The Militia - an Outline

Today the word "militia" suggests bands of fanatical troops loyal to rebel warlords in distant lands. But in English history it was an orderly system which provided a reserve of civilian troops to counter threats of invasion or internal unrest. Operated at first by regional lords, and later by the counties, it lasted through the 17th,18th and 19th centuries.

For five centuries before that – from the Norman Conquest -- feudal arrangements had provided horsed troops to form the backbone of armies at home. But the introduction of firearms in the middle of the 16th century reduced the primacy of knights in armour, and warfare gradually changed. So at the start of the 17th century, with memories of the Spanish Armada still fresh, "Commissions of Array" were appointed within the counties to organise a "general levy" and all able- bodied persons were registered on muster rolls and sorted into bands. Households were assessed according to their status in order to provide weapons, armour, horses, or their monetary equivalent, and men were trained and exercised at the expense of the parishes in the counties. The Militia was supposed to muster for training from time to time, but it rarely happened, so they were ill-prepared for emergencies and could not be relied on for service outside their own counties.

This unsatisfactory state of affairs led to the creation, especially in London, of elite forces which met regularly and were known as "trained bands". In the Civil War the City of London trained bands performed well for the Parliamentary side, but otherwise neither side made much use of the Militia. In many counties there was a royalist lord, but Parliamentary guilds controlled local trade – so ordinary folk were wary of taking sides. (Monmouth had the wealthy royalist Marquis of Worcester – but also strong Haberdasher influence.)

By 1660 the nation was very miserable – having suffered a civil war, beheaded a king, and endured a puritanical Protectorate enforced by the Model Army. So at the Restoration of the Monarchy there was a dread of national armies, and a naive hope that, provided a strong navy could deter invasion, the nation might manage with just county militias. Armies would have to be raised to fight abroad – but would then be stood down. Thus initially Charles II was allowed guards to protect his life and his household – but not a standing army. However the Militia was too inefficient to assume the role and so a Regular Army came into being.

James II who followed tried to take control of the Regular Army by packing it with Catholic officers – but was soon ousted. Then, as William and Mary came to the throne, it was agreed that the monarch would command a Regular Army, but only with the consent of Parliament – which would approve funds for only a year at a time. This 1689 Bill of Rights also stated that "the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law" – which seemed to legitimise the Militia.

The Militia was very inefficient but reform came only after a Scottish army marched as far south as Derby in 1745. A Militia Act shifted the onus of providing men from local lords on to the counties – where he King’s representative – the Lord Lieutenant – had to run ballots to conscript men for three year periods of part-time service. Inevitably the ballot was unpopular. But one could pay a substitute – so soon the regiments were full of impoverished substitutes! However they received better uniforms and weapons, and could be "embodied" for training. And there was the hope of boosting recruitment for a now over-stretched Regular Army.
Similar Militia systems existed in North America and the Channel Islands. But the Irish and the Scots were not entrusted with arms until 1715 and 1797!

During the wars with post-revolutionary and Napoleonic France invasion was feared – at least before the naval victory of Trafalgar. The Militia was embodied into the Army and regiments served at many vulnerable locations on the south coast. Large camps were held at Brighton and the Prince Regent reviewed regiments there. The Monmouth and Brecon Militia was actively embodied into this for 22 years which included a stint of 18 months in Ireland. The Militia was also a useful source of recruiting reserve – with bounties for men who transferred into the Regular Army.

After the defeat of Napoleon the strong Royal Navy minimised the risk of invasion. Musters and the ballot lapsed, and the Militia became very dormant. But then worries arose about civil unrest linked to clamour for electoral reform (Chartism etc) – and much of Europe was in revolutionary turmoil. The traditional Militia, officered by the landed gentry, was missed – and was revived by a Militia Act in 1852.

Generous funding now replaced the ballot and the Militia grew rapidly, attracting men who wanted some military experience, while maintaining their civilian jobs and family life. Recruits received basic training at an army depot and then returned to civilian life and continued with weekend training and an annual camp - usually including some time on the rifle ranges. They received military pay and a financial retainer – and mostly regarded the annual camp as a paid holiday.

Two years after this revival the Crimean War broke out and the Militia was embodied. Many Militia regiments, led by Monmouthshire, offered to fund their passage out to the Crimea – but had to settle for garrison duties at home. As years passed it became clear that their public order role was being lost to new police forces, while "upstart" Volunteer Rifle Corps, requiring less commitment, were attracting many middle-class town dwellers who were keen to handle rifles. These came to outnumber the Militia – who wondered whether their traditional role would last – or whether to develop new skills and roles?

The War Office also was now keen on reform, and encouraged some militias to convert from infantry to artillery. And, in 1877, the militias of Monmouthshire and Anglesey switched to engineer roles – with the promise of serving abroad in war. Soon afterwards the remaining militia regiments were designated as lower ranking reserve battalions of regiments of the line – so a county infantry regiment would typically have one regular battalion abroad, one at home – and third and fourth militia battalions. In 1908 these, and the Volunteer Rifle Corps, were merged into a new Territorial Force (leaving a few unaffiliated Militia units in a Special Reserve).

The amateurish county Militias had become obsolete and had been embodied into a national war machine – to use and face the ferocious new weapons now available – as Europe stumbled towards a Great War in which millions would die.

Two units in the British Army still maintain a Militia designation; these being the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers (Militia) (first mustered in 1539) and the Jersey Field Squadron of the Royal Militia Island of Jersey (first formed in 1337). In recognition of their common ancestry, they are now under a unified command.

EGO 2017