By the later part of the 19th century, the British Army had grown from a glorified part-time militia into a professional cross-continental behemoth, at the forefront of military tactics and technology. But with this expansion came problems, namely a messy organisational structure, tied into the sheer volume of regiments that existed on the books, exacerbated by the absorption of the British East India Company military in the aftermath of the Indian Revolt.
The British government spent a lot of time on the problem, as no great power could be so if their military was not in the best shape possible (or, at the very least, looked like it was in the best shape possible). To that end a series of reforms were launched, most notably those of Secretary of State for War Edward Cardwell in the late 1860’s and early 1870’s, and Hugh Childers, in the same position, in 1881, the latter having the bigger impact. Throughout the scope of the British Army, regiments and battalions were merged together to form new regiments, tied to specific geographical operating and recruiting areas.
Ireland was no exception to this process, and from the Childers Reforms came some of the most famous of the named Irish regiments, that would serve in the remaining British colonial wars and then the storm of World War One, as well as for some of the Irish revolutionary period. I’d like to take the opportunity to go through who came out on the other side of the reforms, tied to Ireland in whatever way. And yes, if you were wondering, this edition of Ireland’s Wars is going to be about military reorganization. Strap yourselves in, it’s going to be a hell of a ride.
The new regiments were to be organised on a battalion basis, with those based in Ireland to consist of two “Line” battalions – professional regulars – and three militia regiments of various types, occasionally light infantry, who could form a third battalion at need. Direct threats to the British mainland were at a low ebb in this period, and so the local militia were more about being a reservist force for the regulars than a pro-active home defence.
The new merging and renamings did away with the previous number systems that had characterised so many regiments, but unofficially many of the new entities would continue to use old designations. The idea with having two regular battalions was for the possibility of switching off to become the common method of practise: every time one battalion was on overseas service, the other would be based at home. This made sense in an era of colonial wars, but of course much of this would go out the window in 1914.
We’ll start with the Royal Irish Regiment, with the two battalions of the 18th Foot now officially recognised as such. The militia of Wexford, North Tipperary and Kilkenny would join them in the newly constituted entity, establishing the RIR’s primary recruitment ground as the south-east of the country.
The 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment was joined with one of the Company regiments, the 108th Madras Infantry, to form the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Joining them would be the Tyrone, Donegal, Londonderry and Fermanagh militia, their recruiting area to be the north and north-west, criss-crossing through a mix of Catholic and Protestant areas.
The 83rd (County of Dublin) Regiment and the 86th (Royal County Down) Regiment became the Royal Irish Rifles, joined by the militia of Down, South Down, Antrim and Louth, with an operational area in the north-east. This regiment is perhaps better known by its later, post-1922 title of the Royal Ulster Rifles: despite the fact that it began with half of its “line” battalions being from Dublin, it is most strongly associated with Belfast.
The 87th (Royal Irish Fusiliers) Regiment and the 89th (Princess Victoria’s) Regiment formed the Royal Irish Fusiliers (Princess Victoria’s). They were joined by the militia of Armagh and Cavan and had their recruiting area extend into Monaghan, at least until 1922. This regiment would become known as the Faughs or Fogs, after the traditional Irish battle-cry of “Faugh a Ballagh” (Clear the way).
The Connacht Rangers we are already well familiar with: this regiment, the 88th, would keep its title when merged with the less illustrious 94th, nominally a Scottish unit. Combined with the Mayo, Galway and Roscommon militias, it naturally occupied the western province as its operational area. Both parts of this new regiment happened to be on foreign service when the union came – the 88th in India, the 94th in South Africa – and they both barely missed a beat amid continuing colonial expeditions and military operations far outside their native Connacht.
Two Company regiments with a largely Irish make-up – the 101st Royal Bengal Fusiliers and the 103rd Bengal Fusiliers – would come together to form the Royal Munster Fusiliers. In line with the Cork, Kerry and Limerick militia, its operational area was obviously Munster. The RMF would be based in Tralee: in 1898, my great-grandfather would join them.
Similarly two other Company regiments – the 102nd Royal Madras Fusiliers and the 103rd Royal Bengal Fusiliers – would form the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. In combination with the Dublin and Kildare militia, this regiment would cover the capital and its surrounding area, up to and including the Curragh military camp, though its HQ was actually in the nearby Naas.
We must also mention the Prince of Wales’ Leinster Regiment, with the somewhat confusing addendum of “Royal Canadians”, formed from the 100th Royal Canadians and the 109th Bombay Infantry. It would include the militias of King’s County (Offaly), Queens County (Laois) and Meath. Despite the name, the regiment was largely recruited from the Irish midlands, and would be based in Birr.
These eight regiments thus formed the basis for British military command in Ireland, in combination with the existing cavalry units that were not reorganised or amalgamated in a similar fashion: the 8th Hussars and the 6th Dragoons for example, would continue to exist as they had before. This reorganisation neatens things up a bit, but it is only temporary: when the time came for the Great War, the British Divisional system would once again confuse things when it comes to the Irish regiments.
For now, we will take things as they are and look at how the Irish regiments were sent on the last great British colonial adventure of the 19th century. In the nascent South Africa, British expansion was being resisted, and not just by the usually easily handled natives. It was time for the word “Boer” to become part and parcel with Irish military history.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.