During the 20th century, the strength of the British infantry expanded and contracted in response to the needs of government policy and in particular to the two World Wars, the Cold War and their aftermath. The early years of the century saw Infantry Regiments linked to a particular locality within the United Kingdom. Each Regiment had two regular battalions and the territorial affiliations were further emphasised by the incorporation of militia and volunteers.
Each Regiment also had its own Depot. On the eve of the First World War there were eight Irish infantry regiments accounting for sixteen regular and twenty-six battalions of militia. During the war that followed these eight regiments expanded to ninety-two battalions, of which sixty-three served overseas.
Once the war was over, the Army soon reverted to its pre-war establishment, and on account of the national economic situation many militia battalions were placed in suspended animation. In Ireland the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 caused a further reduction. The intention was to retain The Royal lnniskilling Fusiliers and The Royal Irish Rifles because of their obvious connections with Northern Ireland and to disband the other six Irish infantry regiments.
There were strong arguments to retain The Royal Irish Fusiliers and eventually a compromise was reached whereby The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and The Royal Irish Fusiliers combined to form one Corps each with one regular battalion and a common depot at Omagh. At the same time, The Royal Irish Rifles were re-designated The Royal Ulster Rifles.
In 1937 the second battalions were restored to The Royal lnniskilling Fusiliers and Royal Irish Fusiliers. At the same time, The London Irish Rifles were incorporated into the Corps of The Royal Ulster Rifles but still retaining their regimental identity.
Mobilisation in 1939 thus saw six regular Irish battalions of the Line and two territorial battalions of The London Irish Rifles prepared for active service. Further battalions were raised during the course of the War, but the scale of expansion of the First World War was not repeated. Each of the three Irish regiments was represented in 38th (Irish) Brigade, which served with distinction in North Africa and Italy.
The actions of all battalions can be followed in their respective histories. Despite the decision to augment voluntary enlistment with National Service in the post-war Army, line infantry regiments were reduced to a single regular battalion each by 1948. The 2nd Bn. Royal lnniskilling Fusiliers was one of six battalions raised as a result of the Cold War in 1948 but was again disbanded in 1955.
For the three Irish regiments of the Line, this reduction was balanced by the raising of three Territorial Army battalions in Northern Ireland in 1947, whilst The London Irish Rifles contributed one battalion to the post-war Territorial Army on the mainland.
National Service continued until 1962 whilst there was no "call up" in Northern Ireland, many men of Irish stock living in Britain were called up with their colleagues and posted to the Irish Regiments.
By this time it was apparent to all that there were to be significant cuts in the Armed Forces. Infantry reorganisation was inevitable as the new, All Regular Army, would require fewer battalions.
Preserving the History
Although the Irish Regiments were not involved in the first amalgamations ordered in 1957, they did not escape other aspects of the re-organisation. The three regiments had been administratively grouped as the North Irish Brigade since 1948, but such groupings were now to be given greater emphasis.
The three Regimental Depots were closed in 1959 and their functions transferred to a North Irish Brigade Depot initially at Eglinton, but which transferred to St Patrick's Barracks, Ballymena, Northern Ireland in 1964 after the rebuilding and enlargement had been completed.
At the same time individual regimental cap badges were abolished and in 1960 the North Irish Brigade cap badge was introduced. Apart from these changes, each of the three regiments was still able to maintain its separate identity. In the mid 1960s great changes were also taking place in the Territorial Army, when it was recognised that Britain did not require as large a reserve force as was then constituted, but that a smaller reserve should be better trained and equipped. This led to the establishment of the new Territorial and Army Volunteer Reserve.
The three former Territorial Army battalions in Northern Ireland, and The London Irish Rifles were required to merge into one TAVR battalion. This new battalion was designated The North Irish Militia, later to become 4th Bn. The Royal Irish Rangers and was raised on 1 April 1967. Those elements of the three old Territorial Army battalions that had not transferred to the Militia remained in existence as home defence units, but were given a very low priority for both equipment and training and there were soon serious doubts over their viability.
(In 1969 each of these battalions was reduced to a cadre of six officers and men.) In 1967 further reductions in the size of the Regular Army were announced. It now seemed probable that each of the 'Geographic' Infantry Brigades would lose one battalion, and the Ministry of Defence invited Colonels of Regiments to make proposals. Unless a consensus could be agreed, it seemed likely that the junior regiment of the North Irish Brigade-The Royal Irish Fusiliers in our case would be doomed. Unlike other Brigades, The North Irish Brigade had a unique mix of two Fusilier regiments and a Rifle regiment which caused additional problems when considering amalgamation or disbandment.
The Representative Colonel of the North Irish Brigade in 1967 (Maj. Gen. T. P. D. Scott) called a meeting at Ballymena to make recommendations to MOD. Each regular battalion was to be represented by its Commanding Officer, a Major, Captain and the RSM. In addition all officers at ERE in Northern Ireland and at the Depot were required to attend; - also in attendance were the Regimental Secretaries.
There were a series of alternatives facing this unique gathering. These were:
This momentous meeting took one whole day, and at the end it was the unanimous decision that the
regiments of North Irish Brigade should form one large regiment, thus keeping alive all the traditions of each of the former regiments.
The title of the new regiment became the next problem -several ideas emerged but eventual inspiration was derived from the distinctive
designation of one of the disbanded Irish Regiments of 1922. No other line regiment had been categorised as 'Rangers' which thus offered the
basis of a designation for the new Regiment that would be both distinctive and of Irish origin.
The adoption of this designation would also mean that the fusiliers and riflemen of the old regiments would be able to assume an exclusive rank designation within the British Army
rather than having to revert to becoming private soldiers.
All three former regiments had been 'Royal' and all three regiments were 'Irish' - the proposed new title met with rapid agreement.
At the same time it was agreed that the new regiment would wear 'black buttons'.
The recommendation was made to the Ministry of Defence that in the event of the requirement to cut a battalion from The North Irish Brigade, and large regiment to be called The Royal Irish Rangers should be formed. If necessary, one battalion could then be disbanded. Attention then turned to the emotive question of dress. It was the wish
of Regimental Committee that the dress of the new regiment should be distinctive and striking as well as maintaining certain aspects pertaining to the former Regiments.
The caubeen was adopted as the headgear for the new Regiment as all the former regiments had worn it, and it was certainly distinctive!.
The green hackle was formerly worn by The Royal Irish Fusiliers.
The Castle collar badges had been worn by The Royal lnniskilling Fusiliers
Whilst the black buttons had formerly been the prerogative of The Royal Ulster Rifles.
The brown cross belt was a compromise between the brown Sam Browne belts worn by the Irish Fusiliers and the black cross belt worn in the Ulster Rifles.
All ranks of the new regiment were to wear piper green trousers which complemented a very distinctive and unique uniform, (which soon became the envy of the
rest of the Army!) As the new Regiment took shape, plans were also made to bring it into being.
The regular battalions of the three regiments were stationed at:-