Wednesday, September 28, 2011

THE VICTORIAN SOLDIER

The following post was kindly written by Elizabeth Marshall for this blog. She temporarily posted it on Goodreads, where it went viral. She received many comments from people everywhere. I'm pleased to publish it again.
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In memory of Private James Stafford DCM
9260, 4th Bn., The King’s Liverpool Regiment transf. To (Lce. Cpl. 405902), Labour Corps who died aged 44 on 17th October 1918.
Cousin of Mrs. A. Brough of 1 Grape St. Macclesfield.
Awarded Cross of St. George 4th Class (Russia).

The great British Empire, stretching, at times from the American colonies and Canada to Australia and New Zealand, India, and to massive areas of Africa, including South Africa, Egypt, and Rhodesia (Zambia and Zimbabwe), is what created the seemingly endless need for Victorian soldiers.

The establishment of colonies, the protection of trading posts and the fight against rivals such as the Dutch and Spanish fuelled the need for continued growth in numbers of men to serve their country.


By 1914 Britain ruled an empire that covered nearly a quarter of the World's land surface.

Living conditions at home were for most challenging. Millions were classified by economists as the ‘doomed class’, one-sixth of people received some form of welfare assistance and for most this was a deprived and degrading experience.

New laws in 1834 legislated that every citizen had a right to welfare. However this welfare was not the all encompassing woollen blanket that would save the majority of the population from their mostly miserable, short and difficult lives. Dickens’ highlighted the dire conditions of this ‘doomed class’; in his novel ‘Oliver Twist’ and explored the previously hidden reality of life for those in receipt of welfare.


Through loss of liberty and deep social humiliation the workhouses became poorhouses, housing mainly those unable to work. Those able to work were likely to attempt to do so, however, jobs were scare and competition for them was fierce. For many men, a life in Queen Victoria’s army was their only way to avoid starvation and deprivation. But life as a soldier of Queen Victoria’s army was not an easy one either and effectively, enlistment was for life - however short that may be.

British soldiers were brave and tough men often recruited from backgrounds where violence and survival had gone hand in hand, because of this, they were distrusted by ‘upper class’ civilians and classified as ‘a bad lot’, but accepted as marginally more acceptable than those who inhabited the workhouses.

Pay was minimal, living conditions often draughty and scant and soldier’s lives dangerous and mostly short. What they did have however was personal pride, dignity and a community of friends with whom they trusted their lives.

Few soldiers were allowed to marry and those who did shared barracks with the unmarried soldiers. A linen sheet or blanket was strung over a line in the barracks to provide minimal privacy for married couples and children. Not all wives and children were allowed to follow their husbands to their posts and many families were permanently split when Queen Victoria’s soldiers were deployed overseas to expand or defend the Empire.

The prosperity and economic growth that upper class Britain experienced during the reign of Queen Victoria was as a direct result of the Victorian army. Sadly the men who fought and died for this prosperity benefited little themselves. The under classes in Britain remained and the gap between the upper and lower classes widened. Many soldiers of Queen Victoria’s army went on to serve Britain in the First World War.

My own great grandfather was one of them. Having already served his time and survived as a Victorian solider he re-enlisted in the army in his early forty’s to fight the First World War. Sadly the records of his service time prior to the First World War were destroyed in a Second World War bombing raid on London, however I do have full copies of his original First World War records along with the citation report of his ‘Distinguished Conduct Medal’, which he was awarded:- ‘for conspicuous bravery; he was wounded after volunteering for patrol and sniping duties. He also displayed great coolness and gallantry in carrying messages to and from the trenches when the telephone had been cut: Further to this, he was awarded the Cross of St. George 4th Class (Russia). Sadly, after a lifetime of service he died on the 17th October 1918 from war wounds, aged only 44 and never having been permitted to marry the mother of his son.


Photo courtesy of WyrdLight.com 
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Please visit Elizabeth Marshall's Website.
Her book, When Fate Dictates, is available on Amazon (UK) and Amazon (US).

9 comments:

  1. Interesting article, thanks Elizabeth. Sad how little these men were valued.

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  2. I especially like the article because of the talk about classlines and who the soldiers were. As a piece of writing, the article flows. Thank you for sharing this.

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  3. Your article is very touching, Elizabeth. Thank you so much for such a thoughtful piece. The Empire was paid for in human lives.

    The graveyard pictured is at Dryburgh Abbey, near the Scottish border.

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  4. Interesting post. Especially intriguing is the story of your great grandfather, James Stafford. He was obviously one tough man going back into the army in his forties and enduring the hellish conditions on the western front. Sad and touching that he never married his love. There's a story in there, of course! How did he manage to win a medal from the Russian government?

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  5. I watched Young Victoria the other day and know how dire the common man's situation was!!! Great article!

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  6. Insightful! I have read the story of men in Wellington's Army and I guess I thought it improved some after that (think again). Thanks for compiling the information and the personal touch about your ancestor- poor man!

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  7. Thanks to Elizabeth Marshall for sharing this insightful article into the life of the Victorian soldier--particularly the personal insights into her own great grandfather's life as a British soldier.

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  8. I really enjoyed reading this. At that time wars were considered as things to be done in order to prove a country or, in this case, an Empire was the best, most powerful, or something like that. Nobody used to think of the lost lives, of the promising and talented young men who died in both WWs... Thanks, Elizabeth, for sharing this moving piece with all of us. It gave me food for thought, since I know people who belong to the Army.

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  9. A thoughtful, and thought-provoking post! Most interesting, and very moving...

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