Yeomanry Regiments – What were they?

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Volunteer companies had existed for some time but were disbanded when the American War of Independence ended in 1783. Yeomanry regiments have a history probably unique in the world. They were raised for duty at home. The yeomanry came into being at the end of the 18th century when the country was drained of troops by the wars in America and threatened by invasion from the continent. The threat was increased by the French Revolution in 1793. In 1794, the British Prime Minister, William Pitt, issued regulations for the creation of bodies of troops for home service. To combat invasion local armed associations were raised and there was keen competition to enrol in them. They were, of course, officially recognised, but were paid for largely by local subscription, the government producing only arms. Parliamentarians distrusted large standing armies, but the new perceived threat of invasion from Napoleon encouraged passage of the 1794 Volunteer Act adding Volunteer associations to the Militia and the standing army. Often chaotic and distinctly unorthodox, recruitment accelerated following the mutiny in the Royal Navy at Nore and Spithead in 1797. It was estimated there were over 410,000 men in the volunteer forces between 1794 and 1804.

For over 100 years, with one minor exception, they saw no service at all except for the suppression of rioting. The mounted troops raised in accordance with these regulations were called yeomanry cavalry and came into being without delay amid considerable enthusiasm. The members of each troop were gentlemen and yeoman farmers, and they elected their officers. The control of the troops of yeomanry in each county was vested in the Lord Lieutenant, and they could be called out by him or by the High Sheriff for the suppression of riot in the county. In the case of invasion, or for duty in another country, they were to be called out by royal warrant. While they were under arms they were paid as cavalry and subject to military law. In some troops it was customary for all the pay thus received to be pooled and distributed equally to all members. During the century of relative inactivity they remained enthusiastic, smart and efficient, so that when suddenly they were called upon to serve in South Africa in 1900 they produced fighting men whose worth is attested by the decorations for gallantry awarded them. Since then, of course, they have fought in two other major wars, and earned a long roll of battle honours.

Rowlandson’s book is an invaluable record of these years when danger threatened, and the government organised the ordinary people’s talents and enthusiasm for the defence of the country.

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