East Lothian’s military in World War One – finding units

During the First World War individual soldiers were slotted in to an incredibly complex table of organisation. The basic infantry unit was the section of just a handful of riflemen; but as units increased in size more and more specialists were added: medics and signallers, pioneers, provosts, clerks, paymasters, padres … the list seems endless.  Formally, specialists belonged to different military bodies and were ‘attached’ to their front-line unit so their uniform, badges and insignia could differ from that of the formation they served in. To complicate things further, as the war wore on depleted units were sometimes ‘filled’ out by deploying coherent groups – platoons or companies – from other formations. This was the fate of the Yeomanry from the first: the regiment was split between three divisions and each part had their ‘own’ war. At the higher level, battalions, brigades, divisions and corps were switched between formations it seems almost at a whim – but in fact as operational needs demanded.

Within this vast system, East Lothian’s soldiers are found at every level from private to general. The volunteers of the Royal Scots (infantry), Yeomanry (mounted infantry/cavalry) and Royal Garrison Artillery absorbed most of the servicemen from East Lothian but by war’s end they were found in every branch and trade within the army.

The volunteer riflemen and yeomanry troopers brought to the army skills and maturity seldom found in the ordinary squaddie and as the army expanded they were in high demand: a disproportionate number were promoted or otherwise changed units. This means that service histories of East Lothian’s soldiers can be complicated. Newspaper reports or other third party accounts seldom spell out the unit of a serving soldier but there is often an acronym or string of letters to unravel. The details of photographs provide strong clues to the specialist investigator – badges, insignia, medal ribbons and even the cut of a coat or trousers all contain valuable information. If a photograph is available it is worth scanning at high resolution areas of detail, but even the shape of a blurred cap badge can help to limit possible lines of inquiry. Some links that help navigate through the complexities are given below.

Infantry

Section: a small group of riflemen, led by a corporal

Platoon: several sections, led by a junior officer

Company: four platoons and a company headquarters, led by a captain or major

Battalion: four rifle companies and a headquarters company, led by a lieutenant colonel

Brigade: four (three) battalions (and a headquarters) commanded by a brigadier (one star) general

Division: four (three) brigades commanded by a major (two star) general

Corps: two or more divisions commanded by a lieutenant (three star) general

Army: several corps commanded by a (four star) general

Yeomanry

Section: a small group of troopers, led by a corporal

Troop: several sections, led by a junior officer

Squadron: four troops and a squadron headquarters, led by a captain or major

Regiment: three squadrons and a regimental headquarters, led by a lieutenant colonel

Higher formations as infantry

A good list of military acronyms can be found here. Rank insignia are complicated, particularly at the level of senior NCO: the Warrant Officers. There is a helpful guide here. There are many websites where information on military badges and medals can be found, but it’s probably best to refer to official sites in the first instance: medals (or here); badges are a complex area: even the National Archives suggests a reference book is essential.

Key pieces of information to find are dates, rank, locations, and service numbers. A dated photograph or newspaper account can lead to identifying specific events, as can a known location. Service numbers are the best means of tracking down War Medal cards, the best surviving resource at the National Archives.




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