Who were the Finsbury Rifles?
The Finsbury Rifles, or the 11th (County of London) Battalion, part of the London Regiment, was one of the many cogs in the large machine of Britain’s Armed Forces.
It was a volunteer unit of the Territorial Force (a forerunner of today’s modern army reserve) which meant that they played a role in home defence during peacetime and provided a reserve for the Regular Army in times of war. Territorial soldiers were recruited locally, either from near where they lived or worked. For example, John Harding, a reluctant junior clerk in the Post Office Savings Bank at West Smithfield was commissioned as an officer in the Finsbury Rifles in May 1914.
Image: from Islington Local History Centre
Territorial units trained for one evening a week, gaining them the nickname ‘Saturday night soldiers.’ They also took part in a fortnight long training camp with the regular army every summer. The headquarters (HQ) of the Finsbury Rifles was the Drill Hall at 17, Penton Street, Pentonville.
© Darren O’Brien. The Drill Hall. HQ of the Finsbury Rifles, 17, Penton Street, Pentonville.
The full strength of the battalion was just over 1000 men. It was divided into 4 companies, each of which was divided into 4 platoons. at full strength. It was usually commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel, with a Major as his Second-in-Command. The Adjutant was the only Regular Army officer and dealt with all the administration.
War is declared..
In August 1914, the Finsbury Rifles were travelling by train to their annual summer camp in Dorset. However, their train was unexpectedly stopped at a station near their destination and sent back to London. War was about to be declared. The entire Territorial Force would be called up to serve full-time in the army.
As the army expanded, the Finsbury Rifles were re-organised in line with other Territorial units. The existing battalion became the 1/11th. This was the front line battalion whose troops would be sent to serve overseas. The 2/11 or second line battalion was initially deployed only on home defence, guarding railway stations.
© Darren O’Brien. 11th Battalion, the London Regiment. Guarding railway wagons’ somewhere’ in Britain.
But as the war wore on, this battalion was sent to the Western Front in France in 1917. The third line battalion, the 3/11 became the training battalion.
Many more local recruits joined the Finsbury Rifles, among them an 18 year old railway clerk from nearby Euston Station, Jock Christie.
The disastrous Gallipoli Campaign
By summer 1915, their training complete, the 1/11th Battalion, London Regiment, now part of the 162 Brigade in the 54th East Anglian Division, sailed for Gallipoli.
The ill-fated campaign to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula was part of a strategy to allow Allied ships to sail through the Dardanelles Straits -a 60 mile long narrow strip of water dividing Europe from Asia. The Allies hoped to capture Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) and force the Ottoman Empire, one of Germany’s allies, out of the war.
During the Gallipoli Campaign the 1/11th Battalion, London Regiment, suffered heavy casualties both in battle and during months of horrendous trench warfare in hilly terrain and insanitary conditions. Find out more about the Campaign at project Islington’s Gallipoli.
From Gallipoli to Egypt, Syria and Palestine
With the failure of the campaign, most of the remaining Allied troops were evacuated from Gallipoli in December 1915. Amidst severe winter weather the 1/11 FR received orders that they were to travel by ship to Egypt. They were sent first to the military base near Mudros on the Isle of Lemnos, 30 or so miles away. The depleted battalion, around 200 in number, spent over a week regrouping. Over 100 reinforcements from the 3/11 training battalion back in the UK joined them there as well as 27 ‘returned casualties’ from the nearby military hospital.
Follow the 1/11 FR campaigns in Egypt, Syria and Palestine as we blog their war diary.