Volunteer Force

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The Volunteer Force was a citizen army of part-time rifle, artillery and engineer corps, created as a popular movement throughout the British Empire in 1859. Originally highly autonomous, the units of volunteers became increasingly integrated with the British Army after the Childers Reforms in 1881, before forming part of the Territorial Force in 1908. Most of the regiments of the present Territorial Army Infantry, Artillery, Engineers and Signals units are directly descended from Volunteer Force units.


The British Army following the Crimea

Prior to the Crimean War, the British military (ie, land forces) was made up of multiple separate forces, with a basic division into the Regular Forces (including the British Army, composed primarily of cavalry and infantry, and the Ordnance Military Corps of the Board of Ordnance, made up of the Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers, and the Royal Sappers and Miners though not including the originally civilian Commissariat Department, stores and supply departments, all of which, with barracks and other departments, were absorbed into the British Army when the Board of Ordnance was abolished in 1855). [1] [2] [3] [4] and the Reserve Forces. After the 1855 consolidation of the Regular Forces (ignoring minor forces such as the Yeomen Warders and the Yeomen of the Guard) into the Regular Force (ie, the British Army), there still remained a number of British military (not to be confused with naval) forces that were not part of the British Army; specifically the part-time Reserve Forces, which had at various times included the Honourable Artillery Company, Militia Force (also referred to as the Constitutional Force, and originally an infantry force), [5] [6] [7] [8] the Yeomanry Force (made up of mounted units, organised similarly to the Volunteer Force), [9] Volunteer Force, [10] [11] and Fencibles. Equivalents were also raised in the Crown Dependencies and many colonies. Known collectively as the Reserve Forces, most of these had been allowed to lapse after the Napoleonic Wars, although the Yeomanry was maintained to potentially support the civil authorities against civil unrest, as at the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, the Militia remained as a paper tiger, and rifle clubs were encouraged as the backbone against which the Volunteer force might be re-raised. The Militia and Volunteer Force were both re-organised in the 1850s. These forces were originally local-service, embodied during wartime or emergency, and placed under the control of Lords-Lieutenant of counties, and, in British colonies, under the colonial governors. After the British Army's Regular Reserve was created in 1859, by Secretary of State for War Sidney Herbert, and re-organised under the Reserve Force Act, 1867, the Reserve forces, in order to avoid confusion, were generally known as the Auxiliary Forces or Local Forces. The Regulation of the Forces Act 1871 [12] removed the Lord-Lieutenant as head of the county reserve forces and they were increasingly integrated with the British Army. [13]

A large number of Volunteer Corps were formed during the French Revolutionary War but were stood down afterwards. Following the Crimean War, it was painfully clear to the War Office that, with half of the British Army dispositioned around the Empire on garrison duty, it had insufficient forces available to quickly compose and despatch an effective expeditionary force to a new area of conflict, unless it was to reduce the British Isles' own defences. During the Crimean War, the War Office had been forced to send militia and yeomanry to make up the shortfall of soldiers in the Regular Army. The situation had been complicated by the fact that both auxiliary forces were under the control of the Home Office until 1855. [14]

Tensions rose between the United Kingdom and France following the Orsini affair, an assassination attempt on Emperor Napoleon III on 14 January 1858. It emerged that the would-be assassin, Felice Orsini had travelled to England to have the bombs used in the attack manufactured in Birmingham. [14] The perceived threat of invasion by the much larger French Army was such that, even without sending a third of the army to another Crimea, Britain's military defences had already been stretched invitingly thin. On 29 April 1859 war broke out between France and the Austrian Empire (the Second Italian War of Independence), and there were fears that Britain might be caught up in a wider European conflict. [15]

Creation of the Volunteer Force

On 12 May 1859, the Secretary of State for War, Jonathan Peel issued a circular letter to lieutenants of counties in England, Wales and Scotland, authorising the formation of volunteer rifle corps (VRC, a.k.a. corps of rifle volunteers and rifle volunteer corps), and of artillery corps in defended coastal towns. [16] Volunteer corps were to be raised under the provisions of the Volunteer Act 1804 (44 Geo.3 c.54), [17] which had been used to form local defence forces during the Napoleonic Wars. [15] Alfred Tennyson captured the spirit of the time by publishing his poem Riflemen Form in The Times on 9 May 1859. [15] As a basis for the units, many communities had rifle clubs for the enjoyment of the sport of shooting.

Originally corps were to consist of approximately 100 all ranks under the command of a captain, with some localities having subdivisions of thirty men under a lieutenant. The purpose of the rifle corps was to harass the invading enemy’s flanks, while artillery corps were to man coastal guns and forts. [15] Although not mentioned in the circular letter, engineer corps were also formed, principally to place underwater mines for port defence. [18] Stretcher-bearers attached to the rifle corps subsequently formed volunteer medical detachments affiliated to the Army Medical Corps. In a handful of counties, units of light horse or mounted rifles were formed.

Officer of the Exeter & South Devon Volunteers in 1852 Exeter & South Devon Volunteer Rifle Corps, 1852.jpg
Officer of the Exeter & South Devon Volunteers in 1852

Two volunteer units whose services had been accepted by Queen Victoria during the early 1850s became the two senior rifle corps of the new force. These were the Exeter and South Devon Volunteers, formed in 1852, who became the 1st Devonshire Rifle Volunteers (and were often referred to as the 1st Rifle Volunteer Corps), and the Victoria Rifles (descended from the Duke of Cumberland's Sharpshooters, formed in 1803) who became the 1st Middlesex Rifle Volunteers. An order of precedence was established for ninety-two other counties, depending upon the date of establishment of the first corps in the county.

The most senior artillery corps was the 1st Northumberland formed at Tynemouth on 2 August 1859. [19]

Initially, there were attempts at class distinction with the middle class seeing the formation of rifle units as a contrast with the strict class divide between the officers of the gentry and the other ranks of the working class and farm labourers of the militia and the standing army. Some also compared the initiative, small unit tactics and marksmanship principles of rifle regiments of the Napoleonic Wars compared with the linear tactics of the standing army. Many units initially favoured green and grey (colours until then used by British and German rifle units in the army) rifleman uniforms as opposed to the red coats of the infantry and engineers of the army and militia. In turn, the army was glad not to have amateur volunteers wear the scarlet of the regulars. [20] The provisions of the volunteers having to purchase their own rifles and uniforms was felt by some to exclude the lower classes. [21]

Unlike regular rifle regiments, the volunteer units had colours often made and presented by the women of the community. [22] These were unauthorised, however, with the Volunteer Regulations stating "Neither Standards nor Colours are to be carried by Corps on parade, as the Volunteer Force is composed of Arms to which their use is not appropriate". [23]


Thomas Heron Jones, 7th Viscount Ranelagh leading the Volunteer gathering in Brighton, 1863, depicted in the Illustrated London News Ranelagh.jpg
Thomas Heron Jones, 7th Viscount Ranelagh leading the Volunteer gathering in Brighton, 1863, depicted in the Illustrated London News

The large number of small independent corps proved difficult to administer, and, by 1861, most had been formed into battalion-sized units, either by "consolidation": increasing an existing corps to battalion size (usually in large urban areas), or by forming administrative battalions or brigades by the grouping of smaller corps (in rural areas). An official book of drill and rifle instructions for the Corps of Rifle Volunteers and volunteer regulations were published in 1859 and 1861 respectively. [14] [15]

Cadet Corps

From 1860 Cadet Corps were also formed, consisting of school-age boys, which were the forerunners of the Army Cadet Force and Combined Cadet Force. Like the adult volunteers, the boys were supplied with arms by the War Office, for which they had to pay a fee, which reduced the longer they remained members. Cadet Corps were usually associated with private schools. They paraded regularly in public. [24]

Royal Commission of 1862

In 1862, a royal commission chaired by Viscount Eversley was appointed “to inquire into the condition of the volunteer force in Great Britain and into the probability of its continuance at its existing strength”.

According to the report, as of 1 April 1862, the Volunteer Force had a strength of 162,681 consisting of:

Their report made a number of recommendations and observations on funding and training:

Volunteer Act 1863

In order to carry into effect the recommendations of the commission, and to replace the 1804 legislation, the Volunteer Act 1863 (26 & 27 Vict. C.65) was passed. [26]

Part I of the Act dealt with the organisation of the Volunteer Force. It became lawful for “Her Majesty to accept the services of persons desiring to be formed under the Act into a Volunteer Corps, and offering their services to her Majesty through the Lieutenant of a County”. On acceptance, the corps would be deemed lawfully formed. Existing corps were to continue under the new Act, although the power was given to the crown to disband any corps. The constitution of a permanent staff consisting of an adjutant and serjeant instructors was permitted for each corps. The grouping of two or more corps into administrative regiments was recognised, and a permanent staff could be provided for the grouping. However the individual corps were to continue to exist. As in the earlier legislation, a volunteer could resign with fourteen days notice, with the addition that if a commanding officer refused to remove a volunteer from the roll of the corps, then he could appeal to two justices of the peace of the county. An annual inspection by an officer of the regular army was instituted, and efficiency standards were to be set by Order in Council, as were regulations for governing the Force. The lord-lieutenant of a county, or the commanding officer of a corps or administrative regiment was empowered to appoint a court of inquiry into any corps, officer, non-commissioned officer or volunteer.

Part II of the Act dealt with “Actual Military Service”. The terms for calling out of the force were altered: this would now happen in “the case of actual or apprehended invasion of any part of the United Kingdom (the occasion being first communicated to both Houses of Parliament if parliament is sitting, or declared in council and notified by proclamation if parliament is not sitting.)” As well as being entitled to pay and billets, relief was also to be given to the wives and families of volunteers. A bounty of one guinea was to be paid to volunteers on release from actual military service, such release being notified in order by writing by the lord-lieutenant. If disabled on service, officers and volunteers were to receive a pension.

Part III dealt with discipline and part IV with the rules and property of the corps.

Part V dealt with the process of acquiring land for shooting ranges. Apart from the corps taking ownership of the land, a municipal corporation or private company could grant a licence to the volunteers to use their land for the purpose. Justices of the peace were given the power to close rights of way adjacent to ranges.

The Act concluded by defining the counties to which the corps were to belong: for the purposes of the Act the Isle of Wight, the Tower Hamlets and the Cinque Ports were separate counties, with the Governor of the Isle of Wight, the Constable of the Tower of London and the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports commissioning officers in place of the lord-lieutenant. The Isle of Man was also to dealt with as if it were a county of England, with the Lieutenant-Governor performing the same role as a county lord-lieutenant.


In 1872, under the provisions of the Regulation of the Forces Act 1871, jurisdiction over the volunteers was removed from the county lord-lieutenants and placed under the Secretary of State for War. Volunteer units became increasingly integrated with the Regular Army. This culminated in the Childers Reforms of 1881 which nominated rifle volunteer corps as volunteer battalions of the new “county” infantry regiments, which also consisted of regular and militia battalions within a defined regimental district. Over the next few years many of the rifle volunteer corps adopted the “volunteer battalion” designation and the uniform of their parent regiment. This was far from universal, however, with some corps retaining their original names and distinctive dress until 1908. [27]

The artillery volunteers were similarly remodelled as reserve formations of the Royal Artillery, eventually being redesignated as Royal Garrison Artillery (Volunteers) in 1902, while the Engineer Volunteers became Royal Engineers (Volunteers).

Second Boer War

The volunteers finally saw active service during the Second Boer War, when the prolonged campaign necessitated an increase in the size of British forces in South Africa. Volunteer Battalions formed Volunteer Active Service Companies that joined the regular battalions of their county regiments. Following the war, the battle honour “South Africa 1900-02” was awarded to the volunteer units that provided detachments for the campaign.

The Territorial Force

By 1907, when its civilian administration teetered on the brink of insolvency, the Volunteer Force had become indispensable to British defence planning, as well as an enabler of the Regular Army's drawing its own forces away from home defence stations. Consequently, the government passed the Territorial and Reserve Forces Act 1907, which merged the Volunteer Force with the Militia and Yeomanry to form the Territorial Force in 1908. The total cost of the TF was to be met in future by central government. In addition to the introduction of terms of service for volunteers, most of the units lost their unique identities, becoming numbered territorial battalions of the local army regiment, albeit with distinctive badges or dress distinctions.

The 1907 act did not extend to the Isle of Man, and consequently the 7th (Isle of Man) Volunteer Battalion of The King's (Liverpool Regiment) continued to serve as the only remaining unit of the Volunteer Force until disbandment in 1922. (1868 -1922)


According to the Territorial Year Book 1909, the Volunteer Force had the following strength over its existence: [28]

YearEstablishmentStrengthClassed as efficient

See also

Related Research Articles

British Army Land warfare branch of the British Armed Forces of the United Kingdom

The British Army is the principal land warfare force of the United Kingdom, a part of the British Armed Forces along with the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. As of 2021, the British Army comprises 82,230 regular full-time personnel and 30,030 reserve personnel.

British Armed Forces Military of the United Kingdom

The British Armed Forces, also known as Her Majesty's Armed Forces, are the military services responsible for the defence of the United Kingdom, its overseas territories and the Crown dependencies. They also promote the UK's wider interests, support international peacekeeping efforts and provide humanitarian aid.

Units of the British Army

The units of the British Army are commanded by the Chief of the General Staff. This is broadly similar to the structures of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, in that the four-star (general-equivalent) commanders-in-chief have been eliminated since 2011 and service chiefs are given direct command of their respective services and are responsible as Top Level Budget (TLB) holders. Army Headquarters is located in Andover, Hampshire. There is a Commander Field Army and a personnel and UK operations command, Home Command.

Army Reserve (United Kingdom) Element of the British Army

The Army Reserve is the active-duty volunteer reserve force of the British Army. It is separate from the Regular Reserve whose members are ex-Regular personnel who retain a statutory liability for service. The Army Reserve was known as the Territorial Force from 1908 to 1921, the Territorial Army (TA) from 1921 to 1967, the Territorial and Army Volunteer Reserve (TAVR) from 1967 to 1979, and again the Territorial Army (TA) from 1979 to 2014.

Post Office Rifles Military unit

The Post Office Rifles was a unit of the British Army, first formed in 1868 from volunteers as part of the Volunteer Force, which later became the Territorial Force. The unit evolved several times until 1921, after which the name was lost during one of many reorganisations.

Auxiliaries An organized group supplementing the military or law enforcement

Auxiliaries are support personnel that assist the military or police but are organised differently from regular forces. Auxiliary may be military volunteers undertaking support functions or performing certain duties such as garrison troops, usually on a part-time basis. Unlike a military reserve force, an auxiliary force does not necessarily have the same degree of training or ranking structure as regular soldiers, and may or may not be integrated into a fighting force. Some auxiliaries however are militias composed of former active duty military personnel and actually have better training and combat experience than their regular counterparts.

Rifleman Infantry soldier armed with a rifle

A rifleman is an infantry soldier armed with a rifled long gun. Although the rifleman role had its origin with 16th century hand cannoneers and 17th century musketeers, the term originated in the 18th century with the introduction of the rifled musket. By the mid-19th century, entire regiments of riflemen were formed and became the mainstay of all standard infantry, and rifleman became a generic term for any common infantryman.

The Childers Reforms of 1881 reorganised the infantry regiments of the British Army. The reforms were done by Secretary of State for War Hugh Childers during 1881, and were a continuation of the earlier Cardwell Reforms.

Royal Garrison Artillery Military unit

The Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA) was formed in 1899 as a distinct arm of the British Army's Royal Regiment of Artillery serving alongside the other two arms of the Regiment, the Royal Field Artillery (RFA) and the Royal Horse Artillery (RHA). The RGA were the 'technical' branch of the Royal Artillery who were responsible for much of the professionalisation of technical gunnery that was to occur during the First World War. It was originally established to man the guns of the British Empire's forts and fortresses, including coastal artillery batteries, the heavy gun batteries attached to each infantry division and the guns of the siege artillery. The RGA was amalgamated with the RFA in 1924, from when the only two arms within the Royal Regiment of Artillery are the Royal Artillery and the Royal Horse Artillery.

Territorial and Reserve Forces Act 1907 United Kingdom legislation

The Territorial and Reserve Forces Act 1907 was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that reformed the auxiliary forces of the British Army by transferring existing Volunteer and Yeomanry units into a new Territorial Force (TF); and disbanding the Militia to form a new Special Reserve of the Regular Army. This reorganisation formed a major part of the Haldane Reforms, named after the creator of the Act, Richard Haldane.

British Colonial Auxiliary Forces

This is a list of auxiliary regiments or units formed by the British in individual colonies of the British Empire. In some colonies, the units were led by officers seconded from the British Army. Especially in the case of units that recruited non-whites, even in colonies where the officers were primarily colonials, commissions were generally restricted to whites until after the Second World War. Non-white colonials, as well as non-whites from Britain itself served primarily in the other ranks. Although militias operating on the same principle as the militia in England and Wales were established in many colonies during the 17th and 18th Centuries, from the 19th Century onwards colonial units were mostly voluntary, and supplied a reserve force either to be called up in war time to reinforce regular British Army garrisons for home defence, or in some cases were entirely responsible for home defence. Many units, however, took part in active campaigns outside of the role of home defence in various conflicts the British Empire was involved in, including the two world wars.

From the creation of the British Regular Army in 1660, it has been supplemented by part-time volunteer units raised on a local basis. Northamptonshire has often been in the forefront of raising these units, both of horse and foot, whenever circumstances required.

Highland Cyclist Battalion Military unit

The Highland Cyclist Battalion was a bicycle infantry battalion of the Territorial Force, part of the British Army. Formed as part of the Volunteer Force in 1860, it became a Volunteer Battalion of the Black Watch in 1881. In 1909 it became an independent unit and served in the United Kingdom throughout the First World War. In 1920 it was converted as part of the Highland Divisional Signals.

The Militia and Volunteers of County Durham are those military units raised in the County independent of the regular Army. The "modern" militia dates from legislation enacted during the Seven Years' War. The volunteers had several forms and separate periods of existence until made a permanent body in 1859.

The Militia and Volunteers of Northumberland are those military units raised in the County independent of the regular Army. The "modern" militia dates from legislation enacted during the Seven Years' War. The volunteers had several forms and separate periods of existence until made a permanent body in 1859.

The Durham Artillery Militia was a part-time reserve unit of Britain's Royal Artillery based in County Durham from 1853 to 1909. Volunteers from the unit served in the Second Boer War where they distinguished themselves fighting as infantry in the defence of Fort Prospect.

The Royal Lancashire Militia Artillery was a part-time reserve unit of Britain's Royal Artillery based in Lancashire from 1853 to 1909.

5th (Cyclist) Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment Military unit

The 5th (Cyclist) Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment was a mobile coast defence unit of Britain's Territorial Force. It was formed in 1908 from a nucleus provided by a Volunteer battalion first raised in 1859. It carried out its defence duties along the East Coast throughout World War I and after the war it was incorporated into a unit of the new Royal Corps of Signals.

Exeter and South Devon Volunteers Military unit

The Exeter & South Devon Volunteers was the premier unit of Britain's Volunteer Force. Formed in 1852 it went on to become a battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. Both its active service battalions went to garrison India on the outbreak of the First World War, and then saw action in Mesopotamia and Palestine. In the Second World War, the battalion served in the garrison of Gibraltar. It continued in the postwar Territorial Army until it was merged with other West Country units. Its successors today serve in a reserve battalion of The Rifles.

The Volunteer Army were part of the Bermuda Imperial military garrison.


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