History of British Army Infantry Regiments

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This article was contributed by Jim Parker. Other editors may have made some minor additions or alterations to the original text.

The British Army is said to have dated from the reign of Charles II in 1660 but some regiments were raised during the Civil War or earlier. The following comments are with regard to infantry regiments, and not the Guards, Cavalry or support arms.

The early regiments were raised and named after their commander, such Lord Geoff Smith’s Regiment of Foot, or Colonel Parker’s Regiment of Foot. The regiment’s name changed with a change of command. Naming units after their commander could become complicated. Redcoat’s jackets had turn down collars, and turned back cuffs, these were referred to as “facings”. The colour of a regiment’s facing were largely whatever the Colonel wanted. On one famous campaign there were two regiments, each with a Colonel called Howard. Thus one was called Howard’s Buff and the other Howard’s Green. These two regiments became known as the Buffs and the Green Howards.

In 1751 all infantry regiments of the line were numbered. Great effort was taken to ensure the regiments were numbered in order of their original formation. The 1st Regiment of Foot being what we would recognise as the Royal Scots. The 2nd Foot was what years later was known as the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment), the 3rd Foot – the Buffs. (The Green Howards were - the 19th Foot).

Regiments received various titles and sub-titles. Some regiments were raised, numbered and later disbanded. Thus two of the famous English regiments that later became Light Infantry were raised as the 53rd Foot in 1755 and renumbered the 51st, whilst the other raised as the 55th Foot was renumbered the 53rd Foot.

The 95th Foot chose to drop its number and proudly boasted being thus the junior regiment of the line.

In India in 1857 the native troops serving as part of the Honourable East India Company staged a mutiny. After which, the infantry regiments of that organisation were brought onto the British Army books. (Not I might add popular with former John Company officers and men). These regiments were numbered the 101st to 109th Foot (with other titles and sub-titles).

The regiment nominated as the 103rd Foot was furious, as it claimed to have been in existence prior to the Royal Scots, and therefore thought it should be numbered the 1st Foot!

The Cardwell Reforms c 1881

Thus at the time of the Cardwell Reforms, the British Army had 109 regiments, although the first 25 (or so) regiments had two battalions.

The British Army’s main role was the defence of the UK, but its practical and enduring role was defending the various stations of the Empire. Cardwell thought that at least half the Army’s battalions should be stationed in the UK, although whilst there it need not necessarily be up to strength. The other half at full strength served where required around the world.

The first 25 regiments had two battalions, and Cardwell forced the remainder of the infantry regiments to be formed into two battalion regiments. There were 66 recruiting regions in the United Kingdom and each regiment was linked to, and given a name associated with, that region. Thus, the Royal Scots (The Lothian Regiment), 13th Foot became Prince Albert’s (Somerset Light Infantry) and the 50th and 97th Foot became the Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent) Regiment.

Some regiment had strong links with their “new” recruiting areas – the 47th (Lancashire) Regt of Foot and the 81st (Loyal Lincolnshire) Regt of Foot became the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. 32nd (Cornwall LI) and the 46th (South Devonshire) became the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry.

Famously the 99th Foot, a Scottish regiment, became the 2nd Battalion the Wiltshire Regiment.

When Cardwell informed the Scottish 91st and 93rd Regiment of Foot they were to be joined, there were riots in Scotland. Scottish MPs in the Houses of Parliament came to blows! What was this new regiment? The 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

The former East India Company Army regiments were raised to serve in the Indian sub-continent, and had no connection with the UK whatsoever! The 101st and 104th Foot became the 1st & 2nd Battalions of the Royal Munster Fusiliers, the 102nd and 103rd became the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

105th Foot joined the 51st (2nd Yorkshire, West Riding) Regiment to form the KOYLI. The 106th Foot joined the 68th (DLI) Regiment to form the DLI.

The general idea was that whilst one of the linked battalions served in the UK, the other served in India or wherever; the one in the UK ensuring the one abroad was kept up to strength.

It would be true to say that many Counties and Towns made very little connections to “their” regiment until the First World War. For example, the authorities in County Durham tried every way possible to prevent the building of a Depot for the new regiment on their land. Eventually due to the opposition, the regimental depot was placed in Fenham Barrack, in Northumberland.

The British Army was not quite prepared for its next major conflict, and many faults were revealed in the Boer War in South Africa. One more serious reform was to take place in and around 1908 to prepare it for the 1914/18 war. These reforms were forced on the Army by Richard Haldane his impression is with us even until today

Haldane Reforms

In early 1900s the Liberal Party was voted into power. It is ironic that the party whose name proclaims liberalism was, due to the war, to impose opening hours, conscription and other draconian laws on the British public.

Richard Haldane, an academic who had never served in the Armed Forces in any capacity was made Minster of War. His changes in the British Army were, as it turned ou,t to prepare it for the massive war that was to come. The Army and its supporters as usual fought tooth and nail against the changes. Today we see these changes as having been necessary and fortuitous.

Schools and universities were encouraged to have Officer Cadet Training on campus, this was to ensure a steady supply of officers for the Army.

The Militia was an organisation of amateur and ex-regular troops which was often used to allow men to enlist for a few weeks, before deciding they wished to enlist long-term. Haldane changed this organisation root and branch. It became the Special Reserve, part and parcel of every infantry regiment. Whereas ex-regular soldiers were on the reserve and eligible to be recalled, the Special Reserve would in time of war mobilise with the intention of training or retraining recruits for the regular army and supply their regular battalions with reinforcements. If the regiment had two regular battalions, the Special Reserve became the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion of the regiment.

The Volunteers were local part time military units. They wore fancy uniforms and were often regarded as drinking or social clubs. Haldane linked the volunteers with the regular and special reserve battalions. The volunteers became in effect part of the regiment. The name of the new organisation was the Territorial Force. If the regiment had two regular battalions and one special reserve battalion, the senior territorial battalion became the 4th Battalion. Some regiments had only one TF battalion others had half a dozen.

There was much opposition to these changes and it took Haldane some time, and he used much diplomacy, to get them through parliament. He had to agree that TF soldiers could not be forced to serve overseas, and that TF units that volunteered would train for six months before being deployed.

Under Haldane’s control even the organisation within an infantry battalion was changed.

Until about 1908 an infantry battalion of about 1,000 strong was arranged into eight companies (“A” to “H” Companies) each of about 100 strong under a Captain, with a Company Sergeant Major who wore three stripes and crown insignia on his arm.

The changes were as follows: Companies would double in size by uniting two of the “old “ Companies. The senior Captain was promoted to Major and the junior Captain became the Company Second in Command. The former senior CSM became the new unit’s Company Sergeant Major with a new badge - a crown worn on the cuff. The junior CSM retained his old badge of rank and became the Company Quartermaster Sergeant. His role was to act as the company’s Quartermaster and Pay Sergeant.

On the outbreak of war in 1914 many regular and TF units had not adopted the new system. Richard Haldane refused to return as Minister of War, and it was then the Government asked Lord Kitchener to assume the role.

See also

List of British Army Infantry Regiments

External Links

List of Regiments of Foot Wikipedia
Forlorn Hope Excellent website with two indexes to help you find which British regiment was where and when they were there.