The Territorial Force 1908-14

New Divisions, New Ideas

The Territorial Force (TF) was formed in 1908. There were to be fourteen infantry divisions and fourteen cavalry brigades, run by the newly formed civilian Territorial Associations (now the RFCA). There was direct military control of training. This was the Force that followed the Regular Army abroad in 1914 and 1915. It was quite different to Kitchener’s New Armies or the Pals’ Battalions. This article tells about the TF before the First World War. What annoyed the Territorial? Who paid for and provided the uniforms, the ranges, the horses and the drill halls?

The British have always had a small peacetime standing army; Britain never relied on conscription or forced military service unlike the rest of Europe. In Napoleonic times, there were perhaps over half a million men as volunteers to defend the UK. In Victorian times and to 1908, three strands had developed: the Militia, the Volunteer Force and the Yeomanry.

Background to the Volunteers, Yeomanry and Militia

What came before the Territorials? There were three forces: the Militia, the Volunteers and the Yeomanry.

The Victorian Militia was a reserve, mainly infantry, paid for training at a depôt for several months full-time and then training annually for a month for at least three years. It attracted men such as labourers and farm workers who could manage these periods.

The Volunteer Force of infantry, artillery and engineers, forming from 1859, started because of threats from France. Companies were locally based and very independent. Often electing their officers, they were keen to design their own rather fine uniforms but by the 1880s became connected with the new regular county regiments. By the 1900s attendance at annual camp was required. Terms of service varied and there was no expectation of service overseas or even far from home. The Volunteers were (or at least fancied themselves as) a more refined and middle class group than the militia. Ranges sprang up around the country; a notable example is Altcar, still with some charming Victorian features.

The Yeomanry (cavalry) reckoned themselves the smartest of all with a continuous tradition running back beyond Napoleon. Yeomen, often farmers, had to provide a good horse, rather than Dobbin having a break from the coal cart. These units were often supported by very rich commanding officers who expected their own way.

Through the late 1800s to 1908, there were generally over 250,000 men involved in some form of the non-regular military. With no effective War Office control, there were no proper mobilisation plans, no standardisation of training, uniforms or equipment. They were not thought fit for a country facing possible continental involvement or an army embarrassed by the Boer War defeats around 1900 in South Africa.

On 31st March 1908 a young chartered accountant, Alexander Davidson was sworn in as a private in the Liverpool Scottish Volunteer Battalion: the attesting officer was his brother, Captain Jonathan Davidson. The unit was to disappear at midnight. It would be replaced immediately by the 10th Battalion of the King’s Liverpool Regiment. Whatever quirkiness drove the brothers to bid for ‘Last Volunteer Enlistment’, there was to be an upheaval. Midnight signalled an earth-shaking change in Britain’s reserve forces although not quite as earth-shaking as its instigator, Secretary of State for War Richard Haldane, had intended.

The need for a new force, what was intended and opposition

HaldaneIn the face of the growing German ambitions, Haldane, the sharpest of minds, wanted reformation where other politicians had failed. His aim was a regular force of six divisions (about 18,000 men each) and a cavalry division, based in the UK, available overseas as a British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Other regular units were far away in the Empire. For support of the Regular Army he wanted a TF of over 300,000, ten times today’s Army Reserve target. Training would be controlled by the War Office. The TF would be available for home defence but Territorials would take on an overseas service obligation, solving the Boer War problem of finding reserves. The ‘overseas obligation’ did not get through Parliament in 1908.

Haldane faced many opponents. The Militia would agree to nothing and were simply abolished and replaced by the ‘Reserve’ to reinforce the Regular Army. Trade Unions were suspicious of a citizen Territorial Force with increased efficiency in case of use against workers. In fact, use of the TF in any industrial dispute was expressly prohibited though this made the labour movement no less opposed.

The old Volunteer Force had powerful connections. Units had been almost personal possessions; the Volunteers had enjoyed a relaxed regime and none wanted to lose individuality and independence. Their callout liability was limited and their military efficiency was mostly low. There was the coastal gunner officer, asked if he thought he “could hit ships”, who replied that he “might be able to hit the sea”: he was possibly an urban myth but the story reflected common perception.

Other opponents were the conscriptionists. The powerful voices of Field Marshal Lord Roberts VC and the National Service League wanted no volunteers but demanded substantial compulsory service followed by a reserve call-out obligation. This happened on the Continent with large, but expensive, armies. Eventually, the conscriptionists supported Haldane’s reforms but hoped that the TF would fail, to be replaced by conscription. Haldane, liberal in attitude, wished to avoid conscription at any cost. Conscriptionists became very sharp critics of the TF up to 1914. Haldane’s changes might appear as far-sighted reform of the nation’s defence with increased efficiency but a principal motive was a reduction in reserve forces annual expenditure from £4.4 million to £2.8 million.

What actually happened?

There was a hasty political compromise and the requirement for the TF to serve abroad was removed. By 1912, men could take on the ‘Imperial Service Obligation’, volunteering for overseas service, but by 1914 only about 28,000 had done this, about 10% of the actual TF. When war started, most Territorials were available only for home defence. Many then signed up for overseas service when asked and many units went abroad, initially replacing garrison troops, as with the East Lancashire Division. By October 1914, individual TF units went, many from West Lancashire, to reinforce the regular British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France and Belgium. Others did not sign up; they could not be posted abroad until 1916 when conscription appeared. Even Territorials overseas could leave the moment their engagement ended; men left the very front line for home as ‘time expired’. Others re-engaged in the field.

The military side to the Territorial Force

In 1908, the TF had an establishment (i.e. full strength) around 315,000 men organised into fourteen divisions and fourteen cavalry brigades, based on ‘Territorial’ areas such as West or East Lancashire, with some extra units such as garrison artillery. There were also the ladies of the TF Nursing Service, over 2000 of them by 1913. Divisions would have twelve infantry battalions, 1000 men strong, in three brigades. Artillery was organised into ‘brigades’ (the equivalent of an artillery regiment today) and batteries, the engineers into Field Companies (but not regiments). Signalling was an engineer task. Field ambulances and supply companies appeared. West Lancashire included Warrington and St Helens and the coast up to Lancaster then to Ulverston; East Lancashire took the rest including units in Cumbria. Cheshire provided part of the Welsh Division and the Isle of Man retained the last Volunteer Battalion in the British Isles.

The County Associations: supplying and administering the Territorial Force

Haldane created the ‘County Associations’. These would administer the TF within their own county. There was one for every county and two or more for some. Whilst Lancashire had two divisions, some counties had very few units. Associations were civilian bodies that received grants to recruit, equip and house the TF and to provide ranges, training areas, horses and transport but without involvement in training. They had a responsibility for cadets but no government money to fund it. Unit commanders provided at least 50% of the Association members; the remainder were businessmen, industrialists, landowners, trade unionists (often opting out) and local politicians. Using a civilian agency protected the TF funding; once an Association received money, it was beyond the control of the Regular Army. There were tensions between Associations and the War Office; businessmen members could not understand why it took months to get replies to letters whilst opportunities were lost.

How did the TF train?

Training consisted of drills, occasional weekend camps, the musketry test and annual camp. There were training courses for some. Each drill was at least an hour of training. Infantry recruits did 40 drills in their first year with at least 20 before camp. A ‘trained’ man had to do at least 10 drills before camp. Travelling expenses, if available, came from Association funds. Musketry was important but heavily criticised by generals who claimed the tests were too easy. Once a man had fired his annual 90 rounds, further ammunition had to be bought. Weekend camps were much less frequent than today and travel finance might not be available. Training just on Saturday afternoon was common because of Saturday morning work. Travel to suitable ranges was might be difficult but, in 1911, there were nearly 850 ranges of varying size (full length or 30 yard) available.

Annual camp attendance was expected and lasted fifteen days although men could attend for eight days only. Sometimes Territorials were fined in court for failing to attend. There was pressure to attend the second week, an efficiency indicator. By 1912, a £1 bounty (perhaps 60% of a weekly wage) went to ‘second-week attenders’. Allowances were paid to men using their own boots at camp but boot supply was a continual battle between Associations and a War Office that thought some joined just for the boots. Seaside camps were very popular but the War Office allowed only one in three. Brigade and divisional camps were held although occasionally units were independent: the Liverpool Scottish marched through Scotland in 1912. Camping and training grounds were rented from local farmers, strongly boosting local economies.

Wide responsibilities and a rough road travelled

From the outset, recruiting over 300,000 was difficult. Many Volunteers refused transfer to a TF with greater obligations. Plenty of those who did signed only for one year rather than four. The War Office made difficulties over recruiting spending, perhaps unable to see that impulses that drove men to the Regular Army differed from those that coaxed working men to leave families and firesides for two weeks of possibly soggy and under-paid camping. Typically units were at only 80% or less of established strength. Despite efforts to persuade the War Office that satisfied soldiers was the best recruiters, the authorities allowed irritations to remain.

There was considerable bad feeling in the first years of the TF amongst married privates who were not paid separation allowance at camp whilst NCOs, better paid anyway, qualified. This caused hardship at times and was clearly bad for TF retention when recently married privates were due for re-engagement. This was put right in 1912.

Soldiers received two sets of clothing, either both of service dress (basic field dress) or ‘walking-out dress’ in place of one set of service dress. Walking-out dress was popular with soldiers (there might be coloured trousers and braiding added) and with recruiters. As it cost more than service dress, it was less popular with Associations which were responsible for providing all uniforms on contract from manufacturers. There was concern over ‘sweated labour’ and it was obligatory that contracts included clauses about minimum wages and factory conditions. Badges might be produced locally but Territorials did not wear the battle honours of their parent regiment so artillery and engineers had badges without the word ‘Ubique’ (their sole honour, ‘Everywhere’). Associations also provided personal equipment so styles varied, with leather or webbing equipment appearing. Standardisation was a problem. When some Associations had the new 1908 pattern made up, royalties had to be paid to the patent holder.

Boot supply was problematic. Territorials providing serviceable boots for camp got a small allowance. Attempts by Associations to provide good boots at subsidised prices for Territorials were often blocked by the War Office as misuse of funds until common-sense prevailed around 1912.

Finding decent horses able to do the work was another nightmare for Associations and units. Horses were disappearing as petrol took over. Yeomanry units needed over 400 animals but only for two weeks per year (at a cost of £2500); an artillery battery needed around seventy. Although they could be hired, sometimes those inspected pre-camp were not those delivered. Time was needed to collect and disperse horses before and after camp. Horsemastership (management rather than riding) amongst the Territorials was very variable. Outside camp, training of horsed units was restricted by the lack of animals. Efforts were made to purchase small pools of horses but livery was needed during the week. Schemes were devised to lodge horses with tradesmen and farmers who could keep them available for weekends. Horse-trading was not a pleasant business and troubled the Associations which also had to find wagons, again obtained and dispersed at camping time. Additionally, the Regular Army needed horses on mobilisation, putting it into direct competition with the TF. In 1914, the BEF, on its way to France in a hurry, simply commandeered (i.e. pinched) the horses assembled by Territorials.

Many of the Victorian drill halls, ranging from the splendour of Bury’s Castle Armoury to modest village structures, reflected the Volunteer idiosyncrasies of those funding them. Rural units, with difficult journeys, often had company outstations in outlying towns. Many were wrongly placed for the newly reorganised TF. New halls were built or accommodation rented. Again, the War Office, having delegated power locally, was often quick to interfere in failing to authorise expenditure.

Formation of the Territorial Force was a major undertaking and a step change. In six years to 1914 there were new but positive attitudes and a determination to make the TF an inclusive and efficient part of national defence. Given that the Territorials made up nearly 4% of the male population of military age, this determination may well have rubbed off onto the civilian community to the benefit of recruiting when war came. In that six years, the TF reached efficiency levels that allowed it to take a vital place in the line of battle soon after war began and to gain, not without sacrifice, the respect fully deserved by those who had made a commitment their country’s defence. If there was a covenant with the nation, they certainly discharged their part.



Regulations for the Territorial Force and for County Associations 1912 (Amended to 1 December 1914), (HMSO, 1915)

Beckett, I.W.F., Territorials: A Century of Service (DRA Publishing, 1908)

Bull, S., Volunteer! The Lancashire Rifle Volunteers 1859-1885 (Lancashire County Books, 1993)

Mitchinson, K.W., England’s Last Hope: The Territorial Force, 1908-14 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)

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