Wednesday, April 13, 2011

My Favorite British Regiments

Having recently been in Britain for a spell, studying military history, I have decided that it is high time to choose some favorite regiments.

If this strikes you as something completely foreign to your own experience, let me suggest an analogy: it is as though I have been a huge fan of college football for several years, but have no school I call my own, no team I really pull for.

Before I continue, let me anticipate an objection. "Why favorite regiments (plural!)?" you ask. A fair question, but one easily answered. How many favorite college football teams do I have? Several. Nebraska (my father's home state) and Texas A&M (my current school) top the list, but my wife's family are affiliated with Mississippi State and I have various connections to Arizona State and Kansas as well. Can they all be favorites? There might need to be a hierarchy, but college football is big enough that these teams rarely play one another (except within the Big 12, especially the North, but Nebraska's departure changes that). So, yes, one may have several favorite football teams. Considering that there were scores and scores of regiments - 100, perhaps? - during the Great War, I think a couple favorites is allowed. Even today there are 17 infantry regiments, plus 12 cavalry regiments and Territorial and support units, in the British Army.

As previously discussed on this blog, my family's Scottish heritage is a bit of a mystery. Are we from the western Isles or from the border, near Dumfries? Rather than choosing between them, I embrace both. Now, these two regions correspond to two regiments: from the Isles we get the Seaforth Highlanders (pictured left, advancing across France in 1944), and from the border we of course get the King's Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB - cap badge pictured right). The former was formed in 1881 (though by amalgamating two similar regiments raised in 1778 and 1793 to fight the French), while the latter was raised in 1689 to fight against James II on behalf of William & Mary. However, both have now been amalgamated into the new Royal Regiment of Scotland, with the Seaforths (amalgamated with two other regiments) becoming the 4th Battalion and the KOSB (amalgamated with the Royal Scots), the 1st Battalion.

My family's Irish heritage is no less confusing than the Scottish. Again, we have two options. Why? Because there are two bunches of Kennedys running around Ireland. In the south there are Kennedys centered around the ancient Kingdom of Ormond (later a peerage), in the region of Munster. But a second group of Kennedys can be found in the north, in Ulster. These are Scotch-Irish decedents of plantation settlers, related to the Clan Kennedy of Scotland. If I had to pick between them, I'd guess our family is from the Ulster bunch (since the Kennedys are found in a Protestant branch of the family, though I know nothing of their own religion). But that's a bit of a problem, since a fair number of regiments have come out of Ulster. One approach would be to look to Clan Kennedy's Scottish roots; where do they come from? Ayrshire. Which is undoubtedly the traditional recruiting ground for the Royal Scots Fusiliers. Not surprisingly, the Royal Scots Fusiliers have been amalgamated with the Highland Light Infantry and now form the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland. But there is more than one way to skin a cat. While Ulster is cluttered with a history of regiments, southern Ireland has comparatively few. The area that was once the ancient Kingdom of Ormond was the recruiting ground for the Royal Irish Regiment, raised in 1684. Sadly, in 1922 the regiment was disbanded. Not amalgamated, but disbanded outright. Had I been the British, I would have pressed hard for its amalgamation with an Ulster regiment, thereby preserving its legacy (and also continuing to exercise a symbolic hegemony over the south). But the Irish were wise to such possibilities and the Anglo-Irish Treaty stipulated the disbandment of all regiments with traditional recruiting grounds in the south. (Today the 1st Southern Brigade is heir to the Royal Irish Regiment's traditional territory, but not its legacy. The modern Irish Army has no infantry regiments.) Finally, it is worth noting that the modern Royal Irish Regiment (pictured above left), an air assault unit created in 1992, amalgamated a whole bunch of historic Ulster regiments. So why choose between them, when they've all been merged now anyway?

Two other veins of thought deserve mention. Being of German extraction, I have a special fondness for the King's German Legion, an outfit formed by German expatriates to fight against Napoleon. That the unit was a "legion", a mixed force of infantry (including two battalions of light infantry), cavalry (both hussars and dragoons), artillery and engineers, only makes them that much more nifty, as does their presence at both the Peninsular Campaign and Waterloo. (Pictured right, you can see a regular infantryman in red, a light infantryman in green, and a hussar in blue.) Alas, the unit was disbanded in 1816 and has no real heirs (though a few bits and pieces apparently found their way into the Imperial German Army).

The other unit that captures my attention is the King's Royal Rifle Corps. Originally raised in the American colonies in 1756 as the Royal Americans, the unit's first officers were mostly German and Swiss. Its purpose was to lend some forest fighting skills to the British forces then fighting the French in North America. The unit came into its own as the King's Royal Rifle Corps during the Napoleonic war, when it followed the Rifle Brigade and adopted the more accurate Baker rifles and the famous "Rifle green" uniforms. After the Napoleonic Wars they fought pretty much everywhere in the Empire and in both World Wars. After World War II a series of mergers began which culminated in the 2007 creation of a single regiment of light infantry, The Rifles. You've got to admit, the Rifles have some neat uniforms, with the Croix de Guerre worn as an arm badge (inherited from the Devonshire Regiment) and a badge on the back of their cap (inherited from the Gloucestershire Regiment), symbolic of fierce fighting at the Battle of Alexandria where the front and rear ranks of one regiment were simultaneously engaged. The Rifles (pictured above left, laying one of their own to rest), like the Royal Regiment of Scotland and the Royal Irish Regiment, continue to serve to the present day.

If this extended discussion has lefty you dizzy, allow me to recap.

Traditional favorites:
King's Own Scottish Borderers
Seaforth Highlanders
King's Royal Rifle Corps

Modern favorites:
Royal Regiment of Scotland
Royal Irish Regiment
The Rifles

Historical favorites (without modern heirs):
Royal Irish Regiment (pre 1922)
King's German Legion
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