Recruitment in the British Army

Recruitment in the British Army

The British Army came into being with unification of the Kingdoms of England and Scotland into the United Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. The new British Army incorporated Regiments that had already existed in England and Scotland. The British Army has traditionally relied upon volunteer recruits, the only exceptions during the latter part of the First World War, the Second World War and only once during peace time, when conscription was enacted.

18th and 19th centuries

At the beginning of the 18th century the standing of the British Army was reduced after the Treaty of Ryswick, and stood at 7,000 troops at home and 14,000 based overseas, [cite book| first =Peter|last =Young |title=History of the British Army|year=1970|pages=p.25 para 1] with recruits ranging from 17 to 50 years of age. The army was kept small by the government during peacetime, mainly due to the fear that the army would be unduly influenced by the Crown or used to depose the Government. [cite news|url= | title= The March of the Guards to Finchley; 18th Century Recruitment|publisher=Umich education|accessdate=|date] For much of the 18th century the army was recruited from various sources, and many were mercenaries from continental Europe including Danes, Hessians and Hanoverians. [cite book| first =Peter|last =Young |title=History of the British Army|year=1970|pages=p.25 para 4] These Mercenaries were hired out by other rulers on contracted terms. Other regiments were formed of volunteers such as French Huguenots. By 1709 during the War of the Spanish Succession the British Army totaled 150,000 of these 81,000 were foreign mercenaries. [cite book| first =Peter|last =Young |title=History of the British Army|year=1970|pages=p.25 para 4]

The rest of the army consisted of native people, mainly recruited from the poorest sections of society. Each Regiment was responsible for the recruitment of troops, and individual colonels would lead recruiting party’s on a tour of the towns and villages for new recruits. This was emphasized by the popular play of the time called The Recruiting Officer. [cite book| first =Peter|last =Young |title=History of the British Army|year=1970|pages=p.26 para 1] Other measures were empowered by the Government to enlist forcibly vagrants and vagabonds. Some of these powers were abused by some recruiting officers desperate to fill their quotas, although a legalized navy press-gang system would not be implemented yet. [cite book| first =Peter|last =Young |title=History of the British Army|year=1970|pages=p.26 para 1] Even though normal recruiting methods failed to supply the required annual influx of troops, as the army was not a popular profession, with low pay, flogging and other barbarous disciplinary measures. [cite news|url= | title= The March of the Guards to Finchley; 18th Century Recruitment|publisher=Umich education|accessdate=|date] The army recruiting methods and treatment of its soldiers would remain the same for the rest of the 18th Century. During the American Revolution, a policy similar to the Navy's Press Gangs were introduced. Two acts were passed, the Recruiting Act 1778 and the Recruiting Act 1779 for the impressment of individuals, for some this simply would have been for being drunk and disorderly. The chief advantages of these acts was in the number of volunteers brought in under the apprehension of impressment. To avoid impressment, some recruits incapacitated themselves by cutting off the thumb and forefinger of the right hand. Both acts were repealed in 1780. Others were enticed to take the King's shilling under false pretenses and many men would find they had signed to a lifetime in the army. [cite news|url=|title= SOLDIER of the KING; Recruitment during American Revolution| publisher=AMERICANREVOLUTION.ORG|accessdate=|date] After the defeat of the American Revolution the British Army fell into dereliction, moral and discipline were low, and troops levels low. [cite book|url=,M1 |title= The Oxford History of the British Army p.132 para 1| publisher= Google Books|accessdate=|date] The Army was neglected as never before and total strength in 1793 stood at 40,000. [cite book|url=,M1 |title= The Oxford History of the British Army p.132 para 2| publisher= Google Books|accessdate=|date]

Napoleonic wars

Great Britain’s struggle with France during the Napoleonic wars required the British Army to expand rapidly. Ordinary recruiting methods failed to supply the number of men required to fill the Army ranks. The main methods used for recruiting, were, private individuals were recruited for their own interests, secondly, volunteering from the militia and, thirdly, placing obligations on communities to enlist. Generals called for conscription for the first time in British History, although this was never enacted for the regular army. [cite news|url=,M1 |title= The British Armed Nation, 1793-1815| publisher= Google Books|accessdate=|date] During this period Great Britain was at a disadvantage to her enemy, as due to the Industrial revolution potential recruits were instead drawn to the cities to earn more money in the many factories now being built in the country, while France was still largely an Agrarian Society. Competition from civilian occupations was intense and highlighted in the disparity in pay; where a private could earn 7s per week in 1806, while a dockworker could expect to earn 28s. [cite book|url=,M1 |title= The Oxford History of the British Army p.137 para 2| publisher= Google Books|accessdate=|date]

In addition joining the Army still meant effectively joining for life, which were frequently cut short in a brutally short manner. For instance a posting the Caribbean in 1790, was effectively a death sentence, thousands of men died or disabled by disease. [cite book|url=,M1 |title= The Oxford History of the British Army p.138 para 1| publisher= Google Books|accessdate=|date] The Army would struggle to raise the troops required to replace the dead, wounded or discharged, as in 1794 18,596 soldiers died on active service and another 40,639 men were discharged. [cite book|url=,M1 |title= The Oxford History of the British Army p.137 para 2| publisher= Google Books|accessdate=|date] This would remain a constant theme during the Napoleonic wars, and the British Army would again rely upon foreign volunteers, such as French Royalists, Germans, Greeks and Corsicans. In 1813 one fifth of the army was comprised of such volunteers over 52,000 men. [cite book|url=,M1 |title= The Oxford History of the British Army p.138 para 2| publisher= Google Books|accessdate=|date] The British Army during this period never exceeded 270,000, while a France with conscription had an army over 2.6 million. [cite news|url=,M1 |title= The British Armed Nation, 1793-1815| publisher= Google Books|accessdate=|date]

Post Napoleonic Army

After the victory in the Napoleonic wars followed 40 years of peace in Europe, the army would again revert to its peacetime role. The Army that won the war, but was neglected in the peace. The Governments immediate priority was too cut taxes, to lessen the burden of taxation on the economy. Which had remained high over the previous twenty years, to pay for the expensive war that enabled Britain to be victorious over France. The British Army funding would be cut drastically in the short term, but as became evident would apply for the next 40 years. The budget was cut from 43 million pounds sterling in 1815, to 10.7 million in 1820, 8 million in 1836 and only rose slightly 10 years later to 9.5 million. [cite book|url=,M1
title= The Oxford History of the British Army p.163 para 3| publisher= Google Books|accessdate=|date
] With the budget cuts, troop levels were inevitably cut from 233,592 men in 1815 to 102,529 men by 1828, there were further reductions in 1838 and troop strength stood at 91,388. [cite book|url=,M1|title= The Oxford History of the British Army p.164 para 2| publisher= Google Books|accessdate=|date] With the constant cuts recruiting parties would achieve their reduced recruiting targets with greater ease.

1870 reforms

The army during peacetime was deliberately kept small and the recruitment methods would only change once the Cardwell reforms were implemented in the 1870s. Some of the Administrative Acts included ceasing the sale of commissions, banning of flogging and other measures such as reducing the length of service, to make recruitment more appealing. An Enlistment Act saw a change in the terms of enlistment, which could at last produce some trained reserves and also made soldiering a more tempting career. A Localisation Scheme resulted in the pairing of single-battalion regiments via administrative depots on a county-based system. The reforms were brought, due to the failings of the British army during the Crimean War, it was evident that the provision of an army of only 25,000 in the Crimea had stripped Britain of almost every trained soldier.

Officers and Royals

The officers were mainly drawn from a narrow segment of society, from the landed aristocracy, most having attended public schools. It was said that the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 was 'won on the playing fields of Eton'. Often officers were from families with a military tradition. This was largely in part to the sale of commissions, finally abolished due to the Cardwell reforms, and the further Childers Reforms. In spite of its abolishment, the status of an officer being from a privileged background and that of another rank being from a less privileged one has, for the most part, endured into the 21st century. The Royal Family traditionally had its members serve in the Armed Forces, usually with the Royal Navy though many have served with the Army. This tradition has continued into the 21st century, with Prince Harry and Prince William both joining the Army as officers. Foreign Royals have also served in the Army, such as Eugène Bonaparte the son of Napoléon III, was commissioned into the Royal Artillery, but was killed in 1879 while serving in South Africa during the Anglo-Zulu War. Also later in the 20th century King Abdullah II of Jordan served as a Second Lieutenant with the 13th/18th Royal Hussars (Queen Mary's Own).

First World War

At the start of 1914 the British Army had a reported strength of 710,000 men including reserves, of which 247,432 were regular troops, also including 80,000 regular troops formed as the British Expeditionary Force. [cite book| first =David|last =G.Chandler |title=The Oxford History of the British Army|year=2003|pages=p.211 para 1] The recruitment drive would be spearheaded by Lord Kitchener once war had been declared in August 1914. It was abundantly clear the army which the Kaiser had referred to as a "contemptible little army", would need thousands more recruits. Young Britons answered the call, for King and Country, and voluntarily joined the British Army. By early 1915 much of the regular army had been killed and were now replaced by Kitchener's new volunteer army, which were formed of Pals battalions. The Kitchener recruitment campaign had proved to be very successful, as on September the 1st 1914, over 30,000 men [cite book| first =Peter|last =Young |title=History of the British Army|year=1970|pages=p.216 para 3] enlisted. With each day passing, thousands more were clamoring to be taken. The British Government soon realized the main drawback of this campaign as opposed to the French and German conscriptions which selected each individual men, the high proportion of men from skilled industries left their works which would prove to be costly in the war effort. A more controlled enlistment program would be required. [cite book| first =Peter|last =Young |title=History of the British Army|year=1970|pages=p.216 para 3]

The Military Service Bill was enacted as of January 1916 and specified that men from the ages of 18 to 41 were liable to be called-up for service unless they were married (or widowed with children), or else served in one of a number of reserved professions. By the end of World War I almost 1 in 4 of the total male population of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland had joined, over five million men.

Inter-war period 1919-38

After the Great war and the inevitable defence cuts that would follow, the army was reduced in size, and by 1920 had fallen to 370,000. There were a number of factors for the reductions in the size of British Army, and the cuts to the budget of the Army. The army now had competition from the new armed service the Royal Air Force, which could patrol far greater land areas, and keep the far flung corners of the Empire policed from the sky at a relatively cheaper cost. The defence budget for the army was repeatedly cut yearly, as in 1923 the army defence budget was 43.5 million pounds sterling, and during the Great Depression in 1932 to just under 36 million pounds sterling. Only with the rise of Germany, would the budget for the British army again increase, by 1938 to 123 million pounds sterling; the army again started a rapid recruitment program. [cite book|url=,M1 |title= The Oxford History of the British Army (p.258)| publisher= Google Books|accessdate=|date]

econd World War

"Further information:" "Conscription in the United Kingdom 1939-45"‎

At the start of the Second World War the British Army Strength stood at 897,000 men including reserves, the number was higher than the start of the previous world war. One reason was the Military Training Act of 27 April 1939 which required all men aged 20 and 21 to take six months military training. The act was further increased upon the declaration of the war to include all fit men between the ages of 18 and 41. Conscription was gradually brought in starting in October 1939 and applying to all fit men between 20–23, the age group was increased as the war continued. By the end of 1939 the strength of the British Army stood at 1.1 million men, and further increased to 1.65 million men during June 1940. [cite news|url=|title= WW2 Peoples War| publisher=BBC|accessdate=|date] [cite news|url= |title= Recruitment during WW2| publisher= |accessdate=|date] [cite news|url= |title= ww2- conscription | publisher= |accessdate=|date] By the end of the war and the final demobilisations in 1946, over 3.5 million men had been enlisted in the British Army. [cite news|url=|title= WW2 3.5Million British Army 1946| publisher=BBC|accessdate=|date]

The Local Defence Volunteers was formed early in 1940, very large numbers of civilians too old or too young for the Army, or barred from serving if they were in reserved occupations, volunteered for the new force. The organisation was eventually renamed the "Home Guard" and was to be part of the defence of Britain in the advent of a German invasion of Britain.

From National Service to all-professional army

"Further information:""National Service"‎

As with the previous World War, the end of wartime conscriptionsaw the army reduced in size and reverting back to its peacetime role of maintaining the Empire. In 1947 British India was given Independence, which meant the loss of the British Indian Army and thousands of volunteer soldiers. The British Government had relied upon the British Indian Army for Imperial matters. Now without this army, the regular British Army was judged to be to small for the demands of an impending Cold War and maintaining the Empire. Too meet this demand which volunteers alone would not; peacetime conscription was enacted by the government and passed by the House of Commons in 1947. In the United Kingdom, it is this period of peacetime conscription that is usually referred to as 'National Service'. It remains the only period of peacetime conscription in UK history, apart from the periods immediately before and after World War II. The majority of National Servicemen went into the Army and by 1951 National Servicemen made up half the force leading to a reduced level of voluntary recruitment to the regular army. The last intake of National Servicemen took place in 1960, with the last National Serviceman being demobbed on 16 May 1963. The army reverted back to an all professional volunteer service, which it remains to this day. [cite news|url=|title= British Armed Forces - National Service| publisher=|accessdate=|date] The decision to abolish National Service was taken in 1957 with the 1957 Defence White Paper, which led to an enormous reduction in soldiers between 1958–63, from about 330,000 soldiers to 165,000 soldiers by the end of National Service. In the decades that followed cuts in the Army were the constant theme, between 1963 and 1992 strength was reduced to 153,000, however never on a large scale; until the end of the cold war. In 1990 the Government started another defence review which concluded with the Defence White Paper of 1992. In a post-Soviet world the white paper would again further reduce the army by 50,000, [cite book| first =David|last =G.Chandler |title=The Oxford History of the British Army|year=2003|pages=p.343 para 1] effectively ending the British Army of the Rhine and current strength of the British army is approximately 102,000 regular personnel.

Present day

The Army mainly recruits within the United Kingdom, and normally has a recruitment target of around 25,000 soldiers per year. Low unemployment in Britain has resulted in the Army having difficulty in meeting its target, and in the early years of the 21st century there has been a marked increase in the number of recruits from mostly Commonwealth countries.

The minimum recruitment age is 16 years, after the end of GCSEs, although soldiers may not serve on operations below 18 years; the maximum recruitment age was raised in January 2007 from 26 to 33 years. The normal term of engagement is 22 years, and once enlisted soldiers are not normally permitted to leave until they have served at least 4 years.

Empire and Commonwealth

During both World Wars, subjects throughout the British Empire volunteered to help the United Kingdom. During World War I the Dominions raised their own armies, but were under the British command structure, and very much integrated into the British fighting forces. Over 2.5 million men, which included Canada sending 418,000 men overseas, Australia sent 322,000, New Zealand 124,000, and other volunteers from the Crown Colonies. [cite news|url=|title= WW1 Dominion Armies| publisher= Farlex encyclopedia|accessdate=|date] During peacetime the British Empire soldiers were usually recruited into indigenous regiments to garrison their own land, thus ensuring that the Army did not have to allocate its own units to garrison the territories. Such as the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps, one of the oldest regiments raised from the empire was the West India Regiment raised in 1795, and was formed as an integral part of the regular British Army. The recruits of West India Regiment were originally raised from freed slaves from North America and by purchase of slaves in the West Indies, it was disbanded in 1927. Other units such as the Fiji Infantry Regiment, raised in 1920, garrisoned the Pacific territory, consisting of one battalion. One of the largest was the Royal West African Frontier Force which garrisoned British West Africa, consisting in 1928 of The Nigeria Regiment.

British Indian Army

The largest of the colonial military forces the British Indian Army of the British Raj until Indian independence, was a volunteer army, raised from the native population with British officers. The Indian Army served both as a security force in India itself and, particularly during the World Wars, in other theatres. The Indian Army proved a very useful adjunct to British forces not only in India but also in other places. Recruitment was entirely voluntary; about 1.3 million men served in the First World War, many on the Western Front and 2.5 million in the Second. Initially the soldiers and NCOs were Indian, with British officers but later Indian officers were promoted King's Commissioned Indian Officer.


The Gurkhas have been employed as an integral part of the British Army since the early 19th century. There are approximately 3500 Gurkhas currently serving in the British Army. Joining the British Army is one of the few ways Nepalese have of escaping poverty and earning a good salary. As a result each year, there are thousands of applicants, as in 2007 when over 17,349 applied for just 230 posts. [cite news|url= |title=" Gurkhas flock to British army"| publisher= The Boston Globe|accessdate=|date] [cite news|url=|title= Current Gukhas levels and 2005 recruitment.| publisher= bbc|accessdate=|date] In some years there are over 60,000 applying to join, and from 2010, women for the first time will be allowed to join. [cite news|url=
title=" Gurkhas flock to British army"| publisher= The Boston Globe|accessdate=|date
] Candidates must be from 17 and 1/2 to 21 years of age.

Irish regiments

Irish volunteers formed the backbone of recruitment to the British Army for more than two centuries until Irish independence. At one point during the 19th century the 42 percent of soldiers in the British Army were Irish born, which meant there were more Irish soldiers in the army than English. Levels would remain high, although recruitment steadily dropped from the period of the Irish Famine until 1900, but the Irish would remain over represented compared to the size of the population. At the turn of the 20th Century numbers of Irish volunteers reduced, as the criticism by nationalists of recruitment to the army grew. Over 28,000 Irishmen served in the army during the Second Boer War, and by 1910 the recruitment levels had fallen to 9 percent and for the first time were below Ireland`s share of the UK population. During World War I about 6 percent (65,000) of the army were Irish recruits and post-independence during World War II over 70,000 were recruited from the Irish Free State. [cite book|url=,M1|title=An Atlas of Irish History p.141 | publisher= Google Books|accessdate=|date] The importance of the Irish in the British Army was summed up by Rudyard Kipling, who lost his son, Lt John Kipling of the Irish Guards, in World War I,

“For where there are Irish there’s bound to be fighting, And when there’s no fighting it’s Ireland no more.”cite news|url=|title= Timesonline `Kipling`|date]

Present Commonwealth & foreign recruitment

In 2008 Commonwealth origin volunteers comprised approximately 6.7% of the Army's total strength. In total 6,600 foreign soldiers from 42 countries were represented in the Army, not including Gurkhas. After Gurkhas, the nation with most citizens in the British Army is Fiji, with 1,900, followed by Jamaica and Ghana with 600 each; soldiers also come from more prosperous countries such as Australia, South Africa and the Republic of Ireland. Levels of recruitment amongst Irish nationals have also been increasing, and figures for recruitment in Northern Ireland reveal that 16% came from south of the border during 2008. With Levels growing year on year since 2005 and up from 5% in 2006. [cite news|url= |title=Irish Recruitment| publisher= Daily Mail|accessdate=|date] [cite news|url= |title=Irish Recruitment| publisher= Belfast Telegraph|accessdate=|date]

The Ministry of Defence is now considering capping the number of recruits from Commonwealth countries, although this will not affect the Gurkhas. If the trend continues 10% of the army will be from Commonwealth countries before 2012. The cap is being debated, as some fear the army's "Britishness" is being diluted, and employing too many could make the army seen as employing too many mercenaries. [cite news|url=|title= Commonwealth recruitment caps.| publisher= Guardian Newspaper|accessdate=|date]


External links

* [] BBC article on recruitment in the British Army, including information on "Taking the King's Shilling"
* [] BBC article on recruitment at the start of World War II

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