I often receive emails from descendants wondering why their relative did not serve in their local infantry regiment. It is very common to find Londoners in Scottish regiments, Cornish in Welsh regiments and Irishmen serving in every regiment of the British Army. This article will explain why men served in regiments in which they had no geographic link and is one of a series of guides to help you research those who served in the British Army during the war:
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 infantry 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 an infantry regiment prior to the outbreak of war in August 1914
- Joining the Territorial Force, the forerunner of the Territorial Army
- Enlisting between August 1914 and 1916
- The introduction of conscription
- 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 man who wanted 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. Regiments were composed of different battalions, of around a thousand officers and other ranks and four were usually grouped together as brigades. These brigades usually contained battalions drawn from four different regiments, at least in the regular compared to Territorial Force. Most infantry regiments only had two regular battalions formed of those serving full time with the colours, one which was kept in Britain and Ireland and the other abroad.
The battalion serving at home was usually understrength by hundreds of soldiers as it was constantly sending out drafts to the one abroad. Many regiments from more rural counties, Devon and Cornwall in particular, had difficulty filling their ranks with local recruits and would need to draw on men from all over Britain and Ireland. Due to the need to redistribute recruits across the army, a recruit could enlist for general service where they were sent to where they were needed but most specified a regiment or corps.
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 aged nineteen to serve abroad 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. If their parents didn’t want them to enlist underage, and there was a great social stigma against the army at the time, a potential recruit would often enlist far away from their residence to avoid detection.
Then there were those who enlisted to flee the law, an unhappy married life or as the result of getting a girl pregnant. Once again, enlisting for a regiment far away from their location would make tracking them down a lot harder. One of the myriad ways a soldier could be discharged during this period was “Having been claimed for wife desertion”. But then, many soldiers chose their regiment on a whim or due to the persuasiveness of the recruiting Sergeant. These men would be on the lookout for quality recruits to send back to their own regiments. If a soldier’s attestation form has survived look who gave the recruit the notice outlining the terms of service along with their regiment or corps. Frank Richards described in his classic memoir of soldiering in India Old Soldier Sahib the reason 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 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 man who joined the Territorial Force pre-August 1914 would have been drawn from a specific area and trained at their local drill hall after work and attended an annual camp. This meant that a potential recruit had to live close enough to their 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. If you’re researching a lot of territorial soldiers, The Territorials 1908-1914 by Ray Westlake is a valuable resource to find out where units recruited from pre-war.
Once war commenced, Territorial Force units were embodied, its term for mobilized and restrictions placed on a potential recruit’s address removed. However, most Territorial Force units still recruited the overwhelming majority of its men from its existing catchment area in the opening months of the war. 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 changed in 1916.
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 service 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.
Or, they enlisted underage and wanted to serve in a unit where their real age was less likely to be discovered, or be tracked down by relatives. Others failed a medical in their chosen unit and kept on trying until they found either a sympathetic or incompetent doctor to pass them. There was also the glamour associated with certain regiments, those of the Foot Guards and the kilted Highland regiments in particular. Many a man with no connection to Scotland fancied themselves in a kilt, sporran and glengarry, when compared to the drab service dress of the English regiments! Then, there were those unfortunate men who enlisted for a particular unit and suddenly found themselves transferred on mass to a new regiment. This happened to many recruits from the midlands and north of England as these areas had an excess number of men. Many were sent to Irish regiments, e.g. the Connaught Rangers.
The Effect of Conscription on Unit Choice
When the Military Service Act came into effect on 2 March 1916, men no longer had an option to which regiment or corps they were sent. Instead, a conscript was sent to where the army saw fit. However, if a man had enlisted under the Derby Scheme and was called up after conscription had been introduced, then some leeway on unit choice was given.
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. Many territorial soldiers were transferred from their home service unit under this legislation, sent abroad and then transferred to another regiment.