This article was first published in the April 2008 edition of BBC History Magazine


The origins of Volunteering

Part-time soldiers have always been an important ingredient of the British army. Continental armies tended to be large, and filled by military conscripts. However, British land forces have historically relied on a small standing army of voluntarily enlisted men, supplemented when needed by a reserve force of enthusiastic amateur soldiers, trained in basic military skills. This tradition stretches all the way back to the reign of Elizabeth I, when reserve forces were mobilised as the Spanish armada threatened England’s security (1588), and continued throughout the 17th and 18th centuries when most towns and cities raised groups of citizens who drilled in uniform on a regular basis but never fought overseas.

The urban groups were generally known as the Rifle Volunteers or Militia, while mounted soldiers from the countryside became known as Yeomanry. In the early 19th century, in the days before county police forces, they were often used to quell internal unrest. Later, part-time soldiers also proved their worth on foreign soil – for example, when they supported regular forces in the Second Boer War (1899–1902).


The Territorials are born

It was on 1 April 1908 that Richard Burdon Haldane, secretary of state for war, opened a new chapter in the history of Britain’s armed forces by creating the Territorial Force (TF). This new body was made up of many older volunteer organisations (including university training units) which consisted of part-time troops that fought in conflicts such as the Boer War. Yet new units were also formed, and each university and training college sponsored an Officer Training Corps (OTC). These became part of the TF, which also recruited its own signallers, engineers, logisticians, medics and artillery. Most units were affiliated with a regular counterpart, but Territorial cavalry regiments continued as Yeomanry, and some infantry – such as the London Regiment, Glasgow Highlanders and Liverpool Scottish – maintained a separate identity.

With a strength of 265,000, the new TF wore the same uniforms as the regular army and gradually came to use the same equipment. Not only did the soldiers – known as “Terriers” – earn a wage, they also got to spend two weeks on a summer camp under canvas, where they were tested on all the skills they had learned in the year. This was many urban workers’ only chance of a holiday and as the camps were usually near the seaside (where it was easier to recruit new soldiers) most billeted their families in nearby resorts. They met the holiday costs from the TF pay, proving that, from the start, the TF met both military and social needs.

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Fighting on all fronts

When Britain went to war with Germany on 5 August 1914, the TF was mobilised, but its role only required it to serve at home (hence the title Territorial), while the regulars formed an Expeditionary Force to fight overseas. That changed as the death toll on the Western Front mounted, and soon all were encouraged to volunteer for overseas service. Their numbers bolstered the regular army, the Kitchener army – units raised for the duration of the war only – and (from January 1916), conscripts. They served in every theatre – from India, Gallipoli and Palestine to Italy and the Western Front – and, like all sections of the armed forces, suffered appalling casualties (over 112,000 Territorial Force troops were to die in the conflict). The Great War also saw members of the Warwickshire Yeomanry and Worcestershire Hussars take part in one of the last cavalry charges ever, against Turkish artillery in 1917.


A change of name

Following the Armistice on 11 November 1918, all Territorial units were gradually disbanded. However, in 1919 the new secretary of state for war, Winston Churchill (who had been a Territorial officer before the war, in the Oxfordshire Hussars) announced that the force would be reconstituted in 1920 into a smaller fighting force and renamed the Territorial Army.


Between the wars

The size of the TA reflected the economic constraints placed upon the British armed forces in the inter-war period. Numbers were cut, pay was frozen or reduced and many units disbanded, while a new role of air defence was taken on. With the TA under strength by a third in 1938, and training and equipment in a sorry state, the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, announced in March 1939 that the TA would be doubled in size, to over 400,000. If Chamberlain thought this massive increase would fill the Nazis with fear, he was mistaken, and ironically, it made the Territorials less ready for war on 3 September 1939, as much of the old TA’s time was diverted to training new recruits.


Lost identities

During the Second World War, all TA units were absorbed into the armed forces and lost their individual identities. While they deployed to every theatre around the globe, many remained in the United Kingdom, manning anti-aircraft guns and searchlights, or shouldering responsibility for Home Defence.

Women now joined the Territorials too, serving in the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service, which Princess Elizabeth joined) and the FANYs (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry).

The end of a world war once again triggered significant changes in the make-up of the TA. The volunteer force was largely disbanded after VJ Day in August 1945, and restructured in 1947.


The changing postwar picture

Since the Second World War, the TA has undergone a number of restructures, expanding and contracting as the needs of the Cold War dictated. The emphasis of units has shifted gradually from combat towards support, and by the end of the Cold War, the force provided a third of British army manpower for five per cent of the army’s budget. In 1967, it was renamed the TAVR (Territorial and Army Volunteer Reserve), but this title never caught on and the ‘TA’ was restored in 1979.


Today's TA

The TA has contracted radically since the end of the Cold War but this has given rise to greater flexibility. Previously the force could only be called into action as a whole, in times of national emergency. The Reserve Forces Act of 1996 meant that individuals could be mobilised to support regular operations, and since then up to ten per cent of army strength in deployments to Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan has come from the Territorials – this despite the fact that the TA numbers just 40,000. For the invasion of Iraq in 2003, out of a force of nearly 45,000 personnel, around 5,000 were volunteer reservists, mostly from the TA.

Today the TA – which routinely supplements regular force missions overseas as well as having a Civil Contingency Reaction Force task in the UK – is controlled by 11 regional brigades for administrative purposes, plus medical, logistical and Special Forces commands. It includes 19 University Officer Training Corps (UOTCs) and specialist troops, who bring their civilian skills – gained, for example, in the arenas of medicine, logistics, media and engineering – with them into the army. Generally, these are skills the regular army requires but does not possess. Thus the Territorials have moved from an auxiliary force defending the homeland to an indispensable core component of today’s British army, indistinguishable from and as skilled as regular troops.

The force in figures

  • Over five million men and women have served in the Territorials over the last 100 years.
  • The TF contained 14 infantry divisions and 14 cavalry brigades in 1914.
  • It had expanded to 29 infantry divisions by 1918.
  • Of nearly six million soldiers who served in the British army between 1914 and 1918, just over one million men and 50,000 officers passed through the ranks of the Territorial Force.
  • A total of 6,600 officers and 106,000 men of the TF were killed in the First World War.
  • Members of the Territorial Force won 71 Victoria Crosses in the First World War.
  • In the Second World War, there were 26 Territorial infantry and cavalry divisions.
  • Nearly one million servicemen served in TA units during the Second World War, though over half were conscripts, not Territorial volunteers.
  • The current TA consists of 42,000 personnel, though recruitment is somewhat lower at around 36,000. (This means that there may be as many traffic wardens as Territorials in today's Britain).
  • The annual budget of the TA is approximately £350 million, about 1.5 per cent of the total defence budget.

10 Territorials

Prime ministers, comic actors, field marshalls and fighter aces... they’ve all served in Britain’s voluntary force

Winston Churchill (1874–1965) served with the Territorials in peacetime – joining the Oxfordshire Hussars Yeomanry. However, he later commanded an army battalion in the First World War and, when prime minister, he sometimes wore the uniform of a Hussars colonel.

A young Birmingham clerk named Bill Slim started his military career in the Territorials, with Birmingham University OTC. After the First World War he became a regular officer, commanding troops in Burma as Field Marshal Lord Slim (1891– 1970).

Roland Boys Bradford (1892– 1917) joined the Territorial Force before the First World War (Fifth Durham Light Infantry) and developed such powers of leadership that he was promoted to Brigadier at the age of 25, winning a Victoria Cross and Military Cross.

A son of the Bishop of Liverpool, Noel Godfrey Chavasse (1884–1917) joined Oxford OTC in 1909 and the Territorial Army Medical Corps in 1913. He won two Victoria Crosses and a Military Cross as battalion medical officer during the First World War. Only two others have achieved this unique double.

James Edgar Johnson wanted to fly but was rejected by the RAF on medical grounds, so he joined the Leicestershire Yeomanry instead. Eventually he did transfer to the RAF and became the top-scoring fighter pilot Air Vice Marshal Johnnie Johnson (1915–2001).

Simon 'Shimi' Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat (1911–95), joined his family Territorial regiment, the Lovat Scouts in 1930, then Oxford OTC. He went on to command a brigade of Commandos on D-Day, winning a DSO and MC.

Alistair Pearson (1915–1995) joined the Sixth Highland Light Infantry in the early 1930s but volunteered to join a parachute unit in 1940. By 1944 he had seen service in Tunisia, Sicily and Normandy and had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) four times and a Military Cross. On his death in 1995, he was the most decorated soldier in the army.

The actor Arthur Lowe (1915–82), who played Captain Mainwaring in Dad's Army, served in the Duke of Lancaster's Own Yeomanry before the Second World War.

Actor Desmond Llewellyn (1914–99), who acted as James Bond's quartermaster 'Q' for many years, was a Territorial with the London Artists' Rifles before the Second World War.

More recently, comedian Billy Connolly (b 1942) served for a while as a part-time parachutist with the 15th Parachute Regiment in Glasgow.


Dr Peter Caddick-Adams lectures at Cranfield University on Military & Security Studies. His most recent book is The Fight for Iraq: January–June 2003 (Army Benevolent Fund, 2004)


Peter Caddick-Adams is a writer and broadcaster who specialises in military history, defence and security issues