History of the British Army

History of the British Army

The history of the British Army spans over three and a half centuries and numerous European wars, colonial wars and world wars. From the early 19th century until 1914, the United Kingdom was the greatest economic and Imperial Power in the world, and although this dominance was principally achieved through the strength of the British Royal Navy, the British Army played a significant role.

In peacetime, Britain has generally maintained only a small professional Volunteer army, expanding this as required in time of war, due to Britain's traditional role as a sea power. Since 1745, the army has played little or no role in British domestic politics, and, other than in Ireland, has seldom been deployed against internal threats.

The Army has been involved in many global international conflicts, including the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War and the two World Wars. Historically, it contributed to the expansion and retention of the British Empire. The 1990s saw the Army become increasingly involved in multi-national peacekeeping work and this has continued into the 21st century.

The British Army has long been at the forefront of new military developments. It was the first to develop and deploy the tank, and what is now the Royal Air Force had its origins within the British army. At the same time the Army emphasises the continuity and longevity of several of its institutions and military traditions.


The British Army came into being with the merger of the Scottish Army and the English Army, following the unification of the two countries' parliaments and the creation of the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. The new British Army incorporated existing English and Scottish regiments, and was controlled from London.

Before this event, the essential nature of the British army as a body which was entirely at the service of the Government and not involved in the appointment of that Government, had been determined by prolonged conflict and argument within both countries.

Tudor and Stuart organisation

Prior to the English Civil War in 1642, there was effectively no standing army in Scotland. In England, the monarch maintained a personal Bodyguard of Yeomen of the Guard and the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms or 'gentlemen pensioners', and a few locally raised companies to garrison important places such as Berwick on Tweed or Portsmouth (or Calais before it was recaptured by France in 1558). Troops for foreign expeditions were raised upon an ad-hoc basis in either country by its King, when required. This was a development of the feudal concept of fief (in which a lord was obliged to raise a certain quota of knights, men-at-arms and yeomanry, in return for his right to occupy land).

In practice, noblemen and professional regular soldiers were commissioned by the monarch to supply troops, raising their quotas by indenture from a variety of sources. A Commission of Array would be used to raise troops for a foreign expedition, while various Militia Acts directed that (in theory) the entire male population who owned property over a certain amount in value, was required to keep arms at home and periodically train or report to musters. The musters were usually chaotic affairs, used mainly by the Lord Lieutenants and other officers to draw their pay and allowances, and by the troops as an excuse for a drink after perfunctory drill.

After the English Tudor queen, Elizabeth I, died childless, the Scottish Stuart, King James VI, found himself also King James I of England, and moved to London. His heir, Charles I, found himself embroiled in war over his attempt to rule England without a Parliament. Ultimately, the quarrel led to the English Civil War. Initially, both King and Parliament attempted to make use of the existing Militia or Trained bands, but except for the London Trained Bands which Parliament could usually count upon as an important trained reserve, these pre-existing organisations were superseded by regiments raised and organised on the pattern of the Dutch or Swedish military system as used in the Thirty Years War on the Continent.

Civil War, Commonwealth and Restoration

After two years of ruinous but indecisive military campaigning, Parliament created the New Model Army, the first professional standing army in British history. From its foundation, the Army adopted social and religious policies which were increasingly at odds with those of Parliament. The Army's senior officers (the "Grandees") formed another faction, opposed both to Parliament and to the more extreme radicals (Levellers and dissenting Nonconformist sects) within the lower ranks. (To an extent, Parliament had brought about this situation by enacting the Self-denying Ordinance, by which members of both Houses of Parliament were deprived of military office, a measure originally introduced to replace some high-ranking officers who were suspected of disloyalty or defeatism.) After the English Civil War ended with the defeat of the Royalists, Parliament tried to reassert its control over the Army but could not sustain its authority. The Army mutinied, and started to march on London, the seat of power.

In 1648, the Second English Civil War began, the New Model Army routed English royalist insurrections in Surrey and Kent and in Wales before crushing a Scottish invasion force at the Battle of Preston.

In the aftermath of the war, Parliament was made subservient to the wishes of the Army Council — whose leading political figure was Oliver Cromwell — by excluding from Parliament, members of the House of Commons opposed to the Army Council, in an episode known as Pride's Purge. The resulting Rump Parliament passed the necessary legislation to have King Charles I tried and executed by beheading and to declare England a commonwealth.

When the Scots proclaimed his son, also named Charles Stuart, King of Scots on 4 February 1649, the Third Civil War was ignited. The New Model Army under the command of Cromwell invaded Scotland in an attempt to depose Charles. The Scots were beaten at the Dunbar but while the New Model Army was subduing Scotland north of the River Forth, Charles II led a Scottish army south into England. Cromwell left some forces in Scotland, to continue to pacify the country, and followed Charles South. Both armies gained reinforcements as they moved south. Charles gained only a fraction of the Royalists he had hoped for and when Cromwell attacked him at the Battle of Worcester his army was decisively beaten, those Scots who surrendered were shipped to English colonies in America, effectively as slaves, and Charles himself only escaped to France after several weeks on the run as a fugitive in England.

Scotland was annexed into the English Commonwealth under the terms of the Tender of Union, and when Cromwell dissolved the Rump Parliament in on 20 April 1653, ending the first English Commonwealth and ushering in the Protectorate Scotland and Ireland remained under military occupation. From August 1655 – January 1657 Cromwell instituted the Rule of the Major Generals for England and Wales. The impact of military rule under the Major-Generals varied from region to region, they were successful in curbing security threats to the Protectorate, but the repressiveness of enforced moral reform was widely unpopular.

Following Cromwell's death, the Restoration of Charles II saw the immediate reconstitution of England, Scotland and Ireland as separate realms, and the disbandment of the New Model Army. Both factions in the Cavalier Parliament expressed a distaste and distrust of a standing army. The Whigs (the descendants of the parliamentarians) feared that the monarch might use it as an instrument of tyranny while the Tories (the descendants of the cavaliers) remembered that the New Model Army had forced through a social revolution and had confiscated their property. It was felt that there was no need for a standing army, for the first line of defence was surely the Royal Navy, and the second the militia. These prejudices dominated domestic politics until the early 19th century.

From the Restoration to the "Glorious Revolution"

However, some kind of professional force soon reappeared. On January 26 1661 Charles II issued the Royal Warrant that created the genesis of what would become the "British Army", although the Scottish and English Armies would remain two separate organisations until the unification of England and Scotland in 1707. The small force was represented by only a few regiments. One was the Royal Scots (now part of the Royal Regiment of Scotland), which had its genesis in the force that served his father, and recruited from Scots soldiers formerly in service with the Swedes and French. This was the oldest infantry regiment in the British army (known as "Pontius Pilate's Bodygard"). Other regiments were raised to garrison Tangiers, which was the Queen's dowry.

After Charles died, it was feared that Charles's brother James was attempting to use the Army to retain power in the face of Parliamentary opposition and even impose Roman Catholicism. In the event, the Army's officers sided with the common feeling, and took no action to prevent the accession of William of Orange. In an effort to control the powers of the monarch, the English Parliament passed the Bill of Rights 1689 to prevent a standing army in peacetime without the consent of Parliament. (To this day, annual continuation notices are required for the British Army to remain legal. On paper, this also guarantees representative government, as Parliament must meet at least once a year to ratify the Order in Council renewing the Army Act (1955) [http://www.statutelaw.gov.uk/legResults.aspx?LegType=All+Legislation&title=Army+Act&Year=1955&searchEnacted=0&extentMatchOnly=0&confersPower=0&blanketAmendment=0&TYPE=QS&NavFrom=0&activeTextDocId=2675303&PageNumber=1&SortAlpha=0 ] for a further year.)

The effect of these constitutional developments was to ensure that the Army was under the control of the Government. The Monarch might be titular Commander in Chief, but could not order the army to perform any unconstitutional act. (The last King to lead his troops into battle was George II at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743.) As another measure to avoid a dangerous concentration of power in the hands of any one person, responsibility for the various branches of the army and its administration were deliberately assigned to different high officials.

Eighteenth century


By the middle of the century, the army's administration had developed the form which it would retain for almost a century. Ultimately, the main bodies responsible for the army were:
* The War Office was responsible for day-to-day administration of the army, and the cavalry and infantry;
* The Board of Ordnance was responsible for the supply of weapons and ammunition, and also administered the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers;
* The Commissariat was responsible for the supply of rations and transport. It occasionally raised its own fighting units, such as "battoemen" (armed watermen and pioneers in North America).

None of these bodies were usually represented in the Cabinet, nor were they responsible for overall strategy, which was in the hands of the Secretary of State for War (an office later merged into the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies). The resulting tangled lines of control often greatly hampered efficient operation through and beyond the Napoleonic Wars.

In the field, a commander's staff consisted of an Adjutant General (who handled finance, troop returns and legal matters), and a Quartermaster General (who was responsible for billeting and organising movements). There were separate commanders of the Artillery, and Commissary Officers who handled the supplies. In the field as in peacetime, the conflicting lines of responsibility often caused problems.

Infantry and cavalry units had originally been known by the names of their colonels, such as "Sir John Mordaunt's Regiment of Foot", but in 1751 a numeral system was adopted, with each regiment gaining a number in accordance with their rank in the order of precedence, so John Mordaunt's Regiment became the 47th Regiment of Foot.

The later Jacobite risings were centred in the Scottish Highlands. From the late seventeenth century, the Government had organised independent companies in the area from among clans which supported the Hanoverians or the Whig governments, to maintain order or influence in the Highlands. In 1739 the first full regiment, the 42nd Regiment of Foot, was formed in the region. More were subsequently raised. For many years, highland regiments were to be the most colourful and distinctive units in the British Army, retaining as much as possible of traditional highland dress such as the kilt.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the battalion became the major tactical unit of the army. On the continent of Europe, where large field formations were usual, a regiment was a formation of two or more battalions, under a colonel who was a field commander. The British Army, increasingly compelled to disperse units in far-flung colonial outposts, made the battalion the basic unit, under a lieutenant colonel. The function of the Regiment became administrative rather than tactical. The Colonel of a regiment remained an influential figure but rarely commanded any of its battalions in the field.

Many regiments consisted of one battalion only, plus a depot and recruiting parties in Britain or Ireland if the unit was serving overseas. Where more troops were required for a war or garrison duties, second, third and even subsequent battalions of a regiment were raised, but it was rare for more than one battalion of a regiment to serve in the same brigade or division.

trategy and Role

From the late seventeenth century onwards, the British army was to be deployed in three main areas of conflict, one of which was effectively ended in 1746. The major theatre was often the continent of Europe. Not only did Britain's monarchs have dynastic ties with Holland or Hanover, but Britain's foreign policy often required intervention to maintain a balance of power in Europe (usually at the expense of France).

Within England and especially Scotland, there were repeated attempts by the deposed House of Stewart to regain the throne, leading to severe uprisings. These were often related to European conflict, as the Stuart Pretenders were aided and encouraged by Britain's continental enemies for their own ends. After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, these rebellions were crushed.

Finally, as the British empire expanded, the army was increasingly involved in service in the West Indies, North America and India. Troops were often recruited locally, to lessen the burden on the Army. Sometimes these were part of the British army, for example the 60th (Royal American) Regiment of Foot. On other occasions (as in the case of troops raised by the British East India Company), the local forces were administered separately from the British Army, but cooperated with it.

Troops sent to serve overseas could expect to serve there for years, in an unhealthy climate far removed from the comforts of British society. This led to the army being recruited from among the elements of society with the least stake in it; the very poorest or worst-behaved. The red-coated soldier, "Thomas Lobster", was a much-derided figure.

even Years War

The Seven Years' War, which took part from 1755 to 1763, has sometimes been described as the first true world war, in that conflict took part in almost every continent and on almost all the oceans. Although there were early setbacks, British troops eventually were victorious in every theatre.

Britain's main enemy was France, as was usual. The war can be said to have started in North America, where it was known as the French and Indian War. The early years saw several British defeats. The British units first despatched to the Continent were untrained in the bush warfare they met. To provide light infantry, several corps such as Rogers' Rangers were raised from among the colonists. (A light infantry regiment, Gage's light Infantry, was created as the 80th in seniority in the British Army, but subsequently disbanded). During the war, General James Wolfe amalgamated companies from several regiments into a ad hoc unit, the Louisbourg Grenadiers.

There were also disagreements between high-ranking British officers and the North American colonists. It was laid down that even the most senior Provincial officers were subordinate to comparatively junior officers in the British Army. The first concern of the colonists' representatives was the protection of the settlers from raids by Indian war parties, while the British generals often had different strategic priorities. Partly through the naval superiority gained by the Royal Navy, Britain was eventually able to deploy superior strength in North America, winning a decisive battle at Quebec.

Similarly in India, the French armies and those of the most powerful Indian rulers were defeated after a prolonged struggle, allowing the steady expansion of British-controlled territory.

In Europe, although Britain's allies (chiefly Prussia) carried the main burden of the struggle, British troops eventually played an important role at the decisive Battle of Minden.


The result of this war was to leave Britain as the dominant imperial power in North America, and the only European power east of the Mississippi (although it would return southern Florida to Spain). There was increasing tension between the British government and the American colonists, especially when it was decided to maintain a standing army in North America after the war. For the first time, the British Army would be garrisoned in North America in significant numbers in a time of peace.

With the defeat of France, the British government no longer sought actively to curry the favour of Native Americans. Urgued by his superiors to cut costs, Commander in Chief General Jeffrey Amherst initiated policy changes that helped prompt Pontiac's War in 1763, an uprising against the British military occupation of the former New France. Amherst was recalled during the war and replaced as commander in chief by Thomas Gage, who would serve as commander in chief in North America from 1763 to 1775.

American War of Independence

For the British Army, the American War of Independence had its origins in the military occupation of Boston in 1768. Tensions between the army and local civilians helped contribute to the Boston Massacre of 1770, but outright warfare did not begin until 1775, when an army detachment was sent to seize colonial munitions at Lexington and Concord.

Reinforcements were sent to America to put down what was initially expected to be a short-lived rebellion. Because the British army was understrength at the outset of the war, the British government hired the armed forces of several German states, referred to generically as "Hessians", to fight in North America. As the war dragged on, the ministry also sought to recruit Loyalist soldiers. Five American units (known as the American Establishment, formed in 1779) were placed on the regular army roster, though there were many other Loyalist units.

When the war ended in 1783 with defeat and the independence of the United States, many of the Loyalists fled north to Canada, where many subsequently served with the British Army. The Army itself had established many British units during the war to serve in North America or provide replacements for garrisons. All but three (the 23rd Dragoons and two Highland infantry regiments, the 71st and 78th Foot) were disbanded immediately after the war.

The Army was forced to adapt its tactics to the poor communications and forested terrain of North America. Large numbers of light infantry (detached from line units) were organised, and the formerly rigid drills of the line infantry were modified to a style known as "loose files and an American scramble". While the British defeated the colonists in most of the set-piece battles of the war, none of these had any decisive result, whereas the British defeats at the Battle of Saratoga and Siege of Yorktown adversely affected British morale, prestige and manpower.

Napoleonic Wars


Although the rigid parade-ground tactics were reintroduced after the end of the American War of Independence, by the turn of the 19th century, the Army was beginning to embrace new technology and new tactics. Experience in the American wars led to the introduction of light infantry units and riflemen. These skirmishers allowed a field Army to act in a fluid manner, rather than as rigid formations, which was still the predominant method of fighting during that period.

The first light infantry regiments (the 43rd and 52nd Foot) were converted in 1803, though they were still armed with muskets. An Experimental Corps of Riflemen was formed in 1800, armed with the Baker rifle. It was brought into the line as the 95th Regiment of Foot in 1802 (The Rifle Brigade from 1816). Other rifle-armed units were the 5th Battalion of the 60th Regiment, and some of the light units of the King's German Legion. The rifle-armed units saw extensive service, most prominently in the Peninsular War where the mountainous terrain saw them in their element.

Another new arm introduced in 1794 was the Royal Horse Artillery, created to give artillery support to cavalry formations, and often used to provide an artillery reserve to the army.

During the wars, many émigré units were formed from refugees from countries occupied by France. The largest corps was the King's German Legion. Other units included the Royal Corsican Rangers, further battalions of the 60th Regiment, and two battalions of Greek Light Infantry. The Army also saw service in the War of 1812 against the new United States of America. The Canadas became one of the main theatres of war, and several regular units and full-time militia units were raised in Canada.

Considerable numbers of Irish soldiers also served in the British army during the Napoleonic conflict after the Penal laws were relaxed in 1793.

In some respects the British Army retained its unique characteristics, acquired during its previous experience of campaigning. In others, it borrowed heavily from continental influences. For example, many light cavalry replaced the practical uniform previously used in North America with the fantastic hussar dress common in European armies.


In 1795 The Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany took command of the regular British Army, including the Ordnance Corps, the Militia, and the Volunteers [p.128, Glover] , and immediately declared

that no officer, should ever be subject to the same disadvantages under which he had laboured
reflecting on the Netherlands campaigns of 1793-94. [p.128, Glover] The Duke of York's participation in the Anglo-Russian invasion of North Holland in 1799 made a strong impression on him, and he was the single most responsible person in the British Army to institute reforms that created the force which later was able to serve in the Peninsular War, as well as the preparations for the expected French invasion of United Kingdom in 1803.

The French Revolutionary Wars saw the Army take part in many campaigns against the French and countries conquered by them. Although a British army which fought on the continent was defeated after being shown to be inadequately prepared (an episode which may have led to the unwarranted derisory children's rhyme, The Grand Old Duke of York), and another force suffered severe losses to yellow fever and other diseases in the West Indies, British troops captured important overseas territories in the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent (including Ceylon). A British army also fought a successful campaign in 1801 to expel invading French troops from Egypt.

After a brief interlude, the Peace of Amiens, the Napoleonic Wars began in 1803. As in the previous war with France, the Army saw service in many campaigns, including the capture of the Cape of Good Hope in Southern Africa, an abortive (initially unauthorised) invasion of Spanish South America and further wars and campaigns in the Indian sub-continent and Caribbean.

The most important campaign the Army fought during the conflict was the Peninsular War in Portugal and Spain. After the French had invaded Portugal and Spain, the British landed in Portugal to help them in their uprising against the French in 1808. The British were commanded by Lieutenant-General Arthur Wellesley (later 1st Duke of Wellington). He achieved a number of important victories over the French but was nevertheless superseded as commander by more senior, though often less capable, officers.

After Sir John Moore was killed at the Battle of Corunna in January 1809, Wellesley returned as Commander-in-Chief. With the help of the Portuguese and Spanish (including guerrillas), the British fought many bloody battles against the French. French invasions of Portugal were repelled but the British also had to retreat from Spain a number of times. Eventually, in May 1813, a renewed offensive saw the French pushed back in Spain, and the British successfully entered France itself in October 1813.

With the British now firmly in France and the French experiencing defeats elsewhere, Napoleon was forced into exile in April 1814. A year later, he returned to France and regained power, but was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815 by a British, German, Belgian, Dutch and Prussian force under the command of the Duke of Wellington and Marshal Blücher.

The War of 1812 against the United States was not directly related to the Napoleonic Wars, but was brought about largely by their disruption of American trade. The British government diverted few resources from the war against Napoleon. For the first part of the war against the Americans, the few British regular units in Canada performed well against the hastily expanded American army and the States' militias. After the first abdication of Napoleon, large reinforcements were sent to North America (incidentally precluding their appearance at Waterloo), but by this time, the American troops had improved in quality under successful leaders. The overall result of the fighting was indecisive, and it was recognised that Britain was unable to strike any blow which could compel the Americans to make peace on British terms. The Treaty of Ghent formally acknowledged the existing "status quo".


The British Empire had increased in size during the war, through the capture of French and Dutch colonies (some of which were returned), and was continuing to do so. After the end of the war, the Government nevertheless implemented heavy cuts in the Armed Forces. All the emigre units were disbanded (although many of the exiles wished in any case to return home after the downfall of Napoleon), as were the units raised in Canada. Many of the higher-numbered regiments were also disbanded but the cuts proved too severe and a number of new regiments were raised.

Four regiments of Lancers were introduced in emulation of the French and other continental armies. Three of them were converted from light dragoon regiments and one raised to replace a disbanded Irish regiment of dragoons. (Later, another regiment of light dragoons would be converted and another transferred from the British East India Company's Army.

The later nineteenth century


From the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the outbreak of the Crimean War, the British army's organisation, and to an extent its personnel, remained largely unchanged. The Duke of Wellington remained as Commander-in-Chief until 1852 (except when serving as Prime Minister). His successors were men who had served him closely, such as Sir Henry Hardinge. None of them saw any need for reform of the existing systems, dress or tactics.

Soldiers enlisted either for life, or for a period of ten or twelve years, at the end of which most soldiers were so little skilled for civilian life that they immediately re-enlisted. The long-term effect of this was to produce regiments with a large number of veteran soldiers, but no reserves which could be called upon to reinforce the regular army. At the same time, the system of Sale of commissions (and abuses of it) worked against either the proper training of officers or any consistently applied career structure.

In addition to highlighting many shortcomings, The Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny (1857-58) greatly stretched the army, to the extent that Canadian volunteers raised a regiment for the British Army, titled the 100th (Prince of Wales's Royal Canadians) Regiment of Foot, for service in India; it did not, however, see service there.

In the aftermath of the Rebellion in India, control of India was transferred from the East India Company to the Crown. The so-called "European" regiments of the East India Company, consisting of three cavalry and nine infantry regiments, were transferred to the British Army. Many troops and batteries of the Company's artillery also became incorporated into the Royal Regiment of Artillery. There were objections, later termed the "White Mutiny" by East India Company troops who objected to the measure. These were suppressed without difficulty.

Following the disbanding of most of the Indian units of the Company's armies, a British Indian Army was raised mainly from communities outside the mainstream of Indian culture, the so-called Martial Races. The British personnel of the Indian Army were restricted to officers and a few technical specialist NCOs. Although the British and Indian Army officers both trained at the Royal Military College and frequently served together, there was rivalry between the two institutions.

Volunteer movement

At the peak of the British Empire, the middle and upper classes were often 'militaristic', usually seeking to join the armed forces to increase their social standing, especially the Yeomanry regiments. In 1858, there was an assassination attempt on Napoleon III, ruler of France, by Felice Orsini which was linked to Britain. In spite of the fact Britain had only just been in a war against Russia with France as its ally, there was now an increased fear of war breaking out.

This saw a surge in interest in the more affluent communities in creating volunteer units, known as 'Volunteer Rifle Corps'. There were many such corps formed all over the United Kingdom. One of the most prominent was the Artists' Rifles (originally known as the 38th Middlesex Rifle Volunteer Corps) established in 1860 by the art student Edward Starling.

Cardwell and Childers reforms

In the early 1870s, the Cardwell reforms, named after the Secretary of State for War Edward Cardwell, saw radical reforms of the armed forces implemented in the aftermath of the inadequacies uncovered during the Crimean War. An Enlistment Act saw a change in the terms of enlistment, which could at last produce some trained reserves and also made soldiering a more tempting career. A Localisation Scheme resulted in the pairing of single-battalion regiments via administrative depots on a county-based system.

Administrative reforms included the abolition of the purchase of commissions, replacing it with advancement by seniority and merit, and the end of barbarous disciplinary measures and other anachronistic practices.

The Childers reforms, which came into effect on 1 July 1881, continued the earlier reforms which strengthened regiments' county affiliations by discarding the numeral system and combining most of the single-battalion regiments into two-battalion regiments with, for the most part, county names in their titles. This created a force of 69 Line Infantry regiments, consisting of 48 English, 10 Scottish, 8 Irish, and 3 Welsh regiments.

Another aspect of the reforms included the further integration of the militia into the regular regimental system, becoming additional numbered battalions of the regiments, and the establishment of a reserve force. These changes, and the others that were implemented, bore the Army in good stead for the two World Wars it would experience in the 20th century.

For a list of the regiments that were established on 1 July, see List of British Army regiments (1881).

Army leadership

For almost half a century from the end of the Crimean War, the Commander in Chief of the Army was Queen Victoria's cousin, the Duke of Cambridge. Although not an absolute reactionary, his generally conservative principles and snobbishness were often to provide an easy target for critics and satirists.

Much of the actual conduct of operations (both in its planning at the War Office and in the field) was carried out by General Garnet Wolseley, the Adjutant General from 1871 onwards. Although he supported the Liberal governments' reforms of the army, he was bitterly opposed to their foreign and imperial policies, which he believed to be indecisive and ineffectual.

Wolseley was instrumental in promoting a circle of officers, the Wolseley ring, or "Africans" to positions of influence. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, there was increasing rivalry and tension between the Wolseley ring and the rival Roberts ring or "Indians", proteges of General Frederick Roberts and whose experience was largely gained with the British Indian Army or with British units in India. The quarrel between the factions was perhaps never resolved, until most of the officers involved had retired from the army.

Dress and equipment

Although British troops have often been portrayed in films as toiling in hot climates in heavy scarlet serge uniforms, officers from the end of the Crimean War onwards generally took a far more practical approach. Wolseley had lightweight grey linen uniforms purpose-made for his expeditions in Ashanti and Sudan. In India, almost all troops soon copied the neutral "Khaki" (an Urdu word meaning "dust") uniforms first adopted by Indian irregular units on the North-West Frontier. The last battle in which British troops wore scarlet was the 1885 Battle of Gennis in the Sudan. Khaki became the official colour for campaign dress in 1902, but scarlet (and even rifle green) had been superseded long before that date.

Likewise, faced with campaigns in harsh environments far from any convenient lines of communication, British leaders insisted that the primary quality of any equipment should be robustness. Sometimes, this resulted in the British army apparently lagging behind its contemporaries in Europe. Nevertheless, new rifles, guns and technical equipment such as field telegraphs were steadily introduced; sometimes the issue of a weapon was not even complete before it was superseded by another model.

Haldane reforms

The Second Boer War (1899-1902) provided further impetus for the expansion of the Army -- which had already been expanding in size during the last years of the 19th century -- including the creation of the Irish Guards in 1900 in honour of the distinguished service of Irish regiments during that conflict, and the Royal Garrison Regiment, created to fill the void of units departing for South Africa.

After the end of the war, further reforms took place, known as the Haldane reforms after Secretary of State for War Richard Burdon Haldane. These included the formal establishment of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in anticipation of a war on the European continent. A part-time volunteer organisation, known as the Territorial Force, was also created, encompassing the reserve units of the Army with militia units being transferred to the newly created Special Reserve.

Re-equipment with up-to-date weapons and equipment followed the increasing pace of technology. An Air Battalion was formed in the Royal Engineers in 1911, becoming the Royal Flying Corps the following year. The RFC remained part of the Army until 1918 when it was separated to form the Royal Air Force.



For the first half of the nineteenth century, most of Britain's wars involved expansion in India, and as a result of conflicts on India's borders, into Burma. In the Third Anglo-Maratha War, the East India Company finally broke the Maratha Empire which had resisted the British for almost half a century. Only the Sikh Kingdom of the Punjab could pose a threat to the British, and its ruler, Ranjit Singh, maintained a wary friendship with Britain.

A persistent feature of British policy was a nervousness amounting almost to paranoia about Russian expansion in Central Asia and influence in Afghanistan (see The Great Game). Obsessed with the idea that Afghanistan's Emir Dost Mohammed Khan was courting a Russian presence, the British sent an expedition to replace him with Shuja Shah Durrani, who was in exile in British India. This triggered the First Anglo-Afghan War, in which the expedition successfully captured Kabul and other fortresses. Dost Mohammed Khan surrendered himself and the complacent British commanders then withdrew many of their garrisons even as they were faced with growing popular resistance. The result was the Massacre of Elphinstone's Army. The next year, British and Indian forces recaptured and looted Kabul, but Dost Mohammed was restored and the British withdrew from Afghanistan having stored up resentment and disorder.

A short campaign secured the conquest of Sindh. In 1839, Ranjit Singh, the ruler of the Punjab, had died. The Punjab fell into disorder, and a war between the East India Company and the powerful Sikh Army, the Khalsa, became almost inevitable. The First Anglo-Sikh War in 1845 resulted in the defeat of the Khalsa and a British takeover of much of the administration of the Punjab. There had been some desperate fighting and some near-defeats, from which the British army under Sir Hugh Gough were spared by self-interest or treachery among the top leaders of the Khalsa.

The Sikhs remained restive under British control, and a rebellion broke out in 1848. The British army sent to suppress it was once again commanded by Gough, and once again suffered several reverses, before crushing the revolt at Multan and Gujarat. The annexation of the Punjab left no independent Indian state capable of withstanding the East India Company.

The Great Mutiny

Within a year of the end of the Crimean War, the Indian soldiers of the East India Company's Bengal Army rebelled. Their loyalty had been under threat for years, as they feared that British reforms and modernisation were striking at their society and religion. The uprisings sparked widespread rebellion and unrest. They were marked with attacks on British officers and administrators and their families, and some massacres.

Because the rebels lacked coordinated leadership, it was possible for the British to suppress revolts in some parts of the country early, and also defend some vital positions such as Laknao. Another vital success was the capture of Delhi, in which British troops were greatly aided by Gurkha, Punjabi and Sikh troops. As British reinforcements arrived in India, the rebellion was steadily suppressed, sometimes with great brutality.

The North West Frontier

Once the rebellion had been crushed, the only opposition to British rule came from the Pahktun inhabitants of the North-west Frontier Province adjacent to Afghanistan. In the late 1870s, a Russian diplomatic mission was installed in Kabul. The British demanded that they also have a mission in Kabul, and when this was refused, British armies once again invaded the country. Once again, after initial successes, troops were withdrawn only for popular rebellions to threaten the remaining garrisons. On this occasion however, the Army under Lord Roberts repelled the attack, then made an epic march to relieve another beleaguered garrison in Kandahar. Having installed Abdur Rahman Khan as Emir, the British once again withdrew.

For the rest of the century, there were several uprisings on the frontier, as the British extended their authority into remote areas such as Gilgit and Chitral.

China and Burma

There were several major expeditions launched around the Far East, in which India was the logistic base and provided substantial numbers of troops. Persistent clashes on the borders between Burma and Bengal and trade and sovereignty disputes resulted in the First Burmese War. The resulting treaty ceded some territory to Britain but left the Burmese kingdom intact.

The Second Anglo-Burmese War, launched in 1852 with little pretext, further truncated Burma. Finally, in 1886, disputes over the treaties led to the Third Anglo-Burmese War, in which the country was finally annexed to Britain. In all three wars, British troops had faced extremes of heat and humidity, and widespread disease, for which they were not properly prepared.

In the early nineteenth century, British traders reported increasing hostility from Chinese authorities. For their part, the Chinese were angered that the East India Company was selling vast amounts of opium to the Chinese, with harmful effects to China's society and economy. Finally, when it appeared that the traders were to be expelled by force, British troops engaged and defeated the outdated Chinese armies in several coastal provinces during the First Opium War. The resulting peace treaty ceded Hong Kong to Britain, and damaged the Chinese Emperor's prestige.

Further disputes led to the Second Opium War. Once again, the Chinese were forced to concede an unequal treaty.

Crimean War

Britain's first major war in Europe since Waterloo, the Crimean War, began in 1854 after Britain and France declared war on Russia in alliance with Turkey, fearing Russian domination of the Mediterranean and encroachments in Central Asia. Throughout the war there were evident shortcomings in the army's administration, logistics and leadership. The army suffered heavy casualties from disease and exposure, and in actions such as the Battle of Balaklava and the failed storming of Sevastopol.

In the immediate aftermath of the war the Victoria Cross, which became the highest award for bravery in the face of the enemy, was created.


There were several campaigns in Africa before the end of the 19th century, during a period of time known as the "scramble for Africa". There was a punitive expedition in 1868 to Abyssinia and another to Ashanti in 1874.

outh Africa

In 1879, the Anglo-Zulu War began, signifying further British expansion in southern Africa. The early days of the war saw a disaster at the Isandlwana, redeemed in the view of many by a famous defence at Rorke's Drift. The war ended with the defeat and subjugation of the Zulus. Shortly afterwards, the Boer republic of the Transvaal gained its independence after the First Anglo-Boer War, after defeating a British force at the Battle of Majuba. The Boers nearly always had the advantage of defence, were not constrained by military formations and proved skilled marksmen, but many British soldiers (including Wolseley) were left eager for revenge for their humiliation.

Egypt and Sudan

In Egypt, Britain was concerned to retain control over the Suez Canal, vital for links to India. A political crisis, the Urabi Revolt, led Britain to intervene. After crushing the dissident force at the Battle of Tel el-Kebir, Britain established control over much of Egypt's policy. This also forced Britain to intervene in Egypt's nominal dependency, the Sudan. Originally sent to superintend a withdrawal, General Charles George Gordon chose instead to defend Khartoum against the Mahdi Muhammad Ahmed. A relief expedition across the deserts of northern Sudan arrived too late.

Several years later, having constructed railways and fleets of Nile steamboats, the British again advanced into the Sudan under General Kitchener. The forces of the Khalifa Adbullah, successor to the Mahdi, were bloodily defeated at the Battle of Omdurman.

The Second Boer War

The Second Anglo-Boer War began in 1899 after tension between the British and the two Dutch Boer republics culminated in the Boers declaring war against the British. Though it was a relatively minor war in comparison to what awaited the British in 1914, the British Army gained experience of tactics, technology and equipment which would stand them in good stead. However, future inadequacies had been discovered in the Army during the war, and like the Crimean War, most of the Army's deaths were due to disease.

The war also saw the present and future Dominions — Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, New Zealand and South Africa — become increasingly independent and assertive, all having had troops fight the Boers. The British eventually withdrew from all of these countries and the Dominions' forces took over their duties. The Army garrisons in Australia and New Zealand had already been withdrawn in 1870. The last British battalion to leave Canada was the 5th Battalion, The Royal Garrison Regiment in 1905 when it departed Halifax, Nova Scotia.


There were many other small wars that the Army took part in just before WWI, nearly all being in Africa, with the exception of the Boxer Rebellion (1900) and an expedition to Tibet in 1904.

World War I (1914-18)


At the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, the British Army was a small, professional force of 247,000 soldiers, over half of which were posted overseas in garrisons throughout the British Empire. The regular Army was supported by 224,000 reservists and 269,000 soldiers of the Territorial Force. The size of the Army was in stark contrast to the Royal Navy which was the largest navy in the world, while many of the Army's continental counterparts, such as the French and German Armies (both of whom employed conscription) numbered nearly 1 million troops and were part of highly militarised societies.

Under the Entente Cordiale, the British Army's role in a European war was to embark soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), arranged in four infantry and five brigades of cavalry. [cite book| first =David|last =G.Chandler |title=The Oxford History of the British Army|year=2003|pages=p.211 para 2] The British Indian Army was called upon to assist the numbers, and of the 9610 British officers in France 20 percent were from the Indian army. The 76,450 of the other ranks 16 percent were from the Indian army. [cite book| first =David|last =G.Chandler |title=The Oxford History of the British Army|year=2003|pages=p.211 para 2]

Kaiser Wilhelm was famously dismissive of the BEF, on 19 August issuing his order to "exterminate... the treacherous English and walk over General French's contemptible little army." — in later years the survivors of the regular army dubbed themselves "The Old Contemptibles". By the end of 1914, after the battles of Mons, Le Cateau, the Aisne and Ypres, the old regular British Army had been effectively wiped out, but was extremely effective at stopping the German advance.

As the regular Army's strength declined, the numbers were made up, first by the Territorials, followed by the volunteers of Lord Kitchener's New Army, known as Kitchener's Army. By the end of August 1914, he had raised six new divisions, rising to 29 divisions by March 1915. The Territorial Force also expanded, raising second- and third-line battalions and forming eight additional divisions in addition to its peacetime strength of 14 divisions. By January 1916 when conscription was introduced, 2.6 million men had volunteered for service and a further 2.3 million were conscripted before the end of the war.

A prominent feature of the early months of volunteering was the formation of Pals battalions, whole units recruited from the same town or workplace, such as the Grimsby Chums. Many of these pals who had lived and worked together, now joined up and trained together, only to die together on the first day on the Somme, leaving entire communities shattered.

During the war, most new infantry battalions were raised within existing regiments; the Northumberland Fusiliers were most prolific, fielding 51 battalions. However, some new regiments were created, such as the fifth regiment of the Foot Guards, the Welsh Guards, created in 1915 to honour the distinguished actions of the Welsh regiments in the war.

The army would change drastically over the course of the war, reacting to the various changes, from a mobile war to the static trench warfare up to 1917. The Cavalry of the Expeditionary force would represent 9.28 percent of the army, but by July 1918 would only represent 1.65 percent. Infantry would also change from 64.64 percent in 1914 to 51.25 percent in 1918, while the Royal Engineers would increase from 5.91 percent to 11.24 percent in 1918. [cite book| first =David|last =G.Chandler |title=The Oxford History of the British Army|year=2003|pages=p.212 para 1]

The war also saw the British having an increasing reliance upon the Dominion and Empire troops, many of whom volunteered to serve in the British Army out of a perception that Britain was the 'Motherland'. The Royal Newfoundland Regiment and British West Indies Regiment were both formed in 1915, the latter of which was made up of volunteers from the Caribbean who had arrived in Britain. Both regiments were disbanded in 1919. There were also existing regiments like the West India Regiment and West Africa Regiment (both disbanded by the end of the 1920s). At various times on the Western Front, Australia, Canada and India provided corps, New Zealand a division and South Africa a brigade, all of which were attached to British armies.

In August 1914, the Army's Royal Flying Corps dispatched 63 aircraft to France in support of the BEF. The aggressive doctrine of RFC commander, General Hugh Trenchard, and periods of technical inferiority such as the Fokker Scourge of 1916 and Bloody April in 1917 resulted in high casualty rates amongst aircrews. At the start of 1918, the RFC numbered nearly 4,000 aircraft, including capable fighters such as the Sopwith Camel and S.E.5a. On 1 April 1918, the RFC merged with the Royal Naval Air Service, forming the independent Royal Air Force.


The British Army were pioneers in many aspects of military technology, having adopted the first machine gun, the Maxim, in 1889 and by 1912 it possessed the Vickers machine gun. Both infantry and cavalry were equipped with the Lee-Enfield rifle (first introduced in 1895) with which the professionals of the regular Army could fire 15 aimed rounds per minute. The British Army that started the war in 1914 was not the same type of army that ended the war. The mix of arms the army possessed in 1914 was more suited to the mobile conditions of the early war, but was not suitable for the environment of trench warfare of 1915 to 1917 or to the set piece tactics of 1918. [cite book| first =David|last =G.Chandler |title=The Oxford History of the British Army|year=2003|pages=p.211 para 3] Artillery suffered from a shortage of shells and initially supply only improved at the expense of quality. The Army adopted chemical weapons, usually in response to German innovations, and often lagged markedly, taking over a year to deploy their own mustard gas agent.

The British Army reacted to these shortcomings, introducing the Mills bomb as the standard grenade, producing over 70 million in the final three years of the war, and the versatile Stokes mortar, the predecessor the modern mortar. The role of the machine gun expanded throughout the war, dramatically increasing the firepower to the infantry. Platoons were equipped with the light Lewis gun while the independent machine gun companies of the Machine Gun Corps, established on 22 October 1915, operated the heavy Vickers. As the war progressed, the artillery grew in sophistication, employing the creeping barrage for protection of advancing infantry, developing sound-ranging and flash-detection techniques for counter-battery fire, and learning how to predict the fall of shells without needing to register the guns on their target.

The Army pioneered the use of the tank; operated by the Heavy Branch of the Machine Gun Corps, the Mark I tank first saw service on the Somme in September 1916. In July 1917, the Tank Corps was formed from the Heavy Branch and was the only corps created in the war to survive past the 1920s, becoming the Royal Tank Corps in 1922, then Royal Tank Regiment in 1939.


The most important theatre was the Western Front but the British Army fought in almost every theatre of the First World War. In the four years of the war, the British Army had suffered nearly 2.5 million casualties; 662,000 men killed, 140,000 missing and 1,650,000 wounded.

Western Front

Under the command of Field Marshal Sir John French, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) began to deploy to France within days of the declaration of war. The first encounter with the Germans came at Mons on 23 August 1914 after which the Allies began the Great Retreat, not stopping until at the outskirts of Paris. The BEF had small role in halting the German advance at the Marne before participating in the Aisne counter-offensive which was followed by a period known as the "Race to the Sea" during which the BEF redeployed to Flanders. For the BEF, 1914 ended with "First Ypres" which marked the beginning of a long struggle for the Ypres salient. In four months, the BEF had suffered nearly 90,000 casualties and of the 64 original 1,000-strong battalions that had travelled to France in August, on average only one officer and 30 other ranks remained. On Christmas Day, the steadily expanding BEF was reorganised into two armies; the First Army under General Sir Douglas Haig and the Second Army under General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien.

Trench warfare prevailed in 1915 and the BEF, as the junior partner on the Western Front, fought a series of small battles, at times coordinated with the larger French offensives; at Neuve Chapelle in March, Aubers Ridge and Festubert in May and at Givenchy in June. On 22 April 1915, the Germans launched the Second Battle of Ypres, employing poison gas for the first time on the Western Front and capturing much of the high ground that ringed the salient. By September 1915 the British Army had grown in strength, with the first New Army divisions entering the line, and as part of the Third Battle of Artois, the Army launched a major attack at Loos utilising their own newly developed chemical weapons for the first time. The result was another costly and disappointing failure and marked the end for Field Marshal French; on 19 December 1915, General Sir Douglas Haig became Commander-in-Chief of the BEF.

For the British Army, 1916 was dominated by the Battle of the Somme which started disastrously on 1 July. The first day on the Somme remains the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army when over 19,000 soldiers were killed and a nearly 40,000 were wounded, all for little or no gain. There followed nearly five months of attrition during which the Fourth Army of General Henry Rawlinson and the Fifth Army of General Hubert Gough advanced about five miles (8 km) for a cost of 420,000 casualties. Despite the losses, the British Army under Haig had grown in size and experience such that it was now an equal partner with the French Army on the Western Front.

In February 1917 the German Army began to withdraw to the Hindenburg Line and it was these formidable defences that elements of the British Army assaulted in the Battle of Arras in April. For this battle, the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, had placed Haig and the BEF under the orders of new French Commander-in-Chief, Robert Nivelle who planned a major French Army offensive in Champagne. Arras failed to deliver a breakthrough and Haig, freed from the restraints of the French command, now embarked on his favoured plan to launch an offensive in Flanders. In a successful preliminary operation, General Herbert Plumer's Second Army seized the Messines Ridge south of Ypres. The Third Battle of Ypres, which began on 31 July 1917, was one of the worst ordeals endured by British and Dominion forces during the war, with the battlefield reduced to a quagmire. It was not until 6 November that the Passchendaele ridge was captured, by which time the British Army had sustained 310,000 casualties.

For the British Army, 1917 ended with faint promise in the Battle of Cambrai which demonstrated the potential of tanks operating "en masse". Third Army commander, General Julian Byng, planned an ambitious breakthrough and achieved an unprecedented advanced of six kilometres on the first day but lacked the reserves to either continue or consolidate. A German counter-offensive succeeded in recapturing most of the lost ground.

The year 1918 started with disaster and ended in triumph for the British Army. On 21 March 1918, German commander, General Erich Ludendorff, launched the Spring Offensive and the main weight of the first blow, Operation "Michael", fell on the British Fifth Army of General Gough which was forced into retreat, finally halting the German advance east of Amiens. The next German attack came south of Ypres along the Lys river and here too the British Army fell back. Haig issued his famous Order of the Day, "With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end." In response to the crisis facing the Allies, French general Ferdinand Foch was made Supreme Commander for Allied forces on the Western Front, placing the BEF under his strategic direction.

On 8 August 1918, General Rawlinson's Fourth Army launched the Battle of Amiens which marked the start of the Hundred Days Offensive, the final Allied offensive on the Western Front. Over the following weeks, all five armies of the BEF went on the offensive from the Somme to Flanders. A few American divisions remained attached to British armies and participated in the British operations. Fighting continued right up until the Armistice with Germany came into effect at 11.00 am on 11 November 1918.

Other theatres

The British Army was involved in some comparatively obscure theatres of the war such as the symbolic contribution of the South Wales Borderers in support of Japanese forces in the capture of the German port of Tsingtao in China in 1914. A few British Army battalions also participated in the East African Campaign against von Lettow-Vorbeck's elusive German and African askari forces, however most British operations in Africa were carried out by African askari units such as the King's African Rifles, or South African or Indian Army units under British Imperial command.

The British Army was heavily engaged in the Mediterranean, Middle East and Mesopotamia throughout the war, mainly against the Ottoman Empire. In April 1915, following the failure of the Royal Navy's attempt capture the Dardanelles, the Army landed at Cape Helles on the Gallipoli peninsula. In August another landing was made at Suvla Bay but the deadlock remained and by January 1916, the British, Anzac and French forces had withdrawn. A new front was opened in Salonika at the request of the Greek government, intending to support Serbian forces and oppose Bulgaria, but this too remained static, tying up troops who suffered severely from malaria and other illnesses; it gained a reputation as "Germany's biggest internment camp."

In the Sinai and Palestine, the British Army, along with Australian and New Zealand light cavalry, made steady progress against Ottoman opposition until the First Battle of Gaza in March 1917. The appointment of General Edmund Allenby reinvigorated the campaign, leading to the capture of Jerusalem in December 1917 and the decisive Meggido Offensive in September 1918 which precipitated an armistice with the Ottoman Empire. In Mesopotamia, the Army was highly dependent upon Indian Army forces and initially experienced success until defeat at Kut-al-Amara in April 1916 halted progress. The British eventually regained momentum upon General Frederick Stanley Maude becoming commander and Baghdad was captured in 1917.

Inter-War period (1919-1939)


In the immediate aftermath of the First World War, Britain faced serious economic woes. Heavy defence cuts were consequently imposed by the British Government in the early 1920s as part of a reduction in public expenditure known as the "Geddes Axe" after Sir Eric Geddes. The Government introduced the Ten Year Rule, stating its belief that Britain would not be involved in another major war for 10 years from the date of review. This ten-year rule was continually extended until it was abandoned in 1932.

The Royal Tank Corps (which later became the Royal Tank Regiment) was the only corps formed in WWI that survived the cuts. Corps such as the Machine Gun Corps were disbanded, their functions being taken by specialists within infantry units. One new corps was the Royal Signals, formed from within the Royal Engineers to take over the role of providing communications.

Within the cavalry, sixteen regiments were amalgamated into eight, producing the "Fraction Cavalry"; units with unwieldy titles combining two regimental numbers. There was a substantial reduction in the number of infantry battalions and the size of the TF (now retitled as the Territorial Army). On 31 July 1922, the Army also lost six Irish regiments (5 infantry and 1 cavalry) due to the creation of the Irish Free State. Many Irishmen from the south nevertheless continued to join the British Army.

Until the early 1930s, the Army was effectively being reduced to the role of imperial policeman, concentrated on responding to the small imperial conflicts that rose up across the Empire. It was unfortunate that certain of the officers who rose to high rank and positions of influence within the army during the 1930s were comparatively backward-looking, such as Archibald Armar Montgomery-Massingberd. This meant that trials such as the Experimental Mechanised Force of 1927-28 did not go as far as they might have.


One of the first post-war campaigns that the Army took part in was the Allied intervention in Russia in 1919 to assist the "White Army" against the Communist Bolsheviks during their Civil War. The British Army was also maintaining occupation forces in the defeated powers of WWI. In Germany, a British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) was established. The BAOR would remain in existence until 1929 when British forces were withdrawn. Another British occupation force was based in Constantinople in Turkey, and a number of British units fought against Turkish rebels during the Turkish War of Independence. A small British Military Mission was also advising the Polish Army during the Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921).

The Army, throughout the inter-war period, also had to deal with quelling paramilitary organisations seeking the removal of the British. In British Somaliland, Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan (known to the British Army as 'The Mad Mullah', although he was neither mad nor a mullah) resumed his campaign against the British, a campaign he had first begun in 1900. The operations against him were prominent due to the newly-formed RAF being instrumental in his defeat. The Army also took part in operations in Ireland against the IRA during the Anglo-Irish War. Both sides committed atrocities, some units becoming infamous, such as the paramilitary Black and Tans that were recruited from veterans of WWI. The British Army was also supporting British Indian Army operations in the North-West Frontier of India against numerous tribes (known collectively as the Pashtun) hostile to the British. The Army had been operating in the volatile North-West area since the 1800s. The last major uprising that the Army had to deal with before the start of the Second World War, was the uprising in Palestine that began in 1936.

Rearmament and development

By the mid-1930s, Germany was controlled by Hitler's Nazi Party and was becoming increasingly aggressive and expansionist. Another war with Germany appeared certain. The Army was not properly prepared for such a war, lagging behind the technologically advanced and potentially much larger Heer of the German Wehrmacht. With each armed service vying for a share of the defence budget, the Army came last behind the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force in allocation of funds.

During the years after the First World War, the Army's strategic concepts had stagnated. Whereas Germany, when it began rearming following Hitler's rise to power, eagerly embraced concepts of mechanised warfare as advocated by individuals such as Heinz Guderian, many high-ranking officers in Britain had little enthusiasm for armoured warfare, and the ideas of Basil Liddell Hart and J.F.C. Fuller were largely ignored.

One step to which the Army was committed was the mechanisation of the cavalry, which had begun in 1929. This first proceeded at a slow pace, having little priority. By the mid-1930s, mechanisation in the British Army was gaining momentum and on 4 April 1939, with the mechanisation process nearing completion, the Royal Armoured Corps was formed to administer the cavalry regiments and Royal Tank Regiment (with the exception of the Household Cavalry). The mechanisation process was finally completed in 1941 when the Royal Scots Greys abandoned their horses.

After the Munich Crisis in 1938, a serious effort was undertaken to expand the Army, including the doubling in size of the Territorial Army, helped by the reintroduction of conscription in April 1939. By mid-1939 the Army consisted of 225,000 Regulars and 300,000 Territorials and Reservists. Most Territorial formations were understrength and badly equipped. Even this army was dwarfed, yet again, by its continental counterparts. Just before the war broke out, a new British Expeditionary Force was formed. By the end of the year, over 1 million had been conscripted into the Army. Conscription was administered on a better planned basis than in the First World War. People in certain reserved occupations, such as dockers and miners, were exempt from being called up as their skills and labour were necessary for the war effort.

Between 1938-39, with the a substantial expansion in the Army, a number of new organisations were formed, including the Auxiliary Territorial Service for women in September 1938; its duties were vast, and helped release men for front-line service.

World War II (1939-1945)


When the British Empire, France and their allies declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, two days after its invasion of Poland, the Army was still unprepared. For example, few armoured formations had been organised, and their equipment and training were sketchy. Nearly 100,000 soldiers were based abroad, more than half of them in India and the garrisons East of Suez, such as Singapore. Others were based in the Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa. The smallest overseas command was the West Indies with a single battalion supported by indigenous units.

Many British leaders, including Winston Churchill, sought to avoid the costly battles of attrition which had characterised the Western Front in World War I. Churchill became Prime Minister in the middle of the Battle of France, which resulted in British troops being driven from the continent and left no realistic chance of re-establishing any Western Front for years. The number of British divisions was therefore kept low; perhaps 50 were formed in total (not counting administrative or anti-aircraft divisions), but probably no more than 30 were in existence at any one time. This allowed the Royal Navy and especially the Royal Air Force to be expanded and maintained at full strength.

The increasing use of technology saw the creation of new types of units. Some of these were formed at the instigation of the War Office; most notably the Army Commandos. Inspired by the German use of airborne units in their Blitzkrieg offensives, Airborne brigades and divisions were formed. The Parachute Regiment was established as the parent body for all troops parachuting into battle. Glider infantry or Airlanding units also formed part of the airborne divisions.

Other new units, mainly various types of "special forces" were originally formed on an "ad hoc" basis. The Long Range Desert Group was formed in the Middle East by officers who had been amateur explorers in the Sahara desert before the war. The first SAS units were also formed in the Middle East. From 1942, the Army Air Corps administered the Parachute Regiment, the Glider Pilot Regiment, the Special Air Service Regiment and the Air Observation Post Squadron, RA.

The regular forces also experienced a substantial expansion, not just including the many battalions created in existing regiments. Six cavalry regiments were formed from the cadres of existing regiments, along with two new infantry regiments, all of which would be disbanded during demobilisation in the aftermath of the war. A Reconnaissance Corps of over 20 regiments was also formed, which was absorbed by the Royal Armoured Corps in 1944.

The requirement for infantry was much less than in the previous world war, and many infantry battalions were converted into anti-tank and anti-aircraft units of the Royal Artillery, or armoured regiments in the Royal Armoured Corps and Royal Tank Regiment. Towards the end of the war, this trend had to be reversed; as the infantry strength declined, and the threat from enemy air forces disappeared, many soldiers in anti-aircraft units were drafted into the infantry.

One effect of the increasing mechanisation of warfare was the formation of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers to assume responsibility for the recovery and repair of vehicles and equipment.

The Local Defence Volunteers was formed early in 1940. In the aftermath of the fall of France, very large numbers of civilians too old or too young for the Army, or barred from serving if they were in reserved occupations, volunteered for the new force. The organisation was eventually renamed the "Home Guard" and was to be part of the defence of Britain in the advent of a German invasion of Britain. They were initially improvised and poorly equipped but were passionate and dedicated to their duties. They were popularised in the TV show "Dad's Army".

Equipment and Tactics

The British infantry at the beginning of the war were still equipped with the venerable Lee-Enfield rifle, the No. 4 variant being gradually phased in, and Webley revolver; they had gained a new reliable machine gun to accompany the Vickers, the Bren, and their principal anti-tank weapon was the Boys anti-tank rifle. In many cases, the same equipment was still in use at the end of the war. Submachine guns were introduced; first the American Tommy gun, and later the cheaply produced Sten. It became clear that no anti-tank rifle could be effective, and the Boys rifle was replaced by the PIAT anti-tank weapon.

The field regiments of the Royal Artillery also ended the war with the same very effective 25-pounder gun/howitzer with which they began it. New medium artillery was introduced from 1942 onwards, along with fire control methods which made it possible to concentrate the fire of large numbers of guns very rapidly.

In most of the theatres of World War II, it was clear that armour was the decisive arm. For the first years of the war, British tanks proved to be unreliable and poorly armed in comparison with contemporary German equipment. (British infantry units were also inadequately equipped to deal with enemy tanks for several years.) The cavalry origins of many armoured units and the distinction between "Infantry" and "Cruiser" tanks led to poor cooperation between armoured and infantry units. Both failings had been largely addressed by late 1942, initially with the widespread adoption of the American Sherman tank, and emphasis on combined-arms tactics.

The British Army largely led the way in the provision of specialised assault equipment. For the Normandy landings, the specialised 79th Armoured Division controlled the various assault and engineer vehicles (known as Hobart's Funnies after the division's commander). In the same campaign, the improvised APCs known as Kangaroos were introduced. The Royal Engineers steadily introduced equipment designed to overcome obstacles and defences; the Polish Mine Detector and Bailey bridge for example.



The Army's first encounter with the Germans came in Norway. The Germans had invaded Norway on 9 April 1940. After naval operations by the Royal Navy, Norway was counter-invaded a few days later, with troops being deployed to the centre at Åndalsnes and Namsos, and north at Narvik; the south had been taken by the Germans. The German superiority in the air was evident and the British forces in the centre eventually had to evacuate, having undertaken a fighting withdrawal, from 1 May to 3 May. In the north, Narvik had been taken by the British who, with reasonable air-cover, had a more successful period. However, with the beginning of the campaign in France, the British Government's attention was diverted and the Germans eventually pushed further north. The British force was evacuated on 8 June. The British Army's lack of training and equipment for winter conditions and its inadequate numbers -- just three brigades strong -- had told throughout the campaign.

Maginot, Arras and Dunkirk

As in WWI, the Army deployed a British Expeditionary Force to the continent, consisting initially of four divisions under the command of General Lord Gort. Over the many months that followed, in a period known as the Phoney War, British soldiers trained for war and built up their forces and garrisoned the Maginot Line. By the time the Germans invaded the Low Countries on 8 May 1940, the BEF consisted of 10 divisions, a tank brigade and a detachment of 500 aircraft from the RAF. The BEF was directly in the path of the German diversionary attack through Belgium (the main attack being through the Ardennes forest). The speed of the German advance pushed the Allies back and Belgium and the Netherlands were conquered. After a brief armoured counter-attack at Arras on 20 May, most of the BEF withdrew to a small area around the French port of Dunkirk. The evacuation of British and French forces (Operation Dynamo) began on 26 May with air cover provided by the RAF at heavy cost; over 330,000 British and French were evacuated to Britain by the end of the operation on 4 June, and about 220,000 were evacuated from other ports. The British Army had been saved to fight another day but it had to leave much of its equipment behind.

East Africa

Elsewhere, the British were experiencing mixed success against the Italians, who had entered the war on Germany's side in June 1940. In East Africa, the British initially experienced defeat when 175,000 Italian troops invaded British Somaliland in August 1940, conquering the territory in a brief campaign against the small garrison. The British and Commonwealth forces gradually gained the upper hand, helped by the invaluable contribution of irregulars known as Gideon Force under the command of Charles Orde Wingate, and by early 1941, the British had invaded Italian Somaliland and on 16 May, the Duke of Aosta surrendered all Italian forces in East Africa. The East African campaign was more obscure, just as it had been in WWI but it was, nonetheless, a campaign that gave the Army invaluable experience.

North Africa

In North Africa, Italian forces had attempted an invasion of Egypt in September 1940 but were repulsed in a successful counter-attack in December by Commonwealth forces in Operation Compass, ending with about 25,000 Italian troops captured and the Allies in Italian Libya. The Germans responded by sending a force known as the Afrika Korps under Erwin Rommel. The Germans launched an offensive in 1941, pushing the Allies back and besieging Tobruk. The British Eighth Army was created in the aftermath. The Commonwealth forces began an offensive in November and pushed the enemy forces back but the Germans launched an offensive in 1942, culminating in the capture of Tobruk. Shortly afterwards, General Bernard Law Montgomery took command and under his leadership, the Allies launched a highly successful offensive known as the Second Battle of El Alamein in November 1942. The Axis forces were removed from Libya and the Torch Landings in November by the British and Americans signified the end of the Axis threat in North Africa. The desert war saw tanks in their element, yet they were equally vulnerable to air power. The 7th Armoured Division became one of the most well-known units of the war, nicknamed the 'Desert Rats'.

The Mediterranean

In the Mediterranean, the Army garrison in the British territory of Malta performed anti-air operations in conjunction with the RAF during the bombing of Malta (1940-42) by German and Italian forces. Malta went on to receive the collective award of the George Cross for its bravery. In Greece, the Army contributed a small force to a mostly Australian and New Zealand operation. After an Italian invasion of Greece in October 1940 was successfully repulsed, the Germans invaded in April 1941. A Commonwealth force came to Greece's assistance but they eventually had to be evacuated, many being moved to the island of Crete, commanded by General Bernard Freyberg. The Germans subsequently launched a combined air and sea invasion of Crete in May. The German paratroopers suffered severe casualties but they gradually gained the upper-hand and the Commonwealth defenders, having put up a stubborn defence, had to be evacuated. The Royal Navy suffered heavily in the process but in spite of the casualties they persisted in the evacuation. Over 16,000 were successfully evacuated but 12,254 Commonwealth soldiers were taken prisoner.

The Far East

The Army in the Far East, as it was in Europe in 1939, was unprepared for war breaking out in the Far East, inadequate in both numbers and equipment. The Government had relied upon the now reduced power of the Royal Navy for the defence of the territories East of Suez, known as the "Singapore Strategy", during the inter-war period. On 7 December 1941, the Japanese launched their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, bringing war to the Americans and the Far East. The Japanese swiftly launched invasions of British and other countries territories shortly afterwards. The Japanese invasion of Malaya from Indochina and China, was swift and successful and they quickly gained air and naval superiority. The Army gave a stubborn defence but were gradually pushed back, most units withdrawing to Singapore. Hong Kong was taken on 25 December and Singapore fell on 15 February 1942, becoming the most disastrous day in the Army's history. In Burma, coming under ferocious attack by the Japanese, the British and Indian defenders retreated to India, by May 1942, just before the monsoons cut them off. Two Chindit operations behind Japanese lines took place between 1943-44. In February 1944, the Allied launched an offensive in the south, while the Japanese attacked north India in March. After a successful defence of Imphal and Kohima, the Japanese were defeated there in June. An offensive to retake Burma began in late 1944, culminating in the capture of Rangoon in May 1945.


The veterans of the 8th Army along with the American units landed in Sicily in 1943 under Alexander's command became the 15th Army Group and under Eisenhower, was responsible for mounting the Allied invasion of Sicily in July, once again controlling two armies: Montgomery's Eighth Army and George S. Patton's U.S. Seventh Army. 15th Army Group was renamed Allied Central Mediterranean Force on 17 January 1944. ACMF was commanded by Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander, and was in turn renamed Allied Armies in Italy on 1 March of the same year. Alexander remained in command of 15th Army Group and its successor, Allied Armies in Italy for most of the Italian Campaign, relinquishing his command to Clarke in December 1944 when he took over as the Supreme Allied Commander Mediterranean having been promoted Field Marshal. Allied Armies in Italy had thus controlled the land forces for some of the hardest fighting of the entire war. Operations carried out included: the long stalemate on the Gustav Line with the hardfought Battle of Monte Cassino; the Anzio landings; the capture of Rome; and ending with the Allied forces stuck again just south of the Po valley. Eventually advance was made into Austria, and to the border with Yugoslavia leading to some unpleasant encounters between the British forces and Yugoslav partisans who claimed eastern Italian areas as Yugoslav territory.


In June 1944, the invasion of Normandy took place: the Americans would land at Omaha and Utah beaches; the British at Gold and Sword; and the Canadians, with some British units, at Juno. The 6th Airborne Division was one of three Allied airborne divisions that were inserted just before the landings. The 6th Airborne landed behind Sword beach in the early hours of 6 June, performing a number of operations that included the taking of the Pegasus and Horsa Bridges and the destruction of the Merville gun battery. On the morning of 6 June, with allied air and naval superiority, the amphibious invasion of Normandy began. The main British forces were tasked with taking Caen but this had been one of Montgomery's -- commander of the Allied land forces -- deliberately tasking objectives, and the town was not taken until the following month. On 18 July, the Allies launched Operation Goodwood -- the largest armoured offensive Western Europe had seen at that time -- to attempt a breakout from Normandy and draw German forces from the Americans sector; however, the operation saw British armoured units suffer heavily. After the almost entire destruction of a German Army in the Falaise Pocket in August, the Allies advanced east, entering Belgium in early September; its capital, Brussels, was liberated by the Guards Armoured Division on 3 September. The port of Antwerp was liberated by the 11th Armoured Division the following day.


The invasion of the Netherlands (Operation Market Garden) began on 17 September. The British XXX Corps, which included Canadian units, provided the ground forces and 1st Airborne Division was part of a 3-division Allied airborne assault. The plan was for the three airborne divisions to take the bridges at Eindhoven, Nijmegen, and Arnhem and for XXX Corps to use them to cross the Rhine and into Germany. XXX Corps was constantly delayed by German opposition while travelling up just one single road, managing to reach all but 1st Airborne at Arnhem who had been prevented from advancing into the town, only one battalion managing to make it to Arnhem bridge, holding out for four days. The 1st Airborne Division was effectively destroyed, just 2,000 out of 10,000 returning to friendly territory. In an effort to use the port of Antwerp, the Canadians and Polish cleared the southern bank of the Scheldt, and British and Canadian forces took the island of Walcheren after an amphibious assault. In December, the Germans launched a last-gasp offensive against the Allies at the Bulge. It was ostensibly an American battle, XXX Corps providing Britain's contribution, and the Germans were defeated by January.


The offensive towards the Rhine began in February, the British 21st Army Group had the British Second Army pin the Germans facing them, while the Canadian First Army in the north and the U.S. Ninth Army in the south made a pincer movement against the Germans, piercing their part of the Siegfried Line. On 23 March, First and Second Armies crossed the Rhine, a large airborne assault (Operation Varsity) taking place the following day supported the crossing. The British forces in Germany advanced onto the North German Plain, heading in the direction of Hamburg. During their advance, British forces took Bremen with the Canadians on 26 April after fierce fighting, including in the advance itself, especially against the more fanatical sections of the German military like the SS and Hitler Youth. The British had encountered them in places like the Teutoburger Wald where the Army experienced fierce resistance at Ibbenburen. The British forces reached the vicinity of Hamburg in late April and it surrendered on 3 May. After crossing the Elbe, some British units reached the Baltic coast where they linked up with the Russians, Montgomery meeting his counterpart, Konstantin Rokossovsky, at Wismar. The German forces in Denmark, Holland, and north-west Germany surrendered to Montgomery on 4 May. During the advance into Germany, the Army discovered the awful horrors that had been taking place there and in Eastern Europe when the 63rd Anti-Tank Regiment, RA (Worcestershire and Oxfordshire Yeomanry) liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp on 15 April, the only such camp to be liberated by the British.

The end of the war

The war officially ended in Europe on 8 May 1945. The war in the Far East was, however, ended more suddenly and in a most unexpected way; the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans in August; the war officially ended with Japan's formal surrender on 2 September. The British Army numbered about 2.9 million men and women when the war ended, suffering just over 140,000 killed and nearly 240,000 wounded. In the new peace, a new divided world was emerging from the ashes of the old, with eastern Europe now under the control of the Soviet Union while much of Western Europe, shattered by the destruction of WWII, turned to the United States who would assist Europe under the Marshall Plan. In this new uncertain world, the Army's ability to actively participate in the Nuclear Age was also in doubt.

End of the Empire and Cold War (1945-1990)


The United Nations (UN) was formed on 24 October 1945, with Britain one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Britain was still considered as a global power, despite it having been eclipsed by the two superpowers -- the USA and Soviet Union -- and the efforts by many colonies of the Empire to gain independence. Another global organisation, known as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), was established on 4 April 1949 with Britain one of its founding members. The creation of NATO signified the beginning of the "Cold War" between the ideologically divided "Western Allies" and the Eastern Communist powers, controlled by the Soviet Union; they created their own NATO equivalent in 1955, known as the Warsaw Pact. An integral part of NATO's defences in the now divided Europe was the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) in West Germany, the British Army's new overseas 'home' that replaced independent India. The British Army, just as in the aftermath of WWI, had established BAOR in the immediate aftermath of the war and was centred on I Corps (upon its re-establishment in 1951), at its peak reaching about 80,000 troops.

The Army was beginning to draw down its forces, beginning demobilisation shortly after the end of the war. The Territorial units were placed in 'suspended animation', being reconstituted upon the reformation of the TA in 1947. On 1 January 1948, National Service, the new name for conscription, formally came into effect. The Army was, however, being reduced in size upon the end of British rule in India, including the second battalions of every Line Infantry regiment either amalgamating with the 1st Battalions to maintain the 2nd Battalion's history and traditions, or simply disband, thus ending the two-battalion policy implemented by Childers in 1881. This proved too severe a decision for the overstretched Army, and a number of regiments reformed their second battalion in the 1950s. The year 1948 also saw the Army receive four Gurkha regiments (eight battalions in total) transferred to them from the Indian Army and were formed into the Brigade of Gurkhas, initially based in Malaya.

More reforms of the armed forces took place with the 1957 Defence White Paper, which saw further reductions implemented; the Government realised after the debacle of the Suez War that Britain was no longer a global superpower and decided to withdraw from most of its commitments in the world, limiting the armed forces to concentrating on NATO, with an increased reliance upon nuclear weapons. The White Paper announced that the Army would be reduced in size from about 330,000 to 165,000, with National Service ending by 1963 (it officially ended on 31 December 1960, with the last conscript being discharged in May 1963) with the intention of making the Army into an entirely professional force. This enormous reduction in manpower led to, between 1958-62, eight cavalry and thirty infantry regiments being amalgamated, the latter amalgamations producing fifteen single-battalion regiments. Brigade cap badges superseded the regimental cap badge in 1959 and it was perceived as the first step in the dilution of the regimental system, though all attempts have consistently failed to do so.

Many of the regiments created during the 1957 White Paper would have only a brief existence, most being amalgamated into new 'large' regiments -- The Queen's, Royal Fusiliers, Royal Anglian, Light Infantry, Royal Irish Rangers, and the Royal Green Jackets -- all of whose 'junior' battalions were disbanded by the mid-1970s. Two regiments -- The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) and The York and Lancaster Regiment-- opted to be disbanded rather than amalgamated. The fourteen administrative brigades (created in 1948) were replaced by six administrative divisions in 1968, with regimental cap badges being re-introduced the following year. The Conservative Government came to power in 1970, one of its pledges included the saving of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders after a popular campaign to save it had been provoked by the announcement of its intended demise. The Government also decided to stop the planned amalgamation of The Gloucestershire Regiment with The Royal Hampshire Regiment. Further cavalry and infantry regiments were, however, amalgamated between 1969-1971, with six cavalry (into three) and six infantry (also into three) regiments doing so.

For the structure of the Army during this time period, see List of British Army regiments (1962).

Post-WWII Operations Outside Great Britain

The Far East

In the immediate aftermath of the war in the Far East, the Army was tasked with reoccupying former British territories such as Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

The British Army also played an active part, if only briefly, in the military actions by other European nations in their attempts to restore their pre-WWII governance, occupation, and control of South-Eastern Asian countries.

For example, British and Indian Army forces were sent to the island of Java in the Dutch East Indies in September 1945 to disarm and help repatriate the Japanese occupation forces. It was a month after the local nationalists -- who had been provided with arms by the Japanese -- had declared an independent Indonesia.

The situation in Java was quite chaotic with much violence taking place. The British and Indian forces experienced fierce resistance from the nationalists; the former Japanese occupation force was also employed by the British to help maintain order, and fought alongside the British and Indian forces. Dutch forces gradually arrived in number and the British and Indians left by November 1946.

A similar situation existed in French Indochina after Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of Vietnam on September 2, 1945.

British and Indian troops, commanded by Major-General Douglas Gracey, were deployed to occupy the south of the country shortly afterwards, while Nationalist Chinese attempted to occupy the northern areas of Vietnam.

Vietnam was at this time in chaos and the population did not want French rule restored. The British military decided to rearm a large number of French POWs -- who then went on a rampage -- and British forces also re-armed Japanese troops to help maintain order. The British and Indians departed by February 1946 and the First Indochina War began shortly afterwards. War in Vietnam would continue for more than twenty years.

British De-colonialisation and the British Army

The latter part of the 1940s saw the British state begin to withdraw from the Empire, the Army playing a prominent role in its dismantlement. The first colony the British withdrew from was India, the largest British possession as measured by population, though not the largest by geographical area.

In 1947 the British government announced India would become independent on 15 August, after being separated into two countries, one mostly Muslim (Pakistan) and the other mostly Hindu (India). The last British Army unit to leave active service in the Indian subcontinent was the 1st Battalion, The Somerset Light Infantry (Prince Albert's) on 28 February 1948.

In Palestine, there was a surge in attacks against the British mandate and occupation by Zionist organisations such as Irgun and the Stern Gang after the British attempted to limit Jewish immigration into Palestine. British military and other forces eventually withdrew in 1948 and the State of Israel was established on 14 May.

Elsewhere within British territories, Communist guerrillas are alleged to have launched an uprising in Malaya, starting the Malayan Emergency.

In the early 1950s, trouble began in Cyprus, and also in Kenya -- the Mau Mau uprising.

In Cyprus, an organisation known as EOKA sought unity with Greece, the situation being stabilised just before Cyprus was given independence in 1960.

Kenya was one of many deployments for the Army in Africa during the 1950s, most of the others being former Italian colonies placed in the temporary control of Britain and the British Army.


The British Army also took part in the Korean War (1950-53), fighting in battles such as Imjin River which included Gloster Hill.

More British De-colonialisation

Elsewhere, the Army withdrew from the Suez Canal Zone in Egypt in 1955. The following year, along with France and Israel, the British invaded Egypt in a conflict known as the Suez War, after the Egyptian leader, President Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal which privately owned businesses in Britain and France owned shares in.

The British Army contributed forces to the amphibious assault on Suez and British paratroopers took part in the airborne assault. This brief war was a military success. However, international pressure, especially from the US government, soon forced the British government to withdraw all their military forces soon afterwards. British military forces were replaced by UN peacekeeping troops.

In the 1960s two conflicts featured heavily with the Army, the Aden Emergency and the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation in Borneo.

Operations Within Great Britain

Northern Ireland

In 1969 a surge in violence in Northern Ireland (NI) against Catholics by Protestants led to British troops being sent into NI to assist the RUC in stopping the violence. This became Operation Banner. The troops were initially welcomed by the Catholic community; however, this developed into opposition, and the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), a militant break-away from the IRA which had been quiet since the 1962 cessation of the Border Campaign, began to target British troops. The first British soldier to die in the conflict was Gunner Robert Curtis, who was killed in February 1971. The Army's operations in the early phase of its deployment had it placed in a policing role, for which, in many cases, it was ill suited. This involved seeking to prevent confrontations between the Catholics and Protestants, as well as putting down riots and stopping Republican and Loyalist paramilitary groups from committing terrorist attacks.

However, as the Provisional IRA campaign 1969-1997 grew in ferocity in the early 1970s, the Army was increasingly caught in a situation where its actions were directed against the IRA and the Catholic Irish nationalist community which harboured it. In the early period of the conflict, British troops mounted several major field operations. the first of these was the Falls Curfew of 1971, when over 3,000 troops imposed a 3 day curfew on the Falls Road area of Belfast and fought a sustained gun battle with local IRA men. In Operation Demetrius in June 1971, 300 paramilitary suspects were interned, an action which provoked a major upsurge in violence. The largest single British operation of the period was Operation Motorman in 1972, when about 21,000 troops were used to restore state control over areas of Belfast and Derry, which were then controlled by republican paramilitaries. The Army's reputation suffered greatly from an incident in Derry on 30 January 1972, Bloody Sunday in which 13 Catholic civilians were killed by The Parachute Regiment. The biggest single loss of life for British troops in the conflict came at Narrow Water, where eighteen British soldiers were killed in a PIRA bomb attack on 27 August 1979, on the same day Lord Mountbatten was assassinated by the PIRA in a separate attack. In all almost 500 British troops died in service in Northern Ireland, the last of whom were killed in 1997. Most of these deaths however occurred in the early 1970s, when British troops were placed at the forefront of the conflict and had little experience in dealing with a low intensity conflict in a predominantly urban, heavily populated area.

By the late 1970s, the Army was replaced to some degree as "frontline" security service, in preference for the local Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Ulster Defence Regiment (raised 1970) as part of the Ulsterisation policy. By the 1980s and early 1990s, Army casualties in the conflict had dropped. Moreover, British Special Forces had some successes against the PIRA - see Operation Flavius and the Loughall ambush. Nevertheless, the conflict tied up over 12,000 British troops on a continuous basis until the late 1990s and was ended with the Good Friday Agreement which detailed a path to a political solution to the conflict.

In 1980, the Special Air Service emerged from its secretive world when its most high-profile operation, the ending of the Iranian Embassy siege in London, was broadcast live on television. By the 1980s, even though the Army was being increasingly deployed abroad, most of its permanent overseas garrisons were gone, with the largest remaining being the BAOR in Germany, while others included Belize, Brunei, Gibraltar, and Hong Kong.

Falklands War

One remaining garrison provided by the Royal Marines was the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, 6,000 to convert|8000|mi|km|-3 (11,000 to 15,000 km) from Britain. The Argentinians invaded the Falklands in April 1982. The British quickly responded and the Army had an active involvement in the campaign to liberate the Falklands upon the landings at San Carlos, taking part in a series of battles that led to them reaching the outskirts of the capital, Stanley. The Falklands War ending with the formal surrender of the Argentinian forces on 14 June.

Age of mobility (1990-present)


The collapse of the Soviet Union, ending the Cold War, saw a new defence white paper, Options for Change produced. This saw inevitable reductions in the British armed forces. The Army experienced a substantial cut in its manpower (reduced to about 120,000), which included yet more regimental amalgamations, including two of the large regiments of the 1960s -- the Queen's Regiment and Royal Irish Rangers -- and the third battalions of the remaining large regiments being cut. The British Army in Germany was also affected, with the British Army of the Rhine replaced by British Forces Germany and personnel numbers being reduced from about 55,000 to 25,000; the replacement of German-based I Corps by the British-led Headquarters Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps also took place. Nine of the Army's administrative corps were amalgamated to form the Royal Logistic Corps and the Adjutant General's Corps). One major development was the disbandment of the Women's Royal Army Corps (though the largest elements were absorbed by the AGC) and their integration into services that had previously been restricted to men; however, women were still forbidden from joining armoured and infantry units. The four Gurkha regiments were amalgamated to form the three-battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles, reduced to two in 1996 just before the handover of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China in 1997.

The Labour Party became the country's new government and after their election victory in 1997 a new defence white paper was prepared, known as the Strategic Defence Review (1998). Some of the Army's reforms included the creation of two deployable divisions -- 1st (UK) Armoured Division and 3rd Mechanised Division, with the 1st Division being based in Germany -- and three 'regenerative' divisions -- 2nd, 4th, and 5th Divisions. The 16 Air Assault Brigade was formed from 24 Airmobile Brigade and elements of 5 Airborne Brigade to provide the Army with increased mobility, and would include the Westland WAH-64 Apache attack helicopter. Other attempts to make the Army more mobile was the creation of the Joint Rapid Reaction Force, intended to provide a corps-sized force capable of reacting quickly to situations similar to Bosnia. The Army Air Corps's helicopters also helped form the multi-service Joint Helicopter Command.

For the structure of the British Army during this period, see List of British Army regiments (1994)

Another defence review was published in 2004, known as Delivering Security in a Changing World. The defence white paper stated that the Army's manpower would be reduced by 1,000, with four infantry battalions being cut and the manpower being redistributed elsewhere. One of the most radical aspects of the reforms was the announcement that most single-battalion regiments would amalgamate into large regiments, with most of the battalions retaining their previous regimental titles in their battalion names. The TA would also be further integrated into the Army, with battalions being numbered into the regiment's structure. These are reminiscent, in some respects, to the Cardwell-Childers reforms and the 1960s reforms.

Since the late 1990s, the British Army has been gradually moulded into an increasingly expeditionary-based force in anticipation of further small-scale wars against terrorist organisations like Al Qaida and so-called "Rogue states".Fact|date=July 2008

The elite units of the Army are also playing an increasingly prominent role in the Army's operations and the SAS was allocated further funds in the 2004 defence paper, conveying the SAS's increasing importance in the War on Terror. The 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, meanwhile, is to become part of a new tri-service unit to support the SAS and the Navy's SBS, being acclaimed as the Army's equivalent to the U.S. Army Rangers. Another élite unit, which became operational on 6 April 2005, is the Special Reconnaissance Regiment.


The end of the Cold War did not provide the British Army with any respite, and the political vacuum left by the Soviet Union has seen a surge of instability in the world. Saddam Hussain's Iraq invaded Kuwait, one of its neighbours, in 1990, provoking condemnation from the United Nations, primarily led by the United States. The Gulf War and the British contribution, known as Operation Granby, was large, with the Army providing about 28,000 troops and 13,000 vehicles, mostly centred around 1 (UK) Armoured Division. After air operations ended, the land campaign against Iraq began on 24 February. 1st Armoured Division took part in the left-hook attack that helped destroy many Iraqi units. The ground campaign had lasted just 100-hours, Kuwait being officially liberated on 27 February.

The British Army has also played an increasingly prominent role in peacekeeping operation, gaining much respect for its comparative expertise in the area. In 1992, during the wars in the Balkans provoked by the gradual disintegration of Yugoslavia, UN forces intervened in Croatia and later Bosnia. British forces contributed as part of UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Force). The force was a peacekeeping one, but with no peace to keep, it proved ineffective and was replaced by the NATO IFOR though this was in turn replaced the following year by SFOR. As of 2005, Britain's contribution numbers about 3,000 troops. In 1999 the UK took a lead role in the NATO war against Slobodan Milošević's forces in Kosovo. After the air war ended, the Parachute Regiment and Royal Gurkha Rifles provided the spearhead for ground forces entering Kosovo. In 2000, British forces, as part of Operation Palliser, intervened in a civil war ravaged Sierra Leone, with the intention of evacuating British, Commonwealth and EU citizens. The SAS also played a prominent role when they, along with the Paras, launched the successful Operation Barras to rescue 6 soldiers of the Royal Irish Regiment being held by the rebels. The British force remained and provided the catalyst for the stabilisation of the country.

The early 21st century saw the world descend into a new war after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York by Al Qaida: the War on Terrorism. A US-led invasion of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan followed, with the British contribution led by the RN and RAF; the most important Army element being the SAS. The British later took part in the invasion of invasion of Iraq in 2003, Britain's contribution being known as Operation Telic, The Army played a more significant role in Iraq than Afghanistan, deploying a substantial force, centred around 1 (UK) Armoured Division with, again, around 28,000 troops. The war began in March and the British fought in the southern area of Iraq, eventually capturing the second largest city, Basra, in April. The Army remained in Iraq upon the end of the war and now leads the Multi-National Division (South East), with the Army presence in Iraq numbering about 5,000 soldiers.


*Army - Consists of 2 or more corps.
*Corps - Operationally, it comprises 2 or more divisions. In the British Army it is used to administrate units that perform the same function, such as the Corps of Royal Engineers.
*Division - About 10 to 20,000 personnel, comprising about 4 brigades and other units.
*Brigade - Consists of a number of regiments and supporting units, numbering about 2,000 to 5,000 personnel.
*Battalion/Regiment - Made up of companies/squadrons, numbering about 300 to 1,000 personnel. Can consist of multiple battalions.
*Battery/Company/Squadron/ - Consists of about 100 to 200 personnel.
*Platoon/Troop Consists of about 30 personnel.
*Section - Consists of about 8 personnel.

Official rifle of the Army 1722-2005

"See British military rifles"

The British army has mixed extreme conservatism, 'penny-pinching', and extraordinarily exacting standards in its rifles. For example the move to percussion-caps was not made until 1842, while an 1866 trial examined 104 weapons and declined to award a first prize, or that the specifications for an SLR in the 1930s were so stiff "it is doubtful if any... rifle of the present day could meet it in its entirety."

Changes were usually forced on the Army as a result of conflict or the actions of other armies. Note the rapid pace of change in the period 1850-1895 as the Crimean War forced changes and then the foreign demonstrations of the needle-gun, the Chassepot, and the Mannlicher-Mauser designs frightened the Army.

In the 19th century the change-overs were not instant, many colonial units soldiered on with older weapons - some units missing two cycles of change - while some weapons (italicized in the list below) were only issued to specialist rifle brigades or in very limited numbers.

As is often the case, the Army's men often had the weapons to fight the "last" war by the time of the following conflict. Most of the 19th century weapons were technologically obsolete at their introduction or within five years, and despite the apparently exhaustive testing many inadequate weapons were issued.

* Brown Bess 1722-1838
** Long Land Pattern 1722-1802
** Short Land Pattern 1777-1802
** New Land Pattern Musket 1802-1842
* "Baker rifle 1800-1835"
* "Pattern 1836 Brunswick rifle 1836-1851"
* "Pattern 1851 Minié rifle 1851-1855"
* Enfield
** Pattern 1853 1855-1860
** Pattern 1860 1860-1864
* Snider-Enfield (or Converted Enfield) 1864-1871
* Martini-Henry 1871-1888
** Enfield-Martini 1884-1888
* Lee-Metford 1888-1895
* Lee-Enfield 1895-1956
** SMLE 1903-1956
* L1A1 SLR 1957-1985 (FN FAL)
* SA80 L85 1985-

Further reading

*David Chandler, Ian Beckett, The Oxford History of the British Army, Oxford Paperbacks ISBN 0-19-280311-5
*The British Army Handbook: The Definitive Guide by the MoD, Brassey's (UK) Ltd ISBN 1-85753-393-3
*Arthur S. White, Bibliography of Regimental Histories of the British Army, Naval and Military Press ISBN 1-84342-155-0
*Richard Holmes, Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front, Perennial ISBN 0-00-713752-4
*Richard Holmes, Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket, HarperCollins ISBN 0-00-653152-0

References and notes


* Glover, Richard, Elton G.R., (ed.), Britain at Bay: Defence against Bonaparte, 1803-14, Historical problems: Studies and documents series No.20, George Allen and Unwin Ltd., London, 1973

External links

* The National Archives of Scotland: [http://www.nas.gov.uk/guides/military.asp Doing research. Guides. Military records] .
* Regiments. Org [http://www.regiments.org/regiments/uk/lists/bargts.htm Regiments and Corps of the British Army: An Introductory Overview] .
* [http://www.historyhome.co.uk/c-eight/ireland/irenorth.htm The Age of George III: Ireland in the American War (1776-83). Mentions Anglo-Irish militarism, & enlistment of Catholics] .
* [http://www.history.ac.uk/ihr/Focus/War/reviews/revgrantSM.html History In Focus:The British Isles and the War of American Independence]
* [http://www.Britains-smallwars.com Britain's Small Wars]
* [http://www.national-army-museum.ac.uk National Army Museum]
* [http://www.1914-1918.net The Long, Long Trail]
*Military history of the United Kingdom during World War II
* [http://www.remuseum.org.uk/rem_his_history.htm Royal Engineers Museum] - Royal Engineers History
* [http://dl.lib.brown.edu/libweb/collections/askb/ Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library] Military history and graphics

ee also

*History of British light infantry
*British military history
*British Army Uniform
*History of England
*History of Ireland
*History of Scotland
*History of Wales
*Military history of the United Kingdom during World War II
*Recruitment in the British Army
*Regiment - For more detailed information on the British regimental system.

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