Friday, October 11, 2013

The Local Militia Act of 1808

by Jacqui Reiter

"An army somehow or other we must have"[1]: finding men to fight Napoleon...

During the wars with revolutionary and Napoleonic France between 1793 and 1815 British political opinion on the role of a large standing army changed. The fight against a strongly militaristic power, both offensively in Europe and defensively against invasion, pointed towards the need for a steady and reliable source of manpower. After the failure of the Peace of Amiens in 1803 it was obvious to the politicians that the war might go on for a long time. A permanent solution was required to the manpower problem, but it took many years, and many abortive attempts, for that solution to be found.

For most of the period after the resumption of war in 1803 Britain fought against France bereft of allies. This left her vulnerable to invasion and there was a big scare from 1803 until 1805, and periodic nervousness from 1807 until 1810. Ireland had rebelled in 1798 and, although shackled to Britain through the Act of Union, rebelled again in 1803.

Britain needed an army that was big enough to garrison Ireland, repel any invading force, defend overseas possessions and fight in Europe, should any opportunity to intervene on the continent present itself. It was a tall order, particularly given that the politicians were reluctant to fall back on compulsory military service.

At the start of the war in 1803 Britain had about 100,000 soldiers worldwide, as well as 60,000 militia. These were impressive numbers but recruitment into the army suffered from the way the militia was raised. The militia was the closest Britain came to outright conscription and raised by ballot, but it could not serve outside Britain (even sending them to Ireland was problematic) and richer men could buy a substitute to serve in their place.

Since those substitutes were usually the kind of men who were recruited into the army, there was serious competition between the two forces. Militia drafts into the regulars had been relied on in emergencies during the 1790s, but they were deeply unpopular. Matters were not improved when the government called for a nationwide volunteering movement to defend against invasion during the summer of 1803. At its height 350,000 men responded to the call, but volunteers often served very locally, were exempt from the militia ballot and, again, took valuable manpower away from the regulars.

The first attempt to provide a permanent solution for the manpower problem was the Army of Reserve Act, passed by Henry Addington's government in July 1803. The Act provided for a total of 50,000 men to be balloted throughout the United Kingdom. The Reserve was separate from the militia and actively encouraged to recruit into the regulars. The Act was slow to implement, however, and after a year only 37,000 men had been raised.

When Pitt the Younger returned to office in 1804 he replaced the Reserve with a 'Permanent Additional Force'. Each parish was given a quota of men to raise for locally based 'second battalions' attached to the regulars. The men received a bounty if they transferred voluntarily into the regular battalion. Unfortunately the Additional Force suffered from the emphasis on a quota rather than on a ballot, and most parishes preferred to pay a fine rather than go through the expense of raising the required force. By the time of its repeal in July 1806 the Additional Force was only 24,000 strong.

Its replacement was William Windham's Training Act. Windham, Secretary of State for War in the Ministry of All the Talents, ambitiously aimed to train 200,000 balloted men in the use of arms. At the same time he planned to make the army more palatable by introducing limited service for seven years, increasing salary, and improving pension schemes for veterans and widows. The Act proved too cumbersome to implement, and only a list of men eligible for the ballot had been drawn up by the time it was repealed. It did not raise a single man.

When the Talents ministry fell in 1807, the new government under the Duke of Portland made recruitment a priority. Windham's successor at the War Office was Viscount Castlereagh, and it was he who finally cracked the problem that had been baffling his predecessors for so long.

His solution was the 1808 Local Militia Act. It was the first measure that managed to meet both temporary and future needs. The Act provided for 200,000 men to be balloted to serve four years, and a proportion of them would be encouraged to recruit to the regulars in return for a bounty. Like Windham's Training Act, Castlereagh wanted to create a trained body of men for the regulars to use as a recruiting resource.

Castlereagh's Local Militia was the culmination of the route from a combination of volunteers, militia and regulars to a centralised system closely bound to the army. Historians have fallen into the trap of taking the term 'local militia' at its face value and, given Castlereagh's reputation as a reactionary, have characterised his Act as 'a conservative riposte' to radical views (in the words of J.E. Cookson in The British Armed Nation). Castlereagh himself went to great lengths to justify his measure as traditional:

'He had … avoided every thing that appeared mighty ingenious, because he knew very well, that on all subjects, and especially on military subjects, these ingenious and complicated theories, though they might look extremely well on paper, were found to be sadly deficient when attempted to be put into practice' (Speech, 22 July 1807)

Castlereagh's words should not be taken literally, for they were a dig at the Training Act and meant to reassure those of his listeners who disagreed with it. The Local Militia was in any case not a 'militia' on the old model. Despite its local flavour its aim was to enlarge the standing army, not reduce it. Any measure which codified the use of the militia to feed the regulars was hardly conservative. Once the Local Militia had broken through the taboo against using the draft to recruit for the army the government was able to draw about ten thousand men from the 'old' militia almost every year.

The plan had some flaws, such as the tendency to draft overlarge numbers of men into the regulars in one go, but the Local Militia proved to be the flexible plan the politicians had been looking for. Short of outright conscription it was the best way of producing a pool of armed men who could be called on for a variety of purposes at home and abroad. It created a large armed force for domestic defence, and when Britain returned to the offensive in the Peninsula in 1808 it adapted well to the new circumstances.

The Local Militia Act was the most long-lived of the manpower acts of the Napoleonic Wars. It remained in force until the peace in 1814. By 1809 it was nearly 200,000 strong, and at its peak in 1812 it consisted of 240,000 men. In 1813 Britain had a force of nearly 315,000 regulars available globally, and this was in no small part thanks to Castlereagh's legislation. Britain could once again be described as a force to be reckoned with.

[1] Title quotation from a letter from Lord Grenville to the Marquis of Buckingham, 19 June 1803, Huntington Library California, Grenville MSS, f LIV-8

Jacqui Reiter has a PhD in 18th century British political history. She is currently working on her first novel, which deals with the second Earl of Chatham's troubled relationship with his brother William Pitt the Younger. She blogs at

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