Thursday, October 13, 2011

Book Review - All for the King's Shilling

I finished this book this week so I want to write this while it's still fresh in my head. In some ways a brilliant book, but in others I think the author has yet to prove his case. It's a social history of Wellington's army from the Peninsula to Waterloo in which the author sets out to disprove the accepted stereotype of the British soldier as 'the scum of the earth'.

The author has done a great job of original research, compiling what he calls the British Soldier Compendium, a database of statistics gleaned from the existing regimental records still kept in the Public Records Office in Kew. As he found out, no one regiment kept the same records in the same format, or, indeed, kept them regularly and accurately up to date! From the most complete and accurate records he managed to create his database.

He goes a long way to disprove that the average British soldier of the period was sourced from the gutter and jails, by painting a picture of the economic and demographic situation faced by Britain at the same time it was engaged in the long struggle with France. By the later period of the 18th century, agricultural improvements and the ending of the mini ice-age led to a demographic explosion which the economy could not easily absorb. At the same time that the mutual economic blockades were imposed by the combatant sides, Britain was faced with economic downturn that made the employment situation worse. To make matters even worse, certain industries were reaping the benefits of the dawning of the industrial revolution and throwing whole cottage industries onto the scrap heap, especially in the textile industry. The results were bleak for a whole generation of young men whose skills were now not in demand and who faced intense competition and low wages for the remaining available jobs. Faced with the unenviable choice of starvation, the poor-house or the army, many chose the army as the least worst choice.

The author goes on to show in stark detail how little difference there was between starving and joining the army by comparing the average soldier's diet as supplied by the army and that of a Roman legionary, a soldier from the English Civil War, officers and sailors from the Spanish  navy of the 17th century and Venetian galley slaves of the 16th century. Guess where the redcoat came in the calorie and vital nutrient count? That's right; even worse than a galley slave! And that's with the diet supplied by the army, not on campaign when supplies were haphazard and infrequent. With this knowledge it is hardly surprising that the redcoat was a renowned pilferer and thief; he had to be or he'd starve. The view of the typical British officer was that his men were of the criminal classes to begin with, rather than the other way around; that they were on the whole honest men who were forced into crime in order to keep body and soul together.

The British soldiers organised themselves around a mess of around 6 men who shared a cooking kettle. The author contends that this small group became a tight-knit group who lived for each other and followed a particular moral code which included the sharing of scrounged food and drink, to social and psychological support. Crossing any of the unwritten codes would result in social isolation of the transgressor, which could be dangerous to life if he couldn't share in the group's food. With no support and no food, these social outcasts were often driven to desert when desperation became too much. This gives the lie to the stereotype that the majority of the army was populated by social misfits who couldn't cope in the civilian society.

This emphasis on the bond between soldiers in and out of combat as one of the main factors in the effectiveness of the British army, coupled with a faith in their officers' tactical skills, is one of the conclusions that I felt was not supported enough by the author. How does this small unit cohesion compare to the French army, or the Russian army (where soldiers were conscripted for comparable terms as the British rankers terms of enlistment)? He does make the point that the French soldier was regularly bombarded with nationalistic propaganda and encouraged with rewards from specially engraved weapons to the coveted Legion d'Honneur as combat motivation. The French were unique in this regard until the Prussians and Russians emulated the French form 1813 onwards, and even then it can be argued that they never were as systematic as the French in the motivation of their soldiers.

The area where the author draws the longest bow in terms of trying to readdress the stereotype of the brutal and licentiousness nature of the common British soldier is the one that has most contributed to this reputation; namely the behaviour of troops in the aftermath of the major sieges of the Peninsula War. He sets the scene by pointing out the long held conventions of war that allowed a captured town to be given over to the soldiers of the besieging army to sack and plunder as a reward for their sacrifices as well as a warning to other enemy held towns.  The same laws of war allowed the legitimate pillaging of civilians' property if they actively supported the defence of the town.

The redcoat, however, has received an evil reputation in his behaviour in the aftermath of the sieges of Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz and San Sebastian in particular with many primary source accounts describing 'outrages' committed against the civilian population. The author contends that the non-specific language used in these accounts cannot prove that the average soldier participated in more than looting and robbing of civilians as distinct to the accepted view that systematic murder and rape occurred in the aftermath of these sieges. I found this a little hard to swallow as it equally applies to the opposite view; the lack of evidence doesn't mean that the soldiers didn't indulge in rape and murder on a large scale. What is required to resolve this argument is to consult the Spanish sources such as burial records or municipal records as well as the journals and diaries of citizens who lived through the event, if any of this evidence exists. Surely the evidence of the victims would be enough to settle the argument.

Besides some of these less than perfect arguments, I found the book a fascinating read and did much to open my eyes to the reality of life in Wellington's army.


  1. Sounds like an excellent book, I'll put it on my xmas list!!

  2. Thank you for an exceptionally well written review. I was truly engrossed in your comments and summary and will certainly be searching out this book.

    Once again thank you.


  3. Great review Rosbif. I will be looking out for it too.

  4. Another excellent review mate. There's another book on my reading list.

  5. M. Rosbif,
    This book is yet more evidence for the superior fire power of the British in the Peninsula. (I hope robin reads this)


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