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18 September 2014
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The Soldier's Trade in a Changing World

By Professor Richard Holmes
Common soldiers

Image of Royal Irish Fusiliers with rifles
Royal Irish Fusiliers, 1888 ©
In wartime, the British army has always had an insatiable appetite for manpower, and even in peacetime it has often been hard to ensure that voluntary recruitment keeps its ranks filled.

Experienced officers often contrasted the unprepossessing nature of the raw material with the quality of the finished product. In 1813, Wellington complained, ‘We have in the service the scum of the earth as common soldiers.’ The reason for this is probably that many recruits have been driven into the army by ‘the compulsion of destitution’ rather than for reasons of vocation, or a desire for adventure.

'In the 18th and early 19th centuries foreign troops were used.'

In 1846, an experienced sergeant thought that two-thirds of all recruits had joined up because there was nothing else for them but destition, and in 1909 an official report maintained that ‘well over 90 per cent’ had no jobs in the civilian world. A high proportion came from economic wastelands, which helps account for the large number of Irishmen in the British army for much of its history.

Irish soldiers not only filled the ranks of Irish regiments, like the famous 88th Regiment (the Connaught Rangers), but often constituted a high proportion of ostensibly English ones. In 1809, 24 per cent of the NCOs and men in the 57th (East Middlesex) Regiment were Irish.

Scottish soldiers, too, have played a notable part in the British army. Regiments like the 42nd Foot (the Black Watch) have long enjoyed a fine reputation, though the proportion of Scots in the army shrank in the 19th century. In the 18th and early 19th centuries foreign troops were also used.

Sometimes, like the German contingents who fought in the American war, they served because of a contract with their ruler, and sometimes they were actually part of the British Army, like the King’s German Legion, which fought gallantly in the Spanish Peninsula and at Waterloo.

Published: 2005-02-28

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