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British Officers and Gentlemen

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Officers and Gentlemen: Gentlemanly Mystique and Military Effectiveness in the Nineteen-Century British Army
Officers and Gentlemen: Gentlemanly Mystique and Military Effectiveness in the Nineteen-Century British Army
by James A. Shaw

Britain and her army together acted as major forces driving the history of the nineteenth century. The century opened to a Europe consumed in a massive war against Revolutionary, and later Imperial, France, and it closed with the last days of the Victorian era and a British Empire that spanned the entire globe. The enormous economic power of British commerce and industry made the nation a force to be reckoned with in the marketplace, and the peerless Royal Navy ensured Britannia control of whatever seas she wished to sail, but the acquisition and defense of Britain’s extensive land possessions fell to the antiquated, even reactionary, British army.

The British army suffered from its position as a secondary service to the Royal Navy, but it also faced the traditional English aversion to standing armies.[1] Britain’s small, volunteer army quickly fell behind its Continental contemporaries in most measures of military power at the beginning of the nineteenth century and remained a small professional force during the age of mass conscript armies until the early twentieth century. While larger, ostensibly more powerful, Continental armies were being crushed by Napoleon, however, the small British force under the Duke of Wellington consistently defeated larger French armies across the Iberian Peninsula. Ultimately it was the British core of an Allied army that handed Napoleon his final defeat at the climactic Battle of Waterloo. During the later Victorian era, the British army, despite the lack of care taken by the government in its well-being, was well suited for the duties to which it was assigned, giving the British people an excellent return for the unfortunately small investment made in its upkeep[2]

While the British cavalry of the period has acquired a reputation for, as the Duke of Wellington himself put it, “galloping at everything,” the British infantry came to be known for its extraordinary discipline under fire, virtually never breaking and enduring tremendous punishment before unleashing controlled, devastating volleys of musketry which were often followed by a spirited bayonet charge. British infantry was respected by its foes as well as its commanders. Maxmilien Foy, one of Napoleon’s generals and a historian of the Peninsular conflict, asserted that “[he knew] of no troops so well disciplined as the British,” and described “the infantry [as] the best portion of the British army.”[3] Historian Richard Holmes describes the British army as “an army born of paradox:”

It fought hard, and generally with success, in defence of an order in which most of its members had scant personal interest, and which showed as little regard for them once they had returned to civilian life as it did before they first donned red coats. Though it was not immune from political sentiment and genuine patriotic fervour, it fought because of comradely emulation, gutter-fighter toughness, regimental pride, and brave leadership, laced with a propensity to drink and plunder, and buttressed by a harsh disciplinary code.[4]

To comprehensively answer the question of what factors contributed the British infantry’s steadiness and effectiveness would necessarily lead to a much larger end product than the scope of this project will permit. This paper will broadly argue that cultural factors, even more than discipline and training, made the major contribution to British fighting ability. A detailed examination of one small facet of the larger argument, namely the relationship between British officers and other ranks and the effect that that relationship has on combat effectiveness, will serve narrow the focus of this project to a more manageable size. This paper’s thesis will ultimately argue that the cultural foundation underlying the nature of the relationship between British army officers and men of other ranks during the nineteenth century played a major role in explaining the combat effectiveness of the British infantry during the time period because of the British soldiers’ faith in the inherent ability and superiority of their gentlemen-officers. The paternalistic care that officers had for their men and the British soldiers’ belief that their commanders were of a different, higher order, born and bred for command, overcame any systematic flaws that would normally have dampened the army’s effectiveness. Image and behavior meant more than professional competence, especially since professionalism and competence were often lacking in the British officer corps of the nineteenth century.

The nature of the officer-other ranks relationship under examination has often been commented upon by scholars writing about the nineteenth-century British army, but almost no work exists that examines the topic in any great detail. First it is necessary to establish the cultural basis of the British gentlemanly tradition and its relationship to the officer corp. The views and expectations of private soldiers in regards to their officers can be glimpsed through an examination of the writings left behind by common soldiers, although such sources are relatively few in number due to the low levels of literacy amongst British soldiers during most of the period. A brief comparison between the nineteenth-century British army and some of its adversaries will hopefully help to provide some clarity as to the uniqueness of the British military system of the period.

The Battle of Waterloo in 1815 was won in the early part of the nineteenth century by a British army that was entirely eighteenth-century in character. The end of the “long eighteenth century” was postponed by the Napoleonic Wars, while the modernization of Britain’s antiquated army was put off for over half a century by the enormous presence and influence of the Duke of Wellington. It is for this reason that, despite minor changes in weapons and tactics, the British army can be examined from 1800 to around the 1870s without having to take into account many structural changes. The army that fought at Waterloo would not have been terribly confused had they been transported forward in time to fight in the Crimea or the Mutiny.

Armies – indeed, entire military systems – are reflections of the culture that produce them. Stephen Peter Rosen proposes first that “people in a political unit can identify themselves with social structures in ways that can create divisive loyalties within the political unit,” and that such internal divisions can create the need for increased military power for ensuring domestic order to the detriment of defense from external enemies. He further argues that the divided political loyalties of the society at large can extend themselves to the military, resulting in an erosion of military effectiveness.[5]

Rosen’s article is largely concerned with encouraging a consideration of society and culture when assessing a nation’s military power, and it is largely directed at political scientists and others who study military policy. He focuses on the challenges faced by Westerners in attempting to analyze the unfamiliar cultures and societies of non-Western nations and the effects on their militaries. His ideas are relevant to the British army of the nineteenth century, however, in that British society at the time was highly stratified, with a large gulf existing between the aristocracy and landed gentry at the top and the disaffected masses at the bottom. The middle class was beginning to make its presence felt in both the political and military arenas during the century, but upward social promotion was still relatively rare. The British army acted as a constabulary force in Britain’s overseas possessions and also served to maintain social order at home during periods of unrest. Additionally, a sizeable percentage of the men who filled the ranks came from Scotland and Ireland. If political friction and divided loyalties were to be a factor in British military effectiveness, it would be with those men who had more reason to dislike the British system.

There is no doubt that British officers and men came from radically different strata of society. Despite that fact, however, there seems to have been remarkably little friction between the educated and privileged elite who made up the officer corps and the largely impoverished and uneducated men who filled the ranks. Sergeant Roger Lamb mused:

The fondness of the officer continues with the man who fought under his command, to the remotest period of declining years, and the old soldier venerates his aged officer far more than perhaps he did in his youthful days: it is like friendship between school-boys, which increases in manhood, and ripens in old age.[6]

The nineteenth-century British military experience is arguably one of the most – if not the most – successful manifestations of the military dominance enjoyed by the West for over 2,500 years. Many of the conflicts in which Great Britain was involved during the rise of her empire saw her land forces engaged in fighting superior numbers at the end of a chaotic and unreliable supply chain, often without any significant technological edge to help tip the balance. British cultural factors, bequeathed through Britain’s Western heritage, served to make the British army, no matter how disadvantaged, far deadlier than any adversary it faced.

The broad argument that culture played at least as great a role as discipline and training in British military effectiveness draws heavily on the work of historian Victor Davis Hanson, especially his work on the cultural basis of Western military supremacy. Hanson argues in general that “The West has achieved military dominance in a variety of ways that transcend mere superiority in weapons and has nothing to do with morality or genes.”[7] A unique Western way of war originated, according to Hanson, during the Classical era of Greece and has been transmitted down through time, sometimes in corrupted form and always somewhat incompletely, to the present day.[8] Western armies are the products of consensual government and fight with a greater sense of legal freedom than those non-Western forces that they clash with. The West has historically placed a higher premium on heavy infantry as the core fighting power of their armies, rather than cavalry backed up by swarms of lightly-armed infantry levies. The capitalist economic system and rational spirit of free inquiry developed in the West have led to greater technological and logistical innovations than have been generally found elsewhere and has contributed to Western victories throughout time. Hanson also argues that Western armies have often marched to war as in pursuit of achieving larger political ends, rather than merely conquest of new territory or the personal aggrandizement of monarchs. Individualism is valued in Western armies which are subject to criticism of the larger citizenry and such criticism serves to increase military effectiveness.

Where Hanson’s argument falls somewhat short is in its criticism of the British army’s antiquated structure and institutions during the nineteenth century. Writing about the post-Napoleonic Wars British army, Hanson notes that:

In contrast [to Continental armies], the British after Waterloo (1815), with few exceptions (the disastrous Crimean War of 1854-56 is the oddity that proves the rule), fought colonial wars, against enemies that had neither modern weapons, elaborate fortifications, nor sophisticated tactics. The result was the maintenance of a peculiarly reactionary army, which increasingly found itself outside the modern Western evolution toward enormous levies of well-armed conscripts.[9]

In reference to the purchase system by which officers obtained commissions and promotions, Hanson writes:

The Victorian army – more so than the navy – mirrored the class divisions of British society. Since it was largely unchallenged by other more modern European and American forces, it saw no need until the eleventh hour either to dismantle the tactics of a bygone age or to substitute merit for birth as the chief criterion for career advancement.[10]

Hanson’s use of the word “birth” is unfortunate; it would have been far more accurate to substitute “wealth” instead. Here Hanson misses an opportunity to more clearly demonstrate the continuation of a Western military tradition from Classical times down to the Victorian era as opportunity for military service (and indeed citizenship itself) was based upon wealth and land ownership in Classical Greece. While many British army officers were indeed well-born, wealth from any source encouraged a defense of the political and cultural system that enabled that wealth to be amassed. The citizens of ancient Greece and Rome understood this and their examples were followed by Britain.[11]

The private soldiers and non-commissioned officers who filled the ranks were not stakeholders in British society in the same way their officers were, but a certain tribal, chauvinistic pride, if not outright patriotism, was not an uncommon trait amongst the rank and file.[12] Christopher Duffy writes that “The most pronounced moral traits of the English [in the eighteenth century] were violence and patriotism.”[13] It seems reasonable to argue that both moral traits continued to play a prominent role in the formation of the English character well into the nineteenth century, given the slow pace of social and military evolution seen in Britain during the time.

British soldiers were, with few exceptions, recruited from the very lowest strata of society. The desperate and unemployed were well represented in the ranks. Recruiting methods of the time almost guaranteed that this was so, as potential recruits were often plied with drink and sometimes made victims of outright fraud. Unlike Continental armies, the British army did not institute conscription during the nineteenth century. Volunteers were required to fill the ranks. Pay was extremely meager, although by mid-century it was shown to be comparable to that of a well-paid agricultural laborer once all “fringe benefits” available to the soldier were taken into account.[14] Still, the army was usually a path to basic sustenance – sometimes adventure – but very little else. By and large, men whose circumstances compelled them to enlist had contributed little or nothing to society prior to their donning the red coat, but the army provided a convenient institution for gathering potential troublemakers, segregating them from society at large, and putting them to useful military service.

The level of importance attached by the British government to individual soldiers is reflected in the atrocious living conditions they endured during most of the period, particularly for those stationed overseas. Cramped, unsanitary barracks in England were often no worse than the homes from which soldiers originally hailed, and the mortality rate for soldiers stationed in England were comparable with the civilian population. Once stationed abroad, however, a soldier’s chances of dying prematurely from disease increased dramatically.[15]

British soldiers also knew that, although subject to an extremely harsh disciplinary code, they could not be punished arbitrarily and were protected at least minimally by a system of military justice. Most soldiers understood the merits of the system and recognized the necessity of discipline in controlling an army of men who had been oppressed all of their lives and subsequently had a tendency to rampage if unchecked. Rifleman Benjamin Harris writes approvingly about one of his officers who he describes as a “tight hand,” noting that “a soldier likes that better than a slovenly officer.”[16] He also says that “The moment the severity of the discipline of our army is relaxed, in my opinion, farewell to its efficiency…”[17]

British soldiers and their officers were free men and volunteers who chose, or were driven by circumstances, to serve their country in capacities that by and large reflected their civilian social standings. The aristocratic and landed-gentry elite classes served as gentlemen officers, while the rural and urban labor classes enlisted to serve in the ranks. The traditional paternalistic relationship between these two broad classes was well reflected in the British army even as it slowly and grudgingly began to change in the civilian population.

The influence of culture upon the British military system was examined in greater depth by Lawrence James in his book, Warrior Race. James writes about the central role that war played in the development of the different parts of the British Isles that would ultimately become the United Kingdom. Domestic conflicts “have been of immense historical importance,” and have “marked the pivotal points in the nation’s history and their outcome has dictated its future direction.”[18] Additionally, Britain’s wars of conquest and expansion beyond the home islands have left their stamp upon world history.

A factor that has often been overlooked, according to James, is the mark left by war upon the development of British society. [19] The warrior elite who gained control of Britain following the departure of the Romans “evolved into a ruling class that derived political and territorial power from its skill at arms [; its] carefully cultivated concepts of personal courage, honour and self-respect based on an indifference to danger lay at the heart of chivalry.” [20] Combined with later Christian virtues and the fruits of Renaissance thought, the result was “ a persistent faith in the peculiar moral qualities of gentlemen which qualified them to command in war.”[21] British success in war and it’s insular geographic location have set it apart from all other nations in Europe, which have “suffered defeat, occupation and calculated humiliation or, in the case of Spain, a wounding civil war.”[22] British “tenacity and intensity of purpose,” combined with success in war, have led to a high level of national self-esteem, “a vindication of a nation’s collective will and institutions,” and, possibly, hubris.[23]

James’ work on the gentlemanly command image of British officers is extensive and detailed, including even discussions about the lisps affected by pretentious cavalry officers.[24] The overall tone of his writing, however, comes across as disapproval of a backward, non-egalitarian idea. However, if the traditionally wide class divide between gentlemen-officers and their low-status men was a hallmark of British culture dating back to at least the time of the Romans, as James argues, and if British culture, embodying as it does the Western traditions described by Hanson, is uniquely suited for waging successful war, then that class divide must somehow make a contribution to Britain’s military effectiveness. That it does has been recognized and appreciated by both British officers and private soldiers throughout the nineteenth century.

The character of the British army was a reflection of the character possessed by its officers. It was “[Due to the] officer exclusively,” according to the Duke of Wellington, “the man of education, manners, honesty, and other qualities required by education which English gentlemen receive…”[25] Character was the trait that most clearly defined a gentleman, even more than wealth or birth, and it was character that was the most desirable trait in a potential officer. Character separated the elite officers from the lowly, ruffian common soldiery.

The gentlemanly ideal, which army officers were expected to embody, was transmitted from generation to generation most perfectly through the medium of Britain’s greater and lesser public schools, from which many officers graduated. Rupert Wilkinson’s characterization of public school gentlemen is instructive in considering the importance of officers as gentlemen. He writes:

It is…true that a prime characteristic of the public school gentleman ideal was to attach great importance to a dignified bearing and aura of command. Such leadership qualities were readily identified with character – a confusion of manners with the morals they were means to symbolize.[26]

Wilkinson goes on to describe three components of the gentleman ideal, namely the great importance attached to leisure, a particular attitude towards privilege and duty, and the attainment of “magic,” which help to understand the relationship of the nineteenth-century officer to the army and to his men. The first two components are codified by the army system itself, to some extent, and will be examined first. The last component, that of attaining “magic,” is less clear but the most vital in terms of understanding the officer-other ranks relationship of the time.

The gentleman’s pursuit of leisure was a status symbol of sorts in its own right, “signifying that a man could take up pursuits for their own sake rather than toil for bread alone.”[27] One result of this gentlemanly quality was that a career as an army officer was viewed more as a type of hobby than a serious profession. Albert Tucker notes:

The British officer felt only encouragement in his freedom from serious professional obligations. He could remain indifferent to technical or practical knowledge, even to the details of routine administration.[28]

There was, in fact, a marked suspicion of “scientific” (i.e. – professional) officers among their more conventional fellows.[29] The status of an officer as a non-professional gentleman of leisure was reinforced by the extremely low pay provided in compensation for his service. As late as 1903, a committee on the expense of officers reported that an infantry officer required £150-200 a year from private sources to supplement his pay, while a cavalry officer required £600-700.[30]

Attitudes towards privilege and duty help to explain the tendency for gentlemen to enter into public service, including military service. The privileged social position of a gentleman was, in part, payment of sorts for public service. The moral superiority enjoyed by a gentleman was partly the result of civic virtue acquired through service as a public leader.[31]

The characteristic of a gentleman most closely tied to military leadership was the attribute of “magic.” Wilkinson defines magic as “that mysterious aura of different-ness which distinguishes certain leaders and makes them respected for what they are rather than what they do [italics added].” [32] If Wilkinson is correct, then those of lower social status must have bought in to the notion that gentlemen were somehow fundamentally different – better- than themselves, more suited and able to command men. It was faith in this gentlemanly mystique, backed by a harsh disciplinary code, which ensured prompt, unthinking obedience from the common soldier and, combined with the inherent tenacity and bravery of the men in the ranks, contributed to the steadiness of the British line. B. H. Liddell Hart, writing in the aftermath of World War I, pointed out that,

Faith matters so much to a soldier in the stress of war that military training inculcates a habit of unquestioning obedience which in turn fosters an unquestioning acceptance of the prevailing doctrine. [33]

This was as true in the nineteenth century as it was in the twentieth, and as true of the prevailing social order as of the prevailing military doctrine.

With regard to officer-other ranks relations, Harries-Jenkins believes that the traditional paternalism of the landed gentry, from which the officer corps was largely drawn, translated itself into military life as a “landlord-tenant” type relationship between an officer and his men. [34] He writes:

What was needed, it appeared, was [sic] officers who knew their men, who were able to exercise the meticulous direction and quasi-paternal oversight over subordinates which was considered indispensable in the management of an estate or in the control of a regiment[35].

While according to Richard Blanco,

The inbred distrust of the laboring masses by the gentry was inevitably duplicated in the relationship between officers and men. Reenacting the feudalistic framework of conduct between the lord and the serf, the officer’s attitude toward his retainers was basically paternalistic, not cruel. If one’s servants were controlled effectively, wonders could be performed by the constant conditioning of discipline…Thus, the officers’ view of the enlisted man was a blend of wary suspicion, mild interest, and strict control. Their sentiments about the troops were similar to the feelings that they entertained for their horses and dogs. The enlisted man was regarded by his officers as a mechanical device, capable of valiant service under the stern guidance of his master…[36]

Blanco’s somewhat jaundiced view of British officers and their attitudes may be something of a harsh stereotype, but overall his characterization is probably more accurate than not.

A perusal of the available writings left behind by common soldiers of the era gives many examples of descriptions of officers as paternal or fatherly. Rifleman Harris recalls how his captain rescued him from French soldiers who intended to do him mischief one day, while the next day the same captain instructed him to set up a shop to repair soldier’s shoes for an upcoming march. [37]

The expense of obtaining a commission prior to the abolition of purchase ensured that officers would indeed also be gentlemen. The imposition of a financial barrier between the lower classes and an officer’s commission was intentional. It was believed that the introduction of officers of lower social status would negatively affect the relationship between such officers and their men:

It was a belief which persisted for a considerable length of time, for it was a legacy of the neo-feudal concept that a soldier would more readily ‘follow the gentleman,’ than an officer whose social status was less certain and less well assured. [38]

Sidney Herbert, a champion of enlisted men during the mid-nineteenth century stated in Parliament, “I believe, as a general rule, that our soldiers more willingly obey men whom they look up to as gentlemen than men who have risen from themselves.” [39] The Duke of Wellington himself argued that enlisted men:

Do not make good officers; it does not answer. They are brought into a society to the manners of which they are not accustomed; they cannot bear at all being heated in wine or liquor…they are quarrelsome, they are addicted to quarrel a little in their cups. And they are not persons that can be borne in the society of the officers of the Army; they are different men altogether. [40]

General Redvers Buller, writing in 1893, stated:

I am strongly opposed to any scheme which would tend to increase the number of candidates for commissions from the ranks…The gentleman who has enlisted has lost caste, and it cannot fail that a man who has deliberately adopted as companions men of a lower social and educational standard than himself, must…have lowered his own standards by the associations he has cultivated. …To deliberately descend to debased articles when we can reasonably expect to get the pure ones would be a grave mistake. [41]

Not only among officers and policy makers of the time were the social order and the perceived qualitative difference between officers and men viewed as critical to military effectiveness. Rifleman Benjamin Harris believed that:

Indeed, it requires one who has authority on his face, as well as at his back, to make [soldiers] respect and obey him. They see too often, in the instance of sergeant-majors, that command does not suit ignorant and coarse-minded men; and that tyranny is too much used even in the brief authority which they have. A soldier, I am convinced, is driven often to insubordination by being worried by these little-minded men for the veriest trifles, about which the gentleman never thinks of tormenting him. … for our men to be tormented about trifles…is often very injurious to a whole corp. [42]

And:

I know from experience, that in our army the men like best to be officered by gentlemen, men whose education has rendered them more kind in manners than your coarse officer, sprung from obscure origin, and whose style is brutal and overbearing [Italics original]. [43]

Soldier’s descriptions of ideal officers virtually all contain references to the officer’s gentlemanly characteristics. Harry Ross-Lewin, a junior officer with the 32nd Regiment during the Peninsular War, describes how soldiers viewed the military lieutenant-governor of Guernsey:

Sir John Doyle…was an officer whose conduct, whether regarded as that of a commander, a soldier, or a gentleman, has always elicited the warmest praise from all who knew how to appreciate real merit. Talented, brave, and courteous, he conciliated the esteem of all classes…the kindness and benevolence of his disposition deservedly obtained for him the distinguishing title of ‘the soldier’s friend!’ [44]


Color Sergeant Thomas Faughnan describes one of his officers in this way:

He was a very strict officer, but a very kind gentleman; that is he expected every man to do his duty faithfully and zealously, and beyond that, he was indulgent, generous, and always anxious for the comfort, happiness, and amusement of his company. A better, braver, or more dignified and gentlemanly officer, a kinder friend than Captain John Croker was not in the service. [45]


Harris’s italicization in “our army” is instructive. He was writing about his service during the war with France, and it seems clear that he was contrasting the old-fashioned, traditional British army with the egalitarian conscript armies of France, where officers and men were far more likely to have sprung from the same social class than was the case in England. The British officer, a gentleman bred to command, was (at least in the eyes of his men) a breed apart, a different order of being who occupied his exalted position by right of birth and social position, while the French soldier could very well be commanded by a childhood acquaintance from the next farm over. The psychology of the situation clearly works to the advantage of the British soldier: His leaders occupy a position of command because of supposedly superior character determined at birth and in acknowledgement of an ancient and accepted social contract, while the French soldier is led, in many cases, by men whose merit ascribed to him by the state.

The mechanism by which the British officer’s gentlemanly qualities were demonstrated to his troops, and thereby translated into affecting their actions, was through the example he set – especially his actions and behavior in combat. Historian Richard Holmes asserts that “soldiers were profoundly influenced by the example set by their officers. The latter were almost unfailingly courageous in battle, often to the point of self-sacrifice.” [46] Such courage was an expected part of the behavior of a gentleman. In The Mystery of Courage, an excellent meditation on the subject, William Ian Miller discusses the view, which would have seemed only natural during the nineteenth century, that the toughness of the lower orders of society are not necessarily equal to the bravery of the upper class officer who risks his life despite having everything to lose. The soldier from the gutter is “anything but Spartan-like: they made no choices; they were put into mean streets and learned the way of them.” Yet,

When the a different kind of conditioning, the playing fields of Eton and all that, produced the extraordinary stiff-upper-lipped bravery of the young subalterns…we do not hesitate to call them brave, as evidencing the truest virtue; not just tough…[47]


And so it must have appeared to the men under their command. Their officers, even those from the middle class, hailed from a lifestyle of wealth and privilege that must have been almost unimaginable to the average private soldier, yet they observed them risk it all with almost reckless abandon in leading the charge. Officers, although often living in the field in conditions of relative comfort compared to their men, also often shared their miseries and hardships.

Discipline alone would have ensured a brutalized and inefficient army. It was the joining of discipline with the example set by officers that gave the British army its character. During the desperate retreat to Corunna, Rifleman Harris credits the example set by officers, especially that of General Robert Craufurd, with inspiring their men to persevere:

Many [soldiers], now near sinking with fatigue, reeled as if in a state of drunkenness, and altogether I thought we looked the ghosts of our former selves; still we held on resolutely: our officers behaved nobly; and [General] Craufurd was not to be daunted by long miles, fatigue, or fine weather. Many a man in that retreat caught courage from his stern eye and gallant bearing. Indeed, I do not think the world ever saw a more perfect soldier than General Craufurd. [48]

Craufurd’s example, along with his enforcement of strict discipline (he court-martialed and flogged stragglers during brief halts) prevented his brigade from devolving into a mob of refugees and probably minimized losses. Craufurd’s efforts were by no means the norm: Napoleon, supposedly the greatest general of the age, abandoned his men to their fate on no less than three occasions (Egypt, 1799; Russia, 1812; and following Waterloo, 1815)!

Coolness under fire on the part of officers could inspire the same coolness in their men. Edward Costello relates how, when a lieutenant was shot and badly wounded, his captain:

[P]erceiving him roll his eyes and stagger, caught him by the arm, saying in a rather soft tone to the men about him: ‘Take that poor boy to the rear, he does not know what is the matter with him,” and with the same characteristic coolness he continued his duties. [49]

During the defense of Rorke’s Drift in 1879, Acting Assistant Commissary James Dalton was aiming at one attacking Zulu, when out of the corner of his eye he spotted another leap on top of the stations defensive wall. Dalton coolly ordered the soldier next to him to “Pot that fellow!,” which the soldier promptly did. Dalton was shot and wounded during this exchange, but he calmly walked across the yard to his commanding officer, handed over his rifle and ammunition, and only then collapsed. [50]

The example set by officers could affect the behavior of soldiers once they had left the field, as well. Combined with the innate toughness of their class, soldiers could adopt the “stiff-upper-lipped” bravery of their betters in an attempt to set themselves above their adversaries. Costello relates a story of a British soldier having his arm amputated following a battle, undergoing his ordeal in silence, while next to him a French soldier was “bellowing lustily” as a surgeon probed for a ball:

This seemed to annoy the Englishman more than anything else, and so much so, that as soon as his arm was amputated, he struck the Frenchman a smart blow across the breech with the severed limb, holding it at the wrist, saying, ‘Here, take that, and stuff it down your throat, and stop your damned bellowing!’ [51]


While there is no doubt that officers lived more comfortably than their men, the difference was sometimes too scant to be observed. In some instances, the humbling of their betters seems to have brought out the worst in soldiers who gloried in their officers’ ordeals. Private Thomas Pococke observed that “The officers, in many points, suffered as much as the men.” But:

I have seen officers of the guards, and others, worth thousands, with pieces of old blankets wrapt [sic] round their feet and legs; the men pointing at them, with a malicious satisfaction, saying, ‘There goes three thousand a-year;’ or, ‘There goes the prodigal son, on his return to his father, cured of his wanderings.’ [52]

More often the men seem to have felt sorry for their officers, pitying them and resenting their reduced circumstances. Sergeant Faughnan reported that in the Crimea, “The officers cannot be distinguished from the privates, unless when they wear their swords:”

It is sad to see the noble officers who have been brought up in luxury sharing the same fate as the private soldiers. I went into an officer’s tent the other day, and I was sorry to see [Lieutenant Brinkman] sitting in his tent shivering with cold and trying to cut out a pair of leggings off the end of his blanket. [53]

Interestingly, today’s commonly held view of Victorian-era officers living in luxury is not new. It also existed at the time, as evidenced by Faughnan’s conversation with the pitiful officer he witnessed earlier:

Faughnan, they may talk at home about us noble officers of the British army, and imagine us sitting in a snug tent with warm clothing and gorgeous uniforms, partaking of the fare that England has generously sent out here to her gallant officers and soldiers, but which none of us have yet received, and I am afraid never will, if this weather lasts long. It would be more comfortable to be a sweep in London than an officer out here [in the Crimea]. [54]

Should a British officer attempt to use his authority to make himself too comfortable at the expense of his men, he ran the risk of invoking the ire of a superior. Rifleman Harris described one incident that took place during a river crossing, when General Craufurd spotted an officer riding upon a soldier’s shoulders in order to avoid getting wet. “The sight of such effeminacy was,” according to Harris, “enough to raise the choler of the general, and in a very short time he was plunging and splashing through the water after them both.” [55]

‘Put him down, sir! [P]ut him down! I desire you to put that officer down instantly!’ And the soldier in an instant, I dare say nothing loth, dropping his burden like a hot potato into the stream, continued his progress through. ‘Return back, sir,’ said Craufurd to the officer, ‘and go through the water like the others. I will not allow my officers to ride upon the men’s backs through the rivers: all must take their share like here.’ [56]

The incident provided a moment of amusement for the troops, a proper chastisement for the officer involved, and demonstrated that, despite their exalted position, officers had to endure much the same conditions as the men they proposed to lead.

If the British soldier’s idealization of the gentleman officer was an important cultural component to the effectiveness of the British army, how does the British army of the nineteenth century compare with the cultural and military structures of the armies it faced in battle? The beginning of the century saw the British still involved in a great war against their ancient enemy, France. The French army under Napoleon and his marshals fought, and won, from the English Channel to the gates of Moscow, but victory against the English, especially once the future Duke of Wellington took command of the British army in Portugal, remained elusive. Many factors no doubt played some part in this, and the differences between the French and British army, it can be argued, are among them.

The manner in which the French ranks were filled was fundamentally different from the British system described above. In 1793, the French Revolutionary government instituted the levee en masse, the law which declares, in part, that all adult males are eligible for conscription into the army. Maxmilien Foy believed that the result was a positive one for France:

The army was not as formerly the scum of cities, which debauched recruiting-officers had artfully enlisted and poured into the regiments: it was the flower of the population – it was the purest blood in France. [57]

Foy’s description of recruiting methods prior to the Revolution sound very much like the methods used in Britain throughout the century. On its face, having the “flower of the population…the purest blood in France,” would seem to be a net positive for any army. Those conscripted into the French army, however, were not necessarily enthusiastic about performing military service, especially given the enormous losses that Napoleon was willing to take in order to achieve victory. British soldiers were largely drawn from “the scum of the cities,” yes, but such a harsh background imbued those men with a toughness and fierce tenacity that proved an asset to the British army. Further, British soldiers were entirely volunteers. Many may have had no other option besides military service, but there is no evidence that any significant number of soldiers resented the fact or blamed the army system for it. There’s no reason why the shopkeepers, apprentices, farm hands, and others conscripted into the French army could not be equally as tough, but man for man the “scum” recruited by the British enjoyed a paradoxical advantage conveyed by their disadvantaged pre-military circumstances. Being forced into the army led many soldiers to resent the government, and eventually Napoleon was faced with widespread popular opposition to continued conscription.[58]

The officer corps was restricted almost entirely to the aristocracy during the ancien regime, but such a system was clearly no longer feasible following the Revolution. Promotion in the French army during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era was based on merit; no equivalent of the British purchase system existed for the commissioning and promotion of officers. Many of Napoleon’s marshals came from humble origins: Marshal Michel Ney was a sergeant at the time of the Revolution, and Marshal Nicolas Soult began as a private soldier. According to Foy, French officers were “the sons of the husbandman and the artisan.”[59] Officers, in other words, sprang from the same class as the soldiers that they commanded, and conscription seems to have led to a greater degree of cooperation between the officer and enlisted ranks.[60] It seems reasonable to wonder, however, to what extent French soldiers resented the exalted position granted to their officers who, after all, may have come from the same village and social class. If the thesis set forth in this paper is correct, then the French soldiers’ belief that their officers were not of a superior class, born and bred for command, would, if not degraded their military effectiveness, certainly not have conferred any advantage. Unfortunately, most of the primary source materials which are necessary for assessing the issue completely have yet to be translated into English, so further research is required to answer this question satisfactorily.

The Russian army that Britain faced during the Crimean War (1854-1856) resembled the British in the vast social gulf that existed between the commissioned and enlisted ranks, but without the mutual respect that British officers and men were able to cultivate. Russian officers were drawn entirely from the nobility and landowning classes, while many Russian soldiers were serfs, tied to the land and virtually the property of their feudal landlords. Russian officers often used the non-military labor of their soldiers for their own economic benefit. Soldiers acted as servants, tailors, carpenters, and in other capacities to cheaply supply their officers with services and goods.[61]

Serf who were conscripted into the Russian army became legally free, but Russian officers tended to continue the cycle of arbitrary punishment and exploitation that the soldiers had experienced in civilian life. Military law in Russia was a somewhat slipshod affair, but there were means by which soldiers could lodge grievances against commanders who were guilty of financial irregularities or brutalizing their men. Still, commanders employed various methods for ignoring complaints, and tricking or intimidating their men into withdrawing or not lodging complaints in the first place.[62] However badly soldiers were treated by their officers in the Russian army, however, was nothing compared to life as a serf, as evidenced by the large numbers of serfs who attempted to escape their masters and enlist in the army during the Crimean War in pursuit of freedom.[63]

While the ranks were widely separated in the Russian army, and Russian soldiers were subject to a discipline every bit as harsh as that which prevailed in the British army, the underlying cultural foundation upon which the two armies were built was very different. Serfdom had been eliminated in Britain for hundreds of years, while it was at its height in Russia. As a result, British officers never considered the men under their charge as their own personal property to use and exploit as they wished. Russian officers, themselves from the landowning class and used to using serfs as they saw fit, simply carried over their habits into their military life. Any protections built into Russian military codes for the common soldiers were easily bypassed or ignored by commanders, so Russian soldiers were largely denied the legal protections available to their British counterparts. The Russian army, while composed of technically free men was actually, in short, a slave army, composed of conscripts fighting to defend a system which held them and their families in bondage to the land.

During their invasion of Zululand in 1879, the British army fought a large, fierce army which was the product of a cultural system unlike any of the European foes that Britain had faced earlier in the century. The Zulu forces suffered from a vast technological inferiority when compared to the British. Although many Zulu carried matchlock muskets, they had no concept of volley fire, and in fact tended to shoot high in an attempt to overcome gravity in the same way that they did when throwing a spear.[64] Zulu culture was extremely militarized, both men and women being assigned to age-group regiments. Two Zulu informants told Cornelius Vijn that “There is no penalty for those who do not join, although, of course, they are not thought much of.”[65] Most boys did join and were assigned to age-group regiments that they served in for life. Such a system promoted high levels of esprit de corps and contributed to the military dominance of the Zulu among the native tribes of southern Africa.[66]

As physically tough as the average Victorian-era British soldier was, Zulu warriors were expected to be able to run up to fifty miles a day, without shoes, and fight a battle at the end. Zulu logistics were virtually non-existent, so the warriors would be hungry and could only fight fairly close to home. The standard Zulu tactical maneuver was called the “horns of the buffalo,” in which a central “chest” unit pinned the enemy in place while two “horns” completed a double envelopment. Short stabbing spears did the rest.[67]

Zulu armies proved to be nearly invincible when fighting in the open, with an unobstructed path between themselves and their enemy. The Zulu were able to defeat a better armed and disciplined British force caught out in the open at Isandhlwana in the early days of the Zulu War of 1879. Europeans fighting behind some sort of obstacle, with plenty of ammunition, however, proved to be a much tougher nut to crack. The most dramatic example of this was the Battle of Blood River in 1838, where just over 400 Boer trekkers, fighting from behind a wagon laager, defeated a Zulu force of over 10,000 at the cost of three lightly wounded. On the same day as the disaster at Isandhlwana, a small British force of around 100 effectives, positioned behind walls built from grain bags, fought off a Zulu force of around 4000-6000 at Rorke’s Drift. Zulu training and tactics, superbly effective in some instances, did not allow for the tactical flexibility necessary to defeat trained, disciplined British regulars except under instances of extraordinarily poor leadership on the part of the British.

There is no identifiable equivalent to the British gentlemanly tradition in Zulu culture. There also exists no clear record of how common Zulu warriors viewed their superiors during the late nineteenth century. Hanson, however, focuses on the issue of discipline and punishment for comparison between the two armies:

Whereas the Zulus were famous for their obedience to royal edicts, since the reign of Shaka – who had routinely strangled those who sneezed, laughed, or simply looked at him in his presence – there was an arbitrariness surrounding punishment that tended in the long run to undermine Zulu cohesion and central command.[68]

The British army, on the other hand, despite its harsh disciplinary code, was driven by laws rather than whim. “For the most part,” writes Hanson, “[British soldiers] followed orders from a sense of justice rather than mere fear. No British officer or magistrate had absolute power over an underling in the manner of a Zulu…king.”[69] It seems reasonable to argue that obedience driven by fear is a much more tenuous thing than obedience obtained by judicious treatment, mutual respect, and confidence in one’s commanders.

It seems clear that the stereotypical images of nineteenth-century British officers and soldiers engrained in the public consciousness are mere caricatures that rarely bear any resemblance to what was in fact the case. Though not yet professional military men, British officers were not the “drunken, whoremongering clowns” described by the fictional Flashman.[70] British officers were, by and large, honorable men serving the nation and cultural tradition that had placed them in an elite social class. They accepted a role of responsibility in exchange for the privileges that that class membership provided, but they also served in defense of the system itself.

British officers were expected to embody the gentlemanly tradition that had been a part of British culture from the time of the Romans. By virtue of character, manners, and other attributes possessed by the gentleman, he was, in the eyes of British society, uniquely fit to command other men and assume leadership roles in the nation and her empire. This gentlemanly mystique served to make the British officer an example to be admired and obeyed without question in the eyes of the common soldier. When combined with a socially-mandated, near suicidal bravery, the British officer led and inspired his men to a steadiness and effectiveness far beyond what Britain encountered in any of her foes.

Yet the relationship between a British officer and his men was a reciprocal one in many ways. The British nation and its government neglected and mistreated common soldiers, but the paternalism inherent in the gentleman, and the officer, caused officers to care for the men who, after all, they needed to carry out commands and fight battles. Written accounts left by private soldiers and non-commissioned officers virtually always note that the officers who were admired most, and who were most effective leaders, were gentlemen, and cared about the well-being of their soldiers. The system itself may have been careless of the lives and well-being of soldiers, but regimental officers were so at their peril.

British soldiers, the men who stood in the ranks through shot and shell, who fired the volleys and made the bayonet charges, were not entirely the desperate creatures, depraved by drink, that they are commonly made out to be. They were tough, tenacious, and not a little patriotic, in their way. Their service to a nation and culture that largely despised them throughout much of the nineteenth century contributed far more than it asked in return. It was the British soldier, not the commander who led him, that won Britain’s wars.

The common soldiers’ faith in the superiority of their gentlemen-officers as leaders and commanders promoted a steadiness in the ranks that was often commented upon, and contributed mightily towards Britain’s military success. It was faith in the type of man occupying positions of leadership, despite deficiencies in technical and tactical skill, that encouraged British soldiers to stand their ground in the face of horrendous punishment and mounting losses. It’s possible to think of this phenomenon as a “placebo effect,” of sorts, in which gentlemanly manners and a commanding bearing stood in for hard-earned military competence. The soldiers believed that their officers were able, the officers led with extraordinary bravery; therefore they must be able, capable leaders. The soldiers themselves took care of the rest.

Such a situation could likely only have happened in the British army of the nineteenth century. As culture defines the military systems that it produces, the unique cultural institutions of Britain during the Napoleonic War and Victorian era led to unique military institutions. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to argue for a direct continuation of this officer-other ranks relationship down into the present day British army. The industrialized warfare and trenches of World War I brought a crashing end to many cherished, but outdated military ideas. The social origin and educational background of the modern British private and lieutenant are far closer than was the case in the past, and it is unlikely that enlisted soldiers view their officers as a breed apart. Attempts by the British military to instill such a view in soldiers would be grossly out of step with modern British culture; therefore, it would likely be counterproductive. Still, at the time, the mutual attitudes and views of British officers and men in the nineteenth century were culturally appropriate and militarily advantageous.
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Copyright © 2011 James A. Shaw

Written by James A. Shaw. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact James Shaw at:
jimandbeckyshaw@gmail.com.

About the author:
Coming soon.

Published online: 05/14/2011.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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