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18 September 2014
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Towards Britain's Standing Army

By Professor Richard Holmes
Home defence

Image of the Yeomantry charge at Peterloo in 1819
The Yeomanry charge into the crowd at Peterloo, 1819 ©
Service in the militia was compulsory for those selected by ballot who were not wealthy enough to hire a substitute. But specific threats - such as the Jacobite invasion of England in 1745 - induced men to volunteer for home defence.

In 1794, the risk of invasion by Revolutionary France persuaded the government to authorise the formation of volunteer units that would be subject to military discipline and eligible for pay when called out. They included infantry and cavalry, the latter known as yeomanry and recruited, at least in theory, from amongst yeoman farmers who owned their own horses. The volunteers disappeared after the Napoleonic Wars, although the yeomanry figured in military assistance to the civil authorities in the turbulent decades following Waterloo.

'The army cannot retain in peacetime all the soldiers it needs to meet the needs of war ...'

In the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 (so called in ironic reference to Waterloo), a pro-Reform crowd in St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, was attacked by yeomanry, riding their own horses which, unlike the troop horses ridden by regulars, were not used to working together. Their riders were not as well-disciplined as regular cavalrymen, and many of them, as local property-owners, were opposed to reform. This partly accounts for the violence that ensued. Episodes like this were a further reason for tension between army and society.

The debate over the merits of part-time military service continues, and partly reflects the historical debate on the merits of military service more generally. But the underlying logic remains sound.

The army cannot retain in peacetime all the soldiers it needs to meet the needs of war, and reservists help it to make the transition. They also form part of the bridge linking the army to wider society, and given the traditional ambivalence of civilian towards soldier, especially as the army’s visibility across the nation diminishes, this role is of pivotal importance.

Published: 2005-02-28

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