Book review: All for the King’s Shilling, The British Soldier Under Wellington, 1808-1814

Author(s) : ZAKHARIS Thomas
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The expression “scum of the earth” uttered by Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, has become etched in history as a great commander’s miserable opinion of his men. In a letter to Henry, Third Earl Bathurst, from Huarte Spain, on 2 July, 1813, Wellington wrote, “we have in the service the scum of the Earth as common soldiers.”

His opinion did not change with time. Nearly twenty years later, on 4 November, 1831, he declared in a conversation with Philip Henry, Fifth Earl Stanhope, “I don’t mean to say that there is no difference in the composition or therefore the feeling of the French army and ours. The French system of conscription brings together a fair sample of all classes; ours is composed of the scum of the Earth—the mere scum of the Earth. It is only wonderful that we should be able to make so much out of them afterward. The English soldiers are fellows who have enlisted for drink—that is the plain fact—they have all enlisted for drink.”

In his new addition to the University of Oklahoma Press’ Campaigns and Commanders series, All for the King’s Shilling, Edward J. Coss, assistant professor of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Belvoir, Virginia, tries to bring to light the soldier’s real motives for enlisting in the British army in the 19th century, as well as the real reason that Wellington’s “scum of the earth” won so many victories against the Imperial French army. In the process of researching fourteen British line regiments, four cavalry regiments, and the Artillery Corps in the National Archives at Kew (formerly called the Public Record Office) outside London, Coss found that the majority of their personnel were laborers, drafted because they could not find any work in the cities. A great rise in the British population, combined with the increasing use of machines in industrial production left many workers facing prospects of starvation. For many, the only alternative was to enlist in one of the king’s regiments. Of those unemployed enlistees, 48 percent were of Irish origin.

The regular army had a bad reputation in Britain at that time and Coss makes clear how bad conditions were for the common soldier. Exhausted from continuous marches, short on food and supplies, with wages always delayed by the government, the British soldier was compelled to survive by plundering the local populations of Portugal and Spain. Although Wellington criticised those who opposed flogging as a method of punishment—in his mind, the only way to keep discipline—he was well aware of why his troops resorted to looting. In a series of letters he demanded a proper supply system for the army and complained that the government seemed to care less about the fate of his soldiers and their families than it did for the families of those serving in the home militia. Wellington himself sometimes permitted his soldiers to loot, as happened in the second siege of Badajoz, rationalizing, “I believed it has always been understood that the defenders of a fortress stormed have no claim to quarter.” During the plundering that followed the fall of Badajoz, Wellington recalled one drunken soldier, “heavily laden with plunder,” telling him, “We poor Fellows, fights hard and gets nothing,” to which the general said nothing in reply.

Coss believes that the common British soldiers, underfed, sometimes barefoot, neglected by their country, could only survive by supporting each other. Sleeping in groups of six to fend off the cold at night developed a tight cohesion among the men. If someone in the group wronged one of his comrades the grave penalty was ostracism. As Coss writes, the British rank and file may have earned their daily shilling from the king, but they fought for each other. In spite of the Royal Navy’s great victory of Trafalgar in 1805, it is quite possible that Napoleon would have ultimately victorious had it not been for Wellington’s “scum”. Combining a brilliant commander with the comradeship that developed among the redcoats, the British regular army prevailed, one by one, over the best of Napoleon’s marshals and finally over the Emperor himself in Waterloo.

All for the King’s Shilling restores the reputation of those professional soldiers whose valor helped make 19th century Britain a great power. Coss’ book is sure to satisfy all Napoleonic enthusiasts as well as scholars of military history.

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