Volunteer Force (Great Britain)

This article is about the force extant from 1859-1908. For the Volunteer Force of 1794-1803, see British Volunteer Corps. For the Volunteer Force of 1914-18, see Volunteer Training Corps (World War I).

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

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.[1]

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3] Volunteer corps were to be raised under the provisions of the Volunteer Act 1804 (44 Geo.3 c.54),[4] which had been used to form local defence forces during the Napoleonic Wars.[2] Alfred Tennyson captured the spirit of the time by publishing his poem Riflemen Form in The Times on 9 May 1859.[2] 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.[2] Although not mentioned in the circular letter, engineer corps were also formed, principally to place underwater mines for port defence.[5] 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.

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 1st Rifle Volunteer Corps who became the 1st Devonshire Rifle Volunteers 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 August 2, 1859.[6]

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 rifleman uniforms as opposed to the red coats of the army and militia. In turn, the army was glad not to have amateur volunteers wear the scarlet of the regulars.[7] The provisions of the volunteers having to purchase their own rifles and uniforms was felt by some to exclude the lower classes.[8]

Unlike regular rifle regiments, the volunteer units had colours often made and presented by the women of the community.[9] 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".[10]


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.[1][2]

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.[11]

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.[13]

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.[14]

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 (United Kingdom) 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 1920.


According to the Territorial Year Book 1909, the Volunteer Force had the following strength over its existence:[15]

Year Establishment Strength Classed as efficient
1861 211,961 161,239 140,100
1870 244,966 193,893 170,671
1880 243,546 206,537 196,938
1885 250,967 224,012 218,207
1890 260,310 21,048 212,293
1895 260,968 231,704 224,962
1899 263,416 229,854 223,921
1900 339,511 277,628 270,369
1901 342,003 288,476 281,062
1902 345,547 268,550 256,451
1903 346,171 253,281 242,104
1904 343,246 253,909 244,537
1905 341,283 249,611 241,549
1906 338,452 255,854 246,654
1907 335,849 252,791 244,212

See also


  1. 1 2 3 Rt. Hon Earl Brownlow (May 1900). "The British Volunteer System". North American Review. Retrieved 6 December 2012.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Grierson, James Moncrieff (1909). Records of the Scottish volunteer force, 1859-1908. Edinburgh: W Blackwood. pp. 3–11.
  3. War Office Circular, 12 May 1859, published in The Times, 13 May.
  4. Fortescue, John (1909). The county lieutenancies and the army, 1803-1814. London: MacMillan and Co. p. 135.
  5. Militia, Volunteers and Territorials (Royal Engineers Museum)
  6. "Tynemouth Volunteer Artillery History (Tynemouth Volunteer Artillery Association)". tvaa.org.uk.
  7. Wyatt (1974) pp.39-46
  8. Cunningham, Hugh (1975). The Volunteer Force: A Social and Political History, 1859-1908. Taylor & Francis. pp. 22–25. ISBN 9780856642579.
  9. Sumner, Ian (2001). British Colours & Standards 1747-1881 (2) Infantry. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. p. 63. ISBN 1841762016.
  10. Edwards, T J (1953). Standards, colours and Guidons of the Commonwealth Forces. 1953: Gale & Polden. pp. 133–134.
  11. Giles Hudson, “Shots of Shots: Photographs of the Oxford Volunteer Rifle Corps”, Matters Photographical (1 Dec 2012)
  12. Report of the Royal Commission upon the Volunteer Force ([3053] HC (1862) xxvii, 89)
  13. Volunteer Act 1863 (26 & 27 Vict. C.65)
  14. Wyatt (1974) pp.45-49
  15. Encyclopaedia Britannica 1911


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