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 Training

In sharp contrast to the enlisted men, officers in the British army received little or no formal training, a fact much commented upon at the time. There existed a general attitude that an officer required no training beyond the education of a gentleman, which might at least include horseback riding and swordsmanship. The exception was the technical services, in which specialised training was both indispensable and generally recognized as such, and those officers serving as Volunteers, who performed the duties of enlisted men. For a small minority there were private schools or a stint abroad, usually in better provided-for Prussia or France. Indeed, Arthur Wellesley would himself receive tuition at the Royal Academy of Equitation at Angers. For the majority of British infantry and cavalry officers, at least those that did not rise from the ranks, their training once in uniform consisted of what might be considered an apprenticeship. By spending some time in each rank before advancing, an officer could in theory learn his own duties and those of officers above him through experience. The Duke of York’s aforementioned reforms, in which minimum periods of service were set for each rank, reflect this approach. Nevertheless, he sought to improve the quality of the training that officers underwent, at first by requiring individual regiments to train officers themselves. John Le Marchant, a committed reformer and one of Britain’s finest cavalry generals, applied this practice to the 7th Light Dragoons in 1798, while serving as its lieutenant colonel.0 While this represents a tightening-up of training practices, it would invariably have taken place within the context of the traditional apprenticeship.

The process of change began in 1741, with the establishment of the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. Sited in proximity to the Woolwich arsenal, its role was to train artillery and engineer officers. This was later followed by the staff college at High Wycombe, which in 1801 became the senior department of the Royal Military College. The institution now known as the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst was established by Le Marchant in 1802, as the junior department of the staff college in Marlow, being moved to Sandhurst in 1813. This was also the year in which the Ecole Speciale Militaire was founded. At its founding, the new college catered to only sixteen cadets, rising to a maximum of four hundred in accordance with a Royal Warrant of 17th April 1803. Of these, one hundred were required to be the orphan sons of officers, who would be trained free of charge. Of the rest, eighty would be the sons of living officers, paying forty pounds per year; one hundred would be sons of ‘noblemen and gentlemen’, along with sixty cadets of the Royal Artillery and sixty of the East India Company, all paying ninety guineas per year. This was later altered in order to encourage more officers to send their sons there.
Ordnance cadets were to be attached ‘in proper proportions’ to the cadet companies, each of which would number one hundred. Ordnance cadets could enter at sixteen, while other cadets could enter between thirteen and fifteen, while none could remain after nineteen.0 In terms of its age range, this could be considered anything from a secondary school to a university, and reflects contemporary attitudes towards physical maturity. Needless to say, the cadets and faculty were provided with servants, adding to the gentlemanly ethos;

Former establishment, sixteen men-servants and sixteen women-servants; new establishment, twenty-four men-servants and five women-servants. Duties: to make three hundred and twenty beds, to clean three hundred and twenty pairs of shoes, three hundred and twenty silver spoons, and six hundred and forty knives and forks, as well as candlesticks and beer cans, to wait at meals, clean dormitories, halls of study, fire-places, to fill coal scuttles, and keep public buildings swept.0

The course of study at Sandhurst, which was completed by examination, was somewhat limited by later standards, but nonetheless had a military air. The requirement included a ‘thorough knowledge of Euclid, Books 1-6; well versed in either Classics, French, German, or History; conversant with the 1st and 3rd system of Vauban; proficient in Military Drawing; general conduct unexceptionable.’0 The first six books by Euclid are greatly concerned with geometry, which would doubtless be useful to artillery cadets, and a helpful adjunct to the military drawing requirement. The inclusion of Vauban’s systems would also be primarily of interest to the artillery cadets. That even would-be infantry or cavalry officers were subjected to this curriculum suggests an element of cross-training. It is worth noting that the day to day duties of infantry and cavalry officers do not appear to have been covered at the college. This implies that it was meant as a specialised technical institution, with those skills being taught to the cadets upon being assigned to their regiments.


Another factor crucial to the understanding of military identity was discipline. It was necessary for soldiers to be obedient, not just to the direct orders of superiors, but to other indirect sources of authority, including higher-ranking superiors, the rules of the army, and the government. It was also necessary for soldiers to develop an innate sense of being soldiers, that is, not dependent on the direct presence and authority of officers. This in itself marked a change from previous patterns, in which soldiers were obedient to officers who would have been their social superiors in civilian life also. The change was not so pronounced in old regime armies, but is worth noting in the case of Britain and France. As the European states developed armies on a national scale, even though they were not truly national armies in the sense that the French Revolution would establish, the previous system of feudal levying was abandoned. John A. Lynn’s analogy of leverages is instructive in understanding why military discipline was as it was. Remunerative leverage, that is to say the Mercenary’s motivation of fighting for money, had been abandoned, for the expense if for no other reason. Normative leverage, essentially gaining obedience through the use of social or cultural norms, was difficult to apply. The norms usually applied in this context are patriotism and esprit de corps, that is to say loyalty within a specific unit, which can in turn extend to the army as a whole.0

The harsh discipline universally associated with eighteenth-century European armies can be traced to the practices developed by Maurice of Nassau in the seventeenth century. While his system was not exactly what would be seen in the eighteenth century, he nevertheless started a trend by taking drill out of its usual context. For Maurice the purpose of drill went beyond the purely practical and into the realms of the mental or spiritual, the two being essentially synonymous in contemporary thought. Early seventeenth century philosophy privileged the mind over the body, regarding the former as the seat of reason and the latter as crude matter that needed to be controlled. The ideal soldier, as presented in contemporary memoirs described by Yuval Noah Harari, had complete mental control of his body. Maurice’s military system represented the application of this idea to the level of an entire army, or an entire state. The role of the body was to be played by the ordinary soldiers, who were through precise training and harsh discipline to become the instruments of the all-controlling mind, namely the commander or ruler. Harari makes a point of mentioning that the philosopher Rene Descartes, who so famously based self-knowledge and the certainty of human existence on the ability to think, served for a time in Maurice’s army.0 In this sense the need for discipline derives from military necessity.
Harari mentions two other interlocking influences, one being the popular memory of the Thirty Years War, in which ravening hordes of unpaid mercenaries ravaged the land in search of sustenance and wealth. This horrific vision, whether accurate or not, combined all too easily with popular prejudices towards soldiers, and the low rank of society from which they tended to derive, long after that particular conflict.0 Edward Coss has argued that the image of the British soldier as incurably criminal, which has survived until relatively recently, is monstrously unfair. A particularly telling piece of evidence comes from the journal of Francis Larpent, the Judge Advocate General for the British forces in Spain. In it, he reveals that between Christmas of 1812 and May of 1813 he had tried eighty cases, with ten still underway, and thirty abandoned for one reason or another.0 Considering that there were fifty-seven thousand British troops at the Battle of Vittoria in June of that year, these numbers do not suggest an army of compulsive criminals. Many soldiers at the time put misbehaviour down primarily to the actions of a minority of hardened troublemakers.0 Sergeant Donaldson describes this minority showing what it was capable of during the storming of Badajoz:
The effects of the liquor now began to show itself, and some of the scenes which ensured are too dreadful and disgusting to relate; where two or three thousand armed men, many of them mad drunk, others depraved and unprincipled, were freed from all restraint, running up and down the town, the atrocities which took place may be readily imagined, – but in justice to the army, I must say they were not general, and in most cases perpetrated by cold-blooded villains, who were backward enough in the attack.0
In the face of such behaviour, and the way in which such characters often treated their fellows, it is not so surprising that the enlisted men tended to be in favour of flogging at least in principle. It was, so the argument went, the only way to protect the law-abiding majority from such extreme personalities, who might not have responded to more enlightened methods. Edward Coss insists that the majority of British soldiers had a sense of decency and correct behaviour, and the attitudes expressed here would appear to back that up.

The ultimate purpose of discipline, as understood by contemporary British soldiers, was to maintain a necessary degree of order. This attitude can be seen in John Drinkwater’s account of the 1779 to 1783 siege of Gibraltar:

The Garrison-orders of the 26th expressed, that any soldier convicted of being drunk or asleep upon his post, or found marauding, should be immediately executed. These measures, rigorous as they may appear, were absolutely necessary, and, in reality, had been too long deferred. The soldiers were now arrived at so high a pitch of licentiousness, that no respect was paid to their officers, and scarcely obedience to them even when on duty. Such behaviour, if not curbed in time, too commonly induces very serious consequences.0
The ‘consequences’ alluded to by Drinkwater could be dire indeed. ‘Marauding’ in the terminology of the time could refer specifically to the act of plundering, and also to moving about in search of plunder. Stealing was itself an offence warranting the death penalty, and Drinkwater’s account mentions such executions on several occasions. Soldiers were actually searched as they returned to their quarters, leading one soldier to hide his loot inside a cannon, only to lose it all when the weapon was fired that night.0 These practices show that the British army was willing to take theft seriously, at least when dealing with civilians they were obliged to protect.

For soldiers to be robbing the civilian population they were ostensibly protecting was bad enough, but deserting their posts in order to do so was even worse. A soldier being drunk or asleep while guarding a warehouse, for example, could lead to the theft or destruction of vital supplies. Earlier in his account Drinkwater describes how a soldier and his family would have starved to death but for the assistance of his comrades, so desperate was the situation.0 Even worse, if a soldier were anything less than fully alert while on sentry duty, that is to say in proximity to the enemy, the result could be a successful enemy infiltration, or a full-scale sneak attack. For a soldier on guard to fail in his duty was to put all of his comrades, and those they protected, at risk. Sergeant Lawrence was himself flogged for being ‘absent without leave from guard.’ His account describes his feelings as the dreaded event approached:

It was the first offence to cause one to be held on me, but that did not screen me much, and I was sentenced to four hundred lashes. I felt ten times worse on hearing this sentence than I ever did on entering any battlefield; in fact, if I had been sentenced to be shot, I could not have been more in despair, for my life at that time seemed of very little consequence to me. My home and my apprenticeship days again ran in my head, but even these thoughts soon lost themselves as I neared the spot where my sentence was to be carried out.0
Despite the horror of the experience, Lawrence claims to have come to value it, though precisely how much time passed for him to reach this conclusion he does not reveal. He appears to have reconciled himself to it on the basis that it might have shocked him out of doing anything worse. This must be balanced with his feeling that the punishment was extreme under the circumstances.
The idea of crime against the collective is important in understanding eighteenth-century military discipline. Private Wheeler describes one flogging that he witnessed, at the hands of an officer he considered humane, in which this principle was applied:
I have said the Colonel is averse to flogging, yet he has been under the necessity of whipping one man since I joined. This fellow had deserted when the Regiment was under order for Corunna. He was sentenced five hundred lashes he only received 75 he was then taken down, the ranks opened, and the poltroon, as the Colonel justly called him, was ordered to march between the ranks. At the same time Colonel M- kept shouting ‘soldiers spit on the cowardly poltroon, you should all p- over him if it were not too indecent.’0
The officer in question, Colonel Mainwaring, seems to have maintained his reputation for clemency in inflicting only seventy-five lashes out of a sentence of five hundred. That Wheeler agrees with the Colonel calling the convicted man a ‘poltroon’ implies his assent to the punishment. The punishment that follows the flogging, in which the convicted man is made to march between the ranks while being spat upon, offers an insight into the motivations behind punishment. This particular incident is reminiscent in its structure to the notorious eighteenth century punishment of ‘running the gauntlet’, in which a convicted man was made to march between two lines of his fellow soldiers while they struck him with whips or sticks. In this case the soldiers make do with spitting, but the underlying message and purpose is much the same. The crime, in this case desertion, is committed against the collective, and as such the crime is punished collectively. This in itself affirms the regiment as a collective, and the convicted man’s place in it, whether he likes it or not.
Officers too were subject to discipline, albeit based on a different code and set of punishments. The worst an officer could expect under most circumstances was to be dismissed from the army, though this could involve the financial penalty of losing his commission and the money invested in it. An example of this can be found in Private Wheeler’s account. He provides a description of a particularly unpopular officer by the name of Major ‘Bloody Bob’ Hudson, describing the basis for his unpopularity:
Thus the regiment is ridded of as great a tyrant as ever disgraced the army. This man delighted in torturing the men, every man in the Corps hated him, when once a soldier came under his lash it was no use for any officer to plead for him. If he was young, his reply was: ‘It will do him good, make him grow and make him know better for the future.’ On the other hand if he was getting into years, the brute would say. ‘Oh! he is old enough to know better.’ He delighted in going round the Bks (SIC) on a Sunday morning to see if he could catch any of the married people roasting their meat. If he saw any meat roasting he would cut it down, and carry away the string and nail in his pocket, observing that they should boil their meat, it was more nourishing. Once he paid a visit to the Hospital and saw a cat. ‘Whose cat is this’ said he. ‘It is mine Sir’ said the Hospital Sergeant’s wife. ‘We are very much troubled with rats and mice.’ I don’t care a D- (SIC) was the reply, ‘you know my order, I will have neither dogs, cats, rats, or mice here.’

Beside the name of B-y (SIC) Bob he had acquired the cognomen of ‘Wheel’em again,’ from the habit of calling to the Serjeant Major ‘Do they grumble?’ The answer would be ‘Yes, sir’ – ‘Then wheel’em again.’0

Certain features of Major Hudson’s character stand out as being particularly detestable in Wheeler’s eyes. For the most part he comes across as an interfering busybody and something of a martinet, sticking inflexibly to rules in matters where they existed and enforcing his own where they did not. It is his attitude towards corporal punishment that particularly stands out, Wheeler’s description implying that he was regular and inclement in its application.
The fact that the Major was removed at all shows that officers were in practice subject to discipline, and could be punished for infractions. This stands in contrast to the caricature of the privileged and untouchable officer, free to act as he liked by virtue of his position and some perceived need to maintain the image of the officer corps. Even more extraordinary, by that standard, was that if Wheeler’s account is to be believed, the process of Major Hudson’s downfall began as a result of the aforementioned encounter between Viscount Cranley and a lame soldier. Logic dictates that this led to an investigation by Cranley, rather than a senior officer being dismissed on the word of a common soldier, but it nevertheless shows that at least some officers were not only responsive to such matters, but willing to investigate them and lay down the law even against ‘brother’ officers. All the same, officers were held to different standards and subjected to different punishments when found wanting. It was considered very bad form, for example, for officers to commit improprieties with the wives of their enlisted subordinates.0 In Soldiers, Holmes provides an example from 1779 in the form of lieutenant Thomas Eyre, who was court-martialled for beating a surgeon’s mate of his regiment with the flat of his sword. His crime was that he had gotten into an ‘unseemly quarrel’ with a social inferior, an offence that could have resulted in his being ‘cashiered’. According to Holmes, this rather sardonic term was derived from the German kassiert, meaning ‘broken’, and the analogy was apt. The sentence not only deprived an officer of his commission and all money invested in it, but could also prevent him from ever holding a profitable official position ever again.
A milder but no less punitive option was to suspend an officer from rank and pay, during which time he could neither purchase nor take advantage of a free promotion. Positions freed up by a cashiering were reserved for officers outside of the regiment, a measure Holmes ascribes to a need to scotch any suggestion of conspiracy.0 Despite this, it was possible for an officer to escape punishment by selling his commission in good time, as Rees Gronow recounts;
I knew an officer of the 18th Hussars, W.R., young, rich, and a fine-looking

fellow, who joined the army not far from San Sebastian. His stud of horses

was remarkable for their blood; his grooms were English, and three in number. He brought with him a light cart to carry forage, and a fourgon for his own baggage. All went on well till he came to go on outpost duty; but not finding there any of the comforts to which he had been accustomed, he quietly mounted his charger, told his astonished sergeant that campaigning was not intended for a gentleman, and instantly galloped off to his quarters, ordering his servants to pack up everything immediately, as he had hired a transport to take him off to England. He left us before anyone had time to stop him; and though dispatches were sent off to the Commander-in-Chief, requesting that a court-martial might sit to try the young deserter, he arrived home long enough before the dispatches to enable him to sell out of his regiment. He deserved to have been shot.0

Despite this example, a willingness to engage in self-correction, even if it is not entirely consistent, indicates willingness on the part of at least some British officers to take their duties seriously, which is itself an indication of a professional identity.

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