The Regimental System in the British Army

Much of why I enjoy writing about the British Army is because it has such a colorful history, and is steeped in tradition.  One of the most fascinating and distinguishing characteristics of the British Army is the Regimental System.  Some consider this system obsolete, and it has certainly faced challenges in recent years.  Nevertheless it is the primary source of the Army’s esprit de corps, ceremonial color, and connection to the past.

Great Britain is a much more regionalist country than the United States.  The United Kingdom contains within its borders an astonishing variety of accents, cultures, and traditions.  Historically, the infantry regiments were based geographically.  English regiments were based on the traditional counties, while Scottish regiments were based on the ancient clans, again with designated recruiting areas.  Soldiers in the same regiment were all from the same part of the country, with common backgrounds and experiences.  This has typically made it easy for soldiers within the same regiment to bond with each other.

Carlisle 2

Victorian memorial window to the Border Regiment at Carlisle Cathedral.  Before amalgamation, the Border Regiment was the traditional infantry unit of Cumberland (now Cumbria).  Photo by the author’s spouse.

While it is common for officers to change units, it is rare for British enlisted soldiers to transfer regiments.  In the days of muskets and sabers, soldiers enlisted for life.  Therefore, once a man became a soldier, he served with the same men until killed or invalided out of the Army.  The same group of soldiers lived, worked, fought, and died side-by-side for decades.

The Royal Navy has always been popular with the British populace, but this was not true for the Army.  Historically, officers came from the aristocracy, but the enlisted men (the “other ranks”) came from the dregs of society.  Recruiting sergeants enticed the desperate poor with stories of excitement and plunder; magistrates would often offer Army service as an alternative to prison.  The Duke of Wellington believed that strict discipline was essential to prevent the common soldiery from descending into a lawless mob.  British society therefore distrusted and disliked soldiers, at least until the 20th Century and its massive conscript efforts during the World Wars.  Soldiers therefore learned to turn to each other for friendship and comfort.  One cannot really understand Kipling’s “Tommy” without this background.

These factors combined to make a soldier’s regiment very like his family.  Brigades and divisions are fighting formations, but it is the regiment which gives a soldier his pride.

The regiments were originally numbered, in order of their founding.  Most regiments took on an unofficial name, normally for the county where they were based, but sometimes for another distinguishing characteristic.  During the middle of the 18th Century, many regiments were known for their commanding officer.  For example, both the 3rd and 19th Regiments were commanded by colonels named Howard; to distinguish between them, the 3rd became known as The Buff Howards, and the 19th were the Green Howards, taken from the facing colors on their jackets.  In the late Victorian period, the numbers were abandoned and the names were formalized; the Green Howards kept their name, and the 3rd became the Royal East Kent Regiment (“The Buffs”).  The 42nd was always known as The Black Watch, possibly for the dark colors of its tartan, but other theories exist as well.

Buffs Drums

Regimental drums of the Royal East Kent Regiment (The Buffs) on display at the Canterbury City Museum.  Photo by the author.

The traditional regiments commemorated their great victories, and each celebrated its own unique Regimental Anniversary, based either on its founding or its most famous battle.  Battle Honours* were granted to the regiments involved in the campaign, and were emblazoned on each regiment’s Colours*, or flags, as well as on the bandsmen’s drums.  The Colours were carried into battle; when they inevitably became too damaged for continued use, they would be retired to a church or cathedral close to the regimental headquarters, and the Monarch would issue new Colours.  New recruits were taught the importance of their regiment’s history and past glories, and were instilled with a sense of duty to carry on its honor and traditions.

Wiltshire Colors Salisbury

Retired Colours of the Wiltshire Regiment that have been laid up at Salisbury Cathedral.  The oldest are merely scraps that have been preserved and attached to a mesh background.  Photo by the author.

Each regiment had its own unique items of dress, many of which changed very little over the centuries.  Perhaps the most obvious symbol is each regiment’s distinctive cap badge, but there were other unique items, as well.  The Gloucestershire Regiment wore a secondary badge on the back of their headgear in memory of when their forebears fought back-to-back at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801.

Border Badge

The cap badge of the Border Regiment.

In the early days, most regiments only contained one battalion, and the terms could be used almost interchangeably.  As the Army evolved and the British Empire expanded, it became common for each regiment to have two battalions; one would serve overseas, while the other remained in Britain to recruit and train.  This system was formalized during the Victorian period.  During the massive conscription efforts of the two World Wars, most regiments grew as large as ten or more battalions.  With much of the Empire lost during the 1940’s and 50’s, there was much less need for the overseas garrisons that had once been the Army’s primary function.  Britain’s military focus turned to its commitment to NATO, and the country’s economic situation after the World Wars required spending cutbacks.  The government significantly reduced the size of the Army, and as a direct result, began consolidating many of the traditional regiments.

Today, the Army is at its smallest size, with the fewest regiments in its history.  The five regiments of Foot Guards remain and still perform their famous ceremonial duties and official function as the Monarch’s bodyguard.  Despite the common misconception, they are battle-ready soldiers who rotate their duties; when not in their scarlet tunics and bearskin hats, they wear modern camouflage and equipment, and are often amongst the first units chosen for combat overseas.

Gren Guard London

A young Guardsman of the Grenadier Guards.  Most tourists mistakenly think of the Guards as “toy soldiers” who only perform ceremonial functions, yet the Grenadiers have recently seen combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  Photo by the author’s spouse.

Today’s regiments do their best to maintain the traditions of their forbears.  The Royal Regiment of Scotland has four regular battalions, two battalions of reservists, and one company dedicated to ceremonial duties.  The regular battalions retained the names of some of the earlier regiments that were amalgamated into the new formation, including the Black Watch and the Royal Highland Fusiliers.  The Highlanders, the new unit’s 4th Battalion, represents the Seaforths, Gordons, and Camerons.  Another example is The Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment, named in honor of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.  The regiment represents the entire southeast of England; their cap badge incorporates a dragon to represent The Buffs, a heraldic rose to represent The Hampshire Regiment, and ostrich plumes in honor of the Princess.


Cap badge of the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment

New regiments were created during World War II, such as the Parachute Regiment and the Special Air Service.  While they have not had the centuries of tradition to fall back on, they were quick to adopt their own traditions and “tribal” items.  A very famous example is the maroon beret of the Airborne Forces.  Most modern regiments have several types of headgear, depending on the level of dress:  a khaki beret for the field, a peaked cap for Number 2 Dress (similar to the old service dress), and a type of headgear for full dress dating to Victorian or even Regency times, such as a fur busby or a polished-steel helmet.  By contrast, the men of the Parachute Regiment only wear their distinctive maroon berets.  Even though historians often think of the Parachute Regiment as a newer unit, because of all the consolidations, it is now the oldest unamalgamated regiment in the British Army.

*While I normally write with American spellings, these terms seem more appropriate in British English.


The Rifle Section: Backbone of the British Infantry

The rifle section, often simply called the section, is the backbone of the British infantry.  It is the smallest unit that can operate independently.  Traditionally, the section was made up of eight men.  During World War II, the section was increased to ten men; however, eight would still go out operationally, with the other two remaining behind as a reserve.  Six was considered the operational minimum.

Traditionally, there were three sections in a platoon; while a platoon operated together during an assault, most patrols were carried out at the section level.  The term “squad” was used more generically; any group of three or more soldiers could comprise a squad, and it was normally formed ad hoc.

Rifle Section 1944

A typical infantry section in Normandy, 1944.  The section’s Bren gun is not visible in this photo; the man next to the tree is likely the Bren gunner.  The man at bottom right appears to be wearing a dispatch rider’s helmet, and is probably from company headquarters.

A corporal was typically designated as the section leader, with a lance corporal as assistant section leader; the remainder of the section was made up of private soldiers.

The section did everything together.  They slept in the same barrack-room, and were responsible for keeping it clean; they ate their meals together; most importantly, they trained together.  Officers and NCO’s often turned training activities into competitions between the three different sections within a platoon.  Occasionally, the entire section would be punished for the misdeeds of one man.  All these activities were designed to foster teamwork and cooperation within the section; by the time the section went into combat, it was second-nature for its members to work together and depend on each other.

The section formed strong bonds and saw itself like a family.  There may have been individuals who did not necessarily like each other, but they still trusted and depended on each other.  The downside of this approach is that the inevitable casualties took an enormous emotional toll.  If a section took enough casualties, it was sometimes better to break up the section and use its men as replacements, rather than trying to fill the voids.  It was also difficult for replacement troops to fit into an established section.

In combat, the section leader carried a machine carbine, either a Thompson or Sten, depending on theater and time period.  The section leader also typically carried a set of wire cutters, and the assistant section leader would carry a machete.

One Bren light machine gun was issued per section.  While the Bren could be operated by one man, it was more effective when worked by a team.  The Bren Number 1 was the gunner.  He was assisted by the Bren Number 2, who carried the spare barrel and the bulk of the magazines; like most of the section, the Number 2 was armed with a Lee-Enfield rifle.  Since the Bren was magazine-fed rather than belt-fed, every member of the section was able to help carry ammunition.  Every man carried two magazines, except the Bren Number 2, who carried six:  two in his standard pouches, plus another four in a set of supplemental pouches.  The assistant section leader was responsible for choosing the best firing position for the Bren, and used the machete to clear brush when needed.  He would pick targets for the Bren and observe the effectiveness of its fire.  The Number 2 would change the gun’s magazines, and also change the barrel to avoid damage from overheating.

Section Patrol

A section advances through a village in Normandy, 1944.  The corporal, armed with a Sten carbine, leads his section.  The man directly behind him is the Bren Number 2, as evidenced by the supplemental pouches full of Bren magazines.

The training manual “Infantry Section Leading (1938)” described different formations that the section leader could choose depending on the terrain:  single file, file (a rather compressed double column), arrowhead, or extended line (line abreast).  While these formations gave the section leader good control over his men, they allowed little flexibility.  Wartime experience led to changes implemented in the later manual, “Infantry Training:  Fieldcraft, Battle Drill, Section and Platoon Tactics (1944)”.  While the single file and extended line were retained, the newer manual also included the loose file and irregular arrowhead, based on the earlier formations but applied less rigidly.  The 1944 manual also introduced “blobs” as a section formation, each blob containing two to four men.  Blobs were the easiest formation to adapt to broken ground, and were also the most difficult to spot by aerial observation.

The section would patrol as one unit, but would break into two groups upon encountering the enemy.  The Bren group consisted of the assistant section leader and the Bren Number 1 and Number 2, as described above.  The rest of the section, that is, the section leader and the riflemen, comprised the rifle group, sometimes called the assault group.  Even when broken into two groups, it was still the same section; the assistant section leader did not have independent command and was not authorized beyond fulfilling the instructions set down by the section leader.  The two groups operated in support and conjunction with each other, never on their own.  Breaking into groups made “fire and maneuver” tactics more effective; while one group was moving, the other group was on the ground, providing covering fire.  In this way, the two groups could move in alternating bounds.  The training manuals of the time used the description “keeping one foot on the ground” for this system of alternating movement and fire.  The goal was to get the Bren group into an advantageous position to provide effective fire, preferably from the enemy’s flank.  Once the enemy was suppressed, the rifle group would charge the enemy, firing from the hip on the move.  Whenever possible, the rifle group would throw a grenade or two once close enough, but the final assault was made with the bayonet.  When the rifle group was close enough to the enemy that the Bren could no longer safely provide supporting fire, the Bren group would reposition to either engage any enemy attempting to escape, or to prevent reinforcements from arriving.


The rifle section in the attack, showing typical “fire and maneuver” tactics.  Diagram copied from “Infantry Training:  Fieldcraft, Battle Drill, Section and Platoon Tactics (1944)”.  “FUP” is “forming up point”, and “SL” is “start line”.

Some wartime training manuals described different members of the section as having specialized roles, such as a marksman or a “bomber” (grenadier).  However, the more common manuals did not include these descriptions, and most infantry battalions preferred their soldiers to be generalists, trained on all of the sections’ weapons.  This provided greater flexibility and faster recovery from the inevitable casualties; for example, if the Bren gunner was wounded, another man would take over the gun.

There were occasional variations to the section structure as described above.  It was not uncommon for the section leader to become a casualty, and the assistant would become the acting section leader.  Should the assistant also become incapacitated, one of the “old sweats”, or experienced privates, would end up as acting section leader, typically on orders from the platoon sergeant, but sometimes on his own initiative.  In many of the Airborne units, the section leader was a sergeant instead of a corporal, as it was felt greater experience was needed in airborne operations.

1 Para Bn Arnhem

Troops from 1st Parachute Battalion fighting near Arnhem, September 1944.  The Bren LMG can be seen at left.  The corporal is armed with a rifle; he is most likely the assistant section leader, as the Airborne typically used sergeants as section leaders.

There were also times when some of the riflemen replaced their rifles with Sten carbines, when it was known that close combat was likely, such as operations in towns, or in the Normandy hedgerows.  Late in the war, some sections became equipped with two Brens, as LMG’s previously allocated for other purposes became available to the infantry.

After World War II, the British Army returned to an eight-man section, and retained the same basic section structure.  The Lee-Enfield rifles were replaced with the Self-Loading Rifle L1A1, and the Bren was modified from the old .303-inch chambering to 7.62 x 51mm NATO; but the basic rifle group and light machine gun group remained.  The Bren was eventually phased out and replaced with the belt-fed general purpose machine gun.  Today’s British soldiers are armed with a greater variety of weapons, primarily from the SA80 family; the section now breaks into four-man “fire teams”.  But the old concepts of working, training, living and fighting together as a section still remain.

For more information on some of the weapons referenced in this article, please see some of my earlier posts:

The Sten Machine Carbine: The Gun that Almost Never Was

The Lee-Enfield Rifles in the 20th Century