What To Do With A Three-Year-Old On A Friday Night Regimental Numbers and the Expansion of British Infantry Regiments in 1914

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Regimental Numbers and the Expansion of British Infantry Regiments in 1914

This article will look at the expansion of British infantry regiments in 1914 and the effect this had on the numbering series already in use at the time.

Typically from 1914, a British infantry regiment might consist of two “regular” battalions of career soldiers, a third (Special Reserve) battalion, and perhaps one or more Territorial Force battalions. Generally, men joining the Special Reserve signed up for the six-year service and immediately underwent the training of six months with the obligation to complete the training of more distant three to four weeks each year later. Similarly, men joining the Territorial Force, signed up for up to four years at home or Territorial service only.

They would generally meet every Saturday night (hence the term, “Saturday Night soldiers”) and attend a two-week training camp every July or August. Men joining the Territorial Force were not obliged to serve overseas but could volunteer to do so by taking an Imperial Service obligation.

In July 1914, the Royal Sussex Regiment consisted of the following battalions:

First and second (Regular) battalions
3rd (Special Reserve) Battalion
4th, 5th & 6th (Territorial Force Battalions)

The 1st and 2nd battalions shared one number series which began when the regiment was formed in July 1881 and started from 1. The L/ prefix was also generally used for men joining these two regular battalions.

The 3rd (Special Reserve) Battalion had a separate number series which was a continuation of the number series that was used by its predecessor, the 3rd (Militia) Battalion. The Special Reserve and the Extra Reserve battalions replaced the militia in 1908 and while some of the newly formed special and extra reserve battalions began numbering from 1, many simply continued with the old militia series. The 3rd Royal Sussex regiment fell into this category and in addition, old militia men who had now enlisted with the 3rd battalion, were allowed to retain their old militia numbers. Thus, for example 9759 Pte George Walter Mynett who joined the 3rd Royal Sussex Regt on 14 June 1908 was an old militiaman who originally joined the 3rd (militia) battalion – and was given the number 9759 – in September 1906.

The 4th, 5th and 6th (Territorial Force) battalions each had a separate number series which started at 1. The 4th and 5th battalions were formed in April 1908 and the 6th battalion in 1911.

When Britain went to war with Germany in August 1914, and especially following Kitchener’s appeal at the end of August 1914 for 100,000 volunteers, recruiting offices all over the country were flooded. Not only did the military authorities have to decide where to place the men, they also had to decide how to number them. Let me stick to the Royal Sussex Regiment for the moment because, apart from anything else, whoever was responsible for numbering at the Royal Sussex Regiment seems to be quite forward thinking and certainly well organised.

What the Royal Sussex Regiment did, and what some other regiments also did (The Buffs, The Queens and the Royal West Kents also followed similar patterns) was to start completely new number series for men who joined up for wartime service only. At the same time, the old number series were retained for men who wished to join up under the usual regular or special reserve periods.

Before August 1914 the normal terms of recruitment for a man joining the first and second battalions were seven years with the Colors and five on the Reserve. Now, however, with men flocking to recruiting stations to sign up for a war that many believed would end before Christmas, less stringent wartime-only terms were clearly needed. Hubert Henry Allsopp joined at Bexhill on 17 August for three years or the duration of the war (with the understanding, written in the small print, that if the war should last less than three years, he “may be discharged at once. .” )

Hubert was given the number G/147. The G stood for General Service and scrawled on his certification papers, confirming this, are the initials GSSX or General Service Sussex. He would later be posted to the 8th and then the 7th battalions, retaining his G/prefix number. The G/ series was started in August 1914 and would run throughout the war.

At the same time that Hubert and thousands like him joined the newly formed service battalions – that is wartime service only battalions – other new recruits joined the 3rd Special Reserve Battalion. A new series was also started for those men who started GSSR/ or General Service Special Reserve. That series, along with the Special Reserve series would be out of action before the end of the year. The last number in my database for a GSSR prefixed number is 931 which was issued on November 5, 1914.

Yet another number series was started for men joining the South Down battalions. These were service battalions like the 7th, 8th and 9th battalions but were raised by Colonel Claude Lowther MP, owner of Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex. Recruitment began on 9 September and by the end of the year enough men had volunteered to fill three battalions. A fourth, reserve battalion, would also be formed later. All men joining the South Down battalions were given a number prefixed with SD/ (for South Down). Numbering started from 1 in September 1914.

Finally, add into the mix, those older men joining the supernumerary companies attached to the 4th and 5th Territorial battalions (at least one more number series per battalion) and you now have ten separate military number series in use, as follows:

first series: 1st & 2nd (Regular) battalions – prefixed with L/
Second series: 3rd (Special Reserve) battalion – prefixed, if at all, with 3/ or SR/
3rd series: 4th (Territorial Force) battalion
4th series: 5th (Territorial Force) Battalion
5th series: 6th (Territorial Force) Battalion
6th series: wartime only recruits into service battalions – prefixed with G/ or GS/
7th series: wartime only recruits into the 3rd battalion – prefixed with GSSR/
8th series: 11th, 12th and 13th (South Down) battalions – prefixed with Sd/
9th series: supernumerary company men attached to the 4th (TF) battalion
10th series: supernumerary company men attached to the 5th (TF) battalion

A similar expansion would occur in almost every other British Army Regiment, and you can read more about these peculiarities and idiosyncrasies in my army numbers blog.

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