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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Officer Recruitment


The British army was able to recruit ever larger numbers of officers during the Napoleonic wars, whether in spite or because of the Purchase system. Purchase can be traced as far back as the late seventeenth century, when European armies were well into the process of change from the older ‘pike and shot’ approach to what is recognized as the eighteenth-century model. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a Captain was entirely responsible for leading and administrating his ‘bande’, or ‘company’ as they were increasingly known. The result was invariably fraud, with such opportunities for self-enrichment as claiming pay money for more men than one actually had and pocketing the difference.0 Regimental Colonels late in the Stuart dynasty were every bit as venal as the Elizabethan Captains, cheating the enlisted men of their salaries through stoppages both legal and illegal, and defrauding the government through false expenses claims.0 Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the purchase system as it came into being had its fair share of advocates, at least in the early part of the eighteenth century. The Duke of Marlborough was one of them, arguing that it prevented parliamentary interference in the recruitment and promotion processes. At the same time, so he argued, purchase offered a means by which talented officers could be advanced, as Generals had the final say on promotions within their own commands.0 A related argument is that the constant exchange of commissions ensured that officers were constantly moving up the hierarchy, preventing stagnation in the officer corps. Purchase could also, in theory, have a beneficial effect on officer discipline, as an officer found wanting could be stripped of his commission, thus losing his investment.0


The actual process of purchase was fairly straightforward, though it should be borne in mind that the set price represented the absolute value of the commission. Thus, an ensign might pay £400 for his commission, but then only £100 for a lieutenant’s commission worth £500, paying only the difference as he rose through the ranks. Once the first payment had been made, a would-be officer had only to prove that he possessed the education of a gentleman, which included military drawing and at least one European language.0 Each commission existed independently of the others, and when selling his commissions he would receive the money from the purchaser of each individual commission. Thus, a Captain would receive money from a Lieutenant for his captaincy, from an Ensign for his Lieutenancy, and from a prospective officer for his Ensigncy. All transactions were handled by the Regimental Agent, along with any additional fees and clandestine palm-greasing. Testimonials of his worthiness were most helpful, preferably from commanding officers, without which the candidate would usually have to settle for a commission in a colonial formation, which were significantly less prestigious. Thanks in part to the decentralized nature of the regimental system, the decision lay ultimately with the regiment’s colonel. Prospective officers possessed of neither money nor testimonials might instead serve as Volunteers, performing the duties of enlisted men but otherwise having to live as and socialize with officers, perhaps gaining a commission if they showed ability.0 Purchase was never applied to the Royal Artillery or the Royal Engineers, in which entrance and promotion were handled by ‘selection’, that is to say by merit, as in the Royal Navy and the French army.0 The reasoning behind this is obvious, as both branches required certain technical skills in order to operate effectively.
Officer promotions were worked out through a process of elimination, with the vacancy going to the most senior of the next lowest rank with both the desire and ability to purchase. If he could not purchase, or did not wish to for some reason, then the vacancy would go to the next most senior who could and would. The issue of what to do when no one from the rank below wanted to accept the promotion does not seem ever to have risen. From 1720 onwards, this process was increasingly taken under War Office control. A subaltern could not, from this period onward, become a Captain without having served ten years in lower ranks.0 This reform was intended to prevent officers from rising too quickly, avoiding the scandalous incidences of officers beginning their military careers in the nursery and commanding regiments as teenagers. Though few cases were as extreme as that of Percy Kirke, who became an ensign at twelve months in 1684 and a captain at six years in 1689, this problem continued as late as 1758, in which George Lennox became lieutenant colonel of the 33rd Foot aged only twenty.0
This system was widely flouted, however, to the point where an officer might still purchase his way up to the rank of lieutenant colonel in as little as three weeks.0 Vacancies could not be left unfilled, and if a young gentleman could not be found in time, then the colonel could lend necessary funds to a suitable Sergeant or candidate of otherwise unsuitable background on his own initiative.0 Around one third of promotions in the period were without purchase, usually as a result of the commission’s previous holder having died or been cashiered.0 As part of his own programme of reforms, the Duke of York significantly increased the number of unpaid commissions. He also expanded the minimum service requirements, requiring a minimum of two years’ service to become a captain and six years to become a major, while an ensign could be no younger than sixteen.0 All this can be understood as part of a process of professionalization, in which the extent to which officer status was conferred on the basis of wealth or connections was gradually reduced.

Motives of Enlisted Men

The motives behind the decision to enlist could be multifarious and complex. An example of these complexities can be found in the person of Benjamin Harris, of the 95th Regiment of Foot, the ‘95th Rifles.’ Aside from not having written the account himself, the precise date is not known, beyond that it was in the decade of 1830 to 1840. This means that the information was recorded at anything from sixteen to twenty-six years after Harris left the army in 1814. This is noticeable in the narrative, which shows a tendency to ramble and repeat itself. The fact that Curling presented his manuscript with those features in place nonetheless implies honesty on his part.0 Rifleman Harris represents a complex example, in that he was apparently enthusiastic about transferring to the Rifles, but had been somewhat less so about entering military service in the first place:


Thus without troubling myself much about the change which was to take place in the hitherto quiet routine of my days, I was drafted into the 66th Regiment of Foot, bid good-bye to my shepherd companions, and was obliged to leave my father without an assistant to collect his flocks, just as he was beginning more than ever to require one; nay, indeed, I may say to want tending and looking-after himself…However, as I had no choice in the matter, it was quite as well that I did not grieve over my fate.0
Fear for his father’s wellbeing aside, Harris seems to have regarded his drafting into the Army of Reserve with equanimity. This is a surprising attitude to modern sensibilities, and that he should be drafted in a process that would be contrary to his will, had he been more deeply set against it, may seem equally surprising in light of the supposedly volunteer nature of the British army. The answer is that the Militia and the Army of the Reserve were recruited by ballot, though the Army of the Reserve was in practice a bureaucratic shorthand for drafting directly into the army if Harris’ description is anything to go by. In practice its battalions were paired with regular army regiments in the hope that draftees could be persuaded to transfer. Understandably the Army of the Reserve was widely regarded as conscription by stealth. Worse, it only managed a net acquisition of around thirty thousand recruits, of which around twenty-thousand were ‘persuaded’ to join the regulars. Judged a failure, the Army of the Reserve was shelved, those recruits who had not transferred being formed into garrison units, which were used primarily in Ireland. The Militia was considerably less resented, and in fact much of the resentment and suspicion surrounding the Army of the Reserve derived from the fact that the Militia already existed, and many of those who had avoided the Militia ballot found themselves facing yet another.

Transfer from the Militia was a major source of recruits for the regular army. Over twenty-seven thousand transferred between 1804 and 1808, and around twenty-five thousand transferred over the period of 1809 and 1810 alone, dropping to just over eleven thousand in 1811 and under ten thousand in 1812.0 The timing suggests an increased interest in regular service as the war went on, with such a massive increase in 1809. This may seem strange, for Militia service was not without its advantages. Its members were required by law to go no further abroad than the Channel Islands or Ireland, and their wives received financial support from their parishes while they were mobilized. By contrast the lot of army wives was not a happy one, especially when their husbands were sent abroad. Wives not ‘on the strength’ were given a pass entitling them to food and accommodation in their home parishes, though such support was not always forthcoming. To make matters worse, no formal system existed by which soldiers could send money home. Regiments that made their own arrangements were invariably popular.0 For men for whom support of dependents was not a concern, transfer to the army offered certain rewards. The monetary reward was the most obvious, but the other most likely reason was the desire to experience a real war. With invasion unlikely after the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the Militia offered little if any possibility of fighting, unless the much-loathed duty of riot control was counted. If militiamen would not transfer willingly, then the old resort of coercion was always available. Thomas Morris describes hearing of these practices in his Recollections of Military Service;


The militia would be drawn-up in line, and the officers, or non-commissioned officers, from the regiments requiring volunteers, would give a glowing description of their several regiments, describing the victories they had gained and the honours they had acquired, and conclude by offering, as a bounty, to volunteers for life £14; to volunteers for the limited period of seven years £11. If these inducements were not effectual in getting men, then coercive measures were adopted; heavy and long drills and field exercises were forced on them, which were so oppressive, that to escape them men would embrace the alternative, and join the regulars.0
From an organisational perspective, militia transfer offered many advantages. Many of the active militiamen in 1807 had been under arms since 1803, making them a reserve of manpower that had not only been trained, but had become somewhat accustomed to the military life. To transfer these men would be far quicker and easier than to train new recruits, and the experience with the Army of the Reserve suggested that additional overt balloting would not be welcomed by ordinary people.0 Despite this, while militia transfer provided a substantial number of recruits for the regulars, it never quite lived up to expectations. Militia transfers between 1807 and 1813 fell below quota on average by thirty-five per cent. English regiments made up the lowest proportion of this figure, with quota failure averaging twenty per cent, while Scottish militia regiments made up the highest, even bearing in mind their much smaller numbers, at sixty-one per cent.0 This particular disparity can in part be attributed to the success of the Highland regiments, which may have served to denude the Highlands, and perhaps Scotland as a whole, of militia recruits. Linch also blames obstructionism by militia officers personally or ideologically opposed to this practice, though as the above example shows, this was by no means universal.0

For their own part, the Volunteers seem to have had little difficulty in maintaining their numbers for much of the conflict, at least once sufficient inducement was provided. A common motivation for joining the volunteers was to avoid the Militia ballot, which became impossible between 1796 and 1799 out of a desperate need to increase militia numbers. A volunteer unit could collectively avoid the ballot only if its members were willing to serve within their military district as a whole.0 This desire was nevertheless taken into account in the Volunteer Exemption Act of 20 December 1803, which required volunteers to undergo a minimum of twenty-four days training per year in order to avoid the ballot. This was not the only example of concessions being given to attract recruits. June of that year saw the ‘June allowances’, under which pay was offered for two days training per week between Lady Day and Michaelmas and up to one week during winter, to a maximum of eighty-five days per annum, so long as the unit would serve within the entire military district. Relatively few volunteers responded to this call, many doing so only to ensure that the Levy en masse would be suspended as promised. The ‘August allowances’ saw greater success, offering a clothing allowance of one pound every three years and one shilling per day for twenty days of training, if the unit had enrolled after 22nd June and would agree to serve anywhere.0


Of the well over three-hundred thousand enlisted volunteers by January of 1804, over two hundred and eleven thousand were serving under the August allowances, compared to a mere sixty-seven thousand under the June allowances. The overwhelming success of these measures strongly implies a financial motive behind joining the volunteers. This can be taken in a self-serving light, or alternatively that otherwise-patriotic would-be volunteers were more willing to put themselves out if money was on offer. One other very likely reason, pointed out by Beckett, is that joining the volunteers was a means of avoiding more dangerous and difficult service in the militia or even the regulars. For the inhabitants of coastal counties, especially those who worked on the water in any capacity, avoiding the naval press-gang was an entirely likely consideration. While genuine patriotism and fear of external or internal enemies cannot reasonably be ruled out, self-interest undoubtedly made many volunteers willing. Another reason brought up by Beckett is the growing public interest in, and acceptability of, the armed forces. Most likely due to the psychological impact of the conflict, it had become increasingly desirable, even fashionable, to belong to some sort of military organisation.0

But why did some men show such willingness, even enthusiasm, to serve? What was it that drew so many men to enlist of their own free will? What was it that attracted them to the military life? Any attempt to answer this question will result in the citing of a number of popular clichés. These include the men being drawn by the uniform, or the chance of adventure, or the lure of money or sexual encounters. These are clichéd, but that does not necessarily make them untrue. Rifleman Harris in many respects fits one of the stereotypes of British army recruits in the period, as he describes what drew him to the Rifles:


Whilst in Dublin I one day saw the a corps of the 95th Rifles, and fell so in love with their smart, dashing, devil-may-care appearance, that nothing would serve me until I was a rifleman myself; so on arriving at Cashel one day, and falling in with a recruiting-party of that regiment, I volunteered into the second battalion…

Being joined by a sergeant of the 92nd Highlanders, and a Highland piper of the same regiment (also a pair of real rollicking blades), I thought we should all have gone mad together. We started on our journey, one beautiful morning, in tip-top spirits from the Royal Oak at Cashel; the whole lot of us (early as it was) being three sheets in the wind. When we paraded before the door of the Royal Oak, the landlord and landlady of the inn, who were quite as lively, came reeling forth, with two decanters of whisky, which they thrust into the fists of the Sergeants, making them a present of the decanters and all to carry along with them, and refresh themselves on the march. The piper then struck up, the sergeants flourished their decanters, and the whole route commenced a terrific yell. We then all began to dance, and danced through the town, every now and then stopping for another pull at the whisky decanters.0


The fact that Harris was already a soldier should be taken into account, for such an experience may well have served to acclimatize him to the military life and make him more likely to see the Rifles in a positive light. This is relevant to his description of their appearance, for he seems to have liked the idea of joining such a body.
The example of Private William Wheeler, of the 2nd Royal Surrey Militia and then the 51st battalion, the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, would appear to support the claim that adventure was a major draw. Private Wheeler is an example of a transferring soldier, doing so to all appearances of his own free will alongside over one hundred of his fellows. Wheeler also claimed that they largely did not care which regiment they joined, but went wherever large numbers of them happened to be going. This can be interpreted as a desire to retain existing bonds, a common consideration for a soldier, though a degree of peer pressure may be inferred. Wheeler’s description gives no particular implication of this:
I have at length escaped from the Militia without being flead (SIC) alive. I have taken the first opportunity and voluntiered (SIC) together with 127 of my comrades into the 51st Light Infantry Regiment. I had made up my mind to voluntier (SIC) but into what regiment I cared not a straw, do I determined to go with the greatest number. The latter end of March the order came. On the 1st April I gave in my name for the 51st. The 2nd. and 3rd. was occupied by the Doctor’s inspection and the General’s approval, and on the 4th. I was attested for 7 years.
Wheeler also expressed an interest in joining the 95th Rifles, adding that around ninety of his fellows and a popular officer did so.0 This interest in the Rifles, a factor in common with Harris’ account, is of interest from a social perspective. The 95th was arguably the most popular regiment in the British army, attracting so many prospective recruits as to allow, or perhaps necessitate, the raising of a second battalion in 1805. The regiment had many attractions, the most important to soldiers being its prestige as an elite unit. Of greater importance to recruits of a certain disposition was its approach to training, combat, and military discipline. The skirmish warfare practiced by the 95th required a greater degree of intelligence and self-discipline than that required of line infantry. As a result, the rifleman’s experience was somewhat different to that of his red-coated counterpart. Rifle officers tended to fraternize with the men to a far greater extent than line officers, even eating with them, and were far less likely to employ the lash. For a soldier of the Militia or Reserve seeking to transfer, this must have been very tempting.
There were also those who joined in order to escape from their current lives. Sergeant William Lawrence, according to his own account, joined the army having fled from the abusive builder to whom he had been apprenticed. John Shipp, in Memoirs of the Extraordinary Military Career of John Shipp, makes much of his youthful desire for the military life, but if there is any truth in his descriptions of his own master’s brutality, escape cannot have been a minor factor. Another poignant example is a certain ‘Thomas’, an anonymous soldier of the 71st Highlanders, who enlisted with the regiment after failing as an actor, a profession he had parted ways with his family in order to pursue. Richard Holmes identifies him as a certain ‘Thomas Pococke’, ascribing his anonymity to a sense of delicacy. His Journal of a Soldier of the Seventy-First, describes his sense of shame and of having betrayed his poverty-stricken family, and how this led him to join a party of recruits in a fit of despair:
I wandered the whole night. In the morning early, meeting a party of recruits about to embark, I rashly offered to go with them -, my offer was accepted, and I embarked at Leith, with seventeen others, for the Isle of Wight, in July, 1806.

The morning was beautiful and refreshing. A fine breeze wafted us from the roads. The darkness of the preceding night only tended to deepen the gloomy agitation of my mind ; but the beauties of the morning scene stole over my soul, and stilled the perturbation of my mind. The violent beat of the pulse at my temples subsided, and I, as it were, awoke from a dream.


Such adolescent embarrassment was not the only reason why some men felt the need to leave their lives behind. A commonly-cited and more practical reason for enlistment was financial, with some men joining for the promised bounty, a regular wage, and the promise of clothing and meals. Bounties could vary significantly, almost certainly depending on the availability of recruits. William Lawrence claimed that his bounty was two and a half guineas, or two pounds and twelve shillings.0 Thomas Pococke on the other hand mentions his bounty as being eleven guineas, meaning eleven pounds and eleven shillings, of which four pounds was held back to pay for his ‘necessaries.’0 The latter term referred to a soldier’s basic equipment, for which deducting from the bounty was a common practice. Though the extent conflict between the regulars and the Militia over recruiting may be overstated, bounties are one context in which this did take place. With a militiaman able to gain as much as six pounds, and even more as a substitute if market forces permitted, the laws of supply and demand forced army bounties ever higher.0
After this, a Private’s salary was one shilling per day before ‘stoppages’, which referred to everyday or regular expenses such as food or boot polish. This was actually an increase of eighty per cent, one of the Duke of York’s many reforms after becoming Commander in Chief in 1795.0 Soldiers who possessed useful skills from their civilian lives, such as carpenters and masons, could earn additional money by the use of them.0 The precise definition of ‘stoppages’ depended to a great extent on the character of the regiment’s colonel, who might not be able to resist the temptation to attempt to profit from his responsibility, or at least to affray expenditures. Reductions in government spending meant that colonelcies no longer offered the sort of opportunities for self-enrichment as they had once done, or continued to do in the French Royal army up to the Revolution.0 By comparison in 1790, a London saddler could earn fifteen shillings in a week, while a Lancashire weaver could earn eight shillings and seven pence in that time.0 In 1806, a man could earn ten shillings a day digging canals.0 In light of such competition, the draw of an army wage could not have been its size.

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