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18 September 2014
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From Musket to Breech Loader

By Professor Richard Holmes
Brothers in arms

Image of volunteers signing up in 1915
Volunteers signing up, 1915 ©
Even though weapons had changed substantially in the early 20th century, the men who used them had not. The British army that went to war in 1914 would have been recognisable to the men who had fought at Waterloo almost a century before.

True, a workmanlike khaki uniform had replaced the scarlet of yesteryear, but most men who enlisted in the army still came from deprived backgrounds, and only half even laid claim to a trade when they joined. But there was a remarkably rich mixture in many regiments.

Young John Lucy and his brother Denis were:

'Tired of fathers, of advice from relations, of bottled coffee essence, of school, of newspaper offices. The soft accents and slow movements of the small farmers who swarmed in the streets of our dull southern Irish town, the cattle, fowl, eggs, butter, bacon, and the talk of politics filled us with loathing.'

They joined the Royal Irish Rifles, and found it full of ‘scallywags and minor adventurers’, including:

'... a taciturn sergeant from Waterford who was conversant with the intricacies of higher mathematics ... an ex-divinity student with literary tastes, who drank much beer and affected an obvious pretence to gentle birth: a national school teacher; a man who had absconded from a colonial bank; a few decent sons of farmers.'
There's a Devil in the Drum, John Lucy (Naval and Military Press, 2001)

In contrast, well over half of the regular officers came from public schools, and two-thirds of them came from country backgrounds. It was extraordinarily difficult for an officer to live on his pay, which meant that many young men sought commissions in the Indian Army when they left Sandhurst, because it was infinitely cheaper to live in India than closer to home.

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