“All gentlemen that have a mind
to serve the queen that’s good and kind
come ‘list and enter into pay…”
The Duke of Wellington called them “The scum of the earth”. Although he on occasion added as an afterword “But what very fine fellows we have made of them…”, he was not far off the mark. They were uneducated, generally illiterate, frequently drunk, poverty-stricken, disease-ridden, itinerate looters, vagabonds and thieves. They were the redcoats and they were, for the better part of a century, the finest infantry in the world.
Richard Holmes excellent history is entitled Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket, and within its pages the redcoat has never been more vividly portrayed. How did the British Army, playing perpetual second-fiddle to the British Navy in both public respect and budget, rise to become Kipling’s legendary “thin red line”?
Holmes touches on every aspect of the life of the Redcoat from the expense of the uniforms (and the recruiters’ treachery at charging it against new recruits pay and recruitment bounties), the purchase system for buying officer’s promotion, to the weapons (the famed Brown Bess musket – .75 inch muzzle-loading flintlock musket or as Kipling termed it “out-spoken, flinty-lipped brazen-faced jade”) the redcoats typically carried.
One of the common problems in a book of this type is that for the average reader, the terminology lends itself to obscure references (particularly the endless reams of regimental names, colors etc.) that can be confusing and tiresome. To be honest, I don’t care if the 11th Foot wore buff or yellow facings and to his credit Holmes doesn’t dwell overlong on these trivialities. Instead he delves deep into how the British Army functioned in the era of Horse and Musket, the tactics and strategies it used, the sounds and experience of battle (for men of the line as well as the officers), how regimental society (at home and abroad) functioned, the unique position of wives and camp-followers, the soldier’s entertainments, food, dueling, the roles of the cavalry, gunners, surgeons, the army bureaucracy (which was notable even then for obtuse behavior. One unit, stationed in the Caribbean was scheduled to return to Britain. The administrators very kindly stopped the unit’s pay, clothing and food allowances on their scheduled departure date – six months prior to the actual departure), and the soldier’s copious appetite for alcohol and liquor.
Holmes goes to the original sources – the unvarnished, unwashed commentary of the men and officers who stood in the Line, bringing a real voice to the facelessness of the era. From the wry observations of Edward Costello, Rifleman ranker of the 95th on the practice of looting, to the irritated commentary of the Duke of Wellington disparaging British cavalry, the book covers the gamut of viewpoints on every related subject.
Well-written, well-illustrated, with clear prose and solid detail, Redcoat is, hands-down, one of the most enjoyable and readable military histories I have ever encountered on this subject area.
All ranks – CLOSE UP!
For a quick outline of the life of the Iron Duke, click here. If you are interested in a good bio on Wellington, I recommend Wellington: The Years of the Sword by Elizabeth Longford.
Looking to sign up? They can always use a little more cannon fodder…