History of the British Army in Brief

British Soldiers

From a sea of red, to a thin red line, to camouflaged elite soldiers, no organization has made a greater impact through history than the British Army.

The earliest accounts in the history books saw British soldiers as easy targets as they formed four man deep battle lines dressed in uniforms of red. With little formal training, outdated munitions, and sparse manpower they would answer to the whim of the Royal Courts in power at the time. Yet time and perseverance have made them one one of the worlds best modern armies.

Structure of the British Army

The British Army originally consisted of Foot Guards and the Infantry of the line. The Foot Guards provided protection for the Monarch and the Infantry, consisting of Regiments and Companies, fought battles wherever they were needed. The oldest Regiment of the Line, The Royal Scots Borderers, was formed in 1633, under King Charles I.

Before the eighteenth century artillery trains were set up under Royal Order, and then disbanded when they were no longer required. In May, 1716, under Royal Order from King George I, a more permanent artillery was raised, consisting of two companies of field artillery, each with one hundred men. By 1757 the Royal Regiment had increased in size to two battalions with twelve companies each, and by 1771 there were four Battalions, thirty-two companies of artillery and two invalid companies employed for garrison duties.

The first troops of horse artillery were formed in 1793 and in 1801 the Royal Irish Artillery was absorbed to help create twelve Royal Horse Artillery and one hundred Royal Artillery Companies in ten battalions. The country’s localization plan, created by Edward Cardwell, Secretary of State for War, 1873, helped to create a more permanent solution for increasing numbers for the British Army.

Tactics of the British Army

Infantry tactics changed through the years as British soldiers learned to fight against soldiers and warriors of many different countries. Some of the earliest battles fought by the British copied the tactics the Romans used; four men deep with the first line holding shields. The British army had no shields but the front line of soldiers would fire their rifles giving the lines behind time to reload.

The “thin red line” came in to being when Sir Colin Campbell, having little respect for Russian capabilities, thinned his regiment out at the Battle of Balaclava in October 1854. The Russian commander, thinking this a diversion and believing there must be more troops behind, made the decision to retreat.

During the Anglo-Boer War in Africa, 1889 to 1902, the British faced attacks from native Zulu Warriors. The warriors attacked in mass during the battle at Isandhlwana, easily breaking through the British lines and causing them enormous casualties. This horrific defeat made way for a new military tactic, that of the British Square.

Weapons of the British Army

In 1792 the British were using the “India Pattern” version of the Brown Bess musket, which had an effective range of 100 yards. This rifle fired large bullets at low velocity, thereby eliminating problems of earlier rifles where powder would collect and fill the chambers.

The year 1839 saw the introduction of the percussion musket, offering fewer misfires and better accuracy and rate of firing. By the 1850’s British troops were using the minie ball, designed by Claude-Etienne Minie, muzzle loading and the Enfield rifles. Then, in 1865, the Snider Breach Loading Enfield rifle would see use in battles.

In the 1800’s the British were making regular use of three and six pound canons, with the nine pounders introduced during the Peninsular War (1808 – 1814). The ant-personnel weapon, the spherical case shot, invented in 1784 by Henry Shrapnel, was used by the British beginning in 1803.

Congreve Rockets, invented by Sir William Congreve in 1805, would be used against French ports and towns, during the Napoleonic Wars. They were slow and notoriously inaccurate but they made quite the impression on the enemy.

World War I would see the Infantry using the field twelve inch Howitzer. This weapon was often used to bombard the enemy lines preceding an Infantry attack. Winston Churchill, who championed the development of the armored tank, would see it used in battle in 1916, at the Battle of the Somme. The heavier cruiser tanks would be used during the Second World War.

In 1940 Winston Churchill commissioned that the British should design its own elite parachute regiment, wich saw their first action at the Bruneval Raid in 1942. The use of sub-machine guns by the Germans in World War II caught the British by surprise, but by 1945 the Sten gun had been mass produced and was in use by the Infantry.

Many of the earlier wars, Britain being involved in at least twelve before World War I, were costly for the British, both in loss of life and monetarily speaking. Through need, trial and error, they have emerged from, what some may have thought an untrained and laughable excuse for an army, into one of the worlds most elite and respected forces.