This page looks at how a British infantry battalion was structured early in the First World War. This article is one of my guides to help you to research a soldier who served in the British Army during WW1 and you can view other guides by clicking on the blue links below:
The Structure of a British Infantry Battalion in WW1
Even if you are researching a soldier who did not serve in the infantry, you will come across frequent mentions of battalions, and it useful to know what they were and how they were structured. Battalions can be written in a variety of ways depending on the author, however, they will always precede the regiment. The exact battalion of a regiment will usually be abbreviated as they become rather cumbersome in the text when repeatedly given in full e.g. 1st Battalion, The Essex Regiment becomes 1/Essex or 1st Bn Essex etc. If you’d like to find out which battalions a soldier served with abroad during the First World War you’ll need to consult their medal roll entry or look for a service record.
An overview of the Structure of a British Infantry Battalion during the First World War
In the British Army, infantry Regiments contained a number of different battalions. The description below is for the battalion which started landing in France in August 1914. It was issued with Army Orders on 1 January 1914 and can be found in WO 24/899: War Establishments 1913-1914. Infantry battalions underwent a great number of changes throughout the war and the establishment could differ depending on whether it was serving at Home (Britain and Ireland), on the Western Front, in the Middle East or Salonika. This establishment does not apply to garrison, graduated, young soldier, labour, pioneer, entrenching etc. battalions.
In August 1914, the establishment of an infantry battalion was 30 officers and 977 other ranks, giving a total of 1007. A Battalion was commanded by a Lieutenant-Colonel and was divided into a Headquarters, four Companies and a Machine Gun Section. They usually formed part of a brigade which contained four battalions between 1914 and 1917 before being reduced to three in early 1918.
A Headquarters contained six officers, the Lieutenant-Colonel who commanded the regiment, a Major as Second-in-Command, an Adjutant, Quartermaster, a Transport Officer and a Medical Officer from the Royal Army Medical Corps. The Quartermaster was usually a long-serving soldier who had been commissioned from the ranks. A Chaplain from the Army Chaplains’ Department may also have been serving with the battalion. A lot of senior non-commissioned officers and specialists also served with the Headquarters. There was one Sergeant-Major, Quartermaster-sergeant, Orderly-room Clerk, Sergeant-drummer, Sergeant-cook, Transport-sergeant and Sergeant-shoemaker.
Then there were eleven Drivers for the 1st line transport, with nine serving with the vehicles while the other two looked after the spare animals. There were six Batmen, one for each officer who were “fully armed and trained soldiers, and are available for duty in the ranks”. A Pioneer Sergeant also served with the Headquarters who commanded ten Pioneers. There were also seventeen Signallers, commanded by a Sergeant and Corporal, sixteen Stretcher Bearers and two Orderlies who helped the Medical Officer. When an infantry battalion was mobilized, its band was broken up and these Bandsmen were usually used as Stretcher Bearers.
There were also a small number of men attached to the battalion serving with the headquarters. There was a Corporal and four Privates from the Royal Army Medical Corps on water sanitary duties, an Armourer from the Army Ordnance Corps and four Drivers from the Army Service Corps.
Machine Gun Section
A Machine Gun Section consisted of two machine guns and sixteen men commanded by either a Lieutenant or Second Lieutenant. There was one Sergeant, one Corporal, twelve Privates, two Drivers and a Batman for the officer. The first posthumous Victoria Cross of the First World War was awarded to Lieutenant Maurice Dease who was in command of the Machine Gun Section of the 4th Battalion The Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment) at Mons on 23 August 1914.
Lieutenant Maurice Dease who was killed in action at Mons on 23 August 1914 while in command of his Battalion’s Machine Gun Section. This photograph appeared in The Sphere which is an excellent newspaper to search for officers who died in the war. This paper has been digitized and can be searched on FindmyPast.
Companies were usually lettered A to D, W to Z or numbered 1 to 4. A company contained 227 officers and men and was commanded by a Major or Captain. Six officers served with a company, with the second-in-command a Captain, then there were four platoons each commanded by a Lieutenant or Second Lieutenant. Each company had a Company Sergeant-Major, Company Quartermaster-sergeant and eight Sergeants. Then there were four drummers or buglers, ten Corporals and 188 Privates. There were also three Drivers for the transport and six Batmen for the officers. A company was subdivided into four platoons. These would be numbered 1 to 4 in A Company, 5 to 8 in B Company and so on. Each platoon would then finally subdivide into the smallest unit, the Section, containing twelve men led by a Non-commissioned Officer. So a battalion contained:
One Battalion, One Headquarters, One Machine Gun Section, Four Companies, Sixteen Platoons, Sixty-four Sections.
Below is an example of the strength of a Battalion taken from the war diary of the 4th Battalion The Royal Scots Fusiliers. In a Battalion’s war diary, the strength of the unit will often be written, especially after it has taken part in a battle.
20 May 1915 – Liverpool – 1 to 4 am – Embarked on SS Mauretania. Officers 30, Warrant Officers 7, Sergeants 45, Rank and File 909. Total all ranks 982. 1 Officer and 1 Sergeant, 56 Rank and File, including 8 L.D. Train Army Service Corps drivers left at Stirling to follow with horses on another transport.
An Infantry Battalion’s Transport and Horses
An infantry battalion’s establishment didn’t just contain soldiers, as there were thirteen riding horses, twenty-six draught horses, eight heavy draught horses and nine pack horses. The draught and pack horses helped to pull twenty-five carts and wagons which included four containing small arms ammunition (.303), a Maltese cart full of medical equipment, a water cart and four travelling kitchens. There were also nine bicycles for the battalion’s signallers serving with the Headquarters.