Towards Britain's Standing Army

By Professor Richard Holmes
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.
British soldiers prepare to leave for war in the Falklands, 1982  

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’.

Towards a regular army

Image of two mounted combatants during Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854
Two participants in the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854
The modern army can only trace its continuous existence back to shortly after the restoration of Charles II. Since then, it has been recruited by voluntary enlistment for most of its history - with exceptions during World War One and during and after World War Two, when compulsory military service was in force.

This factor has helped determine its character, and has been responsible for much of the tension between it and society, for it is only during those periods of conscription that it has been a genuinely national army, recruiting across the whole of society.

'There are diametrically opposed views on the impact of military service on the individual.'

Sometimes the soldier appears in literature as a hero, fighting for monarch and country on foreign fields, and sometimes as villain, drunken and brutalised. There are diametrically opposed views on the impact of military service on the individual.

Some commentators have seen it as imparting the virtues of self-discipline and self-reliance, and supporters of National Service, the conscription that lingered on after World War Two, often sought to justify it on social rather than military grounds. Others, however, have argued that it diminishes the individual, turning him from a useful member of society into a potentially violent braggart.

Writers and poets have often turned their attention to the army, and often our first contact with the subject comes from literature rather than history. For instance, a reader who may have little idea of what really happened during the Charge of the Light Brigade (1854) might recall the phrase ‘their’s not to reason why’ from Lord Tennyson’s poem on the battle.

Our view of the generals of World War One is influenced not only by the television series 'Blackadder Goes Forth' but also by Siegfried Sassoon’s poem about two soldiers describing a general as a ‘cheery old card’ before he ‘did for them both with his plan of attack’.

Part-time militia

Image of soldier in  a red coat  and carrying a rifle from the 18th century
British soldier from 6th Regiment of Marines in 1742
The militia was a force originally intended for home defence and was a far older institution than the Regular army. Although service in the Regular army was voluntary for much of its history, men of past centuries were often obliged to serve in the part-time militia, if they were selected in a local ballot.

The 18th-century poet William Cowper [/history/trail/wars_conflict/soldiers/form_brit_standing_army_fact_file.shtml] described how the militia transformed a ploughboy into a ne’er do well. The simple ploughboy, ‘the child of nature’, swears his military oath ‘to be what’er they please’. Drill makes him more confident, but with his new confidence comes ‘lewdness, idleness and sabbath-breach’ until he is ready ‘to break some maiden’s and his mother’s heart’.

'Tis universal soldiership has stabbed / The heart of merit in the meaner class. / Arms, through the vanity and brainless rage / Of those that bear them, in whatever cause, / Seem most at variance with all moral good, / And incompatible with serious thought. / The clown, the child of nature, without guile, / Blest with an infant’s ignorance of all / But his own simple pleasures ... / Is balloted, and trembles at the news: / Sheepishly he doffs his hat, and, mumbling, swears / A bible-oath to be what’er they please ...
'By slow degrees, / Unapt to learn, and formed of stubborn stuff, / He yet by slow degrees puts off himself, / Grows conscious of a change, and likes it well: / He steps right onward, martial in his air ... / But with his clumsy port the wretch has lost / His ignorance and harmless manners too!
'To swear, to game, to drink; to show at home / By lewdness, idleness, and sabbath-breach, / The great proficiency he made abroad; / To astonish and to grieve his gazing friends, / To break some maiden’s and his mother’s heart; / To be a pest where he was useful once; / Are his sole aim, and all his glory, now!'
The Task Book IV, War Poetry, William Cowper

The fact that many regular soldiers came from the lower levels of society, and had enlisted because they could not find work outside the army, has encouraged many commentators over theyears to look upon them with disdain. In 1700 a London broadsheet, The Spy, declared that the red coat, the characteristic dress of the British footsoldier, was beloved of two sorts of vermin - lice and prostitutes.

'A Foot Soldier is commonly a Man, who for the sake of wearing a Sword and the Honour of being term’d a Gentleman, is coaxed from a Handicraft Trade, whereby he might live Comfortably, to bear Arms for his King and Country ... He is generally beloved of two sorts of Companion, in whores and lice, for both these Vermin are great admirers of a Scarlet Coat ...'

Bad reputations are hard to lose and the army is no exception. There are reflections of this view in some more recent journalism, and trouble between soldiers and civilians often provokes complaints that soldiers drink too much and are too ready to fight.

The Tommy

Image of soldiers sitting in their barracks, 1896
A formal insight into barrack life, 1896
The army’s performance on campaign has often encouraged those critical of its peacetime habits to applaud its wartime achievements.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that until the two world wars many of those who wrote about the soldier, in poetry or in prose, had little contact with him and so judged him by superficialities - he was a hero in battle, a nuisance in barracks.

'The name Tommy Atkins, used to describe the typical British soldier, probably originated in a War Office publication of 1815 ...'

Rudyard Kipling was educated in England, but spent his early career as a journalist in India, where he often talked to British soldiers and found that they were far more complex than the usual literary clichés suggested. His poem Tommy, one of his Barrack-Room Ballads (1892), expresses the soldier’s contempt for a society that scorns him until there is fighting to be done. It goes straight to the heart of the ambivalent relationship between Britain and her army.

The ‘widow’ in the poem is Queen Victoria:

'I went into a public-‘ouse to get a pint of beer, /The publican ‘e ups and sez, "We serve no red-coats here." /The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fir to die, /I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I: /O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, ‘a’ "Tommy, go away"; /But it’s "Thank you, Mister Atkins," when the band begins to play - /The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play. /O it’s "Thank you, Mister Atkins," when the band begins to play.
'I went into a theatre as sober as could be, /They gave a drunk civilian room but ‘adn’t none for me; /They sent me to the gallery or round the music-‘alls, /But when it comes to fightin’, Lord! They’ll shove me in the stalls! /For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ "Tommy, wait outside"; /But it’s "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper’s on the tide - /The troopship’s on the tide, my boys, the troopship’s on the tide, /O it’s "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper’s on the tide...
'You talk o’ better food for us, an’ schools, an’ fires, an’ all, /We’ll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational. /Don’t mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face /The Widow’s uniform is not the soldier-man’s disgrace. /For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ "Chuck him out, the brute!" /But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot; /An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please; /An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool - you bet that Tommy sees!'
Rudyard Kipling's Verse (Inclusive Edition, 1885-1932)

The name Tommy Atkins, used to describe the typical British soldier, probably originated in a War Office publication of 1815 which showed how a 'Soldier’s Book' should be made out, and gave Pte Thomas Atkins as its example. Some have suggested that the Duke of Wellington suggested the name himself, in memory of a soldier in his regiment who had been killed in Flanders in 1794.

The nickname had wide currency by the 1880s, and was universal in World War One. Its numerous derivatives included ‘Tommy cooker’, a small portable stove - or the World War Two Sherman tank, which caught fire all too easily. The widespread use of the word Tommy shows how a more affectionate attitude to the soldier was beginning to make itself felt early in the 20th century, but the old tensions still survived.

Standing army

Image of a soldier from the 24th South Wales Borderers in 1895
A member of the 24th South Wales Borderers, 1895
The individual soldier, popular or not, fitted into an army that has followed a consistent pattern of development since 1661.

There have been great fluctuations in size, as it has expanded to meet the demands of war and contracted in peacetime. There have been a series of reforms, sometimes provoked by setbacks in the field and sometimes by political reappraisal of its form and function.

And there is a contrast between continuity (today’s rank structure and regimental system would not confuse the Duke of Marlborough, victor of Blenheim in 1704) and discontinuity (the impact of technology has produced radical change, for instance between 1916 and 1918).

'In the Middle Ages, feudal magnates had retainers who served them in return for land grants ...'

Of course, there were British soldiers before 1661. In the Middle Ages, feudal magnates had retainers who served them in return for land grants, but during the Hundred Years War against France, professional soldiers, serving by contract, largely replaced men who followed their lord simply because of a feudal obligation. Yet there was no permanently constituted army which existed in peace as well as in war.

The Restoration of Charles II saw the birth of a standing army that belonged to the king. Parliament soon asserted control, but it took years for the army’s central administration to evolve.

It was not until the mid-19th century that it went from hotchpotch arrangements with infantry and cavalry under the Commander-in-Chief at Horse Guards in Whitehall, artillery and engineers under the Master-General of the Ordnance, and supply and transport in the hands of a civilian commissariat, to a single Secretary of State for War, a unified chain of command and militarised logistic and medical services.


Image of officers in the Crimea, 1855
Officers of the 48th Regiment of Foot in the Crimea, 1855
Much impetus for reform was created by the Crimean War (1854-56), especially because of the hard-hitting articles written by WH Russell [/history/trail/wars_conflict/soldiers/form_brit_standing_army_fact_file.shtml] in The Times, who has some claim to being the first real war correspondent.

Convinced that the British soldier was the helpless victim of administrative incompetence, his articles left their readers in no doubt of the sufferings endured by those who fought in the Crimea. His report of the state of the camp at Gallipoli, before the campaign had begun, gave a foretaste of what was to come.

'The men suffered exceedingly from cold. Some of them, officers as well as privates, had no beds to lie upon. None of the soldiers had more than their single regulation blanket… The worst thing was the continued want of comforts for the sick. Many of the men labouring under diseases contracted at Malta were obliged to stay in camp in the cold, with only one blanket under them, as there was no provision for them at the temporary hospital.'

Things were even worse on the freezing uplands round the Russian fortress of Sevastopol.

'Hundreds of men had to go into the trenches at night with no covering but their greatcoats and no protection for their feet but their regimental shoes. The trenches were two or three feet deep with mud and snow, and half frozen slush. Many when they took off their shoes were unable to get their swollen feet into them again, and they might be seen bare-footed, hopping about the camp, with the thermometer at twenty degrees and snow half a foot deep upon the ground.'
Russell's Despatches from the Crimea 1854-56, Nicolas Bentley

The Crimean War did produce some much-needed reforms, but when the war ended the pressure for change diminished. This, too, is a feature of the army’s development - sustaining reform in peacetime when money is scarce and public interest reduced is rarely easy.

Meagre pensions

Image of the wounded being tended at the Crimea War in 1854
Attending the wounded at the Battle of Inkerman in the Crimea, 1854
If the lot of the fighting man on campaign often left a good deal to be desired, his fate after service was often grim. Society has rarely shown much long-term gratitude to the many 'ordinary' soldiers who have served it well.

In 1661, memories of the Civil War were fresh, and the use of troops to enforce unpopular policies had been greatly resented. While the Royal Navy was regarded as crucial for the protection of British trade - and even this did not save it from peacetime reductions - the army was tolerated only when there was a war in which British interests were clearly involved.

'... the army that had helped beat Napoleon was reduced following allied victory at Waterloo in 1815.'

It was sharply reduced when the war was over, with its soldiers discharged, sometimes reduced to begging for a living or living on a meagre pension. Even the officers were sent home on a half-pay that was often pitifully inadequate. Sergeant Thomas Jackson of the Coldstream Guards was invalided out of the army after losing a leg at Bergen-op-Zoom in Holland in 1814. He appeared before the commissioners of the Royal Hospital at Chelsea, who:

'... eyed me up and down and seemed to consult for a moment, and then one of them said. "Oh, he is a young man, able to get his living". No questions asked of me, but at sight I was knocked off with the pitiful reward of a shilling a day - a mighty poor recompense, I thought, for having spent twelve years of the prime of my manhood in the service of my country ...
'Having then no more use for my scarlet coat, I set my wife to cut off the lace [round the button holes], and that, together with the chain and tassels which ornamented my cap, she sold for thirty shillings. I then bought myself a suit of plain clothes to hobble my way home with into a new sphere of life among new beings, and, as it were, into a new world again.'
The Rambling Soldier, Roy Palmer (Sutton, 1985)

This pattern marked the 18th century, with its wars against France, described by Sergeant Roger Lamb of the 23rd Foot, who served in the American War of Independence, as ‘for many ages the professed and natural enemy of Britain’. It continued into the 19th, when the army that had helped beat Napoleon was reduced following allied victory at Waterloo in 1815.

Much the same thing occurred in the 20th century, with a small peacetime army expanded to meet the demands of two world wars and reduced in their aftermath.

Reserve forces

Image of John French in uniformn and medals
John French (1852-1925) - army reformer
There is a well-established tradition of part-time military service in Britain, with men trained in their spare time to meet the demands of emergency.

The London Trained Bands made a vital contribution to the Parliamentarian army in the Civil War, and Field Marshal Sir John French, commander-in-chief of the British army in France in 1914-15 paid handsome tribute to the Territorial battalions without whom the line could not have been held. But part-time soldiers experience the same sort of public ambivalence towards them as their full-time colleagues do.

'... ten per cent of troops sent to the Balkans in the 1990s were Territorial Army volunteers.'

Some civilians and journalists snigger at the part-timers for ‘playing at soldiers’, and Regular soldiers sometimes maintain that their professional standards are lacking. But there can be no doubting the importance of their contribution to the British army.

In the Napoleonic War, the militia furnished a flood of well-trained recruits to the Regular army, and ten per cent of troops sent to the Balkans in the 1990s were Territorial Army volunteers.

The militia was the oldest reserve force. Organised in county regiments, it was recruited by ballot from able-bodied men on lists [/history/trail/wars_conflict/soldiers/form_brit_standing_army_fact_file.shtml] drawn up by parish constables, and its officers were local gentlemen. It trained part-time, but might be embodied for full-time service when there was a risk of invasion, and in the Napoleonic wars it provided many recruits for the Regular army.

One such recruit was William Wheeler, who was a private in the hard-driven 2nd Royal Surrey Militia, and in 1809 was persuaded to join the Regular army. He wrote:

I have at length escaped from the militia without being flayed alive. I have taken the first opportunity and volunteered together with 127 of my comrades into the 51st Light Infantry Regiment. I had made up my mind to volunteer into what regiment I cared not a straw, so I determined to go with the greatest number...
Upwards of 90 men volunteered for the 95th Rifle Regiment. I was near going into this Regt. myself as it was always a fancy corps ... another cause was that Lieut Foster a good officer and beloved of every man in the Corps I had left volunteered into the 95th ...
The Letters of Private Wheeler, BH Liddell Hart (Cassell Military, 1994)

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.

A modern army

Image of Territorial Army volunteers marching
Territorial Army volunteers at the Catterick Garrison
As the 19th century drew to its close the army took on many characteristics that can still be identified today. County regiments were created from the old numbered regiments, the purchase of commissions was abolished and officer training improved, and there were attempts to draw together the army’s part-time and Regular elements.

There was more volunteering in response to the threat of French invasion in the 1860s, but the second Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 suggested that the militia, volunteers and yeomanry could not reinforce the Regular Army with sufficient trained personnel to convert a small professional force into one that could win a major war.

'The British Army of the early 21st century, smaller than for much of its history, is hard-pressed to meet the many demands placed upon it ...'

A series of post-war reforms, the most important initiated by RB Haldane, Secretary of State for War in the Liberal Government that took office in December 1905, saw the creation of a general staff, the restructuring of the Regular Army so to create an expeditionary force to be sent abroad at short notice, and the fusion of the various non-Regular forces into the Territorial Force, later to be renamed the Territorial Army. From the 1870s, the Regular Army had a reserve of its own, as men who had completed their time with the colours could be called up in a crisis.

This pattern of Regulars, Regular Reservists and Territorials remains evident today. However, repeated reductions in the size of the Territorial Army and the increasing use of its members on operations has produced strains within a force asked to do more with less. The British Army of the early 21st century, smaller than for much of its history, is hard-pressed to meet the many demands placed upon it, though it still meets them with distinction.

Modern campaigns fit into a historical pattern of infrequent major wars but frequent activity. While there is no longer a British Empire to defend, there are still permanent overseas garrisons in places such as Germany, Gibraltar and Cyprus. Many multi-national peacekeeping forces, such as those in Bosnia and Kosovo, include British contingents, and specific campaigns - such as those in Iraq and the intervention in Afghanistan - also involve British troops.

A duty to be different

Image of peacekeeping forces in Serbia
Peacekeeping forces in Mitrovica, Serbia 2000
If the pattern of operations seems similar, some of the tensions, too, remain the same. The military budget will always be under pressure, especially at a time when there are demands for better public services but no great appetite for increased taxation.

A good deal of the citizen’s ambivalence about the soldier has gone. A recent survey discovered that the armed forces enjoyed more public esteem than politicians, the church, the civil service or the press.

'... [the army] will need to persuade teachers and parents alike that soldiers are not ‘brutal and licentious’ ...'

However, as the army has shrunk, and the threat posed by terrorism has turned its barracks into no-go areas and made soldiers in uniform an unfamiliar sight, so the level of public understanding of the army has diminished. It will need to justify some of its practices, like its formalised hierarchy and code of law, to an increasingly pluralistic and non-deferential society.

As educational levels increase and demographic pressures diminish the pool from which the army recruits, it will need to persuade teachers and parents alike that soldiers are not ‘brutal and licentious’, as the 18th century might have argued, but professionals whose skills are valued and valuable.

Yet if it moves to meet social change in some respects, in others it must continue to emphasise that much of what it does is wholly unlike anything in civilian society. And here it has not simply a right, but a duty to be different.

Published on BBC History: 2005-02-28
This article can be found on the Internet at:

© British Broadcasting Corporation
For more information on copyright please refer to:

BBC History