Artists Rifles

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The Artists Rifles
Artists Rifles Badge.jpg
Cap badge of The Artists Rifles
Country United Kingdom
BranchArmy Reserve
Officer Training (prior to 1947)
Special forces (current)
RoleSpecial operations
Part ofUnited Kingdom Special Forces
Garrison/HQRegent's Park Barracks, London, United Kingdom
Decorations8 VCs, 56 DSOs, 893 MCs, 26 DFCs, 15 AFCs, 6 DCMs, 15 MMs, 14 MSMs, 564 MIDs (First World War)
Henry Wyndham Phillips and Frederic Leighton
Memorial to the 2003 men lost in the Artists Rifles, Royal Academy, London

The Artists Rifles[nb 1] is a regiment of the British Army Reserve. Raised in London in 1859 as a volunteer light infantry unit, the regiment saw active service during the Second Boer War and the First World War, earning a number of battle honours. It did not serve outside Britain during the Second World War, as it was used as an officer training unit at that time. The regiment was disbanded in 1945, but in 1947 it was re-established to resurrect the Special Air Service Regiment.[2] Today, the full title of the regiment is 21 Special Air Service Regiment (Artists) (Reserve) (21 SAS(R)) and with 23 Special Air Service Regiment (Reserve) (23 SAS(R)), it forms the Special Air Service (Reserve) (SAS(R)) part of the United Kingdom Special Forces (UKSF).[3]


Formation and 19th century[edit]

The Place, Duke's Road, Camden, built 1888 as the headquarters of the 20th Middlesex (Artists') Rifle Volunteer Corps

The regiment was established in 1859, part of the widespread volunteer movement which developed in the face of potential French invasion after Felice Orsini's attack on Napoleon III was linked to Britain.[4] The group was organised in London by Edward Sterling, an art student, and comprised various professional painters, musicians, actors, architects and others involved in creative endeavours; a profile it strove to maintain for some years. It was established on 28 February 1860 as the 38th Middlesex (Artists') Rifle Volunteer Corps, with headquarters at Burlington House.[1] Its first commanders were the painters Henry Wyndham Phillips and Frederic Leighton. The unit's badge, designed by J. W. Wyon, shows the heads of the Roman gods Mars and Minerva in profile.[5] Until 1914 the regimental full dress uniform was light grey with white facings, silver buttons and braid. This distinctive uniform dated from the regiment's foundation as a volunteer unit. After World War I standard khaki was the normal dress.[6]

In September 1880, the corps became the 20th Middlesex (Artists') Rifle Volunteer Corps, with headquarters at Duke's Road, off Euston Road, London (now The Place, home of the Contemporary Dance Trust). The drill hall was designed by Robert William Edis, the commanding officer.[7] It was officially opened by the Prince of Wales.[7]

It formed the 7th Volunteer Battalion of the Rifle Brigade from 1881 until 1891 and the 6th Volunteer Battalion from 1892 to 1908. During this period, The Artists Rifles fought in the Second Boer War as part of the City Imperial Volunteers.[8]

After the 1860s the voluntary recruitment basis of the regiment gradually broadened to include professions other than artistic ones. By 1893 lawyers and architects made up 24% of the unit, doctors followed with 10% and civil engineers 6%. Sculptors and painters totaled about 5%.[9]

Over The Top, 1918, oil on canvas, by John Nash. The 30 December 1917 Welsh Ridge counter-attack, during which the 1st Battalion, The Artists' Rifles left their trenches and pushed towards Marcoing near Cambrai. Of the 80 men, 68 were killed or wounded during the first few minutes.

20th century[edit]

Following the formation of the Territorial Force, the Artists Rifles was one of 26 volunteer battalions in the London and Middlesex areas that combined to form the new London Regiment.[nb 2] It became the 28th (County of London) Battalion of The London Regiment on 1 April 1908.[11]

Terracotta doorway at the former Artists' Rifles HQ

The Artists Rifles was a popular unit for volunteers. It had been increased to twelve companies in 1900 and was formed into three sub-battalions in 1914, and recruitment was eventually restricted by recommendation from existing members of the battalion. It particularly attracted recruits from public schools and universities; on this basis, following the outbreak of the First World War, a number of enlisted members of The Artists Rifles were selected to be officers in other units of the 7th Division.[1] This exercise was so successful that, early in 1915, selected Artists officers and NCOs were transferred to run a separate Officers Training Corps, in which poet Wilfred Owen trained before posting to the Manchester Regiment;[12] the remainder being retained as a fighting unit. Over fifteen thousand men passed through the battalion during the war, more than ten thousand of them becoming officers.[13] The battalion eventually saw battle in France in 1917 and 1918. Casualties suffered by both members of this battalion and amongst officers who had trained with The Artists Rifles before being posted to other regiments were 2,003 killed, 3,250 wounded, 533 missing and 286 prisoners of war.[1] Ex-Members of the Regiment won eight Victoria Crosses (though none did so while serving with the Regiment), fifty-six DSOs and over a thousand other awards for gallantry.[13]

In the early 1920s, the unit was reconstituted as an infantry regiment within the Territorial Army, as the 28th County of London Regiment. In 1937, this regiment became part of The Prince Consort's Own Rifle Brigade.[14]

The regiment was not deployed during the Second World War, functioning again as an Officers Training Corps throughout the war.[1]

History as 21 Special Air Service Regiment (Artists) (Reserve)[edit]

A 21 SAS soldier after a night parachute drop exercise in Denmark, 1955

It was disbanded in 1945, but reformed in The Rifle Brigade in January 1947 and transferred to The Army Air Corps in July as the 21st Special Air Service Regiment (Artists Rifles).[2] The number 21 SAS was chosen to perpetuate two disbanded wartime regiments, 2 SAS and 1 SAS. The unit was active during the Malayan Emergency and in many subsequent conflicts. In 1952, members of The Artists Rifles who had been involved in special operations in Malaya formed 22 SAS Regiment, the regular special forces regiment – at the time, the only time a Territorial Army unit had been used to form a unit in the Regular Army.[15]

For much of the Cold War, 21 SAS's role was to provide stay-behind parties in the event of a Warsaw Pact invasion of western Europe, forming (alongside 23 SAS) I Corps' Corps Patrol Unit.[16]

By January 1991, 15 volunteers from 21 and 23 SAS joined more than 300 regular SAS soldiers participating in the Gulf War.[17]

In mid-October 2001, members of 21 SAS and 23 SAS deployed to Afghanistan as reinforcements of two squadrons of 22 SAS, for Operation Determine, during the 2001 coalition invasion of Afghanistan to topple the Taliban regime and destroy and dismantle al-Qaeda in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.[18][19]

Following the invasion, members of both territorial SAS regiments remained in the country to provide close protection to SIS members;[20] during Operation Herrick, members of 21 and 23 SAS were involved in the training of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police until 2010.[19] In 2008, members of 21 SAS were sent to Marjah to assist the Afghan police, arriving just in time to see the police flee due to Taliban infiltration of the area. In October 2008, a small team from 21 SAS mentored the Afghan Police in Nad-e Ali.[21]

During the Cold War, the Reserve SAS Regiments had a clearly defined and understood role but since then, the requirement for them appears to be less clear and more difficult to articulate. A number of reviews have been conducted over the years and included the prospect of a merger or disbandment, which was considered to be presentationally unpalatable.[22] A review was conducted of the unit's operational capability and role in 2009/10; it was found that the SAS Reserve lacked a clearly defined role, and also stated that the reservists lacked the capability, equipment, and skills to serve alongside the regular special forces.[23]

On 1 September 2014, 21 SAS was placed alongside 23 SAS under the command of the newly formed 1st Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance Brigade (1 ISR Bde) as part of the Army 2020 restructuring of the British Army.[24][25][26] The role of 21 SAS as part of 1 ISR Bde was to conduct Human, Environment, Reconnaissance and Analysis (HERA) patrols.[24][27]

In approximately 2019, the British Army published the latest structure of Force Troops Command with both 21 SAS and 23 SAS removed from the command of 1 ISR Bde.[28]


21 Special Air Service Regiment (Artists) (Reserve) currently consists of:[24]

Battle honours[edit]

  • Boer War: South Africa 1900–01.
  • The Great War (3 battalions): Ypres 1917, Passchendaele, Somme 1918, St. Quentin, Bapaume 1918, Arras 1918, Ancre 1918, Albert 1918, Drocourt-Quéant, Hindenburg Line, Canal du Nord, Cambrai 1918, Pursuit to Mons, France and Flanders 1914–18.[1]

War memorial[edit]

The unit's war memorial in the entrance portico of the Royal Academy at Burlington House commemorates the 2,003 men who gave their lives in the Great War, with a second plaque dedicated to those who died in World War II.[29]

Victoria Cross[edit]

Although no-one has won the VC while serving with the Artists Rifles, the following have been awarded the Victoria Cross before or after serving in the regiment:

See also[edit]

See also Category:Artists' Rifles officers and Category:Artists' Rifles soldiers


  1. ^ Originally the regiment was designated as The Artists' Rifles until the apostrophe was officially dropped from the full title in 1937, as it was so often misused.[1]
  2. ^ The Honourable Artillery Company and The Inns of Court Regiment were intended to become the 26th and 27th Battalions of the London Regiment. They were not satisfied with their high numbers so ignored them.[10]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Regiment, Artists Rifles Association
  2. ^ a b Gregory 2006, p. 297.
  3. ^ "21 & 23 Special Air Service (SAS)". British Army. Retrieved 26 August 2020.
  4. ^ Gregory 2006, p. xvi.
  5. ^ Mars-Minerva (JPEG), Artists Rifles Association
  6. ^ "Artists Rifles Association". Retrieved 30 December 2014.
  7. ^ a b Historic England. "The Place and attached railings, Camden (1342089)". National Heritage List for England.
  8. ^ Gregory 2006, p. 80.
  9. ^ "Artists Rifles Association". Retrieved 20 April 2012.
  10. ^ Westlake 1986, p. 233.
  11. ^ Gregory 2006, p. 96.
  12. ^ "No. 29617". The London Gazette (Supplement). 6 June 1916. p. 5726.
  13. ^ a b Higham 2006, p. xviii.
  14. ^ Gregory 2006, p. 253.
  15. ^ Shortt 1994, pp. 16–17.
  16. ^ Asher, Michael (2008). The Regiment: The True Story of the SAS. London: Penguin UK. ISBN 0141026529.
  17. ^ Lewis, Jon E. (2002). The Mammoth Book of Secrets of the SAS & Elite Forces (Mammoth Books). Robinson. ISBN 978-1841195858.
  18. ^ Neville, Leigh, Special Forces in the War on Terror (General Military), Osprey Publishing, 2015 ISBN 978-1472807908
  19. ^ a b Neville, Leigh, The SAS 1983-2014 (Elite), Osprey Publishing, 2016, ISBN 1472814037 ISBN 978-1472814036
  20. ^ Neville, Leigh, Special Forces in the War on Terror (General Military), Osprey Publishing, 2015 ISBN 978-1-4728-0790-8,p.75
  21. ^ Farrell, Theo, Unwinnable: Britain’s War in Afghanistan, 2001–2014, Bodley Head, 2017 ISBN 1847923461, 978-1847923462, P.246-247
  22. ^ Extracts of Service Inquiry into the deaths of 3 soldiers in the Brecon Beacons Wales, in July 2013, Para 167
  23. ^ Rayment, Sean (11 April 2010). "SAS reservists withdrawn from Afghan front line". The Telegraph. Retrieved 15 January 2018.
  24. ^ a b c "The Artists Rifles - From Pre-Raphaelites to Passchendaele" (PDF). ARQ Army Reserve Quarterly. Andover: Army Media & Communication. Autumn 2014. p. 21. Archived from the original (PDF) on 14 February 2015.
  25. ^ Janes International Defence Review, May 2014, page 4
  26. ^ Rayment, Sean (3 March 2013). "Revealed: nearly half of Special Forces could go in deepest cuts in 50 years". The Telegraph. Retrieved 27 August 2020.
  27. ^ "Force Troops Command - Overview and Brigades" (PDF). British Army. 2014. pp. 11, 32. Retrieved 26 August 2020 – via The Future of the British Armed Forces.
  28. ^ "Force Troops Command Handbook". British Army. Retrieved 26 August 2020.
  29. ^ "Artists Rifles War Memorial". London remembers. Retrieved 28 May 2017.


  • Ballinger, Adam (1992). The Quiet Soldier. Chapmans. ISBN 978-1-85592-606-6.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Gregory, Barry (2006). A History of The Artists Rifles 1859–1947. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books. ISBN 978-1-84415-503-3.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Hacking, Juliet (2000). Princes of Victorian Bohemia. National Portrait Gallery.
  • Higham, S Stagoll (2006) [1922, Howlett & Son]. Artists Rifles: Regimental Roll of Honour and War Record 1914–1919 (3rd ed.). London: Naval & Military Press. ISBN 978-1-84734-129-7.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Shortt, James G. (1994). The Special Air Service. Men-at-Arms-Series, 116. London: Osprey. ISBN 9780850453966.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Westlake, Ray (1986). The Territorial Battalions: A Pictorial History, 1859–1985. Tunbridge Wells: Spellmount.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Winter, JM (1977). Britain's 'Lost Generation' of the First World War. Population Studies. 31. p. 459.

External links[edit]