21st Division 1914-18...a divisional history

Formation and deployment

21st Division was raised as part, in fact the first formation, of K3, or more correctly the Third New Army. This army had been sanctioned under Army Order 388 on the 13th September. It began forming up under Lt-General Sir Edward Hutton. He was by the outbreak of war of an age that would have made Divisional command difficult , the war had shown already that this was going to be a 'young' mans war and in fact his health broke down before he was able to take the Division to France.

 This poster is one of many on a variation and has gone on to symbolise the First World War from a recruitment side. It has certainly encased Kitchener in history and rightly so. What ever else may have been his faults, his foresight in predicting a long war and the raising of the New Army was massive in Britains ability to conduct the war.

Major General Sir George T Forestier-Walker took over command and tried to do what he could to bring the men up to fighting capability. Forestier-Walker had been until a few weeks previously Chief Staff officer to Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien and 2nd Army. He was an experienced staff officer and was psc (passed staff college). It, however, would seem he did not like what he saw when he arrived.

Arguably the hardest problem he encountered, was perhaps not the training of the men, of whom he worked hard, perhaps too hard, but the lack of staff trained officers. This was something that could not be learnt quickly or easily on the job. This was to become obvious not just in 21st division but in the BEF (British Expeditionary Force)as a whole and especially at Loos in September 1915.

In fact, according to the official history, the division had all three senior staff officers psc passed and two of these had previous staff experience. Of the Q&A (Quartermaster and Administration) branch all three were not psc, but one did have some staff experience in England!

Of the four Brigadier-Generals,  two were regulars and two retired officers. All the battalion commanders were ex-regular officers, mostly retired Indian army officers. Unfortunately there was only 14 other regular officers in all of the 13 battalions of the division. The ranks contained a few old soldiers but these were few and far between and the NCO's attached as instructors were what was left. The best having gone to the first two armies raised previously.

This is perhaps not specific to this division, in fact its sister division the 24th, who would fight at Loos in the same corps (Gen.Haking's XI), suffered much the same build up experience.  

This picture is of the 4th Middlesex battalion, in May 1914, before the war and before the unit joined the division, never the less it indicates the life and background of those involved in camp life. (courtesey of Tom Spencer)

The battalions were all in the main (except two) comprised of northerners of Yorkshire, Northumberland and Durham. They were all volunteers, who had answered the call of Lord Kitchener upon commencement of war. They were to quote Forestier-Walker "very raw as soldiers though mature in years and habits".

They were based around Aylesbury and Tring but it was not till the middle of May 1915 that they were billeted properly about Halton. They moved to the Aldershot command and into huts in the Godalming-Frenshaw area near the end of July the same year. The division also received transport at this time.

Up to April 1915 Hutton was not able to train the men well due to a lack of arms and equipment and perhaps as importantly that the officers had to be instructed in how to instruct the men under their command. Until the middle of June Forestier-Walker was still only able to conduct a weekly route march followed by a tactical scheme. After this date the training increased with a few brigade and divisional exercises being carried out but even these were still hampered by the lack of musketry training that was needed and the absence of the divisional artillery, still at training on Salisbury plain. This improved somewhat after they took up under command at Aldershot.

Due to this the division was not as well trained as was believed and when it crossed to France it had only three weeks before it was committed to battle. Not sufficient time to acclimatise to the conditions and more importantly without any time in the front line. So when the battle of Loos was under taken Forestier-Walker was pleased to hear from General Sir William Robertson who was Sir John French's chief of staff, that they would only be committed to the fray if the enemy was broken and in retreat.

Or at least that was the intention.


(Picture courtesy of Pete Crunkhurn, 8th Lincolns of 63rd in training.)