The Rank and File

THE ANONYMOUS INFANTRY

By

Soldiering was a hard way of life in 1815.

Despite this, men continued to enlist during the Napoleonic Wars in order to escape unemployment, see the world, and do their patriotic duty. Among these rank-and-file soldiers were men from the West Midlands, some as young as fifteen.

The names and careers of Wellington’s generals are well-documented. For more junior officers, we at least have names and service histories, and not infrequently private letters as well. Trying to get a feel for the man in the ranks, however, is more complex, and not helped by misapplication of Wellington’s much-quoted characterisation of them as the ‘scum of the earth’. Even Wellington went on to say that service in the Army had made ‘fine fellows’ of unpromising material, and in fact the ranks of the British Army in 1815 contained men from a variety of walks of life, who had enlisted for all manner of reasons.

Understanding why men signed up is difficult. On the face of it, a soldier’s life was hard, and military service carried an element of social stigma. Yet there were certainly those who signed up for patriotic motives, a sense of adventure, or a fancy for the military life. Of course, a recruiting sergeant’s patter made the most of these elements, whilst downplaying the reality of hard marches and short rations that made up much of a soldier’s life on campaign.

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