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Recruiting in Great Britain

Recruiting in Great Britain

RECRUITING IN GREAT BRITAIN. At the time of the American Revolution, the strength of the British army was augmented in various ways. The most important, because it produced the majority of recruits, was the voluntary enlistment of individuals. The War Office issued to an existing regiment a set of "beating orders," whereupon the regiment would send out recruiting parties, usually an officer, several noncommissioned officers, and a drummer, who beat his drum to attract a crowd that the officer would then harangue in hopes of persuading eligible men "to take the king's shilling," as enlistment was colloquially known. A recruit had to be a Protestant, free from rupture and fits, "in no way troubled by lameness … but have the perfect use of his limbs," and not be a runaway apprentice or a militia man (Houlding, p. 117n). In times of high manpower demand, substantial bounties and a reduced time of service (during the war, rather than for life) might be offered. In peace-time, coercion was used to force into military service some of those who had run afoul of the law, but its principal use was to enable justices of the peace and constables to compel the unemployed (the "idle and disorderly") into the ranks (ibid., p. 118). Wartime shortages frequently led to the enactment of a Press Act (as in 1778–1779), the principal purpose of which was "never simply to take up the rogues, vagabonds, and others socially undesirable but rather pour encourager les autres—to drive others to volunteer for fear of being pressed" (ibid., p. 118). (Volunteers had the choice of which regiment they would join, at least initially, while draftees had none.)

The process of recruiting individuals led to a slow growth in the number of men under arms. Military service was not popular most of the time, even less so when the opponents were colonial Americans. Soldier pay was low (eight pence a day for a private), discipline could be brutal, living conditions could be miserable, and life aboard a transport bound for overseas service could be extremely taxing. Ireland, normally a good recruiting area, was enjoying a rare prosperity and thus was a source of fewer recruits than in prior years. Individual recruiting, however, did have the advantage of introducing individuals into an existing structure and tradition of training and discipline. George III insisted that the army be recruited this way at the start of the War for American Independence, both to preserve the old corps and to safeguard the value of the commissions of officers in those regiments against an influx of officers from newly raised corps.

The alternative to individual recruitment was a throwback to the days when colonels owned the regiments they raised and acted as a subcontractor by, in effect, renting their regiment to the army. The crown would contract with a distinguished officer or prominent civilian to raise a regiment as an entirety, giving him beating orders and bounty money for each recruit, and the right to sub-subcontract to company officers who were confirmed in their rank only when they had recruited a specified number of soldiers. This process, called "raising for rank," was employed only once early in the war, to create the hard-fighting Seventy-first Regiment of Foot (Fraser's Highlanders), but it became more common after 1778, when the need for complete regiments outweighed the king's scruples. Burgoyne's surrender and the entry of France into the war spurred voluntary mobilization in Britain; thirty-one regiments of foot were formed between 1778 and 1781, many of them in Scotland and most for domestic service.

The quickest way of augmenting the British army also had traditional roots: hiring complete regiments of well-trained professional soldiers from various German principalities. Only by hiring German auxiliaries was Britain able to send Major General William Howe's enormous expeditionary force against New York City in 1776. This heavy reliance on German troops diminished after 1778, when France entered the war. By 1781, only 9 percent of British army expenditures was used to hire Germans, compared with 24 percent in 1760, at the height of the Seven Years' War. According to Stephen Conway, "The Germans had become proportionately less important because more Britons and Irishmen than ever before went into uniform, and significant numbers of these British and Irish soldiers, sailors, marines, militiamen, and volunteers came from social and occupational backgrounds not normally associated with eighteenth-century military or naval service" (p. 13).

British regiments serving in America also recruited locally among Loyalists and even accepted American deserters into their ranks. Approximately 250 of these deserters were evacuated from Yorktown on the Bonetta before Cornwallis's surrender.

SEE ALSO German Auxiliaries.


Conway, Stephen. The British Isles and the War of American Independence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Curtis, Edward E. The Organization of the British Army in the American Revolution. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1926.

Darling, Anthony D. Red Coat and Brown Bess. Ottawa: Museum Restoration Service, 1970.

Houlding, J. A. Fit for Service: The Training of the British Army, 1715–1795. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Katcher, Philip R. N. Encyclopedia of British, Provincial, and German Army Units, 1775–1783. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1973.

                                revised by Harold E. Selesky

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