Definitions

old contemptibles

British Expeditionary Force

The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was the British army sent to the Western Front in France and Belgium on the outbreak of World War I. The BEF was established by Secretary of State for War Richard Haldane following the Second Boer War in case the United Kingdom ever needed to quickly deploy a force to take part in an overseas war.

The same name was later given to the British Forces in Europe from 1939–1940 during World War II.

World War I

See also: British Expeditionary Force order of battle (1914)

The term "British Expeditionary Force" is often used to refer only to the forces present in France prior to the end of the First Battle of Ypres, 22 November 1914; the surviving members of these forces were later awarded the Mons Star. An alternative endpoint of the BEF was 26 December 1914, when it was divided into the First and Second Armies (a third, fourth and fifth being created later in the war). However, the name remained the official designation of the British Army in France and Flanders throughout the First World War.

The force got its nickname the 'Old Contemptibles' from a supposed 'Order of the Day' for 19 August 1914 issued by Kaiser Wilhelm.

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 all your skill and all the valour of my soldiers to exterminate first the treacherous English [and] walk over General French's contemptible little army.

The Kaiser had apparently described the force as "contemptibly little", referring to its size, but it got reported as "contemptible". The name stuck and the BEF proudly referred to themselves as the 'Old Contemptibles'.

No evidence of such an order was ever found in the German archives after the war, and the ex-Kaiser denied having said it:

On the contrary, I continually emphasised the high value of the British Army, and often, indeed, in peace-time gave warning against underestimating it.

The order was, it seems, created by Frederick Maurice in the British War Office for propaganda purposes. (Reference: Nigel Rees citing Arthur Ponsonby, Falsehood in War-Time, 1928.)

World War II

Following the German invasion of Poland in 1939, the British Expeditionary Force was sent to the Franco-Belgian border. By May 1940, when the German attack began, it consisted of ten infantry divisions in three corps (I, II, and III), 1st Army Tank Brigade and a RAF detachment of about 500 aircraft, the BEF Air Component. Also in France was a separate long-range RAF force, the Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF). Commanded by General Lord Gort, although constituting only a tenth of the defending Allied force it sustained heavy losses during the German advance and most of the remainder (roughly 330,000 men) were evacuated from Dunkirk between May 26 and June 4, 1940, leaving much of their equipment behind. However, the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division was left behind at Saint-Valéry-en-Caux, as it was not trapped by the Germans at the time; it surrendered along with elements of the French 10th Army later in June. The short lived second Expeditionary Force commanded by General Alan Brooke was evacuated from Western France during Operation Ariel.

For the order of battle, see British Expeditionary Force order of battle (1940)

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