British Army

From ARRSEpedia

"The British Army; rarely ever start a war, but know how to finish one in style."


Undoubtedly the finest military organisation... IN THE WORLD - and the complete opposite of civilians.

The Army has its own language including:

Unlike the Royal Navy, the British Army has historically been the ugly stepchild of British Defence Policy; for much of the Imperial period, global power projection was the closely-guarded province of the Admiralty; soldiers were used mainly for garrisoning colonies, defending ports and bases overseas, and providing the main part of the land component during any conflict with our European colonial rivals.

The British Army has been engaged in numerous campaigns and battles during its long history. The information here is not comprehensive, and further information and topics can be found by visiting the National Army Museum in London's Chelsea district [ from which much of the information in this article is extracted.

Unlike most of today's armies the British Army is still based upon what is referred to as the 'Regimental System'. Each regiment or corps has its own history, traditions and insignia, and a British soldier will usually serve in the same regiment or corps throughout his or her career. Over the years this system has established a feeling of service, comradeship and regimental pride almost akin to tribal loyalty, and which lies at the very heart of the Army's fighting spirit. It has frequently been a major factor in enabling the British Army to prevail, often against impossible odds or in conditions of extreme hardship. The British Army is also the world capital of Professional Soldiering, Elite and Special Forces.

By and large the British people are not obsessed by military matters. Soldiers have frequently been seen by both government and society alike as necessary only in times of war - to be set aside as quickly as possible in peacetime. Mass conscription has been resorted to only twice - both times in the twentieth century at times of acute national danger - even though Britain's Army has been engaged in warlike operations somewhere in the world almost continuously for more than three hundred years. In fact, in the last sixty years (since the end of World War II), there has been only one year - 1968 - when a soldier of the Crown has not been killed while on active service somewhere in the world.

Now due to defence cuts, the entire British Army could be seated in the new Wembley Stadium. (Challengers should be parked in the bus park.)


For much of the Army's history, the need to garrison the outposts of Empire, coupled with this reluctance to introduce conscription, has meant that the forces available for campaigning have been relatively small in number.

A shortage of manpower has been a constant factor in British military thinking and the British Army has fought nearly all its major wars as a partner in an alliance with other states. Furthermore, garrisons and campaigns in all corners of the globe could often only be sustained by the widespread employment of troops recruited overseas. The British were quick to recognise and respect the fighting qualities and potential loyalty of such soldiers, many with their own long histories as warrior peoples.

The English Civil Wars, 1642-1651

The English Civil War was actually a series of conflicts, and should really be seen as a British event, as there were few areas of the British Isles which were not in some way affected. A recent estimate suggests that there were as many as 250,000 war-related deaths in Britain during this period - a greater proportion of the population than the British dead of the First World War.

Many soldiers were employed on garrison duty, and saw little fighting. A large number never left their own counties. For those with the armies in the field however, the war meant frequent marches, cold, hunger, tiredness and disease, but above all, fear and confusion.

In 1653, Cromwell was made Lord Protector, and ruled England until his death in 1658. Although he would have liked to have done so, he was never able to dispense with the army created in 1645 which had ultimately brought him to power. In 1660 General George Monk, Cromwell's commander in Scotland, used the military forces under his control to restore Charles II to the throne.

Charles II was the first English monarch to maintain a standing army in peacetime. It might be worth mentioning why there is no such entity as the "Royal Army". The accepted reason for this is that the Army's current structure and ethos descends directly from Cromwell's New Model Army, which was the first properly established professional land warfare force. Its association with the Parliamentarians and the Commonwealth Interregnum meant that the Army (as an entity) was not considered worthy of the sobriquet "Royal", although individual regiments or corps may carry the title.

(Then why do we not swear an oath to parliament, only to the Monarch, Officers and those others appointed above us?)

Thus the "Royal Tank Regiment" or "The Royal Green Jackets" are regiments within the British Army. Ironically, of those troops closest to the Crown (the Foot Guards Regiments of infantry and the mounted soldiers of the Household Cavalry), only one element has "Royal" in its title; this is the "Blues and Royals", who were formed by an amalgamation of the Royal Horse Guards and the 1st Dragoons (who were a senior line cavalry regiment before amalgamation into the Household Division).

Eighteenth Century

The Glorious Revolution

War of the Spanish Succession

The Jacobite Risings

The War of the Austrian Succession

The Seven Years War

The American Revolutionary War/War of Independence

Nineteenth Century

The British Army 1793-1815 - The Road to Waterloo

The Peninsular War

The Battle of Waterloo

The Afghan Wars

The First China War

The First Sikh War

The Second Sikh War

The Crimean War and The Charge of the Light Brigade

The Indian Mutiny

The Ashanti Wars

The Zulu War

Egypt and the Sudan

The North West Frontier

The Boer Wars

Twentieth Century

The First World War 1914-1918

Britain went to war in 1914 with a small, professional army that was primarily designed to police its Empire. The Army had learned from the harsh lessons taught to it during the Boer War and reforms in training had been introduced which meant that, man-for-man, the British soldiers of 1914 were probably the best in Europe. However, there were very few of them. With just six infantry and one cavalry division, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was tiny when compared to the armies of Germany and France. The BEF fought with distinction at both Mons and Ypres but by the end of 1914 it had been virtually wiped out and a heavy toll taken of the Territorials sent to reinforce it.

The New Armies & Conscription

The Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, had already realised that this was warfare on an unprecedented scale and that, if victory was to be achieved, Britain would have to create a mass army for the very first time. He began the appeal for volunteers for his "New Armies" in August 1914 and, by the end of 1915, nearly 2.5 million men had enlisted, many in to "Pals" Battalions, organised on a local basis. The advantage of these local links was that the new battalions came with existing ties, which the Army could develop. The disadvantage was that if a unit suffered heavy casualties it could have a devastating effect upon a community.

On battlefields dominated by the defensive power of artillery, barbed wire and the machine gun casualties were enormous and in January 1916, to maintain the size of the Army, the government introduced conscription with the Military Service Act. Single men between 18 and 41 became liable to compulsory military service and in May the Act was extended to include married men. Even so, casualties outstripped replacements and in 1918 the BEF was obliged to reduce the number of infantry Battalions in many of its Divisions. In April 1918 a second Military Service Act raised the upper age limit for conscription to 50.

The Western Front

At the outbreak of war Field Marshal Sir John French's British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was sent across the English Channel primarily as an expression of political support for France. Comprising only four infantry and one cavalry divisions, some 90,000 men, it was tiny compared with the German and French armies. Even so it was to play a role out of all proportion to its numbers.

On its arrival in France it concentrated around Maubeuge on the left wing of the French Fifth Army, with Lieutenant-General Douglas Haig I Corps on the right and Lieutenant-General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien II Corps on the left. As it turned out this placed the BEF squarely in the path of General Alexander von Kluck German First Army as it advanced through Belgium as part of the German plan to envelop the French.

On 22 August, warned of the German advance by patrols from Lieutenant-General Sir Edmund Allenby Cavalry Division, the BEF took up a defensive position around the Belgian town of Mons with Smith-Dorrien's II Corps dug in along the Mons-Condee canal. The following day the Germans blundered into them. Advancing in dense formations the Germans were stopped in their tracks by accurate British rifle fire and suffered 5,000 casualties. The British lost 1,600 men, mainly to German artillery fire.

Retreat - from Mons to The Marne

Despite the tactical success at Mons, the BEF's right flank was exposed by the withdrawal of the French Fifth Army and so it was forced to fall back as well. On 25 August the French Commander-in-Chief, General Joseph Joffre, ordered a withdrawal to the River Marne and the BEF was forced to carry out a ten-day fighting retreat over nearly 200 miles in unusually hot weather.

The two British Corps became separated by the Forest of Mormal and on 26 August, against French's wishes, Smith-Dorrien decided that he would have to halt his exhausted troops at Le Cateau, where he fought another defensive battle. Once again the British held up the German advance but in doing so they suffered a further 7,000 casualties.

At this point Field Marshal French seems to have suffered a temporary loss of nerve and decided that his troops needed to be pulled out of the line for a rest. Aware of the impact that this would have on Anglo-French relations, Field Marshal Earl Kitchener intervened in person and overruled him. On 3 September the BEF withdrew across the Marne River.

From The Marne to Ypres

Believing that the French Fifth Army and the BEF were beaten, von Kluck decided to wheel east rather than west of Paris, thus exposing his flank to a counter-attack which duly took place on 5 September. The BEF marched into the gap between the German First and Second Armies, helping to drive them back to the river Aisne where in mid-September the Germans defeated a number of attempts to dislodge them.

In a period misleadingly known as "the race to the sea" both sides then attempted to outflank each other. In October 1914 the BEF, now reinforced to twice its original size, was switched from the Aisne to Ypres in Belgium. From 20 October to 22 November it helped to defeat a major German attempt to break through. Ypres marked the end of open warfare and as both sides dug in the lines of trenches ran from the sea to the Swiss frontier.


The BEF has been described as the best equipped and trained force ever to leave these shores and, man for man, its professional soldiers had proved themselves more than a match for their German opponents. However there had been problems at the high command level. French's leadership had been uncertain, he had lost contact with his subordinates at crucial times and his original two Corps had not always co-operated as effectively as they might have done. Nevertheless his Army had fought far larger forces to a standstill, slowing the German advance in August and saving the day at Ypres. Yet the cost had been high. By the end of the year it had suffered 90,000 casualties and the original BEF had been almost wiped out.

The Somme 1916




East Africa






Post-war garrisoning

White Russia

Second World War 1939-1945

The Fall of France

Far East

North Africa


North West Europe

Post-War Conflicts



India Partition






Egypt & The Canal Zone




Northern Ireland

Falkland Islands - Operation CORPORATE

Gulf War - Operation GRANBY



Sierra Leone

Afganistan - Operation FINGAL and Operation HERRICK

Iraq - Operation TELIC

The Future

Many old regiments have now been amalgamated beyond recognition. The suspicion amongst a great many is that this is not merely a paper exercises designed to maximise resources with increasingly tight budgets, but rather an engineered policy by a political elite of consciously stripping down unit - and subsequently national identity.

As the United Kingdom is increasingly consumed by the European Union, the future of the British Army as an autonomous entity is uncertain. The increasing trend for 'Jointery' - coupled with multinational operations could well spell the end for the Army as we know it today - it ending up as a regional land warfare component of an EU badged force.


Usually cheap (contract offered to the lowest tender)of little use and relevance i.e. puttees! gaiters! DMS boots!! need I go on. Most squaddies tend to buy their own better quality kit such as waterproofs (in the '70's they weren't issued - but we did have a raincoat)!! Desert boots (OP Granby) etc, etc. can any one else expand on this moan, whinge or piece of information!!!!!

Endless cutting of the defence budget (especially by a forces hating Labour administration) has resulted in shortages in Helicopters and decent vehicles for the task at hand (afghanistan). Penny pinching MoD bean counters, in a bid to pay for their new marble floor, have also purchased sub standard eastern European '50 cal' ammunition which caused heavy weapons to jam constantly.

Although today the kit is surprisingly good. This is mainly due to Project PECOC

Facts & Figures

  • A list of the Oldest British Regiments can be found here.