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All for the King's Shilling: The British Soldier under Wellington, 1808-1814

All for the King's Shilling: The British Soldier under Wellington, 1808-1814

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The British troops who fought so successfully under the Duke of Wellington during his Peninsular Campaign against Napoleon have long been branded by the duke’s own words—“scum of the earth”—and assumed to have been society’s ne’er-do-wells or criminals who enlisted to escape justice. Now Edward J. Coss shows to the contrary that most of these redcoats were respectable laborers and tradesmen and that it was mainly their working-class status that prompted the duke’s derision. Driven into the army by unemployment in the wake of Britain’s industrial revolution, they confronted wartime hardship with ethical values and became formidable soldiers in the bargain

These men depended on the king’s shilling for survival, yet pay was erratic and provisions were scant. Fed worse even than sixteenth-century Spanish galley slaves, they often marched for days without adequate food; and if during the campaign they did steal from Portuguese and Spanish civilians, the theft was attributable not to any criminal leanings but to hunger and the paltry rations provided by the army.

Coss draws on a comprehensive database on British soldiers as well as first-person accounts of Peninsular War participants to offer a better understanding of their backgrounds and daily lives. He describes how these neglected and abused soldiers came to rely increasingly on the emotional and physical support of comrades and developed their own moral and behavioral code. Their cohesiveness, Coss argues, was a major factor in their legendary triumphs over Napoleon’s battle-hardened troops.

The first work to closely examine the social composition of Wellington’s rank and file through the lens of military psychology, All for the King’s Shilling transcends the Napoleonic battlefield to help explain the motivation and behavior of all soldiers under the stress of combat.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806146164
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 11/11/2013
Series: Campaigns and Commanders Series , #24
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 392
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

 Edward J. Coss is Assistant Professor of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

Read an Excerpt

All for the King's Shilling

The British Soldier Under Wellington, 1808â"1814

By Edward J. Coss


Copyright © 2010 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4616-4



The Genesis of the "Scum of the Earth" Myth

It is not difficult to trace the origins of the myth of the British soldier as "scum" or to see how, through repetition, the idea evolved into the established view of the common redcoat's background and traits. Ascertaining why Wellington made such derogatory judgments (when he clearly knew that supply shortages were as often as not the cause of the solders' misconduct) and why his comments have been accepted at face value, without examination, is much more challenging.

The myth grew into collective memory because Wellington made a series of contemptuous remarks over an extended period regarding the British rank and file. Scholars, not unreasonably, have assigned great weight to Wellington's running commentary, quoting his negative appraisals of the men's character in numerous works on the Napoleonic period. Perpetuated over time, these judgments have colored analysis of the British soldier, the reasons behind his success on the battlefield, and his conduct on campaign. As a result, the ranker's motivations and achievements have been either misunderstood or overlooked entirely, largely obscured by Wellington's observations.

Alone and unanalyzed, Wellington's words, particularly taken in colorful snippets, do not provide a sufficient evidentiary basis to assess the nature of his soldiers. A measured examination of the complex issues regarding human behavior, especially in the often harrowing and chaotic circumstances of campaign and combat, requires more than just one eyewitness; even an observer with the knowledge and experience of Wellington cannot be ceded sole authority on the issue without collateral findings to support his observations. His writings regarding the soldiers, their conduct, and the reasons underlying their actions are, in fact, sometimes contradictory. Wellington's motivations and the impetus behind many of his comments were more multifaceted than has been acknowledged. Looking beyond the individual observations made by Wellington, and investigating the background and circumstances related to his assessments of the men, confirms that he was well acquainted with the adversity faced by the men but was also restricted from openly recognizing the difficulties that affected his men by command issues and financial conditions in many cases and by his own social standing and experiences in others. Wellington's perceptions appear to have caused him to attribute soldiers' behavior to innate character flaws, rather than to the extenuating challenges of campaign life.

Wellington's letters and conversations regarding the character of the rankers he led portrayed them as the dregs of society. Because these vivid and damning appraisals have been quoted so widely, they serve here as a starting point in examining Wellington's assessments and the constraints under which he labored.

The earliest recorded occasion on which Wellington openly expressed his contempt for the men under his command was in a letter to the Earl of Bathurst, written near the end of the war (2 July 1813) from Huarte, Spain. Wellington lamented: "We have in the service the scum of the earth as common soldiers." He complained of efforts in England to stop flogging: "And as of late years we have been doing everything in our power both by law and publications to relax the discipline by which alone such men can be kept in order." Wellington then added to the insult: "It is really a disgrace to have to say anything to such men as some of our soldiers are."

Wellington expressed similar sentiments almost 15 years after Waterloo: "The man who enlists in the British army is, in general, the most drunken, and probably the worst of his trade or profession to which he belongs, or the village or town in which he lives."

In letters composed in April 1829 and March 1832, Wellington further impugned the rank and file: "In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, soldiers enlisted on account of some idle or irregular, or even vicious motive." He went on to state that iron discipline alone could "remove those irregular or vicious habits."

One of Wellington's most well-known appraisals came almost two decades after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars. In conversations with the Earl of Stanhope, enthusiastically and surreptitiously recorded by the earl, Wellington again derided the British soldier. He reiterated his position in an exchange on 4 November 1831: "I don't mean to say that there is no difference in the composition or therefore the feeling of the French army and ours. The French system of conscription brings together a fair sample of all classes; ours is composed of the scum of the earth—the mere scum of the earth. It is only wonderful that we should be able to make so much out of them afterwards. The English soldiers are fellows who have enlisted for drink—that is the plain fact—they have all enlisted for drink."

Wellington communicated his disdain in an even more scathing, though very similar, assessment during another conversation with Stanhope a week later. In that exchange, Wellington first spoke emphatically for a strong system of military punishment and then commented on the difference between the French and British armies:

Oh, they [the French] bang them about very much with ramrods and that sort of thing, and then they shoot them. Besides, a French army is composed very differently than ours. The conscription calls out a share of every class—no matter whether your son or my son—all must march; but our friends—I may say it in this room—are the very scum of the earth. People talk of their enlisting from their fine military feeling—no such thing. Some of our men enlist from having got bastard children—some for minor offenses—many more for drink; but you can hardly conceive such a set brought together, and it really is wonderful that we should have made them the fine fellows they are.

While he is fairly consistent in his pejorative evaluations of the soldiers, at least in the later years of the struggle in Spain and Portugal and after the war, Wellington's writings during his command years also describe many of the reasons that caused the men to plunder. His letters present an astute understanding of the factors, mostly economic, that worked to prevent him from feeding and caring properly for the army. Throughout the peninsular campaign, the British, Portuguese, and Spanish armies were plagued by logistical shortfalls. A large number of Wellington's communications disclose the degree to which the armies under his command suffered. In three such letters written in August 1809 right after the battle of Talavera, he complained about the lack of supplies. To J.H. Frere he wrote: "In the meantime, with all these movements, we are horribly distressed for provisions. The soldiers seldom get enough to eat, and what they do get is delivered to them half mouldy, and at hours at which they ought to be at rest."

Wellington openly described the dire straits in which the Britishled forces found themselves regarding rations to Marshal William Beresford: "We are starving, our men falling sick, and we have nothing to give them in the way of comfort for their recovery.... We have not had a full ration of provisions ever since the 22nd of last month [a span of 28 days]; and I am convinced that in that time the men have not received ten days' bread, and the horses not three regular deliveries of barley."

In a letter written three weeks later to the Duke of Richmond, Wellington described the deteriorating situation faced by the soldiers under his command: "Starvation has produced such dire effects upon the army, we have suffered so much, and have received so little assistance from the Spaniards, that I am at last compelled to move back into Portugal to look for subsistence.... They cannot say we were compelled to go therefore by the enemy, but by a necessity created by the neglect of the Spaniards of our wants."

Wellington wrote repeatedly to authorities and peers in Great Britain, Spain, and Portugal, cajoling officials to provide both gold and provisions to the forces fighting the French on the Peninsula. He complained openly in May 1810 to Charles Stuart (later the 1st Baron Stuart de Rothesay) about the difficulties of campaigning without sufficient logistical and financial support: "It has rarely happened that an army ... has been obliged to carry on operations in a country in which there is literally no food; and in which, if there was food, there is no money to purchase it." The situation was grave enough that Wellington considered withdrawing the army and returning to Great Britain.

In a dispatch to Brigadier-General Robert Craufurd dated 20 May 1810, Wellington voiced his displeasure with administrative limitations that hindered his ability to look after his men and make use of them as soldiers. "The Commissary General is forbidden," he noted unhappily, "to give money in lieu of rations, to give back rations, &c. &c." Expressing his concern for the Portuguese army in a letter to Stuart, Wellington later argued that he was responsible for his conduct and that of the armies under his command, but the Portuguese Regency government appeared less concerned about how its lack of action affected the troops. He asked the Regency to acknowledge the legitimacy of his requests, especially regarding funding for the army defending Spain and Portugal.

Wellington's anger at the continued governmental neglect of the army, and the resulting misbehavior of the soldiers who were forced to plunder because they were not fed, surfaced in his correspondence with Stuart. "It is impossible," he reasoned, "to punish soldiers, who are left to starve, for outrages committed in order to procure food; and, at all events, no punishment, however severe, will have the desired effect of preventing the troops from seizing what they can get to satisfy their appetite, when neglected by those whose duty it is to supply their wants."

The situation remained unresolved by Wellington's standards in the summer of 1811, when he made yet another stern complaint about Portuguese governmental failures and their effects on the Portuguese army. Responding to Stuart, he expressed his exasperation:

In respect to the papers and returns forwarded in your letter, I shall not even take the trouble of reading them, because I know they are fabricated for a particular purpose, and they cannot contain an answer to the strong fact stated by me, viz., that owing to neglect, deficiency of arrangement, and omission of the Government to supply the means, the army and their equipments were starved during the winter, and that, when the moment of action came, the soldiers and animals were unable to perform the service; the former deserted or went to the hospital, and the latter died.

This oft-repeated set of circumstances harried Wellington and his soldiers throughout the Peninsular War. The sheer number of his letters on this topic leaves little doubt that Wellington recognized the deleterious effects of short rations on soldiers in the field. His peninsular correspondence differed only in details from dispatches that he sent during his years in India, in which he praised the men for their conduct in battle, cajoled the government for adequate funds to feed and pay the soldiers, and castigated the rankers for their willingness to plunder when they were not fed. He stated his concern for the soldiers in a letter composed while the army was encamped at Senboogaum. Writing to Colonel John Murray in August 1803, Wellington declared: "Every attention must be paid to economy, but I consider nothing in this country so valuable as the life and health of the British soldier, and nothing so expensive as soldiers in the hospital. On this ground, it is worth while to incur almost any expense to preserve their lives and their health. I also request you to pay particular attention to their discipline and regularity, and to prevent their getting intoxicating liquors, which tend to their destruction."

Thus, it is clear that Wellington had a sound understanding of the campaign realities encountered by the rank and file. He even acknowledged the hardships faced by the soldiers' families back home and how distressed families contributed to desertion rates. In an 1811 letter to Lieutenant Colonel Henry Torrens, military secretary to the commander-in-chief, Wellington articulated his concern regarding the lack of benefits extended to families of line soldiers. Detailing the inequities of line service over militia duty and the related practical considerations of recruiting, Wellington identified one of the most significant problems confronting men who volunteered for regular service: the families of soldiers in the militia were provided for, while those of men serving in line units were not. He suggested that this arrangement be reversed and concluded that better men would enlist and that desertion would decrease if financial support was afforded to dependents of recruits who signed up for service in the regular army.

Wellington also addressed the unfairness of paying noncommissioned officers (NCOs) little more than privates, noting that the old pay proportions were not retained when soldier pay increased to one shilling. In order to preserve the distinction and status of corporals and sergeants, whom Wellington rightly identified as the foundation on which army discipline rested, he suggested to Lord Liverpool (Robert Jenkinson) that pay increases be instituted for all noncommissioned officers. While this may have been purely an administrative suggestion to enhance disciplinary control, it still illustrates Wellington's cognizance of the details of daily life as they affected the soldiery.

Hence it cannot be said that Wellington was unaware of or unconcerned about the difficulties faced by his men. Yet his dispatches and later commentary regarding the characters of the men often focus almost solely on the soldiers' plundering, while disregarding the inadequacy of rations, which was the dominant catalyst that drove the redcoat to steal and added to his zeal for drink. The inconsistency in some of Wellington's letters reveals a growing frustration with the men's behavior, the governmental neglect that forced the situation on him, and, perhaps, his emerging and final perception of the issue. He appears to have viewed the continued looting (of food, alcohol, and other items) as an ongoing command problem; if the government made it impossible to feed the men, then the soldiers would just have to endure the privation. No excuses would be accepted and no exceptions granted.

Writing to Lord Liverpool in the spring of 1810, Wellington complained: "We are still much distressed for money, and I shall not be able to pay the troops on the 24th of this month." In the same letter he railed against what he called the "disgraceful outrages" of plunder and expressed his determination to have rankers who were convicted as thieves executed, as a means of inducing the officers, noncommissioned officers, and men to curtail theft, regardless of circumstances.

That same month Wellington bemoaned rising desertion rates in a letter to the adjutant general of the forces. He attributed the increased desertion "in a great measure to the bad description of the men ... who have been received principally from the Irish militia," the inattention of those in command, and the "irregular and predatory habits of the soldiers." He then went on to state strongly that the men had no real cause for desertion. In direct contradiction of his letter to Lord Liverpool, Wellington claimed that their duty was light, their quarters good, their pay regular, and their accounts balanced and that "there had been no distress for provisions since the month of August."

Less than a year later Wellington admitted to Dr. James McGrigor, the director general of the Army Medical Board, that "pecuniary distresses of this army" prevented the soldiers from being paid monthly; but he refused to acknowledge the effects of short rations and no pay on the men. Wellington explained the oddities of the system that prevented him from settling accounts but never addressed the severe impact on the men resulting from such limitations: "The pay of the army is seldom less than three months in arrear; but no more than one month's pay is ever issued at a time, and the balance due on one month's account only can be given at one time." The men's diet was nutritionally insufficient even when issued regularly (see chapter 3 and appendix C). Without pay, the soldiers could not hope to buy supplemental food, which was a physiological necessity, given the physical demand of campaigning. Pay shortages therefore greatly increased the likelihood that the rank and file would turn to plunder in an effort to avoid malnutrition and sometimes starvation. The missing monthly paydays also affected desertion rates: some men left their units in search of food and other soldiers quit the ranks entirely, dispirited by an institution that demanded much but delivered little. In addressing McGrigor's report on army mortality, Wellington appears to forget his previous letters describing starving soldiers; he dismisses the correlation between McGrigor's statistics on deceased soldiers and the nutritional deprivation resulting from inadequate provisions and pay, claiming that the men's "rations are invariably delivered to the soldiers daily, except on marches."


Excerpted from All for the King's Shilling by Edward J. Coss. Copyright © 2010 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
List of Figures,
List of Tables,
Foreword, by John F. Guilmartin, Jr.,
1. An Unjust Reputation: The Genesis of the "Scum of the Earth" Myth,
2. Gone for a Soldier: The Realities of Enlistment,
3. Over the Hills and Far Away: Surviving on Campaign,
4. A Stick without a Carrot: Leadership and the Soldiery,
5. Ordeal by Fire: The British Soldier in Combat,
6. Banded Brothers: Combat Motivation and the British Ranker,
7. Into Hell before Daylight: Peninsular War Sieges,
A. The British Soldier Compendium,
B. Regression Analysis Using the British Soldier Compendium,
C. Nutritional Analysis Using the British Soldier Compendium,

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