Stephen Conway, The British Army 1714-1783 (Pen & Sword, 2021)
Have you ever wondered what life was like in the pre-Napoleonic British Army? If you thought it was a bleak, dreary existence under the cosh of stern discipline, then you are in for quite a surprise. In The British Army 1714-1783, Stephen Conway digs into the social world of the army to create an institutional history treating it as a living organism, which goes beyond its organization and operational function to reveal a distinct but in many ways familiar community.
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A survey of the political and social background in which the army operated leads into Conway’s survey. This was an army under civic control, with some exceptions in times of crisis. They were also disliked and feared in many parts of the British Isles, though not as universally as some suggest. Conway then fills in the army’s organizational and operational history where we find that the size of the army fluctuated in peace and war, but never came near to the establishment of mainland European powers. It also became an instrument of Empire, but despite that, argues Conway, the British Army was a European institution. With his framework constructed, Conway takes us into the social history of the army.
Conway covers the cycle of soldiering in the British Army, from recruitment to retirement, in a series of thematic chapters. He recognizes that establishing motive is a difficult task, but his management of the evidence is first-rate, as it is throughout the book. Conway next considers the army as a collection of communities, which again reflected those in Europe more or less. What life was like in the army comes under Conway’s scrutiny; officers wanted promotion, everyone wanted paid, fed, and ‘watered’ with alcohol. They also had to face death in combat and from disease. Conway muses on why soldiers took orders, and he stresses the effects of the moral economy and negotiated authority over fear-filled obedience. Civilian women in war zones had good cause to fear British soldiers, argues Conway, but women also served in important roles for the army at home and on campaign. Conway finishes appropriately with soldiers and officers leaving the service by various means, legal and illegal, and how those experiences differed along class lines.
This book on the British army in the 18th Century is quite short at 151 pages, but it touches all the bases to give a full picture of service life. Conway also adds an outstanding annotated Further Reading section for deeper study. While he takes a thematic approach to his subject, Conway rarely strays into dry and dusty territory, keeping his text flowing with clear exposition and engaging anecdotes. The result is an informative and enjoyable read, perfect for anyone interested in this period and the place of the army in it.