The British Soldier – How And Why He Enlists

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Source: Chambers’s Journal, 23 April 1859

It is a remarkable circumstance that never until now has there been a volume containing an authoritative account of the British army, in relation to its strength, formation, organisation, pay, food, dress, barracks, garrisons, encampments, education, hygiène, and general government. True, there have been histories in great number of the achievements of the army; treatises on war, fortification, and gunnery; manuals of discipline, drilling, and tactics; and pamphlets and articles on some or other of these topics – but no regular and systematic look which would shew the internal working of this great and singular system. The nation has supported, by large annual grants, that which has hitherto been but little understood by the tax-payers. All the great countries of Europe – France, Russia, Prussia, Austria, and even Sardinia, Belgium, and Spain – possessed works of recognised authority on military administration; England was the exception. When Lord Panmure was Secretary of State for War in 1857, his lordship’s attention was drawn to this deficiency by Lieutenant-colonel Lefroy, Inspector-general of Army Schools; and at his suggestion, Mr Fonblanque of the commissariat department, undertook the preparation of a new work. This work being finished, it was submitted to General Peel, Lord Panmure’s successor. Mr Fonblanque found, to his surprise, that the volume could not be published under official authority unless he would ‘consent to eliminate from it the passages involving criticism, discussion, or censure of existing institutions.’ This he very properly refused to do, as being contrary to the spirit of the original instructions given to him by Lord Panmure, and likely to defeat the very object of the book. He therefore published it on his own responsibility, rendering great national service in so doing. [Treatise on the Administration and Organisation of the British Army, with especial reference to Finance and Supply. By Edward Barrington de Fonblanque, Assistant Commissary-general. 1858.] The subject is altogether a remarkable one. ‘A glance at a soldier’s life will shew how in every stage of his career he is brought under the immediate influence of administration; how it adopts him for its own from the very hour he enlists as a recruit, to the last moment of his military existence. It trains him in youth, it supports him in manhood, it comforts him in age; it watches over him at home and abroad, in peace and in war, and follows him through the varied scenes of his life, in garrison and in camp, on the march and in the bivouac, on the battle-field and in the hospital. To the cares of administration he owes the clothing he wears, and the food he eats, the arms he wields, and the bed he sleeps on. Administration at length conducts the maimed and worn-out soldier into his peaceful and honourable retirement, and performs the last offices over his grave.’

Civilians marvel that men can be found to go ‘soldiering,’ so small is the pay compared with the sufferings often endured. If we look to the class of men from which British soldiers are mostly taken, the marvel will cease. England can scarcely he deemed a military country, in reference to the prevailing sentiments of her inhabitants. In Europe generally, there are 12 soldiers to every 1000 inhabitants; in Russia, it is as high as 14; in England – or rather the United Kingdom – only 8, even after the great increase of the last few years. We have fewer soldiers in relation to population than any other great European state. Through many combined causes, which John Bull would be very glad to ferret out, the British army costs per man far more than that of other countries; it is, on an average, L.52 per man per annum; whereas the continental average varies from L.38 in Belgium, down to L.l3 in Russia. It seems strange to read this, and at the same time to read about soldiers and their ‘sixpence a day;’ and it has required all Mr Fonblanque’s cleverness to disentangle the various modes in which the money goes.

Leaving altogether out of the inquiry the military officers of all ranks, as well as the cavalry, the artillery, the engineers, the military train, and such ‘crack’ foot-soldiers as the Guards, let us confine our attention to the great body of the army, the privates of the line regiments, on whom, after all, our main reliance is placed. There are just one hundred of these line regiments (each designated by a number, and some by an additional title, such as 7th Fusiliers, 32d Foot, 78th Highlanders, and so forth); some consist of more than one battalion; and as the full strength of each battalion includes 900 privates – besides about 180 officers, sergeants, corporals, etc. – there are now about 120,000 ‘common soldiers’ of the line regiments. True, a great number of these are at present, under exceptional arrangements, serving in India, and are paid for by India instead of by England; but this need not affect the details now under notice.

In what way, the reader may ask at the outset, are the ‘common soldiers’ collected to form a British regiment of the line? The Queen must not have an army at all, without the annually expressed consent of parliament; and she cannot pay a single shilling to her soldiers without an annual parliamentary grant. Even with this consent, and this grant, she cannot compel her subjects to become soldiers. On the continent, two systems, of conscription and impressment, are adopted, to obtain men for military service. In England, voluntary enlistment alone is tried, with the occasionally exceptional rules concerning the militia, which need not be touched on here. The enlistment being voluntary, it is found by experience that the middle classes furnish scarcely any soldiers for the ranks. Nearly all are humbly born and uneducated, and many are among the ‘loose fish’ of society at the time of their enlistment. It was found, a few months ago, that of 73,000 privates of the line regiments, only 2000 had acquired a fair knowledge of reading, writing, and arithmetic; 20,000 could neither read nor write in the smallest degree; 13,000 could read, but not write. The officers and the privates in the British army are separated by a wider social gulf than in any of the continental armies. This arises from a double action and reaction; the poor and ignorant enter the ranks because the advantages are only sufficient to attract members of their class; and the middle classes shun the ranks, through a dislike of companionship with the lowly born. A private may become a corporal, and then a sergeant; but there he stops: the higher grades are ‘commissioned;’ the ‘commissioned officer’ is supposed to be a ‘gentleman;’ and the military ‘gentleman’ will not associate with non-commissioned officers or with privates. So strong is this social barrier, that the Queen’s command has not yet been enabled to break it down. During the Crimean war, when the conduct and situation of soldiers attracted so much attention, public opinion prevailed on the authorities to make this indulgence – to give commissions to sergeants and corporals who had won the admiration of their officers by exemplary conduct in the field and in the barrack. These commissions conferred on the men the grades of ensign and cornet, which are, of course, the stepping-stones to those of lieutenant, captain, major . Now, an ensign or a cornet always takes rank among the ‘gentlemen’ of conventional English society; the sergeant, when promoted, finds himself among men whose birth, education, tastes, pursuits, and conversation are different from his own; he finds he has no companions, no one with whom he can converse on easy familiar terms; and, even if the other officers do not adopt the cutting process of ‘sending him to Coventry,’ he nevertheless feels a sort of isolation very difficult to bear. Many experienced men foretold this result; and their anticipations have proved correct. The non-commissioned officers – sergeants and corporals – express no wish to accept commissions; the higher military dignity is to them a small consolation for the loss of personal comfort. On one occasion, a few months ago, five sergeants in succession declined this promotion when offered to them; they preferred such situations as messengers at the Horse-guards, which would not raise them to the perplexing rank of ‘gentlemen;’ a sixth, who did accept the commission, was afterward heard to say that he was ‘perfectly wretched.’ During the Crimean war, while the British army was in Bulgaria, a commission in the Guards was refused by fifteen sergeants in succession. ‘Surely,’ says Mr Fonblanque, ‘there must be something defective in our military institutions, when that which should be the soldier’s highest ambition becomes to him not only a matter of indifference, but of positive dislike and injury.’ The attempt has failed in the few examples of recent years; and it is likely to fail so long as the ranks are filled almost wholly by low and ignorant men. On the continent, the middle classes are more fully represented among the common soldiers – partly because soldiering is a more favourite occupation than in England; and partly through the system of conscription, which takes very little note of the grades in society. There are thus men of good family and respectable connections in the ranks of the French and other continental armies; and to these men there is always a fair chance of rising in social position, seeing that one-third of all the vacant commissions are bestowed upon such non-commissioned officers as are qualified to hold them. Nor does it stop here; if the private may become a sergeant, and the sergeant an ensign, so may the ensign rise to be captain, colonel, general, field-marshal. French soldiers cherish this emulative thought; English soldiers never think on the matter at all – an impassable chasm seeming to them to separate the grade of sergeant from all beyond. So fixed is this state of things, that a very long period of time, and a series of extensive changes, would be necessary to produce a closer and more healthy connection between the officers and the privates of the British army. Many of our energetic reformers assert that the honours, pay, promotion, and privileges of military officers are retained by the aristocracy for their sons and nephews, through the courtly and parliamentary influence of the House of Peers. But this is only in part true. It is not from the higher circles that the officers are chiefly obtained. The upper section of the middle class is the one most fully represented; comprising the sons of the smaller gentry, merchants, surgeons, lawyers, clergymen, and the more wealthy manufacturers. It is only among the petted Household troops – Life-guards, Horse-guards, Grenadier Guards, Fusilier Guards, and Coldstream Guards – and a few other special corps, that the nobility is strongly represented among the officers. It may perhaps be proper to say that the aristocratic element of our army excludes to a great extent from the ranks the incentive of personal ambition, and thus lowers the moral influence bearing on our common soldiers; but then the word aristocratic must be interpreted in a wide sense, as meaning, not the wearing of a coronet, but that system of exclusiveness which, whether founded upon the test of birth, caste, or money, creates a powerful barrier between the governors and the governed.