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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15 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.

  • 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

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