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

By Professor Richard Holmes
Barrack room and drill yard

Image of a cartoon featuring a drunken soldier on a horse
Satirical cartoon on military discipline, 1886 ©
Until around the late 18th century most officers and soldiers in the UK lived in public houses, an arrangement which did little for their sobriety or reputation.

Barracks were built in Scotland and Ireland, where the army was on guard against Jacobite unrest, and from 1792 an extensive programme of barrack-building began in England.

The process was continued under Cardwell, and many red-brick barracks, built to house the regiments created by his reforms, still survive. Soldiers lived in cramped and insanitary barrack-rooms, with a ‘wet canteen’ that sold cheap drink as their only relaxation.

This was the world entered by young John Shipp. Born in Suffolk in 1785, he was orphaned young and brought up at the expense of the parish. He had always wanted to be a soldier, and in 1797 the parish authorities sent him off, neatly dressed, to join the 22nd Regiment at Colchester.

When he arrived in his barrack room he was mocked by the other recruits because of his smart clothes, but was defended by the drum-major’s wife:

'Arrgh! What are you gazing at, you set of spalpeens [rascals] you be off you set of thieves, or I’ll be after breaking some of your nasty dirty mugs for you. Don’t mind them, sure they are nothing but a set of monkeys just catched. Come here, honey, and let me see who will be laying a finger on you!'’
The Path of Glory, C J Stranks

Shipp settled down well and was soon appointed file-major (a senior soldier below the NCOs proper). As such he:

‘indulged in a good many high jinks with my friends, such as filling their pipes with gunpowder, tying their great toes together and crying fire, sewing their shirts to their bedding while asleep, and fifty more.’

Shipp was eventually commissioned, sold his commission to pay his debts, re-enlisted and was commissioned again. While he thrived in the world of the barrack room, there were many who did not, which is scarcely surprising.

A visitor spoke of ‘an indescribable and subtly all-pervading odour of pipe-clay [used for whitening leather] damp clothing, lamp oil, dish cloths, soft soap and butter and cheese scrapings’. One of the lasting memories of many 20th-century soldiers is of the impact of collective living in a world where privacy was rare.

Published: 2005-02-28

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