The British Army’s swells and shrinkages

The newspaper headlines leave little doubt that fiscal cuts will hit the armed forces especially hard. The Evening Standard led with “Britain’s army will be slashed to smallest size since Napoleonic wars”, raising the prospect of the UK’s land forces being reduced to their lowest numbers for over 200 years. But how has the size of the British Army changed in the past centuries? And how has the Army coped with past budget cuts and reductions in size?

The British Army came into being in 1707  after the formation of the United Kingdom between the Kingdoms of England and Scotland. Older English and Scottish regiments were subsumed into the British force and the red coated warriors would become synonymous with Britain’s imperial adventures over the next two and a half centuries.

The British Army in a traditional role guarding Buckingham Palace and the Queen

The idea of a standing (or permanent) army was still relatively new at this point. Parliament had been suspicious of Stuart plans for a large English standing army and, prior to 1642, Scotland had no effective permanent forces. The British Army required (and still requires) annual Parliamentary approval to remain in existence as a legal force.

But the turbulence of the eighteenth century ensured that the British Army would remain and grow. By 1793, the British Army comprised up to 40,000 men. By European standards, this was a small force and island Britain still put more stock in the defence of wooden walls provided by the Royal Navy.

The American War of Independence did not change thinking on the size of British forces (the King hired 20,000 Hessian mercenaries to do the bulk of the land fighting instead). A decade later and the explosive violence of the French Revolution would change everything. Accelerated by the rise of Napoleon and the Europe-wide success of his Grande Armée, the British Army swelled to 250,000 men by 1813.

Painting of the Battle of Waterloo, 1815 by Thomas Jones Barker [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The final victory over Napoleon at Waterloo and the continental peace agreed at the Congress of Vienna meant that the British Army would be cut back. The cuts to the Army budget, from £43 million in 1815 to £10 million in 1820 and £8 million in 1836, ensured numbers would plummet. As a result of cut backs, total troop strength barely exceeded 90,000 by 1838.

Further peaks were seen during the nineteenth century as Britain found her imperial ambitions required military backing across the globe. Britain eventually amassed total forces of 250,000 for the Crimean War, although she initially struggled to send an expeditionary force of just a tenth that number. Some 350,000 British troops contributed to an imperial force of half a million for the Second Boer War fought between 1899 and 1902.

A British Army sniper in Caen, Normandy during the Second World War By Sergeant Christie No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There are two massive peaks in the twentieth century for obvious reasons – the mass mobilisations and conscription in the First and Second World Wars. The total armed forces peaked at 4,200,000 at the height of the First World War in 1917 (a figure that includes the Royal Navy). This massive figure was exceeded 27 years later, with total armed forces reaching 4,500,000 in 1944 (a figure that includes the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force).

For much of the rest of the twentieth century, the British armed forces remained significantly larger than they are today. Conscription continued into the 1950s, ensuring there were still almost a million men serving in 1951. The figure then sank below 500,000 in 1961 and stayed above 300,000 until 1991. The end of the Cold War saw British military forces shrink even further.