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"The Scum of the Earth"

Everyone who has read anything about the British Army is certainly familiar with Wellington's famous comment about the common soldier that forms the header of this piece. 

Well, just how true is that widely accepted truism?

A few years ago, Prof. Edward J. Coss, of the U.S. Army Command & General Staff College, set out to investigate whether Wellington's comment was in fact accurate.  Using a detailed data base of thousands of enlistments between 1790 and 1815, as well as a mass of evidence drawn from diaries, letters, and other writings, often by notable soldiers or political figures, Coss determined that Wellington's remark was highly inaccurate.

Among other things, Coss discovered that men joining the army were usually in their teens (some as young as 15) or early twenties, and not likely to have acquired the dissipated or desperado status that tradition attributes to them.  Moreover, while the largest single group were laborers or agricultural workers, more than half of all recruits had a trade, such as weavers, carpenters, smiths, tailors, shoe makers, wainwrights, and so forth -- and in fact many found appropriate work in the army, which could not have functioned without such skilled craftsmen.  Most men enlisted due to the vagaries of the business cycle or out of a desire for adventure or heeding the call of patriotism, reasons not unknown among recruits even today, rather than to escape the hangman or debtor’s prison or the fathers of outrages maidens.  

Occupation of British Army Recruits
The French Wars, 1790-1815

Laborer

40.59

Weaver

18.03

Shoemaker

5.20

Tailor

3.23

None

2.69

Smith

2.00

Carpenter

1.70

Servant

1.05

Spinner

1.05

Baker

0.87

Prof. Coss's inquiries go far beyond the occupation of the enlisted British soldier during the era of the French Wars, touching ethnic background (the Irish were overrepresented), statistical data on everything from height and weight to courts martial findings, as well as the food value of rations, career paths, and more. He also makes an interesting case that what might be termed the "Napoleonic myth," has caused many historians to let the French off the hook for their numerous atrocities, while focusing on those committed by British troops and other French enemies, such as the Spanish, Neapolitans, and Russians.

BookNote:  For those interesting in learning more, Prof. Coss' findings have been incorporated in a recent book, All for the King's Shilling: The British Soldier Under Wellington, 1808-1814 (Campaign and Commanders) (Campaigns and Commanders)

 

The Enlisted-Officer Ratio in European Armies, 1930

A look at the principal European armies of 1930 suggests that some of them were seriously over-officered, usually considered a sign of an unprofessional military establishment. In compiling this table, only active army personnel have been included, and adjustment has been made for the existence of independent air forces in some countries, while paramilitary police troops, such as border guards and national police, as well as native troops, have been excluded.

Belgium

18.3

Britain

19.3

Bulgaria

20.7

Czechoslovakia

10.9

France

13.9

Germany

22.1

Greece

12.3

Hungary

19.7

Italy

12.2

Poland

13.9

Portugal

6.4

Romania

10.7

Spain

7.6

Yugoslavia

13.8

The smallest armies generally had the worst ratios.  But this is not necessarily an indication of ineptitude.  In some armies many officers on active duty had wartime assignments with reserve units.

The Spanish Army is a good case in point, having virtually the worst ratio on the list, one officer for every 7.6 enlisted men.  In 1930, the regular army’s active duty peacetime strength was rarely more than abut 130,000 enlisted men (though on paper 180,000), plus about 19,500 active officers, of whom 5,000 were on the reserve list, while some were serving with colonial troops.  Spanish infantry regiments were similar to British regiments, that is they were institutional organizations which could have several battalions that might not ever serve together.  In 1930 each regiment had two battalions on active duty, stationed together to give colonels something to do.  There were two such paper regiments to each infantry brigade, and each brigade had a “mobilization and reserve command” on its territory, which controlled a reserve center for each of the regiments.  A regimental reserve center was an administrative headquarters, with a handful of officers and other personnel assigned.  Its principal duty was to maintain files on men with a reserve obligation.  On paper every eligible Spanish man had a three year active duty obligation plus 15 years in the reserve components (5 in the ready reserve, 6 in the regular reserve, and 4 in the territorial reserve), though reservists usually didn’t receive much refresher training.  In practice, since few conscripts were actually inducted, and most draftees were let go after six months active duty, the reserves amounted to 17 year classes of discharged personnel, plus men liable for conscription who had not served.

Mobilization procedures were simple, after recently discharged men were returned to the colors with the active battalions, each regimental reserve center generated additional battalions as needed, which would be commanded by officers transferred from the active elements, plus active army NCOs with reserve commissions, and reservists with commissions.  So a reserve center could keep generating new battalions by digging deeper into the pool, plus drawing in previously deferred men and new conscripts.  New battalions would be sent to the front without regard to attaching them the regimental headquarters.

Although the Spanish Army was extensively reorganized during the early years of the Republic (1931-1934), the reserve system remained largely unchanged.  When the Spanish Civil War broke out, in mid-1936, the Republic ended up with about two-thirds of the active army in the Peninsula, plus the smaller, but much better trained and equipped Army of Africa.  But the Nationalists ended up controlling about two-thirds of the reserve centers, and proceeded to use them, while the Republic ignored those it did retain.  As a result, the Nationalist kept raising new battalions from the available pool of reservists, which is why their units often had unusually high numbers, such as the “14th Battalion of the Zamora Regiment”  or the “20th Battalion of the San Marcial”; each battalion was composed primarily of men of about the same age, who had seen some active service several years earlier, commanded by experienced officers or specially promoted NCOs.  In contrast, the Republic chose to raise volunteer units, which were often composed of men from the same political party or union local or factory staff, who varied greatly in age and usually lacked any military experience, most of which were commanded by untrained volunteers, which had a lot to do with who won the war.

Seen in this light, the poor enlisted-to-officer ratio in the Spanish Army was not so serious a matter as it might at first have appeared.

 


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