The British Volunteer System

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Source: North American Review, May 1900

Written by: The Rt. Hon. Earl Brownlow
Formerly Under-Secretary of State For War

Origins > Formation > Shooting > Qualities > Drill

The early years of the century found England in the possession of a large body of volunteers. They were not a part of the permanent military organization of the country, but were raised in a hurry, and for a special purpose, and were only intended to meet a sudden emergency. At that period, Napoleon I had massed a great army at Boulogne in sight of the British coast; but the British cruisers held the Channel, and day after day and month after month passed, until the naval battle of Trafalgar put an end forever to his ambitious dream of the conquest of England. It was to meet this contingency that the Volunteers of 1803 were raised, and the danger having been averted, they were disbanded and never brought together again.

With the organization and efficiency of this force, this article is in no way concerned, and it is only mentioned here to explain that volunteering for defense of the country is no new idea, but that the volunteers of 1803 have no relation to those of 1858. They served their purpose; they came together to the number of 463,000 men, and when the emergency ceased, they died out and disappeared.

They seem to have incurred at that time a certain amount of “chaff” on account of their somewhat crude idea of military duties, and it is said that one regiment having repeatedly pointed out to Mr. Pitt that they only volunteered to repel invasion, and were on no account to be sent out of the country, he replied that he would promise not to send them away “except in the case of invasion.”

There is, however, one volunteer corps – the Honorable Artillery Company of the City of London – which is quite exceptional. It dates from the time of Henry VII, at which period it wore a picturesque dress, had nothing to do, and “did it very well;” and it consists of artillery, cavalry and infantry. It is not a “company” in the military sense, but has many of the attributes of the City of London companies, and has property and funds of its own.

This ancient corps has its counterpart in the Honorable Artillery Company of Boston in the United States, the members of which some time ago visited London and received a cordial welcome as a link between the Old and the New Worlds.

Until 1858, the Honorable Artillery Company was the only old-established Volunteer Corps. At that time, the country was thirsting for peace and rest. The Crimean War had disclosed a state of military disorganization in the army which had caused misery and disaster to the troops during the war, and it was felt that only the bravery and pluck of the officers and men had saved the country from actual defeat; but when peace with Russia had been obtained, no time was given for reorganisation. The Indian mutiny, following on the heels of the Crimean war, called forth all the resources of the Empire; but, when tranquillity was again restored, the public mind once more turned to the contemplation of army reform.

The opportunity seemed favourable. The Emperor of the French was in close alliance with England, and we were at peace with all European nations. There was no cloud upon the political horizon, and there seemed every prospect that this happy condition of things would be lasting.

At that moment, a bolt from the blue – as far-reaching as it was unexpected – spread dismay throughout Europe. On January 14th, 1858, an Italian named Felice Orsini, attempted the life of the Emperor Napoleon III by throwing a bomb under the carriage containing the Emperor and Empress as it was drawing up at the door of the opera house; and although the intended victims escaped unhurt, the missile spread destruction all round the spot where the outrage was committed.

It soon became known that the would-be assassin had hatched his conspiracy and manufactured his bombs in England; and, in the excitement that ran like wildfire through the French army, a hundred French colonels signed a petition to the Emperor, praying him to put himself at their head and lead them against “Perfidious Albion.” It was not certain whether the Emperor would be able to resist the pressure thus put upon him, and the ugly fact of a possible invasion of our coasts stared us in the face. It was felt that our army – most of which was abroad – was inadequate to cope with the large forces which were at the disposal of France, if they should once gain a footing on our shores, and excitement little short of panic ensued.

The people of England demanded arms that they might at least make a stubborn resistance, and the volunteer force of Great Britain sprang into life.