There is no such thing as the British Army, only a confederation of regiments, hopefully fighting on the same side, all preserving their individuality by being as different from one another as possible.
This observation from a journalist in the twentieth century is as true today as any time in the last 300 years. The enjoyable study of the different regiments that go to make up the British Army may be linked to that shared by collectors of stamps, coins, butterflies, etc. - a fascination with varieties. Regiments and their uniforms had a high profile in the first half of the twentieth century and I have fond memories of glistening soldiers lined up on toy-shop shelves in the grey 1950s, all gleaming red coats and white belts. In time toy soldiers gave way to model soldiers and war games on tables, but in the 1970s war games on fields, courtesy of forming historical re-enactment societies, took us to a new level of appreciation - the Sealed Knot's atmospheric re-creation of the Battle of Naseby drew armies and spectators approaching actual battle strength. Every period in history is represented by these admirable groups, which camp, cook and fight true to the ways of their chosen forefathers, and enthral crowds at home and abroad with their knowledge and skills.
A teenage craze for Napoleon's Grande Armée gradually drifted back to British regiments and their colourful forms shot through with stubborn inconsistencies. Regimental customs seemed to be an aspect that should not be overlooked in any study of this kind, but collecting them proved to be difficult. For practices that can only be seen behind the barrack wall I have had to rely on inside information, and thanks must go to all the regimental secretaries and curators whose correspondence over the past twenty-five years has been so necessary in compiling this book.
Definitions of the word 'regiment' rarely mention the qualities that give, and have given, an identity to the many soldiers whose own regiment was the only family they ever knew.
In an article written in 1989 by a secretary who had 'temped' for the army in Winchester, we are reassured of the idea of the regiment as a family:
The walk across the parade ground, down to the drill square and round the dormitory block was always interesting. There might be a PT display, band practice or parade, and everywhere was scrupulously clean. After the unconsciously accepted litter and filth of everyday life (even in a cathedral city), it was a shock to the system, the order and cleanliness. In the office it was the same; streamlined, efficient, cost-effective, intelligent... There was genuine comradeship between the men, regardless of rank or age or background; between officers and raw troopers probably away from home for the first time; between old comrades from both wars, their widows and children, the would-be officers hoping to join the Royal Hussars once they'd finished at Sandhurst. One and all were held warm and firm in the regimental embrace.
The earliest form of defence in the British Isles depended on villagers and townspeople, who could be called out from their work in times of emergency, but regulated bodies like the Saxon fyrd and the medieval Posse comitatus may be viewed as the seeds of a British army.
Two London volunteer corps of the sixteenth century, the Honourable Artillery Company (HAC) and the Inns of Court Regiment, managed to maintain a fairly continual existence through to the twentieth century, when they became a reliable source of officers for the army in the two world wars. The HAC was raised through a Charter of Incorporation granted by Henry VIII and remains today as a senior regiment of the Territorial Army, uniquely divided with its artillery and infantry sections. The Inns of Court Regiment was founded in 1584 to help protect London against Spanish invasion, and was embodied thereafter in times of emergency. In 1790 it was listed as the Bloomsbury and Inns of Court Volunteers, and in 1860 came through again as the 14th Middlesex (Inns of Court) Volunteer Rifle Corps.
The trained bands of Tudor England were made up of able-bodied men, the best known being the Tower Hamlets Militia, headed by the Constable of the Tower of London. From the trained bands came the county militia, companies of men pressed for readiness to be called up in the defence of their country. The Monmouthshire Militia, which can trace its history back to 1539, also survived the ups and downs of service in peace and war over the centuries and heads the Territorial Army list today.
The musters and drill exercises of the Militia lapsed around 1604 and were not revived again until 1648, at the height of the Civil War. This bitter conflict produced Cromwell's New Model Army, which is often regarded as the origin of the British Army, although Parliament's regiments were disbanded with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Two of them were reengaged in the King's service, however, and live on today in the Guards.
Civil War re-enactment society in the dress of the New Model Army
Two regiments first formed in Scotland under Charles I survived the rigours of seventeenth-century intrigues to be accepted into the army under James II: the Royal Scots and the Scots Guards.
Charles II was the first King of England to keep his regiments banded in peacetime, though he was obliged to class them as his Guards and Garrisons in order to appease a Parliament deeply suspicious of standing armies in the aftermath of the Civil War. His Guards have survived to the present day and their beginnings mark the birth of the army. When Charles took for his bride the daughter of the King of Portugal he acquired by dowry the Portuguese colonies of Tangier and Bombay. Protecting the North African port of Tangier gave the King an opportunity to raise a garrison from which the army gained its 1st Regiment of Dragoons and its 2nd of Foot.
Temporary regiments warranted for home defence in the Dutch Maritime Wars of the 1660s included marines and soldiers recalled from Dutch service. Marine regiments were formed in 1664, 1690, 1702 and 1739, and the permanent Royal Marines were founded under the Admiralty in 1755.
Professional soldiers who had sailed for the Low Countries to fight for the Dutch were required to undergo a test of loyalty during the Maritime Wars, and from those who elected to return to England at this time a regiment was made which was to become famous as The Buffs. A brigade that had gone to Dutch service in 1674 returned with William of Orange in 1688 to be secured as the 5th and 6th Regiments of the line.
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