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The British Armed Forces, also known as His Majesty’s Armed Forces, are the military forces 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.
Since the formation of the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707 (later succeeded by the United Kingdom), the British Armed Forces have seen action in a number of major wars involving the world’s great powers, including the Seven Years’ War, the American Revolutionary War, the Napoleonic Wars, the 1853–1856 Crimean War, the First World War, and the Second World War. Britain’s victories in most of these decisive wars, allowed it to influence world events and establish itself as one of the world’s leading military and economic powers. As of October 2022, the British Armed Forces consist of: the Royal Navy, a blue-water navy with a fleet of 72 commissioned ships, together with the Royal Marines, a highly specialised amphibious light infantry force; the British Army, the UK’s principal land warfare branch; and the Royal Air Force, a technologically sophisticated air force with a diverse operational fleet consisting of both fixed-wing and rotary aircraft. The British Armed Forces include standing forces, Regular Reserve, Volunteer Reserves and Sponsored Reserves.
The head of the Armed Forces is the British monarch, currently Charles III, to whom members of the forces swear allegiance. Long-standing constitutional convention, however, has vested de facto executive authority, by the exercise of royal prerogative, in the prime minister and the secretary of state for defence. The prime minister (acting with the Cabinet) makes the key decisions on the use of the armed forces. The UK Parliament approves the continued existence of the British Army by passing an Armed Forces Act at least once every five years, as required by the Bill of Rights 1689. The Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, and Royal Marines among with all other forces do not require this act. The armed forces are managed by the Defence Council of the Ministry of Defence, headed by the secretary of state for defence.
The United Kingdom is one of five recognised nuclear powers, a permanent member on the United Nations Security Council, founding and leading member of the NATO military alliance, and party to the AUKUS security pact and the Five Power Defence Arrangements. Overseas garrisons and training facilities are maintained at Ascension Island, Bahrain, Belize, Bermuda, British Indian Ocean Territory, Brunei, Canada, Cyprus, the Falkland Islands, Germany, Gibraltar, Kenya, Montserrat, Nepal, Qatar, Singapore, and the United States.
There were originally several naval and several military regular and reserve forces, although most of these were consolidated into the Royal Navy or the British Army during the 19th and 20th Centuries (the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps of the British Army, by contrast, were separated from their parent forces in 1918 and amalgamated to form a new force, the Royal Air Force, which would have complete responsibility for naval, military and strategic aviation until the Second World War).
Naval forces included the Royal Navy, the Waterguard (subsequently HM Coastguard), and Sea Fencibles and River Fencibles formed as and when required for the duration of emergencies. The Merchant Navy and offshore fishing boat crews were also important manpower reserves to the armed naval forces (any seaman was liable to impressment, with many so conscripted especially during the two decades of conflict from the French Revolution until the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and from 1835 registered on the Register of Seamen to identify them as a potential resource), and many of their seamen would serve part time in the Royal Navy Reserve (created under the Naval Reserve Act of 1859) and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (created in 1903).
The British military (those parts of the British Armed Forces tasked with land warfare, as opposed to the naval forces) historically was divided into a number of military forces, of which the British Army (also referred to historically as the ‘Regular Army’ and the ‘Regular Force’) was only one. The oldest of these organisations was the Militia Force (also referred to as the Constitutional Force), which (in the Kingdom of England) was originally the main military defensive force (there otherwise were originally only Royal bodyguards, including the Yeomen Warders and the Yeomen of the Guard, with armies raised only temporarily for expeditions overseas), made up of civilians embodied for annual training or emergencies, and had used various schemes of compulsory service during different periods of its long existence.
The Militia was originally an all infantry force, organised at the city or county level, and members were not required to serve outside of their recruitment area, although the area within which militia units in Britain could be posted was increased to anywhere in the Britain during the Eighteenth Century, and Militia coastal artillery, field artillery, and engineers units were introduced from the 1850s. The Yeomanry was a mounted force that could be mobilised in times of war or emergency. Volunteer Force units were also frequently raised during wartime, which did not rely on compulsory service and hence attracted recruits keen to avoid the Militia. These were seen as a useful way to add to military strength economically during wartime, but otherwise as a drain on the Militia and so were not normally maintained in peacetime, although in Bermuda prominent propertied men were still appointed Captains of Forts, taking charge of maintaining and commanding fortified coastal artillery batteries and manned by volunteers (reinforced in wartime by embodied militiamen), defending the colony’s coast from the Seventeenth Century to the Nineteenth Century (when all of the batteries were taken over by the regular Royal Artillery). The Militia system was extended to a number of English (subsequently British) colonies, beginning with Virginia and Bermuda. In some colonies, Troops of Horse or other mounted units similar to the Yeomanry were also created. The Militia and Volunteer units of a colony were generally considered to be separate forces from the Home Militia Force and Volunteer Force in the United Kingdom, and from the Militia Forces and Volunteer Forces of other colonies. Where a colony had more than one Militia or Volunteer unit, they would be grouped as a Militia or Volunteer Force for that colony, such as the Jamaica Volunteer Defence Force, which comprised the St. Andrew Rifle Corps (or Kingston Infantry Volunteers), the Jamaica Corps of Scouts, and the Jamaica Reserve Regiment, but not the Jamaica Militia Artillery. In smaller colonies with a single militia or volunteer unit, that single unit would still be considered to be listed within a force, or in some case might be named a force rather than a regiment or corps, such as is the case for the Falkland Islands Defence Force and the Royal Montserrat Defence Force. The Militia, Yeomanry and Volunteer Forces collectively were known as the Reserve Forces, Auxiliary Forces, or Local Forces. Officers of these forces could not sit on Courts Martial of regular forces personnel. The Mutiny Act did not apply to members of the Reserve Forces.
The other regular military force that existed alongside the British Army was the Board of Ordnance, which included the Ordnance Military Corps (made up of the Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers, and the Royal Sappers and Miners), as well as the originally-civilian Commissariat Stores and transport departments, as well as barracks departments, ordnance factories and various other functions supporting the various naval and military forces. The English Army, subsequently the British Army once Scottish regiments were moved onto its establishment following the Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England, was originally a separate force from these, but absorbed the Ordnance Military Corps and various previously civilian departments after the Board of Ordnance was abolished in 1855. The Reserve Forces (which referred to the Home Yeomanry, Militia and Volunteer Forces before the 1859 creation of the British Army Regular Reserve by Secretary of State for War Sidney Herbert, and re-organised under the Reserve Force Act, 1867) were increasingly integrated with the British Army through a succession of reforms over the last two decades of the Nineteenth Century (in 1871, command of the Auxiliary Forces in the British Isles was taken from the Lords-Lieutenant of counties and transferred to the War Office, though colonial Governors retained control of their militia and volunteer forces, and by the end of the century, at the latest, any unit wholly or partly funded from Army Funds was considered part of the British Army) and the early years of the Twentieth Century, whereby the Reserve Forces units mostly lost their own identities and became numbered Territorial Force sub-units of regular British Army corps or regiments (the Home Militia had followed this path, with the Militia Infantry units becoming numbered battalions of British Army regiments, and the Militia Artillery integrating within Royal Artillery territorial divisions in 1882 and 1889, and becoming parts of the Royal Field Artillery or Royal Garrison Artillery in 1902 (though retaining their traditional corps names), but was not merged into the Territorial Force when it was created in 1908 (by the merger of the Yeomanry and Volunteer Force). The Militia was instead renamed the Special Reserve, and was permanently suspended after the First World War (although a handful of Militia units survived in the United Kingdom, its colonies, and the Crown Dependencies). Unlike the Home, Imperial Fortress and Crown Dependency Militia and Volunteer units and forces that continued to exist after the First World War, although parts of the British military, most were not considered parts of the British Army unless they received Army Funds (as was the case for the Bermuda Militia Artillery and the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps), which was generally only the case for those in the Channel Islands or the Imperial Fortress colonies (Nova Scotia, before Canadian confederation, Bermuda, Gibraltar, and Malta). Today, the British Army is the only Home British military force (unless the Army Cadet Force and the Combined Cadet Force are considered), including both the regular army and the forces it absorbed, though British military units organised on Territorial lines remain in British Overseas Territories that are still not considered formally part of the British Army, with only the Royal Gibraltar Regiment and the Royal Bermuda Regiment (an amalgam of the old Bermuda Militia Artillery and Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps) appearing on the British Army order of precedence and in the Army List.
Confusingly, and similarly to the dual meaning of the word Corps in the British Army (by example, the 1st Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps was in 1914 part of the 6th Brigade that was part of the 2nd Infantry Division, which was itself part of 1st Army Corps), the British Army sometimes also used the term expeditionary force or field force to describe a body made up of British Army units, most notably the British Expeditionary Force, or of a mixture of British Army, Indian Army, or Imperial auxiliary units, such as the Malakand Field Force (this is similarly to the naval use of the term task force). In this usage, force is used to describe a self-reliant body able to act without external support, at least within the parameters of the task or objective for which it is employed.