Much is made of the social mobility of the French army in the period. It is an apparent irony that the British army’s officer corps came from a similarly diverse social background, shared to some extent with that of the enlisted ranks. Officially, all that was needed to attain an officer’s commission was proof of literacy, the age of sixteen, a stated willingness to join any regiment with a vacancy, and a written recommendation from an officer holding the rank of major or higher. As such, officers were as likely to be the sons of common men as of aristocrats. Sir John Elley, a celebrated cavalry officer who joined the Royal Horse Guards as a trooper in 1789 and rose to the rank of Colonel by 1813, was the son of an eating house keeper in Furnival’s Inn, an Inn of Chancery in Holborn, London. An even more telling example was of a certain Private Babington Nolan of the 13th Light Dragoons. Following his death in 1796, at the instigation of his former colonel, his son John Babington Nolan was granted an ensigncy in the 61st Foot, later becoming a lieutenant in the 70th Foot, and rising to the rank of Captain without purchase in 1812. His second son, Louis Edward Nolan, would meet his famous end at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854. Nolan’s career illustrates two different aspects of the social background of British army officers. One, the more obvious, is a shift in the social composition of the officer corps. The other is the creation of what amounted to military families, with multiple generations entering military service.
These changes were motivated, like so many others, by simple pragmatism. Comparatively few of what could be called Britain’s ruling class entered military service during the Napoleonic wars. The country boasted fewer than five hundred Peers, for whose services the army had to compete with the other two traditional employers of the aristocracy, the navy and the church. In 1809, only one hundred and twenty seven old Etonians held army commissions, a statistic at odds with the adage, questionably attributed to the Duke of Wellington, that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. An officer of the time was expected to be a ‘gentleman’, but the meaning of the term had changed. The term ‘gentleman,’ when referring to a prospective officer’s father, was used as a polite euphemism for a less highly regarded profession.0 That a ‘gentleman’ was somewhat loosely defined in terms of background made this plausible, and made it possible for the son of a private to become an officer under the right circumstances.
Whereas a gentleman had once been a member of the landed gentry, by the Napoleonic wars it had become a distinct if broad concept. The defining features of a gentleman could include high birth, a degree of wealth, relatives of that status, education, social graces, appropriate conduct, and a suitably gentlemanly position in society, such as that of an officer. Importantly, the source of a gentleman’s wealth could vary substantially. Though land was the traditional source of wealth and status, a gentleman could also gain wealth from trade, finance, or even industry. As a result, gentlemanliness could include a variety of apparently conflicting ideals and values, which were gradually squared as the gentlemanly identity evolved. The rise of industry and capitalism brought new values into the melting pot, such as individualism and self-reliance, but also the crucial value of professionalism. A gentleman could be a professional, and just as importantly a professional could be a gentleman. This refers to ‘the professions’, which included the law, academia, and business, but in this particular context it also referred to being a professional soldier. A gentleman officer aspired to be educated, refined, moral, hard-working, and self-disciplined.0
Fitzwilliam Darcy, or Mr Darcy, from Jane Austen’s famous contemporary novel ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ can be considered a literary representation of this ideal.0 Mr Darcy starts the novel as a stereotypical young gentleman, possessed of an annual income exceeded ten thousand pounds and the suitably grand estate of Pemberley in Derbyshire. His character is defined by a deep-rooted pride in himself and what he represents, tending to manifest as a superior and overbearing attitude, for which the narrator Elizabeth Bennet rebukes him several times. He nonetheless displays better, more gentlemanly qualities later in the novel. These qualities include grace, shown in his politeness towards social inferiors and his embarrassment at the overt snobbishness of his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. He displays agency and decisiveness in tracking down his old adversary, George Whickham, and generosity in purchasing for him an officer’s commission in the Militia in order to induce him to marry Lydia Bennett, with whom he had eloped. In helping to ensure the affair is not made public he displays discretion and tact, while his attempt to conceal his part in the resolution from Elizabeth shows both humility and sincerity. Though Mr Darcy was not himself an officer, it is possible to translate the ideal he represents into a military context. The ideal officer, on that basis, is indeed a gentleman. He is gracious and generous to inferiors and superiors alike. He is courageous, both physically and morally. He is sophisticated in his manners, discrete in his morals, and sincere in his intentions.
The concept of honour is crucial to understanding the identity of military officers in this period. Samuel Johnson, in his Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, provided multiple contemporary definitions of honour in different contexts. In a personal context, honour could mean nobility and sincerity. In a wider social context, honour meant the social standing of an individual or family, based on their ‘reputation,’ that is to say their perceived behaviour. It could also refer to the acquisition of status through achievement, the privileges of rank, and the respect due to both. The ideal officer is honourable in all of these contexts; possessing an innate personal honour, having an unblemished reputation, and attaining honour through his services. A British officer’s honour was not a personal matter, but a matter for his ‘brother officers’ and for the army as a whole. An officer who did not do his duty in the eyes of his ‘brother officers’ could expect to be shunned, at least until the failure was redeemed.0 The ability of an officer to follow the unwritten codes of honour was considered every bit as important, more so even, than any quantifiable military ability. To be ill-mannered, financially or sexually importunate, or too familiar with the lower ranks, could occasion an otherwise capable and loyal officer to be cashiered.0
This focus on the character of officers was by no means unique to the British officer corps. Other European armies desired similar qualities of their officers, and had similar attitudes to where those qualities came from. The Prussian army, even under Scharnhorst’s reforms, valued certain innate qualities at least as much as the technical knowledge that was so vital to the maintenance and use of a Napoleonic army. Those qualities included presence of mind, judgement, punctuality, and proper behaviour.0 To regard this attitude as anti-intellectual would be to take it out of context, while to call it snobbery is over-simplistic. The focus on innate qualities derived from two particular concerns. One was to do with the relationship between officers and wider society, the other being concerned with the ability of officers to carry out their duties, both on and off the battlefield. The connection between these two concerns lay in what at the time was considered a necessary link between social status and values. Military and civilian virtues and identities were similarly linked. Perhaps the most clear physical identification of gentlemanly status was the ownership of a sword, which was also an integral part of an officer’s uniform. An officer would be addressed by his military rank only when in uniform, being addressed as ‘mister’, or whatever title he possessed, when out of it.0 An officer was a gentleman, and a gentleman was an officer.
‘Gentlemen’ were a class as loosely defined as the values they exemplified, their place based as much on an idea as on heredity or wealth. Nevertheless they were taken to represent the best qualities of the nation, their innate qualities making them more fit than any other class or faction to defend the country. Chief among those qualities in a military context was physical courage, with which an officer overcame his self-preservation instinct and performed his duty in battle. Such courage represented a refined, nobler form of the pride and obstinacy that was considered innate to masculinity at the time.0 One way in which such refined masculinity could be expressed was through dance, an activity that tied in closely, if ironically to military service. Dance was regarded as a particularly gentlemanly pursuit, representing cultural refinement, civilized sociability, and a trained, graceful body. Dance was also tied into military drill in the same way that the ideal eighteenth century army was tied in to Enlightenment ideals of rational self-control. Just as the ideal army was perfectly controlled and synchronized in battle, so the ideal gentleman’s body was controlled and synchronized on the dance floor.0 For this reason, it was considered appropriate and necessary for a good officer to be a good dancer.
Another, more personal way in which a gentleman could express physical prowess was through duelling. Duelling as an acceptable expression of masculinity was combined with a sense of being under surveillance by society as a whole, of having to maintain a perfect image at all times and under all circumstances, and that the smallest and most trivial slight was to be avenged immediately, the alternative being utter and seemingly-inescapable humiliation.0 In this pressure-cooker environment, ways were needed of releasing pent-up tension, and the most important by far was duelling. So deeply ingrained was it in the social and military identity of officers that legislation intended to prevent duelling was rendered entirely ineffective.0 The conduct of the Duke of York when challenged by Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Lennox of the Coldstream Guards is an example both of this tendency and of what would be considered good conduct. When Lennox claimed that the Duke had slighted him, the Duke and his companions insisted that he had done no such thing. When Lennox would not back down, as the code of masculinity required him never to do, the Duke declared his willingness to give satisfaction.
Their meeting on Wimbledon Common on May 20th 1789 would have followed certain conventions. The ‘seconds’, being friends or acquaintances of the two parties, would call upon them to settle their differences peaceably, a futile but necessary formality. Pistols having been chosen, the combatants would stand a set distance apart and fire at the same time on command, though it was forbidden to deliberately aim.0 Though Lennox shot away a lock of his hair, the Duke refused to return fire, claiming he bore Lennox no ill-will, and even allowed him to fire again. Lennox refused on the basis that the Duke had not fired, and the matter was declared settled.0 A duel with pistols would otherwise continue until either one combatant was hit, or the complainant declared himself satisfied. If duelling seems to carry the air of a deadly formality, or even a ritual, this would not be inaccurate. The Duke of York’s refusal to return fire, and Arthur Wellesley’s famous and fortunately reciprocated unwillingness to fire on the Earl of Winchelsea in 1829, is proof that death was not compulsory. While both parties had by implication the right to kill the other if they so wished, and death by duelling was commonplace, this was not the sole motive. Rather it was simply to prove that one was willing to duel, and thus remove any question of one’s honour and masculinity.
A crucial factor in this equation is that the value of honour was considered to be a function of social status. Gentlemen were fit to be officers because they belonged to that particular social group, being the products of a certain education and upbringing, and sharing those particular values and ideals. There was also a practical element, in that gentlemanly values were assumed to impart military qualities, an attitude shared with the officer corps of the French Royal army. The majority of British army officers were themselves the sons of army officers, a factor that must have granted a certain credibility to that attitude.0 Social homogeneity also had a practical effect in combat, forming an officer corps whose members could understand one-another and act cohesively under stressful conditions.0 The introduction of a system of confidential reports, by which the worthiness of promotion candidates could be judged, had the effect of solidifying this state of affairs, in that officers tended to recommend fellow gentlemen, perpetuating their social networks. The Duke of Wellington consciously and deliberately engaged in this practice for much the same reasons.0 It is worth pointing out that unlike today, patronage was not considered ‘corruption’ in the contemporary mindset. Rather it was seen as essentially gentlemanly, binding officers together in networks of reciprocal obligation and loyalty.0 In that respect, patronage can be thought of as an attempt to civilize an increasingly professional officer corps. By creating these personal bonds, officers may have reasoned, they could ensure that the officer corps did not become too isolated from the values of civil society.
Though the officer corps encompassed a relatively broad social cross-section, this did not make it any more accepting of those who obviously did not derive from it. Rising from the enlisted ranks was relatively common, with approximately one in every twenty officers doing so, not counting the Ensigns of veteran battalions who tended to be former NCOs. This was generally a reward for long and steady service, completed with minimal or non-existent misdemeanours.0 It was also, in all likelihood, a practical necessity for the maintenance of the officer corps. But simply achieving the rank did not necessarily lead to acceptance by the rest of the officers. Promotion from the ranks was widely criticized by British officers at the time, on the basis of a belief that officers needed to possess qualities other than those that might allow an enlisted soldier to succeed and advance his career. In a modern army this claim would carry some merit, as the responsibilities of a modern officer require higher levels of conventional education and specialist training than those of enlisted personnel. While it is perfectly possible for a modern British soldier to become an officer, a university degree is generally required.
This is illustrated in the story of a former sergeant who went so far as to ask for demotion because the other officers would not associate with him. His situation changed for the better during an inspection, in which the Duke of York openly socialised with him in front of the regiment, after which his fellow officers proved more accepting.0 This incident may be taken as evidence of the Duke’s better nature, though it was almost certainly a deliberate gesture, intended to make his position on the question of promotion from the ranks abundantly clear. Frederick displayed his understanding of the mind-set of the officers, though the reactions of the officers themselves is surely telling. Their sudden acceptance of their ex-enlisted colleague cannot be attributed to a desire to please Frederick, as it is highly unlikely he would be in any position to follow up individual cases. Another explanation would be to draw upon the concept of the transformative ritual described in the previous chapters. The King was regarded as the fount of honour, and as such the Duke of York could to a significant extent bestow honour himself. Through the Duke’s acknowledgement and acceptance, the former sergeant was ‘transformed’ in the eyes of his fellow officers.