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’.