Military history


This second series of extracts concerns the warfare of regular armies in the age of established European states. Such armies shared a common military culture and utilized a closely similar technology. Victory or defeat in the battles they fought was accordingly the outcome of superior or inferior generalship, or logistics. The European impulse to empire nevertheless brought such armies frequently into conflict with military cultures that were not their own, particularly in India and Africa. Western military technology did not necessarily prevail in the face of peoples animated by a primordial warrior ethos.


Fugitive and Recruit 1804 — 1806

The eighteenth-century wars of empire between Britain and France had been fought not only by local settler populations and their native confederates, but by regular units recruited from the home populations and formed for the most part from agricultural labourers. William Lawrence, a Dorset boy who joined the British army in 1804, at the beginning of the War of the Third Coalition against Napoleon, the decisive passage of the Napoleonic Wars, tells a familiar story. Apprenticed to a hard taskmaster, he ran away and decided to join the army. It was a headstrong choice. While France, since the Revolution, had conscripted its young men as soldiers and made military service a civic duty, soldiering in Britain remained a despised calling. The common soldier effectively surrendered his legal rights, lost his freedom to marry, became subject to corporal punishment at his superiors’ will and was shunned by decent society. Respectable families were shamed by having a son a soldier. It is not surprising, therefore, that Lawrence’s parents tried so hard to win him back from the clutches of the recruiting sergeant. His determination to enlist all the same may be explained in a number of ways. An apprenticeship as a labourer, on skimpy wages, was a form of service little different from that of the military. The boredom of rural life in a remote West Country region was burdensome to a young man of spirit. The labourer’s smock was a less glamorous uniform than the soldier’s red coat. The recruiter’s guineas were more money than he had ever seen or could dream of possessing. Many other young Englishmen from the agricultural counties yielded, as William Lawrence did, to the enticements of the recruiting sergeant during the Napoleonic Wars. Few were, like him, literate and so able to recount their experiences. His literacy probably helped him to become a sergeant, a rank that lifted him back into respectability.

Note: The 40th Foot was the 2nd Somerset Regiment, from the county that Dorset borders.


Dorchester was only eight miles from my parents’ house, but I never seriously thought of going to them. Unable to make up my mind what to do, or where to go, I ambled through the town watching the preparations for the fair, which was to take place the next day. 1 wandered into the stable-yard of one of the principal inns and was brought to my senses when a voice sang out: ‘Hey you! What do you want?’

It was the ostler. I told him I was hungry but had no money, and was in search of employment. He said if I brushed about a bit and helped him rub down the horses, he would find me plenty to eat. I did so and, sure enough, he brought me a lump of bread and beef, enough for two or three meals. I ate as much as I wanted. Afterwards I felt tired. I made up a bed with some straw and, putting the remainder of my meal into my handkerchief to serve as a pillow, I lay down. The ostler had given me a rug and this I pulled over me. I slept soundly all night.

In the morning I did some more work in the stable, then walked out into the street with my new friend. We saw some soldiers and I said I wanted to be a soldier too. The ostler knew where he could enlist me and took me straight to the rendezvous which was a public-house. Inside was a sergeant of artillery, who gave him two guineas for bringing me and myself five for coming. My measurements were taken — which caused a lot of amusement — and I was put into an old soldier’s coat. With three or four yards of ribbon hanging from my cap, I paraded around town with the other recruits, entering almost every public-house, treating someone or other.

In the very first inn sat a Briantspuddle farmer, a man I knew well. He exclaimed in surprise at seeing me. I begged him not to tell my father and mother where I was, and how he had seen me, and hurried out. Then later in the day I encountered my father’s next-door neighbour. He recognized me immediately. I offered him the price of a gallon of ale not to say anything to my parents. He took the money and promised he wouldn’t. How I spent the rest of the night can better be imagined than described, but the next morning, I had to be sworn in at the Town Hall. I was on my way there with an officer when who should meet us but my father and mother. As soon as the neighbour had got home, he had gone and told them what I was up to. They told the officer I was an apprentice, and he gave me up to them without any trouble, but he asked me what had become of the bounty of five guineas. Discovering that I had only seventeen shillings and sixpence left, he kindly relieved me of even that. My parents marched me off home, and my father went to see a magistrate to find out what he should do about me. The magistrate advised him to take me back to Dorchester to be tried at the next sitting. This my father did and I was severely reprimanded by the bench. They gave me the choice of serving my time as an apprentice or going to prison. Of course, I chose the former, so they gave me a letter to give to Henry Bush [his employer].

When I got downstairs, the officer was there. He said that if my master was unwilling to take me back, he would enlist me again. He asked if I had any money. I didn’t, so he gave me a shilling and wished me well.

My father sent me off from Dorchester immediately, giving me strict orders to get back to Studland as quickly as I could. I received no blessing, or anything else so, with a heavy heart, I set off. I hadn’t gone far when I was overtaken by a dairy cart. The dairy-man offered me a lift and I accepted. He asked where I was going. I told him some of my story and showed him the letter, getting him to open it so that I could find out what was inside. He said my master would not be able to hurt me, that it was safe to go back to Studland. That was cheering, but I didn’t intend to go back anyway.

I rode with the man as far as he went, then continued on foot to a village called Winfrith. Being hungry I went into a public-house and ordered some bread and cheese. A soldier was there and the sight of him revived my spirit, and my longing to be like him. I got into conversation with him and discovered that he was on furlough, bound for Bridport. I said I wanted to be a soldier too. Straight away he said that he could enlist me in the 40th Regiment of Foot which gave 16 guineas bounty. It sounded a great deal of money. I thought that if I got hold of it I would not want for money for a long time, so I accepted his proposal without hesitation.

We headed for Bridport but, afraid of finding myself in Dorchester again, I tried to persuade the soldier to go around it. He wouldn’t but we slipped through at night, safely reaching Winterborne, where we put up.

Next morning we got the coach to Bridport and when we arrived, the coachman surprised me by remarking that it was only yesterday that my father had got me out of the artillery! He meant well but, of course, the soldier then asked me if I was an apprentice and I had no choice but to admit I was. He promptly made me get down. He took me across some fields to his home and there kept me quietly for three days.

As the barracks of the 40th Regiment were in Taunton, Somersetshire, it was there we thought it best to go. We went to see the colonel and the soldier told him that I was a recruit. The colonel asked me what trade I was in.

‘I’m a labourer,’ I replied.

‘Labourers make the best soldiers,’ he said and offered me a bounty of 2½ guineas, which was considerably less than the sixteen we had been expecting so we decided to try the Marines. Their recruiting sergeant promised us 16 guineas bounty when I arrived at their Plymouth headquarters but this did not suit my conductor because, after paying the coach expenses, there would have been nothing left over for him. He asked me what I intended to do, advising me to go back to my master, and forget about the expense he had gone to for me. But I had destroyed the letter so I told him I preferred the 40th Regiment. We went back to the colonel, he gave my companion 2 guineas, and I was sent into barracks.

Next day I received my clothes, and about a week later was sworn in before a magistrate, receiving my bounty at the same time. I was very mistaken about the money lasting.

Shortly afterwards orders came for the regiment to march to Winchester. There we remained for about a month. I had begun to drill twice a day. I soon learnt the foot drill and was then put on musketry drill.

After Winchester, we moved to Portsmouth. We were there a week before being ordered into barracks at Bexhill in Sussex. Our ist Battalion was there and, in order to make it 1,000 strong, a number of men were drafted into it from our Battalion — the 2nd. I was one of them. Soon orders came for us to go to Portsmouth; we were about to embark on foreign service.

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