimidation d8, Knowledge (Battle) d6, Notice d6, Persuasion d6, Shooting d8, Stealth d6, Throwing d8
Charisma: 0; Pace: 6; Parry: 5; Sanity: 5;
Hindrances: Code of Honor, Shell shocked (Minor), Stubborn
Edges: Brave, Common bond, Dig in!, Grizzled, Incoming!, Luck, National Identity (British Pluck)
Gear: Uniform, canteen, steel helmet (+1), Lee- Enfield rifle (Range 24/48/96, Damage 2d8) with 150 rounds, Webley revolver (Range 12/24/48, Damage
2d6+1) with 18 rounds, 4× Mills Bombs (Range 5/10/20, Damage 3d6), trench knife (Str+d4), gas mask.