13 January 2018

Are regimental numbers unique?

Are regimental numbers unique? I am asked this question often enough to unapologetically publish another post on this topic. The short answer is No, regimental numbers are not unique. As I wrote last September, 

"A typical line infantry county regiment [pre 1908] could expect to administer one regimental number series for its regular battalions, and a separate number series for each militia battalion. Volunteer Force battalions also each had a separate regimental number series and later, so too would EACH Territorial Force battalion... and with some battalions running multiple number series to boot."

You can see this very clearly demonstrated if you run a simple number search on my new British Army Ancestors website. The site is free to use but if you want to view any of the returned results - usually a service record or a medal index card - you'll need to pay The National Archives or Findmypast.

Running a search of 1234 Essex Reg* (use the wildcard to widen or indeed restrict results) returns eight results, all for different men with the regimental number 1234 who served with the Essex Regiment.  There are Territorial Force men here, militia men, career soldiers; all serving with the regimental number 1234 which would have been issued from different number series or number blocks at different times.

Queen's & King's Regulations

For the majority of line infantry regiments, regimental numbering started at 1 on the 1st July 1881. The regimental number was issued to the man when he presented himself at the regimental depot, and he kept this regimental number at the depot and if he was posted between regular battalions (usually the 1st and 2nd Battalions). 

Infantry regiments were to number to 9999 and, when they approached this number, were to to seek permission from the Adjutant General to commence a new series. The extract above is from Queen's Regulations 1884.  In 1904 the rules changed and infantry regiments were told they could number to 19999 before seeking permission to start a new series. This was further relaxed by Army Order 453 of 1914 which gave line infantry regiments permission to number to 39999, which was just as well with the influx of men to the colours from August that year. 

But the point is that as well as seeing duplicates across the various battalions in a regiment - and my 60 second regimental numbering overview goes into more detail here - duplicates also occur because of this need to start new number series. The Essex Regiment was a fairly typical steady recruiter of regular soldiers, an average of around 320 men signing up each year between 1881 and 1911. It only used the number 1234 once for a regular enlistment and that was in January 1884.  Regiments with more than two regular battalions though, got through their allotted numbers more quickly and thus we see, for instance, the Northumberland Fusiliers reaching 9999 on the 2nd December 1903 and commencing a new number series starting with 1. For this regiment's regular battalions, the number 1234 makes an appearance in December 1885 and again, nearly twenty years later, in May 1905.

The image on this page shows Private Dore, 2nd Battalion, Devonshire Regiment; winner of the Rifle Championship Cup at Aldershot in 1899. Judging by the three chevrons on his lower left sleeve he had been in the army for at least 12 years when this photograph was taken. The photo was published in Navy & Army Illustrated on the 2nd September 1899.

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