The British Soldier – At Home

You are hereHome > British Military

Source: Chambers’s Journal, 14 May 1859

Having on a recent occasion pointed out some of the peculiarities in the constitution of the British army, the sort of men composing it, and the motives for their enlistment – we shall now endeavour to give some idea of the life of a soldier at home; not as a combatant armed with musket or sword, and marching in foreign regions, but as a fellow-citizen requiring pay, food, dress, lodgment, medicine, culture, recreation, and some sort of provision for his old age. To make this large subject at all manageable, we shall confine it chiefly to the infantry regiments of the line, and to the common soldiers of those regiments – forming the main-stay of our army; while Mr Fonblanque, the latest and best authority in these matters, is the person on whose statements we shall chiefly rely.

Early in the present century, the length of military service was unlimited; to be once a soldier was to be always a soldier; unless the sovereign voluntarily gave a discharge. At present, however, an infantry soldier is engaged for ten years, at the expiration of which he may renew his engagement. He receives about L.3 as ‘bounty-money’ on enlistment; and the recruiting expenses, journey to the barrack or depôt, kit, clothing, armament, and equipment, make up the sum to about L.20, which is the cost to the state of the raw material out of which a foot-soldier is made.

The pay of the British soldier is one of the greatest among many anomalies in our military system. He himself is sorely puzzled to know how much it really amounts to, on account of the deductions or ‘stop-pages.’ In reality, the money at the free disposal of a soldier is rather higher in England than on the continent. A French soldier; after the various deductions are made, has only about 1 1/2d. per day for minor personal indulgences, while an English soldier has about 3d. The nominal pay in England is 1s. per day in the line regiments. But the soldier does not really get this money; his bread and meat are paid for out of his shilling, and he receives the balance; and out of this balance he has to pay for the minor articles of his diet. A daily ration of bread and meat is debited to him at 4 1/2d. out of his shilling. This stoppage is when in barrack or on home-stations; on foreign stations, on board-ship, in the field, and in hospital, other arrangements are made. There is a growing conviction among our statesmen and officers that this is a bad system, clumsy to work, and not altogether honest. ‘The fact that this system,’ says Mr Fonblanque, ‘deludes the recruit into a belief that he will receive the nominal instead of the actual rate of pay – in other words, that he will have 1s. a day, while in fact he will only have 7 1/2d. – should be an additional argument against its continuance; for although government does not directly lend itself to so unworthy a device, it is well known that the subordinate agents do not hesitate to avail themselves of the fictitious rate of pay among their other baits for tempting recruits.’ The mode of payment is simply this – the paymaster of each regiment draws money from the army-agent for that regiment, and advances it to the captains; each captain pays the men (usually about 80 or 100) in his company, and accounts to the paymaster for the amount. This money is not the shilling a day; it is the balance, after deducting the ration-price. The men are paid daily. The few perquisites, or additions to the pay, we shall notice presently.

Next we come to the important matter of food. At foreign stations, or in war-time, the dieting of soldiers is a most complicated and difficult matter; but we treat here only of soldiers quietly at home in barracks or fixed stations. Whether at home or abroad, a British soldier expects and receives more animal food than a continental soldier. A French soldier eats 2 1/2lbs. of bread per day, but adds to it very little solid meat; a British soldier will bear all sorts of privations patiently, save lack of food, and his dinner must include meat, or it is no dinner to him. At most of our barrack; camps, and garrisons, contractors supply the meat and bread, at prices agreed on between them and the government. Usually men of large capital take the contract, and sublet it to other persons. In the French army, in peace-time, the government supply only bread, all the rest being purchased out of the soldier’s pay; in England, meat as well as bread is supplied. The whole subject of the subsistence of troops is, however, much less understood in England than in France. The soldiers know little of cooking, and there is no one to teach them. They have their 1 lb. of bread and 3/4 lb. of meat daily, and they have fuel and vessels for cooking; but the processes are wasteful and ill understood. Boiled meat is almost a universal diet with them, for hardly any arrangement has yet been made for roasting or baking. Sometimes a few men will club together, and pay for having a joint of meat, with potatoes, baked at a neighbouring bakehouse; if they depend on the barrack facilities, they can scarcely get beyond boiled meat – too often, through bad management, hard and tasteless. They take it in turn to cook, by an arrangement among themselves; but they are sorry cooks at best. Each regiment or detachment receives its quota of meat and bread at a particular hour daily, and distributes to companies and squads. In every company, six women, with their children, are allowed to draw daily rations of bread and meat: these women must be wives of soldiers who have married with the consent of the commanding officer. The whole arrangement, it must be confessed, is a strange one. The soldier’s shilling a day is lessened to sevenpence-halfpenny, as a means of paying for, or contributing towards the cost of, his daily ration of bread and meat; and out of this sevenpence-halfpenny, he must pay for whatever he desires to have in the form of vegetables, butter, cheese, condiments, puddings, tea, coffee, sugar, etc. Such of these things as are supplied by the government are debited to him at a low price; but still the system is strangely confused.

The Crimean war was valuable to us, in teaching many a lesson from which we are now gradually profiting. The food of the soldier is one of these. The authorities have it now under consideration wholly to remodel the barrack and camp dietary arrangenments; giving to the soldier (not neccssarily at greater cost to the nation) a better selected variety of food, better facilities for cooking it, and instructions in the art of cooking. The late M. Soyer supplied to the military authorities many useful hints as to the best mode of obtaining nutriment from a given amount of food; and Colonel Sir A. M. Tulloch – in a valuable document submitted by him in 1857 to the Commission of Inquiry into the Sanitary State of the Army – gave several schemes of dietary, which would greatly improve the soldier’s food, without adding to his expenditure. The gallant colonel, whose indefatigable labours excited so much attention three or four years ago, estimated that a well-arranged dietary might be provided by an expenditure on the part of the soldier of only 2d. per day out of his 7 1/2d. in addition to the ration of bread and meat supplied to him. The variety and excellence of this dietary are surprising; but, says Mr Fonblanque, ‘the first step must be to instruct our soldiers in the rudiments of the art of cooking, of which they are now lamentably deficient.’ The camp at Aldershott is rendering useful service in this particular; Captain Grant has invented simple but efficacious cooking apparatus, by which the men can bake their meat occasionally with speed and comfort.