Top 10 Facts About British Soldiers

British Soldiers1 // They were volunteers
The British Army was not allowed to force men into service by conscription or impressment. When the war began, men in the ranks had all enlisted voluntarily. For a period in 1778 and 1779 impressment was legalized in specific circumstances but this unpopular measure was soon discontinued and contributed few men to regiments in America.

2 // They were career soldiers
Soldiers in the army when the war began had enlisted as a life-long career, to be discharged when no longer fit for service. Men who enlisted after 1775 had the option of being discharged at the close of hostilities if they had served for three years; many of these men chose to remain in the army when the war ended.

3 // They enlisted as adults
Enlistment was based on fitness rather than a specific age, but most recruiting instructions called for men between 17 and 25 years old. There are cases where boys, particularly children of soldiers, began their careers as young as 12; a few men enlisted in their 40s. But the majority enlisted between the ages of 20 and 25 after having first tried their hand at some other career.

4 // They were generally experienced
Because they were career soldiers, it stands to reason that the overall level of experience in the army was high. 5 to 15 years of experience was typical in British regiments, with the average age of soldiers being in the mid-30s. Even wartime recruits usually received 6 months to 2 years of training before being sent to America.

5 // They received pensions
The army was one of few careers that provided a pension when a man could no longer serve. Usually predicated on 20 years of service or a disability, the pension provided a subsistence-level income; more than half of the soldiers who survived the American Revolution eventually received a pension. Wartime enlistees could take land grants in Canada instead.

6 // Wives and children accompanied them
The British army was structured to send career soldiers on long overseas deployments. This meant accommodating families as well. About 20% of the soldiers serving in America had wives and children with them. Women filled army jobs as nurses, washer women and sutlers, or found jobs outside the army to help support their families.

7 // Most men didn’t get lashed
Corporal punishment, particularly by lashing, was the standard method of enforcing discipline but was used only after a trial. Surviving punishment records show that between 20% and 30% of men were tried by regimental courts, and only 10% to 15% actually received lashes. Punishment was harsh only for those who required punishment.

8 // Most men could read or write
While the literacy rate is not known, over half of the surviving pension records bear signatures of their recipients showing us that these men could at least sign their names. Reading and writing were valuable skills for men being considered for promotion, and some regiments went so far as to establish schools to teach reading, writing and basic mathematics.

9 // They were tactically dominant on the battlefield
There is a misconception that British soldiers stood in the open while Americans hid behind rocks and trees. One need only look at the win-loss record in major battles to see that British forces were almost always victorious even when severely outnumbered. The professional army adapted quickly and effectively to combat conditions in America, but suffered from shortcomings of strategy, logistics and political support.

10 // They wore red coats
But you probably knew that already…

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Top 10 Facts About British Soldiers

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29 Comments

  • Don’s “Top 10” article was enlightening about the average Redcoat in the Revolution. Of course, most American literature focuses on the American side of the conflict. One thing, though; when I lived in New England, one frequently heard about the Patriots before the war harboring British deserters and helping them evade punishment, but I’ve never read any specifics or seen any hard data. How extensive was this; or was it just a myth which grew up after the war?

  • Thank you for asking such a great question. This is actually discussed in some detail in my book which includes the life of Thomas Watson, a soldier of the 23rd Regiment who deserted from Boston. Locals did indeed harbor deserters, and seem to have made almost a sport of it. Harder to prove is whether the inhabitants were helping men to desert, or causing them to do so – some of the deserters managed to returned to the army years later (including Thomas Watson) and claimed to have been kidnapped, while others who settled in America clearly deserted of their own accord. Each man had his own motivation for deserting, including rambling dispositions, fear of punishment for some other crime, hard feelings over not being promoted, attachments to local women, the allure of owning land; some men simply got drunk and wandered off.
    We can only guess how many deserters were helped and harbored by the locals, but muster rolls give us some hard data on numbers of deserters. The 38th Regiment of Foot, for example, arrived in Boston in early June 1774 and lost 26 men to desertion before hostilities broke out in in April 1775 – out of a total strength of about 400. Two of those men are known to have rejoined the regiment, one on Staten Island in 1776 and one in Philadelphia in 1778.

  • This blog is wonderful, thank you Don! Suggest Top 11 – Uniforms were typically altered severely on the way to the colonies to create a campaign “kit” more appropriate for the harsh conditions of America.

    Also, highly recommend Matthew Spring’s With Zeal and with Bayonets Only for a complete treatment of the British Army in the field. His book immediately has a strong claim as the standard work concerning how the British army operated in the field, who in the army actually fought (typically the lead elements) and how – fast. I find it difficult to read many pre-Spring general histories of the AWI.

  • Good to know but it seems like motivation is a needed factor for soldiers. Political will is also necessary for victory.
    God Bless America!

    • It is true that motivation is important. Because there were many different motivations to join the army, we have a separate article on the subject:
      http://allthingsliberty.com/2014/08/top-10-reasons-to-join-the-british-army/
      This article is also limited in looking at only ten reasons, and trying to generalize them; without knowing what was on the mind of each individual, we can never know every reason why men chose to enlist. The ten reasons given also apply to both peace and war; when the war in America began, many men did enlist specifically to go fight in the new war. But the majority of British soldiers had enlisted during times of peace, so it’s less likely that their motives were political and more likely that they were looking after their personal security and advancement – the same reasons that people voluntarily enlist today.

  • Researching for a historical novel for intermediate readers…came across your website and you answered two questions concerning the British soldiers during the American Revolution. Thanks for the website and information.

  • Great article! Just that I’m doing a research project and number 10 could of been used to make a good section…

  • Very few authors dare to compare the regular British regiments to the Provincial regiments. Todd Braisted gave a brief description of each one, not forgetting about the Militia.

  • Great article, haven’t read much about the British soldiers per se. I heard or read somewhere that an advantage of having the red color for a battle uniform was that it didn’t show blood. Any truth to that?
    Hope to hear from someone.

        • Thank you for asking, Michael.
          There are a couple of ways to very the years of experience of British soldiers of this era; archival material is required, however, since none of the necessary information is published or available from on-line sources.
          When regiments were in Great Britain, they were inspected each year; the inspection returns are in the British National Archives, in the WO 27 collection. Among the data on these returns is a breakdown of the years of service of the men in the regiment – how many men with 1 year, 2 years, etc. A quick general idea of experience, then, can be gotten by looking at the last inspection return of each regiment before it departed from Great Britain (unfortunately there are no such returns for regiments while they were in America). This will be imprecise because of turnover between the time the regiment was inspected and the time of interest in America, but it is easy information to obtain.
          A more accurate method, but very time consuming, is to look at the muster rolls for each regiment, also in the National Archives in the WO 12 collection. This give the names of each man, for each six-month period (in general; there are some nuances). By tracing each name back through the muster rolls until the man joined the army, a very accurate picture of the experience within a given regiment can be determined. I’ve done this for a few regiments, and found the results to be fairly consistent. It’s not quite as simple as it sounds, for reasons that I won’t go into here.
          For men who were granted pensions, their years of service is given the out-pension admissions books, WO 116. These records provide a bit of a short cut over using the muster rolls, but only for those men who received pensions.
          Additional information comes from soldiers’ discharges in the WO 97, WO 119 and WO 121 collections, also only for those who received pensions, but many of these documents give a more detailed picture of the man’s career besides just the number of years he served.
          How long men spent in Great Britain between enlisting and embarking for America is more challenging to determine, because muster rolls don’t give enlistment dates (an oversimplified statement, but bear with me). I found a set of recruiting records for the 22nd Regiment of Foot (Joab Aked recruiting accounts, West Yorkshire Archives, Calderdale) which give enlistment dates for a number of soldiers; comparing these to the muster rolls which show the dates on which the men embarked, I was able to determine in general how long each man spent as a recruit. A similar set of records exists for the 46th Regiment recruiting in Ireland in early 1776. Additional data, albeit less precise, can be discerned by comparing the length of service given in pension records (WO 116, etc., described above) with data on the muster rolls. A few soldiers, in particular John Robert Shaw (or Robertshaw) of the 33rd Regiment, described their experiences as recruits.
          That’s how I arrived at the generalities summarized in Item 4 in the article – mostly by tracing the careers of several thousand soldiers using muster rolls, pension records, inspection returns, and the scarce recruiting records, and compiling the data. Some details are given in my book British Soldiers, American War; I’m not aware of any other author who has attempted to compile such information. It’s not difficult to do, but it takes a lot of time.

  • Hello Don, thanks for clearing this up, I should have guessed that the color red would make a soldier more visual as black powder creates a lot of smoke, I should know as I shoot black powder weapons and often wondered how anyone could be seen during a battle involving a lot of troops.
    Thanks for your reply,

    Rich

  • As a Brit with an interest in this period of history I greatly enjoyed reading Don’s fascinating book on this subject. It seems a shame to me that so few British historians and writers have gone into such detail on the British army and it’s performance during this episode. Most of the books that I have on it are by Americans, even those concerning some purely british aspects. Why should this be? The debate regarding the extent of governmental and imperial power was of crucial importance on both sides of the Atlantic, and though considered a rebel George Washington got a consistently good press in Britain at the time ! I look forward to seeing more of Don’s work,
    Regards
    Neil Wright

    • Thank you, Neil – I’m glad you enjoyed the article, and the book.
      I, too, am looking forward to seeing more of my work, including the two books that are in progress, one the definitive (I hope) social history of British soldiers in the American Revolution, the other on soldiers’ wives and families during the war. But it’ll be a good while before they’re done.

      • Excellent piece, Don, and I’m super excited to see that social history book! I specialize in what I like to call “social military history,” in that I focus on the ordinary soldiers more than generals and tactics and such. And since I’m in the early stages of researching for a novel about a British soldier during the AmRev, I’m stoked to see what you’ve managed to dig up. Solid statistics and write-ups of the British Army are surprisingly scarce, so if you have any suggestions on where to point me for my own research (that doesn’t involve flying to some military museum in England to dig through archives), I’d appreciate it!

        In the meantime, I’m keeping my eyes peeled for that book. Best of luck!

        • Thank you for this kind feedback, Amanda. The new book is still a year or so out, but in the mean time, much as I hate to recommend my own work oh wait no I don’t, you’ll find much of what you’re looking for in my book British Soldiers, American War (Westholme Publishing, 2012).

  • Don: I have a question and wonder if you know the answer. How does all/any of this apply to members of the Royal Artillery who served in North America during the AWI?

    • That’s a great question, John.
      I haven’t studied the Artillery (or the cavalry) in the same level of detail as the infantry, so I can’t respond with precision. But in general, yes, nine of these ten things are true of the artillery. They were certainly volunteer, career men; because of that they were generally experienced; I’m confident that most enlisted after already attaining adulthood; I think they were more likely to be literate than infantry men (but I could not offer percentages); they certainly received pensions, had wives and children in tow, and did very well in battle. The only thing I could not assume is whether they were punished as often or as severely as the infantry.
      One thing on the list does not apply, Item 10. The Artillery wore blue coats.

      • Don: Thanks. Might make for an interesting project (hint …). I believe that once the Academy at Woolwich was up and running (c. 1740 or so) some of the training there was not limited to officers (sans manuals, of course – other than possibly Muller – since the British generally were adverse to “official” manuals until the 19th century) . The RA also had recruiting limitations because of minimum size requirements due to the physical demands of handling guns, etc. There just isn’t much in the way of modern scholarship so far as I know.

  • I’m writing a documentary feature on Elizabeth Burgin. I’ve created an ancestry tree for her and I’m pretty certain she and her husband John were Jewish (her maiden name was Able). Have you found anything that would confirm or contradict my supposition? Also, could you or someone you know be able and willing to help me with my 18th century Colonial dialogue? You have my email and I can email character dialogue (not the script); these would be lines of dialogue only, not the back and forth with other characters. Lots of good info on this site; thanks.

  • I was researching Richard Augustus Wyvill as he is listed as serving in Jersey, Channel Islands, being part of the military living at Elizabeth Castle here during the last years of the 18th century, and beginning of the 19th, in the defence of the Island (part of Great Britain) against the French invaders. He is shown as having been buried in the Island in May 1829, shortly after an Eliza Wyvill, buried in February, 1829. My interest is due to a record in our local archives of the baptism in 1813 of an Elizabeth Wyvill, daughter of my ancestor Mary Hepburn, possibly illegitimate as the father’s name is not shown on the birth record, but at that time Mary Hepburn’s long time partner, Philip d’Auvergne, Duc de Bouillon, to whom she had borne 3 children, and who was one of the highest ranking naval officers of the British fleet at that time, and stationed at our other Castle, had died in England before that date. This Richard Augustus Wyvill seems to fit the military time and career of my Major Wyvill and I wonder if you can throw some light on this research. I would add that Mary Hepburn was herself born at Elizabeth Castle, daughter of a soldier, James Hepburn, of the Seaforth Highlanders, a volunteer soldier in the Duke of Argyll’s regiment. All my information has been verified at our Archives. I must say I found your description of the writings of Richard very well researched and readable, and look forward to reading more in depth, whether this relates to this soldier or my actual ancestor.

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