Life in the British Army

A series of Essays shewing what It was like For the Officers, men and women Who made the Army their career BEFORE they Arrived in the Colony.  The topics discussed are  Desertion | Uniforms | History of the British Uniform | Education  |Why Join | Daily life | Rations | An example of a Typical day Punishment | Officers Quarters | Marriage and Women

Why did they join?

     In 1860, the British Army was a volunteer army.  The soldier could look forward to a life, as one commentator stated, "Of monotonous diet, monotonous occupation, climatic discomfort, bad housing and abundant alcohol."

     Why, faced with these conditions, did people volunteer to join?  As Sir Henry Wilson said, "Jack Frost and hunger were the best recruiting sergeants of the army."  To the unemployed worker of the industrial age, the army provided the States' only welfare system.

     To quote Daniel Defoe: "The poor starve, thieve or turn soldier."

     Most of the young soldiers would have grown up in a slum where conditions were even more harsh than military life.  In the army, the pay was small but it was daily.  The food was unappetizing but regular. A room was shared by twelve but you had your own bed to sleep on, a roof over your head and a stove to keep you warm in the inclement weather.

     Certain regiments also had a status associated with their history, and soldiers enlisted in order to join that particular regiment and be a part of its tradition.  The regiment was a clan. It became an extended family, offering a meaningful place in life.  No matter what the rest of the world might think, in the regiment one could learn and earn self-respect.  A soldier, who took pride in his regiment and tradition, could take pride in himself.  A camaraderie existed with those you lived with, and a kinship with those who served before you.  Sons often followed fathers and grandfathers into the same regiment.

     Recruiting during peacetime was a problem.  In response, the War Office lowered physical standards, especially as more recruits came from the cities and grew up in unhealthy environments.  Recruiting sergeants and civilians, who could earn up to 15 shillings per recruit, resorted to trickery to entice people to enlist.  One way was to take a potential recruit out for a bout of drinking.  When waking up the next day, finding the Queen's shilling in his pocket meant he had joined the regiment.  Others would be lied to about promotions, a life of ease and so on.  Recruiting posters were also misleading.

     Whatever the reason for joining, once in the regiment, its ways became the centre of existence that would "one way or another...strike him deep."

     Officers came from the upper classes; recruited from landed interests, service families and aristocracy. Few "rankers" were permitted to enter this exclusive preserve. Exceptions were made, especially during wartime due to casualties, or acts of heroism.

     The British Army of the nineteenth century was divided into the following groups: Cavalry, Infantry, Artillery and Engineers. To become an officer in either the infantry or cavalry, one had to follow the purchase system. This meant you would buy your rank as well as your uniforms, weapons, furnishings and food.  This requirement restricted recruitment to the wealthy.

     "It is promotion by purchase which brings into service...men who have some connection with the interests and fortunes of the country." Duke of Wellington.

     The only truly professional officer corps came from the Engineers and Artillery where one attained an initial rank through graduation from a military college.  Future promotions were based on seniority.

     An official price list existed for commissions in the Infantry and Cavalry.  But true prices were often double this rate.  When an officer retired he sold his commission, which provided him with a pension.

     Army rates of pay ranged from an ensign earning 95 to a lieutenant-colonel earning 365 per year.  Yet in one year hundreds of pounds could be spent. It has been estimated that at least 100 in excess of salary was needed by an ensign of an average regiment.  Because the salary was not sufficient, officers were expected to be financially self-supporting.  Certain unscrupulous officers used the purchase system to line their pockets by doctoring the number of men they had or by buying cheaper quality goods, such as uniforms.

     By 1871, this system had been abolished due to concerns over governmental lack of control, and ethical questions about holding back men of ability.  The government bought back control from its officers for 6,150,000.

     Although officers were underpaid, most had few responsibilities.  Leave was generous, generally at least two months a year.  After seven years, an officer was entitled to free passage back to Britain.  Some officers were absent from their regiments for half the year.  Their only real obligations were financial responsibility and attendance at parades.

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