Chambers Journal, 14 May 1859

Having on a recent occasion pointed out some of the peculiarities in the constitution of the British army, the sort of men composing it, and the motives for their enlistment - we shall now endeavour to give some idea of the life of a soldier at home; not as a combatant armed with musket or sword, and marching in foreign regions, but as a fellow-citizen requiring pay, food, dress, lodgment, medicine, culture, recreation, and some sort of provision for his old age. To make this large subject at all manageable, we shall confine it chiefly to the infantry regiments of the line, and to the common soldiers of those regiments - forming the main-stay of our army; while Mr Fonblanque, the latest and best authority in these matters, is the person on whose statements we shall chiefly rely.

Early in the present century, the length of military service was unlimited; to be once a soldier was to be always a soldier; unless the sovereign voluntarily gave a discharge. At present, however, an infantry soldier is engaged for ten years, at the expiration of which he may renew his engagement. He receives about £.3 as 'bounty-money' on enlistment; and the recruiting expenses, journey to the barrack or depôt, kit, clothing, armament, and equipment, make up the sum to about £.20, which is the cost to the state of the raw material out of which a foot-soldier is made.

The pay of the British soldier is one of the greatest among many anomalies in our military system. He himself is sorely puzzled to know how much it really amounts to, on account of the deductions or 'stop-pages.' In reality, the money at the free disposal of a soldier is rather higher in England than on the continent.

A French soldier; after the various deductions are made, has only about 1 1/2d. per day for minor personal indulgences, while an English soldier has about 3d. The nominal pay in England is 1s. per day in the line regiments. But the soldier does not really get this money; his bread and meat are paid for out of his shilling, and he receives the balance; and out of this balance he has to pay for the minor articles of his diet. A daily ration of bread and meat is debited to him at 4 1/2d. out of his shilling. This stoppage is when in barrack or on home-stations; on foreign stations, on board-ship, in the field, and in hospital, other arrangements are made.

There is a growing conviction among our statesmen and officers that this is a bad system, clumsy to work, and not altogether honest. 'The fact that this system,' says Mr Fonblanque, 'deludes the recruit into a belief that he will receive the nominal instead of the actual rate of pay - in other words, that he will have 1s. a day, while in fact he will only have 7 1/2d. - should be an additional argument against its continuance; for although government does not directly lend itself to so unworthy a device, it is well known that the subordinate agents do not hesitate to avail themselves of the fictitious rate of pay among their other baits for tempting recruits.' The mode of payment is simply this - the paymaster of each regiment draws money from the army-agent for that regiment, and advances it to the captains; each captain pays the men (usually about 80 or 100) in his company, and accounts to the paymaster for the amount. This money is not the shilling a day; it is the balance, after deducting the ration-price. The men are paid daily. The few perquisites, or additions to the pay, we shall notice presently.

Next we come to the important matter of food. At foreign stations, or in war-time, the dieting of soldiers is a most complicated and difficult matter; but we treat here only of soldiers quietly at home in barracks or fixed stations.

Whether at home or abroad, a British soldier expects and receives more animal food than a continental soldier. A French soldier eats 2 1/2lbs. of bread per day, but adds to it very little solid meat; a British soldier will bear all sorts of privations patiently, save lack of food, and his dinner must include meat, or it is no dinner to him. At most of our barrack; camps, and garrisons, contractors supply the meat and bread, at prices agreed on between them and the government Usually men of large capital take the contract, and sublet it to other persons.

In the French army, in peace-time, the government supply only bread, all the rest being purchased out of the soldier's pay; in England, meat as well as bread is supplied. The whole subject of the subsistence of troops is, however, much less understood in England than in France.

The soldiers know little of cooking, and there is no one to teach them. They have their 1 lb. of bread and 3/4 lb. of meat daily, and they have fuel and vessels for cooking; but the processes are wasteful and ill understood.

Boiled meat is almost a universal diet with them, for hardly any arrangement has yet been made for roasting or baking. Sometimes a few men will club together, and pay for having a joint of meat, with potatoes, baked at a neighbouring bakehouse; if they depend on the barrack facilities, they can scarcely get beyond boiled meat - too often, through bad management, hard and tasteless. They take it in turn to cook, by an arrangement among themselves; but they are sorry cooks at best.

Each regiment or detachment receives its quota of meat and bread at a particular hour daily, and distributes to companies and squads. In every company, six women, with their children, are allowed to draw daily rations of bread and meat: these women must be wives of soldiers who have married with the consent of the commanding officer.

The whole arrangement, it must be confessed, is a strange one. The soldier's shilling a day is lessened to sevenpence-halfpenny, as a means of paying for, or contributing towards the cost of, his daily ration of bread and meat; and out of this sevenpence-halfpenny, he must pay for whatever he desires to have in the form of vegetables, butter, cheese, condiments, puddings, tea, coffee, sugar, etc. Such of these things as are supplied by the government are debited to him at a low price; but still the system is strangely confused.

The Crimean war was valuable to us, in teaching many a lesson from which we are now gradually profiting. The food of the soldier is one of these. The authorities have it now under consideration wholly to remodel the barrack and camp dietary arrangenments; giving to the soldier (not neccssarily at greater cost to the nation) a better selected variety of food, better facilities for cooking it, and instructions in the art of cooking.

The late M. Soyer supplied to the military authorities many useful hints as to the best mode of obtaining nutriment from a given amount of food; and Colonel Sir A. M. Tulloch - in a valuable document submitted by him in 1857 to the Commission of Inquiry into the Sanitary State of the Army - gave several schemes of dietary, which would greatly improve the soldier's food, without adding to his expenditure.

The gallant colonel, whose indefatigable labours excited so much attention three or four years ago, estimated that a well-arranged dietary might be provided by an expenditure on the part of the soldier of only 2d. per day out of his 7 1/2d. in addition to the ration of bread and meat supplied to him. The variety and excellence of this dietary are surprising; but, says Mr Fonblanque, 'the first step must be to instruct our soldiers in the rudiments of the art of cooking, of which they are now lamentably deficient.'

The camp at Aldershott is rendering useful service in this particular; Captain Grant has invented simple but efficacious cooking apparatus, by which the men can bake their meat occasionally with speed and comfort.

Next, for the soldier's dress. Until a recent period, the clothing of soldiers was so grossly mismanaged as to be made a source of profit to the commanding officers. An arbitrary deduction was made from the men's pay; if this sum fell short of the actual expense, the difference was charged against the soldier; if otherwise, the officer pocketed the difference. The worse the soldier was dressed, the larger were the officers' profits. So many were the abuses under this system, that the captains of companies were deprived of this power, which was given, under certain modifications, to the colonels in command.

This was nearly as bad; for the 'clothing colonels' came to consider certain perquisites as among their regular emolutments. The sum allowed per regiment for clothing, by the government, was for its effective strength; if the numbers fell short of this, so much the better for the colonel's pocket.

The temptations were almost irresistible to make some private arrangement with the contractors, profitable to the officer, but disastrous to the soldier. This was the chief reason why the British soldier was one of the worst clothed in Europe, with a coat and coatee made of wretched cloth, boots that seldom fitted him, and an his garments much less suitable than ought to have been obtained for the sum paid by the nation.

Many of the colonels themselves objected to this undignified way of obtaining part of their emoluments. Yet it was not until 1854 that the system was changed. The government now assumes the duty of clothing the troops. The soldiers' dress is anything but what it ought to be; nevertheless, it is gradually improving. The tunic is a great improvement on the coatee; the trousers are looser and easier; and perhaps we may one day see the ugly and ponderous shako superseded by a lighter form of hat or cap, or felt helmet. Most of the clothing is supplied annually by open contract; but there is one government clothing factory, intended to supply a test whether 'tailoring' may not occasionally be advantageously performed by the government; already it has been found that a sum of £.7700 sufficed to manufacture as many infantry suits as cost £.10,800 on the contract system.

The future must decide this rather important question. We have said in a former paragraph that every recruit receives, on enlistment, a complete set of clothing, accoutrements, and other necessaries. When these are worn out, they are replaced on certain rigorous conditions. Tunic, trousers, and boots are expected to last one year; great-coat, three years; infantry accoutrements, twelve years. After the first outfit, the soldier, out of his humble 7 1/2d. a day, pays for under-clothing, their fatigue or undress suit, knapsack, mess-tin, blacking, etc., constituting his 'kit;' there is a daily stoppage of his pay, somewhat under 3d., for these items. The tunic, great-coat, trousers, and boots or shoes are supplied to him periodically; but any unusual renewals or repairs, if at all attributable to his own neglect are charged against him.

His worn-out tunic is a perquisite; he may sell it; and doubtless many such are to be seen in theatres, fairs, and other places where a red coat is a never-failing object of admiration. The worn-out great-coat, after three winters of service, is returned to the government stores, and sold 'for the benefit of the public.' The actual cost of the uniform and accoutrements of a soldier differs much in different corps; in a line regiment it is about £.3, 7s. per man; in the Horse-Guards, as much as £.8. The late defalcations at Weedon have given the public a painful proof how much remains to be done before the official organisation for clothing the army can be brought into a healthy state.

The lodgment of the soldier is another important item in his daily life. A soldier, in our days, has a right to barrack and barrack furniture; but in former times this right was attended to in a very confused manner. An indiscriminate quartering of troops on the inhabitants is a practice wholly alienable to English habits; it led to insurrections some centuries ago, and is now never attempted. It has been sometimes urged that the inhabitants of a town ought not to be fastidious in this matter; since it is found that an infantry regiment generally spends about £.l0,000 a year near the locality where it is quartered - a boon for which the townsmen ought to be grateful; but this argument, if good at all, is good only to this extent, that the town ought to contribute something towards building barracks in the neighbourhood.

Licensed victuallers are still liable to have soldiers billeted on them; they are compelled, when required, to give board and lodging to soldiers, receiving a small and unremunerating rate of payment. This practice is loudly complained of; and there can be little doubt that a sense of justice will lead to its ultimate abandonment. All the more necessary, therefore is the construction of efficient barracks. The existing barracks have been built, and their repair provided for, at the public expense; the plans are laid down and the operations directed, by the corps of Royal Engineers; but ordinary builders contract for the work to be done. Unhappily, most of the existing barracks were built at a time when sanitary arrangements were little attended to; as a consequence, the building are wofully unfitted for their purpose.

Hundreds of valuable soldiers have been killed by these evils, their constitutions being gradually undermined by the unwholesomeness of the atmosphere in which they lived. In most barracks, there is barely two-thirds of the quantity (600 cubic feet) of space now considered necessary to the health of each soldier; and in some there is little more then one-third. A few months ago, the public read with dismay an authenticated account of the barracks belonging to the household troops in London - barracks in which the commonest decency could hardly be observed, so insufficient was the space, and so scandalously neglectful the arrangements.

If it be so with a 'crack' and petted corps, we may infer that it is even worse in some of the barracks the line regiments. In most barracks, the men eat and drink in the same rooms which serve them as dormitories; and thus the air is at all times vitiated. Some of the soldiers are permitted to have their wives with them, but no suitable arrangements are made for that indulgence.

It, has recently been ascertained that, in 251 barracks, no less than 231 were without any separate accommodation for married soldiers; the women (a few in each company) resided with husbands under circumstances repulsive to every sense of delicacy and propriety; and even in the exceptional instances, the space afforded to an entire family is not more than ought to be allowed for a single individual. In the camp at Aldershott, where there is a large space available, the huts and barracks ought to exhibit manifold improvements; whether they do so, is a disputed point. At any rate, the permanent barracks scattered over the land must be either rebuilt or greatly improved; and it is now admitted on all hands that the country must submit to a large expenditure on this account, before the lodgment of the soldier can be properly attended to.

The culture of the soldier and his family has hitherto been miserably neglected; but here, as in other matters, improvements are being wrought, indicative at any rate of a better tone of feeling in the nation generally. There is now an Inspector-general of Military Schools, one of whose duties is to make periodical visits to all the barracks and military stations in the kingdom; he thus becomes acquainted with the state of educational matters in the army (with the exception of its commissioned officers), and carries out the intentions of the government in that respect.

There are somewhat under 200 trained army-schoolmasters, ranked in four classes, according to efficiency and position. There are also schoolmistresses, one to each garrison and regiment. English soldiers are a lamentably ignorant body of men in relation to school-matters; and many of them, not merely privates, but sergeants and corporals who have won good fame by years of hard fighting, are glad to attend the barrack and garrison schools. None are obliged to do so; it is optional with all. The pay for adults varies from 4d. to 8d. per month. The soldiers' children are especially encouraged to attend school, the payment varying from 1d. to 2d. per month.

The schoolmistresses teach needle-work and industrial employments to the girls, and wholly conduct the infant training. A hope is in many quarters expressed that cooking will be among the useful things taught to these soldiers daughters - a teaching that may by degrees have its the influence on the soldiers themselves.

The delicate and difficult subject of religion is kept as free as possible from sectarian jealousy, by limiting to a very small amount, and to a very simple form, the religious teaching in the school room. The schoolmasters, with stipends varying from about £.48 to £.150 per annum, are permitted, in spare hours, to teach the children of any of the officers who may be in the garrison or station, by private arrangement, in augmentation of their income.

Besides the school tuition, arrangements are now gradually being made for the formation of barrack libraries and reading-rooms, where the men may spend, in a rational way, the spare hours which else are so likely to be wasted in vicious indulgences. The Inspector-general of Military Schools makes a selection of books and periodicals; and a small public allowance is made for the pay of librarians and for contingent expenses. A payment of 1d. per month entitles the soldier to the use of the library and reading-room.

As to athletic outdoor amusements, our barracks are most insufficiently supplied; the soldier is left to his own resources, with no aid from the state.

Lastly, pensions. The soldier's shilling a day is, as we have seen, cut up in an extraordinary way in payment for food, clothing, kit, schooling, etc. He has a few, but only a few, emoluments or extra sources of income. There is a 'good-conduct pay,' from 1d. per day upwards, for men who have rendered from many years of good service; there is 1d. a day for 'beer-money,' while on effective home-service; there is 'fatigue-pay,' when soldiers are engaged as artificers or labourers in public works; but with these exceptions - the soldier's necessaries, comfort, and luxuries must all be provided from the source already adverted to.

When he is old, he cannot wholly live on his out-pension, but still it aids towards his support. Until the time of Charles II., there was no provision what-ever for superannuated soldiers; but that monarch gave up Chelsea Hospital as a home for some of them. In the time of Queen Anne, two system of out-pensions was introduced. At present, Chelsea Hospital is quite unfitted for its original purpose. It cannot accommodate 600, out of an aggregate of more than 60,000 veterans who have duly earned a superannuation allowance.

The in-pensioners receive a home, food, clothing, and a little pocket-money. Soldiers have had a legal claim since 1806, by act of parliament, to a superannuation allowance; and this allowance is now received by about 64,000 out-pensioners. The sum varies; but taking an aggregate of all ages, merits, ranks, and corps, it amounts to about 1s. per day per man. He may have served a very long time, or may have become weak and ailing after a moderate time, or may have been wounded in action; and all these facts are taken into account in determining the amount of his pension. Well would it be if all our sums of £.l,200,000 per annum were paid for as humane and rational purposes as this item for out-pensions to humble troops.

Such, in brief; is the home-life of an English common soldier, his daily career when not called upon to embark for other lands, or to fight against an enemy. It is a strange existence, deserving the best consideration of all thinking persons. Disgraceful has been the neglect, physical and moral, of the soldiery in past times; but a new feeling has gradually sprung up; an earnest desire is manifested in all quarters to raise the character and improve the condition of the soldier. The process may be costly, but it is worth the cost; for a well-trained soldier, if in health and strength, is estimated to be worth (in commercial phrase) £.100; how much his mind and morals are worth, is not a money question.