The Big Question: What does the Territorial Army do, and how has its role changed?

Why are we asking this now?

Because in the year of its centenary, the Territorial Army, made up of people from all walks of life who give up weekends, holidays and even head off on six-month stints on active duty abroad, has been hit by tragedy this week. Three reservists, Corporal Sean Robert Reeve of the Royal Signals, Lance Corporal Richard Larkin and Paul Stout, were killed alongside Corporal Sarah Bryant of the Intelligence Corps when their armoured Land Rover was hit by a roadside bomb. The nature of their mission has shattered old impressions of exactly what TA regiments do. Far from guarding bases or making the grub, the three men from the 23rd SAS regiment were part of a secret counter-intelligence mission, monitoring Taliban activity.

The incident, which was the biggest loss of life for the TA since the Second World War, underlined the fact that TA soldiers are now a key plank of Britain's defence forces. The old tags of "Sunday soldiers" or "weekend warriors" seem well and truly out of date.

What kinds of people join the TA?

Just like those ever-present recruitment TV ads say, recruits are plumbers, builders, lawyers and even MPs – David Davis served his time in the TAs, and Winston Churchill was the commanding officer of a TA regiment, the Oxfordshire Hussars. Comedians have also mucked in. Billy Connolly took to the skies with the 15 Parachute Regiment, completing several jumps, though he never saw active service. But its most notable alumnus has to be one 2nd Lieutenant Elizabeth Windsor. The then Princess swapped her crown for a crankshaft during the Second World War as a mechanic with the Auxiliary Territorial Service.

There is a minimum period of service in the TA of three years. Recruits are free to leave after that if they want, though they can extend their service for several years at a time. Most will have to train for between 19 to 27 days each year, including a two-week annual camp, so TA soldiers have to sacrifice a good slice of their free time.

Numbers have fallen dramatically since 1997, with some blaming the lengthy tours of duty many are asked to perform on account of the UK's major overseas military commitments.

Can TA troops really be in the SAS?

It may come as a surprise to many that even the SAS, known to the world as the British armed force's crack team of elite soldiers, has a TA regiment attached to it. In fact, it has two – the Artists Rifles and the 23rd SAS regiment, in which the soldiers involved in the latest incident served. TA soldiers serving in the regiments are very highly regarded, with some placing their skills higher than many regular soldiers. The selection process is tough, and not far off that subjected on full-time SAS hopefuls. Men aged between 18 and 30 are free to apply (the age limit is extended for those with military experience). Then a series of mental and physical tests are used to highlight the cream of the crop. Training takes place just like other TA soldiers, over a series of weekends and camps.

What kind of tasks are they given?

It can be hard to tell at any one time, because their missions are carried out in secret. Information on their whereabouts emerges only sporadically. The SAS reservists killed this week were part of an operation run by the Afghan National Police near Lashkar Gar, in Helmand Province. The mission involved listening in on Taliban communications. The work demonstrated the key role reservists have come to play in Afghanistan and Iraq, where SAS reservists have also been deployed.

The SAS reserve regiments are far from the only TA units put in harm's way, though. Others have demonstrated bravery as great as any full-time soldier. Earlier this month, Luke Cole, attached to the 2nd Battalion Mercian Regiment, was handed the Military Cross for the courage he demonstrated in Afghanistan while on tour last year. And around 1,200 TA troops still support regular troops each year in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans. Numbers reached a peak at the height of the Iraq invasion, in March 2003, when 46,000 British troops were involved.

Has the TA changed much over the years?

Certainly from the loose coalition of mounted yeomanry units made up of farmers and tenants that made up volunteer armies before the TA was founded on 1 April, 1908. But ever since the First World War, when the TA was first mobilised, serving TA soldiers have quickly become almost indistinguishable from their full-time comrades. But while the commitment of its troops may have stayed the same, the TA's size has fluctuated. After doubling in size during the Second World War, its membership and resources dwindled thereafter. By the early 1990s, its reputation had similarly shrunk, seen as good for little more than guarding the home front.

How about now?

Operations in Afghanistan and Iraq stretched the British armed forces to their very limits. Suddenly the TA found itself catapulted into a far more important role. It switched from becoming an under-used reserve force to in-demand battalions seeing active service.

Nearly 7,000 TA soldiers found themselves on their away to Iraq in 2003 as part of Operation Telic, the name given to British participation in the country. With the increased activity came a change in rhetoric from Whitehall. Another restructuring of the Army in 2004 saw the government change the TA's status to reserves of the regular regiments – an acknowledgement that its recruits were now being asked to do much more. The 15 TA infantry battalions were squashed down into 14, though numbers remained the same.

Are they derided by full-time troops now?

Not for long, according to Kevin Mervin, a former TA soldier who served as a recovery mechanic during the Iraq invasion. He says that any mutual suspicions soon wear off. "There is a bit of animosity at first, but once you prove that you can do the job, you soon become one of the regiment," he said. "To all intents and purposes, you're then a regular soldier. Your training is the same – you are part of that unit. And because you have life experience, some of the younger guys also look up to you for guidance. And you don't join any of the armed services without wanting to one day prove you can carry out your training for real." His case also shows the commitment of TA soldiers – he lost a new job due to his tour of duty in Iraq.

He's not the only one to have won over the regulars. As he lay dying on the muddy fields of the Somme in 1916, Brigadier-General Charles Prowse declared himself a convert. "I did not think much of Territorials before," he said. "But by God they can fight."

Should TA troops be regarded as more than part-time soldiers?

Yes...

* No one joins any branch of the armed services without wanting to put their training into action

* The commitment and skill of TA recruits is shown by the numerous medals and praise showered upon them by senior army figures

* Once a TA soldier is attached to a regiment, they are expected to behave as a full-time soldier

No...

* They may train hard, but their weekend and occasional camp training cannot match that of a full-time soldier

* Numbers in the TA have fallen, perhaps put off by the increased likelihood of seeing action

* As soon as Britain's full-time armed forces are less stretched, the TA will be regarded as less important again.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager - Part Time

£16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital agency based in Ashford, Ke...

Recruitment Genius: Sales and Marketing Executive

£19000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent