By Jonathan Hopkins
In the 18th and 19th centuries Britain’s standing army was made up entirely of ‘volunteers’. They weren’t forced into joining the military or obliged to serve by statute as in many European countries. While officers mostly purchased their commissions from the Crown, the rank and file were recruited from local militia groups, Yeomanry and fencibles, from amongst prisoners, and from within the general population.
Joining the army of the time was not seen as the good career move it often is today. In peacetime soldiery was considered by the public as a rabble - gangs of uncouth, unprofessional troublemakers, regularly used by government to police instances of public disorder with unnecessary violence. Women who married soldiers were pitied as fools, not surprising since those whose husbands were sent to serve abroad would be often left destitute unless they had another source of income.
It is difficult to see what, bar a sense of adventure, encouraged young men to enlist. Perhaps they believed, after the hardships of farm or factory, the army could not be worse.
And there was the bounty, of course: that purse beloved of recruiting sergeants; the ‘forty shillings on the drum’ of the song. That actually refers to ‘attestation’money, the amount a recruit received on first signing up, which amounted to two pounds two shillings (forty-two shillings, or two guineas).
Bounty paid to an infantry recruit - £16 16s 0d
Bounty paid to a cavalry recruit - £13 8s 0d
This was probably more money than most men had ever seen in their lives! But, of course, it was a pike to catch a minnow: in reality a fresh recruit rarely saw any of it. What wasn’t drunk away in the short-lived euphoria of a new life was retained by the army to pay for the soldier’s board and lodging until he was fully signed up and approved, which also meant paying for a doctor to examine him to confirm he was ‘fit to serve’, and for a magistrate to co-sign his papers.
And his necessaries: those items of kit Army Regulations deemed the man should supply himself. Things the Commander-in-Chief at Horseguards, and thus the government, refused to provide from the public purse. Initial cost of these worked out at £2 14s 0d for an infantryman and a whopping £3 15s 0d for a new dragoon - he had to buy equipment for his horse, too!
Infantryman - shirt (4), shoes (2 pairs), stockings (2 pairs), gaiters/leggings, stock and clasp, pack, greatcoat strap set, brushes and blackball, combs (2), sundries.
Cavalryman - Breeches and slings (braces), stable jacket, stable trousers, forage cap, shirt (3), shoes (2 pairs), night cap, stockings (3 pairs), gaiters, stock and clasp, shoe clasp, shoe brush (3), comb (2), razor and soap, clothes brush. PLUS nose bag, watering bridle and log, worm & picker, mane comb, sponge, hoof pick, scissors, emery oil, pipeclay, blacking, powder bag and powder, carbine-lock case, saddlebag/valise.
Army pay was certainly not particular attractive in itself. Private infantrymen received 1 shilling (£0 1s 0d) a day, which doesn’t sound too bad until you consider a skilled loom operator could earn three times that for a week’s work. Though to be fair, a farm labourer probably earned less than £10 a year. A light dragoon earned (gasp!) 1s 3d (one-and-thruppence) a day, one reason the cavalry had less trouble attracting recruits than regiments of foot.
Problem was that the soldier suffered deductions from this amount to pay for food, accommodation and any items of equipment which needed replacing before their due date. Everything had a standard lifetime in the army, except the men. And because a dragoon’s necessaries covered his horse’s essentials as well as his own, his deductions were proportionally higher. So cavalrymen were probably worse off in the long run.
Example of Equipment Lifetimes
Hat 1 year
Gloves 1 year
Coat 2 years
Boots (Infantry) 2 years
Boots (Cavalry) 6 years
Bridle 12 years
Saddle 16 years
Ammunition pouch 20 years
In fact a dragoon might be much worse off. Stationed in some foreign country, if your horse galloped off, together with all the equipment strapped to it, unless you could persuade your commanding officer the animal was lost ‘through the actions of the enemy’ you might be forced to cover its cost. With a replacement animal alone costing £35 (two years pay, before deductions) woe betide the man who was bucked off if he could not catch his mount.
There was one bright spot in all this financial gloom, though – inflation was non-existent. The cost of horses, for example, remained the same from Wellington’s day until the beginning of the First World War. In an 1810 despatch (The Dispatches of Field Marshal the Duke of Wellington by Gurwood Vol 6 p 578) he suggests the army pay 35 guineas for horses 'suitable for immediate service' either purchased in Britain or imported from the US, and in 1914 the army were still paying £30-£40 for cavalry mounts and light draught horses.
So it may come as little surprise that in 1914 an infantry private was still being paid - a shilling a day.
Though the army did supply his boots!
Figures quoted in this article come from ‘The British Army Against Napoleon’ by Robert Burnham and Ron McGuigan, originally sourced from Thomas Reide’s ‘A Treatise on Military Finance’ (1805)