Sunday, 30 July 2017

The Story from the Census and Beyond or “You’re in the army now” part 4

Before doing any military research, I thought of armies as being well-disciplined legions of men with a common goal. The history texts I had studied tended to look at the big picture, moving armies en masse across continents to engage in battle. Most movies and documentaries I had seen, particularly ones about the World Wars, emphasized the nobility and sacrifices of the men, and sometimes women, of the winning side. 

This makes for engaging drama where the audience can easily tell which side is good and which is evil, like cowboy movies with gangs of men with white and black hats. But armies aren’t made of noble heroes. That was particularly true of the British Army of the 19th century. The men were usually men of the lower ranks driven to enlist by unemployment and the need for a steady pay cheque. By the middle of the century, recruiting officers had to make do with urban poor over their preferred country bred recruits. It was harder to discipline the men from town. 

Discipline was harsh. A man could be branded for desertion, flogged for insubordination, hanged for various offenses. Some of the most brutal forms of punishment were running the gauntlet or execution by firing squad. Not only was the offender punished but his fellow soldiers were used to mete out the punishment by dishing out the plows as the man ran the gauntlet or by acting as part of the firing squad or being a witness to it. But then, punishment was not only meted out to the victim but a means of keeping the rest of the troops in line. 

There was a real need to keep troops in line. Individuals might stray but when whole squads of men rebelled it was a mutiny.  


Holmes, Richard. Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket. Harper Collins Publishers, London, 2001

Neimeyer, Charles Patrick. America Goes to War: A Social History of the Continental Army. New York University Press, New York, 1996

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