Soldiers as workers: working-class life and conflict in the British army of the nineteenth century

Far from being ‘ruffians officered by gentlemen’, the British army of the nineteenth century was made up of a typical cross-section of working-class men whose military lives mirrored those of the civilian working class, says Nick Mansfield, author of Soldiers as Workers – Class, Employment, Conflict and the Nineteenth-Century Military.

As a labour historian, I have always retained a slightly odd interest in military history. When I was young I avidly read books on battles and campaigns, the type that can be found today in vast numbers on the shelves of any High Street Waterstones. Later, when first studying early nineteenth century labour history, I was surprised to find how many leaders and activists were ex-servicemen of the Napoleonic Wars. This was perhaps not surprising, as mass mobilisation and loss of life then was comparatively greater than that of the First World War. Thinking that it might be a good subject for a future short article, I began to collect material from books, memoirs and archives relating to soldiers’ lives. Now, a generation later, this topic has grown into two books on the relationship between the British working class and the army. The first, Soldiers as Workers, is now released as a paperback. It was originally meant to be an introduction to a book on ‘military radicals’. However, I got so interested in the untold story of what this occupational group did all day and what value could be added by using labour history methodologies to reveal new meanings, that Soldiers as Workers became a standalone book.

The first chapter outlines how class is the single most important factor in understanding the British army in the period of industrialisation. It challenges the ‘ruffians officered by gentlemen’ theory of most military histories. It demonstrates how service in the ranks was not confined to ‘the scum of the earth’ but included a cross section of ‘respectable’ working class men. Though Britain’s conscription was not on the same scale as that of other nations, there was certainly a large element of compulsion.

Shoemakers from the King’s Own Regiment set up shop. Click for larger image.

Chapter 2 analyses the class structure of the British army, a mirror of society at large within the industrialising nineteenth century. Common soldiers represent a huge unstudied occupational group, working as artisans, servants and dealers, displaying pre-enlistment working class attitudes and culture and evidencing low level class conflict in numerous ways. Soldiers continued as members of the working class after discharge, with military service forming one phase of their careers and overall life experience.

After training, most common soldiers had time on their hands. Campaigns and battles were very rare. Instead, they were allowed to work at a wide variety of jobs, analysed for the first time in in Chapter 3 in 28 detailed sections. Many serving soldiers continued to work as regimental tradesmen, or skilled artificers. Others worked as officers’ servants or were allowed to run small businesses, providing goods and services to their comrades. Some, especially among the Non-Commissioned Officers who actually ran the army, forged extraordinary careers which surpassed any opportunities in civilian life. All the soldiers studied retained much of their working-class way of life. This was often evidenced in a contract culture similar to that of the civilian trade unions.

Chapter 4 explores the often hidden and low-level hidden class conflict which soldiers demonstrated even in the highly disciplined context of the nineteenth century British army. Within boundaries, army life resulted in all sorts of tensions. These are explored through accounts of drinking, desertion, feigned illness, self harm, strikes and go-slows. It further describes mutinies, back chat, looting, fraternisation, taking foreign service, suicide and even the shooting of unpopular officers.

I was uncertain how the book might be received by military historians, especially the ‘drum and trumpet’ brigade. Having dipped my toe into a few military history conferences in the last few years though, I was pleased to discover a cohort of receptive military historians, including younger cultural historians whose ideas reflected my own. Far from hostility, Soldiers as Workers has been greeted with positive reviews, especially from military journals.

Military historians have also supplied me with useful accounts from their own researches. These have confirmed my basic thesis and I was able to use in the next stage of my work. Soldiers as Workers was joined by its partner volume Soldiers as Citizens – Popular Politics and the Nineteenth-Century British Military in 2019. This honoured the life experiences of Napoleonic Wars veterans who became radicals and their many successors in the British army who had a healthy interest in working class politics. Taken together, the books provide a heretofore missing labour history of nineteenth century rank and file soldiers. 

Nick Mansfield is Professor of History at the University of Central Lancashire. He is currently co-writing a book on a visual and cultural history of nineteenth century labour, building on years of working in museums, including 21 at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. He is the author of Soldiers as Workers – Class, Employment, Conflict and the Nineteenth-Century Military, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (2016) – now available in paperback.

Low-level class conflicts could lead to tensions that played out in drinking, desertion, strikes, self-harm and even suicide.