British Army

British Army
Founded 1660
Country  United Kingdom[nb 1]
Allegiance Elizabeth II
Type Army
Role Land warfare
Size 87,610 Regular[nb 2]
Non-ceremonial flag

The British Army is the principal land warfare force of the United Kingdom. The force was initially administered by the War Office from London, which in 1964 was subsumed into the Ministry of Defence. The professional head of the British Army is the Chief of the General Staff.

The full-time element of the British Army is referred to as the Regular Army and has been since the creation of the reservist Territorial Force in 1908. All members of the British Army swear (or affirm) allegiance to the monarch as commander-in-chief. However, the Bill of Rights of 1689 requires parliamentary consent for the Crown to maintain a standing army in peacetime. The UK Parliament approves the continued existence of the Army by passing an Armed Forces Act at least once every five years.

Throughout its history, the British Army has seen action in a number of major wars involving the world's great powers, including the Seven Years' War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the First World War and Second World War. Repeatedly emerging victorious from these decisive wars allowed Britain to influence world events with its policies and establish itself as one of the world's leading military and economic powers. Since the end of the Cold war, the British Army has been deployed to many conflict zones, often as part of an expeditionary force or a United Nations peacekeeping operation. Additionally, the British Army maintains several permanent overseas postings.


John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, was one of the first generals in the British Army, fighting campaigns in the War of the Spanish Succession.

The English Army was first established as a standing military force in 1660.[3] In 1707 many regiments of the English and Scottish armies were already combined under one operational command and stationed in the Netherlands fighting in the War of Spanish Succession. Consequently, although the regiments were now part of the new British military establishment, they remained under the same operational command, and so not only were the regiments of the old armies transferred in situ to the new army so too was the institutional ethos, customs, and traditions, of the old standing armies that had been created shortly after the restoration of the monarchy 66 years earlier. The order of seniority of the most senior line regiments in the British Army is based on the order of seniority in the English army. Scottish and Irish regiments were only allowed to take a rank in the English army from the date of their arrival in England or the date when they were first placed on the English establishment. For example, in 1694 a board of general officers was convened to decide the rank of English, Irish and Scots regiments serving in the Netherlands; the regiment that became known as the Scots Greys were designated as the 4th Dragoons because there were three English regiments raised prior to 1688 when the Scots Greys were first placed on the English establishment. In 1713, when a new board of general officers was convened to decide upon the rank of several regiments, the seniority of the Scots Greys was reassessed and based on their entry into England in June 1685. At that time there was only one English regiment of dragoons, and so after some delay the Scots Greys obtained the rank of 2nd Dragoons in the British Army.[4]

Following William and Mary's accession to the throne, England involved itself in the War of the Grand Alliance, primarily to prevent a French invasion restoring Mary's father, James II.[5] Following the union of England and Scotland in 1707, and the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801, British foreign policy on the continent was to contain expansion by its competitor powers such as France and Spain. Spain, in the previous two centuries, had been the dominant global power, and the chief threat to England's early transatlantic ambitions, but was now waning. The territorial ambitions of the French, however, led to the War of the Spanish Succession[6] and the Napoleonic Wars.[7] Russian activity led to the Crimean War.[8] After 1745, recruits were increasingly drawn from Scotland; by the mid-1760s between one fifth and one third of officers were from Scotland.[9]

From the time of the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763, Great Britain was the leading naval power and with France one of the two economic powers of the world.[10]

Early British Empire

The extinction of the Scottish clan system came with the defeat of the clansmen at the Battle of Culloden in 1746

The British Empire expanded in this time to include colonies, protectorates, and Dominions throughout the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australasia. Although the Royal Navy is widely regarded as having been vital for the rise of the British Empire, and British dominance of the world, the British Army played an important role in the colonisation of India and other regions.[11]

The death of General Wolfe during the Battle of the Plains of Abraham; the campaigns of the French and Indian War resulted in British control of modern Canada.

British soldiers also helped capture strategically important territories, allowing the empire to expand. The army was also involved in numerous wars to pacify the borders, or to prop up friendly governments, and thereby keep other, competitive, empires away from the British Empire's borders. Among these actions were the Seven Years' War,[12] the American Revolutionary War,[13] the Napoleonic Wars,[7] the First and Second Opium Wars,[14] the Boxer Rebellion,[15] the New Zealand wars,[16] the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857,[17] the First and Second Boer Wars,[18] the Fenian raids,[19] the Irish War of Independence,[20] its serial interventions into Afghanistan (which were meant to maintain a friendly buffer state between British India and the Russian Empire),[21] and the Crimean War (to keep the Russian Empire at a safe distance by coming to Turkey's aid).[8]

As had its predecessor, the English Army, the British Army fought Spain, France, and the Netherlands for supremacy in North America and the West Indies. With native and provincial assistance, the Army conquered New France in the North American theatre of the Seven Years' War[12] and subsequently suppressed a Native American uprising in Pontiac's War.[22] The British Army suffered defeat in the American War of Independence, losing the Thirteen Colonies but holding on to Canada.[23]

The British Army was heavily involved in the Napoleonic Wars and served in multiple campaigns across Europe (including continuous deployment in the Peninsular War), the Caribbean, North Africa and later in North America. The war between the British and the First French Empire of Napoleon Bonaparte stretched around the world and at its peak, in 1813, the regular army contained over 250,000 men. A Coalition of Anglo-Dutch and Prussian Armies under the Duke of Wellington and Field Marshal von Blücher defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.[24]

The English had been involved, both politically and militarily, in Ireland since being given the Lordship of Ireland by the Pope in 1171. The campaign of the English republican Protector, Oliver Cromwell, involved uncompromising treatment of the Irish towns (most notably Drogheda and Wexford) that had supported the Royalists during the English Civil War. The English Army (and subsequently the British Army) stayed in Ireland primarily to suppress numerous Irish revolts and campaigns for independence. In addition to its ongoing conflict with ethnic Irish nationalists, it was faced with the prospect of battling Anglo-Irish and Ulster Scots peoples in Ireland, angered primarily by unfavourable taxation of Irish produce imported into Britain, who, alongside other Irish groups, had raised their own volunteer army and threatened to emulate the American colonists if their conditions were not met. Having learnt from their experience in America, the British government sought a political solution. The British Army found itself fighting Irish rebels, both Protestant and Catholic, primarily in Ulster and Leinster (Wolfe Tone's United Irishmen) in the 1798 rebellion.[25]

The Battle of Rorke's Drift in 1879 saw a small British force repel an overwhelming attack by Zulu forces; eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded for the defence.

In addition to battling the armies of other European Empires (and of its former colonies, the United States, in the American War of 1812),[26] in the battle for global supremacy, the British Army fought the Chinese in the First and Second Opium Wars,[14] and the Boxer Rebellion,[15] Māori tribes in the first of the New Zealand Wars,[16] Nawab Shiraj-ud-Daula's forces and British East India Company mutineers in the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857,[18] the Boers in the First and Second Boer Wars,[18] Irish Fenians in Canada during the Fenian raids[19] and Irish separatists in the Anglo-Irish War.[14] The vastly increasing demands of imperial expansion, and the inadequacies and inefficiencies of the underfunded, post-Napoleonic Wars British Army, and of the Militia, Yeomanry, and Volunteer Force, led to the Cardwell and Childers Reforms of the late 19th century, which gave the British Army its modern shape, and redefined its regimental system.[27] The Haldane Reforms of 1907 formally created the Territorial Force as the Army's volunteer reserve component by merging and reorganising the Volunteer Force, Militia, and Yeomanry.[28]

World wars

British Mark I tank during the First World War. Note the guidance wheels behind the main body which were later scrapped as they were unnecessary. Armoured vehicles of this time still required much infantry and artillery support and still do to a lesser extent today. The photo was taken by Ernest Brooks.

Great Britain's dominance of the world had been challenged by numerous other powers; in the 20th century, most notably Germany. A century before, it was still vying with Napoleonic France for pre-eminence in Europe and around the world, and Hannoverian Britain's natural allies were the various Kingdoms and principalities of Northern Germany. By the middle of the 19th century, Britain and France were allied in preventing Russia's appropriation of the Ottoman Empire (although it was the fear of French invasion that led, shortly after, to the creation of the Volunteer Force). By the first decade of the 20th century, however, the United Kingdom was allied with France (by the Entente Cordiale) and Russia (which had its own secret agreement with France of mutual support in any war against the Prussian-led German Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.)[29]

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, the British Army sent the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), consisting mainly of Regular Army troops, to France and Belgium to prevent Germany from occupying these countries.[30] The British Army created the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF) in Egypt and sent it to Gallipoli in an unsuccessful attempt to capture Constantinople and secure a sea route to Russia.[31] After the retreat from Gallipoli nearly 400,000 men in 13 divisions from the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force and the Force in Egypt formed a strategic reserve in Egypt called the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF).[32][33] With most of the strategic reserve sent to the Western Front, the EEF, now consisting of two British infantry and one Australian and New Zealand mounted division in the Eastern Force, successfully defend the Suez Canal and Romani in 1916 from German and Ottoman incursions.[34][35] This force captured the Sinai and garrisoned the extended lines of communication, but in early 1917 their advance was stopped at Gaza until towards the end of the year when a greatly enlarged force of infantry and mounted troops captured Beersheba, most of southern Palestine and Jerusalem. The EEF, now including Indian Army units which replaced a number of British units sent to the Western Front, captured the southern Jordan Valley in 1918 and carried out two major, but unsuccessful attacks to Amman and Es Salt and occupied part of the Jordan Valley, during preparations for his final successful assault in September at the Battle of Megiddo. As a result of the EEF's capture of two Ottoman armies, an armistice with the Ottoman Empire was signed on 31 October 1918.[36]

The First World War was the most devastating in British military history, with nearly 800,000 men killed and over 2 million wounded. In the early part of the war, the professional force of the BEF was virtually destroyed and, by turns, a volunteer (and then conscript) force replaced it. Major battles included the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Passchendaele.[37] Advances in technology saw advent of the tank,[38] with the creation of the Royal Tank Regiment, and advances in aircraft design, with the creation of the Royal Flying Corps, which were to be decisive in future battles.[39] Trench warfare dominated strategy on the Western Front for most of the war, and the use of chemical and poison gases added to the devastation.[40]

Led by their piper, men of the 7th Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders, part of the 46th (Highland) Brigade, advance during Operation Epsom, 26 June 1944.

The Second World War broke out in September 1939 with the German Army's invasion of Poland.[41] British assurances to the Polish led the British Empire to declare war on Germany. Again, as in the First World War, a relatively small British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was sent to France,[41] only to be hastily evacuated as the German forces swept through the Low Countries and across France in May 1940.[42] Only the Dunkirk evacuation saved the entire BEF from capture.[42] Later, however, the British would have spectacular success defeating the Germans and Italians at the Battle of El Alamein in North Africa from 1942–1943, Italy[43] and in the D-Day invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944, with the help of American, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, Indian and Free French forces.[44] Almost half of the Allied soldiers on D-Day were British.[45] In the Far East, the British Army battled the Japanese in the Burma Campaign.[46] The Second World War saw the British Army develop its Special Air Service, Commando units and the Parachute Regiment.[47] Over 146,000 British soldiers lost their lives during the Second World War.[48]

Postcolonial era

After the end of the Second World War, the British Army was significantly reduced in size, although National Service continued until 1960.[49] This period also saw the process of decolonisation commence with the partition and independence of India and Pakistan, followed by the independence of British colonies in Africa and Asia. Accordingly, the army's strength was further reduced, in recognition of Britain's reduced role in world affairs, outlined in the 1957 Defence White Paper.[50] This was despite major actions in Korea in the early 1950s[49] and Suez in 1956.[51] A large force of British troops also remained in Germany, facing the threat of Soviet invasion.[52] The British Army of the Rhine was the Germany garrison formation, with the main fighting force being I (BR) Corps. The Cold War saw significant technological advances in warfare and the Army saw more technologically advanced weapons systems come into service.[53]

Despite the decline of the British Empire, the Army was still deployed around the world, fighting wars in Aden,[54] Indonesia, Cyprus,[54] Kenya[54] and Malaya.[55] In 1982 the British Army, alongside the Royal Marines, helped to liberate the Falkland Islands during the Falklands conflict against Argentina, after Argentina's invasion of the British territory.[56]

In the three decades following 1969, the Army was heavily deployed in Northern Ireland, to support the Royal Ulster Constabulary (later the Police Service of Northern Ireland) in their conflict with republican paramilitary groups, called Operation Banner.[57] The locally recruited Ulster Defence Regiment was formed, later becoming home service battalions in the Royal Irish Regiment in 1992, before being disbanded in 2006. Over 700 soldiers were killed during the Troubles. Following the IRA ceasefires between 1994 and 1996 and since 1997, demilitarisation has taken place as part of the peace process, reducing the military presence from 30,000 to 5,000 troops.[58] On 25 June 2007, the Second Battalion Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment vacated the Army complex at Bessbrook Mill in Armagh. This is part of the 'normalisation' programme in Northern Ireland in response to the IRA's declared end to its activities.[59]



Troopers of the Blues and Royals.

The British Army is purely a professional force since National service came to an end. The full-time element of the British Army is referred to as the Regular Army since the creation of the reservist Territorial Force in 1908. The size and structure of the British Army is continually evolving. Accordingly, the Ministry of Defence publishes monthly reports on personnel. Figures for 1 May 2016 show; 84,760 Regulars, 2,850 Gurkhas and 28,800 Army Reservists.[1] Of those Army Reservists, 23,270 were trained.[1]

The future transformation of the British Army is referred to as "Army 2020", which is the result of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. According to the Ministry of Defence, Army 2020 will "ensure that the British Army remains the most capable Army in its class" and enable "it to better meet the security challenges of the 2020s and beyond".[60] Initially, the SDSR outlined a reduction of the Regular British Army by 7,000 to a trained strength of 95,000 personnel by 2015.[61] However, following a further independent review on the future structure of the British Army, "Future Reserves 2020",[62] it was announced that the Regular Army will be reduced to a trained strength of 82,000 while the Army Reserve will be increased to a trained strength of around 30,000 personnel.[63] There will be an added margin for soldiers in training. This reform will bring the ratio of regular and part-time personnel of the British Army in line with US and Canadian allies.[64][65] Perhaps the most important aspect of Army 2020 is that the Army Reserve will become "fully integrated" with the Regular Army and "better prepared" for overseas deployments and operations.[66]

In addition to the active elements of the British Army (Regular and Army Reserve), all ex-Regular Army personnel remain liable to be recalled for duty in a time of need, this is known as the Regular Reserve.[67] The Regular Reserve is separated into two categories: A and D. Category A is mandatory, with the length of time serving in category A depending on time spent in Regular service. Category D is voluntary and consists of personnel who are no-longer required to serve in category A. Regular Reserves in both category A and D serve under a fixed-term reserve contract and are liable to report for training or service overseas and at home.[67] These contracts are similar in nature to those of the Army Reserve.[68] The Long Term reserve is also part of the Regular Reserve but excludes personnel serving in categories A and D. Unlike the other reserves the Long Term reserve do not serve under a contract of any sort, instead they retain a "statutory liability for service" and may be recalled to service under Section 52 of the Reserve Forces Act (RFA) 1996 (until the age of 55).[67] In 2007 there were 121,800 Regular Reserves of the British Army, of which, 33,760 served in categories A and D.[69]

Publications since April 2013 no longer report the entire strength of the Regular Reserve, instead they only give a figure for the Regular Reserves serving in categories A and D only. They had a reported strength of 30,000 personnel in 2015.[2]

The table below shows historical personnel trends of the British Army from 1710 to 2010. The Army Reserve – or Territorial Army, as it was known then – did not come into existence until 1908.

Strength of the British Army, 1710–2010



(1921– Present)
1710 1720 1730 1740 1750 1760 1770 1780 1790 1800 1810 1820 1830 1840 1850 1860 1870 1880 1890 1900 1918A 1920 1930 1945B 1950 1960C 1970 1980 1990D 2000 2010
Regular 70,000 20,000 20,000 55,000 27,000 87,000 48,000 79,000 84,000 163,000 226,000 114,000 106,000 130,000 151,000 215,000 185,000 165,000 210,000 275,000 3,820,000 Interwar period 3,120,000 364,000 258,000 176,000 159,000 153,000 110,000 113,000
Army Reserve incld. above incld. above 83,000 120,000 80,000 63,000 73,000 45,000 29,000
Total 70,000 20,000 20,000 55,000 27,000 87,000 48,000 79,000 84,000 163,000 226,000 114,000 106,000 130,000 151,000 215,000 185,000 165,000 210,000 275,000 3,820,000 3,120,000 447,000 378,000 256,000 222,000 226,000 155,000 142,000
Challenger 2, Warrior, AS90, MLRS and Stormer of 1 YORKS battlegroup
Notes: 1710–1900,[70] 1918 & 1945,[71] 1920,[72] 1930,[73] 1950,[74][75] 1960,[74][76] 1970,[77] 1980–2000,[78] 2010[79][80]


Infantry The basic infantry weapon of the British Army is the L85A2 assault rifle, sometimes equipped with an L17A2 underbarrel grenade launcher. The rifle has several variants, such as the L86A2, the Light Support Weapon (LSW), and the L22A2 carbine issued to tank crews. Support fire is provided by the FN Minimi light machine gun and the L7 General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG); indirect fire by 60 and 81 mm mortars. Sniper rifles used include the L118A1 7.62 mm, the L115A3 and the AW50F, all produced by Accuracy International. Some units use the L82A1 .50 calibre Barrett sniper rifle. More recently, the L128A1 (Benelli M4) 'combat shotgun' has been adopted, and is intended for close quarters combat in Afghanistan.[81][82]

Armour The British Army's main battle tank is the Challenger 2.[83][84] Other armoured vehicles include the Supacat "Jackal" MWMIK and the Iveco "Panther" CLV.[85] The Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicle is the primary armoured personnel carrier, although many variants of the Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (tracked) are used too, as well as the Saxon APC and the FV430 series, which is now having its engines and armour replaced and returned to front-line service as the Bulldog.[86] The British Army commonly uses the Land Rover Wolf and Land Rover Defender.[87]

Artillery The Army uses three main artillery systems: the Multi Launch Rocket System (MLRS), AS-90 and L118. The MLRS was first used operationally in Operation Granby and has a range of 70 km (43 mi).[88] The AS-90 is a 155 mm self-propelled gun.[89] The L118 Light Gun is a 105 mm towed gun used primarily in support of 16 Air Assault Brigade, 19 Light Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade (Royal Marines).[90] The Rapier FSC Missile System is the Army's primary battlefield air defence system, widely deployed since the Falklands War[91] and the Starstreak HVM (High Velocity Missile) is a surface-to-air weapon, launched either by a single soldier or from a vehicle-mounted launcher.[92]

Army Aviation The Army Air Corps (AAC) provides direct aviation support for the Army, although the RAF also contributes by providing support helicopters. The primary attack helicopter is the Westland WAH-64 Apache, a licence-built, modified version of the US AH-64 Apache, which replaced the Westland Lynx AH7 in the anti-tank role.[93] The Lynx remains in service as an armed escort, surveillance and light utility helicopter. Other types are used in specialised roles e.g. the Westland Gazelle as a light surveillance aircraft[94] and the Bell 212 for support in specific Jungle / 'hot and high' environments[95] The Eurocopter AS 365N Dauphin is used for Special Operations Aviation[96] and the Britten-Norman Islander is a light fixed-wing aircraft used for airborne reconnaissance and command and control.[97]

Recent and current conflicts

Persian Gulf War

Main articles: Gulf War and Operation Granby
Wrecked and abandoned vehicles along Highway of Death.

The ending of the Cold War saw a significant cut in manpower, as outlined in the Options for Change review.[98] Despite this, the Army has been deployed in an increasingly global role, and contributed 50,000 troops to the coalition force that fought Iraq in the Persian Gulf War.[99] British forces were put in control of Kuwait after it was liberated. 47 British Military personnel died during the Persian Gulf War.[100]

Balkans conflicts

Main article: Yugoslav wars

The British Army was deployed to Yugoslavia in 1992; initially this force formed part of the United Nations Protection Force.[101] In 1995 command was transferred to IFOR and then to SFOR.[102] Currently troops are under the command of EUFOR. Over 10,000 troops were sent. In 1999 British forces under the command of SFOR were sent to Kosovo during the conflict there. Command was subsequently transferred to KFOR.[103] Between early 1993 and June 2010, 72 British military personnel died on operations in the former Yugoslavian countries of Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia.[104]

War in Afghanistan

In November 2001 the United Kingdom, as a part of Operation Enduring Freedom with the United States, invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban.[105] The 3rd Division were deployed in Kabul, to assist in the liberation of the troubled capital. The Royal Marines' 3 Commando Brigade (part of the Royal Navy but including a number of Army units), also swept the mountains.[106] The British Army concentrated on fighting Taliban forces and bringing security to Helmand province with around 9,500 British troops (including marines, airmen and sailors) at its peak[107] making it the second largest force after the United States.[108] In December 2012, the prime minister, David Cameron, announced that 3,800 troops – almost half of the force serving in Helmand Province – would be withdrawn during 2013 with numbers to fall to approximately 5,200.[109] By March 2014, troop levels had fallen to 4,000.[110] Between 2001 and 26 April 2014 a total of 453 British military personnel died on operations in Afghanistan.[111] Operation Herrick officially ended with the handover of Camp Bastion on 26 October 2014.[112] The British Army maintains a deployment of 500 personnel in Afghanistan as part of Operation Toral.[113]

Iraq War

Main articles: Iraq War and Operation Telic
British soldiers from 1st Battalion, Royal Regiment of Fusiliers Battlegroup engage Iraqi positions with mortars south of Basra.

In 2003 the United Kingdom was a major contributor to the invasion of Iraq, sending a force that would reach 46,000 military personnel.[114] The British Army controlled the southern regions of Iraq and maintained a peace-keeping presence in the city of Basra until their withdrawal on 30 April 2009. 179 British Military personnel have died on operations in Iraq.[115] All of the remaining British troops were fully withdrawn from Iraq after the Iraqi government refused to extend their mandate.[116]

The Troubles

Main article: Operation Banner

Although having permanent garrisons there, the British Army was initially deployed in a peacekeeping role – codenamed "Operation Banner" – in Northern Ireland in the wake of Unionist attacks on Nationalist communities in Derry[117] and Belfast[118] and to prevent further Loyalist attacks on Catholic communities, under Operation Banner between 1969 and 2007 in support of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and its successor, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).[119] There has been a steady reduction in the number of troops deployed in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998.[120] In 2005, after the Provisional Irish Republican Army announced an end to its armed conflict in Northern Ireland, the British Army dismantled posts and withdrew many troops, and restored troop levels to that of a peace-time garrison.[121]

Operation Banner ended at midnight on 31 July 2007, bringing to an end some 38 years of continuous deployment, making it the longest in the British Army's history.[122] An internal British Army document released in 2007 stated that the British Army had failed to defeat the IRA but had made it impossible for them to win through the use of violence. Operation Helvetic replaced Operation Banner in 2007 maintaining fewer servicemen in a much more benign environment.[122][123] From 1971 to 1997 a total of 763 British military personnel were killed during the "Troubles".[124] Some 300 deaths during the conflict were attributed to the British Army, including paramilitary and civilians.[125] A total of 303 RUC officers were killed in the same time period. In March 2009, two soldiers and a police officer were killed in separate dissident republican attacks in Northern Ireland.[126]

Current deployments

Low intensity operations

Location Date Details
Afghanistan 2015 Operation Toral: The British Army maintains a deployment of 500 personnel in support of NATO's Resolute Support Mission.
Cyprus 1964 Operation TOSCA: 183-strong contingent responsible for Sector 2 of the UN's Buffer Zone. 25-strong Royal Military Police unit part of the UN's Force Military Police Unit. 50-strong unit part of the UN's Mobile Force Reserve. British forces have been deployed under Operation TOSCA since 1964.
Sierra Leone 1999 International Military Assistance Training Team: The British Army were deployed to Sierra Leone for Operation Palliser in 1999 to aid the government in quelling violent uprisings by militiamen, under United Nations resolutions. Troops remain in the region to provide military support and training to the Sierra Leonean government.[127][128]

Permanent overseas postings

Location Date Details
Belize 1949 British Army Training and Support Unit Belize: British troops were based in Belize from 1949 until 1994. Belize's neighbour, Guatemala, claimed the territory and there were numerous border disputes. At the request of the Belizean government, British troops remained in Belize after independence in 1981 to provide a defence force.[129] The main training unit was mothballed in 2011, following the Strategic Defence and Security Review.[130] However, in 2015, it was reported that the training unit was seeing increased usage.[131]
Bermuda 1701 Royal Bermuda Regiment: British troops have been based in Bermuda since 1701.[132] Home defence in this overseas territory is now carried out by the Royal Bermuda Regiment.[133]
Brunei 1962 British Forces Brunei: One battalion from the Royal Gurkha Rifles, British Garrison, Training Team Brunei (TTB) and 7 Flight AAC. A Gurkha battalion has been maintained in Brunei since the Brunei Revolt in 1962 at the request of Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin III. The Training Team Brunei (TTB) is the Army's jungle warfare school, while the small number of garrison troops support the battalion. 7 Flight AAC provides helicopter support to both the Gurkha battalion and the TTB.[134]
Canada 1972 British Army Training Unit Suffield: A training centre in the Alberta prairie which is provided for the use of British Army and Canadian Forces under agreement with the government of Canada. British forces conduct regular, major armoured training exercises here every year, with helicopter support provided by 29 (BATUS) Flight AAC.[135][136]
Cyprus 1960 Part of British Forces Cyprus: Two resident infantry battalions, Royal Engineers, 16 Flight AAC and Joint Service Signals Unit at Ayios Nikolaos as a part of British Forces Cyprus. The UK retains two Sovereign Base Areas on Cyprus after the rest of the island's independence. The bases serve as forward bases for deployments in the Middle East. Principal facilities are Alexander Barracks at Dhekelia and Salamanca Barracks at Episkopi.[137]
Falkland Islands 1982 Part of British Forces South Atlantic Islands: British Army contribution consists of an infantry company group and an Engineer Squadron. Previously a platoon-sized Royal Marines Naval Party acted as the military presence. After the war in 1982 between Argentina and the UK, the garrison was enlarged and bolstered with a base at RAF Mount Pleasant on East Falkland.[138]
Germany 1945–2020 Part of British Forces Germany: Home of 1st (UK) Armoured Division. British forces remained in Germany after the end of the Second World War. Forces declined considerably after the end of the Cold War, and in October 2010 the prime minister, David Cameron, announced large cuts in defence with all UK troops currently in Germany to leave by 2020.[139]
Gibraltar 1704 Part of British Forces Gibraltar: British Army garrison is provided by an indigenous regiment, the Royal Gibraltar Regiment.[140]
Kenya 2010 British Army Training Unit Kenya: The Army has a training centre in Kenya, under agreement with the Kenyan government. It provides training facilities for three infantry battalions per year[141]

Formation and structure

The structure of the British Army is complex, due to the different origins of its various constituent parts. It is broadly split into the Regular Army (full-time Officers/soldiers and units) and the Army Reserve (spare-time Officers/soldiers and units).

In terms of its military structure, it has two parallel organisations, one administrative and one operational.



Structure of units

The standard operational units are structured as follows, although various units have their own structure, conventions, names and sizes:[146]

Type of Unit Division Brigade Battalion / Regiment Company / Squadron Platoon / Troop Section Fire Team
Contains 3 Brigades 3 Battalions 6 Companies 3 Platoons 3 Sections 2 Fire Teams 4 Individuals
Personnel 10,000 5,000 720 120 30 8–10 4
Commanded by Maj-Gen Brig Lt Col Maj Capt, Lt or 2nd Lt Cpl LCpl

Corps are made up of two or more divisions, but now are rarely deployed as a purely national formation due to the size of the British Army.[146]

In place of a Battalion, a task-specific Battlegroup may be formed. A battlegroup is grown around the core of either an armoured regiment or infantry battalion, and has other units added or removed from it as necessary for its purpose. It results in a mixed formation of armour, infantry, artillery, engineers and support units, typically consisting of between 600 and 700 soldiers under the command of a Lieutenant Colonel.[146]

A number of elements of the British Army use alternative terms for battalion, company and platoon. These include the Royal Armoured Corps, Corps of Royal Engineers, Royal Logistic Corps, and the Royal Corps of Signals who use regiment (battalion), squadron (company) and troop (platoon). The Royal Artillery are unique in using the term regiment in place of both corps and battalion, they also replace company with battery and platoon with troop.[146]


The British Army currently has two operational divisions.[147]

Name Headquarters Subunits
1st (United Kingdom) Division Imphal Barracks, York Seven infantry brigades and one logistics brigade.
3rd (United Kingdom) Division Bulford Camp, Wiltshire Three armoured infantry brigades and one logistics brigade.

Brigades which are not under 1st (UK) Division at any one time report directly into Regional Command.[148]

Rapid Reaction Force

16 Air Assault Brigade forms the bulk of the Army's rapid reaction force.[149]

Combat support

Force Troops Command, or FTC, forms the basis of the Army's Combat support, containing units ranging from artillery to military police.[150]

Aviation components

The British Army operates alongside the Royal Air Force and the Fleet Air Arm as part of Joint Helicopter Command, but the army also has its own Army Air Corps. Military helicopters of all three services are commanded by Joint Helicopter Command, a joint 2 star headquarters operating under HQ Land Forces.[151]

Special forces

The SAS Cap Badge.

The British Army contributes two of the three special forces formations within the United Kingdom Special Forces directorate: 22 Special Air Service Regiment and the Special Reconnaissance Regiment.[152]

The Special Air Service overall comprises one regular regiment and two Army Reserve regiments.[153] The regular regiment, 22 SAS, has its headquarters and depot located in Hereford and consists of five squadrons: A, B, D, G and Reserve with a training wing.[154] The two reserve regiments, 21 SAS and 23 SAS (collectively, the Special Air Service (Reserve) (SAS(R))) are no longer part of the UK's special forces and now form part of 1st Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Brigade.[155]

The Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), formed in 2005 from existing assets, undertakes close reconnaissance and special surveillance tasks.[152] The Special Forces Support Group was formed around 1st Battalion the Parachute Regiment, with attached Royal Marines and RAF Regiment assets, the unit is also open to any member of the HM Armed Forces. The Special Forces Support Group are under the Operational Control of Director Special Forces to provide operational manoeuvre support to the elements of United Kingdom Special Forces.[156]

Locally raised units of British Overseas Territories

Numerous military units were raised historically in British territories, including self-governing and Crown colonies, and protectorates. Whereas the old Commonwealth Dominions, such as Canada and Australia, had their own armies before achieving complete independence, units raised in those territories which remained part of the realm of the UK were, and are, ultimately under the control of the UK government, and do not constitute separate armies. The UK retains responsibility for the defence of all of the fourteen remaining British Overseas Territories. Although the Cayman Islands premier has stated the desire to raise a Cayman Islands Defence Force[157] when it can be afforded (it currently has only the Cayman Islands Cadet Corps),[158] becoming the fifth, only four of the remaining British Overseas Territories retain locally raised regiments:

Royal Navy and Royal Air Force infantry units

The other armed services have their own infantry units which are not part of the British Army. The Royal Marines are amphibious light infantry forming part of the Naval Service, and the Royal Air Force has the RAF Regiment used for airfield defence, force protection duties and Forward Air Control.[163] In addition to infantry, the Royal Marines formerly also contained an artillery element (the Royal Marine Artillery), and the Royal Air Force absorbed the light anti-aircraft artillery batteries of the Royal Artillery during the Second World War (a role now utilising missile systems like the Rapier. The RAF also historically utilised armoured car companies.[164]


One of the most recognisable recruiting posters of the British Army; from World War I featuring Kitchener.

The Army mainly recruits within the United Kingdom; it normally has a recruitment target of around 12,000 soldiers per year.[165] Low unemployment in Britain has resulted in the Army having difficulty in meeting its target. In the early years of the 21st century there has been a marked increase in the number of recruits from other (mostly Commonwealth) countries. In 2006 overseas recruitment, mostly in Commonwealth countries, generated more than 6,000 soldiers from 54 nations; together with the 3,000 Gurkhas, 10% of the British Army are foreign nationals.[166]

The Ministry of Defence now caps the number of recruits from Commonwealth countries, although this will not affect the Gurkhas, as Nepal is not part of the Commonwealth. If the trend continues 10% of the army will be from Commonwealth countries before 2012. The cap is in place as some fear the army's British character is being diluted, and employing too many could make the army seen as employing mercenaries.[167] 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.[168]

There has been a strong and continuing tradition of recruiting from Ireland including what is now the Republic of Ireland.[nb 4][nb 5][nb 6][169] Over 200,000 Irish soldiers fought in the First World War.[170][171] More than 60,000 Irishmen from what was then the Irish Free State[nb 7] (now the Republic of Ireland) and 38,000 from Northern Ireland served in the Second World War, all volunteered.[172]

Oath of allegiance

All soldiers must take an oath of allegiance upon joining the Army, a process known as attestation. Those who wish to swear by God use the following words:

I, [soldier's name], swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors and that I will as in duty bound honestly and faithfully defend Her Majesty, her heirs and successors in person, crown and dignity against all enemies and will observe and obey all orders of Her Majesty, her heirs and successors and of the generals and officers set over me.[173]

Others replace the words "swear by Almighty God" with "solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm".[174] Under the reign of another monarch, the name of the monarch and all pronouns with gender are replaced appropriately.

Training establishments

New College buildings of Royal Military Academy Sandhurst

Flags and ensigns

The British Army does not have its own specific ensign for the whole Army, unlike the Royal Navy, which uses the White Ensign, and the RAF, which uses the Royal Air Force Ensign. Instead, the Army has different flags and ensigns, some for the entire army and many for the different regiments and corps. The official flag of the Army as a whole is the Union Flag, flown in a ratio of 3:5. A non-ceremonial flag also exists, which is used at recruiting events, military events and exhibitions. It also flies from the Ministry of Defence building in Whitehall.[175] Whilst at war, the Union Flag is always used, and this flag represents the Army on The Cenotaph at Whitehall in London (the UK's memorial to its war dead).[176]

The British Army has throughout its history operated ships, ports and myriad boats. Boats, landing craft and ports are still operated by the Army and ensigns exists for vessels commanded by the Army. The Royal Logistic Corps operates a large fleet of vessels from its base at Marchwood near Southampton.[177] The Royal Engineers has had fleets since the introduction of diving in 1838 and was granted an ensign following the foundation of the Royal Engineers Submarine Mining Service in 1871, where it operated sea mine laying ships, before transfer of the trade to the Royal Navy. The Corps maintains a Blue Ensign defaced by the crest of the Board of Ordnance from where the Corps developed, which it flies from its fleet and shore establishments that routinely operate boats.[178]

Each Foot Guards and line regiment (excluding The Rifles and Royal Gurkha Rifles (RGR)) also has its own flags, known as Colours—normally a Regimental Colour and a Queen's Colour. The design of different Regimental Colours vary but typically the colour has the Regiment's badge in the centre. The RGR carry the Queen's Truncheon in place of Colours.[179]

Ranks, specialisms and insignia

Main article: British Army ranks
NATO Code OF-10 OF-9 OF-8 OF-7 OF-6 OF-5 OF-4 OF-3 OF-2 OF-1 OF(D) Student Officer
United Kingdom United Kingdom
Not Found
Field Marshal1 General Lieutenant-General Major-General Brigadier Colonel Lieutenant-Colonel Major Captain Lieutenant Second Lieutenant Officer Cadet
Abbreviation:FMGenLt GenMaj GenBrigColLt ColMajCaptLt2LtOCdt
United Kingdom British Army
No Equivalent No Insignia
Warrant Officer Class 1 Warrant Officer Class 2 Staff/Colour Sergeant Sergeant Corporal Lance Corporal Private
(or equivalent)
Abbreviation:CdrWO1WO2S/Sgt /
Sgt Cpl /
Bdr /L/Sgt
L/Cpl /

Every regiment and corps has its own distinctive insignia, such as cap badge, beret, tactical recognition flash and stable belt.

Throughout the army there are many official specialisms. They do not affect rank, but they do affect pay bands:

Tommy Atkins and other nicknames

A long established nickname for a British soldier has been Tommy Atkins or Tommy for short. The origins are obscure but most probably derive from a specimen army form circulated by the Adjutant-General Sir Harry Calvert to all units in 1815 where the blanks had been filled in with the particulars of a Private Thomas Atkins, No 6 Company, 23rd Regiment of Foot. German soldiers in both world wars would usually refer to their British opponents as Tommys. Present-day British soldiers are often referred to as Toms or just Tom. The British Army magazine Soldier has a regular cartoon strip, Tom, featuring the everyday life of a British soldier. Outside the services, soldiers are generally known as squaddies by the British popular press, and the general public.[180]

Another nickname which applies only to soldiers in Scottish regiments is Jock, derived from the fact that in Scotland the common Christian name John is often changed to Jock in the vernacular. Welsh soldiers are occasionally referred to as Taffy or just Taff. This may only apply to those from the Taff-Ely Valley in South Wales, where a large portion of men, left unemployed from the decline of the coal industry in the area, enlisted during the First and Second World Wars. Alternatively, it is derived from the supposed Welsh pronunciation of Dafydd[181]—the vernacular form of Dave or Davey, the patron Saint of Wales being Saint David.[182] As a nickname for the Welsh it has existed since 1699.[183]

Junior officers in the army, especially those from a privileged background, are sometimes known as Ruperts by the Other ranks.[184] This nickname is believed to have been derived from the children's comic book character Rupert Bear who epitomises traditional public school values and from the purported preponderance of that particular forename amongst young men from a public school background.[185]

See also


  1. Figure current as of 1 May 2016. Includes the 2,850 strong Brigade of Gurkhas.[1]</ref>
    30,000 Regular Reserve[nb 3]Patron Elizabeth IIWebsite of the General Staff General Sir Nicholas Carter KCB CBE DSOArmy Sergeant Major WO1 Glenn HaughtonInsigniaWar flag<ref group='nb'>
  2. Figure is current as of 1 April 2015. Only Regular Reserves serving under a fixed-term reserve contract are counted. These contracts are similar in nature to the Volunteer Reserve.[2]</ref>
    28,800 Volunteer Reserve<ref group='nb'>Figure current as of 1 May 2016.[1]
  3. "Army recruitment in Northern Ireland has just revealed that 16 per cent of all those enlisting since April were from south of the border. That figure is up from 10.5 per cent last year – which was in itself more than double for 2006" (Sharrock 2008).
  4. "Between 2005 and 2006, just 3% of recruits entering the military through its recruitment centres in Northern Ireland came from the Republic. The figure so far this year is 14%, and officers believe it will rise further" (Buchanan 2008).
  5. "There has been a seven-fold increase in Irish recruits to the British armed forces since the recession began. Figures obtained by Fine Gael TD Brian Hayes revealed 10 people with addresses in the Republic of Ireland joined the British military between 2007 and 2008. From 2009 to 2010 this number rose to 85" (McGarrigle 2010).
  6. "Ian Malone's decision also had a long historical precedent. Almost 150,000 Irish soldiers fought in the First World War; 49,000 died. More than 60,000 Irishmen – more than from loyal Ulster – also saw action in the Second World War; like their compatriots in the Great War, all were volunteers. As one of 400 or more men from the republic then serving in the British Army, some of them stationed in Northern Ireland, Ian Malone was part of a familiar Irish story of economic emigration – he was seeking work abroad when there was little at home. And never having left the country, he was no doubt seeking travel and adventure, too" (Watson 2004).


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