The 1st Regiment Greek Light Infantry (1810–12) was a light infantry regiment, founded as a local establishment in British service consisting mostly of Greek and Albanian enlisted men and Greek and British officers that served during the Napoleonic Wars. Later it became a regular British Army regiment as the 1st Greek Light Infantry ("The Duke of York's") (1812–16). It had no official association with the modern state of Greece or the Filiki Eteria or any Greek War of Independence groups; however, several future leaders of the War of Independence fought in its ranks, as did a number of rank-and-file klephts and armatoloi.
The British Army during the Napoleonic Wars was small (~40,000 troops) at the outset compared to those of other European countries like France and Prussia. The country initiated conscription for the first time, imitating its French foe. The British Army also used foreign volunteers, such as French Royalists, Germans, Greeks and Corsicans to supplement its forces. In 1813 one fifth of the army, 52,000 men, were such volunteers. The British Army in 1813 contained over 250,000 men.
Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the majority of Greek-speaking areas at the time, participated in on-again, off-again alliances with France under Napoleon. Many Greeks fleeing Ottoman persecution or local disputes on the mainland ended up in the Ionian Islands, which were beyond the reach of Ottoman authorities. When Britain became the enemy of the Ottoman Empire, it provided, if not an actual chance to fight for national liberation, at least a possibility of harming a foreign power that was increasingly viewed as hostile to the Modern Greek Enlightenment and under stress due to the rise of nationalism in the empire.
When Britain took over the Ionian Islands, it initially relied on small numbers of British and British-foreign troops along with the local volunteer militias, the largest of which was on Zakynthos (Zante), numbering some 2,000 men, with another approximately 2,000 dispersed over the other islands. These were armed at their own expense, and unpaid. They were drawn from the population of the islands and from mainland Greece and Albania, from men with varying levels of experience. A decision was taken to form an elite, paid unit from among the experienced troops, and to give them additional training.
The regiment was raised in the Ionian Islands in March 1810 by then-Captain Richard Church who already had experience managing foreign troops from his previous appointment in the Royal Corsican Rangers. At the outset, its authorized strength was one battalion of 800 men, its actual strength was 548 officers and men when it took part in its first action, the successful capture of Lefkada (then called Santa Maura due to still-lingering Venetian influence) from the French, but suffered high casualties. Later, it was moved to Zante which served as its base and reached its full authorized strength. In 1811, Church was promoted Major, and Brigadier General Robert Oswald, late of the 35th Foot as colonel for the Greek Light Infantry Corps, which at that time consisted of only the nominal battalion-sized 1st Regiment. Recruitment began for the second regiment, in order to build up to the corps-level strength, after which Oswald was promoted brigadier for the corps.
The regiment was put on British establishment in 1812, becoming an official regiment of the British Army, and increased to an authorized strength of 1,129 men of all ranks. It was sent to suppress an insurrection in Montenegro in June of that year, but baulked at being sent to Sicily in 1813. On 22 May 1813 the unit was reviewed and found to be in a "very indifferent state, with no field officer present and company officers at a loss to discipline the men"; Church was badly wounded in the arm in the attack on Lefkada and did not return to the regiment after recuperating. Instead, he was promoted Lieutenant Colonel went on to become colonel commandant the 2nd Greek Light Infantry, and his second-in-command went with him. At least one replacement major was cashiered for an unspecified offence, and another transferred out. This led to the gazetting of Lt. Col. Henry Cuyler of the 85th Foot as colonel commandant of the regiment on February 2, 1813. A 250-man detachment took part in the British expeditions against Republic of Genoa and La Spezia in the spring of 1814. The regiment disbanded in 1816.
The day-to-day language of the regiment was Greek; however, in order to avoid confusion when the regiment or elements of the regiment were brigaded with other British units, English was used for all drill commands. This was generally the practice in all foreign units recruited by the British at the time. Elements of the regiment were often brigaded with other units, for instance, the assaults on Santa Maura, Genoa and La Spezzia also included elements of the Calabrian Free Corps.
The men of the regiment were reported as wearing "Albanian dress" in 1810; their orders stated "clothing and accoutrements were to be made in the Albanian fashion". Enlisted men wore red jackets with yellow cuffs, facings, and trim; for the officers, these were gold and white, over a white shirt, foustanella, breeches and stockings.
Headwear was usually a red cap (resembling a fez or small beret, like the fario of the Greek Evzones). In some contemporary prints, the officers and men are depicted wearing fillets (kefalodesmoi) instead of caps. Officers wore a crested red dragoon-style helmet, as depixted in the drawing of Richard Church and of later drawings of Greek War of Independence (after 1821) leader Theodoros Kolokotronis who continued to wear the helmet.
Footwear consisted of what are described as "tied sandals" and in illustrations resemble the moccasin-like tsarouhia of the Evzones, only they lack pompoms and have extra lacing to keep them secure. Officers are depicted as wearing taller, higher-heeled three-quarter shoes or short boots. The troops refused to carry British knapsacks, only haversacks.
The men were armed initially with kariofilia (Greek: καριοφίλια), klepht-style sawed-off muskets, but gradually came to prefer British-issue muskets and by 1813 this is what they carried. They wore sword bayonets on waist belts instead of shoulder or cross-belts (this was also common among British light infantry and rifle units) and also wore a yataghan-style short sabre or large knife (common among the Greek klephts and armatoloi, but also similar to the hanger issued to British infantry until about five decades before, and similar in purpose, if not form, to the fascine knife worn by some specialist units like light infantry and artillery as a back-up weapon). Officers carried longer sabre-style weapons, just as their light infantry counterparts in Western European armies did. The men were supposed to be issued pistols, but it was "thought prudent" not to issue them for unspecified reasons, although officers carried. At least one contemporary print by Charles Hamilton Smith shows enlisted men of the sister regiment wearing pistols, but another by Goddard depicts an officer of the 1st with a brace of pistols and enlisted men without.
Officers and men are depicted in some illustrations carrying Baker rifles, but there is no official record of these being issued in large numbers, although small numbers were sent to both Corsica and the Ionian Islands. The usual weapon is supposed to be the British 1790 India pattern musket.
Kolokotronis sported a brace of engraved pistols and an ornate cavalry-style cuirass, which are now on display at the National Historical Museum, Athens. Richard Church was depicted wearing a similar helmet-and-cuirass outfit plus metal greaves and knee protectors with gilt lion's heads along with a braided version of the uniform of the unit's sister regiment, in a painting now housed in the Royal Gallery. Both of these romanticized outfits imitating Ancient Greek styles were probably intended for ceremony and were not worn in their entirety in combat, although Kolokotronis did sometimes wear the helmet when he fought, even after the regiment disbanded. As officers, they both would have had the privilege of wearing pistols, and in Kolokotronis' career as a klepht, the carrying of more than one pistol would not have been uncommon, nor was it unknown among British officers.