Soldiers and Soldiering in Britain 1750-1815

Thinking about British Army Officers

British Army Officers, 1815 by Knotel

British Army Officers, 1815 by Knotel

Back in April, I held a workshop with The National Archives’ military and maritime team about British Army officer records. We looked at how we can help people find out more about individuals they might be interested in, as well as facilitating academic research on this large number of men. The idea is to concentrate on core information (mainly promotions and regiments – most of this is in the London Gazette) to which additional information can be added from record sets that are less complete, such as roles, places of service, material from newspapers and dispatches, etc.. For example, we may be able to find out place of birth, birthdays, and relations for some, and even correspondence from them in other archives.

I’ve already started a bit of work on this focusing on Waterloo officers as a text case, and some contextual research. Interesting, I wasn’t aware just how large the officer corps had got by 1815 – some 20,000. Soon, I’ll have a small team of undergraduate helpers working with me on the project for about 8 months and we’ll see what we can achieve in that time.

One important thing is what would ‘users’ want to see? What information would the public / family historians be interested in? And how would they want to find it? Ideas about this would be very welcome!

If you are interested, you can download the workshop report here.


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One comment on “Thinking about British Army Officers

  • Re Mapping Desertion
    There’s some literature on British desertion in Canada which I’ve used in a section of my forthcoming book Soldiers as Workers – Class, emplyment, conflict and the nineteenth century, (LUP, 2016)as follows:

    Troops in Canada were particularly prone to desertion, with the US frontier within walking distance, and its endless possibilities of future land and prospects. ‘Desertion was probably worse here in Canada than anywhere else the British army was posted in the nineteenth century and a soldier would know he would be deserting to a similar society to his.’ The situation deteriorated with the War of 1812 between the two countries. In the summer of 1813, three defending British battalions lost 122 deserters to the other side. One British Colonel wrote to his sister; ‘I have had a hard set to deal with, the 41st Regiment have plagued me to Death numbers deserting to the Enemy, don’t mention this, but the Americans hold out such inducements to our men to come over, besides the getting of liberty which is perhaps not so much to be wondered at’. British defeats worsened the situation further, as reported: ‘the affair on Lake Champlain and the retreat of the army before a handful of Americans which caused about five hundred English soldiers to desert…everyone is discontented’.
    After 1815, the American military authorities were keen to tempt British soldiers into their own army with offers of more money, easier service and free land on the frontier when their contracts had expired. This took place despite heavy fines imposed on these American ‘crimpers’ throughout the period. The Horse Guards discouraged regimental savings banks in Canadian garrisons, arguing that this would result in more desertions as soldiers would be encouraged to seek a better life. But an American border sentry told a British officer that ‘there were only seven Americans in the regiment, the rest were almost all British deserters’. Canadian employers, themselves desperate for labour, would readily shelter soldiers on the run, despite various pieces of legislation threatening harsh punishments enacted between 1801 to the 1860s. The Californian Gold Rush of 1849 also saw another peak in desertions. Recruiters from south of the border were particularly active during the American Civil War, so British regiments had to undertake ‘Look-out Service.’: ‘This duty was peculiar to Canada and originated during the American Civil War, when the Union felt the want of trained soldiers and NCOs. They therefore held out bribes and hopes of commissions to any English soldier who would desert their colours and enlist with them.’ With the Irish especially: ’At least some recruits, deliberately joined regiments serving or embarking for British North America with the premeditated intention of thereby reaching the US.’ This process was intensified by the active Fenian movement in the USA, which invaded Canada in 1867, as members of the brotherhood had enlisted in the British army, to take advantage of military training before their desertion south.
    Reforms were attempted to curb Canadian desertion from the 1840s. Taverns were controlled, barracks were better lit in the long winters and libraries, fives courts and cricket pitches established. The system existing in India was adopted, whereby soldiers could transfer to an incoming regiment, when their own was being posted elsewhere. This enabled soldiers with Canadian wives or other ties to settle legitimately when their army service was over, and married quarters in barracks began to be provided. In addition the Royal Canadian Rifle Regiment of experienced and married soldiers was raised specifically for garrison duties in isolated settlements

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