In 1881, Hugh Childers, the Secretary of War in the new Gladstone administration, implemented the final act of the Cardwell reforms of 1870. Eighty-two of the 138 regular infantry battalions were to be amalgamated into two battalion regiments. The remaining battalions included the first twenty five numbered regiments, already of two battalions and the 79th Cameron Highlanders plus the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and Rifle Brigade which had two or more battalions. At this time the regiments were augmented by additional battalions from the Militia thus firmly establishing their territorial status. There now stood sixty-nine regular infantry regiments with names instead of numbers. This act at first caused much consternation as these “marriages” were not always happy ones or even convenient. Apart from numbers, many regiments had iconic symbols and devices and discussions on where to place them on the various appointments often were contentious. The British regimental system, as many understand, is a unique institution unlike any military organization in the world. The needs of an expanding Empire had placed battalions in remote stations on all continents sometimes for many years and often isolated from central commands. This created a strong sense of solidarity within the regiments and less attachment to the army as a whole. Their badges and battle honours solidified this attitude and they saw themselves apart from other regiments.
The earliest metal insignia for enlisted men had been quite rudimentary, comprising a head dress plate with the unit’s precedence number, a Royal cypher and the crown of the reigning sovereign. Officers’ equivalents were more elaborate and for the older regiments often bore a unique central emblem, or special device to mark either, Royal association, or approved battle honours. The former emblems most commonly included the White Horse of Hanover, to mark the Hanoverian dynasty, the Prince of Wales’s feathers to mark association with the heir to the throne, or knightly honours in the gift of the Sovereign, including Orders of the Garter, Bath, Thistle and St Patrick. The latter emblems included a Sphinx, marking the Egypt campaign of 1801, a Royal (Indian) Tiger or Elephant to mark special service in India, the castle of Gibraltar to commemorate its epic defence, a Chinese Dragon, to mark service in the Opium Wars, and numerous laurel and oak wreaths for a range of actions and campaigns. National identifiers like an English Rose, Scots thistle, Irish Harp, or Welsh dragon also featured for some regiments and several regiments included earlier, County titles given in 1782, but never really cemented in a meaningful way. Fusiliers and Light Infantry regiments had a certain elite status and a grenade for the former and bugle with strings for the latter formed the central device on their appointments.
In sum, each regiment was different and the mix and design of these icons varied so as to make each unit identifiable. More junior regiments sometimes had very few special badges, or honours, as they had not existed for so long and so their insignia was rather more barren and simple. A further factor in the insignia was the merger of the Militia regiments with the Regulars and, as the former was so much older, they often bore Royal association and geographical titles and symbols that the Regular unit with which they were matched did not. By the time the 1883 Dress regulations were published, most regiments had established and had received approval for the mix of badges, symbols and battle honours that encompassed all these factors and that would be placed on appointments and colours.
This then was an evolutionary expression of the identity that the regiments would establish for the next one hundred and thirty years or so. The lions, tigers, sphinxes, roses, bugles and other familiar devices that were worn then still adorn the uniforms and colours of the modern British Army.
This study shows the insignia placed on the full dress headdress*, the waist clasp or plate, the collar badges and the button. The timeline is 1881-1890 as, after that date the Scottish regiments adopted new elements and the rifle regiments took up different headdresses. In addition there were several regiments that changed insignia before 1900. The format we have shown is for the Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers and the infantry regiments. For the Foot Guards, who had no badge on the full dress bearskin (but did on the forage caps and white foreign service helmets) along with the departments who had helmets, but no collar badges yet, we will have an appendix section to address their insignia in an appropriate format.
*Including the 1878 pattern helmet, the Fusilier raccoon skin cap and the Highland feather bonnet along with the Shako of the Highland Light Infantry.