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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.