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British Regimental System

Experience shows that the fighting spirit of the individual man in battle derives largely from his loyalty to his regiment. Each regiment had its traditions of glory which inspire and maintain that esprit de corps so valuable in the hour of peril, so animating in the crisis of battle. Regimental traditions are important to morale, esprit de corps and operational effectiveness. In two world wars, under difficult conditions, the regimental identities were preserved because the value of the regimental spirit was always recognised. The element which played the biggest part was not the corps, however able the corps commander might have been, nor the division, no matter how able the divisional commander might have been, but was fundamentally the regiment.

The regimental tradition which is laughed upon in certain quarters is the envy of friend and foe alike. Throughout British history British troops have been asked to conduct almost impossible operations, often in almost impossible circumstances and in pretty awful places, due to the vacillation, stupidity, change of mind and ineptitude of Governments of all kinds whether it be in respect of Corunna, the Crimea, Gallipoli or Salonika in the First World War, Dunkirk or Burma in the Second World War, or Aden. Never mind; time and time again what appeared to be almost certain disaster has been averted and ultimately turned into victory.

Very few regiments and corps exist today in the same form that they existed in the past. There has been a recurrent process of change and regeneration over the past 150 years. By 1900 the great distinction between the British army and that of almost every other state in Europe was that the service was voluntary. The subjects of the crown engaged, by free choice, to serve in the army for a definite number of years. In the rare cases where forced service by ballot was obtained, it was in the militia, not the regular army.

Infantry in the British Army was traditionally divided into the Foot Guards and the Infantry of the Line. As of 2012, the oldest Regiment of the Line was the The Royal Scots Borderers (at that time amalgameted into the 1st Battalion of The Royal Regiment of Scotland) which was formed in 1633 when King Charles I warranted Sir John Hepburn to raise a Scottish Regiment for service in France. The Foot Guards traditionally provided protection to the Monarch and traced their history back to Bruges in 1656, when the Royal Regiment of Guards was raised by the exiled King Charles II. This Regiment went on to become the Grenadier Guards. Thereafter Regiments were raised by prominent members of society, often in response to calls from the monarch for support to meet a particular threat. Originally most Regiments were known by their royal or distinctive title, or by the name of their Colonel.

In 1691 the Commons sanctioned a vote of 65,000 men, but on the return of peace in 1697 this force was reduced to 19,000; in the war of the Spanish Succession, the troops at one time numbered over 200,000, but they were again reduced, after the peace of Utrecht, to 19,000. Although the strength of the army since steadily increased, these fluctuations continued. The forces raised to 74,187 in 1745 were reduced to 18,857 after tho Rebellion ; the strength of 245,996 necessary in 1812 had fallen to 71,790 ten years after. The elasticity which permitted these enlargements and contractions was obtained by varying the number of battalions in a regiment, of companies in a battalion, or of men in a company.

During the half-century which followed, the actual number of regiments varied but little. Five cavalry and thirty-five infantry regiments were added in the reigns of the first two Georges; and the necessity of organising a corps of gunners for the defence of Gibraltar and other fortresses led to the formation in 1715, under the Board of Ordnance, of two companies of artillery, which received a regimental constitution the following year, although its oflicers were not regularly commissioned until 1741. Fifty engineer officers also were appointed in 1717; but seventy years elapsed before privates were enlisted and that arm became a corps. It was also at first under the Board of Ordnance; and hence it is that the Artillery and Engineers are still called Ordnance Corps.

The outbreak of the French Revolution found the service at a very low ebb. The laurels gained in the earlier wars of the century had been tarnished in America, where two British armies had surrendered; the ranks were largely filled with pardoned criminals and released debtors; and the system of billeting caused endless complaints from soldiers and civilians alike. In the Peninsula, the army was permanently organised in divisions, and the commissariat and transport were brought to great perfection. But these services were afterwards reduced along with the army, which fell from 246,000 to 72,000, and the result was the miserable state of unpreparedness which was discovered when the strain of the Crimean war came.

A Circular was issued by the General Commanding-in-Chief, on the 29th of August, 1830, directing by command of the King that the Historical Records of all Regiments should be forthwith prepared for publication, and there shortly appeared in rapid succession a series of records of many Regiments of the Line, both Cavalry and Infantry, as well as of the Household Cavalry, compiled by authority in the Adjutant-General's office, but the records so prepared did not include those of the Brigade of Guards; Colonel Mackinnon of the Coldstreams therefore wrote and published in the year 1833, the "Origin and History" of his Regiment, but no officer at that time undertook to compile the History of the Grenadier Guards.

The struggle with the French revealed many defects in the organisation of the British army; but for many years little of lasting value was done towards remedying these defects, beyond an improved method of admission, by examination, of candidates for Her Majesty's commission, and some small amelioration in the position of the privates. An English military critic could still say that 'there was no such thing as a definite English brigade, divisional, or army corps organisation; if war came, the whole had to be evolved from a force of brave men with muskets or field-guns, but destitute of all else.' Other events and considerations occupied the public attention.

Still, the Indian rebellion, the second and third China war, and the Abyssinian expedition, did not allow tho subject to fade altogether from the public mind. So, when the mighty events of the Franco-German war of 1870-71, and the lessons to be derived from them, burst upon Europe, they fell in England upon a soil not unprepared, and acted as a great impulse towards a real reorganisation of the British army. The work since then has been kept steadily in hand by the War Office, under successive ministries, both Liberal and Conservative. Mr (afterwards Lord) Cardwell began it in 1871, under Mr Gladstone.

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Page last modified: 25-04-2013 17:44:04 ZULU