Armed Forces

British Armed Forces

A brief history.

Service Branches: Royal Navy, British Army, Royal Air Force.

Commander in chief : Queen Elizabeth II.

Size: 150,000 Active Personnel, 83,000 Reserve Personnel.

Deployed Personnel: 11,000.

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

Since the formation of a Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707 (later succeeded by the United Kingdom), the armed forces have seen action in a number of major wars involving the world's great powers, including the Seven Years' War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the First World War, and the Second World War. Repeatedly emerging victorious from conflicts has allowed Britain to establish itself as one of the world's leading military and economic powers.

Today, the British Armed Forces consist of: the Royal Navy, a blue-water navy with a fleet of 75 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.

Its Commander-in-chief is the British monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II, 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 Queen however, remains the supreme authority of the military. 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, is a permanent member on the United Nations Security Council, is a founding and leading member of the NATO military alliance, and is party to the Five Power Defence Arrangements. Overseas garrisons and 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.

The Queen and the Armed Forces

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II


British Armed Forces

The commander-in-chief of the British Armed Forces, also referred to as commander in chief of the armed forces of the Crown, is a constitutional role vested in the British monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II, who as head of state is the "Head of the Armed Forces".

The Queen has a long and close relationship with the Armed Forces, both in the United Kingdom and in the Commonwealth. As Sovereign, The Queen is Head of the Armed Forces, and is also the wife, mother and grandmother of individuals having served in the Forces.

The Queen's relationship with the Armed Forces began when, as Princess Elizabeth, she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in 1945, becoming the first female member of the Royal Family to join the Armed Services as a full-time active member. During her time in the ATS, the Princess learnt to drive and to maintain vehicles.

Since then, The Queen has maintained a close relationship with the Armed Forces through regular visits to service establishments and ships. She holds many military appointments and honorary ranks.

As is the tradition for the monarch's birthday, The Queen's birthday is celebrated every year with the great military display of Trooping of the Colour. For many years, The Queen attended Trooping on horseback and dressed in military uniform.

The Queen also spends much time meeting servicemen and women of all ranks, and their families, both at home and on overseas trips.

In addition to awarding various military honours at investitures, The Queen also introduced the Elizabeth Cross. The first medal to which The Queen put her name, this was instituted in 2009 to give special recognition to the families of those who have died on military operations, or as a result of terrorism, since 1948.

In addition to honours, The Queen also leads the nation each year in paying respects to the fallen each year on Remembrance Sunday.

Royal Navy

A brief history.

Type: Royal Navy.

Role: Naval Warfare.

Size: 33,280 Regular, 3040 Maritime Reserve, 7960 Royal Fleet Reserve.

Nick Name: Senior Service.

Motto: "Si vis pacem, para bellum" (Latin)"If you wish for peace, prepare for war"

Colours: Red and White.

March: Heart of Oak.

No navy or fleet existed in any shape or form in England until the reign of King Alfred (871-901). His first seaborne engagement was in 882 against four Danish ships in the Stour estuary, and in 895-7 Alfred built long ships to his own design and defeated the Danes off Essex and in the Thames estuary. It is for this reason that King Alfred is often claimed to be the founder of the British navy.

During the reign of Edward the Confessor (1004-1066), the maritime institution of the Cinque Ports was established. This was composed of five ports, Dover, Hastings, Romney, Hythe and Sandwich, later Rye and Winchelsea were added. Its purpose was for the prompt mobilisation of merchant vessels into a navy to fight against pirates and enemy attacks.

In 1190 Richard I introduced the Laws of Oleron into England. These were a code of maritime law originally enacted by his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine. The laws dealt with the rights and responsibilities of ships’ captains in relation to discipline, mutiny, pay, cargoes, sickness on board, pilotage and the like.

In 1340 the Battle of Sluys was the first naval battle fought in ships, although the fleet was made up of mainly commandeered merchant vessels. This is deemed to be the first time a naval dispatch had been sent, when the King wrote to his son, the Prince of Wales. The English fleet being commanded by Edward III. Edward III became known as the ‘king of the seas’. In 1391 Earl of Rutland was appointed as the first Lord High Admiral.

In 1415, the Henry V’s English invasion force was carried across the channel by 1500 ships and boats, to fight in Agincourt. Henry V built the Jesus, the first ship of 1000 tons, followed by the Grace Dieuof 1400 tons.

The Tudor period was the great age of discovery and the beginning of world expansion. In 1495 Henry VII built the first dry dock at Portsmouth. Henry VIII inherited seven warships from his father, which he increased to twenty-four in the early part of his reign.

Henry VIII had ships built which had improved sea-worthiness and armaments, and in 1514 the Henry Grace a Dieu the largest warship in the world was launched. It was the first ship with heavy guns, and this led to an end of archers firing on ships and hand to hand fighting, and so developed a new technique of sea warfare. In the same year Trinity House was inaugurated to develop navigational aids such as lighthouses, buoys and beacons, the latter being used to signal the invasion of the Spanish Armada in 1588. In 1540 Henry built the first naval dock in Britain at Portsmouth,

in 1546 he established the Navy Board, which remained almost unchanged for 300 years, created the Office of Admiralty, and set up the administrative machinery for the control of the fleet. For his achievements Henry VIII was known as the father of the English navy. From the Tudor period, England produced many eminent naval officers.

The British navy became the Royal Navy after the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660. In 1661 Sir William Penn and Samuel Pepys established the Naval Discipline Act which included the articles of war and founded the Royal Navy by statue. In 1664 the Royal Marines were set up. Charles II founded the Royal Society of London to encourage scientific knowledge of astronomy, biology, geographical exploration, navigation and seamanship.

During the eighteenth century, in 1714 the Board of Longitude was created and offered a prize for solution to discovering longitude at sea. The problem was solved by John Harrison’s chronometers in the latter part of the century. In 1751 warships began to be rated by being divided into six divisions depending on the number of their guns e.g. a first rate having over 100 guns and sixth rate having under 32guns. In 1782 signalling with twenty-eight flags using a numbered code was introduced by Admirals Howe, Kempenfelt and Knowles. This was further developed in 1796 by the introduction of semaphore by Sir Home Popham and Rev. Lord George Murray. Fifteen semaphore stations were installed from London to Deal, and its success led to a further ten stations being set up between London and Portsmouth. 1795 saw the compulsory introduction of lemon juice to prevent scurvy on board ships. In the same year the Admiralty’s Hydrographic Department was established and the first Admiralty chart was issued by Alexander Dalrymple in 1801. From 1819, the Admiralty was given permission to sell its charts to the Merchant Marine and since then the world has been navigated almost entirely on British Admiralty charts.

The nineteenth century saw the beginning of Arctic exploration. In 1822, the first steam vessels, HMSs Comet and Monkey, were brought into use for towing ships of the line out of harbour when the wind was unfavourable. The Admiralty became the single organisation responsible for every aspect of the navy in 1832 when the Navy Board was merged into it. In 1853, continuous service in the navy was introduced under which seamen could make service in the navy a career and earn a pension at the end of it. This meant the end of impressment as a means of recruitment. HMS Warrior, the first ironclad warship, was built in 1860.

At the turn of the twentieth century the submarine was developed. By World War I 74 had been built. In 1906, the first all big-gun battleship HMS Dreadnought was built, becoming the most powerful ship in the world at the time and making all other ships obsolete. In 1912, the Royal Naval Air Service was formed, and in 1918, HMS Argus was the first ship built to enable aircraft to take off and land with an unobstructed deck over the whole length of the ship. In 1923, HMS Hermes was the first purpose built aircraft carrier and the Fleet Air Arm came into existence a year later. The latter part of the century has seen the development of nuclear submarines and missiles.

Today the Royal Navy is the third strongest maritime time force in the world after the USA and Russia.

© National Museum of the Royal Navy, 2014. The information contained in this sheet is correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for a list of further reading materials, if available.

British Army

A brief history.

Type: British Army.

Role: Land Warfare.

Size: 75,00 Regular, 3040 Army Reserve.

Motto: Be The Best.

British army is the military force of the United Kingdom charged with national defence and the fulfilment of international mutual defence commitments.

The army of England before the Norman Conquest consisted of the king’s household troops (housecarls) and all freemen able to bear arms, who served under the fyrd system for two months a year. After 1066 the Normans introduced feudalism and mounted troops (knights) and their auxiliaries, infantry, and military artisans. Mercenaries were employed during the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) and the Wars of the Roses (1455–85) in combination with the militia. With the Battle of Crécy in 1346, archers became important, the longbow being a major innovation of warfare.

The first English standing army was formed by Oliver Cromwell in 1645 during the Civil War. His New Model Army was highly disciplined and well trained. Associated with the excesses of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, however, it was disbanded by Charles II in 1660 except for a household brigade (now the Coldstream Guards). After the Glorious Revolution (1688–89), the English Bill of Rights (1689) gave Parliament the control of the army that it maintains today.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, as Britain consolidated its colonial empire, the army grew in size and developed as an effective fighting force. The army established standing forces in the colonies and distinguished itself during the Napoleonic Wars (1800–15). Reforms were carried out to improve its organization and efficiency in the late 1800s. Between 1905 and 1912 the Territorial Force (after 1921, Territorial Army) and Special Reserve were established. The army was greatly increased in size by conscription during World War I but was reduced to a minimum with an end to conscription after 1919. In July 1939, however, conscription was again enforced.

Major changes in the British army occurred after 1945. Troops stationed overseas were returned home as the British colonies gained independence, and the military forces were placed in Europe or absorbed into the Home Guard. In 1960 conscription was ended and an all-volunteer army again created. With the introduction of nuclear weapons, the Territorial Army was greatly reduced.

In 1964 the Ministry of Defence was established to administer all the armed forces, and in 1972 all army forces were placed under Headquarters United Kingdom Land Forces. The secretary of state for defence is responsible to the prime minister and the cabinet. The secretary is advised by the chief of defence staff, who is aided by the three service chiefs. In the aftermath of the Cold War, both the regular army and its reserve forces were reorganized and reduced in strength.

The British Army has seen action in major wars between the world's great powers, including the Seven Years' War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War and the First and Second World Wars. Britain's victories in these decisive wars allowed it to influence world events and establish itself as one of the world's leading military and economic powers.

Since the end of the Cold War, the British Army has been deployed to a number of conflict zones, often as part of an expeditionary force, a coalition force or part of a United Nations peacekeeping operation.

Royal Air Force

A brief history.

Type: Royal Air Force.

Role: Aerial Warfare.

Size: 33,840 Regular, 1940 RAuxAF, 2220 Reserve Personnel.

Motto: "Per Ardua ad Astra" (Latin) Through Adversity to the Stars.

March: The Air Force March Past.

The Royal Air Force is the youngest of the three British armed services, charged with the air defence of the United Kingdom and the fulfilment of international defence commitments.

The first air units in Britain’s military were formed eight years after the first powered flight took place in 1903. In April 1911 an air battalion of the Royal Engineers was formed, consisting of one balloon and one airplane company. In December 1911 the British Admiralty formed the first naval flying school, at the Royal Aero Club ground at Eastchurch, Kent.

In May 1912 a combined Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was formed with naval and military wings and a Central Flying School at Upavon on Salisbury Plain. The specialized aviation requirements of the navy made it appear, however, that separate organization was desirable, and on July 1, 1914, the naval wing of the RFC became the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), the military wing retaining the title Royal Flying Corps.

On the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, the RFC, possessing a total of 179 airplanes, sent four squadrons to France. On April 1, 1918, the RNAS and RFC were absorbed into the Royal Air Force (RAF), which took its place beside the British navy and army as a separate service with its own ministry under a secretary of state for air. The strength of the RAF in November 1918 was nearly 291,000 officers and airmen. It possessed 200 operational squadrons and nearly the same number of training squadrons, with a total of 22,647 aircraft.

To train permanent officers for the flying branch of the RAF, a cadet college was established at Cranwell, Lincolnshire, in 1920. The RAF staff college was opened in 1922 at Andover, Hampshire.

At the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, the first-line strength of the RAF in the United Kingdom was about 2,000 aircraft. The RAF fighter pilots, however, distinguished themselves during the Battle of Britain in the early stages of the war against the numerically superior German Luftwaffe. By the time the war ended, the strength of the RAF was 963,000 personnel. When the wartime forces were demobilized in 1945, however, the total strength of the RAF was reduced to about 150,000, the approximate number retained into the 1980s.

That number had dropped significantly by the early 21st century as part of an overall force-reduction strategy implemented by the British military. With 40,000 troops and just over 300 combat-ready aircraft, the RAF was a smaller, more-focused force than it had been in previous years.

Today the Royal Air Force maintains an operational fleet of various types of aircraft, described by the RAF as being "leading-edge" in terms of technology. This largely consists of fixed-wing aircraft, including: fighter and strike aircraft, airborne early warning and control aircraft, ISTAR and SIGINT aircraft, aerial refueling aircraft and strategic and tactical transport aircraft. The majority of the RAF's rotary-wing aircraft form part of the tri-service Joint Helicopter Command in support of ground forces.

Most of the RAF's aircraft and personnel are based in the UK, with many others serving on operations (principally over Iraq and Syria) or at long-established overseas bases (Ascension Island, Cyprus, Gibraltar, and the Falkland Islands). Although the RAF is the principal British air power arm, the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm and the British Army's Army Air Corps also deliver air power which is integrated into the maritime, littoral and land environments.

World War One


Tommy Atkins (often just Tommy) is slang for a common soldier in the British Army. It was certainly well established during the nineteenth century, but is particularly associated with the First World War. It can be used as a term of reference, or as a form of address. German soldiers would call out to "Tommy" across no man's land if they wished to speak to a British soldier. French and Commonwealth troops would also call British soldiers "Tommies". In more recent times, the term Tommy Atkins has been used less frequently, although the name "Tom" is occasionally still heard; private soldiers in the British Army's Parachute Regiment are still referred to as "Toms".

In the trenches of World War I, German and French troops would call out over the trenches looking for “Tommy” when they wanted to talk to a British soldier. You don’t hear the term quite so much anymore, but for centuries, Tommies reigned supreme.

How exactly British troops came to be called Tommy is not quite as complex as why German troops were known as “Jerry” (in case you were wondering, it’s believed to be either because “Jerry” is short for German, or because their helmets looked like chamber pots).

The Imperial War Museum says the origin of the literal nom de guerre is disputed. One theory says it originated with the Duke of Wellington who made it the nickname in 1843. Another says the Imperial War Office established it in 1845 — a sort of British “John Doe.”

But the Imperial War Museum found evidence of “Tommy” more than a century before Wellington supposedly coined it.

During the British rule of Jamaica, researchers found a 1743 letter to the war office that reported a mutiny among mercenaries there, saying “Except for those from N. America, ye Marines and Tommy Atkins behaved splendidly.”

It was also at this time the red coats worn by British regulars earned them the nickname “Thomas Lobster.”

By 1815, the British War Office was using the name “Tommy Atkins” as a generic term – a placeholder name – for sample infantry paperwork. An enlisting soldier unable to sign his name to his enlistment papers would make his mark – leaving the name Tommy Atkins spelled out where his real name should have been.

“Tommy Atkins” and everyone known to history as Tommy Atkins had a distinguished career in the British military. During the Sepoy Rebellion in India in 1857, a soldier of the 32d Regiment of Foot remained at his post when most others already fled. He was, of course, overwhelmed and killed. A witness of his heroism later wrote:

“His name happened to be Tommy Atkins and so, throughout the Mutiny Campaign, when a daring deed was done, the doer was said to be ‘a regular Tommy Atkins.’ “

Other Thomas Atkins (or a variation thereof) also appeared as a Royal Welch Fusilier in the American Revolution, the poems of Rudyard Kipling, and indeed with the Duke of Wellington in the 33rd Regiment of Foot at the Battle of Boxtel in 1794.

The last Tommy – Harry Patch of the World War I-era British Army – died in 2009, at the age of 111.

World War One


90,000 volunteers worked at home and abroad during World War One. They provided vital aid to naval and military forces, caring for sick and wounded sailors and soldiers.

Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs)

County branches of the Red Cross had their own groups of volunteers called Voluntary Aid Detachments (often abbreviated to VAD). Voluntary Aid Detachment members themselves came to be known simply as ‘VADs’.

Made up of men and women, the VADs carried out a range of voluntary positions including nursing, transport duties, and the organisation of rest stations, working parties and auxiliary hospitals.


At the outbreak of the war, many people were inspired to train to help the sick and wounded. Women needed to be taught first aid, home nursing and hygiene by approved medical practitioners. They also took classes in cookery. Men were trained in first aid in-the-field and stretcher bearing.

Talented VADs could take specialist classes to become a masseuse or use an x-ray machine.

VADs had to pass exams to receive their first aid and home nursing certificates.

Special service

In February 1915 the War Office proposed that volunteers could help at Military Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) hospitals. These had previously been staffed exclusively by army nurses and orderlies from the RAMC.

The first request from military hospitals for these "special service" VADs in England came early in 1915 and from France in May of the same year. These were quickly followed by demands from Malta and Egypt.

General service

A “general service” section of the VADs was established in September 1915. As men went off to fight VADs were supplied in their place, carrying out their roles such as dispensers, clerks, cooks and storekeepers. By 1919, 11,000 men had been released for active service and replaced by women.

Overseas service

VADs were sent abroad during both world wars to countries such as France, Italy and Russia. Male detachments were frequently sent to France to work as transport officers or orderlies in hospitals.

Working parties and work depots

On the outbreak of the First World War, local Red Cross working parties formed across the country with the co-operation of their surrounding villages. They organised the supply of hospital clothing including socks, shirts, blankets and belts for soldiers. They also made essential hospital equipment such as bandages, splints, swabs and clothing.

Work depots were established in every major town to collate and despatch clothing from the working parties. Items were sent to Red Cross headquarters or directly to soldiers in auxiliary hospitals at home and abroad.

Air raid duty

VADs undertook air raid duty in London. The emblem of the Red Cross seemed to inspire a certain feeling of confidence in the crowds which gathered in the underground railway stations and other shelters. Armed with a respirator, the VADs performed first aid.

Rest stations

At railway stations, VADs provided food and other supplies for soldiers arriving by ambulance train whilst they waited to be transported to local hospitals or to travel on to another destination.


The first ever motorised ambulances to transport wounded people were used in the First World War. The Times appealed for ambulance funds in October 1914, raising enough for us to buy 512 vehicles within three weeks.

Male detachments were almost entirely in charge of transporting sick and wounded soldiers from ambulance trains or ships to local hospitals. They also ferried patients between hospitals.

Male volunteers were also frequently sent to France to work as ambulance drivers, often coming under fire as they transported men away from the Front.

Three hospital trains in France carried 461,844 patients throughout the war. Hospital ships and barges were also used to transport patients.

Women during the war: female volunteers

The war saw women entering the workforce in all sorts of different roles, ranging from medics and famers to teachers and bus conductors. Many women worked as VADs.

As the number of injured servicemen rose, a call was made for women to join the medical profession. Medical degrees were opened up to women for the first time.

Our VADs carried out duties that were less technical, but no less important, than trained nurses. They organised and managed local auxiliary hospitals throughout Britain, caring for the large number of sick and wounded soldiers. Many were also deployed abroad to help in field hospitals.









Join Us

We are always looking for people from a variety of backgrounds who feel they have something to give to the Ancre Somme Association. Our Volunteers are of all ages and backgrounds. There is no specific experience required to becoming a Volunteer. All you need is a passion to support our Charity.

As a small charity, Volunteers are vital to us to help raise our profile - and awareness - throughout the UK.  If you would like to become a member why not send us a message today.


Social Media

Contact Us

Ancre Somme Association

Brownlow House

Windsor Avenue



BT67 9BJ



Email: [email protected]