Top 10 Reasons to Join the British Army

PlacingtheGuards

The army that attempted to subdue rebellion in America in the 1770s and 1780s consisted primarily of soldiers from the British regular army. Although supplemented by German regiments, regiments raised in America composed of colonists, and other auxiliaries, most garrisons and campaign forces were composed largely of career soldiers who had enlisted in Great Britain and been sent to fight in America. With only a few exceptions (that will be the subject of another article in the future) they enlisted voluntarily. Those who’d enlisted before the onset of hostilities – the majority of most regiments – had enlisted as a career rather than for a fixed term of service.

Why did these men enlist? Each individual had his own reasons, and unfortunately very few British soldiers left any record of what those reasons were. There are only a dozen or so personal memoirs, and in some of those the men say only that they did enlist without saying why. Extensive study of army records, depositions, court martial proceedings and a host of other sources allows us to discern some of the common factors that led thousands of men to choose the army as their career.

Steady employment

In a world of where seasonal and itinerant labor was common, and economic upturns and downturns affected industries just as they do today, the army offer employment security that few other professions could match. Pay, food and clothing were guaranteed. Interruptions did occur, of course, but accounts were eventually settled. Undeniably there were dangers, but occupations such as mining, stonecutting, carpentry, and metalsmithing offered hazards of their own. Long-term employment in a structured environment was preferable to many other choices available to the era’s laborers and tradesmen. The army also offered an enlistment bonus, something lacking in other professions.

Opportunities to travel

The vast majority of jobs available in Great Britain were local and static – weaving, mining, tailoring, and a host of other trades were likely to keep the worker in one place for a lifetime. But men in their early twenties who’d completed an apprenticeship and begun practicing a trade often yearned for something more. Books both factual and fictional romanticized overseas adventures, and returning army and navy veterans had tales of foreign curiosities. Several men who gave their reasons for enlisting express a sense of wanderlust, a roving disposition that demanded more than a stationary life could provide.

Parents were in the army

Documents listing place of birth are available for only about a quarter of the British soldiers who served in America; a phrase that appears on them with some frequency is “born in the army.” Wives and children often went with soldiers on overseas deployments, and children of soldiers often themselves became soldiers. Some started at an early age playing a fife, then a drum when big enough to handle it, and finally joined the ranks with a musket in their teens. For some, life as a soldier started young.

Escape from the family

Although we have only a handful of writings in which men explain their reasons for enlisting, familial discord is a common theme. Valentine Duckett joined the 65th Regiment after “my step-mother and I could not agree;” John Robertshaw ran to a recruiting party because his father “told me before he set off that if I did not finish my last week’s work, when he came home he would give me a trimming;” Roger Lamb lost all his money gambling, and rather than “return and tell my father of my indiscretions,” sought out recruiters for the 9th Regiment. There are also numerous depositions by women in Great Britain who had never again heard from their soldier husbands, leaving us to wonder if some of these men enlisted to flee their familial obligations.

Artwork by Pamela Patrick White (whitehistoricart.com)

“Traveling Light” by Pamela Patrick White (whitehistoricart.com)

Friends and relatives were enlisting

Savvy recruiting officers had long known that they stood good chances of raising recruits in the home towns and counties of men already in the ranks. Some regiments focused their recruiting efforts in specific regions; when the demands of the American War caused new regiments to be established, several were sponsored by cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and Edinburgh as a way to foster spirit de corps. Regional recruiting was so effective that, in 1782, the War Office assigned a county to each regiment to encourage connections between localities and military service; these regional affiliations have remained a part of British army organization ever since.

Escape from a bad boss

Much is written about harsh discipline and corporal punishment in the British army, without considering some important factors: corporal punishment could be inflicted only after a trial, and only a small portion soldiers were subjected to such punishments. In civilian life, however, apprentices and employees could be overworked, underpaid and even beaten arbitrarily by their employers. Some men chose the army as a gentler option than continuing to work for brutal masters.

Education

The army thrived on paperwork and needed literate men who could read orders, write reports and manage accounts. Grade-school education was fairly common in England, less so in Scotland and Ireland, but many British regiments so valued literacy that they established schools for willing soldiers as well as for their children. We have no indication of how many men took advantage of this opportunity and, like Thomas Watson of the 23rd Regiment, resolved to “endeavor for learning, which I measurably did, while in the army.”

A pension

The army offered something that no private profession did: the opportunity to receive a pension. It was not guaranteed, but men who had served for at least twenty years or who had contracted a disability while in the army stood a reasonable chance of being awarded a pension after making their case in person before an examining board in London. The stipend was paid semi-annually at a rate that was five-eighths of the soldier’s base wage – not a lot of money, but enough to subsist and paid for the rest of the veteran’s life.

A land grant

Men who enlisted after the war began could choose to remain in the colonies and receive a grant of fifty acres of land when the war ended. This was a huge incentive, particularly for farm laborers who would otherwise stand no chance of owning their own property. The war’s outcome meant that the available land was in Canada, but hundreds of discharged British soldiers took their families and made a new start in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Advancement

While only a very few men rose through the ranks to become officers, this type of advancement was a real reason for some to join the army. In a nation with a thriving middle class, there were many young men with the education and intelligence to fill important posts, but who lacked the means or connections to enter the army with a commission. They enlisted instead as private soldiers, hoping to win the favor of their officers and obtain a rare but achievable promotion. Others saw the opportunity to work as soldier-servants to officers as a way to gain a place in a gentleman’s household after the officer retired. For many others, obtaining an education, a pension or a land grant was itself a form of social advancement that no other profession could provide. So much has been written about the unattractive aspects of military service during this era, that the real benefits that attracted so many men to enlist have been overlooked almost entirely.

Good quality literature on this subject is all too rare. For those interested in learning more, I must immodestly recommend my own study, British Soldiers, American War (Westholme Publishing, 2012) which delves into greater detail on the topics above. Another useful work is Sylvia R. Frey’s The British Soldier in America: A Social History of Military Life in the Revolutionary Period (University of Texas Press, 1981); for similar information on a slightly-previous period, see Stephen Brumwell’s excellent work, Redcoats: The British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755-1763 (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: “Placing the Guards” by Pamela Patrick White (whitehistoricart.com)]
Don N. Hagist

Don N. Hagist, editor of Journal of the American Revolution, is an independent researcher specializing in the demographics and material culture of the British Army in the American Revolution. He maintains a blog about British common soldiers (http://redcoat76.blogspot.com) and has published a number of articles in academic journals. His books, British Soldiers, American War (Westholme Publishing, 2012), A British Soldier’s Story: Roger Lamb’s Narrative of the American Revolution (Ballindalloch Press, 2004), General Orders: Rhode Island (Heritage Books, 2001) and Wenches, Wives and Servant Girls (Ballindalloch Press, 2008) are available from http://revolutionaryimprints.com. Don works as an engineer for a major electronics company in Rhode Island, and also writes for several well-known syndicated and freelance cartoonists. He can be contacted at dhagist@cox.net.

8 Comments

  • Reply August 5, 2014

    steven paul mark

    I notice absent from the list is “For King and Country.” Britain had a military tradition and a monarchy before 1776 and, for this old-fashioned soul, I’d have to believe that some had a motive of patriotism (along, of course, with one or more of Don’s list). Fighting between the Europeans had gone on for hundreds of years and that was one thing, but the upstart, ungrateful Colonies must have really pissed off the Brits enough that some men may have been motivated to right what was perceived as a gross wrong. Great list and article.

    • Reply August 5, 2014

      Don N. Hagist

      You may be right, Steven. But I can’t say for sure; I based this article solely on the reasons I can document based on first-hand information, and so far I haven’t found a case where a man gave “King and country” or any sort of nationalistic motivation as a reason for enlisting. It bears noting that most of the direct reasons we have come from men who enlisted before the American War began; it is also noteworthy that soon after the war began, enlistment bounties increased and land grants were promised – indicating that resentment against rebellious colonists wasn’t enough get the army onto a war footing.
      That said, many British soldiers certainly did fight in America out of zeal for King and country: soldiers in regiments that were not ordered to America were given the opportunity to volunteer for service in regiments that were headed to the war – and many hundreds did so. Some 400 men from British cavalry regiments volunteered to serve in infantry regiments in America, which meant a cut in pay for the privilege of wilderness campaigning in a foreign land. Many of these cavalry troopers joined the regiments that marched with Burgoyne in 1777. One of them, William Crawford, formerly of the 12th Dragoons and then of the 20th Regiment of Foot, is profiled in my book (sorry to mention that again, but that’s where the info is). Infantrymen also volunteered for American service, including Robert Young who left the 2nd (Queen’s) Regiment of Foot and joined the 33rd Regiment of Foot – and also ended up in Burgoyne’s 1777 army (and who is also profiled in my book). But these men had enlisted years before the war.
      If I ever find an account by a man who says he joined the army specifically to support his government’s cause in America, I will certainly get it published.
      Most of all, I wish we had more than a handful of direct accounts telling us why men enlisted. In an army of thousands, there were certainly more reasons than the ten listed here.

  • Reply August 5, 2014

    John L Smith Jr

    A very well laid out article and extremely interesting, Don!

    I think it will dispel some of the myths that British prisoners were given a choice to either go to jail or join the army, thereby having felons making up the bulk of the British army. Thank you for your insight!

    • Reply August 5, 2014

      Don N. Hagist

      Glad you enjoyed the article, John.
      Interestingly enough, the choice between prison or the army was a real thing, not a myth – but the number of men who entered the army this way was minuscule, and it wasn’t an option offered to felons but to men charged with minor crimes whom magistrates thought might be able to turn their fortunes around by joining the army. Good thing that’s never happened since the 18th century, right? I’ll do an article on that topic in the future.

  • Reply August 5, 2014

    Jimmy Dick

    Excellent article per your high standards as usual, Don. It really does show us that men enlisted for a lot of different reasons. They still do today. When you also bring into the discussion the need for inducements to get men to enlist it shows that there is a reason why conscription would later become the hallmark of the larger armies of the 19th century. It also puts the foot to the idea that the British Army was a bunch of criminals. These men were professional soldiers and they fought very well.

  • Reply August 5, 2014

    Michael Grenier

    I am under the impression that for many men, enlisting gave immediate gratification of an instant improvement in their fortunes, no long wait for rewards required. From the 4 new shirts for a man who probably had never had 4 new shirts at one time in his life (plus all the other new hats, caps, arms, cloaths, and accoutrements, and every thing that is necessary and fitting to compleat a Gentleman soldier) to the full Guinea bounty for a man who may never have had that much specie (or more likely–credit to his account) before in his life. No where else could he take a job that paid a month’s wages in advance–and this would be at the shilling a day for common laborers. These upfront rewards go well beyond the “Steady Employment” which may well have been the important factor for the long term plan. So, Don, do none of our contemporary heroes’ accounts mention the bounty or the cloathing issue??

    • Reply August 5, 2014

      Don N. Hagist

      You’re absolutely right, Michael. Although I’ve found no man who explicitly mentions enlisting for the instant gratification of the bounty and clothing (and food and overall stability), the strength of this inducement is apparent from the steadily increasing enlistment bounties that were offered as the war expanded and the need for manpower increased. There are a few cases where spontaneous enlistment is implied, such as the soldier of the 7th Regiment who began his will with the phrase “As it is my misfortune to enlist in the army…”. I suspect that instant gratification played strongly on the men who, later in their lives, attributed their enlistments to a general sense of wanderlust – a shiny gold Guinea or even a glistening silver Shilling surely played strongly on the minds of those easily influenced, as did the fine uniforms, the martial music, the promise of heroic adventures in distant lands. Powerful inducements for bored young laborers and tradesmen!

  • Reply August 7, 2014

    Mike Barbieri

    I do so enjoy learning about the British troops from you, Don. So much better than listening to some members of the British Brigade–nothing personal Michael G.

    Anyways, just to add a bit to the paragraph on land grants, we own a cottage on Prince Edward Island and I have always wanted to research ownership of our piece of heaven. Last trip up there, I found that our property originally belonged to one Alexander Anderson, a thrice-wounded soldier who had been discharged from the 84th Royal Highland Emigrants at the end of the Revolution. He eventually acquired nearly 1,000 acres in Bedeque, PEI, the area around our cottage. This veteran of the British army did quite well for himself with the benefits he received when he left the service.

    As an aside, the farm that Anderson and his family worked for decades (he lived to be 107) is the very property owned by the folks from whom we bought our cottage. The original house has been moved with the new house built on the same spot and they retained Anderson’s name for the farm, Melrose Farm. We are friends with them and I think maybe I’ll take a metal detector with me next time we visit them.

Leave a Reply


nine − = 5