Army

Know Your Infantry – why are some British Army regiments more senior than others?

A look at the roles, histories and order of precedence of the Army’s ‘regiments of foot’.

The modern British Army is a complex organisation of over 100,000 personnel.

Each one of its members performs a unique and vital role, though the main mission of the Army is still what it always was: to fight and win wars.

Its main tool for doing this, its essential core, is also the same as it always has been – the infantry.

While those in other parts of the Army might identify with their area, such as the Corps of Royal Engineers, or the Royal Corps of Signals, for those in the infantry, identity, belonging and organisation are based around their regiments.

Historically, regiments have acted as local recruiting bodies that raised battalions of around 1,000 men. Today’s infantry battalions, meanwhile, are typically between 500 and 600 strong, though they all have a sense of lineage from their forebear regiments.

Many of those historical regiments were fused and rebranded over the years until the 2006 reforms resulted in the 17 infantry regiments in the Army today. These are the five Foot Guards regiments, The Grenadier Guards, The Coldstream Guards, The Scots Guards, The Irish Guards and The Welsh Guards; then the line infantry regiments, The Royal Regiment of Scotland, The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, The Royal Anglian Regiment, The Yorkshire Regiment, The Mercian Regiment, The Royal Welsh, The Royal Irish Regiment, The Parachute Regiment, The Royal Gurkha Rifles and The Rifles.  

The regiments are listed above in the sequence they parade in, which is officially referred to as the order of precedence. This is based largely on the age of each regiment's oldest antecedent regiment, though 'seniority' in this instance does not always depend upon a forebear regiment's actual age. Other factors that come into play are: the length of service to the Monarchy in England, or later Britain; whether a regiment is part of the Foot Guards or the line infantry; and whether its main antecedent units were historically more conventional musket-bearing ones, or those armed with the newer Baker rifle. 

These issues overlap with the unique stories behind each present-day infantry regiment, and will be explored in more detail below.

History British Army
The 3rd Battalion of The Grenadier Guards depicted leaving for service in the Boer War (Picture: Image Courtesy of the National Army Museum, London).

The Foot Guards Regiments

The Army’s various Foot Guards regiments have traditionally formed an elite corps of the Army that has a history of guarding the Royal Family, as well as setting an example on the battlefield. One of them, The Coldstream Guards, can trace its origins back to the New Model Army that came out of the English Civil Wars of the 17th Century and became the basis for today’s modern Army.

The most senior of the Guards regiments is The Grenadier Guards. Active from 1656, the MOD calls it one of the oldest and most iconic regiments of the British Army – wearing the old red coats and bear skin hats while guarding the Royal Family certainly qualifies as iconic.

Its current battlefield role, meanwhile, is that of light infantry. In a modern context, this means soldiers engaging the enemy on foot, possibly after transporting themselves to battle on light vehicles like quad bikes, and then fighting without the assistance of armoured vehicles or a lot of other support like artillery.

The Grenadiers derive their name from the defeat of elite grenade-wielding French Imperial Guard troops during the Battle of Waterloo that ended the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Formerly, the regiment, which was actually the result of an early merger in 1665 between Lord Wentworth’s Regiment (raised in 1656) and John Russell’s Regiment of Guards (raised in 1660), had been known as the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards. Following the Battle of Waterloo, they officially became The First or Grenadier Regiment of Foot Guards, or just The Grenadier Guards. It was at this point that they took on the cap badge they have to this day, which is an image of a grenade with flames coming out of it.

Painting Crimean War
The Coldstream Guards at the Battle of Alma in 1854, during the Crimean War (Picture: Image Courtesy of the National Army Museum, London).

The Coldstream Guards regiment is listed second in the Army’s order of seniority for its infantry regiments, or more precisely its order of precedence, as it is officially known.

This is somewhat counter-intuitive because order of precedence has a lot to do with the age of a regiment or its antecedent units, and The Coldstream Guards was formed in 1650, six years before The Grenadier Guards. Though in fact, while both units were active as far back as the English Civil Wars, the key difference is that The Grenadier Guards were formed to protect King Charles II, while he was heir to the throne. The Coldstream Guards, on the other hand, fought for the opposing Parliamentarian side.

This made them part of the New Model Army that would eventually become the basis for today’s professional Army. However, when the British Monarchy was restored in 1660, seniority was determined not by a tradition of professionalism, or the actual age of a regiment, but by how long it had served the king. The Grenadiers had, in this sense, been on the right side of history for longer and were thus made the senior regiment.

However, The Coldstream Guards do derive their name from an act of loyalty to the British Monarchy. Their colonel, General George Monk, may have switched to and fought on the Parliamentarian side during the Third English Civil War, but he later came to support the Crown. After the execution of King Charles I, the country was ruled first by the Parliamentarian Oliver Cromwell, and then by his son Richard Cromwell. This new form of government, known as the Protectorate, was essentially a dictatorship.

Deciding that constitutional monarchy – that is, limited rule by a king or queen – was the better form of government, Monck set out to support the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II, the son of the executed former king.

In what Charles Grant describes in the book ‘The Coldstream Guards’ as a moment a little like Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Monck led his regiment out of where it had been headquartered just over the Scottish border and down into England. It was New Year’s Day, 1660, and Richard Cromwell had been forced to abdicate from his position as head of the Protectorate.

In the political uncertainty that followed, Monck supported Charles II and, when he assumed the throne, Charles disbanded the Parliamentarian New Model Army. Uniquely, he kept Monck’s regiment, and made him the Duke of Albemarle. Those in the regiment were ordered at a changeover ceremony to officially lay down their arms, before being told to take them up again as a newly borne regiment now serving Charles. According to Grant, at this moment, the soldiers celebrated by throwing their hats in the air and yelling:

“God Save King Charles the Second.”

Whereas it had been known as ‘Monck’s Regiment of Foot’ when established in 1650, the regiment came to be known by another name. There is a town on the River Tweed on the English border with Scotland where Monck crossed on New Year’s Day 1660 to head south in support of Charles. It was once a village and is called Coldstream, and so the regiment became known as The Coldstream Guards.

British Army vehicles
A Mastiff, used by mechanised infantry units like The Scots Guards (Picture: MOD).

Just as The Coldstream Guards can be traced back further in time than the Grenadier Guards, so too can the origin point of The Scots Guards be found before that of The Coldstream Guards.

The regiment was first raised in 1642 as The Marquis of Argyll’s Royal Regiment and used for service in Ireland when a rebellion broke out against Charles I, who was King of England, Scotland and Ireland.

It was raised by Archibald Campbell, 1st Marquess of Argyll on the orders of Charles I. It later became The Lyfe Guard of Foot for Charles II in 1650, and, after disbanding following the king’s fleeing to France, it was later re-established as The Scottish Regiment of Foot Guards in 1661, following the Restoration of the monarchy the year before.

However, it was not officially made part of the English Army establishment until 1686 when James II was on the throne. This is why it is third in the order of precedence, behind The Grenadier and Coldstream Guards, despite having been established before both of them.

The regiment later became The Third Regiment of Foot Guards in early 1713, then The Scots Fusilier Guards in 1831, and finally The Scots Guards in 1877, under Queen Victoria.

Today, The Scots Guards performs a mechanised infantry role, complementing the light infantry roles performed by The Grenadier and Coldstream Guards. The Scots Guards use the Mastiff and Jackal 2 fighting vehicles to manoeuvre around the battlefield.

British Army Foot Guards
Members of The Scots Guards training in 2020 (Picture: MOD).

The next Guards regiment was not formed until 1900, when Queen Victoria established The Irish Guards. This was done as an act of recognition for the numerous examples of courage displayed by Irish soldiers in the Second Boer War, which has started in 1899 and went on until 1902.

Its first battle honours would come during the First World War, the regiment becoming involved in the early battles of Mons and First Ypres in 1914.

Like the other Foot Guards units, it went on take part in numerous other actions throughout the First and Second World Wars as well as in conflicts since.

Today, as well as guarding the Royal Palaces and the Royal Family like other Foot Guards regiments, The Irish Guards perform a light infantry role on the battlefield, just like The Grenadier and Coldstream Guards.

British Army soldiers in Afghanistan
An Irish Guardsman in Afghanistan (Picture: MOD).

The Welsh Guards was the last Foot Guards regiment to be established. It was raised in 1915, then went on to take part in the Battle of Loos later that year.

Once again, like the other Guards regiments, it has been at the forefront of numerous battles throughout the First and Second World Wars, as well as in conflicts since.

The Welsh Guards suffered particularly heavy casualties during the Falklands War, with 32 of their number in 1st Battalion being killed on the RFA Sir Galahad.

The regiment performs a mechanised infantry role today, just as The Scots Guards do. Mechanised infantry are transported into battle in vehicles like the Mastiff (shown above), or, in the case of The Welsh Guards, Foxhounds.  

Welsh Guards standing to attention Royal Family Prince Charles
Members of The Welsh Guards receive medals from Prince Charles, who is Colonel of the Regiment (Picture: MOD).

Line Infantry Regiments

The Royal Regiment of Scotland

Non-Foot-Guard infantry regiments are known as line infantry. Their place in the seniority structure has been determined by the date that their oldest antecedent regiments came into English, and later British, Army service.

Foot Guards regiments are higher in the order precedence than line infantry because of their association with the Royal Family, and the prestige and sense of elite standards that have traditionally gone with it. However, infantry regiments throughout the Army all train and operate at a high standard, and each regiment in the line infantry also has its own unique history and list of battle honours.

The senior line infantry regiment in the British Army is therefore The Royal Regiment of Scotland, a result of its oldest antecedent regiment being The Royal Scots. This regiment was first established in 1633 by order of King Charles I to fight on the French side during the Thirty Years’ War. It was subsequently transferred to English military service in 1661. This may seem confusing, but there is a clear logic behind it. The official history of the British Army began in 1707, with the union of the kingdoms of Scotland and England, which created Great Britain. However, this was a political rather than a royal union because England and Scotland had already shared one monarch since 1603. A regiment could therefore be established to serve the king in Scotland, and then end up within the English Army at a later date.

As well as serving and transferring around the different nations of the British Isles, regiments were also liable to change their names. The Royal Scots became known as His Majesty’s Royal Regiment of Foot in 1684, then 1st (Royal) Regiment of Foot in 1751. The 1st remained through various subsequent name changes – 1st Regiment of Foot (Royal Scots), 1st or The Royal Regiment of Foot, 1st or The Royal Scots Regiment – until 1881. From that point, it became The Lothian Regiment, which referred to the county areas from where its members were recruited: Midlothian, East Lothian and West Lothian, also known as Edinburgh, Haddingtonshire, and Linlithgowshire. Berwickshire also became a part of the regiment’s recruiting area, but this was later transferred to the King’s Own Scottish Borderers.

Being one of the oldest regiments, The Royal Scots was also involved in numerous conflicts over the centuries. After the Thirty Years’ War, these included the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars, the War of Spanish Succession, where the regiment fought in the Battle of Blenheim, the Seven Years’ War, the Napoleonic Wars and the First and Second World Wars, to name just a few.

It is also worth pointing out that The Royal Scots is only the first of 14 antecedent regiments that eventually became The Royal Regiment of Scotland. This is a perfect illustration of the multiple, rich backstories that lie not just behind The Royal Regiment of Scotland, but all the infantry regiments in the British Army, since all of today’s infantry regiments are made up of various forebears.

Today, the regiment has five battalions, three regular and two reserve. The names of each reflect the historical legacies and former regiments behind them: 2 SCOTS is known as The Royal Highland Fusiliers; 3 SCOTS is known as The Black Watch; 4 Scots is known as The Highlanders, 6 SCOTS is known as 52nd Lowland and 7 SCOTS is known as 51st Highland. The roles performed by these battalions are light and mechanised infantry.

For its part, 1st Battalion, The Royal Scots used to be known as 1 SCOTS, The Royal Scots Borderers. However, it was rerolled at the end of 2021 and used to seed the new Ranger Regiment, a kind of tier-two Special Forces unit that trains and fights alongside allied soldiers overseas. Meanwhile, 5 SCOTS is a company-sized unit that performs a ceremonial role. Its name, Balaklava Company, refers to the Battle of Balaklava in the Crimean War, yet another one of the Regiment’s impressive battle honours.

What follows is the first of several tables showing the antecedent units that led to the post-1881, region-named regiments. These in turn preceded the immediate forebears of today’s infantry regiments.

The left-hand column shows what the regiments were originally known as, and the year in which they were first raised. The second column shows the name, or one of the names, that they went by after the Army’s 1751 reforms which introduced a numbering system. The year in this column is often, though not always, the same as the one in the left-hand column. It is the date when the regiment began serving, or was transferred to, English Crown service.

In the case of later colonial regiments, the year in the middle column will also show the year that the regiment was transferred from colonial service in India and officially incorporated into the British Army.

In a small number of cases, the year in the middle column will also differ from the one in the left-hand column because the regiment was disbanded and then re-established. The date of its re-establishment was what determined the regiment’s position in the seniority, or order of precedence, structure.

Finally, the right-hand column has the regiment’s local or county name following the 1881 reforms.

Initial name of regiment

Name and number following 1751 reorganisation

Name from 1881 reorganisation

Hepburn’s Regiment 1633

1st (Royal) Regiment of Foot 1661

Lothian Regiment

Earl of Mar’s Regiment 1678

The 21st (Royal North British Fusiliers) Regiment of Foot 1688

Royal Scots Fusiliers

Earl of Leven’s or Edinburgh Regiment of Foot 1689

25th Regiment of Foot 1689

King’s Own Borderers (KOB)

Earl of Craufurd’s Regiment 1739

42nd Regiment of Foot 1739

1st Battalion, The Black Watch (Royal Highlanders)

73rd (Highland) Regiment of Foot 1777

71st (Highland) Regiment of Foot 1777

1st Battalion, The Highland Light Infantry

78th (Highland) Regiment of Foot 1778

72nd (Highland) Regiment of Foot 1778

1st Battalion, The Seaforth Highlanders (Ross-shire Buffs, The Duke of Albany's)

2nd Battalion, 42nd (Highland) Regiment of Foot 1780

73rd (Highland) Regiment of Foot 1780

2nd Battalion, The Black Watch

Raised as the 74th Foot by the Honourable East India Company (HEIC) in 1787

74th (Highland) Regiment of Foot 1787

2ND Battalion, Highland Light Infantry

Also raised by the HEIC as the 75th Regiment of Foot in 1787

75th (Highland) Regiment of Foot 1787

 

1st Battalion, The Gordon Highlanders

78th (Highland) Regiment of Foot (The Ross-shire Buffs) 1793

78th (Highland) Regiment of Foot (The Ross-shire Buffs) 1793

2nd Battalion, The Seaforth Highlanders

79th (Cameronian Volunteers) Regiment of Foot 1793

79th (Cameronian Volunteers) Regiment of Foot 1793

Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders

98th (Argyllshire Highlanders) Regiment of Foot 1794

91st (Argyllshire Highlanders) Regiment of Foot

1st Battalion, The Princess Louise's (Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders)

100th (Gordon Highlanders) Regiment of Foot 1794

92nd (Highland) Regiment of Foot 1794

2nd Battalion, The Gordon Highlanders

93rd (Highland) Regiment of Foot 1799

93rd (Highland) Regiment of Foot 1799

2nd Battalion, The Princess Louise's (Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders)

British Army History War of Spanish Succession
The Battle of Blenheim, 1704, where The Royal Scots fought and Winston Churchill’s ancestor the Duke of Marlborough prevailed (Picture: Image Courtesy of the National Army Museum, London).

The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment

While The Royal Regiment of Scotland is the senior line infantry regiment of the Army, The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment (PWRR) is the senior English line infantry regiment. Its recruiting grounds span the south-east corner of England, encompassing Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire, as well as London and Middlesex, and even the Isle of Wight and the Channel Islands.

The PWRR had four battalions following the 2006 Army reforms. However, 2nd Battalion PWRR has, like 1 SCOTS, been redesignated as one of the Army’s Ranger battalions. That leaves 1st, 3rd and 4th Battalions PWRR, all of which still perform their light and armoured infantry roles, the latter involving riding into battle in Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) before dismounting to fight on foot.

Historically, the reason for PWRR’s place as second-only to that of The Royal Regiment of Scotland is due to its oldest antecedent regiment, 2nd (Queen’s) Royal Regiment of Foot. This was raised in 1661 and known at the time as The Earl of Peterborough’s Regiment of Foot. It was also known as the Tangier Regiment because it was raised specifically as a garrison force for English Tangier in Morocco, in North Africa. It had been a Portuguese colony but came into the possession of Britain’s King Charles II when he married the daughter of the Portuguese king and received Tangier as a dowry.

The PWRR’s second antecedent unit goes back even further in history. The 3rd (or the Buffs) Regiment of Foot was originally known as Thomas Morgan’s Company of Foot and was one of several Trained Bands. These were the militia units that used to constitute the English army before the exigencies of the English Civil Wars led to the creation of the more-professional New Model Army.

One of the major improvements was the creation of a professional body of soldiers that could be easily and often deployed far away from their familiar recruiting grounds. In the case of Thomas Morgan’s Company of Foot, this meant a long-term overseas posting. Queen Elizabeth I sent them to Holland in 1572 to assist in its war for independence from Spain. Upon their return in 1665, they became known as The Holland Regiment, and it was at this point that they were officially incorporated into the English army establishment.

Other regiments of foot followed.

The 31st Regiment of Foot was officially established in 1702, though this was a reformation by its second colonel, Colonel George Villier, who had taken over the colonelcy of the regiment in 1694. When recommissioned, it became a marine regiment and took part in the capture and then defence of Gibraltar during the Spanish War of Succession. The Regiment was later converted back into Army line infantry in 1715.

The 37th Regiment of Foot took part in the Battle of Minden in 1759, which occurred during the Seven Years’ War, a conflict that overlapped with the French and Indian War that occurred in North America. The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment and Queen’s Museum points out that when the 37th helped beat the French cavalry, it was the first time that infantry had defeated cavalry in battle. Minden Day is therefore commemorated by the PWRR every 1 August.

British Army history
The Battle of Minden, 1759 (Picture: Image Courtesy of the National Army Museum, London).

The Napoleonic-era 1811 Battle of Albuera is also remembered by the Regiment today because two of its forebears, The 31st and 57th Regiments of Foot, suffered enormous casualties. The 57th Regiment of Foot saw 80 percent of its number killed during the battle.

Another story from the regimental histories of the PWRR’s forebears is the death of Private John Parr. He was a member of 4th Battalion, The Middlesex Regiment (Duke of Cambridge’s Own), which was first raised in 1900. Private Parr would become the very first British soldier killed in the First World War, at the beginning of the Battle of Mons. In fact, World War 1 features particularly strongly again in the PWRR’s history because Captain Billie Neville of 8th Battalion, The East Surrey Regiment, sent his men over the top on the first day of the Somme by having them kick footballs into no man’s land. This became one of the most enduringly memorable episodes of the battle’s first day.

The table below lists the main antecedent regiments that went into forming today’s PWRR. As with some regiments that formed The Royal Regiment of Scotland outlined above, The 50th Regiment of Foot moved up in seniority from the 52nd following the disbandment of prior 50th and 51st Regiments. The 57th Regiment of Foot was similarly moved up from having been The 59th Regiment of Foot.

Regiments that did not end up as antecedents for the 2006 newly reformed regional regiments are known as dead regiments, because they had already been disbanded by that point.

Initial name of regiment

Name and number following 1751 reorganisation

Name from 1881 reorganisation

The Earl of Peterborough’s Regiment of Foot 1661

2nd (Queen’s) Royal Regiment of Foot 1661

The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment)

Thomas Morgan’s Company of Foot 1572

3rd (or the Buffs) Regiment of Foot 1665

The Buffs (East Kent Regiment)

Sir Richard Atkins’s Regiment of Foot 1694

31st Regiment of Foot 1702

1st Battalion the East Surrey Regiment

The Earl of Donegall’s Regiment of Foot 1701

35th Regiment of Foot 1702

1st Battalion, the Royal Sussex Regiment

Thomas Meredyth’s Regiment of Foot 1702

37th Regiment of Foot 1702

1st Battalion, The Hampshire Regiment

52nd Regiment of Foot 1755

50th Regiment of Foot 1755

1st Battalion, The Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment)

59th Regiment of Foot 1755

57th Regiment of Foot 1755

1st Battalion, the Duke of Cambridge’s Own (Middlesex Regiment)

2nd Battalion, 20th Regiment of Foot 1756

67th Regiment of Foot 1758

2nd Battalion, The Hampshire Regiment

2nd Battalion, 31st Regiment of Foot 1756

70th Regiment of Foot 1756

2nd Battalion, The East Surrey Regiment

77th (Hindoostan) Regiment of Foot 1787, raised by HEIC

77th (Hindoostan) Regiment of Foot 1787

2nd Battalion, The Duke of Cambridge’s Own (Middlesex Regiment)

97th (The Earl of Ulster’s) Regiment of Foot 1824

97th (The Earl of Ulster’s) Regiment of Foot 1824

2nd Battalion, The Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment)

3rd Bengal (European) Light Infantry 1854

107th Regiment of Foot (Bengal Light Infantry) 1854

2nd Battalion, The Royal Sussex Regiment

The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment

Formed in part from The 4th (King’s Own) Regiment of Foot, which became the King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster), The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment is the modern Army’s third-most senior line infantry regiment.

Known as the Lions of England, The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment recruits largely from the north-west side of Britain. It therefore draws its personnel mainly from Lancashire, Cumbria, Merseyside, Greater Manchester and the Isle of Man.

After 2006, it consisted of three battalions, two regular and one reserve. It performs a light infantry role, though the MOD’s page for the regiment also lists the specialised infantry role as being within its remit, something that involves the training of foreign allied soldiers. Thus, since late 2021, it has officially had two battalions and one affiliated battalion, with its 2nd battalion having been used to help seed the new Ranger Regiment.

Fighting abroad in faraway places certainly seems to have been an historical theme for the regiment. According to The Duke of Lancaster’s Regimental Association:

“We are the only regiment of any army at any time in history to carry battle honours from every inhabited continent on our Colours.”

Indeed, the regiment was essentially created for service overseas. The first three of its antecedent regiments were raised in the 1680s and served with William of Orange in the Low Countries.

Antecedent regiments also went on to serve in North America and in the Napoleonic Wars, including in the Battle of Salamanca. Two regiments – The 4th and 40th Regiments of Foot – fought at Waterloo.

British Army infantry regiments
French cavalry attack British infantry squares at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 (Picture: Image Courtesy of the National Army Museum, London).

During the First World War, the regiment’s forebears raised 176 battalions and soldiers within them earned 43 Victoria Crosses.

They also fought in a number of major actions throughout the Second World War, including helping to hold the defensive line around the beaches at Dunkirk that facilitated the evacuation, as well as during D-Day and at Arnhem, to name just a few actions.

As with all of the regiments featured here, these are but a few of the conflicts in which their predecessors fought bravely, and they provide a glimpse into a broad and impressive history.

The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment is traceable back to 12 antecedent regiments from 1881, and their own forebears stretching as far back as the 17th Century.

Initial name of regiment

Name and number following 1751 reorganisation

Name from 1881 reorganisation

2nd Tangier Regiment 1680

4th (The King’s Own) Regiment of Foot 1680

The King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster)

Princess Anne of Denmark’s Regiment of Foot 1685

8th (The King’s) Regiment of Foot 1685

The King’s (Liverpool Regiment)

Viscount Castleton’s Regiment of Foot 1689

30th Regiment of Foot 1702

1st Battalion, The East Lancashire Regiment

Lord Lucas’s Regiment of Foot 1702

34th Regiment of Foot 1702

1st Battalion, The Border Regiment

Richard Philipp’s Regiment of Foot 1717

40th Regiment of Foot 1717

1st Battalion, The Prince of Wales’s Volunteers (South Lancashire Regiment)

Sir John Mordaunt’s Regiment of Foot 1741

47th Regiment of Foot 1741

1st Battalion, The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment

57th Regiment of Foot 1755

55th Regiment of Foot 1755

2nd Battalion, The Border Regiment

61st Regiment of Foot 1755

59th Regiment of Foot 1755

2nd Battalion, The East Lancashire Regiment

2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment of Foot 1756

63rd Regiment of Foot 1756

1st Battalion, The Manchester Regiment

Loyal Lincoln Volunteers 1793

81st (Loyal Lincoln Volunteers) Regiment of Foot 1793

2nd Battalion, The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment

Prince of Wales’s Volunteers 1793

82nd Regiment of Foot 1793

2nd Battalion, The Prince of Wales’s Volunteers (South Lancashire Regiment)

The Minorca Regiment 1798

96th Regiment of Foot 1824

2nd Battalion, The Manchester Regiment

British Army infantry regiments
Members of the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment doing forest training in Norway in 2018 (Picture: MOD).

The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers

The First Day of the Somme is infamous for having been the bloodiest single day of the British Army’s history.

Many who served in the units listed here would have taken part in the Battle of the Somme, and a good number of those on its bloody first day.

One particular veteran of the first day’s events was George Ashurst, who was in 1st Battalion, The Lancashire Fusiliers, one of four antecedent units of today’s Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.

Ashurst’s account of that terrible first day was set down in his memoir, ‘My Bit: A Lancashire Fusilier at War’. It gives a vivid description of what it was like in the moments right before going over the top early on the morning of 1 July 1916:

“We set our teeth; we seemed to say to ourselves all in a moment, ‘To hell with life’, and as the shout of our comrades in the front line leaping over the top reached us above the din of battle, we bent low in the trench and moved forward. Fritz's [the Germans'] shells were screaming down on us fast now; huge black shrapnel shells seemed to burst on top of us.

“Shouts of pain and calls for help could be heard on all sides; as we stepped forward we stepped over mortally wounded men who tried to grab our legs as we passed them, or we squeezed to one side of the trench while wounded men struggled by us anxious to get gaping wounds dressed and reach the safety of the dugouts in the rear.

“Men uttered terrible curses even as they lay dying from terrible wounds, and others sat at the bottom of the trench shaking and shouting, not wounded but unable to bear the noise, the smell and the horrible sights."

The two present-day battalions in The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers can also trace their history back considerably further than the Somme. Their antecedent regiments were recruited rather widely as well, coming from Northumberland, Warwickshire and London, as well Lancashire.

What unites most of them is the term ‘fusilier’, which is derived from ‘fusil’. This was a kind of long French musket that members of the Ordnance Regiment were armed with when they were first formed in 1685 to protect cannons in the Tower of London. According to thefusiliers.org, the earliest origins of the regiment and its association with the Tower of London go back as far as 1554. It was at this point that the Constable of the Tower could call upon citizens of Tower Hamlets to perform guard duty at the Tower of London.

The term “Fusiliers” later became a part of three of The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers’ parent units from 1881: The Northumberland Fusiliers, The Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment) and The Lancashire Fusiliers.

The Royal Warwickshire Regiment, rebranded from The 6th Regiment of Foot, was another of the antecedent units.

As well as the fusil, the Hackle is also central to the regiment’s history and identity. It is the red and white plume that members of today’s Royal Regiment of Fusiliers wear on their service caps. The custom is traceable back to the victory of The Royal Northumberland Fusiliers at the Battle of St Lucia in 1778. They took the white hackles from their defeated French soldiers, and King George IV later referenced this victory when he ordered all line infantry regiments to wear white hackles in 1829. However, to distinguish The 5th (Northumberland) Regiment of Foot, the successor regiment to The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, the King decreed that they should wear red and white hackles instead.

Today, The Royal Fusiliers’ two battalions, 1st Battalion and 5th Battalion, are both armoured infantry units, meaning that they typically ride into battle inside the Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicle, though the Warrior is due to be replaced by the Boxer.

Initial name of regiment

Name and number following 1751 reorganisation

Name from 1881 reorganisation

The Irish Regiment 1674

 

5th Regiment of Foot 1689

The Northumberland Fusiliers

Lillingstone’s Regiment 1673

 

6th Regiment of Foot 1685

The Royal Warwickshire Regiment

The Ordnance Regiment 1685

7th Regiment of Foot 1685

The Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment)

Peyton’s Regiment of Foot 1688

20th Regiment of Foot 1688

The Lancashire Fusiliers

British Army infantry regiments
Members of The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers marching in London in 2018, their red and white hackles on display (Picture: MOD).

The Royal Anglian Regiment

The Royal Anglian Regiment was created from nine parent post-1881 regiments. Its present-day battalions, of which there are three, are recruited mostly from the east of the UK, from Essex, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Norfolk, Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, Rutland and Lincolnshire. They mostly perform a light infantry role, but the 2nd Battalion has converted to a light-mechanised infantry role, using Jackal and Foxhound vehicles.

The Royal Anglian Regiment came together in 1964 and became the first of the present-day amalgamated regiments. Thus, it saw action in its present form in campaigns as far back as Bosnia in the 1990s and even Aden in 1964.

The regiment’s forebears of course have histories that go back much further, histories that include the aforementioned battles of Minden, Blenheim and Salamanca.

Each of these battles has an associated day of remembrance, and besides them the Royal Anglians also remember the battles of Sabraon, Talavera, and Almanza.

Sabraon Day is on 10 February, and on that day in 1846 British soldiers with the East India Company won the decisive battle of the First Anglo-Sikh War. The Royal Anglian Regiment’s website describes The 10th Regiment of Foot advancing bravely into enemy fire, taking casualties but maintaining discipline. When they got close enough, they rushed the enemy and captured their cannons.

A Sikh artillery captain named Hookum Singh is quoted and describes the climax of the battle this way:

“Then with a shout, such as only angry demons could send forth and which is still ringing in my ears, they made a rush for our guns led by their Colonel. In ten minutes, it was all over, they leapt into the deep ditch or moat to our front, soon filling it, then swarming up the other side on the shoulders of their comrades they dashed for the guns, which were still defended by a strong body of our infantry who fought bravely. But who could withstand such fierce demons with those awful bayonets, which, they preferred to their guns – for not a shot did they fire the whole time – and then with a ringing cheer which was heard for miles around, they announced their victory.”

Talavera Day, meanwhile, is on 27 July. On that day in 1809, British forces faced off against those of Napoleon during the Peninsular War, one of the major campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars. During this battle, members of The 48th Regiment of Foot proved themselves indispensable to the Duke of Wellington, the commander of the British forces. When a sudden French assault blocked the British from getting into position at the top of a hill, a counterattack by 1st Battalion, The 48th Regiment of Foot, drove the French back. The position was then secured in part by those in the regiment’s 2nd Battalion.

On the following day, a French attack punched a hole in the middle of the British line, a dangerous situation similar to that at Blenheim in 1704 when the Duke of Marlborough divided and then surrounded and defeated his French and Bavarian enemies. However, at Talavera, 1st Battalion of The 48th Regiment of Foot rushed into the gap, plugging it shut and preventing its exploitation by the French.

Wellington wrote afterwards: “The battle was certainly saved by the advance, position, and steady conduct of the 48th Regiment.”

The Royal Anglian Regiment also commemorates Almanza Day on 25 April, in this case remembering not victory but heroism in the face of defeat on that day in 1707, during the Spanish War of succession.  

The battle took place in Spain as the Spanish and French were allied against the British, Dutch, Portuguese and the Holy Roman Empire. At one key point in the battle, the French and Spanish overran the allied force opposing them. It was necessary to fight a hasty rear-guard action to prevent the allied force being completely overrun, something Steuart’s Regiment of Foot – formerly Henry Cornewall’s Regiment of Foot and later The 9th Regiment of Foot – performed with great still and courage.

Blood’s Regiment of Foot, a forerunner to The 17th Regiment of Foot, also took part in the battle.

Initial name of regiment

Name and number following 1751 reorganisation

Name from 1881 reorganisation

Henry Cornewall’s Regiment of Foot 1685

9th Regiment of Foot 1685

The Norfolk Regiment

Earl of Bath’s Regiment of Foot 1685

10th Regiment of Foot 1685

The Lincolnshire Regiment

The Duke of Norfolk’s Regiment of Foot 1685

12th Regiment of Foot 1685

The Suffolk Regiment

Archibald Douglas’s Regiment of Foot 1688

16th Regiment of Foot 1688

The Bedfordshire Regiment

Solomon Richards’ Regiment of Foot 1688

17th Regiment of Foot 1688

The Leicestershire Regiment

James Long’s Regiment of Foot 1741

44th Regiment of Foot 1741

1st Battalion, The Essex Regiment

James Cholmondeley’s Regiment of Foot 1741

48th Regiment of Foot 1741

1st Battalion, The Northamptonshire Regiment

58th Regiment of Foot 1755

56th Regiment of Foot 1755

2nd Battalion, The Essex Regiment

60th Regiment of Foot 1755

58th Regiment of Foot 1755

2nd Battalion, The Northamptonshire Regiment

British Army infantry regiments
Members of The Royal Anglian Regiment on parade in the city of Lincoln (Picture: MOD).

The Yorkshire Regiment

The Yorkshire Regiment recruits its personnel from North Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and East Riding of Yorkshire. It currently has three battalions, two regular and one reserve, with 1st Battalion, or 1 YORKS, performing a mechanised infantry role and 4th Battalion, or 4 YORKS, acting as light infantry.

The Yorkshire Regiment is unique in having its 2nd Battalion, 2 YORKS, performing an experimental role. Formerly a light infantry unit with expertise is close and urban combat, 2 YORKS is now acting as the Army’s Next Generation Combat Team for the Land Warfare Centre, Experimentation and Trials Group.

This is part of the larger Future Soldier scheme meant to help transform the Army and prepare it for the conflicts of the future. As far as 2 YORKS goes, this means that they are making greater use of data, unmanned vehicles and other technology in training. This process puts them at the cutting edge, adapting to battlefields of the future, which the Army anticipates will be of lower density, and where battles will be fought at greater ranges by fewer soldiers who are better equipped technologically.

The regiment’s past is also impressive, with a history that stretches back over 330 years.

The Yorkshire Regiment was created out of the amalgamation of The Princes of Wales’s Own, The Green Howards and The Duke of Wellington’s regiments, each with their own impressive forebears.

Antecedent regiments go back as far as 1685 and have served in the Caribbean, India, North America and the Battle of Waterloo. During the First World War, the regiment’s forebears recruited 100 battalions, including many Pals Battalions, such as those from Bradford, Leeds and Hull.

There were also four Yorkshire battalions participating in D-Day during the Second World War.

The table below shows the five antecedent regiments as they existed in 1881. The middle three – 1st Battalion, The Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment), The East Yorkshire Regiment and The Princess of Wales’s Own (Yorkshire Regiment) – have their own forebears that are associated with the Yorkshire area.

The first and last -- The Prince of Wales’s Own (West Yorkshire Regiment), 2nd Battalion, The Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment) – have forebears that have wider ranging associations.

The Prince of Wales’s Own (West Yorkshire Regiment) has been, variously over the course of its history, Hales’s Regiment, The 14th Regiment of Foot, The 14th (Bedfordshire) Regiment of Foot, The 14th (Buckinghamshire) Regiment of Foot and The 14th (Buckinghamshire – The Prince of Wales's Own) Regiment of Foot, before becoming The Prince of Wales’s Own (West Yorkshire Regiment) in 1881. This demonstrates how county affiliations can change quite substantially over the course of a regiment’s history. And in fact, even though The 15th and 33rd Regiments of Foot were consistently associated with Yorkshire later on, they were initially raised in Nottingham and Gloucestershire, respectively.

The 2nd Battalion, The Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment), meanwhile, began as The 76th Regiment of Foot in 1787 before going overseas to serve in India the following year. At this point, Arthur Wellesley, who would become the Duke of York and prevail over Napoleon at Waterloo, was serving as a junior officer in the unit. It gained a number of battle honours during its Indian service and came to be known as The 76th (Hindoostan) Regiment of Foot in 1806.

Initial name of regiment

Name and number following 1751 reorganisation

Name from 1881 reorganisation

Sir Edward Hales’s Regiment of Foot 1685

14th Regiment of Foot 1685

The Prince of Wales’s Own (West Yorkshire Regiment)

Sir William Clifton’s Regiment of Foot 1685

15th Regiment of Foot 1685

The East Yorkshire Regiment

Francis Luttrell’s Regiment of Foot 1688

19th Regiment of Foot 1688

The Princess of Wales’s Own (Yorkshire Regiment)

The Earl of Huntington’s Regiment of Foot 1702

33rd Regiment of Foot 1702

1st Battalion, The Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment)

76th Regiment of Foot 1787

76th (Hindoostan) Regiment of Foot 1787

2nd Battalion, The Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment)

British Army infantry regiments
Members of 2 YORKS working with an unmanned vehicle as they train in Cyprus (Picture: MOD).

The Mercian Regiment

The Mercians have a uniquely long history, albeit one that is indirectly long, as a result of the history that comes along with their name.

Mercia was the name of one of several independent Anglo-Saxon kingdoms dating back to the 6th Century, and one of only four kingdoms of England in the late 9th Century. The others were Wessex, East Anglia and Northumbria. Wessex’s King Alfred the Great and his son came to rule Mercia in the years before their successors united all of England.

Mercia is generally considered to have covered much of what is now south Derbyshire as well as Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Staffordshire and north Warwickshire. Today, The Mercian Regiment’s recruits generally come from areas that used to lie within the kingdom.

Two of the regiment’s antecedent units are also associated with Sherwood Forest, and therefore have another long historical connection to English history through the legend of Robin Hood.

The regiment’s official site, mercianregiment.co.uk, features other specific historical battle honours, such as the 17 February 1843 Battle of Meeanee (or Miani), which took place in what is now Pakistan.

The aforementioned Battle of Alma also features, as does the December 1845 Battle of Ferozeshah, also an episode in the saga of British India, this one leading to a defeat of the forces of the Sikh Empire.

Among other historical highlights is the naval crown emblem associated with the regiment, which originates with the naval service performed by The 29th Regiment of Foot in 1794 to help fill up shortages in the Royal Navy.

Interestingly, The 36th Regiment of Foot, another of the regiment’s antecedent units, was raised in 1702 as a “sea service”, or marine battalion. It was also initially raised as an Irish battalion in 1701, before being moved to the English establishment the following year.

These days, the regiment has three battalions, two regular and one reserve. Between them, they perform light and armoured infantry roles.  

Initial name of regiment

Name and number following 1751 reorganisation

Name from 1881 reorganisation

Duke of Norfolk’s Regiment of Foot 1689

22nd Regiment of Foot 1689

The Cheshire Regiment

Thomas Farrington’s Regiment of Foot 1694

29th Regiment of Foot 1694

1st Battalion, The Worcestershire Regiment

Viscount Charlemont’s Regiment of Foot 1701

36th Regiment of Foot 1702

2nd Battalion, The Worcestershire Regiment

Sir John Guise’s Regiment of Foot 1688

38th Regiment of Foot 1705

1st Battalion, The South Staffordshire Regiment

Daniel Houghton’s Regiment of Foot 1741

45th Regiment of Foot 1741

1st Battalion, The Sherwood Foresters (Derbyshire Regiment)

2nd Battalion, 11th Regiment of Foot 1756

64th Regiment of Foot 1756

1st Battalion, The Princes of Wales’s (North Staffordshire Regiment)

80th Regiment of Foot 1793

80th (Staffordshire Volunteers) Regiment of Foot 1793

2nd Battalion, The South Staffordshire Regiment

95th Regiment of Foot 1823

95th (Darbyshire) Regiment of Foot 1823

2nd Battalion, The Sherwood Foresters (Derbyshire Regiment)

98th Regiment of Foot 1824

98th (The Princes of Wales’s) Regiment of Foot 1824

2nd Battalion, The Princes of Wales’s (North Staffordshire Regiment)

British Army infantry regiments
Soldiers from The Mercian Regiment training in 2016 (Picture: MOD).

The Royal Welsh

The Royal Welsh have two battalions performing an armoured infantry role in the present-day British Army. These units can trace their origins back to four regiments in 1881, themselves successors to some units going back as far 1689.

One of these was the Royal Welch Fusiliers, which, like almost all British Army regiments, is noteworthy for various reasons, though one of these was the service of the poets and writers Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. These two famous literary figures were officers in the Royal Welch Fusiliers during World War 1, and their writings have become strongly associated with that war, including Grave’s memoir ‘Goodbye to All That’ and Sassoon’s anti-war poetry.

The South Wales Borderers, meanwhile, has its own unique history. Just two battles from a very long list are Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, which took place in what is now South Africa in 1879. These battles were the subject of the Michael Caine film ‘Zulu’, with Rorke’s Drift, in particular, becoming legendary as the place where a small garrison heroically held off a force of Zulu warriors many times its size.

British Army infantry regiments history
The 23rd (Royal Welsh Fusiliers) Regiment of Foot also participated in the Battle of Alma during the Crimean War in 1854 (Picture: Image Courtesy of the National Army Museum, London).

Moving from military glory to a rather more unusual aspect of The Royal Welsh’s military history, another one of its antecedent units, The 41st Regiment of Foot, was originally composed of ‘invalids’.

Raised in 1719 as Edmund Field’s Regiment of Foot, the unit was assembled from those too ill or old to perform normal military duties, including Chelsea out-pensioners, or those who received a military pension from the Royal Hospital Chelsea but did not live there.

In what might be considered a rather politically incorrect move today, the regiment was officially dubbed The Royal Invalids in 1741, and as The 41st (Royal Invalids) Regiment of Foot in 1751, when the numbering system came into effect for line infantry regiments.

The unit dropped the ‘invalids’ moniker in 1787 when it instead became composed of those of a normal health condition and age for military service. Not only that, but the future Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley of Waterloo fame, joined the regiment in 1788.

Initial name of regiment

Name and number following 1751 reorganisation

Name from 1881 reorganisation

Lord Herbert’s Regiment of Foot 1689

23rd (Royal Welch Fusiliers) Regiment of Foot 1689

Royal Welch Fusiliers

Sir Edward Dering’s Regiment of Foot 1689

24th Regiment of Foot 1689

The South Wales Borderers

Edmund Field’s Regiment of Foot 1719

41st Regiment of Foot 1719

1st Battalion, The Welsh Regiment

2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot 1756

69th Regiment of Foot 1756

2nd Battalion, The Welsh Regiment

British Army infantry regiments
Members of the Royal Welsh taking part in Exercise Gothic Dragon in 2021 (Picture: MOD).

The Royal Irish Regiment

The Royal Irish Regiment’s antecedent units are a good cross-section of the British Army over the centuries.

The 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment of Foot started out in 1689 as a militia unit named Zacharaiah Tiffin's Regiment of Foot. It was raised to fight against the forces of James II during the Williamite War in Ireland. Essentially, the conflict was a contest for the British Crown fought between the then deposed former Catholic King James II of England and Ireland (and VII of Scotland) and the Protestant King William III who had replaced him on the throne.

The 27th Foot fought on William’s side and were officially incorporated into the English forces of the Protestant king in 1690, going on to fight in the Battle of the Boyne. It officially became The 27th Regiment of Foot in 1747 and “Inniskilling” was added to its name in 1751. This was derived from Enniskillen, where the regiment was originally recruited in Ireland. It would go on to become The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in 1881.

The regiment has a long list of battle honours, though of particular note is the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, where it sustained 70 percent casualties. The National Army Museum quotes the Duke of Wellington as saying it was: “The regiment that saved the centre of my line.”

The 83rd, 86th, 87th and 89th Regiments of Foot were all raised in 1793 to fight in the French Revolutionary War. All were recruited in Ireland except for The 86th, which first raised its troops from Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cheshire, and later Shropshire, but was then posted to Ireland. The 87th and 89th would later merge to become 1st Battalion of The Princess Victoria’s (Royal Irish Fusiliers).

Once again, all the regiments have long histories, and this is often reflected in their names, not least The 87th Regiment of Foot, which had various iterations. It was known as: The Prince of Wales’s Irish, The Prince of Wales’s Own Irish, The Prince of Wales’s Own Irish Fusiliers, and finally as The Royal Irish Fusiliers from 1827 until 1881.

Indeed, as with other regiments throughout this article, dates in the left and centre columns of the tables, such as the one just below, only reflect the year the unit was first raised and when it was officially taken under the umbrella of the Crown in England, or later Britain. Name alterations might continue for years afterwards. The 83rd Regiment of Foot, for instance, did not get its “Count of Dublin” designation until 1859, while “County Down” was not added to the name of The 86th Regiment of Foot until 1812.

The 108th Regiment of Foot contrasts with his sister units in that there was a large gap between when it was first raised and when it was taken on as an official regiment of the Crown. The reason is that it was first recruited by the East Indian Company as The 3rd Madras European Regiment – as in a unit based in India but composed of non-Indian troops. It was 1862 when the regiment was brought under the control of the British government, though it would not come to Britain until 1876.

The complex and varied histories of these forebear units also throw up some mysteries. The 86th, 87th and 89th Foot were all initially established in 1793. However, according to the National Army Museum, the 86th Foot was originally formed of volunteers, as previously noted, from Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cheshire. This seems to have made it somewhat irregular since it was not officially turned into a line infantry regiment with the number 86 until 1794. Thus, it ought to have been less senior than the 87th and 89th Regiments of Foot.

The National Army Museum points out that the 87th Foot were captured in Flanders in 1795 and subsequently reformed, though at best this only a partial explanation as nothing comparable is said about the 89th Foot.

And in fact, when contacted, The Royal Irish Fusiliers Museum checked the available records, which show that a number of regiments of foot, many of them associated with Ireland, were formed out of sequence around this time. What records are available are also too sketchy to clearly establish the reason for this. The fact that multiple infantry regiments were being formed in response to the start of the Napoleonic Wars very likely added to, or possibly caused, much of the confusion.

No matter what the exact circumstances of their origins, all of The Royal Irish’s antecedent regiments had long service histories with multiple impressive battle honours. All of them also served in India before the 1881 reforms, and in World Wars 1 and 2 in the decades that followed. Their successor regiments saw action in places like Mons, Gallipoli, the Somme, Italy and Dunkirk. Two of these regiments, the Royal Irish Rifles and Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, were even involved in helping to put down the 1916 rebellion in Ireland, the Easter Rising.

During the Second World War, 1st  Battalion of The Royal Irish Rifles is noteworthy for having moved away from the traditional foot-soldier role. It was retrained as glider-borne infantry, essentially becoming an airborne and paratrooper support unit. It served in this capacity in Tunisia, Sicily, Normandy and during the Rhine crossings in 1945.

Today, The Royal Irish Regiment performs a light infantry role, though as the Army’s own Royal Irish webpage points out, this does not mean they are limited to being at the very tip of the proverbial spear. Rather, they are versatile enough to also conduct humanitarian and peacekeeping missions.

The Royal Irish is the only Irish line infantry regiment in the Army and it has two battalions, one regular and one reserve.

Initial name of regiment

Name and number following 1751 reorganisation

Name from 1881 reorganisation

Zacharaiah Tiffin's Regiment of Foot 1689

27th (Inniskilling) Regiment of Foot 1690

1st Battalion, The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers

83rd Regiment of Foot 1793

83rd (County of Dublin) Regiment of Foot 1793

1st Battalion, The Royal Irish Rifles

Sir Cornelius Cuyler's Shropshire Volunteers 1793

86th (Royal County Down) Regiment of Foot 1794

2nd Battalion, The Royal Irish Rifles

The Prince of Wales’s Irish Regiment 1793

87th (or Royal Irish Fusiliers) Regiment of Foot 1793

1st Battalion, The Princess Victoria’s (Royal Irish Fusiliers)

89th Regiment of Foot 1793

89th (Princess Victoria’s) Regiment of Foot 1793

1st Battalion, The Princess Victoria’s (Royal Irish Fusiliers)

3rd Madras European Regiment 1766

108th Regiment of Foot (Madras Infantry) 1862

2nd Battalion, The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers

British Army infantry regiments
Members of The Royal Irish Regiment train with Omani allies in the desert in 2021 (Picture: MOD).

The Parachute Regiment

While the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles is a good example of an infantry regiment converted to an airborne role, The Parachute Regiment itself came about in response to the emergence of German paratroopers.

Like the commando units of the Royal Marines and the Army that were created for raiding operations, the Parachute Regiment was a result of the exigencies of World War 2 – namely, Churchill’s decree that the UK should have its own paratroopers.

Created in 1942, the Parachute Regiment very quickly became an elite unit, with its members going on to serve in North Africa. They were given the nickname “Red Devils” by German paratroopers they faced there. This was a reference to their maroon berets. German and British paratroopers faced each other in Sicily in 1943 as well, at Primosole Bridge, in the first battle in which both sides parachuted into combat. The battle has been referred to as ‘the first Bridge Too Far’, a reference to the 1944 Battle of Arnhem, part of Operation Market Garden, the audacious attempt to cross into Germany via Holland and the biggest airborne operation in history. The Regiment, which grew to 17 battalions by the end of the war, also saw action in Greece, Italy, Normandy and during the Battle of the Bulge and the Rhine Crossings in 1945.

According to the MOD, apart from 1968, The Parachute Regiment, or Paras, as they are known, has been involved in military operations every year since the end of the Second World War. Among other places, it has served in Palestine, Cyprus, Suez, Borneo and Aden as well as Northern Ireland. The Paras served widely throughout Operation Banner, though the events of ‘Bloody Sunday’ on 30 January 1972 have remained a point of particular historical focus – a result of the contentious circumstances in which several civil rights protestors were shot dead. The Paras have also served in the Falklands, where a number of those from 2 and 3 Battalions were killed, as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the case of the latter conflict, members of The Parachute Regiment became prominent in the media in August of 2021 when 16 Air Assault Brigade was sent to Afghanistan to help with the evacuation of British personnel. The largest brigade in the Army, 16 Air Assault Brigade is its main rapid response air unit, of which 2 and 3 Battalions of The Parachute Regiment make up its parachute infantry component, with the reservist unit 4 Para in support.

Meanwhile, 1 Battalion of The Parachute Regiment serves along with Royal Marine and RAF personnel in the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG). This unit is typically involved in a blend of high-calibre conventional missions and the unconventional activities like counterterrorism and hostage rescue conducted by Special Forces. In practice, this might mean 1 Para setting up and defending protected cordons for the SAS or SBS while they conduct missions of their own, or perhaps providing additional fire support and/or diversionary attacks to assist them.

An example of this kind of mission was conducted by 1 Para in Sierra Leone in 2000. It involved the Paras attacking the enemy in one location while the SAS conducted a hostage rescue operation elsewhere, and it proved to a be a kind of precursor to 1 Para’s formal inclusion in the SFSG when it was created in 2006.

This, and the inclusion of 2, 3 and 4 Para in the Army’s rapid reaction 16 Air Assault Brigade are very much in the elite tradition of The Parachute Regiment.

British Army infantry regiments
Members of 2 Para training in Cyprus in 2021 (Picture: MOD).

The Royal Gurkha Rifles

The Royal Gurkha Rifles is unique among regiments of the British Army because its personnel are largely recruited from Nepal, while its officers come from the UK and Commonwealth.

This unusual tradition goes back to the Anglo-Nepalese War, which took place from 1814 to 1816. This was the time of the British Empire, and therefore of British control of what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In the early 19th Century, British forces in India were under the control of the Honourable East India Company (HEIC), which got into border disputes with the Gurkha kingdom that was by then ruling nearby Nepal. The Gurkha king Prithvi Narayan Shah had expanded his kingdom from what is now the district of Gorkha, across the lands of modern Nepal, and beyond.

In 1814, the border disputes led to war, a conflict the British won. However, even while they were fighting some Gurkhas, the British were recruiting others as allies. By the time the war ended, both sides had already grown fond enough of each other that they essentially joined forces. From then on, the British would recruit Nepalese who wanted to fight for them as infantrymen, first in India, and later on, such as during the First and Second World Wars, more widely around the world.

Naturally, the term ‘Gurkha’ is traceable back to the original Gurkha kingdom, though as Chris Bellamy points out in ‘The Gurkhas: Special Force’, within modern Nepal the term “Gurkha” is more likely to be understood to mean the aforementioned district of Gorkha. Those Nepalese who are recruited for the British Army are known instead as “UK lahure”, or ‘mercenary of the UK’.

Today’s Gurkha Rifles can trace a long line of battle honours back not only to service with the British Empire in and around India, but also to the Western Front, Mesopotamia, Galliipoli and other battles in the First World War. They also fought in North Africa, Italy, Greece, Malaya and Singapore and Burma during World War 2.

Since the Second World War, the Gurkhas have continued to serve in Asia, as well as in other conflicts such as the Gulf War, the Falklands War and Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today, The Royal Gurkha Rifles regiment provides the main infantry units of The Royal Gurkha Brigade, which also contains additional Gurkha units, such as Gurkha signals, logistic, training and engineering units. There are even Gurkha companies in the Army Special Operations Brigade which act as reinforcements for the brigade’s four Ranger Regiment battalions.

The Royal Gurkha Rifles’s two battalions perform light infantry roles, with 1 Battalion trained to conduct air assault operations – that is, infantry delivered at speed by helicopters to where they are needed on the battlefield – and 2 Battalion based in Brunei. The British Army have a permanent presence in the kingdom, where the Gurkhas are trained in jungle warfare.

Since the focus of this article is on the British Army itself, antecedent regiments for The Royal Gurkha Rifles are not listed here. The regiment was formed in 1994 from Gurkha regiments that had been incorporated into the British Army in 1948, following Indian independence the year before. In 1881, the latest period for other antecedent regiments listed here, the Gurkhas were serving in the British Indian Army.

Anglo Nepalese War
The 1814 - 1816 Anglo-Nepalese War led to the creation of Gurkha units in the British Army (Picture: The Gurkha Museum)

The Rifles

As the largest infantry regiment in the British Army today, The Rifles has seven battalions, each with over 500 personnel for a total of over 4,000 soldiers in the whole regiment. It also has a number of additional companies in other reserve formations. Its former 4th Battalion, 4 RIFLES, is also one of four battalions from across the Army’s infantry that have been used to seed the new Ranger battalions making up the Army’s Special Operations Brigade. Hence, from December 2021, 4 RIFLES became 4 RANGERS.

This development fits in well with the Rifles performing a diverse range of roles more generally. For instance, 1 RIFLES and 2 RIFLES serve as light infantry, 3 RIFLES as mechanised infantry, 5 RIFLES as armoured infantry, while the regiment’s three reserve battalions -- 6, 7 and 8 RIFLES – provide additional personnel to support 1, 2 and 5 RIFLES.

The conversion of 4 RIFLES to 4 RANGER battalion is also very much in line with a regimental history that is characterised by elite, light infantry units fighting skirmishing battles and pioneering new tactics.

This aspect of the regiment’s history also explains why The Rifles is the last regiment in the order of precedence. When infantry regiments parade together, they always do so in the sequence laid out here, with Foot Guards regiments being the most senior due to their close association with the monarchy, and then the line infantry regiments following behind. The position of each one of these is determined by their histories, with those having lines to the oldest antecedent regiments coming highest in the order of precedence.

Being so large, the Rifles has no less than 22 1881 antecedent regiments, with each one of these having their own regimental forebears sometimes stretching back to the 17th Century. The earliest such regiment was The Duke of Beaufort’s Musketeers, established in 1685 and destined to become The 11th Regiment of Foot. Were the Rifles to follow the same trend as other regiments, their association with The Duke of Beaufort’s Musketeers would place them seventh in order of precedence among the other line infantry regiments.

However, the core identity of the Rifles has ended up coalescing around the later light infantry and rifle regiments that were the elite troops of their day. The concept of and need for lightly equipped, fast, independently minded skirmishers dates back to conflicts in North America in the late 18th Century. The French and Indian War -- the North American side of Europe’s Seven Years’ War -- and the American Revolutionary War both featured dense forests that often blunted traditional line-infantry tactics. Rangers, and ranger-type soldiers who could manoeuvre more easily and fight more flexibly, were the solution to this problem, something that ended up being the historical origin point of today’s Army Rangers as well.

This same concept of light, flexible skirmishers was later paired with a more accurate weapon: the Baker Rifle, the first rifle used by the British Army.

Rifles differ from muskets in that they have rifled barrels, that is spiralled internal grooves that make bullets spin and thus fire further and more accurately than musket shots. While troops carrying the latter could be expected to accurately hit targets at ranges of up to 80 yards, soldiers armed with the Baker rifle could hit targets up to 300 yards away.

This new way of fighting was practised by the elite The 95th Regiment of Foot during the Napoleonic Wars, later rebranded as The Rifle Brigade and taken out of the line. This phrase means that they were not considered part of the normal line infantry, and indeed, The 95th Rifles, as they had been known, had also fought on the flank of the main British Army.

Riflemen were a new concept at this time, with other light infantry units such as The 43rd (Oxfordshire) and The 52nd (Buckinghamshire) Regiments of Foot later combining traditional line infantry fighting with the kinds of looser formation activities like scouting and skirmishing performed by The Rifle Brigade. This is why they continued to wear the traditional red coats, while those in The 95th Regiment of Foot, the unit featured in ‘Sharpe’s Rifles’, and its later iteration The Rifle Brigade, wore more camouflage friendly green coats. This in turn would be the rationale behind the name of one of the regiments that went into forming The Rifles – The Royal Green Jackets.

This ‘newness’, at least at that point in British Army history, meant that rifle regiments would always be behind their more traditional line infantry counterparts.

Extending this logic to today’s Army is what results in the Parachute Regiment coming at the end of the other ‘line infantry’ regiments, since it was conceived of as the latest elite airborne version of a traditional infantry regiment.

It also explains why the Gurkhas come behind the Paras and before The Rifles, since the Gurkhas too have traditionally served in rifle regiments. While it is true that colonial troops used to come after British Army troops in the order of precedence, following Indian Independence in 1947, several Gurkha regiments were incorporated directly into, and are now considered part of, the British Army. And the first of their antecedent units just predates the creation of the Rifle Brigade in 1816, hence the Rifles having the final position in the order of infantry precedence.

However, with such a large modern regiment performing multiple roles, and a rich history of elite soldiering, it is certainly a case of last, but not least.

Initial name of regiment

Name and number following 1751 reorganisation

Name from 1881 reorganisation

The Duke of Beaufort’s Musketeers 1685

11th (North Devonshire) Regiment of Foot 1685

The Devonshire Regiment

The Earl of Huntington’s Regiment of Foot 1685

13th (1st Somersetshire) (Prince Albert's Light Infantry) Regiment of Foot 1685

Prince Albert's Light Infantry (Somersetshire Regiment)

Sir John Gibson’s Regiment of Foot 1694

28th (North Gloucestershire) Regiment of Foot 1702

1st Battalion, the Gloucestershire Regiment

Edward Fox’s Regiment of Marines 1702

32nd (Cornwall) Light Infantry 1702

1st Battalion, The Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry

Richard Coote’s Regiment of Foot 1702

39th (Dorsetshire) Regiment of Foot 1702

1st Battalion, The Dorsetshire Regiment

Thomas Fowke's Regiment of Foot 1741

43rd (Monmouthshire Light Infantry) Regiment of Foot 1741

1st Battalion, The Oxfordshire Light Infantry

John Price’s Regiment of Foot 1741

46th (South Devonshire) Regiment of Foot 1741

2nd Battalion, The Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry

Edward Trelawney's Regiment of Foot 1743

49th (Hertfordshire - Princess Charlotte of Wales's) Regiment of Foot 1743

1st Battalion, The Princess Charlotte of Wales's (Berkshire Regiment)

53rd (Napier’s) Regiment of Foot 1755

51st (2nd York, West Riding, The King's Own Light Infantry) Regiment of Foot 1755

1st Battalion, The King's Own Light Infantry (South Yorkshire Regiment)

54th Regiment of Foot 1755

52nd (Oxfordshire Light Infantry) Regiment of Foot 1755

2nd Battalion, The Oxfordshire Light Infantry

55th Regiment of Foot 1755

53rd (Shropshire) Regiment of Foot 1755

1st Battalion,
The King's Light Infantry (Shropshire Regiment)

56th Regiment of Foot 1755

54th (West Norfolk) Regiment of Foot 1755

2nd Battalion, The Dorsetshire Regiment

62nd (Royal American) Regiment of Foot 1755

60th (The King's Royal Rifle Corps) Regiment of Foot 1755

The King’s Royal Rifle Corps

2nd Battalion, 3rd Regiment of Foot 1756

61st (South Gloucestershire) Regiment of Foot 1756

2nd Battalion, The Gloucestershire Regiment

2nd Battalion, 4th Regiment of Foot 1756

62nd (Wiltshire) Regiment of Foot 1756

1st Battalion, The Duke of Edinburgh's (Wiltshire Regiment)

2nd Battalion, 19th Regiment of Foot 1756

66th (Berkshire) Regiment of Foot 1756

2nd Battalion, The Princess Charlotte of Wales's (Berkshire Regiment)

2nd Battalion, 23rd Regiment of Foot 1756

68th (Durham - Light Infantry) Regiment of Foot 1756

1st Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry

85th (Bucks Volunteers) Regiment of Foot 1794

85th (Bucks Volunteers) (The King’s Light Infantry) Regiment of Foot 1794

2nd Battalion, The King’s (Shropshire Light Infantry)

Corps of Riflemen 1800

95th Regiment of Foot (Riflemen) 1802

The Prince Consort’s Own (Rifle Brigade)

99th (Lanarkshire) Regiment of Foot 1824

99th (Duke of Edinburgh's) Regiment of Foot 1824

2nd Battalion, The Duke of Edinburgh's (Wiltshire Regiment)

2nd Madras Europeans 1766

105th Regiment of Foot (Madras Light Infantry) 1862

2nd Battalion, The King's Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry)

2nd Bombay (European) Regiment 1839

106th Regiment of Foot (Bombay Light Infantry) 1862

2nd Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry

Special thanks to the National Army Museum for assistance with this article. Thanks also to The Royal Scots Regimental Association, The Rifles Museum, The Royal Green Jackets (Rifles) Museum, The Duke of Lancaster’s Regimental Association, Museum of the Manchester Regiment and The Royal Irish Fusiliers Museum for additional assistance.

British Army infantry regiments
Members of 2 RIFLES training in Kenya in 2021 (Picture: MOD).