The Artists Rifles was perhaps the most curious regiment in the British Army. It was formed in 1860 by a group of painters, architects, poets, sculptors, musicians and actors concerned about a possible French invasion. The Pre-Raphaelites were early members as were William Morris, Frederic Leighton and even the poet Algernon Swinburne.
Some were more effective as soldiers than others - Morris had trouble with drill; Rossetti questioned every order and Ford Madox Brown managed to shoot his own dog. However, Millais was a capable soldier and was elected one of the original officers. Leighton was also a natural leader and commanded the regiment for many years, Whistler describing him as “Colonel of the Royal Academy and the President of the Artists Rifles - aye, and he paints a little!”
The regiment was the natural choice for young men of an artistic persuasion in 1914 and artists like John and Paul Nash, the poets Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen and the playwright Noel Coward wore the uniform of the Artists Rifles. In view of the calibre of men serving in its ranks it became an officer-producing unit and turned out over 10,000 officers for service in other regiments during WWI. Men trained by the regiment won over 1,000 medals for gallantry.
The regiment was disbanded in 1945, but reformed in January 1947 as the 21st Special Air Service Regiment (Artists Rifles).