This article will explain some of the reasons a recruit did not join their local regiment and is one of my guides to help you research soldiers who served in the First World War. To view more guides click on the link below:
I also offer a First World War Soldier Research Service.
Why a Soldier is not with a Local Regiment
When researching a soldier who served in the First World War, you should never take it for granted that they served with their local regiment. In fact, the choice of which regiment to join was based on a wide variety of factors both before and during the war and this guide will look at:
- Joining a regiment prior to 1914
- Joining the Territorial Force
- Joining from August 1914-1916
- Compulsory transfers between regiments
Joining a Regiment Before August 1914
The British Army had great difficulty recruiting soldiers in the years prior to the outbreak of war. In May 1914, the regular army was 11,000 men, or 6%, under strength. A soldier wanting to enlist in a particular regiment could have joined at its depot, at a recruiting office in its county of origin or one of the many recruiting offices spread across the country. Many regiments from more rural counties had difficulty filling their ranks with local recruits and would need to draw on men from all over Britain and Ireland.
The reasons for joining a particular regiment were varied and could be entirely arbitrary or due to a family connection. Many soldiers chose regiments which would give them the opportunity to serve overseas. Soldiers had to be 19 to serve overseas and it was not uncommon for young recruits to add a few months or even years to their age to ensure they could proceed to overseas straight after training (check their age on enlistment against their birth certificate). The passage below was taken from Old Soldier Sahib by Frank Richards and describes the reasons he joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers rather than the South Wales Borderers as the recruiting sergeant had wanted:
The reason I insisted on joining the Royal Welch Fusiliers was that they had one battalion in South Africa, and a long list of battle honours on their Colours; and also they were the only regiment in the Army privileged to wear the flash. The flash was a smart bunch of five black ribbons sewed in a fan shape on the back of the tunic collar:
Joining the British Army in 1914-1916
The great recruiting boom came during the first few months of the war and would have an impact on which regiment or corps a soldier joined. A lot of new recruits joined their local regiment with their friends. This was especially the case with the war-raised pals battalions. However, there are a number of possible reasons why a soldier would not be in his local regiment:
- The large numbers of new recruits during the first months of the war meant that many men wanting to enlist couldn’t get into their local recruiting office. And if they did, their unit of choice may have already been full.
- They enlisted underage and wanted to serve in a unit where their real age was less likely to be discovered.
- They failed a medical and kept trying different units until they succeeded.
- Many soldiers with no connection to Scotland were drawn towards the Highland regiments, with their kilts and Glengarries cutting a distinctive dash when compared to the drab service dress.
Joining the Territorial Force
The Territorial Force was formed in 1908 when the Yeomanry and Volunteer Force were merged and was the forerunner of the Territorial Army. A soldier who joined the Territorial Force pre-August 1914 would have been drawn from a local catchment area. This is because soldiers in the Territorial Force had to be able to travel to their local drill hall to undertake training. An example of the localised nature of recruiting can be seen by looking at the first two companies of the Hertfordshire Regiment – Headquarters: Hertford. Companies A- Hertford, Watton-at-Stone, Hatfield and Berkhamstead. B- St Albans, London Colney and Harpenden.
Once war commenced, Territorial Force units not only continued to recruit men locally but also from across the country. Some Territorial Force units struggled with recruits due to the belief that a soldier was less likely to see active service with a Territorial Force unit. This belief was due to the original role of the Territorial Force which was for home defence only, compared with the regular and war raised service battalions of a regiment. I have found that many men who enlisted under the Derby Scheme chose Territorial Force units as territorials didn’t have to serve abroad unless they wanted to when the scheme ended. This would change in 1916.
The Effect of Conscription on Unit Choice
When the Military Service Act came into effect on 2 March 1916, men no longer had any option to which unit they were sent. Instead, a conscript would have been sent to a unit which needed to be brought up to strength.
If you’re lucky enough to be researching a soldier whose service record has survived you may come across a mention of Army Order 204 of 1916. This order dealt with compulsory transfers between units and is one of the reasons soldiers end up serving in different regiments. After this order came into effect, there was no guarantee that a soldier would stay with his unit for the remainder of the war. If he left the unit due to illness or wounds he may have been transferred to another once recovered.