A History of the British Army

Until 1660, England had no standing army, when conflict threatened local lords and the Government would raise militias and form together into an army.

1645 was the creation of the New Model Army during the English Civil War; the benefits of a professional, highly trained army using the increasingly sophisticated weaponry and tactics of the time became clear: they won. At war’s end, the reunited and reformed English nation brought together the warring sides with the English Army.

The Union and First Regiments

This army was an extremely effective fighting force, trashing the Scots and forcing them to join the Union in 1707. This was what most consider to be the true start of the British Army, Britain referring to the island, not the nations within. Charles II had formed a small professional army, consisting of the horse Life Guards and The Blues, the Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards, the Royal Scots, and the Second Queen’s Royals. Most of these regiments survive to this day.

The Need for the Army

Initially, many were opposed to a professional army, the Civil War had just been fought over the amount of power the Sovereign and the Government had, and the existence of a permanent army seemed like a constant threat to the balance of power and the people’s hard-fought jurisdiction. It was the near-constant wars in Europe over the next few hundred years that convinced Parliament to put up with it. Europe was changing, the birth of the nation state and the beginnings of empire caused huge conflict that the British could not avoid. A nation of traders, open trade routes and peace, as well as colonial dominance, were essential to the prosperity of the island nation.

Continental Conflict and the Birth of Empire

The British army was involved heavily in fighting around the world during the 18th century. Emblazoned in their redcoats, the infantry were distinctive, largely effective and very much feared. The British Empire was created in a series of bloody confrontations; there were few enemies the British Army did not subdue. The Jacobite rebellion against the Scots (largely fought by Scots themselves), the Seven Years War that left Britain dominant in America, the American War of Independence, which lost Britain’s dominance, and the constant fighting against the French saw the British Army shape up into one of the world’s most renowned fighting forces. By 1709, the British army had 150,000 men (over half of whom were mercenaries).


Recruiting wasn’t always easy: the life of a British soldier was tough, dangerous and between war and disease (which killed more soldiers than enemy action until the Boer War in the late 19th century), not many survived intact. Many recruits were press ganged into the army during and after the American Revolutionary War, basically forced to join up if they were unlucky enough to encounter a press gang. If a man volunteered before he was pressed, he would earn more, so when many saw the press officers, they would volunteer on the spot. Vagrants and vagabonds, debtors and criminals could be forcibly enlisted. It is hardly surprising, then, to find that they lost in America and by the end of the century only numbered 40,000 men.

Napoleon and the 19th Century

The rise of Napoleon and his revolutionary use of technology and tactics forced dramatic changes in the British Army. Drawn into the fighting by alliances with invaded nations, the British initially found themselves outgunned and out fought by the better trained and equipped French and Imperial soldiers. Many men were working in factories in the cities, so recruitment was difficult: the pay was terrible in the Army. In the years of the war, the British Army was once again transformed: mass recruitment (there were 250,000 British soldiers by the end of the war), heavy investment, and recent technologies like more accurate and powerful muskets, cannons and mortars made the British Army well suited to stepping into the vacuum of the French Empire and spreading British colonialism around the world. There was no force in the world that could match the massed musket fire of the British infantry.

Crimea, India and Change

Later in the century, the British Army found itself fighting in India against independence rebellions, in the Crimea against the Russians for dominance of Eastern Europe, and in East Asia against the Chinese and Malays. There was fierce criticism of the perceived ineptitude of the British army, especially in Crimea, largely due to the photographers and reporters who followed the Army there and set back reports. The resulting changes were forced by public opinion for the first time. Better treatment of soldiers, adequate equipment, better pay, professionalisation, all came from public campaigns.

WW I & II to Present

The first and second World Wars fundamentally changed how the British army operated and fought. Previously, officers had largely been from the ruling classes; with 50% fatality rates for officers and ample opportunities for promotion on the battlefield, the British Army finally became a force that was largely run by soldiers promoted on merit, not privilege. Bureaucracy was paralysing but the Army was one of the most effective fighting forces on Earth by the end of WWII.

Since then, the Army has been involved in the end of Empire, peacekeeping missions like Bosnia, fought the Argentinians in the Falklands and engaged in disastrous conflicts in the Middle East. It remains the second-best funded army in the world and its reach is still considerable.