Regiment with origins in Horsham had key role at royal funeral

More than 13 million people tuned in to watch Prince Philip’s funeral but as they witnessed the Armed Forces play a key role during the ceremonial section, how many in Sussex realised there was a link to Horsham?

One aspect in particular stood out for Horsham Museum & Art Gallery curator Jeremy Knight – The Rifles, which had Prince Philip as the Colonel in Chief, a post now held by the Duchess of Cornwall.

Mr Knight said The Rifles were ‘notable for the plainness of their garb and the rapid marching’ and went on to explain that this regiment has origins in Horsham.

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He explained: “The world’s first Rifle regiment was formed in Horsham towards the end of the French Revolutionary Wars, after the 1802 peace treaty failed and it morphed into the Napoleonic wars. Its birth pangs were tricky but once formed, it had an illustrious record.

The Rifles regiment, which was prominent at the funeral of Prince Philip, has origins in Horsham. Picture: Horsham Museum

“In December 1799, the Duke of York announced that a camp for training elements of the regular army was required, including ‘a Corps of Riflemen by detachments to be returned’ to their battalions ‘when properly instructed and the exercising of the five Regiments together as a Light Corps’.

“There then followed a debate among the military strategists as to how the specialist marksman, a soldier who had shown his worth in America and agreed as a necessity, should operate within the structure of the Army.

“Should they follow the Austrian model and have them mixed in with the battalion, or follow the Prussian model and have them as a separate, single, specialist corps which would support the light infantry? In the end, the Duke decided on training just a small body of men from every battalion to act as sharpshooters.

“On January 17, 1800, he ordered that 14 regiments were to detach 30 privates, two corporals, two sergeants, one ensign, one lieutenant and one captain ‘to form a corps of detachments from the different regiments of the line for the purpose of being instructed in the use of the rifle and the system of exercise adopted by soldiers so armed’.

Horsham Barrack Plan. Picture: Horsham Museum / Horsham District Council

“It was made clear that, once trained, the soldiers would return to the regiments and another 14 regiments would send troops. The Duke also instructed that only ‘such men as appear most capable of receiving the above instructions and most competent to the performance of the duty of Rifleman’ should be sent; some regimental commanders saw it as an opportunity to send some of the worst men.

“The next question was, where would they be sent for training? It was decided that Horsham offered the best facilities, perhaps because of the large training field that would later acquire the name ‘barrack field’ – not where the barracks were built but where men from the barracks trained. This is now where Horsham Cricket Club is located.

“In early February, eight of the detachments had arrived at Horsham – the Duke, as Commander in Chief, forced the other six detachments to be sent, only to notify five of the colonels that all 34 of the men they sent were ‘unfit for service’ and so to send ‘good and serviceable men’, while some individuals from the remaining regiments had to be sent back.

“By late March, 33 officers and 510 men had been selected, and on April 1, 1800, the first parade of the Experimental Corps of Riflemen took place in Horsham. A month later, they were marched to Swinley near Windsor Forest for intensive training.”

Horsham’s role in the formation of one of the great regiments of the Napoleonic war, one that became known as The 95th (Rifle) Regiment of Foot in 1803, appeared to have slipped from the town’s memory, until 2000, when a memorial plaque was unveiled in Horsham Parish Church.