The King’s shilling

The King’s shilling

Young men have joined the army down the centuries, willingly or otherwise. Neil Storey explains what sort of life they would have faced before everything changed in 1914

Neil Storey, military and social historian

Neil Storey

military and social historian

The British Army consisted entirely of volunteers from the late 16th to the early 20th centuries (conscription was introduced for the first time through necessity of war in 1916). Many young men seeking adventure beyond the bounds of their rural home town or village freely ‘joined the colours’ when the recruiting parties came around.

However, not all recruits were quite so willing. Recruiting sergeants had quotas to make and there were various deceitful means such as offering to buy a likely candidate a drink and placing a shilling within, so that when he drank it down the shilling slid with the last drop, touched his lips and… “Congratulations – you, my lad, have taken the King’s shilling!”

For the majority of the 19th century both officers and men still wore scarlet tunics
For the majority of the 19th century both officers and men still wore scarlet tunics

In times of greater need, when the army and navy were seeking men for war service, press gangs would ‘take’ men by force. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries when there were over 200 crimes on the statutes which carried the death penalty (for such petty crimes as stealing a sheep or stealing from a fish pond) it was known for judges to give those found guilty the option of the gallows or the army.

The Leicestershire Regiment
Field exercise for the officers and men in The Leicestershire Regiment c1895

Officers had a very different means of entering the army – one of buying their commission. The system was criticised because any family wealthy enough could enter their son over the age of 16 as an officer and thus entrants could be of variable calibre (after 1849 matters were improved and entrants would have to sit an exam). In its favour, this system meant there was no favouritism, on entrance at least.

Every officer would start at the lowest commissioned rank – an ensign in the infantry or cornet in the cavalry. Subsequent promotion could then be earned on merit or purchased. The sale of commissions was finally abolished in 1871.The lot of the line infantry officer in the British Army was far better than that of his troops; he would have a better uniform (although he would have to purchase this with his own money) and would have better accommodation and food when possible (especially if he was supported by a wealthy family or his own means). But make no mistake: the junior officers marched with the men, suffered the same risks of disease and sickness while on campaign and faced the same dangers as their men in battle.

The Lincolnshire Regiment
Regimental and King’s Colours of The Lincolnshire Regiment with escorts c1895

The roots of the modern British Army can traced back to the late 17th century when many new regiments were raised and pikes were replaced by muskets. To enable the safe handling of gunpowder and the efficient operation of muzzle-loading muskets, infantry drill developed apace and soon drill on both parade ground and battlefield and skill at arms became stock-in-trade for the British infantry. In this era the first drill manuals were produced.

The Indian Mutiny Medal
The Indian Mutiny Medal awarded to officers and men of British and Indian units who served in operations in suppression of the Indian Mutiny 1857-8

In the mid-18th century, the command of the army moved from royal to ministerial rule and the old system of colonels’ regiments was changed to numbered Regiments of Foot, many of them soon adopting allegiances with the counties from which they recruited many of their troops – for example, Henry Cornwall’s Regiment became the 9th (East Norfolk) Regiment of Foot. Despite these county links it should not be forgotten that the backbone of recruitment for the British Army in the 18th century and much of the 19th remained the Irish.

Although khaki was known to be worn by some regiments from as early as the Indian Mutiny in 1858 but was only formally introduced for wear by British units in India in 1878. For the majority of the 19th century the officers and men of the British Army retained scarlet tunics as their day-to-day working uniform. This was only superseded by the introduction of the khaki Service Dress jacket and trousers in 1902. The Glengarry, initially introduced as the Undress cap for Scottish Regiments in 1852, was adopted by the majority of English line infantry regiments in plain blue in the 1870s and remained the standard headgear for other ranks soldiers up to the 1890s.

A senior NCO of The Royal Artillery
A senior NCO of The Royal Artillery

The ‘blue cloth’ Home Service helmets for parades, so indicative of Victorian soldiers, were introduced in 1878. The soldier would also be issued with a grey, single breasted greatcoat for colder weather and Valise Pattern (1871) or Slade Wallace (1881) equipment that consisted of ammunition pouches, belt, cross straps and a canvas ‘valise’ pack worn on the back. As ever, he would be armed with a rifle and bayonet, the former made far more efficient by the development of magazine-fed bolt actions from the 1880s.

Men of the Regular Battalion of The Norfolk Regiment c1895
Officer, three Sergeants and two buglers from Regular Battalion of The Norfolk Regiment c1895

The conditions for those serving in the British Army through the 19th century did slowly improve; the Cardwell and Childers reforms brought unprecedented restructuring and regulation and standardisation to the army – there was even a pay rise for private soldiers from 8d to 1 shilling a day! But the medical care of soldiers remained problematic. Despite each regiment retaining at least one surgeon, the British Army fought in campaigns all over the world in such diverse climates as the Crimea, Africa and India. The men were exposed to unfamiliar conditions of heat, cold or damp and a host of tropical diseases in the days before modern advances in surgery, antibiotics and medicines. Far more soldiers and sailors died from sickness and disease than died in battle or from their wounds.

A co-ordinated Army Medical Service, forerunner of the RAMC, was only established in 1873. The after care for soldiers and sailors maimed or having lost limbs during their military service was sadly lacking and the sight of a tattered scarlet or blue jacket being worn by a disabled ex-serviceman as he begged in the street was a familiar sight on many city streets until a number of soldiers’ and sailors’ benevolent funds and homes were established in the later 19th century.

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Timeline: Early Military

The Jacobite Rebellion saw Scottish rebels rise up in an attempt to restore the exiled house of Stuart to the British throne. This was the last major action to be fought on British soil between British citizens
The Seven Years’ War, the first global war, was fought between Britain, Prussia and Hanover against France, Austria, Sweden, Saxony, Russia and eventually Spain
The Battle of Trafalgar – the most significant Royal Navy action of the 19th century
The Battle of Waterloo – the final defeat of the Imperial French Army by an Anglo-Allied army under the command of the Duke of Wellington
The first modern breech-loading rifled gun was invented by Martin von Wahrendorff
1853 – 1856
The Crimean War fought between the Russian Empire and an alliance of the French, British and Ottoman Empires and the Kingdom of Sardinia
The Victoria Cross, our nation’s highest award for valour, was introduced
1868 – 1874
The Cardwell Reforms, the greatest reforms in the British Army during the 19th century
The Anglo-Zulu War, which included the Battle of Rorke’s Drift
The Anglo-Zulu War, which included the Battle of Rorke’s Drift
The Maxim Gun, the first self powered machine gun was invented by Hiram Maxim
The Battle of Omdurman (Sudan) saw the last great cavalry charge of the British Army

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