Monday, June 26, 2017

Was the Average Soldier "the Scum of the Earth" in the Eighteenth Century?

Reenactors portraying a variety of British military units at Mount Vernon in 2016

Dear Reader,

Having established the average age of the eighteenth-century recruit (as well as his height), we must ask a follow-up question: If the average soldier did not enlist until between 21 and 25, what did he do before enlistment? Historical enthusiasts often claim that soldiers were the "scum of the earth." This is a quote from the Duke of Wellington, a Napoleonic figure. At times, this quote is used to claim that armies in the earlier eighteenth century were composed of criminal elements, drifters, and the unemployed. Is this true? Or, to put the question another way: what were common prior professions of eighteenth-century soldiers? What, if anything, did they do to earn living before enlisting in the military?

The most interesting research on this subject was performed in the early 1980s by Glenn Steppler and Sylvia Frey. Although Steppler's dissertation is difficult to come by, Frey's book, The British Soldier in America, belongs on the shelf of anyone interested social make-up of eighteenth-century armies. However, their research deals specifically with the British Army in the late-eighteenth century. This post seeks to bring their data together with research on the Continental Army, Austrian Army, and Prussian Army, in order to get a better picture of soldiers as a whole.

Line Drawing of a British Soldier by Philip James de Loutherbourg, possibly taken on Warley Commons in 1778
In eighteenth-century armies, before enlistment, as many as 50% of men were unskilled day-laborers, or agricultural workers who did not own land. While not moving in the highest circles of society, these men were not necessarily criminals or untrustworthy characters: they simply sold their labor and owned no land. Indeed, in most European, or Euro-American societies of the eighteenth century, these individuals made up the largest segment of the population. Day laborers were certainly on the lower rungs of eighteenth-century society: to use a modern term, they lived from paycheck to paycheck. With that being said, they were hardly, the "scum of the earth" as Wellington would later claim.

 Ilya Berkovich has recently written an excellent book specifically on soldiers motivation. More importantly, Ilya looks at the sustaining motivations which kept soldiers in their armies.  Though soldiers would often enlist to escape troubling domestic circumstances (to avoid paternal responsibilities, for example), more often they kept up positive relations with their relatives and village communities at home. Indeed, a rather large proportion of all the surviving Prussian correspondence from private soldiers in the Seven Years' War, most of it is addressed to family.[1]

Eighteenth-century common soldiers were admittedly often poor individuals. In an assessment of private soldiers from Maryland in the Continental Army from 1782, it seems that some 15% of soldiers were destitute. Practically, this means they possessed less than 10₤ of total worth. The average total wealth of the other soldiers was 49₤: still in a state of poverty.[2] Practically, this suggests that 15% of the men were unemployed with no prospects. 85%, on the other hand, possessed an income of some type, even if they were poor. However, this data also comes from the late-war era, when many states south of Pennsylvania had difficulty recruiting men to fill the ranks of the Continental Army. 

A Prussian soldier working to supplement his income
In Prussia, the canton system of recruitment, an early type of selective service system, drew heavily on the unskilled labor force in order to provide men for the Prussian army. Individuals with certain careers were exempt from enrollment in the system, including: "clergymen, civilian officials, businessmen, small landowners, fathers of families, only sons of widows, first sons, (and later second sons as well)... craftsmen, cooks, and all other people who had been trained for specific work at the expense of their masters."[3] Thus, it seems that something like 60% of the Prussian army might have been drawn from unskilled day laborers. Even men such as Ulrich Braeker, who were forcibly conscripted from outside Prussia, were also day laborers.[4] During peacetime, Prussian and Russian soldiers often worked supplemental jobs in addition to their work as soldiers. These additional sources of income supplemented the soldiers' regular pay, and allowed them to raise families and improve their standard of living. If eighteenth-century soldiers were so crime-ridden, lazy, and drunk, why did a large number of them pursue civilian work even while in the army?

In the eighteenth-century Austrian Army, roughly 30% of recruits had mastered a trade prior to enlisting. Of those, 27.7% formerly worked in trades related to shoes and clothing production and repair, and amazingly, 13.26% were former tailors. On the other hand, almost 70% of recruits had not mastered a trade.[5]

However, by far the best data comes from the British army in the period. As useful as it is to examine data from the British Army during the American War of Independence, Britain developing industrially in the eighteenth century at a rate unmatched by other states. Sylvia Frey argues that out-of-work weavers (textile workers) may have made up 20% of the British Army in the 1780s.[6] For Glenn Steppler, that number rose as high as 37.8%.[7] However, as shocking as that is, in the years before 1784, day laborers made up an even higher percentage of the British army: some 50-55%.[8]

On the other hand, this same data means that some perhaps 45-50% of the British army in the eighteenth century were skilled workers of some type. From their relatively large numbers in regimental returns, it seems that weavers, tailors, shoemakers, and cutlers were the most prevalent. Thus, roughly half the troops entering the British army acquired some type of marketable skill before enlisting.
Soldiers did have regular contact with fringe elements of society, in their work assisting law enforcement
In major urban centers, soldiers acted as first responders to disturbances, which put them at odds, and in close contact, with many criminal elements. Although the actual judicial work was managed by civilians, soldiers played an important role in maintaining law and order, particularly in confronting rioters.[9] This close association with criminal elements may have turned the views of elites against common soldiers.

Although not a true cross-section of eighteenth-century societies, most armies contained men from the working and lower-middle classes. Despite their relatively poor background, most of these soldiers did not enlist because, "they had no other choice." On the contrary, men like John Robert Shaw (a private soldier in the 33rd Regiment of Foot), made a conscious choice to enlist. He writes, "I... banished all thoughts of domestic concerns and firmly fixed my resolution of enlisting as a king's soldier."[10] While most armies contained a small number of fringe element criminals or men living in a state of extreme poverty, it is only the snobbery of elites such as Wellington that turned the average fighting man into the "scum of the earth."

Please feel free to share if you know individuals who might find this post interesting.

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

[1] See Bleckwenn, Preussische Soldatenbriefe, for a number of examples.
[2] Papenfuse and Stiverson, "General Smallwood's Recruits," 123.
[3] Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 75.
[4] Braeker, Der Arme Mann, 85.
[5] Duffy, Instrument of War, 203.
[6]Frey, The British Soldier in North America, 12.
[7] Steppler, The Common Soldier in the Era of George III, 227.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Houlding, Fit for Service, 59-62, Hayter, The Army and the Crowd in Mid-Georgian England.
[10] Shaw, John Robert Shaw, 11.


  1. Once again, another terribly interesting post! I must look up the The British Soldier in America on Amamzon. Thank you for the tip.

    Best Regards,


  2. I suspect some of these misperceptions about British soldiers serving in America were perpetuated by pro- independence propagadists seeking to whip up public resentment against the Crown (even if continental soldiers were little different). Might this sentiment also have provided support for the 3rd Amendment of the US Constitution prohibiting tge quartering of soldiers in private homes?