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

By Professor Richard Holmes
Women and the officers' mess

Image of dance with officers and ladies
Dancing a quadrille in the sergeants' mess, 9th Royal Lancers, 1888 ©
In the second half of the 19th century there were improvements in the quality of barrack life, with attempts to provide soldiers with libraries, and canteens where non-alcoholic drink could be bought.

Although soldiers were discouraged from marrying, some were allowed to marry ‘on the strength’, with their wives listed on the roll of the regiment’s strength and so being entitled to share their barrack-room and to accompany them on campaign. This arrangement had grave disadvantages. Sergeant Anthony Hamilton of the 43rd Light Infantry thought that the suffering of the men on the retreat to Corunna in the winter of 1808-9 was terrible.

‘But the agonies of the women were still more dreadful to behold. ... Some of these unhappy creatures were taken in labour on the road, and midst the storms of sleet and snow gave birth to infants, which, with their mothers, perished as soon as they had seen the light… Others ... would toil on with one or two children on their backs; till ... the hapless objects of their affection were frozen to death.’
Hamilton's Campaign with Moore and Wellington, Anthony Hamilton

'... the barracks also played its part in keeping the soldier apart from society ...'

Barracks contained officers’ and sergeants’ messes, the former comfortable gentleman’s clubs whose mess bills plunged many a young officer into gloom, and the latter usually well-run establishments presided over by the most senior non-commissioned member of the regiment, the Regimental Sergeant Major, who often did much to give a unit its own distinctive tone.

It was argued that barrack life was an essential part of the process that turned recruit into soldier by subjecting him to a high degree of social control. But the barracks also played its part in keeping the soldier apart from society and, at times of voluntary recruiting, it often served as a powerful disincentive to enlistment. The steady improvement of barrack accommodation in the second half of the 20th century, however, enhanced the soldier’s quality of life.

These days there are increasing assertions that barrack life is no longer an essential ingredient of soldiering. Although it might still retain value as part of the team-building process for recruits, it may no longer be appropriate for trained soldiers, and may be one of those areas in which the army will move closer to society, with soldiers living as part of the community and going to work like their civilian friends.

Published: 2005-02-28

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