Wednesday, 24 February 2021

The Composition of the British Army's regular infantry regiments in 1899

It appears to be a popular misconception amongst many interested in the war that the regular British Army infantry regiments were as their geographical titles suggest populated by men from that area; Highland regiments were full of Scotsmen, Irish regiment for Irishmen and so on. For some on-lookers they have a false narrative that the war was prosecuted by Irishmen, Scotsmen, and then Welshmen, while the English looked on. Such a view fulfills the simplistic notion that the British Empire simply coerced non-English peoples to do their dirty work leaving drunken aristocrats to enjoy the fruits of war. Of course, the truth is far more complex and, for some, painful if such people took the time to reflect on their own ancestors.

The Victorian Britons were highly mobile, the Empire would not have been formed otherwise. Just as they ventured across the globe so they travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles, some didn't move far at all, but enough did to create cosmopolitan cities and towns. Most travelled for work and a better life, agricultural slumps in the late 1800s sent many men from the south-west of England to the coal fields and steel factories in South Wales. A number of these men enlisted into the Army joining "Welsh" regiments such as the South Wales Borderers. English industrial centres drew men from Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

The 1881 Cardwell Reforms gave the Infantry its distinctive geographical connections, the regiments converting from numbers to territorial titles. For instance, the 41st Foot became The Welc(/s)h Regiment. While contributing to the famous regimental esprit d'corps the territorial connection did not necessarily increase recruiting in many areas, especially rural areas. This gave the Army a problem, regiments covering rural areas were typically under-recruited and those regiments centred on large and towns and cities were over-recruited. To solve this recruits were sent to under-strength regiments. This means a native of London or Birmingham could and did, get sent to join a "Scottish" regiment. Regiments by their uniforms, mottoes and music gave the impression of being Scottish, Irish or Welsh. But you would as likely find an Englishman in the kilt and feather bonnet of the Seaforth Highlanders as you would a native of Inverness. Anyone who collects campaign medals will know from reading service papers how cosmopolitan the rural regiments can be.

Dr Edward Spiers in his useful book The Late Victorian Army 1868-1902 (Manchester University Press, Manchester 1992 (Sandpiper Books 1999)) illustrates this with figures collected in the General Annual Returns of the British Army (infantry, cavalry, artillery etc.) showing the nationalities of men serving in 1899:

England & Wales 76.60%
Ireland 13.20%
Scotland 8.00%
Other and Not Reported 2.20% 

The Army is overwhelmingly English, the Welsh would have made up a small percentage had they been separated out. It would be good to see this data just for the Infantry.

To provide further evidence directly related to the Anglo-Boer War I used a dataset at my disposal; war memorials. The Victorian and Edwardians were great war memorial builders, a legacy inherited by the Georgians of the First World War. 

The table below shows the number of fatalities for the war for the regiments designated as English, Irish, Scots and Welsh and their "nationality" derived from the location (England, Scotland etc.) of the "geographic war memorial" that they are named on. A "geographic war memorial" is one that links a man to a specific location such as a grave marker, a town memorial, a county memorial and in the case of Wales, the national memorial in Cardiff. I have excluded non-geographic memorials such as regimental and school war memorials. 

War memorials are far from perfect records, some men appear on different geographic memorials; this is a minority though. A man commemorated on a memorial in England may have been born in Scotland. There are less geographic memorials in Ireland than other parts. Not every memorial has been recorded, but over 2,100 have. No one knows how many war memorials were ever put up. The data for Irish memorials is slim. This data is not perfect, but it is the best I know of for this type of study.

Country Total Fatalities Total Commemorated England Ireland Scotland Wales % “foreign” % Fatalities Commemorated
England     9157      3757 3641 8   1 107
      3          41
Ireland     1154          37     28 4   0     5     89
           3
Scotland     1752        235   175 0 52     8     78          13
Wales       609        602     71 0   0 531     12          99




This table tells us that for Welsh regiments, they lost 609 men, 602 or 99% are on a geographic memorial (for many this will be the Welsh National Memorial, Cardiff). Of the 602 men only 12% are not apparently Welsh, they appear on town or county memorials in England. There were only three Welsh regiments less than half the number of Scottish and Irish regiments. This could well explain the large percentage of Welshmen in the three regiments, or the Welsh National Memorial incorrectly claims men as "Welsh".

For the Scots regiments only 13% of fatalities are on a geographic memorial but 78% are apparently not Scottish as they appear on geographic memorials in England and Wales.

Overall I believe this data correlates with that presented by Dr Speirs, only 8% of the Army in 1899 was from Scotland, war memorials tell us that 78% of men in Scottish regiments who died were not from Scotland. And the overwhelming number of fatalities in English regiments were Englishmen. If you know of a dataset to advance this research I would be pleased to learn of it.

But, perhaps the real message is that it is folly to ascribe labels based on assumptions and pre-conceptions and without any real evidence.

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