The Soldier's Trade in a Changing World

By Professor Richard Holmes
To become a soldier is to kill or be killed for a purpose in which you may have no interest - and barrack life can be intolerable and unfriendly. So, why would an aspiring officer pay for a commission?
A British Tommy guards his national flag, 1916  

Contract of unlimited liability

Someone who becomes a soldier is crossing a legally defined boundary. A soldier gives up some individual rights (such as the right to withdraw his labour), accepts collective standards which contribute to the common good, and undertakes, in the last analysis, to kill or be killed for a purpose in which he may have no personal interest.

'... society ... is never static, and what was acceptable this year may not be so next.'

General Sir John Hackett called this ‘the contract of unlimited liability’. However closely the army may come to resemble society, and however rarely it is called upon to apply lethal force, the essential characteristic of this contract still remains.

The process of turning a man into a soldier and the discipline that underpins it has changed over time, and is complicated by the fact that society, too, is never static, and what is acceptable in any one year may not be so the next. An age in which men were deferential towards those they saw as their superiors, were inured to hardship by a tough upbringing, and had low expectations of life, produced raw material quite different from that of the present day, where prospective soldiers can be non-deferential, litigious and inclined to question of authority.

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 [/history/trail/wars_conflict/soldiers/soldier_trade_in_world_fact_file.shtml] , which fought gallantly in the Spanish Peninsula and at Waterloo.

Drumming up business

Image of a recruiting sergeant patrolling the streets looking for volunteers, 1813
A recruiting sergeant and village lads, 1813
In the 17th and 18th centuries colonels of regiments were given ‘beating warrants’, allowing them to recruit ‘by beat of drum’. When a warrant was granted, recruiting parties - an officer, a sergeant and a drummer or two - would march to the regiment’s recruiting area.

Posters would announce their arrival, and they would set up in a prominent spot, where the drummers would beat the ‘points of war’ and the sergeant would proclaim the attractions of his regiment. The playwright George Farquhar served as an infantry officer, and the characters in his play The Recruiting Officer are drawn from life.

'If any gentlemen soldiers, or others, have a mind to serve Her Majesty, and pull down the French king; if any prentices have severe masters, any children have unnatural parents; if any servants have too little wages, or any husband too much wife; let them repair to the noble Sergeant Kite, at the Sign of the Raven, in this good town of Shrewsbury, and they shall receive present relief and entertainment.'
The Recruiting Officer, George Farquhar

'Initially, enlistment was for life, which effectively meant until the man was too infirm to serve ...'

The 'entertainment' referred to generally consisted of drink, as Dorset shepherd boy Benjamin Harris discovered when he enlisted in the 95th Rifles during the Napoleonic Wars, and set off on a drunken march with his fellow recruits. His recollections remain one of the best accounts of the British Army in the Napoleonic period, written from the private soldier’s point of view.

His enlistment into the regular army is graphically described:

'We started on our journey in tip-top spirits from the Royal Oak at Cashel; the whole lot of us (early as it was) being three sheets to the wind.
When we paraded before the door of the Royal Oak, the landlord and landlady of the inn, who were quite as lively, came reeling forth with two decanters of whisky which they trust into the hands of the sergeants, making them a present of the decanters and all to carry with them, and refresh themselves on the march. The piper then struck up, the sergeants flourished the decanters, and the whole commenced a terrific yell.’
The Recollections of Rifleman Harris, Christopher Hibbert (Cassell Military, 1996)

A new recruit would be given the king’s shilling [/history/trail/wars_conflict/soldiers/soldier_trade_in_world_fact_file.shtml] , undergo a perfunctory medical examination, and be taken before a magistrate to be attested. Initially, enlistment was for life, which effectively meant until the man was too infirm to serve or the army was reduced in size, but shorter terms were introduced in an effort to encourage enlistment.

In later years, Edward Cardwell was secretary of state for war in 1868-74, and as a result of his reforms soldiers spent six or seven years with the colours and then passed on to the reserve, though they could extend their service to 21 years if they wished.

Yet even at this stage in the army’s development, men who followed the drum had changed little over two centuries. Unlike continental armies, which recruited by conscription, the British army did not attract a broad cross-section of society. It was small wonder, when the future Field Marshal Sir William Roberston joined the army as a private in 1877, his mother was horrified. She told him that she would rather bury him than see him in a red coat.

Epaulette gentry

Image of Lancers Officer with horse and red coat
A Lancers Officer, 1809
If private soldiers, for so much of the army’s history, were definitely not gentlemen, conversely it was confidently assumed that officers were. They were, moreover, gentlemen of sufficient means to buy their commissions.

Sometimes they did so because of a sense of adventure or patriotism, sometimes the purchase of a commission set the seal on a family’s social ascent, and sometimes a family with too many boys and too few opportunities bought a commission for a younger son to give him some sort of gainful employment.

In addition, of course, there was the sheer delight of shining in scarlet and gold. Young William Thornton Keep was bought a commission in the 77th Regiment in 1808 and told his mother of his arrival with his regiment, in garrison in Winchester.

'The first objects that struck my attention were the members of the Band in their fanciful apparel, and the officers and soldiers passing about and reciprocally saluting as they met, made me feel as if I already belonged to them. After tea I uncorded my boxes to prepare myself for their parade next morning. I took from the wrappers my scarlet coat and beautiful epaulette, and attached it to the shoulder in readiness ...
In the Service of the King, Ian Fletcher (Spellmount, 1997)

Buying a commission

Image of soldiers at Peninsular War, 1812
British troops storm Badojoz during the Peninsular War, 1812
From the birth of the regular army, in 1661, to 1871, two thirds of officers’ commissions were obtained by purchase. The aspiring officer paid the government an agreed sum, often adding a non-regulation premium to the holder of the post he sought to occupy.

The system was initially open to abuse, with children gaining commissions, and inexperienced officers buying their way over the heads of seasoned campaigners. But a series of reforms, many associated with the Duke of York, commander-in-chief 1798-1809 and 1811-27, laid down 16 as the youngest age for commissioning, and established the minimum times that an officer had to spend in each rank.

'Interest – the support of an influential politician or senior officer – was also important ...'

Officers who lacked money could make their way by seniority, for vacancies that arose when an officer was killed were filled by the promotion of the next senior, often creating vacancies further down the regimental list.

Interest - the support of an influential politician or senior officer - was also important, especially for young men who sought to make their way as gentleman volunteers, serving as private soldiers but messing with the officers and hoping to gain a free commission. Captain Thomas Brotherton, who served with the 16th Light Dragoons in the Peninsular War, recalled that these volunteers:

‘... always recklessly exposed themselves in order to make themselves conspicuous, as their object was to get commissions given to them without purchase. The largest proportion of these volunteers were killed, but those who escaped were well rewarded for their adventurous spirit.’

During major wars there were far more vacancies than young men wishing to buy commissions, and most officers commissioned during the Napoleonic Wars gained their rank without purchase.

Over the past 20 years a growing volume of research has testified to the importance of this group of officers. Some of them enjoyed remarkable careers. Robert Cureton was commissioned into the militia in 1806, but ran into financial difficulties and faked his own suicide. He enlisted into the Regular army under an assumed name, was commissioned from the ranks, and rose to the rank of brigadier general before he was killed by the Sikhs in 1849.

The purchase system had several advantages, enabling competent young officers to gain higher rank more quickly than would be the case today, and helping ensure the army’s loyalty because its officers were men with ‘a stake in the country’.

And even those officers who did not attend formal training at Sandhurst were prepared by their regiments, being obliged to train with the recruits until they were thoroughly proficient in individual drill and understood how to drill a company.

The Royal Military Academy

Image of a drawing of army reformer Edward Viscount Cardwell
Army reformer Edward Viscount Cardwell, 1813-1885
If purchase fitted comfortably into the fabric of Georgian England, with its emphasis on place and patronage, it came under increasing attack in the 19th century, and vanished in Cardwell’s reforms. These obliged officers, with few exceptions, to attend one of the military academies at Woolwich or Sandhurst (these merged after World War Two to form the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst). The end of purchase did not open an officer’s career to all, however, for until World War One it was difficult for an officer to survive without private means.

The Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, which finished up at Sandhurst, was established in 1801, but potential officers were not obliged to attend it at first, and there was no guarantee that those who did would receive free commissions.

Artillery and engineer officers, meanwhile, could purchase neither first commissions nor subsequent promotion. All had to pass out from the Royal Military Academy and then advance by seniority.

'... until World War One it was difficult for an officer to survive without private means.'

The fact that most officers came from a relatively narrow social spectrum did not matter much in peacetime, but when the army expanded for World War One many surviving pre-war regulars received promotion beyond their normal expectation. Britain’s first citizen army was commanded, at its higher levels, by officers from the old army.

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.

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.


Image of a horse-shaped instrument of punishment
Instrument of punishment circa 1760
Across its history, the British Army has sought to control its soldiers’ behaviour by a mixture of carrot and stick.

Cohesion in battle was enhanced by self-respect, comradely emulation – men were anxious to retain the respect of their friends – courageous leadership, regimental pride, and a sense of national superiority which even allies sometimes found irritating. Rewards like prize money, decorations or promotion assisted the process.

'Generally, offenders were flogged on the bare back for a variety of offences ...'

But however great its emphasis on self-discipline, the army has also maintained a framework of externally-imposed discipline, punishing deviant behaviour and applying standards more rigorous than those prevailing in the outside world, arguing that its members were expected to run risks and meet challenges outside the compass of normal civilian life.

If the existence of a separate disciplinary code is one of the things that marks the army out from society it also risks bringing it into conflict with that society, especially as the latter’s own rapidly-changing values may mesh uncomfortably with the army’s more traditional norms.

Traditionally, British discipline was harsh. Some French deserters who joined the British army in the Peninsula War promptly deserted from it because they found the discipline too severe.

During the 18th century some old punishments survived. These included ‘riding the wooded horse’, a sharp-backed frame on which the offender sat astride, sometimes with weights attached to his feet to increase discomfort. Generally, offenders were flogged on the bare back for a variety of offences, and shot or hanged for more serious ones. Flogging aroused particular opposition.

In 1831 Private Alexander Somerville of the Royal Scots Greys was flogged with the cat o’nine tails after writing to a newspaper at the height of the agitation for Parliamentary reform. He removed his shirt and was tied up, and then heard the RSM order:

‘Farrier Simpson, you will do your duty. Simpson took the cat as ordered, an, at least I believe so; I did not see him, but I felt an astounding sensation between the shoulders, under my neck, which went to my toe nails in one direction, my finger nails in another, and stung me to the heart, as if a knife had gone through my body. The sergeant major called in a loud voice ‘one’. I felt as if it would be kind for Simpson not to strike in the same place again.
Autobiography of a Working Man, Alexander Somerville

Traditionalists like Wellington defended it, arguing that the army contained a proportion of blackguards who could not be kept in line in any other way, while reformers maintained that it dishonoured both the victim and the army in which he served.

Although in 1835 a Royal Commission recommended that flogging should continue, it was abolished in peacetime in 1868, on campaign in 1881, and in military prisons in 1907.

The death penalty

Image of deserter being captured
A deserter is captured, 1884
The infliction of the death penalty was to become even more controversial. During World War One, 3,076 death sentences were passed, resulting in 346 executions, most of them for desertion.

There is an ongoing attempt to have those executed for purely military offences pardoned, but in 1998 the government, after a painstaking review, decided that this would not be appropriate.

'Some were unquestionably victims of what was then termed shell shock ...'

Although the issue still generates as much heat as light, the best survey, 'Blindfold and Alone', by Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson, concludes that the government was right, and ‘the courage - and cowardice - of the Western Front and the lost world of our grandparents' should be left where it belongs, in the past.

Their survey does, however, show that those executed ran the whole gamut from the confused and unlucky to calculated repeat offenders. Some were unquestionably victims of what was then termed shell shock, and their cases have opened up complex issues of assessing the degree to which a soldier in combat is responsible for his own actions.

The army subsequently abolished the death penalty for offences that were not capital under civil law, and no British soldiers were shot for military offences in World War Two.

A duty to be different

Image of peacekeeping forces in Kosovo, 2000
Peacekeeping forces in Kosovo, 2000
Modern society would find it hard to tolerate some of the restrictions imposed on conscripts doing their National Service as recently as the 1940s and 50s. And in past centuries there has not always been consensus within the army over the correct way to main a disciplined and efficient fighting force.

In the Napoleonic era, while arguments raged over the use of the lash, tactical changes came into play. The rifle started to replace the short-range musket, and a growing number of officers were persuaded that a new style of discipline was required, with ‘the thinking fighting rifleman’ replacing the unthinking obedience of the old redcoat.

'... the army has evolved to follow changes in society... '

Historians often find it hard to stand apart from the debate, and it is all too easy, where such grave matters are concerned, to apply the values of one’s own age to the past. I find flogging and military execution as intolerable as will many of my readers, but both punishments were less repellent by the standards of their own age.

In so many respects the army has evolved to follow changes in society, although there is generally a time-lag inherent in the process. However, the existence of military law, creating offences which are not crimes in civilian life, emphasises that the soldier’s trade is like no other, and underlines the essential difference between the profession of arms and civilian callings

The army will not be able to stand aside from changes in legislation and practice which will make it more open and accountable, and more obliged to justify what it does in all its spheres of activity - from recruit training to the conduct of operations.

If it is to continue to flourish it will have to define those key areas where has a duty to be different, and at the same time to ensure that it is properly understood by the society it exists to defend and from which it draws so much of its strength. It will need, in short, to stress the continuities that help its members to feel valued and valuable, trusted and trusting. It will also need to change, not to conform with fashion or political correctness, but to embrace real progress

About the author

Image of author Professor Richard Holmes
Professor Richard Holmes enlisted in the Territorial Army in 1965 and rose to the rank of brigadier. He was the first reservist to hold the post of director of reserve forces and cadets in the Ministry of Defence until he retired in 2000. Professor Holmes's books include The Little Field Marshal: Sir John French (Jonathan Cape, 1981), Riding the Retreat (Jonathan Cape, 1995), and The Second World War in Photographs (Carlton, 2000).

Published on BBC History: 2005-02-28
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