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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Social Identity of Enlisted Men

A deeper look at the origins and conditions of enlisted men can be found in the accounts of the soldiers themselves. Rifleman Harris describes himself as being the son of a shepherd, from Blandford in Dorset, entering the Army of Reserve in 1802. He goes on to claim that his father attempted to buy him out, the law allowing for the provision of substitutes at the going rate of between twenty and thirty pounds.0 This claim can be interpreted in one of two ways. One is that his father possessed the requisite amount, but was unable to find a willing substitute. The other is that he lacked that particular sum and was unsuccessful for that reason. Even assuming Harris senior could provide such a sum, it is difficult to ascertain his socio-economic condition on that basis. In a time before modern inflation, prices and wages could vary considerably between localities. In 1750 a day labourer in Gloucestershire might earn one shilling per day, while a labourer in the North Riding earned as little as nine pence per day. In 1790, to provide a sharper contrast, a Lancashire weaver could earn as many as eight shillings per week, rising by a factor of five to two pounds and four shillings by 1815, if the weaver was skilled.0

Under such circumstances, twenty pounds to buy a substitute could mean anything from ten weeks wages to one’s life savings or more. It might be worthwhile even in the latter case, for the provision of a substitute earned exemption for life. The creation of the Army of Reserve in 1803 was much resented because Militia exemptions did not count, meaning that even after purchase of a substitute to avoid the Militia ballot, or payment of a fine of fifteen pounds for five years exemption, one might still find oneself in uniform. In both cases the balloting was handled by parish authorities, who used it in much the same way as they used the Impress Acts. In rural areas agricultural labourers were protected as far as possible, while the authorities saw to it that the burden fell on the unemployed, undesirable, or merely unpopular. Insurance clubs appeared in some urban parishes, membership requiring a down payment which went towards the hiring of substitutes.0

Though it is undoubtedly true that many soldiers enlisted in order to escape from poverty, it cannot be assumed that they intended to remain in the army forever. There were other last-resort jobs besides the armed forces, and some of them actually paid higher wages. While a man might earn might earn thirty shillings in a month as a soldier, he could earn ten shillings per day digging canals.0 That it was considered necessary to offer the short-service option is proof that at least a certain type of soldier had some aspiration for life out of uniform. For many this took the form of a new life overseas, care of a land grant in return for their services. An example can be found in the 10 August 1775 edition of the Quebec Gazette, offering land grants for enlistees in the Royal Highland Emigrant Regiment. Two hundred acres are offered for each private soldier, while officers are promised five thousand acres.0 The policy of land grants, in some cases establishing whole military colonies in certain regions, continued into the nineteenth century.

One particular site was the St Lawrence valley in what is now Canada, a choice no doubt influenced by the American invasion of 1812. Even without land grants or underwriting, large numbers of both officers and enlisted men chose to emigrate after the war, seeking opportunities both civilian and military. In at least some cases, going abroad was simply a practical reaction to an inability for whatever reason to find work at home, as described by Thomas of the 71st in a letter dated May of 1818:


These three months, I can find nothing to do. I am a burden on Jeanie

and her husband. I wish I was a soldier again. I cannot even get labouring work. God will bless those, I hope, who have been good to me. I have seen my folly. I would be useful, but can get nothing to do. My mother is at her rest,—God receive her soul! I will go to South America. Maria de Parides will put me in a way to do for myself, and be a burden to no one. Or, I shall go to Spain, and live in Boho.—I will go to Buenos Ayres (SIC). Farewell John, this is all I have to leave you. It is yours: do with it as you think proper. If I succeed in the South, I will return and lay my bones beside my parents: if not, I will never come back.0

That Thomas would miss his life as a soldier can also be seen in purely practical terms, for after many years of service it was a job he and his fellow veterans could perform at least with competence. The simple need for manageable employment must be born in mind with any account that professes a desire for adventure, though that in itself should not be ruled out entirely. That some ex-soldiers find civilian life dull or unfulfilling is well-documented, and any concerns or hesitation about overseas travel would in many cases have been overcome by virtue of having been sent. In South America, Simon Bolivar enjoyed the services of around seven thousand English and Irish volunteers in the years following Waterloo. Indeed, many former soldiers were fated to return to Spain, in the force led by Sir Robert Wilson to assist the Spanish Liberales in 1823, and even later during the First Carlist War of 1835 to 1838 as part of the so-called British Auxiliary Legion.0
The destinations of those who chose to return home can be ascertained by contemporary military pension records, in which names and birthplaces were noted, and the pensions themselves distributed by local excise offices. Furthermore, changes of residence necessitated application to the Chelsea Hospital, whose responsibility it was to administer the distribution of pensions, for the records to be updated.0 The evidence shows that the majority of ex-soldiers remained in their localities, and that for the most part they were not in poverty, as access to Poor Relief would require transferring their pensions to the Parish authorities. Veterans were not only relatively secure, but also tended to be married, with far larger numbers marrying after leaving the army than were married while in uniform.0 This stands in contrast to the image of the British soldier as social and economic outcast, but not absolutely so. Old soldiers were known to get involved in industrial protests, which became more common as a result of post-war unemployment, increased industrialisation, and the social dislocation that accompanied the latter.0

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