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Volunteering for War & the Changing Image of the Soldier: A Look at the British Soldier at the Turn of the 20th Century

John is a historian and researcher interested in the relation between war and society.

British Volunteer recruits in London, August 1914, joining up for the army headed to the front in World War I.

British Volunteer recruits in London, August 1914, joining up for the army headed to the front in World War I.

“Now we're roused we've buckled on our swords

We've done with diplomatic lingo

We'll do deeds to follow on our words

We'll show them something more than 'jingo'

And though Old England’s laws do not her sons compel

To military duties do

We'll play them at their game - and show them all the same

An Englishman can be a soldier too

An Englishman can be a soldier too

So when we say that England's master

Remember who has made her so.”

— Chorus from “The Soldiers of the Queen” – by Leslie Stuart


The history of the public's attitude toward the army is paradoxical. In previous centuries in Britain, the civilian response to the military often depended upon context and contemporary concerns, such as the threat of invasion.

During peacetime civilians often neglected, even ignored the military or complained that it was a wasteful or at best fiscally mishandled expense. Ian Beckett, however, has noted how the popularity of regional militia movements projected the auxiliaries as not only cheaper than the regulars, but more likely to instil the country at large with a repository of military knowledge.[1]

Despite the rise of militarism, the army remained unpopular, yet during time of war, many of these same people gave their support to the military.[2] The militarism of late nineteenth century Britain was not only an affair of unprecedented adulation for Britain’s military ranks, but also civilian imitation of military organization, discipline and paraphernalia, and in the diffusion of military sentiments and popular literature.[3] Any increased interest in and respect for the army did little to remove the deeply entrenched antipathy towards serving. This was visible across many segments of society, even, and perhaps especially, amongst the working-classes.

Anything but the army

Analysis of the social base of the military ranks in this era to 1914 shows an unwillingness of this group to enlist.[4] Low pay, poor conditions, the difficulty in finding work following military service, hostility to the traditional recruiting methods, and the army’s long history as agents of political repression formed the rational and emotive arguments against military service.[5] As Edward Spiers has cited, the separate and distinct ‘apartness’ of military culture from that of civilian life, the enforced discipline, sacrifice of individual liberty “emotional feelings still evoked the army as a social institution”, were all factors which maintained the army’s limited appeal.[6]

If adopting the redcoat of the regular soldier was still decidedly unpopular, the volunteers, the yeomanry, and the militia provided Britons the opportunity to try the uniform on and indulge in a military fantasy under more palatable terms of service than a regular army enlistment. The auxiliaries had been, especially in the case of the militia, the bulwark against foreign invasion in the various continental invasion scares of the nineteenth century; these forces would now, for the first time, be used in significant numbers in a war overseas.

"The Absent-Minded Beggar", an 1899 poem by Rudyard Kipling set to music by Sir Arthur Sullivan. It was written as part of an appeal to raise money for soldiers fighting in the Boer War and their families.

"The Absent-Minded Beggar", an 1899 poem by Rudyard Kipling set to music by Sir Arthur Sullivan. It was written as part of an appeal to raise money for soldiers fighting in the Boer War and their families.

The Boer War was to be a test for the British army in a way that the colonial wars of the latter half of the century were not. The test for this auxiliary pool of manpower was to be put the test in Africa in the Boer War, and would change the way the army, and the British military as a whole, would be structured in the future. Such a change in employment of the auxiliaries and their participation in an imperial war would leave a mark on not only the army, but an impression on society. The British army and society were about to be faced with serious questions about the preparedness of the country for war and the best solutions were debated in the press. Let's examine further how the British army, and specifically the soldier and his image in the public eye, would change as a result of the increased reliance by the War Office and the country on its ‘citizen soldiers’.

This image rethink was brought into sharp focus resulting from the Boer War and the surrounding debates around mobilization of non-regular army citizens serving in the auxiliaries, recruitment, and the institution of national conscription.

Volunteering for army service

Volunteer and other auxiliary units following the Crimean War may have been popular movements and once highly autonomous, were by the Childers Reforms of 1881, being integrated into the Regular Army. Likewise, reorganization of army regiments in these reforms sought to put a regional stamp on army units, linking them at least by name if not by representation in its ranks, to a region of the country. What the Boer War seemed to provide for the British public was renewed scrutiny on how its armed forces were best organised and employed. One point of contention between the army reformers, Liberals, and those seeking to preserve the venerable institution of the British army largely unmolested, was the degree to which the army was now governed and controlled by civilian administrators.

Rare footage by British Pathé news of British troops in the Boer War period

The early influx and call for volunteers from citizens, namely those in the auxiliary ranks waiting to be called up, was not lost only the early observers and writers of the war. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote one of the first histories of the war in 1900, The Great Boer War, and subsequently completed several updates and revisions of this text as the war continued. He weighed in on the reform of the army, including several essays of lessons learned from the war:

“While we can depend for the defence of our own shores upon some developed system of militia and volunteers, we can release for the service of the Empire almost all the professional soldiers. The lesson of the war, as I read it, is that it is better and cheaper for the country to have fewer soldiers which shall be very highly trained than many of a mixed quality. If, in order to secure that keenness and individual push and intelligence which modern warfare demands, you have to pay your soldier half a crown or three shillings a day, you can by securing a higher type do with fewer numbers, and so save in transport, clothing, accoutrements, and barrack accommodation.”[7]

Doyle also advocated further reform of the parochial and hierarchical nature of the army:

“The very first lesson of all the military lessons of the war, as it seems to me, is that there must be no more leaving of the army entirely to the professional soldier and to the official, but that the general public must recognise that the defence of the Empire is the business of a special warrior caste but of every able bodied citizen. It is an enervating thing for a nation when it comes to be accepted that its protection depends on a small special class.”

— Arthur Conan Doyle, The Great Boer War, 1900

Calling up the Reserves

The reforms of the last thirty years had made impressions on the army and were debated in the press. But with the outbreak of war, and the high visibility of the early setbacks and the demand for recruits to fill the ranks of regulars and volunteers alike, the question of a national conscription was posed. In December 1900, George R.F. Shee wrote in The Morning Post:

“…we can and should ‘create a nation in arms without increasing the standing army.’ But there never was and never will be, ‘a nation in arms’ without the recognition by each and every man of the first and most sacred duty of citizenship that of being ready, i.e., trained, to take up arms in defence of Queen and country. The ‘voluntary training into efficiency of a few patriotic thousands will not make up for the selfish apathy of millions who do, and would do, nothing – except sing ‘The Soldiers of the Queen’ while others fight in their stead.”[8]

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Shee, a barrister and Liberal imperialist, would later head the National Service League, in existence from 1902-1914, which provided a platform to highlight the inadequacy of the British army to fight in a major war, and ultimately to promote a solution for national conscription. Shee continued:

“Every man would be a true Imperialist when he felt the solidarity with the Empire which personal military service gives; while the blatant Jingoism, which so often arrogates to itself the title of patriotism, would disappear before the responsibility which is ever present with a ‘nation in arms’.”[9]

Here Shee calls into question the distinction the patriotism which would a man enlist to fight and the veneer of patriotism described here as jingoism. The idea of conscription as a national necessity was altogether popular, and others maintained that such a thing was unnecessary. A rebuttal published in The Morning Post characterized this:

“I do not think the country will be convinced yet awhile of the need for conscription, as Mr. Heron-Maxwell seems to think it should be. His letter is rather a strange mixture. He says we are a free people, yet he would have conscription.”

This statement underlined a real concern and consequence of national conscription meant of loss freedom. A militia officer writing to The Times alluded to this fact while addressing a perceived salutary public neglect of this auxiliary branch:

“If the public appreciated the fact it is the Militia, and the Militia only, which now at this moment stands between a voluntary army and a conscription, I cannot help thinking they would look upon it with greater favour and not with the invariable neglect they hitherto have.”[10]

Reluctant Reservists?

The prospect of war did raise a real concern for many reservists: the interruption of their lives and the reality of their military training being out suddenly and sharply into focus. A pragmatic voice in an article in The Times, signed by an aptly named ‘Acta Non Verba’[11], within days of the outbreak of war cited the concerns of the members of the reserves, “the thousands of men who are now called to the colours”[12] who were already employed, and soon to be mobilized for war service in Africa:

“To the reservist at this moment the serious reflection presents itself – ‘If I return safe and sound shall I be able to rejoin the ranks of the employed?’ The answer depends on the patriotism of employers of every degree.”

Here again, the distinction between those at home who celebrated the pageantry and trappings of the wartime imperial spirit are put sharply in contrast with those already serving in uniform:

“The numerous persons who sing ‘The Soldiers of the Queen’ and cheer themselves hoarse in music halls have no idea of taking any part in upholding the Imperial cause across the seas. Surely the men who are now preparing to risk their lives and their health are worthy of national consideration.”[13]

But a mechanism was in place to expand the opportunity for men to participate in military service without the concerns of extended service in the regulars, or any potential stigma that might still entail. Volunteer units were attractive for their better pay and shorter terms of service, and attracted recruits from all trades and social backgrounds.

An example of such a unit, which gained significant contemporary coverage in the press was the City Imperial Volunteers recruited from London, who departed for Africa in January 1900 to considerable acclaim and eulogy. As they departed their barracks for the train station to Southampton, they were met with “one long roar of boisterous welcome for the Volunteers from east to west.”[14] At their departure by train, The Times noted there were shouts from the departing soldiers:

“‘Good bye all. We’ll do our duty, and we’ll come back.’ A stirring cheer was the reply, and so, amid the strains of ‘God Save the Queen’ this unparalled popular demonstration, and the departure of the first body of Volunteers ever sent to the front, came to an end.”[15]

Numerically superior in the ranks of the City Imperial Volunteers were city clerks who formed the largest single occupation, above that of artisans and other labourers, which Ian Beckett has suggested might be a result as much as employers’ willingness to release them as by any increased enthusiasm for enlistment.[16]

The material costs and expenditure required for increased national service in the regulars, auxiliaries, and even in the arguments for national service were likewise debated. The cost of the military was an item routinely debated on the floors of Parliament, and particularly acrimonious points were contested by those who favoured the merits of either the “senior service” or the army was routinely on display. The cost in obtaining quality recruits was not lost on the public either, and as Miller notes, money was not enough to convince some men to risk their lives in Africa.[17] The MP for Fareham, Arthur Lee, advocating his recent experience in America as a military attaché, including service in Cuba in the Spanish-American War, cited his experience observing the American system, remarking that:

“Recruiting is like any other business in this, that if you want a good article, and in sufficient quantity, you must pay the market price for it. What then is the market price? Certainly not the 5s. a day so recently lavished upon all and sundry and which has revealed the surprising fact that most footmen, grooms, and club waiters in London were qualified ‘rough riders and sharpshooters’ in disguise.”[18]

British Army Volunteers Training (1914-1918) from British Pathé

The war in Africa raised real fears about the army, how it would perform, and the fact that it needed reserves added to these fears. Were the British not in fact mainly concerned about how they would measure up against a bigger foe on the continent? Shee alludes to this in his argument for conscription:

“I may say that I have lived for years on the Continent, especially in Germany, Austria, France, and Italy, and I have therefore had ample opportunity of observing the splendid results to the people which obligatory military service confers on the nations that have adopted it.”[19]


By the end of the war, ordinary Britons perhaps cared little now for the debates concerning the inadequacies of military leadership and technology, and were ready to move into the twentieth century with growing concerns for social welfare, taxation, and labour.[20] The debates however continued, in an effort by some to capitalise on the lessons of the war and the perceived need for further reform of the army. An article in The Times[21] stated:

“It is not the soldiers nor would-be soldiers who shout jingo songs in music halls. If democracy is to be a reality and not a sham, those who make the war should neither wage it from other men’s pockets nor in other men’s persons. Only when the voter is himself liable, at any rate in the last resort, to shoot and be shot at will national responsibility for such a dread eventuality as war be fully brought home.”

World War I recruitment poster featuring 'King' and 'Country'

World War I recruitment poster featuring 'King' and 'Country'

The recruitment and involvement of thousands of volunteers provided the nation with a sense of national involvement and the sense that the war was not strictly the business of the professional soldier. Any distinction between the professional soldier and the volunteer could be likewise interpreted to reflect the belief of an increased democratisation of the army ranks, to the extent that it reflected an increased amount of “citizen soldiers”. The increase in volunteers put the idea of the professional army and traditional methods of service open to new interpretation in that citizens without the benefit of a military career might become quickly proficient and as efficient as a regular.

The arguments for conscription and national service came sharply into focus at the outset of the First World War, when the British Expeditionary Force realized at the outset of hostilities in France and the fighting at Mons, that more men were needed. Volunteer units created new opportunities for citizens to participate in the army, now part of the army system, showed they had a voice, and that voice for the first time perhaps denoted that the burdens of the empire, and the dirty work of warfighting, was in the hands of only a few. Adding a new layer of citizenry to the army only served to raise more questions about the status of the army. Finally, the army, by virtue of the fact now more members of society had access to military service, was more familiar than it had ever been previously. The increased participation of Britain’s citizenry changed the popular image of the soldier.

Some notes on sources

1) Ian F. W. Beckett, Britain’s Part-Time Soldiers, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991).

2) Scott Hughes Myerly, "The Eye Must Entrap the Mind: Army Spectacle and Paradigm in Nineteenth Century Britain”, Journal of Social History, Vol. 26, no. 1 (Autumn 1992) 105.

3) Olive Anderson, “The Growth of Christian militarism in mid-Victorian Britain”, The English Historical Review, Vol. 86, No. 338 (January 1971), 46.

4) Dave Russell, “’We carved our way to glory’ The British soldier in music hall song and sketch, C. 1880-1914” in Popular Imperialism and the Military, ed. John Mackenzie, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992) 50.

5) Ibid, 50.

6) Edward Spiers The Late Victorian Army: 1868-1902, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992) 67.

7) Arthur Conan Doyle, The Great Boer War, (London: Smith Elder &Co, 1900, [Eighth Impression]) 516-517.

8) The Morning Post, “The Question of Conscription”, (London, England) Friday December 14, 1900. Pg. 3, issue 40104.

9) “The Question of Conscription”, The Morning Post, (London, England) Friday 14 December, 1900, pg. 3, issue 40104.

10) “The Militia In South Africa”, The Times, (London, England) Thursday January 3, 1901, pg 10, issue 36342.

11) Latin translation of “Deeds not words”. “Our Reserves”, The Times, (London, England) Tuesday October 17, 1899, pg, 8, issue 35962.

12) “Our Reserves”, The Times, (London, England) Tuesday October 17, 1899, pg, 8, issue 35962.

13) Ibid.

14) The Times, (London, England) Monday January 15, 1900, pg 10, Issue 36039.

15) Ibid.

16) Beckett, Britain’s, 201.

17) Stephen Miller, Volunteers on the Veld: Britain's Citizen-soldiers and the South African War, 1899-1902, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007) 66.

18) Arthur H. Lee, “The Recruiting Question”, The Times (London, England), Monday April 22, 1901; page 12, issue 36435.

19) “The Question of Conscription”, The Morning Post, (London, England) Friday 14 December, 1900, pg. 3, issue 40104.

20) Miller, Volunteers, 151.

21) “The Problem of the Army”, The Times, (London, England), Saturday April 11, 1903, pg 5. Issue 37052.

© 2019 John Bolt

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