Article

British Army

Matthew P. Dziennik

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online January 2013 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0180
British Army

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Despite its seminal importance to the nation’s security in the long 18th century, the British army occupied an ambiguous place in British society. A small professional force composed of long-term volunteers, augmented during wartime by bounty-induced enlistments, foreign servicemen, and forced impressment, the army was the subject of profound resentment which was slow to dissipate even after the first Mutiny Act (1689) and the Statute of Rights (1694) brought the institution more firmly under parliamentary control. The 17th-century fear that a standing army might subvert constitutional liberties survived into the 1730s and suspicions of the arbitrary authority encouraged by military law continued to raise frequent concern among theorists and commentators. Even more enduring was the vilification of the army as an institution that bred drunkenness and criminality. While a stream of victories, culminating in the battle of Waterloo in 1815, improved popular perceptions of the army, it was well into the 20th century before the negative image of the rank and file began to dissolve. As a result, interpretations of the army in the first half of the 20th century swung between two extremes: On the one hand, traditional historiography emphasized the view that the army epitomized the greatest virtues of the British nation. Another approach continued to emphasize variants on the older view that recruits were, to repeat the Duke of Wellington’s 1831 quip, “the mere scum of the earth.” Historians are currently qualifying both extremes. Recent research has shown that the common soldiery came not from the dregs of society but from professions most vulnerable to fluctuations in the market economy, particularly semiskilled artisans. The huge expansion of the peacetime “establishment” from 12,000 men in the first decade of the 18th century to almost 50,000 by 1775 also provides the context for many questions, the extent of the army’s professionalization being key among these. The 18th-century army performed well but a chronic lack of funding, inconsistent training, inadequate pay, and an unqualified officer class undercut effectiveness. The British state was at war for 70 of the 127 years following the Glorious Revolution, a condition that amplified the demands of war on British society and the state’s bureaucratic structures. Future research is likely to focus increasingly on the army’s diversity. The regular army was a heterogeneous institution, both socially and ethnically. It was a polyglot Atlantic, even global, institution, drawing its manpower from all parts of the British Isles, the German states, Africa, Canada, the English-speaking Americas, and India.

Article.  9016 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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