There have been armed forces for as long as there have been states: every community had to be able to protect its people and its property from enemies. During the 4th century bc it was the duty of every citizen of ancient Athens to bear arms in defence of the city. The wealthy were foot soldiers or hoplites, fighting in formation with shields and spears. Poorer people were oarsmen on the galleys of the Athenian navy. The link between military service and citizenship became still stronger in the Roman Empire.
The kings who ruled the countries of Medieval Europe had enormous powers and privileges, but they had to perform important duties in return. Most important was defending the kingdom against attack, as well as making military ventures abroad. The lords or barons who owned and ran the country at a local level had to help their kings in all their military activities. They had to stay in training and serve as mounted knights in armour during times of war. They also had to keep forces of men-at-arms who could be ready to fight at a moment’s notice.
Firearms changed the face of warfare, but only slowly. The first firearms were introduced in the 14th century and another few hundred years passed before large armies of trained riflemen fought on battlefields. Most European countries introduced conscription, a system that forced men to train as soldiers. The French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte could summon as many as 200,000 soldiers at a time. He could also move them quickly to wherever they were needed, thanks to good organization.
THE ROYAL NAVY
Modern naval warfare began around the 16th century. The defeat of the ships of the Spanish Armada by the English navy in 1588 was partly thanks to some lucky winds, which helped to scatter the attackers, but also due to the skill and courage of England’s sailors. The Royal Navy grew as Britain’s overseas trading activities grew, and as it was needed to protect the expanding British Empire. The rise of Napoleon in France was a threat to British interests—and to Britain itself. On land the army under the Duke of Wellington safeguarded Britain’s security, but the first line of defence was the Royal Navy under the famous commander Horatio Nelson.
During the 18th century, the British Empire grew. The United States won independence in 1783, but Britain’s forces went on to carve out a considerable empire in Africa and India. The army had to conquer these territories for Britain, and then to hold on to them and keep the peace.
THE WORLD WARS
Britain itself was not seriously threatened until World War I, when it fought against Germany and its allies. The war lasted four years, from 1914 to 1918. British forces fought in the Balkans (south-eastern Europe) and the Middle East, but the greatest battles were fought on the Western Front in Belgium and eastern France. The army became bogged down in a stalemate, with soldiers dug into hundreds of miles of trenches, as each side wore the other down in a series of pitched battles. During World War II (1939–1945) Britain’s armed forces played a major part in the defeat of Nazi Germany.
WAR IN THE AIR
In the history of the armed forces the World Wars stand out as the moments in which aerial warfare was born. A small Royal Flying Corps (RFC) helped on the Western Front, largely with duties involved with surveying the battlefields. In 1918 the Royal Air Force (RAF) won independence from the army. By the time of World War II, aircraft were much more important. Fighters took part in dogfights over the battlefield, and large, specially designed bomber planes were used by Britain and the continent of Europe to carry out air raids on enemy cities. The fighters of the RAF are considered to have saved the nation in the Battle of Britain of 1940, driving off the German airforce that had been preparing the way for a German invasion.
Britain’s armed forces today are no longer made up of conscripted soldiers but of volunteer professionals, and their roles have changed considerably. The army has adapted to some very different roles. Through the 1970s and 1980s, troops patrolled the streets of Northern Ireland, to contain terrorist threats. The army was involved in the Korean War (1950–1953), and in Iraq (in 1991 and 2003). An expeditionary force was sent to the South Atlantic in 1982 after Argentina took the British territory known as the Falkland Islands (called Islas Malvinas by the Argentines).
British forces have also helped to keep the peace among the peoples of former Yugoslavia. Airmen of the RAF have helped carry food to those hit by famine in Ethiopia and the Royal Navy has evacuated people from disaster areas. Today a soldier, sailor or airman is as likely to be engaged in humanitarian relief as in war. This work helps to promote peace, to everyone’s advantage in the longer term.