Reviews: Reference Books

Regiments of the British Army, A Handbook with Book Lists, Part I: Infantry


Sutcliffe, Victor (compiler). Regiments of the British Army, A Handbook with Book Lists, Part I: Infantry. 505 pages. East Rudham, UK : Mulberry Coach House Books, 2007. ISBN-13# 9780955636400. Hardcover. £24.50,

In 1968, A. S. White published A Bibliography of Regimental Histories of the British Army which contained well over 2,000 entries and for more than four decades was the definitive source on its subject. In recent years Victor Sutcliffe, a British bibliographer, has been revising and expanding White's work and the result of his labours is this excellent reference source which contains nearly 4,000 entries.

Regiments of the British Army is, however, more than a bibliography, which is why Sutcliffe describes it as a Handbook. Each regimental section contains a brief history of the regular part of the unit, its various official designations with dates of title changes, a description of its badge and motto and its nicknames. Also included is a brief discussion and history of the number of battalions the unit has raised (regular, militia, territorial and service) with dates of creation and disbandment. Finally, Sutcliffe provides details of publications concerning the unit's history, which he divides into "main" and "other" titles and in the latter category he has clearly done some yeoman work.

As an example chosen at random, the "other" category for The Worcestershire Regiment (29th/36th Foot) not only includes a rare 18th century pamphlet published in Boston in 1770, but also listings of journal and newspaper articles, pamphlets, booklets, cigarette cards, memorial and special parade/event programmes, and even a 22-page typescript memorandum dated 1939 on officers' dress -- and the compiler has annotated many of these entries as to their contents.

Sutcliffe's table of contents is arranged by the pre-1881 numbers (useful for those interested in the musket period) and his index contains more than just references to main unit titles and numbers, it also includes nicknames and commander's names of the pre-1751 period. Now, if the researcher has a puzzling reference to Lord Blakeney's Regiment, he or she does not have to hunt through several books to identify it as the 8th Foot, it can be done immediately.

Sutcliffe's purpose, however, was not just to update A. S. White's classic reference but also "to trace the steps by which the regiments of 1914," the year the British army was at its greatest extent, "evolved into the regiments of today." Most simply put, the army of 2008 is no longer clearly related to that which fought in the two world wars. There have been a bewildering series of regimental amalgamations and permutations since 1948 and the most recent round carried out in 2006-2007 was the most damaging in terms of its effect on regimental lineage. It was completed by a Labour government which demonstrated such a lack of respect for British military tradition that one can only conclude that this government hates its own army.

The 2006-2007 amalgamations affected almost every infantry regiment with the exception of the Guards and paratroops. Even The Cheshire Regiment (former 22nd Foot) which had managed to survive unscathed up in its corner of England through every previous re-organization since 1881, was amalgamated, as were The Royal Welch Fusiliers (23rd Foot), both units having enjoyed 317 years of independent existence. Perhaps saddest of all was the fate of the highland regiments as they, and their lowland equivalents, were poured together into something called The Royal Regiment of Scotland. Although the battalions in this new entity retain their traditional titles (e.g. The Black Watch), the sad fact is that there are now more highland regiments in the Canadian army (although reserve units) than there are in the British.

These changes have muddled beyond all hope of recovery the traditional divisions of the order of battle into fusilier, rifles, light, line and highland. As a case in point, consider the sad fate of the proud and glorious 95th Rifles (or "Sharpe's Own," as some wags would have it). The 2006-2007 changes created a new regiment called The Rifles and one would think that the former 95th and its brother riflemen in the 60th would be the mainstay of this new entity. Unfortunately the new Rifles draws its heritage from -- after many permutations -- the 11th, 13th, 28th, 32nd, 39th, 43rd, 49th, 51st, 52nd, 54th, 60th, 61st, 62nd, 68th, 105th (Madras) and 106th (Bombay) Regiments. Instead of the direct descendants of the 60th and 95th forming the senior battalion in The Rifles, they only constitute the second battalion; the first battalion (11th, 39th, 49th, 54th and 66th Foot combined), drawing seniority from the 11th, takes precedence over them. This means that the honorable but humble 49th Foot, raised in from independent companies in 1741, has managed to work itself up the social ladder to become the senior battalion of one of the most prestigious units in the army.

The final outcome of this exercise in bloodstained axe-wielding is that the British army now consists of just thirteen regiments (counting the Guards, Gurkhas and Paratroop Regiment each as one). If the army continues to dwindle away at its present rate it may shortly comprise only five regiments: The Guards, The Cavalry, The Royal Artillery, The Infantry and The Rest. It is because of the confusion caused by this seemingly never-ending process of boiling down of the army of the period, 1815-1914, that Sutcliffe's Regiments of the British Army is an indispensable reference not only for those researching published works of regimental history but also for those interested in the lineage of that army and its traditions. I highly recommend it.

I have one minor note of criticism. The titles of published works are not emphasized in the text by underlining, italics, etc. which makes them not quickly discernable (particularly for someone whose eyesight is not what it was). I hope that this minor fault will be corrected in the planned Volume 2, which will cover cavalry, armour and yeomanry; and Volume 3, which will treat of artillery, engineers, signals, and other special services.

Regiments of the British Army. A Handbook with Lists. Part I. Infantry is available for £24.50 from Victor Sutcliffe at or through Ken Trotman Ltd.


Reviewed by Donald E. Graves
Placed on the Napoleon Series: February 2008


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