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18 September 2014
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Towards Britain's Standing Army

By Professor Richard Holmes
Image of British Army grouped around the Union Jack in 1982
British soldiers prepare to leave for war in the Falklands, 1982  ©

The British Tommy has not always enjoyed a good reputation, and has often fallen foul of civilian society - find out what makes a soldier anti-social, and why things have changed so much for the better today.

Among the best

At the dawn of the 21st century the British army, respected for peacekeeping achievements across the world, enjoys an international reputation for excellence. It has even been described by French President Jacques Chirac as ‘among the best in the world’. But it has not always been so well regarded, and British society has often had mixed feelings about the soldiers who served it.

'... the historian can get behind the web of dates and events to find out what it was like to be a soldier ...'

This uneasiness arose from a mixture of things, basically still applicable today. The army takes money from the public purse, and military expenditure is often criticised in peacetime. The army is the most serious means of coercion available to the state. Military service imposes restrictions on individual liberties. And soldiers themselves, for much of history driven to enlist by sheer hardship, do not always fit comfortably into the community.

By drawing on a variety of contemporary sources the historian can get behind the web of dates and events to find out what it was like to be a soldier in times gone by, and what people once made of those who, as Daniel Defoe put it in 1726, were encouraged ‘to take Arms, and [en]list in the Army, and run the risk of Life and Limb, for so mean a Consideration as a Red Coat and three shillings a week’.

Published: 2005-02-28

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