Despite having an “empire” on which the sun never set, the British Army wasn’t exactly large in numbers. Yet, prior to the First World War, Great Britain had the only true “professional” army in Europe in that it was a small volunteer force made up of about 400,000 soldiers. Of those about 247,000 served in the Regular Army while another 145,000 served in the Territorial Force.
It wasn’t until after the introduction of conscription, which began in January 1916, that the British Army reached its peak of strength. By the end of 1918, there were more than four million soldiers and seventy divisions serving for King and Country.
That was then.
Today, the British Army is already the smallest it has been in 400 years and as the BBC reported this month, it is about to get even smaller. An upcoming defense review, set to be published in April, could call for cutting up to 10,000 soldiers from the regular Army’s notional strength of 82,000 as a way to help fund the modernization efforts.
These cuts could come even as the Ministry of Defence is set to receive an extra £16.5 billion over the next four years. The plan is that technology, including autonomous weapon platforms, could be employed to allow the Army to become “leaner and more agile.”
This has included a reduction of the British Army’s tank force.
Brig. John Clark, head of Army strategy, has suggested that by harnessing technology it would enable the British Army to “achieve the same effect with fewer people.”
It isn’t always clear if technology can replace “boots on the ground.” The BBC reported Jack Watling of London’s Royal United Services Institute noted that an army of 72,000 could still be able to take and hold a small town – even if the British Army faced a struggle to secure the city of Basra, Iraq when its strength topped 100,000.
Moreover, as Sophia Wright also addressed for Fair Observer, in a recent study of the modernization efforts there are some notable concerns as to whether enough is being invested to truly transform the British Army into a leaner high-tech fighting force.
“While the overall budget has increased from £38 billion ($53 billion) to £48 billion, the figure is misleading as it does not take into account rising costs of development or inflation,” Wright wrote. “A more telling indicator is the percentage of GDP dedicated to defense, which dropped from 3.5% to 1.7% between 1990 and 2020. The rhythm of deployments, however, has not slowed, with the UK taking an active part in virtually every NATO operation in the past decades.”
The incredibly shrinking British Army could also impact a seven-year-old boy – namely Prince George, the eldest son of Prince William, and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge. He is third-in-line to the throne, and that comes with certain responsibilities that usually include a stint in the military. It is expected that he would follow the path of his father, his grandfather Prince Charles and his great-grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, all of whom served in the British Army.
He was spotted wearing a camouflage t-shirt on this seventh birthday, his actually serving isn’t set in stone even if the likely future monarch will be the head of the UK’s military. The last British monarch not to serve in the military was King Edward VII, who had hoped to pursue a career in the British Army only to have his mother, Queen Victoria, veto that decision.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.