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British Army in the 19th Century

During the 18th century, public perception of standing armies as instruments of despotic government obliged Parliament to keep Britain’s peacetime forces as small as possible. There were times, however, when involvement in continental and colonial wars made it necessary for Parliament to legislate hastily for the speedy recruitment of vast additional forces.

These extra men were raised either through voluntary enlistment or by compulsion. Recruiting Acts were passed annually during the periods 1703-11, 1743-44, 1756-57, 1778-79, and in 1783, while the British army was engaged in major wars in Europe and elsewhere. The Acts offered a financial bounty or reward to men who enlisted for limited periods – in 1757 the sum was £3. They also gave powers to magistrates to press unemployed, but otherwise able-bodied, men.In time of war impressment – as the practice was known – was also a tactic employed by the Army to acquire extra men, usually when the non-violent methods of the recruiting sergeants failed to enlist sufficient numbers.

For much of the war with France in the late 18th and early 19th century, Britain faced the threat of imminent invasion from across the Channel. The magnitude of the threat, and the real possibility of its success, was unprecedented in modern times. With much of Britain’s army heavily committed on the continent and elsewhere, the government drew up wide-ranging plans in 1798 for putting the nation on an effective defence footing.

The proposals were embodied in the Defence of the Realm Act of 1798 and a series of subsequent measures which created a nationwide force of local armed volunteers – known as fencibles. The Act anticipated and planned for a people’s war against a possible French invasion. Mobilisation of the civilian population on this scale was inspired by the existing militia forces which had been successfully revived - having fallen into disuse by the late 17th century - after Parliament passed the Militia Act in 1757. The militia was essentially a collection of part-time county defence forces, trained annually in basic military skills, and put to active service when military need arose. In 1798, there were 118,000 volunteers but, faced with the possibility of a French invasion of southern England, William Pitt’s government aimed to expand this number substantially.

Parliament passed another Defence Act in 1803 which enrolled more men in response to the massing of Napoleon’s Grand Army across the Channel. Further legislation followed in which Parliament dealt with the detailed arrangements for home defence. Peers and MPs were ideally placed to perfect these measures as many were themselves officers in the militia and the various volunteer corps. In 1804, at the height of the invasion scare, 176,000 men were already serving in Britain, either in the regular army, the militia, or in the volunteers. A further 480,000 men had indicated their willingness to take up arms if invasion came, and many were in active training. As events turned out, it was only ever necessary to deal with false alarms, but the scale of civilian involvement in home defence was a much needed demonstration of the state of national morale.

With the return to peace at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 military expenditure was heavily reduced. As a result the regular army was gradually slimmed down from 230,000 men to 91,000 by 1838. In these conditions recruitment was hardly a problem. By the 1850s, however, Britain’s involvement in the Crimean War against Russia had revealed serious weaknesses in the size of the army. Terms of service required men to serve for long periods of 21 years during which many became unsuited and unfit for actual military combat. The alternative was to resign early without a pension.

During the Crimean conflict Britain’s effective fighting force was only some 25,000 strong, and the War Office had been forced to send militia men to increase numbers. With its other forces serving elsewhere in the Empire, Britain critically lacked sufficient troops for its own defence. In 1859 the War Office decided that the army should be supplemented by a part-time volunteer force. Each county was to raise its own men, and by 1862 a new volunteer force of over 160,000 had been recruited.

In 1863, in response to a royal commission report on the army, Parliament passed the Volunteer Act, the purpose of which was to deal with any actual or anticipated invasion. In 1870 Parliament passed a law that helped to make the regular army more attractive to potential recruits. The Army Enlistment Act, introduced by Gladstone’s war minister, Edward Cardwell, allowed short-term enlistments. This meant men could sign on for a maximum of twelve years, but serve usually six years with the regular army, and the remainder as part of a reserve force. Service in the reserves would involve only part-time training, but with a commitment to serve wherever necessary if called up.

The "Queen's Shilling," by which was understood the coin the passing of which to the man constituted his enlistment, had ceased, as such, to exist around 1880. It is strange that a system open to such abuses should have remained in existence so long as it did. Hundreds of men woke up after a drunken bout to find a shilling in their pocket, with no recollection of how it got there. The coin once passed, no matter how it was passed, and the recipient was a soldier. He had forty-eight hours' grace, however, before being medically examined and attested, and, if in the meantime he could manage to pay twenty-one shillings "smart money," he was allowed to go free.

This had all changed and everything was carried out in a business-like and open manner. A youngster may go to a recruiting sergeant and find out all he wants to know without being unduly influenced in the slightest degree. If he elected to join the Service, the recruiter, after his medical examination, took him before a magistrate or a military officer, and the terms of his engagement being fully explained to him, he takes the oath of allegiance and becomes a servant of the Queen. Should he wish to leave the Service, he may do so as a matter of right within three months of attestation on payment of ^10. Afterwards, the amount is £18, and, although sanction for the discharge is hardly ever refused, it is then granted as an indulgence only.

By the early 20th century the part-time forces had established their worth in the Boer War in South Africa and were regarded as an essential part of the British Army. An Act passed in 1907 reorganised the volunteers and gave them their modern name - the Territorial Army.

By the end of the 19th Century military systems practically fell into two categories — the short-service, or German system, which was universal among great European powers, and which extended to Japan; and the militia system, which in England dated back to Saxon times, and which reached its most complete development in Switzerland. The first system aimed at sweeping the mass of the able-bodied manhood of a nation into the ranks for a short period of continuous training, followed by a long period of furlough and a further period of liability to service in a national reserve. During the period of furlough the soldier may be recalled from time to time to the colours for instruction. The militia system, on the other hand, imposed an initial training of six or eight weeks, followed by a general annual training of the whole force for a fixed period during several years, and by a further period in a national reserve.

The "Auxiliary Forces" largely outnumbered the Regular Army. They were composed of the "Militia," the "Imperial Yeomanry" and the "Volunteers." One great line of demarcation separates the Regular from the Auxiliary Army. The officers and men of the former are liable by the terms of their engagement to serve abroad both in peace and in war. The officers and men of the latter arc under no such liability, either in peace or in war. The distinction is important. The protection afforded by the sea and by a powerful navy suffices in the opinion of many authorities to secure the British Islands against any serious invasion. Tf this view be correct, and it is the view which has been officially accepted by both political parties in the State, the value of the Regular Army is greatly enhanced. An army whose functions are limited by law to the performance of duties which will never be imposed upon it, had evidently not attained its full sphere of usefulness.

By the end of the 19th Century the British nation seemed faced with a choice between compulsion and greatly-increased expenditure; and while it did not seem that an army habitually required to serve abroad in peace time could be recruited by conscription in any form, there was a growing tendency to believe that the application of the ballot for recruiting a militia army may be justified. A variety of organic changes in the British army began in 1870. It cannot be said that these changes produced all that was claimed by their advocates or that the criticisms expended upon them were entirely without foundation. The British army had undergone a searching test in the South African war. Grave defects of many kinds have been plainly revealed, and a strong demand for radical reorganization has been the result.

Great Britain had engaged in military operations of a varied character in many parts of the world, thus receiving lessons which were not in all cases turned to full account. A long series of minor campaigns, beginning at Alexandria in 1882, ended at Khartum in 1898. Two considerable wars, in Afghanistan and on the north-west frontier, were carried on by the Government of India. The South African war severely strained British military resources and proved that the standard of preparations had not been adjusted to meet national requirements. No Power had, during the past twenty-five years, acquired experience of warlike operations comparable in extent and variety to that which the British army now has at its disposal.

Not everyone was satisfied. in the year 1894 William Le Queux warned that " ... the French, while hating the Germans, despise the English, and are looking forward to a day not far hence when their battleships will bombard our south coast towns, and their legions advance over the Surrey Hills to London. "When the Great War does come, it will come swiftly, and without warning. We are accustomed to scoff at the idea of an invasion of Britain. We feel secure in our sea-girt island home; we have confidence in our brave sailor defenders, in our gallant Army, and our enthusiastic Volunteers, and we entertain a supreme contempt for "mere foreigners." It is this national egotism, this insular conviction that foreign engines of war are inferior to our own, that may cause our ruin. Everything we possess, everything-we hold dear, our position among nations, our very life, depends for its safety, firstly, upon the undoubted predominance of our Navy over any likely or possible combination of the Navies of Continental Powers; and, secondly, upon an Army properly equipped and ready to take the field on receipt of the momentous word " Mobilise"!... "Our Home Defence Scheme is a very elaborate paper problem, but as our forces have never been mobilised, its many glaring defects must, alas! remain unremedied until our highways echo to the tramp of an enemy. Upon tins point a volume might be written, but a few plain facts must suffice. Military experts will, I think, agree when I assert that the 2nd Corps, as planned by tins grotesque scheme, does not and cannot exist; and while the 3rd Corps may possibly stand as regards infantry, because its infantry are all Militia, yet it will have neither Regular cavalry nor guns. Every one of the staffs is a myth, and the equipment and commissariat arrangements are a complete guarantee of collapse at the outset of mobilisation. What, for instance, can be said of a system in which one unit of the 3rd Cavalry Brigade " mobilises," and obtains its "personal" and part of its "regimental" equipment at Plymouth; the other part of its regimental paraphernalia, including munitions, at Aldershot; and its horses—at Dublin? Practically, half oar cavalry at home are to-day, however, incapable of mobilisation, for, according to the latest return available, I find that over six thousand cavalry men have no horses! Again, the Volunteers, upon whom we must depend for the defence of London, have no transport, and the ammunition columns for the 3rd Army Corps and the Regular cavalry do not exist."

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Page last modified: 16-07-2017 17:47:22 ZULU