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18 September 2014
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Towards Britain's Standing Army

By Professor Richard Holmes
Part-time militia

Image of soldier in  a red coat  and carrying a rifle from the 18th century
British soldier from 6th Regiment of Marines in 1742 ©
The militia was a force originally intended for home defence and was a far older institution than the Regular army. Although service in the Regular army was voluntary for much of its history, men of past centuries were often obliged to serve in the part-time militia, if they were selected in a local ballot.

The 18th-century poet William Cowper described how the militia transformed a ploughboy into a ne’er do well. The simple ploughboy, ‘the child of nature’, swears his military oath ‘to be what’er they please’. Drill makes him more confident, but with his new confidence comes ‘lewdness, idleness and sabbath-breach’ until he is ready ‘to break some maiden’s and his mother’s heart’.

'Tis universal soldiership has stabbed / The heart of merit in the meaner class. / Arms, through the vanity and brainless rage / Of those that bear them, in whatever cause, / Seem most at variance with all moral good, / And incompatible with serious thought. / The clown, the child of nature, without guile, / Blest with an infant’s ignorance of all / But his own simple pleasures ... / Is balloted, and trembles at the news: / Sheepishly he doffs his hat, and, mumbling, swears / A bible-oath to be what’er they please ...
'By slow degrees, / Unapt to learn, and formed of stubborn stuff, / He yet by slow degrees puts off himself, / Grows conscious of a change, and likes it well: / He steps right onward, martial in his air ... / But with his clumsy port the wretch has lost / His ignorance and harmless manners too!
'To swear, to game, to drink; to show at home / By lewdness, idleness, and sabbath-breach, / The great proficiency he made abroad; / To astonish and to grieve his gazing friends, / To break some maiden’s and his mother’s heart; / To be a pest where he was useful once; / Are his sole aim, and all his glory, now!'
The Task Book IV, War Poetry, William Cowper

The fact that many regular soldiers came from the lower levels of society, and had enlisted because they could not find work outside the army, has encouraged many commentators over theyears to look upon them with disdain. In 1700 a London broadsheet, The Spy, declared that the red coat, the characteristic dress of the British footsoldier, was beloved of two sorts of vermin - lice and prostitutes.

'A Foot Soldier is commonly a Man, who for the sake of wearing a Sword and the Honour of being term’d a Gentleman, is coaxed from a Handicraft Trade, whereby he might live Comfortably, to bear Arms for his King and Country ... He is generally beloved of two sorts of Companion, in whores and lice, for both these Vermin are great admirers of a Scarlet Coat ...'

Bad reputations are hard to lose and the army is no exception. There are reflections of this view in some more recent journalism, and trouble between soldiers and civilians often provokes complaints that soldiers drink too much and are too ready to fight.

Published: 2005-02-28

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