The Rt. Hon. Earl Brownlow

Formerly Under-Secretary of State For War

North American Review, May 1900

The early years of the century found England in the possession of a large body of volunteers. They were not a part of the permanent military organization of the country, but were raised in a hurry, and for a special purpose, and were only intended to meet a sudden emergency. At that period, Napoleon I had massed a great army at Boulogne in sight of the British coast; but the British cruisers held the Channel, and day after day and month after month passed, until the naval battle of Trafalgar put an end forever to his ambitious dream of the conquest of England. It was to meet this contingency that the Volunteers of 1803 were raised, and the danger having been averted, they were disbanded and never brought together again.

With the organization and efficiency of this force, this article is in no way concerned, and it is only mentioned here to explain that volunteering for defense of the country is no new idea, but that the volunteers of 1803 have no relation to those of 1858. They served their purpose; they came together to the number of 463,000 men, and when the emergency ceased, they died out and disappeared. They seem to have incurred at that time a certain amount of "chaff" on account of their somewhat crude idea of military duties, and it is said that one regiment having repeatedly pointed out to Mr. Pitt that they only volunteered to repel invasion, and were on no account to be sent out of the country, he replied that he would promise not to send them away "except in the case of invasion."

There is, however, one volunteer corps - the Honorable Artillery Company of the City of London - which is quite exceptional. It dates from the time of Henry VII, at which period it wore a picturesque dress, had nothing to do, and "did it very well;" and it consists of artillery, cavalry and infantry. It is not a "company" in the military sense, but has many of the attributes of the City of London companies, and has property and funds of its own.

This ancient corps has its counterpart in the Honorable Artillery Company of Boston in the United States, the members of which some time ago visited London and received a cordial welcome as a link between the Old and the New Worlds.

Until 1858, the Honorable Artillery Company was the only old-established Volunteer Corps. At that time, the country was thirsting for peace and rest. The Crimean War had disclosed a state of military disorganization in the army which had caused misery and disaster to the troops during the war, and it was felt that only the bravery and pluck of the officers and men had saved the country from actual defeat; but when peace with Russia had been obtained, no time was given for reorganisation. The Indian mutiny, following on the heels of the Crimean war, called forth all the resources of the Empire; but, when tranquillity was again restored, the public mind once more turned to the contemplation of army reform.

The opportunity seemed favourable. The Emperor of the French was in close alliance with England, and we were at peace with all European nations. There was no cloud upon the political horizon, and there seemed every prospect that this happy condition of things would be lasting.

At that moment, a bolt from the blue - as far-reaching as it was unexpected - spread dismay throughout Europe. On January 14th, 1858, an Italian named Felice Orsini, attempted the life of the Emperor Napoleon III by throwing a bomb under the carriage containing the Emperor and Empress as it was drawing up at the door of the opera house; and although the intended victims escaped unhurt, the missile spread destruction all round the spot where the outrage was committed.

It soon became known that the would-be assassin had hatched his conspiracy and manufactured his bombs in England; and, in the excitement that ran like wildfire through the French army, a hundred French colonels signed a petition to the Emperor, praying him to put himself at their head and lead them against "Perfidious Albion." It was not certain whether the Emperor would be able to resist the pressure thus put upon him, and the ugly fact of a possible invasion of our coasts stared us in the face. It was felt that our army - most of which was abroad - was inadequate to cope with the large forces which were at the disposal of France, if they should once gain a footing on our shores, and excitement little short of panic ensued. The people of England demanded arms that they might at least make a stubborn resistance, and the volunteer force of Great Britain sprang into life.

In its infancy its constitution was hardly worthy to be called "organisation." A large number of enthusiastic civilians of all classes enrolled themselves under officers who, for the most part, had little or no military training, and drilled and equipped themselves in isolated companies. All worked with an energy which only determination, coupled with a grave sense of danger, could inspire. Drill went on in every town in England and Scotland; rifle butts were hastily erected, and the first rudiments of shooting were taught by sergeant-instructors from the regular army. But in spite of all this activity the volunteer army was a mere "crowd of men with muskets," without transport, without battalion formation, and with only one suit of clothes apiece; and with such a force the only rôle assigned to them was to rush to meet the enemy, to line the hedges and walls in inclosed country; to worry and annoy the invaders in every possible way, and to die fighting to the last in order that the regular army and the militia might gain time to assemble and make their dispositions for defense, The action of the French franc-tireurs in the Franco-Prussian War shows how much may be done by such means. While matters were in this state, the scare which had created the volunteer force came to an end as suddenly as it had arisen. Napoleon III, loyal to his alliance with England, succeeded in quieting his excitable colonels, and the danger of immediate invasion was averted.

The volunteers now entered upon the most critical period of their whole history. The officers of the regular army looked upon them as almost useless, and either gave them good-natured but half-hearted support, or advocated their being disbanded altogether; for the British officers of that day believed only in long-service troops, drilled with all the precision of machines; controlled when in barracks with an iron discipline, and perfect in parade movements. The country would not hear of conscription; the army would not hear of short service. So for years nothing was done to reorganize the army, and the volunteers were left to live and die in an atmosphere of neglect or ridicule.

A slight advance was made by the scattered companies being formed into provisional battalions for purpose of drill, and being given a retired officer or militia officer as adjutant; and as they marched through the streets headed by the band, a crowd of street urchins ran beside them shouting such ribald cries as "Who shot the dog?" "How are yer poor feet?" and (to the mounted officers), "How much an hour for yer horse, gov'nor?" And when the battalion had reached its drill ground and deployed into line, the gamins formed line opposite to them, waiting, like the French line at Fontenoy, for the English to fire first. Then, as the rattle of the locks proclaimed the volley which terminated the "platoon" exercise, they fell down with shrieks and groans, and writhed in simulated agony of death on the battlefield, while the lookers on shouted with laughter at the performance.