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British Army - History

It was one of the marked features of the Norman policy to keep alive the old English fyrd or militia; and the "Assises of Arms" of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries carefully regulated the liability to serve. In the sixteenth century, the county militia, previously under the care of the King's sheriffs, was made the subject of an Act of Parliament and organized under a new county official, the Lord Lieutenant appointed by the Crown. At the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the King's sole right to call out and command the militia (which had been denied by the Long Parliament of the Civil War) was fully confirmed by Act of Parliament; but the same statute introduced an elaborate scheme which virtually placed its control in the hands of the landowners of its own county.

When James II showed a disposition to imitate the policy of his father, by establishing a camp of professional soldiers on Hounslow Heath to overawe London, his subjects deposed him, and, in the great Bill of Rights, in 1689, in which they offered the throne to William of Orange and his wife, they made it an express condition of their offer, that "the raising or keeping a standing army within the kingdom, in time of peace, unless it be with the consent of Parliament, is against law." The very event which rendered the existence of a standing, or "regular" army within the realm illegal, also rendered it necessary. Naturally, the dethroned monarch and his descendants would not submit to the loss of their inheritance without an effort; and there were many rulers (especially the powerful King of France) only too willing to make use of the Stuart or Jacobite claims, to embarrass William of Orange, whom they hated as the champion of Protestantism and liberty. Accordingly, it became necessary to provide in some way for the suspension of the provisions of the Petition of Right and the Bill of Rights above quoted; and this was done by the passing of annual "Mutiny Acts".

The Mutiny Acts extended in a long and almost unbroken series from 1689 to the middle of the nineteenth century, as standing witnesses to the growing control of Parliament over the regular army. A permanent statute, the "Army Act" was enacted in 1881. This "permanent" statute is in a very true sense "annual"; because it is re-enacted or revived year by year by the Army (Annual) Act, which has taken the place of the original Mutiny Acts of William and Anne. By an admirable arrangement, when any alteration is made in its provisions by an amending Act, that alteration is immediately incorporated into the Act itself.

In the year 1793, as a consequence of the great French War, the military control of the army was placed under a professional Commander- in-Chief, while its administrative control was placed under a newly created Secretary of State for War. Thus began that system of "dual control" of the army, by the "Horse Guards" or headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief, and the "War Office" or bureau of the Secretary of State, which was the parent of so much friction and confusion. The definite establishment of the principle that in army administration, as in other departments of State, Parliament is supreme, did not come until after the Crimean War, when, by the separation of the War and Colonial Offices, the Secretary of State for War, always a member of the Ministry, and, in normal times, a member of the Cabinet, acquired complete control of the army, and, of course, therewith complete responsibility to Parliament, tempered only by the surviving powers of the Commender-in-Chief.

The most complete change was made in 1904, when, as the result of the recommendations of Lord Esher's Commission, the office of Commander-in-Chief was definitely abolished, and the government of the army entrusted to an Army Council, created from time to time by Letters Patent, and consisting of the Secretary of State, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for War, the Financial Secretary to the War Office, with four professional members, viz. the Chief of the General Staff, the Adjutant-General, the Quartermaster-General, and the Master-General of Ordnance.

This body, whose duties were regulated by Order in Council, and which consisted of three Ministers and four professional officials of high rank, had the virtual control of the daily administration of the army, issued formal Orders relating to its government, and, under the Defence of the Realm Acts, about many other matters relating to public safety, regulates promotions, carries out the decisions of the Imperial Cabinet on the subject of the direction of campaigns, and the movement of troops, and, through the Committee of Imperial Defenc, cooperated with the Royal Navy.

During the first half of the eighteenth century there were no marked improvements in tactics. Cavalry had degenerated into unwieldy masses of horsemen who, unable to move at speed, charged at a slow trot, and fought only with pistol and carbine; while infantry attacked in heavy columns, and did little execution with their muskets, which they preferred to use as pikes. Then a great military reformer arose and astonished Europe. Frederick the Great reorganised his cavalry ; he taught them to manoeuvre at full speed, to charge at the gallop, and, discarding the use of firearms, to rely for victory on shock action and the cold steel. His infantry were so perfectly drilled and disciplined that he could trust them to attack in line; and he relied as much on his musketry-fire as on the bayonet for his success in battle. By dint of incessant practice he trained his foot-soldiers to load and fire far more rapidly than any other troops in Europe. It is stated on good authority that they could on an emergency fire five steady volleys in one minute. In artillery Frederick also made improvements, for he realised that to thoroughly develop its value on the battle-field guns should be able to change their position rapidly, as the varying phases of the combat require. He therefore formed light batteries, so powerfully horsed that they were able to keep up with cavalry moving at full speed.

Frederick's daring innovation in abandoning the column and adopting the line as the formation for attack at first filled Europe with amazement, then, as its success became apparent, with admiration. Though by no means adapted to the soldiery of every nation, this formation suited the genius of the English so well that it became part of the national system of tactics. It appears to have been employed for the first time in the English army at the battle of Minden in 1759, where the English contingent of infantry, advancing in lines across a plain swept by the fire of many batteries, triumphantly met the charge of more than sixty French squadrons, whom, by steady and extended fire, the English defeated and partially destroyed.

With the growth of population, it became unusual to train the whole of the male inhabitants of the country; and there was, in normal times, rarely any difficulty in raising sufficient numbers by voluntary enlistment. In the middle of the eighteenth century, however, provision was made by Act of Parliament for the regular drawing up of lists of persons liable to serve in the militia, and the holding of ballots to select by lot those who should actually be called up. During the Napoleonic wars, the militia, quite contrary to its original purpose, was freely made use of to provide drafts for foreign service, with the result that, as a defence force, it almost disappeared. Its place was taken in the middle of the nineteenth century by a body known as "The Volunteers" ; though, as a matter of fact, the whole army was then a voluntary service body. In the year 1907, the remains of the old militia and the Volunteers were united by the new Territorial and Reserve Forces Act, which actually had in view a voluntary defence force though, as a precaution, the militia ballot, though long disused, was not expressly abolished. Like the old militia, the "Territorials" were organized under the county Lord Lieutenants, aided, however, by County Associations ; and they were only subject to military law when actually embodied or "called out" for service.

Previous to November 1871 first appointments and regimental promotion in the cavalry and infantry were made under the purchase system. This system dated from the earliest days of the army, and arose partly from the mode In which regiments were originally raised. Every regimental commission had a fixed regulation price, varying from 450, the price of an ensigncy in an infantry regiment, to 7250, that of a lieutenant-colonelcy of Life Guards ; in addition to which an over-regulation price, which sometimes even exceeded the regulation price, had sprung up, and become established by custom, though contrary to law.

An officer on retiring received the regulation price of his commission from Government, and the over-regulation from the officer who succeeded him ; and the step went to the senior qualified officer of the lower grade in the regiment who was able and willing to purchase it. An officer who could not afford to purchase rose with the others till he became senior of his rank, and there remained till a death vacancy or other "non-purchase step" gave him his promotion.

Practically, however, the injury inflicted was less than at first sight appears, as the purchase system stimulated a rapid flow of promotion, by which the non-purchase officer profited also, and if he lost a year or two in promotion, he saved several thousand pounds. First appointments were given to gentlemen whose names were on the Commander- in-Chief's list, and to cadets from the Military College at Sandhurst, on passing the required examinations and paying the price of the commission ; a certain number of commissions without purchase being given to those who passed high examinations at Sandhurst, and to young men whose fathers' services gave them special claims. Purchase was abolished by warrant of 20th July 1871, Parliament voting the money to compensate the officers then holding saleable commissions, and a system of promotion by "seniority tempered by selection" was substituted.

When Great Britain declared war on August 4th, 1914, the total army strength was 247,000 with 145,000 ex-regular reservists. In contrast to the other major European powers, the British Army relied on volunteer soldiers rather than on National Service. Lord Kitchener, a serving officer who was made Secretary for War on August 5th, informed the Cabinet that it would be a three-year war requiring at least one million men. Thirty new divisions were formed into what became known as the New Armies or Kitchener's Army. The volunteers were assigned to new battalions of existing regiments of infantry which were given numbers following consecutively on the existing ones. [The word "Service" was added to the battalion number.] Typically, an infantry battalion consisted of 1,000 men. Following huge losses and a decline in volunteers, conscription was eventually introduced in January 1916. It was not applied to Ireland.

The "regular" or professional army included infantry, cavalry, and horse and foot artillery, and engineers. These were recruited under the terms of the Army Act, on a voluntary system, which authorized the Crown to accept their services for a period not exceeding twelve years. In practice, the period for which the regular private soldier enlisted was seven years with the colours and five in the "reserve"; while it would seem that acceptance of a commission by an officer bound him to serve during the Crown's pleasure, though, in time of peace, the officer could, in practice, resign his commission at any time. Moreover, the length and terms of service may be extended or varied by the Secretary of State, within the limits prescribed by the Army Act; and there are provisions for suspending the right to a discharge at the expiry of a period of service, if the Empire is then at war, and for prolonging it voluntarily, if the soldier so desires. Owing to the great changes wrought by the European War, it is impossible now to give any idea of the probable future numbers of the regular army; but, at the outbreak of the war, it numbered about 120,000 men. The members of the regular army are liable to be sent anywhere, at any time, on service.

The Royal Marines were a body of regular troops, infantry and artillery, of great value, which occupies a curious legal position. Its members are liable to serve both on land and sea. They were raised under the provisions of the Mutiny Acts, which made special reference to them; and when they are serving on land, or on any merchant ship or transport, they were, with certain reservations, subject to the provisions of the Army Act. But when they are serving on board a ship of war, they were subject to the provisions of the Naval Discipline Acts; unless they were "borne on the books" for service on shore, when only parts of those provisions apply to them.

The "new" armies raised at the outbreak of the Great War, and forming by far the largest part of the armed forces of the Crown, differed in more than one respect from the "regular" or "standing" army. In the first place, they were enlisted, at any rate so far as the non-commissioned ranks are concerned, for three years or the duration of the war only ; and over five millions of men were voluntarily so enlisted. In the second place, since the passing of the Military Service Acts of the year 1916, every male British subject ordinarily resident in Great Britain, between the ages of eighteen and forty-one, was liable, subject to certain exceptions, for general service in them, during the war, and is, indeed, deemed, on attaining, or, if he had attained at a certain date, the age of eighteen and had not attained forty-one, to have been enlisted therein and transferred to the "reserve". From this reserve he can be called up as required; and, as a matter of fact, such persons are systematically called up for active service, subject to the requirements of essential industries and various exemptions on account of illness, hardship, or other ground of postponement. These armies likewise comprise all branches of the land service.

The Territorial and Reserve Forces, had substantially taken the places both of the old militia and the "Volunteers" of the nineteenth century. These are not, in ordinary times, strictly a part of the standing army, but rather materials from which a standing army may be speedily raised.

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Page last modified: 20-05-2013 18:49:06 ZULU