Service in the British Army

Colonisation by the British started in the 1600s and quickly grew and developed to become the British Empire: A vast territory even by the early 1800s.  On world maps there was not part of a continent that was not described in pink. International trade was buoyant. The Royal Navy secured the ocean trade routes. The British Army safeguarded physical interests at home and abroad.

British Army during the Napoleonic Wars period saw rapid change. Up to 1790 the army was relatively small. At the beginning of 1793 it had barely 40,000 men but by the end of 1813 the regular army had grown to over 200,000 men but it contracted in subsequent years. However, vast numbers of men made up the Victorian army. Over 150,000 in 1851, over 200,000 in 1861 and 1871.

The British army was well organized. By the late 1700s it had the ability to equip, victual, train and mobilize large bodies of men at relatively short notice. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham (otherwise called the Battle of Quebec) in 1759 was fought with 2,000 regular British soldiers augmented by a similar number of militia and natives. Equally significant here is that these men, their equipment, baggage and possibly the families of some of them, had to be transported to Canada and back again. Figures for the American Revolutionary War of 1775-83 are even more impressive with around 40,000 British men. Here, too, large numbers of Hanoverian and German troops augmented the British who also had the support of 25,000 Loyalists. Food for the such large numbers of men and forage for horses is not something that can be under estimated.

The size of army manpower suggests that many young British men had little to celebrate in life in the cities, towns or provinces of the kingdom. In the late 1700s and well into the 1800s work was scarce and badly paid when it could be found. It naturally followed that young men gravitated into the armed services where they would be paid, fed and clothed. Many men enlisted in the hope of finding a more stable life.

The army was always hungry for fresh manpower to replace discharged men and deserters of which there were plenty. As a result not a few lads followed the Beat of Drum and with a little liquid encouragement soon found themselves heading for army service. Indeed, so great was the need to enlist new blood that recruiting personnel were constantly reminded that they should use any ploy, alcohol included, to enlist likely candidates.

Would-be soldiers were invariably lured by army recruiting parties touring the kingdom or they might have been introduced to regiments by sharp-eyed civilian army recruiting agents who worked on commission. Many were army pensioners. Other lads might have transferred from the militia (effectively the army at home) into the army or have simply presented themselves at a barracks. Eventually, whichever route a recruit took he would eventually end up in an army depot.

The first step would be to get a recruit to attest before a magistrate. Once that was done he would be subject to martial law and belong to the army. At an army depot the military power would scrutinize him more closely. A medical officer would determine his medical status: unfit men would simply be rejected and sent on their way. Those who looked under-age would also go before a medical officer who would have the last word as to eligibility for admission. and the army was not too squeamish about accepting questionable medical opinions. At this time a so-called attestation form would be completed giving the man’s name, birthplace, age and his description. This form would later have a man’s service details added along with any other pertinent facts or remarks and later also double-up as a discharge document. After 1882 the form would have next of kin details added plus details of any marriage whilst in service and invariably include a medical summary. Sometimes the names of children might also be given - some regimental papers were more detailed than others but prior to 1883 the army really had little or no interest in a soldier’s next of kin.

A recruit would usually spend several weeks in a depot where he would be kitted-out and subjected to drilling and training. This period would also see a weeding-out of men not deemed likely to make efficient soldiers. They would be released.

There were several depots around the kingdom. The largest was in London. Anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 recruits at any one time were in depots which also functioned as holding points for odd soldiers some of whom might have been left behind sick when their regiments moved on, or for men being transferred between units or awaiting discharge. Some soldiers who were not up to standard were also sent back to depots for additional drilling. Depots had a core staff under a commanding officer but were also supported by a number of NCO and other ranks detached from their regiments.

Most recruits were enlisted by specific regiments which jealously guarded their intake who would eventually join that unit.  However, some men enlisted for General Service. Others were intent on joining the Indian Service. This would have been the armies of the Hon East India Company and later, after the sepoy mutiny, a reconstituted British Indian Army. General Service meant that recruits would be placed by the army in whichever regiment was deemed best. Attention was paid to whether a man had a trade as every regiment sought to have men of varied artisanal ability. Metal work experience, carpentry and construction ability were highly estimated.

Among these recruits would also be boys. A 14 year old could enlist with his father’s or, failing a father, his family’s consent. He would probably have been initially trained as a drummer or a bugler but not be allowed to carry arms until he was eighteen years of age. These boys otherwise lived with the soldiers and were deemed to be worthy of military investment but their service prior to reaching the age of 18 would not count toward a pension. Not widely acknowledged is that in earlier times all regiments had other young boy followers. These would have been orphans, runaways and foundlings. They lived amongst the men and were victualled by the regiment. They were seen by the War Office as potential future NCOs as a consequence of being totally immersed in army life and knowing nothing else.

New soldiers would be kitted out with a uniform and back pack. Army uniforms were not terribly comfortable and more practical apparel developed only slowly. Early uniforms paid great heed to appearance rather than practicality. At one time whilst all regiments wore the standard red army tunic, each had its own unique facings. The lining of uniform jackets came to be made from material of the same regimental colours. Turning back the material at the cuffs, lapels and tails of the jacket exposed the lining, or "facing". This enabled men from different regiments to be more easily identifiable.

For a considerable period uniforms were extremely tight fitting. When used in combination with back packs great stress was put upon the shoulders and chest causing poor posture and breathing creating what became known as ‘pack palsy’. Little heed was paid to climate until late in the 1800s. There are numerous stories of marches in India with men in full flannel uniform. Added to any discomfort was the kit that a soldier might have to carry: Purportedly an all-up weight approaching 60 lbs. More if man also had to carry his tools. Despite these travails the military did endeavour to protect the health of its manpower investment. To this end every regiment had a surgeon and assistant surgeon, and later a hospital sergeant, to dispense what crude medicines were available, dress wounds and oversee basic nursing. Care and hygiene on all fronts had its limitations, though.

Uniform of the 86th Foot.
Uniform of the 86th Foot.

It is said that the army marched on its stomach and feeding large numbers of soldiers took huge sourcing and logistical effort. Supplying food and forage (for the many horses employed by the military) was actually the responsibility of a special branch of the military called the Commissariat. Many commissariat officers were actually civilians but they wore military uniform and were subject to martial law. Whether a unit was based at home or abroad, it was the task of the Commissariat to source fresh bread and meat for the men and hay and feed for animals.

There was no fresh, pure water for the most part and wherever they were stationed most regiments always tried to seek out fresh uncontaminated sources. Crude filters might be employed. Suspending silver spoons in potentially contaminated water was another method.  Cholera, typhoid and typhus were always a risk. Venereal disease was also rife, especially in the sub-continent. It did not help that buckets and utensils were often shared between domestic and personal use causing infections, diarrhea and eye disease. At one time army wives would collect urine in common-use buckets for sale to leather dressers who used the offerings in the tanning process. This effort went some way to augmenting family income. A soldier’s wife might otherwise have generated a little extra family income by charring and washing and mending for officers’ wives.

Soldiers also generally drank ale, (but rum was also a favourite in the West Indies where it was considered, wrongly, an antidote to fevers) and the boys, too. The alcohol content meant lessened risk but made drunkenness rife: A great concern to the army as a whole. Such was the gravity that regiments even ran their own temperance societies issuing sobriety certificates to worthy soldiers. Alcohol remained a problem throughout the 1800s

Once a man became a soldier he was effectively ‘owned’ by the army and prior to 1806 enlistment was technically for life although he could be discharged at any point. Later the maximum term a man might serve for was 21 years (exceptionally 25 years although one soldier completed 52 years without a break), after which he was probably ‘worn out’ should he not already have been invalided due to wounds or some other reason.

At different times there were various periods of engagement added to which a man had the opportunity to re-engage. One combination was an initial term followed by a re-engagement of another making a total of 12 years. After that, if the soldier met the right conditions he might re-engage for a further nine years to make a total of 21 years and be eligible to claim a Royal Hospital, Chelsea pension. Quite a lot of 12-year men were abroad when offered the additional nine years and, thus, a little marooned should they have wanted to take a free discharge. ‘Free’ meant unencumbered with no claim to a pension. Despite this, many discharges were often abroad and many, especially in places like Australia, took a free discharge and settled in the New World: Something the British government was extremely happy to promote. Soldier pensioners were seen as excellent settler material and many also went to or remained in Canada. Mainly in the early 1800s.

Every new soldier was at one time expected to wait up to seven years before marrying and then only with the leave of his commanding officer. Men did, however, often marry without leave and well within the seven-year period, sometimes taking advantage of absence on furlough. If a soldier in his early twenties can be seen to be on furlough, then it is worth checking to see whether he married at the time.

Whilst such a union might have been genuine and not something the army could disturb despite army regulations, it meant that such a married soldier would normally have to sleep in his barracks and his wife elsewhere. At some later date a soldier’s wife might be given permission to ‘go on the strength’ of her husband’s regiment. This would mean living with her husband in a barracks and often travelling with him. She would also be victualled at army expense but only for half rations. It was not a married life of luxury. Before the mid 1800s a wife would not only have to sleep alongside her husband and children but even deliver her newborn in a barrack room with other soldiers. Often only a simple blanket curtain would be hung up affording a couple a modicum of privacy. Married quarters were not generally provided until the 1850s and by 1857 only twenty of 251 stations offered separate married quarters. The plight of wives ‘off the strength’ was considerably more insecure. There was simply no official acknowledgement of them.

Regiments going abroad suffered a problem. The army operated a quota system for wives. At different times only around 16% of eligible wives might travel with their spouses. There are harrowing stories related by army officers of other ranks’ women unable to accompany their husbands hanging on to the stays and rigging of transport vessels slipping their moorings from a quayside.

Soldiers’ spouses were not paid by the army in the absence of their husbands although a soldier could allot all or some of his net income to his wife or dependents. However, army wives left at home had a small advantage in that they could claim assistance on their parish. In the early 1800s many men who knew they were about to be posted for long periods to distant parts, such as New Zealand and Australia, quickly transacted marriages of convenience. They then sailed off into the sunset never to see their spouses again whilst the ladies held legally married status and could claim parish support.

Life abroad for a soldier and his family was full of risk. Especially in India where climate and disease took its toll. Heatstroke on route marches was a very real risk. Some would become widows or widowers. The most practical outcome saw most remarrying very quickly within their regiment or cantonment. Widows who did not remarry would eventually be shipped home with their children at army expense to the regimental depot in Britain. They would then be given travel vouchers back to their home parishes. Equally likely was that regimental officers might contribute to a kitty for the widow.

The only other support an army family might take advantage of was to obtain admittance of their children to the Royal Military Asylum at Chelsea (1803-1892) (later the Duke of York’s Military School) or, The Royal Hibernian Military School (1765-1924) in Dublin. These co-educational schools were open to eligible boys and girls. The boys were kitted out in uniforms, drilled and were often taught musical instruments alongside study of normal elementary subjects. Many a lad eventually left the schools with a level of literacy and numeracy to take up trade apprenticeships whilst the army hoped not a few would continue into army service. Girls were additionally taught domestic duties such as sewing.

Alongside the military school system there developed a system of army schoolteachers. This really only took off in 1845 when the Corps of Army Schoolmasters was formed. Establishment of the Corps was a very progressive development some decades ahead of universal education which, by 1914, pointed to some 97% of serving soldiers being literate and numerate.

Prior to 1845 most regiments had already made an effort to provide some basic education for soldiers. By the late 1800s to reach the rank of sergeant a standard of numeracy and literacy roughly equal to that of a junior officer was necessary. Initially, only commissioned officers, warrant officers and senior NCOs provided teaching. Later, civilian schoolmasters augmented the service. They were known as schoolmaster sergeants and wore a blue uniform and were understandably not popular before true army sergeants.  During the late 1800s women also taught soldiers. Many of were mustered as assistants and pupil teachers and would later serve in early state schools.

The mid 1800s proved to be an important turning point for the common soldier in other ways.

Lord Howick, the Whig politician, used his stints as Secretary of War (1835-9) and Colonial Secretary (1846-52) to help improve army lives. He deemed that more emphasis in army affairs should be placed on a pro-active approach. Punishment reforms had begun in 1829 at which time a soldier might have suffered up to 500 lashes. Few survived this sort of punishment. It gradually reduced to 50 stripes by 1846. Corporal punishment eventually ended in 1881 although there are odd mentions of it being employed during The Great War. Whereas earlier punishments were for bad behaviour or wrong-doing the Howick Reforms led to the introduction of rewards for good behavior, Badges granted and worn to emphasise a man’s good conduct over years of service.

Howick also introduced regimental savings banks giving men the opportunity to save for a better later life and from the 1830s libraries were created at principal barrack stations.

Clean living and good moral character became more recognized by the mid 1800s and regiments were encouraged to provide equipment, games and exercise.

Research carried out by Messrs Marshall & Tulloch identified a number of deficiencies in the fundamentals of army life. Prime among them were poor diet and the link between army rations and poor health. As a result, Howick introduced ways to improve diet by reducing consumption of salt meat and increasing hot meals whilst simultaneously abolishing free rations of spirits. One significant advance in army catering was the introduction during the Crimean campaigns of a new field stove (designed by Alexis Benoist Soyer, an innovative French chef and caterer). With the blessing of the War Office, Soyer reorganized the provisioning of the army hospitals. He also designed his own field stove, the ‘Soyer Stove’, and trained and engaged the ‘regimental cook’ in every regiment so that soldiers would get an adequate meal and not suffer from malnutrition or die of food poisoning.

Transportation of military subjects to the colonies was also ended in the mid 1800s and branding of offenders (deserters were often branded with a ‘D’) ended in 1871 but soldiers did nevertheless err. An effective court martial system operated both at home and abroad and a number of military prisons were also established around the kingdom and empire. Their regimes were notably very harsh. Many hardened NCOs leaving army service also became warders in civilian prisons.

Administration of army subjects was very rigid. A great deal revolved around bookkeeping and accounts the returns of which had to be made at regular intervals to the War Office  and it is these very ledgers which form the basis of the 1851-1861 and 1871 Worldwide Army Indexes in the Forces War Records collection. Large muster sheets were originally maintained but later on more formal pre-printed sheets containing the names and regimental numbers (each regiment had its own series of numbers) of every soldier were kept and these would be bound-up into quarterly periods.  Each regiment had an officer Paymaster and invariably a Paymaster Sergeant. Men were mustered every month and the musters would be endorsed with how many days service a man might be paid for - they would not be paid for absences or whilst imprisoned – whether a man was sick in hospital (but more likely a lazarette) and whether he was On Duty, On Command or  detached from the regiment: Or attached from another regiment.

All regiments had men detached from the HQ location in other parts both at home and abroad. Detached men were used to augment provincial guarding duties, quelling civil unrest and escorting prisoners to and from assizes. Some men were detached on recruiting duty and would be led by a splendidly attired and very persuasive sergeant and corporal who would be instantly recognizable by coloured ribbons affixed to the back of their  headwear. Often for months on end they would tour towns and villages beating a drum to encourage attention of likely recruits who then ‘follow the beat’.

The mid 1800s world of a common soldier was not necessarily a better one. Aside from active combat service life could be somewhat monotonous, boredom often being relieved by alcohol. There are many tales of townships and villages being terrorized for days on end by drunken soldiers whose billeting was often forced on landlords and householders. The Paylists contain long lists of soldiers who lost pay due to drunkenness: month after month!

Traditionally, a soldier was paid a nominal ‘shilling-a-day’ (it varied by period, rank and so on) but, more importantly, whatever a soldier did receive was subject to off-reckonings. These deductions were usually for food, clothing, loss of and to damage of army effects, also for damage to barracks, the latter sometimes being used by unscrupulous commands to withhold money. Short changing soldiers was also not unknown. By the time any remainder was spent on drink there was usually little, if anything, left.

Aspiring privates might reach corporal rank within a year or two or three. Promotion to sergeant would usually take a lot longer - say several years. Not only was it necessary to gain solid military experience but the right character and having the requisite educational achievement was equally important. Naturally, the pyramid structure of the army restricted the number of available posts at any one time and a promoted man might then also have to battle hard to ensure that he retained his rank.

Whilst some men achieved sergeant rank not a few erred and were demoted back to corporal or even to private. Misconduct, theft, and drunkenness were often the reason. Interestingly, a sergeant might also be demoted for a completely different reason. A sergeant awaiting transfer to another regiment was not allowed to simply transfer as a sergeant. Instead, he would quickly be demoted to corporal and then to private rank prior to discharge. Then, when joining a new regiment the process would be reversed and promotion back to sergeant would be promptly effected.

Entries in the 1851-1861 and 1871 Worldwide Army Indexes for a corporal and a sergeant or a private and a corporal of the same name and number in the same quarter have been included. Each entry represents unique record. Also included are men who mis-stated their names when enlisting. This was a fairly common practice employed by men who were eluding custody, or a wife or girlfriend or men who became putative fathers. They simply declared an assumed name at time of enlistment knowing that once they were subject to martial law that the civil power would have great trouble gaining access to them. However, where such men served for long periods there was always the worry that discovery of a mis-stated name might endanger their later pension rights. They would then declare their mis-statement of name. Once accepted the army would revise the musters in the paylists accordingly. Entries of men in this category are also shown in the 1851-1861-1871 Worldwide Army Indexes their entries being cross referenced to both names used. A useful inventory for family historians.

It was also not unknown for a magistrate to arrive at an accord with a young offender that he might have the choice of prison or enlisting. Most would have opted for the latter. It is sometimes worth looking as local assize or quarter sessions records prior to the time a very young man enlisted.

At the end of their service men were discharged from the army in a number of ways. Some would die in combat or from disease. Others might be discharged with ignominy or by desertion. Not a few would become unfit. Lung problems, arthritis, venereal disease, ruptures (especially amongst cavalrymen) and eye disease were commonplace.  In the latter half of the 1800s a few thousand soldiers might also be discharged by purchase ie they bought themselves out with the leave of their commanding officers in accordance with a tariff. Cheap it was not.

Many soldiers were discharged at the end of a war. They would then be sent to an invalid or garrison battalion before being eventually classed as ‘worn out’. Their time in these units would be spent in guarding and upkeep and not a few were part of battalions sent to Australia to guard convicts. They might also be recalled to service at any time but many continued to serve in invalid or garrison forces. Often for some decades before being discharged to a pension. Some veterans volunteered for service. The most well known are the notorious ‘Ambulance Men’ of the Crimea War. A number of, mainly, aged pensioners were employed in the conflict as stretcher bearers but were withdrawn amid claims of bad conduct and drunkenness.

The 1806 regulations were seen as liberal enabling soldiers who had completed 21 years to apply for a Royal Hospital, Chelsea pension (or a Royal Hospital, Kilmainham pension for men on the Irish Establishment 1706-1822. At the end of 1822 Kilmainham pensions were taken over by Chelsea). As of 1817 soldiers might also take a reduced pension after 14 years service. The Miller report of 1875 brought about further revisions and after 1883 soldiers being discharged after completing one of the newly introduced limited terms of engagement, or who had bought their discharges, were also eligible for a reduced pension.

Some men had their careers cut short due to wounds or some other reason attributable to service and might also claim a Chelsea invalid pension prior to completing 21 years of service. A very small number of men actually resided in the Royal Hospital at Chelsea but the vast majority were out-pensioners. To obtain admission to pension upon discharge they would present themselves before a regular Board which determined the daily amount and its terms. Generous they were not.

They were paid-out in a number of ways. Pensioners in receipt of parish support would receive their payments from the parish. Prior to 1842 pensioners residing more than 25 miles from London but still in England, Scotland or Wales received their pensions from local excise officers. In Ireland this service was provided by postmasters. Pensioners living within a 25 miles radius of London were paid out at Chelsea. From 1842 to 1883 pensions were paid through district pension offices of which some were overseas. Thereafter pensions were paid through post offices. The only exceptions to these arrangements were admitted pensioners from colonial regiments 1817-1903 who did not have to appear in person to collect their payments. Payments abroad were otherwise invariably paid out through British consuls. By 1894 there were some 74,000 army pensioners in receipt in the UK and around 8000 overseas. Very similar to figures from the 1840s. Roughly half were men in receipt of invalid pensions.

The army was not really interested in a man’s family and there was no pension entitlement for an army wife at all although some did apply for prolongation of a deceased pensioner’s pension and some might have been given a small amount of relief for a very short period.

Fraudulent payment claims were always a risk. Pensioners were identified by a parchment identity certificate issued at time of discharge. On the whole the system functioned well but there were many instances of pensioner imposters being caught out trying to claim the rights of genuine pensioners. Not a few families also conveniently forgot to report a pensioner’s death leaving payments to continue.

Despite the limitations of the past it is remarkable that such a huge military machine and its attendant pension schemes functioned so well before the age of computers and instant communications.

Today, the family historian can thank the former War Office and modern archivists for creating and maintaining a superb collection records of which 13,000 Paylists have formed the foundation of the Worldwide Army Indexes in The Forces War Records collection. Also worth a mention is that Paylists from 1830 to 1877 generally also show enlistment dates and birthplaces of cavalry and infantry subject at time of discharge.

The Worldwide Army Indexes collection is an invaluable source for family history research. Especially where papers have not survived Men who were not pensioned prior to 1882 will have none. Note: Each index has a dedicated description of content to help with searches

The specialist military genealogy website had added the 1800’s Worldwide Army List, containing over 500,000+ records complied from musters contained in WO 10 (Royal Artillery), WO 11 (Royal Engineers) and WO 12 (Cavalry, Guards, Infantry and other units) War Office Paylists held at the National Archives, Kew.

Search our vast collection of records to find out more – there could be a war hero in your family just waiting to be discovered, and remembered…

The article and Index has been compiled through the hard work of Roger Nixon. This work is greatly appreciated as it provides the most comprehensive record of the men who served in the British Army around this period.

 

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