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Regiments of the British Army

The word ‘Regiment’ appears to date from Middle English, being derived from Old French for the word rule. The use of regiments within the British Army apparently originates from the early 1600’s to mean a formed body of troops.

The formation of a professional army in the United Kingdom pre-dates the act of Union in 1707, originating from the days of the English Civil War. The Parliamentary Army suffered badly in the early battle of the war, so the decision was taken to form a professional standing force, called the New Model Army. Prior to this date, troops were raised for specific campaigns by the monarchy or their supporters. Landowners could raise regiments of men from within their own property or lands. When the monarchy returned to the throne of England, King Charles II formed a Standing Army in 1661.

The size of regiments varied and they were usually titled after the name of their Colonel. Regiments were formed and disbanded as the needs of the state dictated. If the Colonel of the regiment changed, then the name of the regiment itself would change. Of course, if two different Colonels had the same names, that would add to the confusion. In 1751, a Royal Warrant decreed that all regiments would be known by their number, and not by the Colonel’s name. The number was allocated on the basis of seniority, or date of being raised. The numbers were consecutive, ranking the regiments of the line. In fact, the numbering of regiments had commenced in 1694, and from 1743, another Royal Warrant had decreed that the number of the regiment was to be displayed on the Colours.

The 1751 Royal Warrant did allow some regiments to retain titles or distinctions that had already become in mainstream usage for that regiment. Examples were the 3 Regiment of Foot (The Buffs), which had gained the title because of the colour of the coats the soldiers wore, or The Queen’s (Second) Royal Regiment of Foot. Often there was a difference between the official names of some regiments and their colloquial names.

The first geographic link with counties or cities came in 1782. Regiments that developed geographic links began to establish regimental depots within their areas, and recruited locally wherever possible. The Cavalry regiments were numbered likewise, but were also distinguished by the nature of their role. The term ‘Dragoons’ had been used for soldiers on horseback who used a firearm, usually a shortened musket. It is believed that as these guns produced fire out of the barrel, they were called ‘Dragons’ in France, with the term being corrupted to become ‘Dragoons’ in English. The Dragoon Guards were numbered in a separate series to the rest of the cavalry.

The term Hussars had originated in Hungary as the name for their light cavalry. The light cavalry were seen as dashing, armed with the sabre, to exploit the flanks and ride through successful heavy cavalry and infantry attacks. Modern Lancers originated in Poland, and as their names implies, they were seen as heavy cavalry armed with the lance.

The British Army was deemed to have performed poorly during the Crimean War of 1853 – 1856, and the Indian Mutiny of 1857. A Royal Commission was established in 1858, which reported in 1862. Like many commissions, few of its recommendations were implemented, as there was significant resistance to many of the proposed changes.

The appointment in 1868 of Edward CARDWELL, as the Secretary of State for War, was the catalyst for change. He abolished flogging and other forms of corporal punishment in 1868, and the following year required self-governing colonies to raise their own armed forces. In 1870, bounty money was also abolished, and other changes to recruitment made. In the same year, the Army Enlistment (Short Service) Act was introduced to allow revised terms of enlistment and the formation of a Reserve.

In 1871, the major reforms of the British Army regiments commenced, with regiments being allocated specific geographic areas for recruiting and Depot purposes. The sale of commissions was abolished, and the War Office reformed. In practice, as the size of the counties varied, so recruitment varied between regiments. Most of the county regiments had to recruit from the urban centres of the United Kingdom. This was especially prevalent in the 1920’s and 30’s, due to the difficult economic conditions at the time.

In 1881, the then Secretary of State for War, Hugh CHILDERS continued with the reforms. It was in 1881 that the system of infantry regiments was introduced that persisted until 1948 (and until very recently in modified terms). From 1881 onwards, each infantry regiment had two Regular Army infantry battalions, with the exception of some regiments that recruited from the large industrial cities, which had four. These four battalion regiments were (1939 titles):

The Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment) – until 1922;
The Royal Northumberland Fusiliers – until 1907;
The King’s Regiment (Liverpool) – until 1901;
The Royal Warwickshire Regiment – until 1907;
The Lancashire Fusiliers – until 1906;
The King’s Royal Rifle Corps – until 1922;
The Middlesex Regiment – until 1922;
The Worcestershire Regiment – until 1922;
The Manchester Regiment – until 1906;
The Rifle Brigade (Prince Consort’s Own) – until 1922.

One of the Regular Army battalions was to serve overseas, whilst the other was to remain in the United Kingdom. Each regiment also had at least one Militia (or Supplementary Reserve) battalion, and at least one Territorial Force battalion converted from the former volunteer regiments in that area. It was in this format that the British Army fought the South African War, and the Great War (First World War).

The cessation of hostilities in the First World War in November 1918 did not allow an immediate reduction in the size or commitments in the British Army. There was the requirement to garrison parts of Germany, leading to the formation of the British Army of the Rhine. British troops were sent to North Russia to fight alongside the White Russians against the Bolshevik revolution from 1918 until 1920, and the Third Afghan War broke out in 1919 on the North West Frontier of India. There was a large commitment to Ireland, where the fight for independence had commenced in 1916.

By 1921, the Irish Free State (Eire) was established, and five British Army regiments that recruited from Southern Ireland were disbanded. These five regiments were:

The Connaught Rangers;
The Prince of Wales’s Leinster Regiment (Royal Canadians);
The Royal Dublin Fusiliers;
The Royal Irish Regiment;
Royal Munster Fusiliers.

The remaining infantry regiments with four Regular Army battalions were reduced down to two in 1922. The cavalry regiments were reorganised with several regiments merged against their will in 1921 and 1922. The Royal Regiment of Artillery was restructed in 1924, and the Royal Corps of Signals established in 1922. All these changes took time to settle down, but, by 1930 the British Army was back to a peacetime establishment and culture.

Limited rearmament commenced in 1932 with the slow increase in the anti-aircraft artillery in the British Army, but it was not until 1936 when a more significant increase in anti-aircraft artillery began. In consequence, to two Territorial Army divisions converted to anti-aircraft divisions. The appointment of Leslie HORE-BELISHA as Secretary of State for War in 1937 (replacing DUFF-COOPER) was a key factor in the development of the British Army. At the time, the policy of the U.K. Government was appeasement of Nazi Germany, but HORE-BELISHA drove through several key improvements in conditions of service, and developments in arms and services.

As is often the case with change in an organisation, there was some resistence, and HORE-BELISHA was often subject to criticism (mainly due suspicions regarding his Jewish faith). His relationship with some senior Army officers became difficult, this being exacerbated by the appointment of the relatively junior General GORT as Chief of the Imperial General Staff over more senior officers. In spite of his determination to modernise the British Army, HORE-BELISHA was replaced as Secretary of State for War in January 1940 after disagreements with Lord GORT over the ‘pillbox affair’.

Despite some modernisation and mechanisation prior to the opening of the Second World War on the 3 September 1939 (in respect of the United Kingdom), the British Army was not prepared for the outbreak of hostilities. The differences in the modern warfare of 1939, as opposed to those encountered with the end of the First World War only some twenty-one years earlier, had to be learned the hard way.

Further information on each of the units and formations can be found in the sections as below:

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