The British soldier in the 18th & 19th centuries
The red coat was the standard battledress of the British soldier for the better part of the 18th and 19th centuries. During these long years of near-constant warfare, garment and man became synonymous and an icon of history was born; the redcoat.
From the great, 18th century power struggles of the European monarchies, through the tumult of the Age of Revolution, to the carving out of the largest empire the world has ever known, redcoats fought and died on every continent except Antarctica during these two bloody centuries and left behind a legacy as complex and controversial as it is colossal.
The battles of the Redcoat Age are almost innumerable. Among their number are some of the most famous victories in British military history; Marlborough’s overwhelming defeat of the French at Blenheim (1704), the annihilation of the Jacobite cause at Culloden (1746), Wolfe’s audacious victory at Quebec that sealed the British conquest of North America (1759), and the final destruction of Napoleon and the First French Empire at Waterloo (1815).
Alongside these triumphs are some of Britain’s greatest military disasters; Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown and the final loss of Britain’s American colonies (1781), the chaotic retreat from Kabul that saw an army destroyed all but to a man in the mountains of Afghanistan (1842), the doomed charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava (1854), and massacre of the 24th Regiment by the Zulu army at Isandlwana (1879).
Of equal significance are the myriad wars of Britain’s empire-building, the brutality and racism of which still resonate to this day; the long conquest of India from Clive’s victory at Plassey (1757) to the horrors of the 1857 Rebellion and the formation of the British Raj, the military bullying of China during the two Opium Wars (1839-42 & 1856-60), the systematic displacement and repression of Aboriginal and Maori peoples in Australia and New Zealand, and the great pillaging of Africa in the late 19th century.
The Redcoat Age gave rise to a pantheon of legendary figures. There are of course the famous commanders, variously remembered as heroes, geniuses, butchers and bunglers, but there are many of lesser rank whose stories still shine brightly; Christian Davies, the Irish woman who joined the ranks to find her missing husband and fought for years as one of Marlborough’s dragoons; the famed Napoleonic eagle hunters like Patrick Masterson and Charles Ewart; and the defenders of Rorke’s Drift like John Chard and Gonville Bromhead, honoured with the Victoria Cross and immortalised on the silver screen. These figures are exceptional, in that their names and deeds were recorded for posterity. For the vast majority of redcoats, their stories would die with them.
A redcoat’s life was a hard one, characterised by meagre pay, poor food, rudimentary medical care and brutal discipline, and poverty was a tremendous motivator to enlist in the ranks. Soldiers were generally poorly thought of by the society they served, who for the most part viewed them as a debauched, criminal class. Consequently, common soldiers received precious little recognition for their service. Destitution was a common fate for ex-soldiers, and those who died on campaign (far more likely of disease than in battle) could expect little more than an unmarked grave.
In the modern era, the image of the redcoat carries connotations of both heroism and villainy the world over. The reality though, is a far more nuanced tale; one of ordinary people who fought and died at the sharp end of history.
Bibliography for ‘Redcoat: The Audiohistory’
Robert J Allison, The American Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (2015)
Henry Steele Commanger & Richard B Morris, The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six (1958)
Gregory Fremont-Barnes, Essential Histories: The Jacobite Rebellion 1745-46 (2011)
Edward Costello, Adventures of a Soldier (1852)
Bernard Cornwell, Waterloo (2014)
Saul David, All the King’s Men (2012)
Saul David, Victoria’s Wars (2006)
Saul David, Zulu (2004)
James Falkner, Blenheim 1704 (2004)
Christopher Hibbert (ed), A Soldier of the Seventy-first (1970)*
Michael Hughes, A Plain Narrative of the Late Rebellion, &c. (1746)
Richard Holmes, Redcoat (2001)
Ian Knight, Marching to the Drums (1999)
John Knox, An Historical Journal of the Campaigns in North America (1769)
John Lewis-Stempel, The Autobiography of the British Soldier (2007)
Daniel Marston, Essential Histories: The Seven Years’ War (2001)
James L Nelson, With Fire and Sword (2011)
Stuart Reid, Culloden Moor 1746 (2002)
Stuart Reid, Quebec 1759 (2003)
John Selby (ed), The Recollections of Sergeant Morris (1967)
Dan Snow, Death Or Victory (2009)*
History of War: Book of Redcoats (2018)
Kabinettskriege blog, Marlburian Journals: John Marshall Deane at Blenheim (http://kabinettskriege.blogspot.com/2015/04/marlburian-journals-john-marshall-deane.html)
Corrections for ‘Redcoat: the audiohistory’:
These errors were not picked up on until it was too late to remove them from the recording:
The Glorious Revolution and the dethroning of James II took place in 1688, not 1689.
The 73rd Foot suffered the second heaviest casualties of any British line regiment at Waterloo, not the heaviest.
We thank our listeners for their understanding.