The oldest parts of the Regiment is the militia. Compulsory military service within the counties of Devon and Dorset dates back to the days of the Saxons but it is in the feudal system of Medieval Britain, that a force that is recognisably a militia was organised. The militia was organised on a local basis for service within its county or within the England and eventually the United Kingdom.
The first known, documented, mention of the word 'militia' dates back to reign of Queen Mary (1553-1558), when her husband King Philip entered into discussion over a 'Project for a Land Militia'. At times of threat to the country or internal disturbance within the counties, the resulting force was an important asset but, in times of peace and stability, the militia represented an expensive drain on the counties. Service in the militia could also be unpopular and was often the result of ballot - and payment for someone to serve in a nominated persons place was not unknown.
A dispute between Charles I and Parliament over the control of the militia was one of the underlying causes of the English Civil War.
The Militia, essentially an infantry force, was regularly mobilised through out the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for defence of the United Kingdom. The Militia formally became a part the county regiments in 1881 and finally disappeared into the 3rd Special Reserve Battalions in the 1908 reorganisation of the Territorial Army.
The Regular Army dates back to the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 when Charles II raised regiments of Guards. However, it was the protestant Duke of Monmouth's landing at Lyme Regis in June 1685 that gave birth to the senior of our constituent regiments, which eventually became the Devonshire Regiment. Monmouth landed just west of The Cobb and assembled his 150 men in the Market Square, where, with banners flying, they rallied support for a rebellion against Catholic King James II. One hundred men from Lyme joined the rebels, and marched north.
With the Duke of Monmouth and his army, made up largely of peasants armed with pitchforks and scythes, approaching Bristol, the local commander of the Kings Army, the Duke of Beaufort was commissioned to raise:
'a corps of musketeers and pikemen composed of men of distinguished loyalty who resided in the disturbed districts of Devonshire, Somersetshire and Dorsetshire'.
This corps included the Beaufort Musketeers, who were to become the North Devonshire regiment.
By 24 June 1685, attack seemed imminent. He therefore drew up what forces he had, some on Radcliffe Mead and a smaller force in the Lamb Ground to meet the intruders. The following day tension in the city was at its height. What the inhabitants do not appear to have known was that Monmouth had been deflected from his course by two parties of royalist Horse who had come upon him at Keynsham - about four miles south-east of the city. After calling a council of war, the rebel leader led his now dispirited army back to Bridgwater and to ultimate defeat at Sedgemoor on the night of 5th July 1685.
In the aftermath of Monmouth's Rebellion the King called for well-disciplined and regularly paid army but after the Civil War, during which the people of England having gained a healthy suspicion of the military, the need for a sizeable standing army was only grudgingly acceded too.
Having been raised to keep James II on his thrown three years earlier, Hamner's Regiment, as a part of John Churchill's (later the Duke of Marlborough) Army failed to save the king for a second time. As a result of religious strains, in November 1688 the Dutch Prince William of Orange was invited by protestant politicians to invade England. Catholic King James II fled London when John Churchill and the Army declined to fight the 'invader'. By February 1689, William and his English wife Mary were offered the crown.
The constitutional settlement following the Glorious Revolution shaped the formation of the British state for the following centuries, and the ensuing wars that the regiments took part in, contributed to Britain's rise as an international power.
The first of these wars began almost immediately, when James returned to Ireland determined to take back his throne.
The Regiment's first engagement and battle was fought in Ireland on the banks of the River Boyne, on 1 July 1690 for King William III against his father in law, the erstwhile king, James II. James, with the support of Louis XIV of France, who was at the height of his drive to make himself master of Europe, landed in catholic Ireland at the head of a small French force, in March 1689. Around this force he gathered support from the openly rebellious Irish. At stake were the British throne, French dominance in Europe and Religious power in Ireland.
Hanmer's regiment had been in Ireland from 1689, when it took part in the relief of the siege of Londonderry. The following year William led his army of 36,000 men south to confront James's 25,000 strong Jacobite Army.
William distracted a large proportion of the Jacobite army by a flank march to the west, leaving the centre, including Hanmer's Regiment free to attack across the Boyne against a lightly held font. Having established a bridgehead the Wiliamite Army drove the Jacobite Army but had to hold out against a series of cavalry counter attacks. The enemy cavalry nearly broke through but were held by the disciplined volleys of the infantry and were finally broken by the arrival of Williams and his cavalry.
James's Army were forced back but they made a disciplined withdrawal and escaped the destruction that William had planned for them. Hanmer's Regiment had played a creditable part in what was its first proper battle.
Only a twelve years later as what became the War of the Spanish Succession, the Dorsets, or Colonel Coote's Regiment, was raised by a Royal Warrant dated 12 February in Ireland in 1702. The Regiment, eventually numbered the 39th of Foot, was partly formed from soldiers of a disbanded regiment (Lisburne's) and was raised as a part in another increase in size of the Army. Signing the officer's commissions was virtually William III's last act on his deathbed. Colonel Richard Coote was shortly afterwards killed in a duel and was succeeded by Colonel Sankey, whose name the Regiment took.
This time, additional troops were required to take part in the Duke of Marlborough's campaigns on the continent of Europe but Sankey's regiment spent the first five years of its existence in garrison duties in Ireland. Though neither of the regiments that were to become the Devons and the Dorsets were to take part in any of the four major battles in the twelve years of the war, they campaigned in the Low Countries, France, Germany Spain and North America. In an age when warfare had more to do with manoeuvre and sieges, the two regiments marched countless miles, scaled many a rampart and fought many bloody actions that fell short of full battle.
Sankey's Regiment's first campaign was in Portugal and Spain under the command of the Earl of Peterborough. This famous officer mounted Sankey's regiment on mules to provide mobility that enabled them to keep up with the cavalry. In May 1709, reaching the battlefield of Caya, in such manner, the Regiment distinguished itself, earning praise for its exceptional steadiness and bravery and the nickname 'Sankey's Horse'.
In 1712 Sankey's was in Portugal and the following year made its first acquaintance with the fortress Rock of Gibraltar. Service in Minorca followed, along with a period as marines aboard Admiral Byng's fleet, taking part in the Battle of Messina.
In 1726 the Regiment, having been hurried to Gibraltar to reinforce the garrison, spent a strenuous year on the Rock, during the first siege by the Spaniards. The Regiment now numbered the 39th of Foot, saw service in the West Indies and, after returning home from Jamaica, had another spell of active service afloat as marines.
Remaining in Ireland until 1703, the Devonshires then joined John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough's, army in Holland, where they assisted to capture the fortress of Huy and the city of Limburg, then held by the Spaniards. The Regiment's next campaign was in Portugal in 1705, and, after a visit to England, again in 1708.
The year 1709 was a memorable year for the Devons, as they were again in Holland and with the Duke of Marlborough's forces, taking part in the siege of Mons. While working in the trenches within one hundred yards of the French palisades, the Regiment was attacked by a strong force of the enemy. The grenadiers, who were protecting the working party, were thrown into confusion by the attack. Nothing daunted, the soldiers of the Regiment threw down their picks and spades, drew their swords and counter-attacked with such vigour that the French were driven back over the palisades of Mons, with severe losses. Some of the soldiers of the 11th even followed the enemy over the palisades into the fortified town. During the attack and counter-attack the Regiment sustained 160 casualties. For some twelve months the 11th Foot was engaged in operations against fortified towns on the French Belgian border: Douai, Béthune, Aire, and St. Venant.
In 1711 the 11th formed part of the unsuccessful expedition against the French in Canada.
Except in 1715 and 1719, where the 11th gave a good account of itself in Scotland, the Regiment's history is uneventful for some thirty years. In 1719 Spanish troops landed in Ross-shire, and were joined by the Scottish clans of the neighbourhood. The 11th formed part of a small force which, charging with the bayonet, dispersed Spaniards and Highlanders, won the Battle of Glenshiel, and broke the insurrection.
In 1740, the deaths of two leading European monarchs led the continent to war. In Prussia, the throne passed to ruthlessly ambitious Frederick, who inherited Europe's most capable army a bureaucracy of considerable efficiency. In using this instrument, Frederick was to earn the appellation 'The Great'.
Charles VI, Emperor of Austria, died later in 1740, with his daughter Maria Theresa, inheriting his throne. This was the excuse that Frederick needed to ignore Prussia's commitment to his father's alliances and seized Silesia, marching his troops into the capital, Breslau, and taking control of the rich Austrian province.
Maria Theresa was not easily cowed and declared war on Prussia and counter-invaded Silesia, starting a war that was rage for twenty-five years. The conflict did not finally end until the Treaty of Paris in 1764 confirmed Prussia's ownership of Silesia.
The first part of the war between 1740 and 1748, known as the 'War of the Austrian Succession', saw George II, King of England and Elector of Hanover, send British troops to join the Allies centred on Maria Theresa. However, George's principal concern was the French, who he feared would advance through the Low Countries and invade his beloved Hanover. Keeping a major power out of Flanders was a key tenant of British foreign policy; consequently, George was able to persuade Parliament to deploy the Army to the continent.
In 1743, back again in Flanders, the 11th Foot was a unit in an expeditionary force of 37,000 personally commanded by King George II. The Army, with its infantry, marched south from Flanders to the Frankfurt region of Germany. There it was joined by George II. The battle of Dettingen followed, fought against the Duc de Noailles's French Army of 60,000 men. The disciplined fire of the British infantry drove French cavalry and infantry into a disordered retreat. Dettingen though by no means the Regiments' first battle was the senior battle honour borne on the Devon and Dorset's colours.
In 1745, on the breaking out of Bonnie Price Charlie's (Son of James II, the 'Young Pretender') rebellion in Scotland, the 11th Foot was ordered home, and took part in the actions whereby Carlisle was recaptured and the Young Pretender's force was driven back into Scotland and eventually overthrown.
Returning to the Netherlands, in 1746, the 11th Foot joined the Allied Army and helped to check the French advance. At Roucoux, on October 11th, the Devonshire Regiment with the 19th Foot (Yorkshire Regiment) were ordered to hold a valley to the last man. Three villages were held by eight English, Dutch, and Hessian battalions. Against them, preceded by a heavy cannonade, the French threw a force of some fifty battalions. Overwhelmed by numbers, the 19th and the 11th, earning the nickname, 'Ever Faithful', held on, until wave after wave of the enemy had been broken and crumpled up. The enemy were beaten; the losses of the 11th in that gallant action were 10 officers and 180 rank and file killed or missing; 2 officers and 26 rank and file wounded.
When peace was made with France, the 11th Foot returned to England and in 1751 by Royal Warrant the regimental facings were changed to full green. It is probable that the tawny of older days was rather a lighter green than the orange colour usually associated with tawny. In 1756 the strength of the Regiment was raised to twenty companies, divided into two battalions, the 2nd of which two years later became the 64th Foot, later the North Staffordshire Regiment.
In 1754 the 39th Foot was deployed, as the first British Government troops, rather than East India Company mercenaries, to India. The Regiment served in Madras, under Colonel Adlercron, until August 1756, when as a result of the 'Black Hole of Calcutta' a part of the Regiment was detached to Bengal. In May, 1757, Colonel Adlercron commanded a force, including part of the 39th, sent to relieve Trichinopoiy, and was engaged in operations in Wandewash.
.Another three companies (about 300 men) of the 39th served under General Clive in the operations against the Nabob of Bengal, which ended with the total defeat of the enemy at Plassey, near Calcutta, in June 1757. The British force on this occasion consisted only of 3,000 men, most being Indian troops. The Nabob's army mustered 40,000 infantry, 15,000 cavalry, and guns, some of which were manned by French artillerymen. This formidable force was completely routed by the desperate bravery of the small British force, which captured the whole of the enemy's camp, baggage, guns and stores. This victory constituted one of the most complete and overwhelming achievements in military history.
.It was not until early 1755, during the period of tension prior to the outbreak of Seven Years War, that a further expansion of the Army brought the 54th of Foot into existence. It was raised at Salisbury, in Wiltshire by Lieutenant Colonel John Campbell, Duke of Argyll. It had a very gaudy uniform of scarlet, with 'popinjay' green facings profusely laced, the officers wearing silver and other ranks yellow lace. Initially the regiment was numbered 56th Foot but was renumbered 54th in 1757 when two more senior regiments were disbanded.
The 39th returned home from India in 1758 with a glorious record, which was worthily upheld by the detachment of the Regiment that served under the Marquis of Granby in his campaign in Germany in 1759.
Meanwhile, the 54th Regiment served as marines in the Mediterranean fleet under Lord Hawke and did garrison duty at Gibraltar before coming home in 1765, having being relieved at Gibraltar by the 39th Regiment.
With War again in progress, the 11th again faced her old enemies, and from 1760 to 1763 was fighting against the French. On 7 November 1761, while encamping in the snow, the 11th with two other regiments were attacked by a strong French force. Seizing their arms, the men with great gallantry drove off the attackers. Again, in 1762, the 11th in brigade with the 23rd (Royal Welch Fusiliers), 33rd (West Riding Regiment), and 51st (Yorkshire Light Infantry) surprised a French camp, captured the baggage and equipage, and dispersed the French army. In their retreat a division of the enemy army was surrounded, and only two of its battalions escaped.
After peace was concluded, in 1763, the 11th Foot, garrisoned the island of Minorca during its occupation by the British.
The 39th remained at Gibraltar for many years from 1756 and was one of the six splendid regiments that took part in the four year long 'Great Siege'. During the American War of Independence, France and Spain took the opportunity to settle old scores and joined against the British in assistance to the revolting American colonists. One of the enemy's most important strategic objectives was the fortress of Gibraltar, to which the Spaniards laid siege.
In 1782, the regiments were designated 11th 'The North Devonshire Regiment', 39th 'East Middlesex'" and 54th 'West Norfolk' Regiments. Officers were directed to 'cultivate an acquaintance with that part of the county, so as to create a mutual attachment between the inhabitants and the Regiment'. For that purpose, however, little time was allowed, for in 1783 the 11th Regiment went to Gibraltar, where it remained for eight years.
Meanwhile, the 54th Foot was serving in America, where after some fighting at Brooklyn for instance, it garrisoned New York, Charlestown, Rhode Island, and other towns during the War of Independence. It is an interesting fact that the sergeant-major of the 54th Regiment at this period was William Cobbett, who became famous as a social reformer, and died a Member of Parliament. His condemnation of flogging in the army eventual led to its abolition.
One former officer who served with the 39th remained active in North America: Captain George Cartwright.