~ Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket
~ Beyond The Books
EPIC LAND BATTLES
"Warfare has been endemic
in human history. Any understanding of how and why wars are fought is essential
to an understanding of history and human nature itself."
- from the introduction by S.L. Mayer
In August 216 BC a
Carthaginian force under Hannibal defeated a Roman army well over twice
its own size in what was to become known as the classic battle of envelopment.
Hannibal drew up his army into a crescent, with Gauls and Spaniards in
the center and the African veterans on both flanks 'refused'. His cavalry
was stationed on the wings, and opened the battle by driving the Roman
horse from the field. The Romans, ineptly led by the consul Terrentius
Verro, attacked the Carthaginian center, which fell back steadily, permitting
Hannibal's African troops to outflank them. Hannibal's victorious cavalry
returned to complete the encirclement; he Roman army was 'swallowed up
as if by an earthquake', and according to one estimate, lost 70000 of their
The dream of Cannae has exercised an irresistible attraction on military minds for centuries. Count Alfred von Schlieffen, author of the celebrated 'Schlieffen Plan', sought to achieve a strategic Cannae by encircling the French armies in a battle of annihilation. The plan failed to achieve the results for which the author hoped.
A successful double envelopment depends as much on the inflexibility of its intended victims as it does upon the skill of its executors. The Russian winter offensive of 1942 brought about the encirclement and destruction of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad. Similarly, the envelopment of the French at Sedan in 1870 was due largely to the cumbersome nature of the Army of Chalons and to the slowness with which it marched.
- Cannae: Double Envelopment
There can have been
few more impressive sights in the whole of military history than when the
15,000 men of Pickett, Pettigrew and Trimble marched down the slope of
Seminary Ridge and into the valley beyond. They were in excellent order,
with officers dressing the ranks as if on parade, colors fluttering overhead,
and the July sun glinting off fixed bayonets. The Union artillery opened
up in earnest as the infantry reached the valley... the Union infantry
joined in at a range of about 200 yards. The effect on the advancing infantry
was terrible. The Confederate ranks writhed like some hideous monster in
agony, but continued to advance.
- Gettysburg: Greatest battle ever fought on the American continent
Few battles in history
can equal Koniggratz as an instance of the way in which a day of fighting
could transform the whole political complexion of Europe. Even as the dark-coated
columns of Prince Frederick Charles' army bore down on the villages along
the Bistritz River in the early hours of 3 July, 1866, and the Austrian
batteries on the hills above Sadowa roared into life, Prussia was reckoned
the weakest of the Great Powers. Ten hours later she was indisputably in
the first rank. The near-universal expectation of Austrian victory had
been confounded, and the balance of power had been unhinged. Koniggratz
was probably the most decisive clash of arms in modern times.
To understand the full significance of this event it is important to realize that since medieval times Germany had been divided into a mass of small principalities. It was a political vacuum, an arena for constant attempts by France to extend her power and influence against that of Habsburg monarchs of Austria. Only in the mid-18th century, with the accession of Frederick the Great to the throne of Prussia, did a third contender arise in the arena.
The military victory of Koniggratz encompassed a political revolution in Europe. Austria agreed to the dissolution of the German Confederation and the establishment of a new organization of Germany without the participation of the Austrian Imperial State. The dualism of Prussia and Austria in Germany was at an end; a new North German Confederation was set up in which Saxony was placed under Prussian tutelage, and Schleswig-Holstein, Hanover and Hesse were annexed to Prussia. The main hurdle in the way of German unification has been cleared, and the balance of power in Europe yawned alarmingly - most alarmingly from the point of view of the French, to whom the threat to the future was obvious. Four years later, Bismarck was to use war against France as the occasion for drawing the remaining southern states of Germany into a new German Empire, a 'Second Reich', evoking echoes of the Middle Ages.
Equally significantly, Prussia's internal balance had shifted. Bismarck's policies were successful, and he reaped the rewards of success. The majority of liberals, amidst the excess of nationalist emotion, endorsed the illegal regime of 1962-66 and consented to the establishment of a constitution for the North German Confederation which was decidedly authoritarian in character. At the same time the army, most of whose chiefs resented the fact that there was a constitution at all, drew from its triumph an intense pride, mystique and arrogance which increasingly made it seem like a 'state within a state' with ambitions to control the development of national policy. Germany emerged on the European stage as a thoroughly disquieting political and military phenomenon... the new and aggressive German Empire, born as it was of military conquest, cast an alarming shadow over the future of Europe.
- Koniggratz: Most decisive clash of arms in modern times
The tactics which won
the 1940 campaign were revolutionary only in their technical ingredients,
armor and air power. The concept of smashing the enemy's front is as old
as warfare itself; indeed, the prime tactic of the armored horseman of
medieval times was the charge en masse, usually directed at a weak point
in the enemy's battleline. Such a charge usually proved succesful if the
cavalry came to handstrokes with the opposing infantry, but the supremacy
of the armored horseman was eroded by English longbowmen, Turkish horse-archers,
Swiss pikemen and ultimately by the rise of firearms. Many of the battle
fought in the 17th and 18th centuries developed into mere slogging-matches
in which lines of infantry exchanged murderous volleys while cavalry sought
to find an opening for decisive action. It was Napoleon who reintroduced
conclusive means of breaking his enemy's front. He did so by concentrating
his artillery against a selected point and smashing a breaching through
which his 'masse de decision' would surge.
- Sedan: Breakthrough
I have never really got on with Bertolt Brecht, but cannot deny that he had a point in asking, however rhetorically, whether Caesar crossed the Rubicon all by himself. Of course he did not, any more than Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown on his own, Wellington won Waterloo single-handed, or Cardigan hacked down the Valley of Death at Balaclava with only his bright bay charger Ronald for company. This is not a book about great, or even not-so-great, generals, though both feature in it from time to time. And it is not about battles either, even if we are rarely far away from them. Instead, its concern is for the raw material of generalship and the pawns of battle, the regimental officers and soldiers that served in the British army in a century when it painted the world red.
Hollywood is entertainment rather than history, though its tendency to use the past as a vehicle for story telling blurs fact and fiction so that the latter assumes, however unintentionally. the authority of the former. The redcoat has recently featured on the screen in a role depressingly reminiscent of that assigned to the Germany army after WW2. Brutal or lumpish soldiers are led by nincompoops or sadists with the occasional decent fellow who eventually allows a mistaken sense of duty to win the battle with the conscience. Watch "Rob Roy", "Last of the Mohicans" or "The Patriot" and you will wonder how this army of thugs and incompetents managed to fight its way across four continents and secure the greatest empire the world has ever seen.
That it was an army born of paradox, forged in adversity, often betrayed by the government it obeyed and usually poorly understood by the nation it served, is beyond question. It drank far too much and looted a little too often, and its disciplinary code threw a long and ugly shadow onto the early 20th century. It sometimes lost battles: we shall see it ground arms in surrender at Saratoga in 1777 and Yorktown in 1781, wilt under Afghan knives on the rocky road from Kabul in 1842, and quail under Russian fire before Sevastopol's Great Redan in 1855. Yet it very rarely lost a war. In victory or defeat it had a certain something that flickers across two centuries like an electric current. Little of that was generated by a military organisation which was a characteristically British mixture of tradition wrapped in compromise, and fuelled by the quest for place, perquisites or statues. And, important though high command was, this was an army that fought as hard when mishandled by Beresford at Albuera in 1811 as it did when commanded with genius by Wellington at Salamanca the following year... If I deplore its many faults, I love it for its sheer, dogged, awkward, bloody-minded endurance.
The regiment, usually commanded in the field by a lieutenant colonel, was the basic building block in the infantry and cavalry. As time went on infantry regiments tended to have more than one battalion, and in the British army these battalions, lieutenant colonels' commands, usually fought independently from the other battalions of their regiment. In these pages I follow the convention of showing 1st Battalion 33rd Regiment as 1/33rd.
#1 THE AGE OF BROWN BESS
This book is about the redcoated soldier of the British regular army. My period opens with the start of the Seven Years' War in 1756 and ends with the Indian Mutiny just over a century later. During it the British infantry-man wore a red coat in battle and carried the muzzle-loading flintlock musket known as Brown Bess. The first Brown Besses appeared in the late 1730s, and the last were carried — though they were by then long obsolete — by some combatants in the Crimean War of 1854-56 and even the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58.
During the Age of Brown Bess the British Army took part in five major wars: the Seven Years' War (1756-63), the American War of Independence (1776-83), the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802), the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) and the Crimean War (1854-56).
Brown Bess had held sway for more than a century, but within a decade of the Indian Mutiny she was as obsolete as the longbow, superseded first by percussion weapons and finally by breech-loading rifles in a process of acceleratinf technical innovation.
Brown Bess painted the face of battle. It was inherently inaccurate and its range was very short, inspiring tactics based on blocks of infantry which fired away at each other at close range in a contest where the rapidity of fire and the steadfastness of the firers were of prime importance.
If repetitious drill and rigid discipline were important in bringing the soldier into battle, they were crucial once fighting commenced. Bad weapon-handling caused accicents. When front rank men knelt to fire and then sprang up to load they were often shot by careless rear-rank men: the Napoleonic Marshal Gouvion St-Cyr reckoned that one-quarter of French infantry casualties in his career were caused this way.
What was new about
the American Revolution was its recognition that soldiers were emphatically
citizens in uniform. The concept of soldier-citizen wad to be stamped on
the French army during their revolution and indeed, long beyond it. The
French National Convention, facing converging attack by the armies of monarchial
Europe, passed the decree of levee en masse on 23 August 1793, announcing
"Young men will go to battle; married men will forge arms and transport supplies; women will make tents, uniforms and serve in the hospitals; choldren will pick rags; old men will themselves carried to the public squares, to help inspire the courage of the warriors, and preach the hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic."
The second major influence on the armies of the period was initially tactical, although as it questioned many of the assumptions dear to apostles of brick-dust and pipe-clay, it became philosophical, political and organisational too. There were times, especially in forests, woods or on broken ground, when serried ranks and measured volleys were simply inappropriate. European armies discovered the need for light troops in Eastern Europe and the Balkans and providentially, discovered some of the men to meet the need in exactly the same place. Having discovered them, they then proceeded to dress them and drill them until they lost some of those qualities that had made them such admirable light troops in the first place. The British army first discovered the need for light troops in the forests of North America... there was a palpable tension between the light infantry ethos, with its emphasis on practical uniform, individual skills and relaxed discipline, and the oldier notion of unthinking obedience.
Britain's military policy was determined as much by the physical location of the British Isles as by the wishes of their rulers. Britain, with no land frontier with a potentially hostile foreign power, was able to devote the lion's share of her defence expenditure to the fleet. There was no need to sustain a large army in time of peace. The great truth is that 'all British armies have relied on sea power, even when deployed on the European continent in the main theatre of war'. This is a major reason for the British ambivalence about soldier so well summed up by Rudyard Kipling in "Tommy". It was often difficult to persuade the electorate that there was any real need for them. Sailors were another matter, for trade depended on secure sea-lanes, and sailors were, for so much of the time, out of sight and out of mind. Not so soldiers, who were an ever-present feature of Georgian and Victorian society. There were times when a sense of real and present danger swung the opinion of the public squarely behiond its army.
There was widespead agreement that France was Britain's natural adversary... the courteous Lord Raglan, commander-in-chief in the Crimea, tended to refer to his Russian enemy as "the French" because for the whole of his previous active service the French were the enemy.
The redcoated heart
of the army was British. At the time of the American War of Independence,
60% of its rank and file were English, 24% Scottish and 16% Irish. The
worsening economic situation in Ireland increased the proportion of Irish
recruits towards the end of our period: in 1830 42% of the army was Irish
and 14% Scots. This meant that not only were the 15 infantry regiments
which actually bore Irish affiliations composed largely of Irishmen, but
several 'English' regiments also had many Irish in their ranks.
Ambivalence surrounded the Irish. They were accused by Englishmen of being dirty and verminous. But the battlefield performance of Irish soldiers, whether serving in Irish regiments or in nominally English units, mocked the cliche.
#2 ALL THE KING's HORSES AND ALL THE KING's MEN
If the army had a heart, then this organ beat away, very steadily ndeed, in Horse Guards in Whitehall, and the expression Horse Guards become synonymous for the army's high command.
#3 BROTHERS OF THE BLADE
All regular recruits were, at least in theory, volunteers, although many were offered the choice of serving the monarch in a military rather than a penal capacity. Death rates in the West Indies and West Africa were so high that a posting to these outposts fell not far short of a death sentence. Pardoning a man who agreed to serve was a common practice in the 18th century, and insolvent debtors and convincted criminals were frequently allowed to enlist. The Press Acts, in brief operation at times of national emergency, swept up "all such able-bodied, idle, and disorderly persons who cannot upon examination prove themselves to exercise and industriously follow some lawful trade or employment."
The recruitment of such folk undoubtedly helped make up numbers but it had a damaging effect on the status of the soldier, for it ensured that the honest volunteer with real interest in the army — by no means a rare creature — suffered by association with men who were criminals in civilian life and often continued in scarlet as they had begun in fustian. The majority of recruits were enticed by the entrancing rattle of the drum and the power of the spoken word, lavishly supported with drink. A potential recruit would be given the "king's shilling" as a mark of his commitment.
The process (of recruiting
parties) was described in "The Recruiting Officer" (1706), with the sergeant
making a familiar pitch:
"If any gentleman soldiers, or others, have a mind to serve Her majesty, and pull down the French king; if any prentices have severe masters, any children have unnatural parents; if any servants have too little wages, or any husband too much wife; let them repair to the noble Sergeant Kite, at the Sign of the Raven, in this good town of Shrewsbury, and they shall receive present relief and entertainment."
Although there were always many enthusiasts whose hearts did indeed beat high to tread the paths of glory, most of those who enlisted were unemployed, driven into the army by what one senior officer called "the compulsion of destitution". The soldier's poor pay, hard life and low status in society all conspired to make service in the ranks a last resort for many men who took the king's shilling. But it is important what we do not follow so many 19th century commentators and assume that these men were all potential criminals devoid of any sense of decency. Honest folk suffered from appalling living conditions, association with crminals who had been pressed into thr army, and a brutal code of discipline intended to deal with the army's worst elements.
"We have in service
the scum of the earth as common soldiers"
"...But you can hardly conceive of such a set brought together, and it really is wonderful that we should have made them the fine fellows that they are."
- selected quotes from Duke of Wellington on British army
Wellington saw discipline as a means to this end, and argued that it had to be coercive and deterrent precisely because of the type of recruits the army received.
"They stand by one
another, and are often seen to die together. They are spirited enough,
and have plenty of boldness in warlike exploits, though not very ameniable
to military customs... many are given to drink and drunkenness like the
Germans. Foreign wines on account of their being accustomed to beer, does
not agree with them, and in hot countries overseas brings on burning fevers..."
- An early 17th century assessment of the British soldier
About two-thirds of the commissions in the period 1660-1871 were obtained by purchase, the remainder being gained by seniority, through patronage or as a reward for long, gallant or distinguished service. However, the pattern was uneven. In wartime the demand for officers outstripped the supply of would-be officers who could afford commissions, and in the large army of 1810 as many as four-fifths of all commissions had been obtained by means other than purchase. A similar process occured during the Crimea.
The apparent link between purchase and incompetence was always emphasised by the system's critics, who were less swift to acknowledge thatm unfair and illogical though purchase unquestionably was, it did permit the rich and competent to rise quickly.
In 1836, Lt. Thomas Blood, a commissioned ranker, suggested that one-third of first commissions should be granted to NCOs: this was in fact the policy laid down by the French military service law of 1832, the Loi Soult. He believed that such individuals knew the habits of private soldiers so well that they were unlikely to be deceived by malingering — which is, no doubt, one reason why they were not always popular with soldiers.
Unlike the officer corps in most other European armies, the British army was never dominated by noblemen, in part because there were relatively few. There were only 167 male peers in England in 1710, rising to 220 in 1790, in contrast (though we are not comparing like with like) to the perhaps 110-120,000 French nobles in about 25,000 noble families in France in 1789.
#4 HORSE, FOOT, GUNS AND WOUNDS
In the 18th century the infantryman's red coat earned him the nickname 'Thomas Lobster'... the name 'Thomas Atkins' did not appear till much later, originating in 1815, as the example of how to compile the Soldier's Pocket Book, and becoming the soldier's nickname by the 1880s. The red coat was definitely British.
The demands of campaigning in North America during the Seven Years' War led to coats being cut short, for long tails easly became entangled in the undergrowth. The fashion migrated to units at home. Short-skirted coats were officially introduced for the rank and file in 1797, but officers' coats remained long until 1812.
The army's attachment to the red coat proved remarkably durable. Part of this was because of its undoubted success in what has been termed "the seduction principle" bound up in the design of the uniform. Henry Mayhew though it was a major ingredient in soldiers' success with servant girls, nursemaids and shopgirls, neither professional prostitutes nor of adamantine virtue. Sir Garnet Wolseley echoed the point in The Soldier's Pocket Book: "The better you dress a soldier, the more highly he will be thought of by women, and consequently by himself."
Khaki (from the Persian for dust-coloured) made its appearance in the Mutiny. Howeverm khaki was never really popular with soldiers, who preferred to cut a more flamboyant figure. The Egyptian campaign of 1882 was the last time that British soldiers wore red coats in action, though it remained standard peacetime walking-out dress until 1914.
The infantryman lived like some huge red hermit crab, with most of his possessions girt about his person.
In heavy rain muskets could become altogether useless. A sudden rainstorm might simply close down the infantry battle — there were occasions when both sides simply gave up — or give a decisive advantage to attacking cavalry.
The Prussians experimented with a battalion of line infantry firing at a canvas target 100 feet long by 6 feet high. At 225 yard 25% of shots hit the target; this increased to 40% at 150 yards and 60% at 75 yards.
Waterloo was the apotheosis of the British footsoldier.
"I never saw infantry
- Wellington, on Waterloo
"At four o'clock our
square was a perfect hospital, being full of dead, dying and mutilated
soldiers... when we received cavalry, the order was to fire low. so that
on the first discharge of musketry the ground was strewed with the fallen
horses and their riders, which impeded the advance of those behind them
and broke the shock of the charge."
- Ensign Gronow, on the carnage of Waterloo
If Wellington was sometimes hard on his infantry, he was even more critical of his cavalry. he accused them of "galloping at everything", a judgement repeated by many historians. The horse and dragoons of the early 18th century became homogenised into heavy cavalry, while the light dragoons, raised as part of the trend towards light troops in the second half of the century, were themselves gradually transformed into hussars and lancers, with the last of the light dragoons disappearing after the Crimea. The functions of heavy and light cavalry were, at least in theory, distinct, Heavy cavalry existed primarily to break the enemy's horse or foot by charging it on the battlefield, while the light cavalry was expect to excel at "piquet and patrol" work on the one hand forming the eyes of the army, and on the other preventing the enemy's light cavalry from gaining useful information. Yet the Queen's Regulations of 1844 declared that Britain had too little light cavalry to preserve the old functional distinctions... hussars and lancers rode scarcely lighter than their cousins the heavies, and from the very first days of British light cavalry the charge on the battlefield had drawn them on like a martial magnet.
It was not until the early 20th century, when artillery was able to produe effective indirect fire, engaging targets which were insivible to the guns but were engaged by fire directed by an observer, that it come to dominate the battlefield. Indeed, the defining characteristic of land warfare that century was that most casualties were inflicted by men their victims never even glimpsed. Yet even in the 19th century the power of the gun should not be underestimated. A battery firing canister at 600 yards had the same effect on its target as a battalion firing volleys at 100 yards. Solid roundshot were deadly against packed formations. A single ball killed or disabled an officer and 25 men of the 40th foot at Waterloo.
Wounds and death are the common currency of war, and it was the task of the combat arms to inflict them with musket, sword and pistol, shot and shell and even with the rocket. However, throughout the period disease killed more soldiers than human agency. And ignorance of the process of infection and appalling sanitary conditions in military hospitals meant that death from infection was the outcome of many wounds and operations.
Since 1865 wars have killed far fewer soldiers as a percentage of the force deployed than was the case before. At the time of the wars of the French Revolution casualties tended to run at about 9% of the winner's total force and 16% of the loser's, but the close-range intensity of the battle of the Napoleonic period raised these figures to 15% and 20% respectively. These statistics can be no more than general. However, for a chilling view of their practical impact we might consider the battlefield of Waterloo. An area slightly larger than New York's Central Park was strewn with perhaps 50,000 casualties. About a third were beyond human help. But to look after the remainder there were in theory 273 British surgeons, far fewer Prussian medical officers, and a handful of French doctors. Throughout our period any major battle swamped the medical facilities available.
Sounds would have been competing with many others. There was musketry, popping away in distant skirmishes but sounding like rending calico as infantry slugged it out in line. Cannonballs thrummed overhead, and shells and mortar bombs whistled and groaned. As infantrymen advanced with bayonets fixed and their arms at their shoulders there was a good deal of metalwork for canister and metalwork to hit, and the clatter of lead on steel mingled with the dull thud of projectiles which hit human flesh. Hand to hand fighting at Waterloo reminded a British sergeant of a thousand coppersmiths at work. Add the shrieks of the wounded, drumming hooves, shouted orders and the constant sound of drum and bugle and occasional snatches of music from bands and Highland pipes, and the full horror of battle asserts itself.
#5 HOME FIRES
The army is a self-effacing part of contemporary British society, and soldiers are rarely seen in public in uniform: the contrast with Georgian and Victorian Britain could not be more striking. Regular officers and soldiers in uniform were an everyday sight, prominent even during peacetime, and during the Napoleonic wars, their ranks swelled by embodied militia, Yeomanry and Volunteers, they gave the land a bright frosting of scarlet, blue and gold.
In the 18th century most troops were billeted in "inns, livery stables, alehouses, victualling houses, and all houses selling brandy, strong waters, cyder or metheglin by retail to be drunk upon the promises, and no other". These words, from the annual Mutiny Acts, enshrined one of the Englishman's inalienable rights: that soldiers could not be billeted upon him in his private houses save by his prior consent and with appropriate payment. Billeting on private houses was legal in Scotland, practised in Ireland and was a bone of contention between the British government and its colonists in North America... in the English Civil War, the billeting of troops on private houses, often at "free quarter" was deeply resented. Burghers complained that daughters were seduced and sons debauched, and soldiers resented the fact thatthey were "compelled to grind the Face of the Poor, to take a livelihood from them, who are fitter to receive alms". After the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which had granted toleration to French Protestants, Louis XIV used billeting as an instrument of religious coercion, quartering troops on Hugenot households.
Until the 1760s officers usually wore wigs, in keeping with civilian fashion, although on campaign many wore their own hair cinched back in a short pony-tail or even cropped short. Thereafter their hair was scraped back into a plait and powdered... British soldiers were eventually forbidden to shave the upper lip in the expectation that most would produce a suitable moustache. The link between hairiness and manliness was widely identified.
There was usually a close correlation between the mess and the battlefield, for a man slept and ate alongside the men he would fight beside. Soldiers of the age might have been puzzled by phrases like "small unit cohesion" so dear to modern theorists, but not least among the effects of barrack life was the forging of close and durable relationships.
The scale of rations varied from time to time, and their precise composition would change with local conditions. For much of the Napoleonic period men were entitled to 1lb bread, 1lb beef, 1 oz of butter or cheese, 1lb pease and 1 oz ruce. Bread was usually black or brown. Issue beer was barely alcoholic small beer, brewed largely to make water safe and palatable, rather than the more robust porter men would drink given a chance. Wives on the regimental strength received half-rations, and children a quarter ration.
Hot words at night often led to cold steel in the morning. An officer was obliged to fight if his honour was impugned, his opponent was a gentleman and no satisfactory apology was forthcoming. Dueling was a feature of civilian society... so prevalent in Ireland that a society of Friendly Brothers, sworn to oppose duelling, was formed. Its members wore a knot of green ribbon to show that, though gentlemen, they would neither issue nor receive challengers... Gentlemen habitually wore swords with civilian dress until the 1790s.
It was not until the 1860s that the first official married quarters were built. There were repeated attempts to dissuade soldiers from marrying, and in 1685 it was made an offence to marry without permission. Its granting was no foregone conclusion. For much of the period most sergeants and around 7% of rank and file were permitted to marry.
Regimental wives earned some money by washing for the soldiers and sometimes the officers too. They helped nurse the sick in regimental hospitals in peace and bore a hand with the wounded in war. For all the complaints about soldiers' women it is clear that well-conducted regimental women were an asset in barracks. Many preserved their dignity — though it is hard to see how — and often their very presence induced men to behave better.
Despite harrowing experiences, it is clear that many women undoubtedly preferred the discomforts of campaign, which were at least accompanied by the prospect of living some sort of married life, to the limbo of separation and worry, too often ended by a letter in an unfamiliar hand.
Officers who misbehaved with soldiers' wives were treated harshly for two reasons. First, because their offence was seen as a breach of trust, and second, because it demeaned the officer's status.
Women were liable to corporal punishment for some civil offences till 1816, and an earlier generation had not thought it strange for gentlemen to visit the Bridewell to watch the routine whipping of the inmates.
It was considered more honourable to be shot than hanged, although given the poor performance of firing parties it is difficult to say whether hanging, which in this era usually killed by strangulation, was actually more pleasant than shooting.
Soldiers and, by extension, their wives, were induced to tolerate the squalor of the barrack-room and the discomforts of campaign by the prospect of steady pay. The king's shilling given to the recruit was symbolic of a relationship in which money played a fundamental part. Well might the words of "Over the Hills and Far Away", as popular in the Napoleonic wars as it had been when first composed a century before, exhort: "All gentlemen that have a mind to serve the queen that's good and kind come 'list and enter into pay..."
The lure of regular pay and attractive bounties made most recruits enlist, and many officers who bought their commissions and could not live on their pay still regarded its prompt arrival as fundamental to their relationship with the army. Men rarely risked their lives for money alone, but their sense of value sprang not just from serving with gallant leaders and good comrades in a brave regiment, but from being regularly paid.
Although British soldiers were better paid than French or Prussian conscripts, they were less well paid than almost any of their countrymen in regular work. One attraction of soldiering in India was that money went very much further. Bounties, their size fluctuating with the scale of the demand, were offered to encourage men to enlist.
#6 FOREIGN FIELDS
The senior generals on the Army List were as senior in years as rank: in 1808 there was one who had carried his regiment's colours at Culloden 62 years before. There were 518 generals in November 1812, but only 200 of them were actually employed.
Forces dispatched outside the UK were placed under command of a general officer formally appointed by the monarch... to select the right man to command an expeditionary force the government often chose a comparitively junior officer and invested hm with temporary rank. Major General Sir William Howe was given the rank of general after he assumed command in North America. Lt. General Sir Arthur Wellesley was so junior when appointed to command in the Peninsula in 1809 that Castlereagh had to struggle to get his appointment through the cabinet.
Although generals and their staffs lived more comfortably than the men they commanded, they shared the soldier's risks on the day of battle. There were usually within range of the enemy. Wellington thought it ungentlemanly to fire on individuals, and prevented a gunner officer (rash enough to ask permission) from shooting at Napoleon ay Waterloo. Wolfe was killed by musketry at Quebec, and Howe survived it by a miracle at Bunker Hill, where he led the infantry attack... the generals of the age of horse and musket were many things: but they were not, as they themselves would have put it, shy.
Operations were largely seasonal, for it was difficult to move far in winter when there was little forage to be had. Not for nothing does March, when the campaigning season traditionally opened, take its name from the Roman god of war.
A Guards private who sailed to the Low Countries in 1708 was being rhetorical when he described his voyage as: "continued destruction in the foretops, the pox above-board, the plague between decks, hell in the forecastle and the devil and the helm."
Throughout the period battle was the exception rather than the rule, and even on active service a man might spend a 100 days marching or waiting for every one spent fighting.
It is a striking fact that for much of history men who have been required to kill one another in the way of duty have often got on well enough as individuals. The relationship between the soldier and his enemy is conditioned by many things, with wider cultural factors like race, class and religion joining shorter-term issues such as propaganda, atrocity stories and individual attitudes. The British soldier's span of hostility stretched from the benign to the virulent. Nobody much wanted to fight the Danes, for they were regarded as decent fellows with sensible ideas about drink and a praiseworthy determination to defend their country. At the other extreme were Indian 'mutineers'. Not far behind in the hierarchy of hate came the Afghans. The Sikhs, in contrast, were respected as tough fighters. Attitudes to patriots in North America were decidedly ambivalent.
British soldiers often felt great animosity towards the Revolutionary French... but such hostility was rare in the Peninsula, where the adversaries quickly developed a common understanding that although they were obliged to kill one another when some military advantage could be gained, purposeless hostility helped nobody. This is a feature of many wars, but it was especially marked in Spain... the French and British settled down to become good allies in the Crimea.
The assult on a (fortress) breach was usually spearheaded by a party of volunteers known as the Forlorn Hope. Its officers might expect, though they not guaranteed, a up step in rank if they survived.
Officers referred to one another by name and rank (ensigns\cornets and lieutenants were 'Mr'), simply by surname or occasionally by rank. The use of a first name implied a close friendship, but was more common amongst soldiers than officers. The use of 'Sir' in everyday address did not imply subordination.
There was often a creative
tension between commissioned and non-commissioned ranks, with officers
behaving well because it was expected of them, and soldiers both following
their good example and reinforcing it with courage of their own. What was
honour in an abstract sense of an officer was often as tough a bond of
mateship to a private. Battlefield performance was in great measure a product
of long and close association in barrack-room and bivouac, grog-shop and
brothel, with the creation of a small and introspective world with rules
all of its own... in good regiments the process became a virtuous spiral,
and a collective fighting spirit, which neither depended on discipline
nor required strong leadership, took over.
But drafting in new soldiers to replace battle casualties might produce a vicious circle, as cohesion diminished, demanding more charismatic leadership, which increased casualties amongst officers and NCOs. Sometimes the poor performance of regiments can be explained by the fact that their soldiers had not been together long enough to get to know one another, and to have status which would be impaired by cowardice. It is significant that Braddock's two British regiments which broke on the Monongahela had been brought up to strength for the campaign by drafts from other units, and had never really 'bedded down' properly.
Veterans did not find that they had returned from the wars to a land fit for heroes to live in... Officers often found themselves shunted off on a half-pay. The half-pay officer, sometimes cad and sometimes pauper, left his mark on the literature and history of the age.
# BEYOND THE BOOKS
I first met my wife
Lizzie over a quarter of a century ago at a military dinner. When I heard
her mention the Lines of Torres Vedras, the table shook and the candles
flickered. I proposed a fortnight later.
- from the "Acknowledgements" section of "Redcoat"
>> Quotes from War Walks presented by Richard Holmes
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