(Wellington to Creevey in a Brussels Park, some time before the Battle of Waterloo, when glancing a British private in the green alleys and being asked, if he and Blücher could 'do the business' and defeat Bonaparte)
Apart from militia service, there was no system that in any way resembled conscription, and the regular forces were recruited exclusively by voluntary enlistment. This had an enormous disadvantage: for a variety of reasons, not least the type of civilian who normally served in the army, and the fact that soldiers were used in crowd-control duties in the absence of any organized police, military service in general was regarded as a livelihood in which only the worst members of society participated, and was extremely unpopular in many quarters.Wellington's often misquoted remark that soldiers were in general 'the scum of the earth', enlisted for drink or to escape the consequences of having fathered illegitimate children, when considered in its correct context has much to support it. Wellington was not adopting a superior attitude by way of condemnation - he added how astonishing it was that they had been made into such 'fine fellows' - but used the term to indicate the social background from which they came, in course of a plea to involve the higher classes of society as did many other European armies.
Because of the public disapproval of the army and military service, various expedients were used to attract men to the colours. The most obvious was the bounty paid to each recruit upon joining, a financial incentive irresistible to many paupers who had spent their lives at mere subsistence level. The bounty varied according to the urgency with which recruits were required, and there was often competition between the regular army, militia and navy for the recruits available; in 1796, for example, one recruiting officer gave up the unequal struggle of putting his 10-guinea bounties against the up to 40 guineas offered by the Royal Navy. In 1805 the enlistment-bounty, paid in money and in the provision of the 'necessaries' (equipment) which each soldier had to provide at his own expense, was twelve guineas; but this was not the total expense to the government of each recruit, as the person who brought the recruit to the recruiting-party received money, and the recruiting-party itself also receiving a certain amount, bringing the total expense to 16 guineas per man.
The payment to the 'bringer of the recruit' raises the question of various nefarious practices. For various reasons, recruiters sometimes were prepared to pay well over the ordinary price for a recruit (for example if 'recruiting for rank'), and some resorted to the employment of crimps. These were a species of rogue who undertook to supply a number of men at a price, by persuading the gullible to enlist (some crimps offered 25 guineas cash-in-hand), or by methods more in keeping with their ordinary occupations, which in some cases were as receivers of stolen property or even coiners, in addition to the dubious merchants and publicans who were the typical crimps. Likely recruits might be stood free drinks until they.were insensible, and then handed to the army before they sobered, or in extreme cases could be literally kidnapped after being lured into the crimpers' hands by women or other means. An example of this dreadful practice was revealed in 1795, when a window in a house in St. George's Fields was smashed by a kidnapped pot-boy, who cried 'Murder'; when the building was entered eighteen men were found in chains, awaiting ,sale' to the army.
The worst excesses of the crimping trade occurred in the mid-1790s, when the demand for recruits was at its height; yet it continued despite criticism in parliament. One MP described seeing a newly raised Irish regiment 'filled up with decrepid men from 70 to 80 years, and of boys little more than 12. In the very town he represented an old man had been enlisted, and received seven guineas bounty, though ten years before he had been dismissed as wholly unfit for any service'; another asked 'What confidence ... could be expected to subsist between the officer and the soldier, when the former was a boy just escaped from school, and the other a victim redeemed from the dungeons of the crimps?'
Most recruits were gathered by recruiting-parties sent out by a battalion or regiment on the strength of a 'Beating Order', to range about likely venues and enlist whomsoever they could. Such a recruiting-party usually consisted of an officer, one or two sergeants, a drummer (to attract the crowds), and four or five privates, selected for their smart appearance and quick wits, and decked out with ribbons and favours which were presented to each recruit. Some men would enlist at the sight of the recruiting-party, but others had to be enveigled into joining. Weavers, it was said, were the easiest to attract, simply by contrasting their damp and monotonous existence with the delights of an open-air life as extolled by the recruiting-sergeant; agricultural labourers responded best to tales of rapid promotion, and how the officer of the party had himself been a ploughboy only a few years before. A glimpse of the type of outrageous claims made by recruiters is provided by posters issued by recruiting-parties, which sometimes varied between the unrealistic and the deceitful: 'Five Shillings a Day and a Black Servant';... the men will not be allowed to hunt during the next Season, more than once a week'; 'luxurious living, an hospitable table and capacious bowl of punch'. Others extolled the reputation of their corps: 'The Regiment has been one year and a half in Ireland, constantly employed in exterminating the Croppies, who are now, damn their bloods, about finished ... At the battle of Hacketstown one of the Dragoons at full speed, with a single blow of the Sabre, cut the head of a rebel clean off ...
Some unusual devices were employed to attract recruits. Recruiting Sergeants of the 33rd Infantry , Wellington's own regiment, flourished havercakes on their swords (oatcakes characteristic of the West Riding) to represent the abundance of food they claimed was common in the army. John Heyes, a Yorkshire dwarf some 42 inches tall, was in demand to follow recruiting-parties and perform the sword-exercise to attract the crowds, presumably a more pleasant way of earning a living than being exhibited in a freak show, his previous employment. A good band, a distinctive uniform (like that of the 95th Rifles) or even a famous colonel could be a valuable aid to recruiting, too.
The number of recruiting-parties operational at any one time varied with the demand for recruits; for example, in the year July 1805-july 1806 some 405 parties were operating in Britain, but in 1806-7 the number increased to 1, 1 13. In 1812, to reduce the reliance upon recruiting-parties from individual regiments, every recruiting district was formed into subdivisions, each commanded by an experienced officer to oversee recruiting.
Originally enlistment was for life, until the soldier became too infirm to do his duty or until his services were no longer required. When Grenville's 'Ministry of all the Talents' came to power in early 1806, William Windham took over the war department and introduced a scheme for limited service as an alternative to lifetime enlistment. It permitted recruits to engage for three successive periods of service (between 7 and 12 years for the first period, with habitually second and third periods at 5 to 7 years).
The intention was to make the military trade sufficiently attractive and 'to bring it into fair competition with a sufficient portion of the habits and callings of the lower orders'. It was claimed that the new conditions curbed desertion (from one man in 157 in 1805 to one in 263 in 1806-7), but in subsequent years the numbers of deserters rose again, to 6,611 in 1808 and 5,918 in 1812, for example. It involved a variation in the bounty, which by 1812 had risen to E23 17s. 6d. for lifetime service and E18 12s. 6d. for limited service, but in practice it did not make a great deal of difference, as the majority of men still enlisted for life. (Whether it reflects upon perceived national characteristics or not, it is interesting to observe that the Irish appear to nave been most willing to enlist for life, and the more cautious Scots most eager to engage for limited service.)
Recruits soon discovered that the bounty was a transitory blessing, being almost always expended before the man joined his regiment, some going on drink and women and the rest squandered: 'Winchester ... has been a scene of riot, dissipation and absurd extravagance. It is supposed that nine-tenths of the bounties ... amounting to at least 20,000 f were all spent on the spot among the public houses, milliners, watch-makers, hatters, &c. In mere wantonness, Bank notes were actually eaten between slices of bread and butter.196 Nor was the bounty dissipated solely by the recruit's own folly; the recruitingparties frequently fleeced their victims. An llth Light Dragoon wrote of 'the knavery of others', especially NCOs who gave the recruit favoured treatment only until his money was gone: 'They will first suck you dry, and then grind you to powder. It was also expected that the recruit should use his bounty to treat his fellows: in July 1809 a recruit of the 18th Light Dragoons was tossed in a blanket for choosing not to squander his money in this way, and died from a broken neck when a corner of the blanket gave way.
Some strange events occurred in recruiting: In April 1794 a man in the Grassmarket, Edinburgh, put himself up for public auction to the various recruiting-parties present, allowing no bid of less than a guinea; he was eventuallv knocked down for 20 guineas. Another case involved a man selling himself like butcher's meat, asking for bids of so much a pound. Disappointment with the bounty, such as the withholding of part of it to cover purchase of 'necessaries', was sometimes the cause of discontent; at Mansfield and Nottingham in January 1798, for example, recruits refused to march and the situation was exacerbated by the interference of 'some disaffected persons'.
Having accepted the token 'King's shilling', the recruit was taken before a magistrate or justice of the peace (provided that this functionary was not an army officer) to swear the enlistment-oath, which was to take place within four days of enlistment, but not within 24 hours (presumably as a safeguard against recruits being sworn while drunk and incapable). On being presented to the magistrate, the recruit could withdraw his consent to enlist provided that he returned any money he had received, and twenty shillings in addition to defray other expenses; failure to produce this sum within 24 hours meant that he was regarded as properly enlisted. The magistrate read to the recruit those articles of war relating to mutiny and desertion; the recruit declared on oath his name, occupation, age, place of birth, that he was not already a member of any regiment, militia, navy or marines, 'and that he has had no Rupture, and was not troubled with Fits, and was no ways disabled by Lameness, Deafness, or otherwise, but had the perfect Use of his Limbs and Hearing, and was not an Apprentice ...' (The declaration regarding ruptures was a necessary safeguard, as manual work among the tabouring classes was so arduous that it was estimated in 1814 that one in eight males in the land was affected by a rupture.)
Until the Catholic Relief Act of 1791, the English attestation form began, 'I, - do make Oath, That I am a Protestant, and by Trade a - and to the best of my Knowledge and Belief, was born in the Parish of -'; the affirmation of Protestantism was dispensed with at that date, but the corresponding Scottish Catholic Emancipation Act was not introduced into parliament until April 1793, and some old attestation-forms were still used in Scotland in that year, which cost some recruits. Such problems did not extend beyond 1793, and were probably often ignored even before. The oath sworn by the recruit before the magistrate was:
'I swear to be true to our Sovereign Lord King George, and serve Him honestly and faithfully in Defence- of his Person, Crown, and Dignity, against all His Enemies or Opposers whatsoever: And to observe and obey His Majesty's Orders, and the Orders of the Generals and Officers set over me by His Majesty.'
Trades and occupations of recruits varied with the area from which were drawn, and dependent upon the prosperity of each trade at each date: a depression in the textile trade, for example, would result in the recruitment of more weavers than normal, and an area with a well-developed industry would bring in a higher percentage of its employees than an area with a lessdeveloped branch of the trade; the large numbers of weavers from Lancashire and the West Riding, or the 'framework knitters' from the Midlands are examples. The number of labourers enlisted was greater from areas without a developed manufacturing industry.
Young recruits were much preferred; it was habitually stated that those who enlisted age 20 or over were 'habitually dissipated and profligate characters, broken-down gentlemen, discharged soldiers, deserters, and that because as few as 5 per cent were still fit for service at age 40, on average the enlistment of a 20-year-old gave five years' extra service than that of a 25-years old recruit. The average age of soldiers was indeed quite young, but although the more elderly might be left at the home depot when a unit was ordered abroad, it is interesting to note the presence of comparatively old men even on active service.
An interesting comparison may be made with a roll of 100 men recruited for the 98th in the spring of 1794; of whom two were rejected, five deserted, and two gentlemen-rankers were sent to the Scots Brigade in Netherlands service, presumably as officers. Seventeen of these recruits were aged 15-17, thirty-one 18-24, nineteen 25-29, and thirty-three 30-35; four stood only 5 feet 2 inches tall, 60 were 5 feet 5 inches or less, only five were 5 feet 9 inches or over, and the tallest was only 5 feet 101/2 inches.
So desperate was the manpower shortage that from December 1797 six regiments (9th, 16th, 22nd, 34th, 55th and 65th) were authorized to be completed entirely of boys, from 13 to 18 years old. 'They are to be well fed, and for some time to be mere walking drills, after which they are to be exercised with light fusees, one hundred of which have been sent to each of the six regiments'; This was an extension of the practice by which all regiments were permitted to take boys an inch lower than the official height, if they might be expected to grow. The 4th and 52nd were also permitted to recruit boys, as were in 1800 the 32nd and 45th.
An estimate of literacy in the post-Napoleonic period stated that of Scottish recruits, between 7 and 10 per cent could neither read nor write and that 20 per cent were unable to sign their name; but even in 1839 this was remarked upon as being an unusual figure, for it was thought that only onethird of soldiers were able to sign their account-books. Some men, however, did learn to read and write in the army, but although regimental schools were encouraged by the Duke of York in a General Order of 1 January 1812, not all units had them, and attendance was entirely voluntary. In 1814 it was estimated that one-ninth of the population died without having acquired any learning whatever.
Some of the motivations for joining the army were described upon a recruiting-poster for the 14th Light Dragoons, which advertised for likely candidates: 'All you who are kicking your heels behind a solitary desk with too little wages, and a pinch-gut Master - all you with too much wife, or are perplexed with obstinate and unfeeling parents... ', and although Wellington was scornful of the idea that men might enlist out of 'fine military feeling', undoubtedly some did, like Thomas Morris of the 73rd. He joined the St: George's Volunteers at the age of 16, not to avoid the militia ballot as many did (he was then too young), but out of a desire to participate in the 'heart-stirring accounts of sieges and battles' about which he had read. At length, feeling ashamed at being only half a soldier, he enlisted for full-time service in his brother's regiment.
If the appeal of a life of adventure encouraged many men to enlist, then simple hardship would appear to have been a greater motivation, for at least in the army a man was guaranteed food, clothing and a place to lay his head. It is noticeable that in some instances the occupations of recruits correlate with depressions in their particular trade, and there were even a few cases of the genuine 'gentleman ranker' who enlisted simply out of penury. John Harcomb of the 10th Hussars was an example: a solicitor who had squandered his fortune, he enlisted as a private until he again came into money and purchased a commission. Having again wasted his resources he was forced to sell out and again enlisted as a private in his former regiment, and died in 1814 in Kingston workhouse, Portsea.
The realities of soldiering in the lower ranks came as a rude shock to such people, who experienced none of the glamour suggested by the uniform. The poet Coleridge entered the 15th Light Dragoons in 1793 (under the alias of Silas Tomkyn Comberbatch), probably because of a combination of expected glamour and lack of money; he was saved from a miserable existence as a trooper by his brother, a captain, who arranged for his discharge.
A recruit of genteel upbringing would regard the average enlistee with dismay: 'I could not associate with the common soldiers: their habits made me shudder. I feared an oath - they were never without one; I could not drink they loved liquor; they gamed - I knepv nothing of play. Thus I was a solitary individual among hundreds.1106 Consequently, there was always difficulty in keeping newly enlisted men true to their oath, and so prevalent was the practice of enlisting and then absconding with the bounty that it even had its own slang term, 'pear-making'. Probably the most outrageous exponent of the art was Thomas Hodgson, alias'Tom the Devil', who in 1787 was executed for robbery at the age of 26, and who admitted enlisting under various names no less than 49 times and in each case deserting within a couple of days, which had earned him the sum of 397 guineas. The greatest proportion deserted while under the supervision of the recruiting districts rather than after induction into their regiments: in the first half of 1805, for example, one man in 202 deserted from the army at home (one in 204 in Ireland), yet during the same period one in ten deserted from the recruiting districts.
Various methods were adopted to prevent the desertion of newly enlisted men, including keeping them drunk. Benjamin Harris, for example, was enlisted by a recruiting-party which flourished two decanters of whiskey and 'danced, drank, shouted and piped' the route between Cashel and Clonmel, where they arrived all rolling drunk. When Harris himself went on the recruiting service, he records handcuffing himself to a recruit overnight, to prevent the man absconding when sober. When recruiting for the 90th in 1794, one officer commented that he had to send 40 of his recruits to Altrincham, to keep them away from the temptations of Warrington races, lest they be persuaded by their friends to run off; only his most reliable dozen did he allow to attend the races, which might have been a fertile recruiting-ground. It is an interesting comment on the practices of recruiting-parties that his two sergeants were charging the officer 35s. per week for their services, plus two guineas for each man they enrolled!
Some of those who enlisted when drunk or in a fit of anger immediately regretted their actions: in October 1807 a Lambeth wheelwright named Pearce shot himself over disagreements with his wife about his recent enlistment in the Guards, which course he had taken as a result of 'a life of idleness and extravagance'! Equally drastic were cases in which a wife took an axe to her husband and chopped off several fingers, to prevent his being accepted into the army.
Desertion was a constant problem, usually arising from dissatisfaction with the army, or simply from foolishness and the influence of alcohol. The numbers of deserters were considerable: even during the Peninsular War about 500 deserted per year (about half of them foreigners), and not unnaturally many more deserted at home (one man in 202 in the first half of 1805, for example), and its effects may be gauged by the increase in the reward offered for the apprehension of deserters, rising in July 1812 from 20s. to 30s.
Some found the experience of military service so unbearable as to take inordinate lengths to avoid capture. Richard Andrews, who deserted at Chatham, lived rough around Whittlesea in the winter of 1807-8 and when apprehended was found to be suffering from frostbite. Despite being handcuffed, he stole away from his guard during the night and when found four days later was dying of exposure to the cold. Even the most unlikely were not immune from desertion: at Edinburgh in 1812 a private named Macroy was drummed out of the 9th Veteran Battalion for deserting twice, losing the pension due to him for 30 years' good service. Those who attempted to desert ran a considerable risk, not only of a flogging or capital punishment for deserting in the face of the enemy: for example, when James Snowden, a multiple deserter from several regiments, was shot when trying to escape arrest in December 1806, a verdict of justifiable homicide was recorded because he and his fellows 'had laid plans for their escape; one of which was on the point of being executed when the deceased lost his life'.
Occasionally, guards who killed deserters were themselves prosecuted (for example, in April 1806 a Sergeant Hugh Mack was convicted of manslaughter for killing Thomas Kirby, a deserter from the 56th, by a blow on the head from his spontoon), but more often summary justice was accepted. In May 1800 William Jackson, an apprehended deserter from the Cornish Fencibles, slipped his handcuffs in Covent Garden and attempted to escape; he had run only six yards when one of his guards shot him through the back of the neck, narrowly missing a passing baker. No warning was given before the shot, and Jackson's body was left in the street for a considerable time, presumably to discourage other potential deserters.
The difficulties of providing recruits led to the utilization of the militia to provide a reservoir of men used to military discipline and already conversant with drill and weapon-handling. In 1798 parliament passed an Act which enabled militiamen to volunteer for regular service, but it was not a success because of fears of the plague-ridden West Indies; a revised Act of 1799, which stipulated that those who volunteered from the militia would not be required to serve outside Europe, produced the required 10,000 recruits. That this plan was not an unqualified success was due more to the manner of its implementation than to the quality of the recruits: instead of sending small drafts of militia volunteers to many units, they were incorporated en masse into a number of battalions. The result was that officers and men were unacquainted with each other; numbers of the latter embarked with the clothing and equipment of the militia regiments to which they had belonged, and the instances were not a few in which, when questioned to what corps they belonged, and who were their commanding officers, they gave the names of their respective militia regiments, not those with which, and under whom, they were serving. Nevertheless, in general the militia recruits were a most valuable asset in the 1799 campaign in North Holland: John Colborne recalled how Abercromby called for forty or fifty volunteers to charge with him, whereupon the whole of the 20th stepped forward, including many so newly joined that they still wore their militia uniform. Recognizing this, Abercromby called 'Come along! You are as safe here as if you were in Norfolk!'
When recruiting by ordinary methods again failed to fill the ranks as required by the resumption of the war, a further Act was passed in 1805 to permit another round of volunteering from the militia, and between 10 April and 26 June about 11,000 volunteered for regular service. Good though these men were, they were extremely expensive, because in addition to the ten guinea bounty given to militiamen entering the regular army, many had already received the equivalent of a bounty upon joining the militia. When a renewed release of militiamen was authorized in 1807, the cost of those recruited from the Irish militia caused some public comment, because instead of twelve guineas for a recruit from civilian life, a militiaman received ten guineas on joining the regulars after having mostly already received fourteen guineas for entering the militia, thus making the price of these recruits exactly double those recruited by ordinary means.
From 1809 an Act permitted the regular volunteering of militia into the line, and although some cases of heavy 'persuasion' are recorded, the militiamen mostly came forward not only willingly but eagerly: for example, the 11,450 militiamen who volunteered in 1811 represented more than 1,100 in excess of the number required, and some militia regiments provided so many willing men that recruiters could select the best. Indeed, regiments that tried to enlist militiamen sometimes had to compete with one another to win the best recruits. George Napier of the 52nd and his brother William of the 43rd, both recruiting in Limerick, were on one occasion confronted by ten of the best militiamen possible, all six-footers, who said they would enlist with whichever line officer who could beat them at running and jumping. Both Napiers were athletic men, but only William could beat the ten Irishmen, so they all joined the 43rd.
As the war drew to a close, the number of militia recruits declined (in 1813 the number obtained was some 900 short of the 10,000 required), and additional incentives had to be offered, such as the grants of land in North America proffered to eighteen militia regiments if their men enrolled in the 49th Foot in that part of the world. Nevertheless, from 1805 until the end of the war the regular army received some 100,000 men from the militia, a fact probably related to the marked improvement in standards which led to the excellence of the Peninsula army, such recruits being on average so superior to those enlisted from civilian life.
Apart from those who latterly opted for limited service, a soldier remained in the army until his services were no longer required , either by the reduction of the army at the conclusion of a war or until he became disabled by wounds or sickness, or became too old or feeble to do his duty. 'Worn out' was the term applied, which could involve men as young as their late twenties, dependent upon their constitution. Those no longer able to withstand the rigours of campaign might be transferred to a garrison or veteran battalion, or to sedentary garrison or invalid companies which manned fortifications at home. In the latter units, men often served until they died. A certain John Urquhart, late of the 42nd, who had been wounded at Fontenoy, was stationed in garrison at Hull for 56 years until the day of his death, aged 84, in 1801 and barrack-sergeant Durham of Plymouth, who died in 1812 aged 88, had been 70 years in the army and was probably one of the last Culloden veterans still in the service.
Further proof that age was no inhibitor of service is the fact that fathers and sons sometimes served together; for example, a father and son served as privates in the 2/7th at Albuera, both named Robert Baily, distinguished in the regimental records by the numbers 'Ist' and '2nd'. This was the usual way of differentiating men of the same name, a problem especially prevalent in some Scottish regiments.
Although the concept of 'clan' regiments was by this date largely archaic, units recruited from particular areas might have many men with a similar surname and distantly related. In the Strathspey or Grant Fencibles, for example, the original establishment included 41 rank-and file named Fraser, 80 named Grant, and 94 named McDonald or McDonell, indexing no less than sixteen named John McDonald. (Of the officers who served in this regiment, raised and commanded by Sir James Grant of Grant, no less than 38 bore his name.)
One of the most important elements of a regiment was its non-commissioned officers, the link between officers and privates. Promotion to NCO rank was not hard to achieve for a man whose personal habits and intelligence made him stand out from his fellows. A steady and sober man might expect to come to the attention of his superiors, and be promoted to corporal and sergeant, the two NCO ranks which existed before July 1813, when the appointment of colour-sergeant was created to reward deserving individuals (despite the title and the depiction of a flag as part of its badge of rank, this appointment did not signify that those who held it acted as escort to the regimental Colours). A unit's senior sergeant was usually styled the sergeant-major, and other appointments might include the drum-major and fife-major, though to some extent the status of these individuals varied between corps.
Literacy was essential for promotion to sergeant, a sergeant being required to keep the company's clerical records, but to judge from some extant order-books, the definition of literacy was sometimes wide! By no means were all sergeants the models of propriety which their rank might have implied: court-martial records include the frequent demotion of NCOs for misdemeanours, and some men were promoted and 'broken' with regularity.
The men selected for promotion were not always the best qualified, however- when in 1799 Captain Aylmer Haly of the 4th Foot wrote to the Duke of York's secretary with suggestions for improvements, he remarked: 'If commanding officers paid more attention in the choice of non-commissioned officers, we would see the interior discipline of our infantry superior to its actual state; and, instead of having the husbands of officers' washer-women corporals and serjeants, we would have men capable of regulating the interior oeconomy of their squads - they should always be selected from the veterans."
Wellington himself acknowledged the failings of many NCOs :'... they are as bad as the men, and too near them, in point of pay and situation ... for us to expect them to do anything to keep the men in order!' Yet he recognized their importance in performing duties which officers would have undertaken had they not been constrained by being 'gentlemen': '... all that work is done by the non-commissioned officers of the Guards. It is true that they regularly get drunk once a day - by eight in the evening - and go to bed soon after, but then they always take care to do first whatever they were bid'; and, speaking of sergeants, he remarked 'I am convinced that there would be nothing so intelligent, so valuable, as English soldiers of that rank, if you could get them sober, which is impossible.'
With the aim of preserving discipline, NCOs were forbidden to become too familiar with those under their command, and their relationship with their officers reflected the wide gap in society. This was demonstrated never more clearly than in 1809, when the sergeants of the 1/7th Fuzileers presented a testimonial of their great regard for him to Captain J. Orr of that battalion, upon his translation from adjutancy to command of a company. This gesture of genuine esteem brought down such wrath that it was made the subject of a condemnatory General Order: 'in presuming to meet, in order to deliberate on the conduct of their superior officer, they have, in fact, however unintentionally, been guilty of an act of great insubordination ... If the non-commissioned officers of a regiment are permitted to express their approbation of the conduct of the Adjutant ... what reason can be given why they should not be equally entitled to express their disapprobation? Indeed, should the practice become general, the merely withholding of the former would imply the latter."
Their commanding officer received even greater criticism for not forbidding their action, and so sensitive was the issue that this General Order was repeated in 1839.
In desperate circumstances, junior NCOs or even private soldiers might assume command of their unit. A case which received some celebrity, and was adverted to as late as 1834 upon -the presentation of new Colours to the 35th, concerned the action at Bunker's Hill during the War of American Independence, when the officers and NCOs of the 35th's flank company were all disabled, 'when at this crisis it was said, "Fall back, there is no one to command", the oldest soldier present, a man who sought no other name, here stepped forth, exclaiming - Never retreat, boys, for want of a leader, while I have a musket to point the way to go."
Next to promotion to NCO, the most favoured appointment in the army was probably that of officer's servant, which originally excused a soldier from ordinary duty and paid an extra shilling a week. Later regulations were tightened so that servants had to attend drills and parades like the rest. Care was often taken that only men from the officer's own company could be considered as a servant, and generally only the less-impressive in appearance: 'In Future no Officer will be Allowed a Front Rank Man for a servant and every Officer who has a front Rank man at Present for his Servant will be so Good as Change him'; 'an officer Servant from the Ranks must be from the Company in which he himself does duty and with approbation of the captain or officer commanding that Company; officers servants are never to ware their Regimentals but when on duty with their Masters. It is expected that this will be obeyed!'. The above instruction that officers' servants were to wear uniform only when actually on military duty would seem to be confirmed by an incident in February 1807: when a sentry of the 3/lst Royal Scots was murdered while standing guard at Culverscroft battery, Sussex, his assailant was described as 'dressed in a great coat, round hat, and cockade, who appeared to be an officer's servant'.
The position of officer's servant was so much esteemed that when in May 1806 Leonard Sprotsom, servant to Colonel Carey of the 3rd Foot Guards, was told to return to the ranks, he shot himself as a result of this decision having 'preyed on his spirits'.
In addition to a soldier-servant, an affluent officer might also employ one or more civilians: for example, the accounts of the engineer Sir Richard Fletcher for the years 1812-13 in the Peninsula include payments to two named English servants, a Portuguese servant Joan Rodriguez, and to Domingues the cook and his wife. Such civilian servants were not bound by military discipline: one general officer received a note from an ex-servant in February 1807 in which the eminent person was referred to as 'you Dam'd Old Scoundrel ... you Savage ... Rascal and Old Negro driver ... you Old Vagabond in spite of all you have done or can do I am as happy as a Man can be as Captain's Steward on board one of the finest Frigates in his Majesty's Service ...'
Perhaps surprisingly, given the dubious background of some recruits and their often unpleasant living conditions, there was little evidence of political disaffection in the army. Outbreaks of civil violence were not uncommon, and there was mutiny and rioting among some troops, but these could be ascribed largely to more immediate concerns such as hunger or unemployment, rather than primarily to political agitation in emulation of what had occurred in France during the Revolution. There was, however, some disquiet in certain sections of society over the level of public support for the war, resulting in the publication of such addresses as Advice to English Day Labourers, which appeared at the height of the invasion threat in August 1803, to answer the feared reaction of 'Let Buonaparte come ... we cannot be worse off than we are at present'. This demonstrated that nothing less than genocide was proposed by the French, or so the authors would have their audience believe: '... he gives his soldiers leave to ravish every woman or girl who comes their way, and then to cut her throat. The little children perish by hunger and cold, unless some compassionate soldier shortens their misery with his bayonet ... Now Labourers! honest, brave fellows! who love your children, and your good country-women ... take your choice - Enroll yourselves instantly; be trained to arms, and be ready to fight Buonaparte; or else, within two months, he will murder you, and all who are dear to you!'
So far as the army was concerned, the general attitude of the rank and file was probably that expressed by Stephen Morley of the 5th: 'The British soldier fortunately for himself is a dunce in politics; it is a subject which he heartily despises. To keep his arms in serviceable condition, as well as clothing and appointments; to be patient under privations; cool and steady in dangers; brave and daring in action; to be obedient to orders and to have an honest and cheerful heart form the perfection of his character.'
This seems proven by incidents such as occurred in the Craven Head Inn, Drury Lane, in October 1798. A corporal and private of the 3rd Foot Guards were drinking there when a journeyman currier, John Glass, remarked, 'there is one of the Duke of York's crew'. During the altercation which followed, Glass damned the Duke of York, the army and the king, 'and spoke in the most indecent manner of all the Royal Family'; one guardsman apprehended him and the other brought a constable, and Glass was arraigned at Bow Street for 'uttering certain treasonable expressions against the King and Royal Family'. He pleaded intoxication and was bound over to behave well in future; similar reactions by ordinary soldiers were by no means uncommon.
At the beginning of the period there was some disquiet over the circulation of radical pamphlets and copies of Paine's Rights of Man, but these appear to have had very little effect. A few officers were involved in radical political societies, but apparently only three were considered as suitable candidates for dismissal from the army, among them Lord Edward Fitzgerald, later a leader of the Irish rebellion.
Although a number of regiments were reported as having members who were reading political tracts of dubious nature, only the 2nd Dragoons had an organized political club, the existence of which was blamed on dissenters in the ranks and its station in Manchester, where radical ideas were circulating; but it was not inherently disloyal and seems to have faded away when the regiment was moved. It was reported that some members of the 73rd circulated radical ideas as a result of the political leanings of their commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Norman Macleod, a government opponent as MP for Inverness-shire, but who, despite membership of some radical political clubs, was'permitted to pursue his military career.
The only officers' club with any political overtones seems to have been the "Loyal and Friendly Society of the Blue and Orange", which existed in the 4th Foot, apparently from a 1727 association commemorating the accession of William III to the throne and in support of the House of Hanover; it included a medal worn by members on the anniversaries of the Battles of the Boyne and Culloden, and held its last recorded dinner in 1801.
Within the army there seems to have been more reaction against radical political literature than there were those sufficiently interested to read it. The rank and file of a number of regiments spontaneously opened subscriptions or offered money to combat the circulation of seditious material: for example, the Norfolk Fencible Cavalry, stationed at Carlisle, offered three days' pay from every NCO and private for the conviction of anyone who used rebellious language or distributed seditious literature. The 6th Dragoons went a stage further and set out to find a man in Norwich who had been making political speeches calculated to inflame the audience. Fortunately for his own safetv the culprit hid, and after a few inns were turned-over the dragoons' officers persuaded them to return to barracks. More eloquent rebuttals of seditious handbills were made by some units, such as the marines at Chatham who answered one such paper with one of their own: 'You ask, are we not men? We are men, we know it, and should the enemies of our King, our Country or Constitution ever oppose us, we will prove ourselves!' Indeed, one of the few disciplinary measures taken against a suspected radical (the court-martial of Private Thomas Atkinson of the 76th for possessing a copy of Rights of Man) collapsed when it was proved that he was only using it to write a rebuttal in defence of the existing constitution. A few soldiers were said to have become involved with the 'United Englishmen' movement in 1798, but there was little proof, and when members of that organization went to Woolwich to convince artillerymen there, they were told in no uncertain terms to go away.
Excluding Ireland, the most serious case of incipient rebellion involving the military was that of Colonel Edward Marcus Despard, who after treatment which he perceived as unfair, relating to his governorship of Honduras, conceived an absurd plan to seize the Bank of England and the Tower and to assassinate the king. He and some confederates were executed in February 1803, and soldiers questioned at his trial deposed that some soldiers had been present at societies named 'Free and Easy', the purpose of which was to overthrow the government. Of the six men executed with Despard, John Wood and John Francis (the only soldiers) were dressed in Foot Guards uniform, Francis even wearing his regimental dress cap. Even this drastic act was insufficient to damage the career of his elder brother, John Despard (one of five of the six brothers who made the army or navy a career), who became a general in 1814.
Actions 'in support of civil power' were never popular, and some murmurings were heard, especially among the auxiliary forces, when compelled to perform such duty, but these were not serious. For example, when the South Hants Militia was sent to Manchester in the Spring of 1812, some of their members were heard to remark in Wells that 'in case of their being employed against rioters, they have formed the resolution not to direct their fire against them, but in the event of their receiving orders to such effect they will fire in the air over-the heads of the offenders'. This prompted the adjutant of the local militia to report these conversations to the Home Secretary.