F.R. Phelan


Editor’s Note: In British Logistics on the Western Front, 1914–1919 (Praeger, 1998), Ian M. Brown documents the problems of maintaining an army in the field; throughout that war, supply lines were strained to get food, equipment and ammunition forward. Early problems of adequate supplies were replaced by an inability to get the items from depots to where they were required. Some of these latter problems were blamed on “establishments” and other force-structure problems caused by stripping logistical-support units to meet the manpower needs of the fighting units. The decision to dramatically reduce the size of the BEF divisions in France helped reduced pressures. By stripping a battalion out of each brigade, and using the men freed as replacements, the BEF maintained its paper strength in divisions (though, in fact, the strength went considerably down) and, more importantly, also reduced its overall logistical requirements. But, as Brown writes:

The Canadian Corps successfully resisted this “downsizing” as its commander opposed the reduction vehemently. In fact, he managed to increase the effective size and strength of his divisions by using the manpower from the two [sic] Canadian divisions forming in Britain. This gave Haig a single very strong corps—four overstrength divisions amounting to some one hundred thousand men (forty-eight thousand infantry)—but it also gave his administration a supply problem, since the standard divisional pack could not supply a Canadian division. In spite of this trouble, it did not appear to cause great difficulty on the lines of communication. Indeed, it gets no mention in either the QMG’s or AG’s diaries.... (pp.165-166)

Buried in this passage lay two secrets. The four-battalion brigades perhaps (too simply?) explain the use of the Canadian Corps as Haig’s “shock troops.” But as Brown notes, how the Canadians maintained these larger formations is not clear from British sources (p. 177). The answer to this secret must be sought elswhere. One answer in F.R. Phelan’s “tumpline.”