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 1: Professional Identities in the British Army


The question of professionalism is at the heart of any study of military identity. A professional soldier is one for whom the military life is his primary profession, generally understood as opposed to a soldier who serves for only a limited time, a ‘citizen’ soldier in the modern context. Indeed, the very term ‘soldier’ derives from the Latin solidare, meaning to pay. The concept of the citizen soldier is particularly relevant here, as it was arguably Revolutionary France that invented it in its modern sense. To add a further caveat, many armies throughout history have combined professional and non-professional elements. The Soviet Army of the twentieth century, for example, combined a professional officer corps with conscription in the enlisted and NCO ranks. This model is actually not much different from that of eighteenth-century European armies before the French Revolution, the main exception being that the enlisted men were as a rule volunteers, though some states, notably Sweden and Prussia, maintained arrangements for conscription in times of national emergency. Officers were indeed professional, but not in the way that is understood today. Ancien régime officers tended to be members of the aristocracy, considering military service to be a part of their essential identity and purpose. This version of professionalism can be dated back to the warrior aristocracy of the Middle Ages. This ‘warrior caste’ did not so much disappear as evolve, becoming the officer class of seventeenth and eighteenth century armies. It would survive in many cases long after the Revolution, with the Junker aristocracy dominating the Prussian and German Imperial officer corps up to the First World War. Even today, in some armies officers are chosen on a social basis, usually for political reliability. This shows us that the development of military science is not so much revolutionary as evolutionary.


The development of the British army as it existed at the end of the eighteenth century began with the New Model army. Existing from 1645 to 1660, the New Model army is best remembered for its role in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, as the conflicts surrounding and including the English Civil War are sometimes known, and in the Interregnum. Though the New Model army was dissolved in 1660 and never formally recreated, it nevertheless laid the groundwork for the English and later British army that would appear shortly afterwards. When Charles II and James II found it necessary to maintain a regular army, they organized it on much the same pattern as that of the New Model. Aside from the eponymous red coat, the most significant feature to be carried over was the regiment as a permanent organization. The most basic military unit was the company, sometimes called a bande, of around one hundred fighting men and any number of followers. This was led by a Captain, whose sole responsibility it was to feed, equip, and train the men, while pocketing as much of the difference as he could get away with. The rank of colonel was provided by the Spanish, in the form of the cabo de colunela, or ‘head of column’, instituted by King Ferdinand in 1505.0 His columns, numbering around a thousand men, are a clear link to the battalions and regiments that would come into existence later.
The responsibilities of a sixteenth century colonel were almost entirely tactical, with administrative functions remaining with the individual captains and higher functions being the responsibility of the army’s general. The term ‘regiment’ was used to refer to a formation of companies, usually around ten in number, in a purely tactical context.0 In Britain this distinction effectively disappeared as the New Model army was maintained indefinitely, the companies remaining both in existence and in their regiments. As fate would have it, the army created by Charles II would also remain in existence, the regiment becoming a permanent and recognizable institution as had already happened in France. The relevance of this development was not purely military, but political and social as well. With regard to professional identities, one feature of the New Model army not to be resurrected was the requirement for officers to be professional. The institution of the purchase system can be seen as a backlash against this, the intention being to prevent the creation of another politically-active army.
This first chapter will examine the development and nature of a professional identity among British soldiers in the period, while the second chapter will cover French soldiers. This approach will allow for the development of professional identities to be examined from two different directions. The first direction will be that followed by the British army, of an army that remained broadly professional throughout the period, while the second direction is that of the French army, a traditional professional army combining with an avowedly unprofessional army to create a force that, despite acquiring personnel by conscription, would nonetheless develop a professional identity and ethos. To examine how a civilian might develop a military identity, it is necessary to examine the process by which a civilian becomes a soldier. As such, both chapters will examine the recruitment and training processes, along with the effect of combat. The chapters will also examine the role of unit identities, including those of supposedly ‘elite’ units, of which there existed a plethora throughout the period. It is the intent of these chapters to show that despite the ideological and national differences between the two sides, there nonetheless existed similarities both in practical and identity-related contexts.

Recruitment of Enlisted Men


The British regular army, like most European armies in the period, recruited on a voluntary basis. By one means or another, the British army expanded from a peacetime establishment of just over seventeen thousand in 1793 to as high as just over two hundred and thirty-six thousand by 1812, along with a ‘foreign’ contingent of over thirty-two thousand.0 Individual regiments were responsible for their own recruiting, which was usually carried out by sending out recruiting parties, often led by sergeants chosen for their charisma and crowd-working skills, to persuade men to join. Under the ‘Talents’ administration, officers of the volunteers, or regular officers on half-pay, were permitted to act as ‘extra recruiting officers’, receiving a bounty for every recruit they brought in.0 By 1789, around fifty per cent of sergeants and just over forty per cent of commissioned officers were engaged in full-time recruiting.0 Recruits were primarily men from the lowest levels of society, though the collapse of the weaving trade brought some comparatively better-off recruits into the Crown’s service.0 Escape from unemployment or poverty was overall a common reason for volunteering. Sergeant Kite’s pitch in George Farquhar’s 1706 play The Recruiting Officer gives an impression of the reasons why many sought refuge in armed service:


… if any prentices have severe masters, any children have unnatural parents, if any servants have too little wages, or any husband too much wife; let them repair to the noble Sergeant Kite, at the Sign of the Raven, in this good town of Shrewsbury, and they shall receive present relief and entertainment.0
That Sergeant Kite should mention children had a double meaning in reality. The point at which a boy became a man was not as clearly defined in the period as today, though it was generally considerably earlier. The British army had a minimum age for recruitment, as well as a minimum height requirement. In general, the minimum height for a recruit was five feet and seven and a half inches, or around one point seven metres, while the acceptable age range was between fifteen and twenty-five. The rules allowed for ‘growing’ boys no shorter than five feet and five inches, so long as their home parishes could provide evidence of their identity and age. This was the theory, but in practice there was no legal bar to younger boys enlisting, as Charles Mathew Clode observes;
102. The age at which a Recruit is deemed eligible, is 18 years - though boys of 14 years are often enlisted. No question can be raised as to the legality of such an enlistment. “By the general policy of the Law of England,”

said Mr. Justice Best, “the parental authority continues until the child attains 21; but the same policy also requires that a minor shall be at liberty to contract an engagement to serve the State (as a Soldier). When such an engagement is contracted, it becomes inconsistent with the duty which he owes to the public that the parental authority should continue.”0


Under a regulation of 1796, boys under sixteen could be as short as five feet and one inch. Edward Coss, drawing on Kevin Linch’s dissertation “The Recruitment of the British Army 1807-1815”, argues that around one in four recruits did not meet the age requirement, with most defaulters being over the limit, and around one in five were under the required height.0

Recruits were not always easy to come by, however, and recruiters regularly resorted to dirty tricks when pickings were slim. One such attempt in April 1795 caused a riot in Westminster, when a recruiting sergeant gave an unwary youth money to buy tobacco, then upon his return claimed that he had ‘taken the shilling’. This conduct occasioned the sergeant to be attacked by local people, allowing his victim to escape.0 Thus success was dependent in part on local opinion, with particular regard to would-be recruits. This particular youth was fortunate, but unpopular individuals might find little in the way of neighbourly support if they fell into a recruiter’s clutches. Recruiting officers and sergeants were also not sub-contracting the work of recruiting to so-called ‘crimps.’ These middlemen would acquire recruits by whatever means presented themselves, often with little regard for the law. A tavern-keeper, for example, might prey on unwary customers by getting them drunk and imprisoning them for collection, while some crimps found men in the local jails, with or without the knowledge or consent of the authorities.0 In this respect, a crimp can be considered the nearest equivalent to a French racoleur. It is perhaps no surprise that desertions were most common among new recruits, and that they tended to take place at home and in wartime.0


In Britain recruits were required to be sworn in before a magistrate and then examined by a doctor. Since the recruitment process could be halted at either stage, this theoretically guarded against coercion. But this process could be circumvented if the recruiter was willing to perjure himself by swearing that the recruit in question had been properly processed. Another legal impediment to enlistment was if the would-be soldier turned out to be an apprentice, as described by William Lawrence:
How I was spending the rest of the night meanwhile can better be conceived than described; but next morning, as I was going up to the Town Hall with an officer to be sworn in, who should meet us but my father and mother. On their telling the officer that I was an apprentice, he gave me up to them without any further trouble, except that he asked me what had become of my bounty money, and on finding that I had only seventeen shillings and sixpence left out of my whole five guineas, kindly took the care of even that off my hands. Then we marched off home, and my father went to find out what was to be done in the matter from a magistrate, who advised him to take me back to Dorchester to be tried at the next sittings; which advice being acted on, I was severely reprimanded by the bench, and given my choice of serving my time or else going to prison. Of course I chose the former, and they gave me a letter to take with me to my master. When I got downstairs I met the officer who had enlisted me, who told me that if my master was unwilling to take me back, he would enlist me again; and finding on asking me if I had any money that he had taken all I possessed, he gave me a shilling and wished me well.0
The local Magistrates’ Court also provided a source of recruits, when recruiters offered the so-called gallows choice: in short, serve or hang. This did not make the British army a convict army in the popular sense of the term. British law at the time prescribed the death penalty for a wide variety of crimes, many of them petty, regardless of circumstance or even the age of the defendant, and often upon questionable pretexts. The Waltham Black Act of 1723, for example, allowed the death penalty for a series of rural crimes if the accused was found to be disguised or armed, and trial could be dispensed with if the accused could be said to have resisted arrest.0 The majority of the convicts who found themselves in uniform were therefore not hardened criminals at all, and may have faced the gallows for as little as being in the company of gypsies for one month. In practice, many avoided execution by accepting transportation to the colonies which, like execution itself, could be avoided by joining the army. On top of this, the 1701 Impressment Act theoretically empowered Justices of the Peace to conscript any men found to be unemployed, lacking means of support, or without ‘lawful calling.’0 Though local authorities possessed this power, in practice they seem to have made little use of it. The purpose of the acts was most likely to encourage those potentially subject to them to volunteer of their own free will.0

The other two major armed formations, the Militia and Volunteers, recruited by very different means. The militia was a venerable institution in British society, having existed since 1558, though the form it took during the Napoleonic wars had only existed since the passing of a series of reform bills, culminating in April of 1769. Each county was required to submit an annual report listing the number of suitable men aged between eighteen and forty-five. This was intended to provide a fair and equitable basis for recruitment quotas, but failed in practice due to official inertia, with the 1757 quotas remaining in force unchanged for almost forty years. Balloting was invariably unpopular, both with those who might be called-upon to serve and those who had to cover its expenses, including supporting the families of those who drew service. The common failure of officials to explain the legislation made matters worse, leading to misunderstandings over pay and whether or not they might be sent aboard.0 Those wishing to avoid three years of militia service could escape by providing a substitute, the rates rising from around twenty-five pounds in 1803 to sixty pounds in 1812.0 Substitutes tended on the whole to be agricultural labourers, and formed a high proportion of active militia personnel. Ian Beckett provides an example in Britain’s part-time soldiers of the Newport Hundreds in February 1797, of whom only seven out of one hundred and thirteen had taken part in the actual ballot, with sixty-eight of the substitutes being labourers.


If balloting was so unpopular, then the question arises as to how the Militia grew so large. Britain could boast around one hundred and five thousand Militia by January 1798; the single largest contingent of British land forces at that time.0 The answer is provided by Kevin Linch, who shows that there was a distinct drop-off in balloting after 1807 in favour of direct recruitment for bounties. Over forty-one thousand militiamen were recruited by ballot in that year, with no balloting taking place in the following year. The high point of balloting was over ten thousand in 1810, after which it dropped as low as two hundred and fifty-three in 1813, after which there was no more balloting for the rest of the period. Throughout the six years of 1809 to 1815, the new practice of direct recruitment outdid balloting every year, with the greatest disparity being over then thousand direct recruits to the aforementioned two hundred and fifty-three in 1813. The fact that regular recruitment was consistently higher than militia recruitment, except in 1810, strongly suggests that this policy did not steal recruits from the regulars.0
Though lacking the Militia’s pedigree, the Volunteer movement had also existed previously. Called for in 1794 and again in 1803, similar movements had appeared several times before in the eighteenth century, generally in response to fear of invasion. Beckett describes two other likely motivations, namely a fear of radical activity, and a desire on the part of the ‘middling sorts’ to establish themselves as a cultural and political force. The first two possibilities are entirely valid, though the third is harder to prove and better-suited to the political section. Unlike the militia the volunteers by their nature drew on segments of the population unlikely the join the regular army. Volunteer cavalry units, often known as Yeomanry, drew heavily on the agricultural population, who were more likely to provide their own mounts. Beckett provides figures for five troops in Buckinghamshire and Derbyshire between 1798 and 1804, in which anything up to sixty-nine per cent of recruits were farmers or their sons, while up to thirty-nine per cent were professionals or tradesmen. By contrast the infantry units, which shall be referred to as ‘volunteers’ in contrast to the cavalry ‘yeomanry’ for simplicity, were made up primarily of skilled workers.0 Fifteen thousand yeomanry and over fifty-thousand volunteers had been recruited by January 1798, a number that had risen to twenty-one thousand and ninety-seven thousand respectively three years later. Following the signing of the Treaty of Amiens, these formations were largely disbanded.0 When the volunteers were revived with the resumption of hostilities in 1803, their numbers rose to over three-hundred and forty-two thousand by January of the following year, a number so vast that the Ordnance office was unable to arm them.0 It was during this time that the government produced one of its most radical pieces of legislation with regard to military recruitment in the entire conflict: the General Defence Act of 27 July 1803. Otherwise known as the ‘Levy en Masse Act’, the act divided the male population into four ‘classes’. The first two classes included unmarried men under thirty and unmarried men aged between thirty and fifty respectively, with exceptions for those with children aged under ten years. The third class would consist of married men aged between seventeen and thirty with no more than two children under ten, while the fourth covered all the rest.0 Of these, the first three classes would undergo two hours training on Sundays for a maximum of twenty days. The legislation included a promise to suspend the levy if sufficient volunteers from the first three classes came forward as to make it unnecessary, which they subsequently did. The wider implications of this legislation will be covered in the political section.
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