A Brief Guide to the Infantry Battalions and Divisions of the British Army 1914-18

A conversation with colleagues and fellow researchers about a particular British infantry battalion prompted me to write this crib sheet to assist readers with understanding the way in which the British Army expanded during the Great War.  It will be based on the two Surrey infantry regiments, the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment and the East Surrey Regiment.

The Evolution of the British Army 1914-18

The Regular Army – the “two battalion” system

The essential part of any army is the infantry, which is formed into regiments and battalions. In 1914-18 there were differences between continental and British practice as to how these functioned. In the Imperial German and French armies, a “regiment” was a tactical formation which operated in battle in its own right. It was usually commanded by a colonel, contained about 3000 men at full strength, and was divided into three “battalions”, each of about 1000 men. These battalions would most often fight under the control of the parent regiment, but could be detached for special purposes. Hence they are described by reference to their parent regiment, for example 1st Battalion of the 36th Infantry Regiment, or I/36IR (in this abbreviated form Roman numerals are generally used for the battalion number).

In contrast the British “regiment” exists as a mere “parent” for a number of battalions. Its role is formal, so it never appears on a battlefield. The “colonel” of a British regiment has merely a ceremonial role. The tactical component of the British infantry regiment is the battalion, again comprising about 1000 men. A regiment may provide several battalions, but they need not serve together – in fact the British battalion system as created meant that battalions of the same regiment rarely served together. The next higher formation which controls a number of infantry battalions in the British army is the brigade, commanded in 1914-18 by a Brigadier-General. Its usual composition was four infantry battalions (reduced to three in February 1918). Battalions are described by their relationship to the regiment, namely 1st Battalion East Surrey Regiment, or 1st East Surreys. Brigades are numbered consecutively, e.g. 35th Brigade, 174th Brigade, and were usually part of the division whose number represented the brigade number divided by three.  So 2nd Division comprised 4th 5th and 6th Brigades, while 18th Division comprised 53rd, 54th and 55th Brigades.  However this was not universal, as some brigades were moved between divisions, so 5th Division lost 14th Brigade to 32nd Division in exchange for 95th Brigade in 1915, although not all the battalions in the these brigades made the same movement.[1]

Prior to 1881, British infantry battalions did not have names but only numbers, being referred to as regiments of Foot, e.g. 31st Regiment of Foot, or more usually 31st Foot. As new regiments were raised they were allocated a number in sequence, and this identified their place in the order of precedence for ceremonial occasions, which was retained when the regiments acquired names. So the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) regiment, formerly the 2nd Foot, ranks higher than the East Surrey Regiment or 31st Foot. A Foot regiment rarely had more than one battalion, but it was not unknown: the 2nd (Queen’s) Foot had formed such a one in 1857.  However the existence of so many single battalion regiments made it difficult to maintain the strength of those regiments while on imperial service.  So in 1881 it was decided to merge single battalion regiments together to ensure each regiment had two battalions.  One would serve at home, recruiting and training drafts for the other battalion which was serving in the empire. Periodically they would swap over. It was also decided to provide each regiment with a name, usually that of a county or town with which the regiment would be associated. It was hoped that this would generate pride in the local regiment and so encourage recruiting. So from 1881 the 2nd Foot became the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment, with two battalions, while the 31st and 70th Foot merged to become the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the East Surrey Regiment. Often the regiments grouped together shared very few historical links with their new location. The 70th Foot carried the bracketed name of Surrey in its title, but the 31st Foot carried that of Huntingdon! They were now referred to as the 1st Battalion Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment, or 1/Queens, or the 2nd Battalion East Surrey Regiment, or 2/East Surreys. The Guards Regiments, and the two rifle regiments, the Rifle Brigade and the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, were excluded from this localisation, and certain London-based regiments like the Middlesex Regiment, and the Royal Fusiliers fielded more than two battalions.


The Militia

Besides the regular army, a variety of part-time units existed, such as the Militia and the Volunteers. The Militia had existed for several hundred years, tracing its ancestry back from the Anglo-Saxon fyrd through the Trained Bands of the 17th century to the Militia of the 18th century. It embodied the duty of each able-bodied man to be prepared to defend his home against attack and was therefore theoretically selected by ballot. It was also seen as a constitutional safeguard against a too-powerful regular army, a hangover from the English Civil War, as their control was vested firmly in the county authorities. It tended to blossom in response to war or threats of war, and at times of peace sank into decline.


The Volunteers

In 1859 there arose one of the periodic scares about a possible French invasion. This had several consequences. Certain places like Portsmouth, Chatham, and even London, were protected by lines of modern (for 1860) fixed defences; some of these, like Fort Nelson at Portsmouth, still exist. The first true iron warship, HMS Warrior, was built. And the middle class decided that they wanted to help defend Britain, and so they started the volunteer movement. Numbers of volunteer rifle regiments were created, with names like the Artists’ Rifles and Queen Victoria’s Rifles. The consequent interest in shooting led to the formation of the National Rifle Association, which held its first meeting in 1861 on Wimbledon Common (it moved to a permanent site at Bisley, Surrey, in 1890 partly because “overs” from the meeting were reaching as far as Coombe Hill, near Kingston).


The Merger

The inadequacies shown up in the performance of the British army in the second Boer war (1899–1902) were dealt with by a series of reforms in the years leading up to the First World War. Amongst these were various schemes for the creation of a standing expeditionary force until in 1908 the Liberal Secretary of State for War, Richard Haldane, created the embryo of the force that went to France in 1914. In addition he brought the three historic military forces into one. The militia was represented by the creation of a Reserve battalion for each regiment, usually numbered as the 3rd battalion. Some regiments like the East Surrey Regiment, even had a Special Reserve battalion, numbered 4th. The volunteer movement was represented by the creation of the Territorial Army, whereby each regiment, with certain exceptions, gained two territorial battalions primarily for home defence and numbered after the reserve battalions. So in the Queen’s, these became the 4th and 5th battalions, and the 5th and 6th battalions of the East Surrey Regiment. The London Regiment was the territorial arm of the Royal Fusiliers, and was the official regimental title of the well-known volunteer regiments like the London Scottish which were part of the regiment.


Wartime Expansion

The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) that went to France in 1914 comprised the six regular infantry divisions (although initially two divisions were held back to counter a feared German invasion of Britain) and one cavalry division. The battalions included many reservists in their ranks; these were not part of the reserve or territorial battalions, but were former regular soldiers whose service in the ranks had been completed, but who still had obligations as part of the reserve to return to the colours if required. Territorial battalions were embodied for home defence, since this was their primary function, but clearly more troops were needed for overseas service and it took time to obtain sufficient men prepared to volunteer for such service. Consequently the Territorial units formed “first-line” units for such service. These took the number of their parent battalion, but were distinguished by a 1/ to denote their “first-line” status. Thus were created the 1/4th Queens, or the 1/6th East Surreys. As the war went on second- and even third-line units of the Territorial battalions were created, to become 2/5th East Surreys or 3/5th East Surreys. However many of these were relatively short-lived, either being disbanded after a short period of existence, or were merged into Reserve or training battalions.

The expansion as a result of Kitchener’s call for volunteers in August 1914 was not made through the medium of the Territorial Army. Kitchener may have distrusted Territorial forces, but it is also probable that he recognised the difficulties faced by this body in preparing for war. For whatever reason he proposed to embody his volunteers as new battalions of existing regiments. These would be numbered after the territorial battalions and being only embodied for war service would be termed “service” battalions. So this process produced battalions such as the 7th (Service) Battalion Queen’s, and 8th (Service) Battalion East Surreys.

There is one further step that should be mentioned. Voluntary recruitment faltered in 1915, with the result that various expedients were tried to increase the flow of men before it was necessary to introduce conscription, a measure deemed to be anathema to tried and tested British principles. In May and June 1915, the mayors and councils of four London boroughs, Bermondsey, Wandsworth, Lambeth and Battersea, prompted the formation of four infantry battalions, two battalions as part of the Queen’s and two as part of the East Surreys, which would carry the name of their sponsoring borough. These became the 10th (Service) Battalion (Battersea) and 11th (Service) Battalion (Lambeth) of the Queen’s, and the 12th (Service) Battalion (Bermondsey) and 13th (Service) Battalion (Wandsworth) of the East Surreys.


The Divisions

In August 1914 there were six formed divisions in Britain, numbered 1 to 6, and these were the first to be sent to France. In addition, two further regular divisions, numbered 7 and 8, were created from available regular infantry battalions and went to France in the autumn of 1914. The recall of regular battalions on imperial service and their relief by territorial battalions sent from Britain enabled three further regular divisions, numbered 27, 28 and 29, to be created.

Territorial divisions had been created and had battalions assigned to them, but were not fully formed or trained. They did not initially have numbers but were described by their location, such as the London or the Home Counties Division. When embodied for war service, they were given numbers, starting with 42, but their territorial association was included in their designation, so there came into existence 46th (North Midland) Division, 51st (Highland) Division, and 56th (London) Division. The names given to some divisions raised later in the war indicate that they were raised as second-line units, e.g. 58th (2/1 London) Division.

The service battalions comprising the volunteers responding to Lord Kitchener’s call were formed into tranches of six divisions, each set of six making up one “new army”, usually referred to as K1, K2 etc. Their numbers started at 9, and each set of six divisions carried a designation based on the Home Command whose regiments made up the division, so there came into existence 9th (Scottish) Division, 10th (Irish) Division, 18th (Eastern) Division, and 20th (Light) Division. However this pattern applied only to the divisions of the first and second new armies, or K1 and K2. Later divisions generally had no title, except in a few cases where a certain honorific designation was applied. 38th (Welsh) division was formed in Wales as a result of Lloyd George’s desire to create a “Welsh Army Corps”, while 36th (Ulster) Division was formed from the units of the Ulster Volunteer Force formed to defend Ulster against the threat of Irish Home Rule. One rather unusual formation was 35th (Bantam) Division, in which the battalions initially comprised men who did not meet the height requirements but were allowed to join up in specific “bantam” battalions. The existence of numbers of these men was testimony to the impact that the industrial revolution and urbanisation had on the population.

Two further divisions of note were 63nd (Royal Naval) Division and 74th (Yeomanry) Division. The former was formed in 1914 on the orders of Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty. It was made up of Royal Marines and seaman not allocated to ships or specific jobs. It went to Antwerp in 1914 in a vain attempt to save that city from German occupation, and in 1915 as the Royal Naval Division it went to Gallipoli (the poet Rupert Brooke served in it). When posted to the Western Front from 1916 its existence was formalised as shown above, and it included an army brigade in addition to the naval battalions (named after naval heroes) and the Royal Marine battalions (named after RM bases). The 74th division was formed in 1917 in Egypt from Yeomanry cavalry regiments which had been serving as dismounted infantry (hence its name). It took part in the capture of Jerusalem in December 1917 before being sent to France in 1918.


Final Thoughts

Whatever their initial form and composition, battalions did not retain these long after their introduction to combat. The demands of total war and the introduction of conscription, with the corollary that drafts were sent where they were needed regardless of affiliation, drastically altered the composition of a battalion. The increasing commissioning of promising NCOs also had an effect as the commission was always to a regiment other than that in which they had previously served. Yet paradoxically the regimental system and in particular whether a battalion, or even a division, was regular, territorial or “service” continued to govern its character. Regular units retained something of their old army ways in respect of discipline and conduct, while territorial and service units showed more informality characteristic of their status. But over all there existed the regiment, and there is evidence that this was a cornerstone of the resilience shown by the British Army between 1914 and 1918. Those who were commissioned from the ranks were sent to Officer Training units, often based at Oxford and Cambridge colleges, where they were taught to be “officers”, which involved understanding the regimental system and the paternalistic regard required of an officer for his men. It helped to keep the British army in the field until victory.

[1] See www.longlongtrail.co.uk/army/order-of-battle-of-divisions/ for the full orders of battle of the divisions.

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