The Infantry Company was the basic unit of manoeuvre in an Infantry Battalion at the opening of the 20th Century. Combat experience in the First World War led to massive reorganizations, and by 1939, with the introduction of light yet powerful support weapons, the company had been transformed into a flexible and effective organization with several subunits under command.
During the South Africa War, the Second (Special Service) Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment rarely split into tactical sub-units, according to Captain Michael O'Leary who has studied the question of infantry sections in depth. An infantry company at that time consisted of 125 men, 3 or 4 of whom were officers, with no warrant officers and only four sergeants as senior NCOs. There were four corporals and seven Lance Corporals authorized, but the unit drilled as a company, and went into action as such. The NCOs "had administrative and training responsibilities, but did not exercise independent tactical command over groups of men."
First World War
In 1914 the basic unit of maneuver was the 150-man company, and while platoons existed they were used mainly for administrative purposes, often with no permanent leader. Pre-war manuals divided the company into a firing-line and supports. The goal was not to win firefights, but “to bring such a superiority of fire to bear on the enemy as to make the advance to close quarters possible.” Battles were to be finished with the bayonet, not the musketry that was their pride.
A classic example of this doctrine was the Canadian assault on Kitcheners' Wood on 21-22 Apr 1915. Two battalions formed company waves on a frontage of just 300 yards as per the manual, each wave two companies strong with two ranks twenty yards apart. Thirty yards separated each of the four waves. They were trained to advance at walking pace, arm's length apart; the company commander's whistle would bring them shoulder-to-shoulder, firing "two rounds rapid" from the hip before charging home with cold steel. They had practiced this on Salisbury Plain for weeks. "No one questioned its practicality in the face of massed machine-gun fire." (Dancocks, Gallant Canadians)
They set off in darkness over 400 yards of open ground. The advance stopped halfway at a tall wire-strewn hedge. There had been no time for reconnaissance, and now none for stealth. Noisily bashing through, when alerted German machine gunners in the Wood opened fire, the men charged. Both units intermixed in a frenzied assault similar to that of the ill-disciplined Highlanders at Culloden 169 years before. It was all over in under fifteen minutes. Both battalions had mustered 1600 men at the start line; six hours later, with the Germans driven out and counter-attacks beaten off, only 461 were left able to fight.
Reluctance to change was well-illustrated on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme and even though some divisions performed very well on a day that 60,000 men were killed or wounded, institutional resistance was still a force to be reckoned with.
On 17 May 1916, the commander of the Fourth British Army, General, Rawlinson had issued a pamphlet on Tactical Notes, directing that it be read by all ranks down to company commander level.
But according to Martin Middlebrook, in his book First Day on the Somme the British were starting to learn by then; the following examples all come from that same 1 July 1916 attack that had been so costly over so much of the front:
Two and a half months later, training memos still announced that the company was the basic unit of attack. Even if the solution of smaller tactical entities had been obvious, there was a severe shortage of leadership; casualties among junior officers and senior NCOs were terrifyingly high. Nonetheless, in the months following the Somme, the British and Canadians
Companies were formed into four platoons on a permanent basis, further divided into four squads. Officers, sergeants, and even corporal squad leaders were permanently assigned. HMGs went into specialized units, replaced in the infantry battalions by the Lewis Gun - one per platoon by 1917. One squad in the platoon would carry the heavy Lewis along with its bulky ammunition pans. The second squad specialized in grenades, a third in rifle grenades, and the fourth were riflemen.
This organization remained unchanged until war's end.
Second World War
The fighting strength of the infantry battalion lay in its four rifle companies, called A, B, C, and D. At the start of the war, they were also referred to phonetically as Ack, Beer, Cork and Don, until the British phonetic alphabet was replaced with the American alphabet midway through the war, after which they were referred to as Able, Baker, Charlie and Dog companies.
Each of the four companies were identical in composition (on paper).
Listed below is a typical company establishment. By 1944, the snipers were removed from the company and put into a seperate Scout and Sniper Platoon under the command of a Scout Officer.