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The Soldier's Trade in a Changing World

By Professor Richard Holmes
Drumming up business

Image of a recruiting sergeant patrolling the streets looking for volunteers, 1813
A recruiting sergeant and village lads, 1813 ©
In the 17th and 18th centuries colonels of regiments were given ‘beating warrants’, allowing them to recruit ‘by beat of drum’. When a warrant was granted, recruiting parties - an officer, a sergeant and a drummer or two - would march to the regiment’s recruiting area.

Posters would announce their arrival, and they would set up in a prominent spot, where the drummers would beat the ‘points of war’ and the sergeant would proclaim the attractions of his regiment. The playwright George Farquhar served as an infantry officer, and the characters in his play The Recruiting Officer are drawn from life.

'If any gentlemen soldiers, or others, have a mind to serve Her Majesty, and pull down the French king; if any prentices have severe masters, any children have unnatural parents; if any servants have too little wages, or any husband too much wife; let them repair to the noble Sergeant Kite, at the Sign of the Raven, in this good town of Shrewsbury, and they shall receive present relief and entertainment.'
The Recruiting Officer, George Farquhar

'Initially, enlistment was for life, which effectively meant until the man was too infirm to serve ...'

The 'entertainment' referred to generally consisted of drink, as Dorset shepherd boy Benjamin Harris discovered when he enlisted in the 95th Rifles during the Napoleonic Wars, and set off on a drunken march with his fellow recruits. His recollections remain one of the best accounts of the British Army in the Napoleonic period, written from the private soldier’s point of view.

His enlistment into the regular army is graphically described:

'We started on our journey in tip-top spirits from the Royal Oak at Cashel; the whole lot of us (early as it was) being three sheets to 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 trust into the hands of the sergeants, making them a present of the decanters and all to carry with them, and refresh themselves on the march. The piper then struck up, the sergeants flourished the decanters, and the whole commenced a terrific yell.’
The Recollections of Rifleman Harris, Christopher Hibbert (Cassell Military, 1996)

A new recruit would be given the king’s shilling, undergo a perfunctory medical examination, and be taken before a magistrate to be attested. Initially, enlistment was for life, which effectively meant until the man was too infirm to serve or the army was reduced in size, but shorter terms were introduced in an effort to encourage enlistment.

In later years, Edward Cardwell was secretary of state for war in 1868-74, and as a result of his reforms soldiers spent six or seven years with the colours and then passed on to the reserve, though they could extend their service to 21 years if they wished.

Yet even at this stage in the army’s development, men who followed the drum had changed little over two centuries. Unlike continental armies, which recruited by conscription, the British army did not attract a broad cross-section of society. It was small wonder, when the future Field Marshal Sir William Roberston joined the army as a private in 1877, his mother was horrified. She told him that she would rather bury him than see him in a red coat.

Published: 2005-02-28



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