Taking the King’s Shilling; The Recruitment & Composition of the British Regiment of Foot

The average strength of an infantry regiment on the English establishment was 477, consisting of one battalion divided into ten companies, one of which was a grenadier company, and another a light infantry company. When introduced at the end of the previous century, the role of the grenadiers had been to hurl hand grenades at the enemy from close range, a task calling for a strong physique. By 1775 the grenades had disappeared but the grenadiers remained. The Light Infantry had been tried out in North America during the French and indian wars and were introduced throughout the army in 1771. Good marksmen, of light build and active temperament were chosen for this service, providing each regiment with its own corps of skirmishers. The Grenadiers and Light Company together represented the elite of the regiment. A fact which set them apart from their less- gifted comrades in the so-called hat companies which formed the centre of most regiments of foot.

Clearly there was a need for large numbers of relatively young and fit men to fill the swollen ranks of the army’s ninety five regiments of foot. This number would often increase during time of war as local associations would form to raise local companies of volunteers to serve either as a local defence force, or overseas. It is interesting to note that when the British forces under the command of Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in October of 1781, among the regiments that laid down their arms and marched into internment were, the 80th Regiment of Foot (Royal Edinburgh Volunteers) and the 76th Regiment of Foot (McDonnell’s Highlanders), both of which were raised in the years 1777 and 1778 to meet the need for recruits. What is further significant is that both of these Scottish regiments could trace their founding to money and recruits paid for by local committees.

Most recruits to these newly raised companies or drafts were young men, frequently teenagers and almost all unmarried, at least at the time of their enlistment.

 The few surviving testimonies we have from those who joined at this time gave express reasons for their recruitment. What is clear is that the surges in recruitment, especially in 1777 and 1778 in particular did so out of an economic need. Whatever its disadvantages, the army would at least promise a relatively secure source of food, shelter and clothing. Though many recruiting parties, particularly those in operation in the South Westwould use economic-lulls to their advantage. It is still believed that country fairs or post-harvest represented the best grounds for recruiting. This is probably on account of 85-95% of Britain’s population working in agricultural industries in the 1770s. 

It is clear then that many actively sought out the various recruiting parties that made their way around the country, attending country fairs and markets throughout the year. The link between agriculture and military recruitment is an established one during this period. This is demonstrated by a series of plays and folk songs that commented on the recruiting parties activities. One of which was used extensively by the 42nd Regiment of Foot:

“It’s in by the barn and it’s out by the byre,
This auld farmer thinks you’ll never tire,
It’s a slavery job, o’low degree,
So ‘list my bonnie laddie and come along wi’ me.”

Of course songs like this represent another facet of military recruitment during the 18th century. Looking through the various compiled lists of those who entered military service at the time it is clear that not all appeared to see army life as an escape from tireless labouring in the fields of Wiltshire and Somerset. The appeal of military glory is often cited as a key proponent behind which individuals were brought into the service of the king. Many recruiting parties would often consist of several musicians from the regiment as well as a veteran sergeant. Their primary function was to capture the imagination of idealistic young men with stories and music that talked of glory and prestige. An example of this pageantry is recorded by Major Boyle Roche in Ireland in August 1775:

“Major Roche, bearing a large Purse of Gold,
Captain Cowley
A great number of recruits
An elegant Band of Music, consisting of French
Horns, Hautboys, Clarionets, and Bassoons,
Playing ‘God Save the King’
A large Brewers Dray with five Barrels of Beer, the
Horse richly caparisoned and ornamented with ribbons,
Two Draymen with cockades, to serve the Beer,
The Recruiting Serjeant,
Drums and Fifes,
Another division of Recruits,
The Recruiting Soldiers,
A prodigious concourse of Spectators.”

An account such as this one is not a too uncommon record of the attempts by various recruiting parties to gather in as many able bodied men as possible. Naturally there were some barriers to those wishing to join. While the recruit was swearing his oath of allegiance to the Crown before a local magistrate, he would have to declare that he was Protestant. The issue of religion in the British Army was amended when Lord Rawdon in 1777 formed a loyalist regiment given the title Volunteers of Ireland, the majority of the units strength was made up of Catholic-Irish settlers from Pennsylvania. The Volunteers of Ireland would later in 1778, be added onto the British military establishment as the 105th Regiment of Foot. In addition to religious conviction a man was expected to stand no shorter than five foot six inches tall and be in possession of at least two teeth. Many recruits are known to have signed three year enlistments, this was the usual minimum service for any soldier in the British army, though in 1779 when the need for recruits became ever more pressing, the government under Lord North, passed an amendment to earlier legislation that began introducing five year enlistments for petty criminals who would rather serve than go to prison.

What is significant to note is that while the war of independence escalated into a global conflict, there was a parallel increase in willing recruits for the army. 1,463 volunteers were mustered in the Southern counties of Britain alone in 1778. The same year that France formally declared their support for the rebel cause.  This is reflected in a national surge in recruitment that led to the formation of twelve new regiments in the same year. The British Army by 1779 stood at 110,000 men, a great deal of this was down to the efforts of the recruiting parties.

While our society may not muster as many numbers as his majesty boasted in 1780, we still continue to use glory, pageantry and an abundance of ale to bring new faces into our close circle of comrades. Military recruitment is often an overlooked aspect of military history and its study has enabled our society members to gain a more human insight into the lives of the men we aim to bring to life.   


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