Gentlemen Volunteers

by Wholesome Rage | 14 June 2019

The Napoleonic era was an interesting period of warfare, to say the least.

A lot of the drilling revolved around morale. In line warfare, soldiers would line up in front of each other shoulder-to-shoulder, no more than 100 paces from each other, and fire. Maybe one in 200 shots would actually hit anything, because they weren’t trained in aiming. Just in reloading as fast as possible, and operating in synchronicity with allies.

Everything was designed to make sure nobody would run away, stick together. Battles were mostly won and lost on whose morale broke first - which is saying a lot. Facing a firing squad, cannons and cavalry is terrifying.

This is why gentleman volunteers are such a weird concept. They were noblemen, the landed aristocracy, who paid their own way to a battlefield, and bought dinner for a general where they asked him very nicely for command of a unit. Then, he’d probably assign them one.

This meant that hundreds of men were often led by rich people who just showed up and asked nicely for it. And when I say hundreds of men, I mean that a single gentleman volunteer was often put in charge of an entire company of men. Gentleman volunteers were effectively promoted directly to the rank of lieutenant in everything but name, and were able to be promoted through the officer ranks officially as they got battlefield experience.

And the weird thing is, the men preferred it that way.

When I first read this, I wrote it off as the nobility pulling connections and doing it for themselves. But contemporary accounts, like letters home from soldiers, made it clear that they respected the aristocracy as leaders more than lower-class veterans, who’d rarely make it above Sergeant.

Everyone kind of believed they were entirely different species, and the upper class were just better.

In the Peninsula war, as the Duke of Wellington fought Napoleon out of Spain in the years leading up to the Battle of Waterloo, we have one illuminating case in a field hospital working out of a barn. A wounded gentleman lay on the floor, and a dying soldier on a straw bed. The dying soldier traded places with him, because it was believed that the more refined, more delicate gentlemen had a greater capacity for suffering.

The soldier wouldn’t survive the night.

But what does his death mean? It means that the belief was sincere: There’s very little in the way of bribes or threats you can offer a dying man.

So what justified this mythos? It’s not like saying; “This is a tiger repelling rock. You’ve never seen a tiger, so it must work!”

These soldiers would have had daily interactions with the nobility. They were their commanding officers. They were who they preferred to lead them, even in matters of literal life and death.

Honestly, I think it’s because the nobility had access to education, and the common soldiers didn’t. Even among the soldiers who were literate - which might not even have been most of them - they would not have had access to books.

Books are expensive, valuable and delicate. Beyond knowing a basic trade, most workers couldn’t really justify the expense. Back then, factory workers would often pool money to hire someone to read them newspapers while they worked their long shifts, so the benefits of literacy were collectivized.

The Battle of Waterloo predates the first English free public library by nearly 50 years.

So consider how this looked. In the world there were two kinds of people: The rich, who dressed in fine clothes, who could speak several languages, read latin, knew a wealth of history, mathematics, poetry, knew what was going on the other side of the world. This meant, too, they had access to books on tactics and military history. But they couldn’t figure out basic trades, like carpentry or blacksmithing, to save their life.

On the other hand, the vast majority of citizens found the trades to be routine work, but probably had to learn literacy as adults, when it’s much harder to learn.

This wasn’t true everywhere, though.

On the other side of the battlefield, Napoleon’s army was led by the working class who’d risen through the ranks, and managed to take over all of Europe in a few short years under his superior generals.

France had its revolution for liberty, equality and fraternity - and a national public library since 1692. In fact, the French public library was not only unharmed by the revolution, but was flooded with works seized from the private libraries of its nobility, and later by Napoleon himself during his conquests, trying to ensure that a copy of every book would be available to the French citizens.

Meanwhile in England, as late as the 1800s, men named Thomas Mitchell – who found out he was kind of related to a baron already serving – and John FitzMaurice – who had been recommended to Wellington by an Irish judge – were made officers of the Duke of Wellington’s rifle regiments, his core of elite light infantry, after only minimal experience in the field, because the nobility were seen as the only ones qualified to be leaders of men.

Ultimately, France lost the war, but England’s problem of only letting the wealthy be educated - and thus, the only ones qualified to lead, regardless of what they were educated in - has been immortalized in a very British way. To acknowledge the catastrophic waste of life that was their imperial folly, we wre given escathing musical theatre.

We all remember the first bit. But it’s burying the lede:

When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin, When such affairs as sorties and surprises I’m more wary at, And when I know precisely what is meant by “commissariat”, When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery, When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery – In short, when I’ve a smattering of elemental strategy – (bothered for a rhyme) You’ll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee.e For my military knowledge, though I’m plucky and adventury, Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century; But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral, I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

The self-reinforcing effects of this kind of command structure meant that light infantry doctrine was entirely forgotten after the Napoleonic war. A return to line infantry and trench warfare would be complete by the 1850s, emphasizing that the lower classes were such unruly scum that it was the only way to make any individual private have value.

It wouldn’t be until the First World War that the implications of this could no longer be ignored.

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