How Welsh is the British Army?


Welsh regiments have a proud history of serving in the British Army, but who are the units of Wales and what is their background?

The Army has the largest presence of the three services in Wales with over 1,400 personnel.

Overall, according to figures from 2019, there are 3,230 military and civilian personnel based in Wales and over 60 Ministry of Defence establishments and bases, including reserve centres and training facilities. 

Based at Brecon, the 160th (Welsh) Brigade serves as the connection between the British Army and Wales. 

The idea behind the numbers is that Wales should have a fair share of military presence, broadly in proportion to its population.

There are three welsh combat units, however none of them are based in Cymru. 

Wales’s senior infantry regiment - The Welsh Guards are based in Surrey. The 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh are in Wiltshire, while the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards are near Norwich.

However, there are a number of Army Reserve units in based in Wales. 

Who are the Royal Welsh?

As part of the Army's restructuring, the Royal Welch Fusiliers were combined with the Royal Regiment of Wales to form the Royal Welsh on St David's Day in 2006.

Known as Welsh Warriors, their shared history dates back 330 years to 1689. 

Having the reputation of being selfless in spirit, they live by the motto - Gwell Angau na Chywilydd: Death Rather Than Dishonour.

Its antecedent regiments have participated in nearly every major campaign of the British Army, playing a crucial role in both world wars. 

The 38th (Welsh) Infantry Division, containing the Royal Welch Fusiliers, the South Wales Borderers and the Welch Regiment, fought in the Battle of the Somme and at Mametz Wood.

It took the Welsh Division five days in July of 2016 to clear the wood from the enemy, suffering immense losses in the process.

During the Second World War, the South Wales Borders took part in the largest seaborne invasion in modern history.

The Borderers were the only Welsh Unit to land in German-occupied Normandy on D-Day, later liberating the city of Den Bosch and later Arnhem. 

The Royal Welsh are stationed across the UK with their headquarters in Cardiff. 

Since the 2000s they have been deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and most recently to Estonia. 

Who are the Welsh Guards?

The British Army is a collection of corps and regiments with their own distinct traditions, flags, marches and histories.

The Welsh Guards are Wales’s Senior Infantry Regiment, first and foremost they are fighting soldiers.

Having celebrated their centenary in 2015, the Welsh Guards have a proud history and a stellar reputation. 

The regiment also takes immense pride in performing ceremonial duties and guarding Royal Palaces.  

Since the regiment was raised on 26 February 1915 by order of King George V, it has taken part in almost every British Army campaign since World War I. 

The regiment's first battle was fought at Loos on 27 September 1915, and their first Victoria Cross was won by Sergeant Robert Bye at Pilckem in July 1917.

During the Second World War, the regiment was expanded to three battalions and fought campaigns of North-West Europe and North Africa. 

The 1st and 2nd Battalion were part of the D-Day invasion in June 1944. The two battalions fought their way through France, Belgium and Holland. 

More recently, the Welsh Guards were deployed on operations in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Kosovo, as well as on three operational tours in Afghanistan in 2009, 2012 and 2018.

Welsh Guards Uniform
Welsh Guards uniform. (Picture: Shutterstock)

How to recognise the Welsh Guards' uniform

Buttons in fives

Despite being 105 years old, the Welsh Guards are the newest of the regiments of Foot Guards. They were the last to join the elite Guard regiments which already comprised of Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards, Scots Guards and Irish Guards. 

The simplest way to distinguish between members of the different Guards units is by the spacing of the buttons on their tunic. 

The ascending number of buttons indicates the order in which the regiments were formed.

There are five units and since the Welsh Guards were the fifth to be formed, they have two sets of five buttons. 

The collar and shoulder badges are different for each of the five regiments of Foot Guards. For example, the Irish Guards have a shamrock on their collar badge and a St Patrick Star on their shoulder badge while the Welsh Regiment have a leek on both. 

Welsh Guards Belt
Welsh Guards belt buckle. (Picture: Shutterstock)

Who is St David?

The Welsh Guards mounted their first King's Guard at Buckingham Palace on St David's Day in 1915. It is unknown whether the Welsh regiment's first King's Guard taking place on the day of their country's patron saint was a serendipitous coincidence or orchestrated symbolism. 

St David was a priest and bishop who was recognised as a national patron saint at the height of Welsh resistance to the Normans.

The day of the patron saint falls on March 1, the same date of St David's death in 589 AD, although not a national holiday, the day is traditionally marked in Wales by wearing the national symbol  - a daffodil or the symbol of St David himself - a leek. 

In 2017, the Queen wore a golden leek pin while she gave leeks to the soldiers of the Royal Welsh (not to be confused with the Welsh Guards) to mark the day at Lucknow Barracks. The regiment's goats were also lucky enough to receive leeks from the monarch. 

The Welsh Guards traditionally have a raw leek-eating competition to celebrate their patron saint.

Welsh Guard and the Queen
The Queen presents new Colours to the Welsh Guards in Windsor

Why do Welsh Units wear leeks?

Legend has it that during a battle against the Saxons, David advised Welsh soldiers to wear leeks in their hats so that they would stand apart from their enemy who were similarly dressed. 

Other sources claim that it was King Cadwaladr who ordered his troops to use leeks as a distinguishing factor in the battlefield. Either way, the vegetable became one of Wales's national symbols. 

As a teetotal vegetarian, St David himself ate little more than leeks, surviving on a diet of bread, herbs and vegetables and drinking only water.

The saint allegedly lived to be 100 years old, so that's another reminder to eat your vegetables if you ever needed one.

While all Welsh units wear leeks on St David's Day, the Royal Welsh go as far as having a raw leek eating competition to celebrate the patron saint.

On the same day, in the Welsh Guards regiment, a large raw leek has to be eaten by the youngest recruits.

Leek Welsh Guards
Picture: Steve Parsons/PA Images

What are the other Welsh combat units in the British Army?

1st The Queen's Dragoon Guards

Founded in 1685, the Queen's Dragoon Guards were originally a horseback regiment. They have since swapped their loyal four-legged friends with Jackal 2 armoured vehicles to get around.

They are also quick on their feet, which allows them the versatility and speed required for successful reconnaissance missions which is what they are known for. 

Well known abroad, the soldiers and officers also train foreign military personnel. 

Royal Welsh Fusilier with the Regimental Goat,
Royal Welsh Fusilier with the Regimental Goat circa 1887

What is the Welsh Brigade? 

Famous for organising Exercise Cambrian Patrol, the HQ 160th (Welsh) Brigade or Brigâd 160 (Cymru) is the Headquarters responsible for the delivery of UK Ops within Wales.

Supporting the Union, the brigade is the military connection between government and society. 

Founded in 1908, the regional brigade served in both of the World Wars as part of the 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division.

The following units operate within the Brigade and are located in Wales:

14 Signal Regiment (Electronic Warfare)

The Royal Monmouthshire RE (Militia)

3rd Battalion The Royal Welsh

157 (Welsh) Regiment RLC

Wales UOTC

203 Field Hospital

Infantry Battle School

104 Regiment Royal Artillery

1st Battalion The Rifles

Soldier Reunited With Son After Afghanistan Deployment

Do you have to be Welsh to join?


Although most Welsh Guards sport a proud Welsh accent, or at least have Welsh roots, the regiment recruits from all over the UK. 

The Royal Welsh, however, recruit predominantly from Wales. 

Want to wish them St David's Day in Welsh? It's Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus - pronounced Deethe goo-eel Dew-ee happ-iss. 

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