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 The old tags of "Sunday soldiers" or "weekend warriors" seem well and truly out of date.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?


* 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


* 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.

people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballStriker in talks over £17m move from Manchester United
Radamel Falcao
footballManchester United agree loan deal for Monaco striker Falcao
Louis van Gaal, Radamel Falcao, Arturo Vidal, Mats Hummels and Javier Hernandez
footballFalcao, Hernandez, Welbeck and every deal live as it happens
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
Life and Style

Apple agrees deal with Visa on contactless payments

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Technical Software Consultant (Excel, VBA, SQL, JAVA, Oracle)

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: You will not be expected to hav...

Day In a Page

Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor