"6019 John Alexander Whitley served with the Royal Irish Rifles. Why did he have such a low number?"
When Great Britain went to war with Germany on 4th August 1914, the Royal Irish Rifles had five battalions.
- The 1st and 2nd Battalions shared the same numbering series which had begun at 1 in July 1881. They were numbering in excess of 10400 by August 1914.
- The 3rd (Special Reserve) Battalion had its own numbering series and had reached 6457 by July 1914.
- The 4th (Extra Reserve) Battalion also had its own numbering series and had passed 6700 by the time war was declared.
- The 5th (Extra Reserve) Battalion again had its own numbering series. I have gaps in my data for the first half of 1914, but by 14th August it had reached 5297.
At some point, somebody in authority must have decided that it would be a good idea if the newly formed service battalions each had their own numbering series. The old series, which was in the 19000s by early October 1914, appears to have been abandoned and new series of numbers were started for each of the battalions from the 6th through to the 16th inclusive. Later in the war, the 17th through to the 20th inclusive would also use separate number series.
These new number series certainly start appearing in late September 1914 for some battalions and were in full swing by the following month. Numbers were generally prefixed with the number of the battalion and so the 110th man to join, say, the 14th (Young Citizens) Battalion might expect to see his number expressed as 14/110. However, there are enough examples of numbers being expressed without the prefix to make this an unreliable rule of thumb.
All of which lengthy preamble brings me back to 6019 John Whitley. His medal index card shows entitlement to the British War and Victory medals which means he certainly didn't proceed overseas until 1st January 1916 at the very earliest.
We can probably rule him out as a regular soldier as this number would have been issued to a career serviceman in 1900; similarly with the 3rd (Special Reserve) Battalion which was numbering in the 7000s by 1908 (these numbers, and the numbers of the 4th and 5th Battalions being a continuation of the series adopted by their respective militia battalion predecessors). 6019 would have been issued to a 4th Battalion man in 1908 and to a 5th Battalion man in October 1915. Without knowing John Whitley's age, both these battalions would appear to be possibilities, although I would have thought that had he joined the 4th Battalion as early as 1908, he could well have been posted to a regular battalion when war was declared and therefore be entitled to the 1914 Star, or at least the 1914-15 Star. So of these five battalions, the 5th would appear to be the most likely option.
As far as the service battalions are concerned, the 6th to 15th Battalions inclusive all look to have passed the 6019 mark by May 1915 and despite the absence of a prefix on his medal card, we shouldn't rule out John Whitley's service with a service battalion. Unfortunately, his service record does not appear to have survived, but some of the conjecture above could be narrowed down further if we knew when the man was born.
The Naval and Military Press has re-published a number of Royal Irish Rifles titles:
HISTORY OF THE FIRST SEVEN BATTALIONS: The Royal Irish Rifles (now The Royal Ulster Rifles) in the Great War.
THE ROYAL IRISH RIFLES
WITH THE ULSTER DIVISION IN FRANCE: A Story of the 11th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles (South Antrim Volunteers), from Bordon to Thiepval
THERE'S a DEVIL in THE DRUM - John Lucy's classic account.
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