English Civil War re-enactors in red coats and with muskets
Army History

How The New Model Army Helped Shape Our Modern Forces

English Civil War re-enactors in red coats and with muskets

If you are in the British Army, the year 1645 might to have a strong significance.

This was the year in which the New Model Army was formed - a fighting organisation that was a drastic improvement over its predecessors in Britain at that time.

It established standards of such professionalism that it left the Armed Forces of this country permanently altered, even after it was disbanded by the King.

What Historical Circumstances Gave Rise To The New Model Army?

The New Model Army was the result of urgent battlefield necessity.

When it was created in 1645, the English Civil War, or more precisely, the First English Civil War, had been raging for three years. It was a conflict fought between Royalists, who supported King Charles I and his goal of a more powerful absolutist monarchy, and Parliamentarians, who wanted a greater role in running the government and more limits placed on the King’s powers.

While the King’s supporters were referred to as Cavaliers, the Parliamentarian forces were referred to as Roundheads, since they cut their hair short. 

Since it was the Roundhead side that would create the New Model Army, and since the orgnisation would leave its fingerprints on the disciplined and regulated modern Army, the short hair of Roundheads seems rather fitting.

Why Was The New Model Army Created?

The main impetus for the creation of the New Model Army was that the old system of raising and organising soldiers was inefficient.

The existing Armed Forces consisted of local militia groups, which were called trainbands, and the first problem was that these soldiers were not willing to fight far from home. They tended to be locally-raised troops raised on a tradition of local service. This had to change in a conflict in which battles were being fought all over the British Isles.

The Roundheads, and the Cavaliers, both tried to get around this problem by raising their own troops, which did help address the issue of locally-raised and locally-based soldiers.

There were, however, still two significant problems.

The first was disorganisation, since the new soldiers were still not under a central command.

The second was what we might refer to today as both a conflict of interest, and a lack of separation of powers. In other words, the political and military leaders on the Parliamentarian side were often the same people, and this led to the fear that in their role as military commanders, they might unnecessarily prolong the war in order to advance their political aims.

Another impetus for reform was the argument made by the influential Parliamentarian Oliver Cromwell of the desperate need to improve the standard of the Parliamentarian forces.

How Did The New Model Army Address These Problems?

The New Model Army that was raised in 1645 accomplished three things in a single stroke.

Firstly, it continued the tradition started by the Parliamentarians’ own forces of recruiting soldiers to serve nationwide, and not only in their local areas. In this way, the army was more flexible than the militias it replaced.

Secondly, the new force was created with the concurrent enactment of the Self-Denying Ordnance, under which members of Parliament resigned from any positions of command, civil or military, that they had acquired since 1640. This, then, addressed the issue of conflicts of interest that had existed before the creation of the New Model Army.

Thirdly, the entire army came under the command of a captain-general who had the authority to appoint his own senior officers. This was Sir Thomas Fairfax, and his overall command meant that the issue of fragmentary leadership that had existed previously had now been replaced by a unified and clear command structure.

diagrams of a musketeer in an English Civil War drill manual
Good training and regular drill were important components of the New Model Army’s success on the battlefield – these images come from a period drill manual for musketeers (image: Alamy)

How Big Was The New Model Army?

The short answer to this is about 20,000 men strong.

The longer answer is that it was based on a plan to have strong contingents of both infantry and cavalry. 

These were: 11 600-man horse regiments, for a total of 6,600 men and horses; 1,000 dragoons, or mounted infantry; and 12 1,200-man regiments of foot (i.e. infantrymen), for a total of 14,400 foot soldiers.

What Influences Has The New Model Army Had On Today’s Army?

If the influence of the New Model Army could be summed up in one word, it would be: professionalism.

Not only was the force a huge step beyond its predecessors - the locally-based militias and the Parliament-connected army - it also radically improved standards.

One of these improvements was the fact that the commander, Sir Thomas Fairfax, gave his men regular and effective training.

Another improvement was the fact that officers were appointed based on merit, rather than social distinction. As Sarah Roller explains on the on-demand TV channel HistoryHit:

“Many of the gentlemen who had previously been officers in the army found it difficult to find a post in this new era. They were either quietly discharged or persuaded to continue serving as regular officers.”

Another big improvement was that the New Model Army was also centrally administered, and therefore more bureaucratically efficient than the previous system of varied and multiple militias.

Finally, there was one other way in which the New Model Army helped influence the future British Army: it was the first official time that soldiers uniforms included red coats.

English Civil War Re-enactors in red coats and with muskets
English Civil War re-enactors in red coats (image: Alamy)

What Were Some Of Its Important Victories And What Happened To It?

The New Model Army won the Battle of Naseby, which was essentially the climactic battle of the First English Civil War. 

Charles I would be executed in 1649 and the New Model Army continued to fight against Royalists loyal to his son Charles II. It defeated them decisively at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, and it had won another decisive victory at Dunbar the previous year.

Although the Parliamentarian side won the English Civil Wars, the monarchy would eventually be restored under Charles II, and the New Model Army disbanded in 1660.

However, being defeated at Worcester must have made an impression on Charles because changes ushered in by the New Model Army remained permanent - the King passed various acts prohibiting the raising of militias.

A professional peacetime army also became the norm after Scotland joined England and Wales in political union in 1707. As Sarah Roller puts it:

“The modern British Army as we know it found its origins in the early 18th century following the Act of Union.”

And the rest, as the cliché goes, is history.