A comparison of British and French Military Identity and Organization during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars Timothy Paul Candlish Phd university of York History March 2012



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Chapter 3: Political and Social Identities in the British Army

The third and fourth chapters of this study will focus on the contrasting political and social identities of the British and French armies. In this case there is an apparent contrast of ideology, with Britain committed to monarchy and France becoming a republic. As such, this current chapter on British identities will include an examination of the role of monarchy, while the French chapter will similarly examine republicanism.0 A unifying theme in these chapters is that of the relationship between military service and citizenship. The idea of citizenship, of being a member of the body politic with rights and responsibilities, was well established in Britain by the time of the French Revolution. It should be borne in mind that to be a ‘citizen’ did not entail democracy, whether in the form it is understood today or necessarily at all. Only a relatively small percentage of those who could call themselves British ‘citizens’ could vote, this privilege being based on the concept of the ‘forty shilling freehold’, or any freehold property with a value of forty shillings or greater.0 In spite of this apparent disparity, the idea of citizenship was firmly entrenched, with many of those who could not vote nonetheless regarding themselves as citizens.


The concept underlying citizenship was that of liberty, an idea as controversial then as it is today. In its most basic form, liberty is generally understood to mean a state of personal autonomy. This is commonly divided into two broad categories, as positive and negative liberty, the precise definition of which has long been subject of debate. Erich Fromm, in his work The Fear of Freedom, describes these as ‘freedom to’ and ‘freedom from’ respectively.0 Positive liberty may be regarded as actively granting the individual the means by which he or she may pursue his or her intentions, while negative liberty may be regarded as the absence of any limit on the individual’s actions. This dichotomy may be applied to Britain and France towards the end of the eighteenth century, providing a broad basis for understanding. In Britain, where popular ideology derived liberty from the Glorious Revolution and the subsequent 1689 Bill of Rights, the negative version was favoured. It was held, in theory, that every Briton had the right to do as he pleased insofar as it did not contradict the law. To understand the origin of this thinking, it is necessary to examine the origins of British identity as it existed at that time.

Political Scene in Britain

The idea of ‘Great Britain’ was tied substantially to religion, specifically Protestant Christianity. England and Ireland both possessed their own established Churches, favoured as what would today be called the ‘state religion’, while the Church of Scotland enjoyed the same status in practice. The Churches were regarded as the guardians of moral and social order, and non-members were treated with at least a degree of suspicion at all levels of society.0 In the case of soldiers they might be regarded with amusement. The anonymous author of Journal of a Soldier of the 71st Regiment of Foot recounts how his fellows mocked him as ‘the distressed Methodist’ over his unwillingness to drink, gamble, or swear, Methodism being associated with the rejection of such vices.0 What held this patchwork of denominations together was largely the fact that they were not Roman Catholic. Anti-Catholicism was crucial to the establishment of English, and later British identity in the wake of the Reformation, providing as it did a means by which England and later Britain could define itself against Europe. Regular wars against Catholic France, even when it was officially not Catholic, and against various other religions and races served to cement this common identity.0 Anti-Catholicism however became less and less relevant over time. By the end of the eighteenth century, enforcement of Anti-Catholic legislation, particularly with regard to military recruitment, had largely ceased.


France remained the traditional enemy, but the French Revolution caused a shift in the basis for that definition. Once a Catholic superpower and symbol of everything freeborn Englishmen feared and hated, the Revolution led to a significant reduction in the power and wealth of the Roman Catholic Church within France, as the clergy found itself subject to the authority of the state and tithes were no longer paid. As such, the focus of anti-French feeling shifted away from religion, refocusing itself on the myriad real and perceived improprieties of the various Revolutionary regimes. Ardent supporters of the Revolution in its earlier days found their idealism eroded by the proto-totalitarian ‘Terror’ run by the Committee of Public Safety during its brief tenure of power. Under such conditions it became easy for propagandists to portray the French government as chaotic and tyrannical in equal measure. Napoleon, rising to power in true Caesarian fashion, was an even easier target. That was not to say that Catholicism was entirely and unconditionally accepted. The account of Private William Wheeler shows that Catholicism as it was practised on the continent was treated by many British soldiers with deep suspicion and prejudice. Wheeler regarded the Church as oppressive and cruel, describing it as having more overt influence in Portugal, from which he was writing, than he and his fellows were entirely comfortable with. He goes so far as to claim that the Spanish priesthood wanted to re-establish the dreaded Inquisition, a not uncommon suspicion, and even praises Napoleon for having abolished it.0
The popular view of English, and by association British, social structure in the period gives an image of rigid and unbending hierarchy, with every person having a station in which they were expected to remain. This view is understandable, but does not tell the whole story. The English ‘nobility’, as the uppermost echelon of society might be called, was different in many ways from the French ‘noblesse.’ Their wealth, and the power and influence that derived from it, was based almost entirely on land ownership. Land was less profitable as an investment than other possibilities, such as the new industry, but land ownership was held in greater esteem. It was this deep-rooted respect for land ownership, and the social stability associated with it, that allowed the ‘landed interest’ to survive. Agriculture was still the basis of the economy, and land could neither be moved or destroyed, making it an inherently stable form of wealth. It was on this basis that landowners were thought worthy of wielding power.0 It is a curious feature of the English aristocracy that it never lost touch with the land it owned to quite the same extent as its French counterpart. Though absenteeism was common among Irish landlords, it was far less so among major English and Scottish landowners. This was in part due, and in part contributed to, the failure of the British monarchy to develop a court culture of the type exemplified by Versailles. The Georgian Royal courts never came close to Versailles in scale, and were also subject to considerable competition as social centres, located as they were in London, one of the most sophisticated cities in Europe.0 The British ‘noblesse’ were also few in number, with approximately five hundred Peers in the whole country.0
The most significant social groups in the context of this study were below the Peerage, one being the ‘gentry,’ the other the generic ‘lower orders.’ Like the aristocracy the gentry were themselves landowners, their estates providing the incomes necessary to fund their lifestyles. The particular significance of the gentry in the context of this study is that as a broad group they dominated the officer corps of the British army throughout the period, an important aspect of their wider social role. Their membership was not precisely defined, being based as much on ideas of proper behaviour as anything more tangible. Their defining physical features, namely land ownership and independence, were shared with the aristocracy above them and the yeomanry below them, defining the gentry as anyone at that end of the social scale who was obviously neither one nor the other. Like the yeomanry they were not members of the peerage, but unlike the yeomanry they did not farm the land themselves. The yeomanry and the gentry occupied approximately the same segment of the social hierarchy, but the decline of the former and the rise of the latter correlated with wider social and economic changes.
The yeomanry represented a local elite in an older sense, owning their land and providing military service, as represented by the image of the ‘yeoman archer’, and even coming to represent a certain ideal of English or British identity, John Bull himself being a yeoman. Merchants were relative newcomers to the upper echelons, their importance as a social group rising with the growth of towns and cities, which were vital to the conduct of commerce. Prosperous merchants aspired to the leisured lifestyle of the gentry and aristocracy, forming a distinct urban elite in which all three groups overlapped.0 While the majority of the population was still broadly rural, urban populations had grown significantly over the eighteenth century. Despite the importance of the landed interest, urban populations could not be entirely ignored, whether in politics or in military recruitment.
The ascendency of the gentry in Britain’s political structure is one of its defining features, one regularly held up as an explanation for the lack of a French-style Revolution in Britain, and the comparative success of the earlier American Revolution. This issue is relevant to the question of military identity in that it was that same social group that provided the British army with the bulk of its officers. This was as much as anything else a matter of numbers, the five hundred or so titled aristocrats being nowhere near enough to fill all vacancies. While the gentry were a significant force in British society, their mere existence does not explain the wildly divergent paths taken by Britain and France in the late eighteenth century. This can instead be explained by their role in society and how they came to acquire it. The constitutional arrangement that existed in eighteenth century Britain is generally considered to be the product of the Glorious Revolution, by which Parliament is said to have replaced an unsatisfactory King with his more suitable daughter and her husband, thus securing Protestant and Parliamentary dominion over the British Isles. This Whig account has been subjected to considerable scrutiny, much of it highly critical.
The origins of the role of Parliament can be traced back much further, to the reign of his equally Catholic predecessor Henry VIII. It was through close cooperation with Parliament, itself dominated by the gentry and freeholders, that Henry VIII was able to reduce the power of the nobility and the then-Catholic church. This meant that England became a centralized state before its European neighbours, and more importantly by means other than the absolutism exemplified by France and Spain.0 These developments served to shape how the gentry identified themselves as a ‘class,’ coming to see themselves as England and later Britain’s dominant and defining class. This was reinforced by the importance of the gentry, and the voting freeholders just below them, to the administration of the country. The gentry provided MPs and Magistrates, while the freeholders covered the various parish offices, such as Churchwardens and Overseers.0
The ideal of the freehold, in which ownership of property made a person fit to take part in government, became the broad consensus in England and Scotland. The concept was so pervasive that even the seventeenth century Levellers operated on that assumption. The most sought by the Levellers in this context, insofar as they had a coherent agenda, was a franchise based on ratepayers, that is to say taxpayers or householders.0 This distinction is crucial to proper understanding of British practice and ideas of democracy as they existed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The underlying concern was for the independence of the voter, both of means and of mind. ‘Servants’, a term which could refer to person in employment or a recipient of charity, were considered vulnerable to coercion on that basis. Such people were thought to lack free agency, as they did not control their labour. The poor in general were also thought unsuitable because of the risk of populism and outright bribery. The majority of British soldiers, being drawn from the lower levels of society, were highly unlikely to be eligible to vote.
The British army was in many respects little or no different from other ancien régime armies, especially in regards to its recruitment. A significant proportion of enlisted men came from what was regarded unquestionably at the time as the dregs of society. Convicted criminals represented a particular and recognizable subdivision, but a greater number of recruits were unemployed, unemployable, or simply undesirable, rounded up under the auspices of the 1701 Impressment Act and the later 1707 Recruitment Bill. Such men would not be considered worthy of the franchise, whether by property-minded moderates or freedom-minded radicals. Soldiers were in many respects the stereotype of those whom neither thought should be allowed the vote, being dependent on the army and obedient to their officers. The main difference was that whereas the mainstream had accepted the army as a vital necessity, in some cases regarding it with enthusiasm, many radicals continued to regard it as a threat. Their preference was for a citizen militia, and many even kept muskets in their homes.0
Suspicion and dislike of soldiers did not necessarily extend to complete indifference. Flogging was the subject of a significant political controversy at the time. The fact that flogging was a civil as well as a military punishment must be borne in mind, but it nevertheless represents an example of an issue cutting across the military-civilian boundary. Flogging was widely hated, more so even than the Press Gang.0 Even so, incidents of military flogging were only occasionally mentioned in the radical press. When it was mentioned, it was generally to do with extreme cases, or cases of obvious or apparent injustice. An example is William Cobbett’s publication of an attack on flogging in July of 1809, in reaction to a case of three militiamen in Ely being flogged for protesting over pay deductions. This cost Cobbett a great deal, specifically a conviction for ‘seditious libel’, a fine of one thousand pounds, and imprisonment for two years.0 The possibility of such harsh punishment did not prevent the public from reacting angrily, even violently, to cases of unjust flogging. Robert Hamilton, writing in Duties of a Regimental Surgeon considered, describes how a fellow surgeon, who allowed a soldier to be flogged to death, found himself a public enemy;
He was tried at the succeeding assizes for the country, and though acquitted,

from several circumstances that appeared in his favour, yet he never spoke

on the subject without considerable emotion, as I know from my acquaintance with him afterwards: it cost him not only much anxiety of mind, but great expense, and the hazard of his life. An enraged multitude fought him in every corner; but a precipitate flight to another kingdom prevented them from discovering him: had he been found while their ferment continued, they would have taken the law into their own hands, and not waited for the

verdict of a jury;0


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