All military historians have their special interests; perhaps a particular war or campaign, generals and grand strategy, a local regiment, or the minutiae of uniforms and equipment. My own fascination has always been in the writings of the soldiers themselves…
One immediately thinks of elderly generals writing their memoirs in retirement in Brighton or Cheltenham (although even these can offer fascinating insights into the life of the regimental soldiers – albeit often tinged with nostalgia). But there is also a large corpus – larger than is often realised – of journals, memoirs and letters written by ordinary soldiers: the ‘other ranks’. Many were published in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries, but others still lie unpublished in regimental museums or archives such as the National Army Museum. Even some of the published works are difficult to find; I only found James Gilling’s memoir of life as a lancer in 1840s India, published in 1855, as a photocopy in the National Army Museum.
Do such writings by regimental soldiers supply historical ‘facts’? Certainly they tell the truth as the writer himself saw it, either immediately after the event – with the fog of war concealing the whole picture – or many years later, clouded by memory or the reading of other accounts. As Captain Mackinnon of the Sixteenth Lancers remarked in his memoirs… the confusion of the field of battle not only prevails at the moment, but its din will often bewilder the mind of an eye-witness long after the cannons have ceased. The numerous published memoirs of soldiers who fought the French in the Napoleonic Wars, for example, need to be divided into ‘before or after Napier’. William Napier’s monumental history of the Peninsular War – published in six volumes between 1826 and 1840 – influenced many memoirists, who occasionally introduced into their own recollections whole chunks of Napier’s narrative, describing events that they could not possibly have seen themselves.
When writing Discipline, System and Style, I was privileged to be able to use the many unpublished journals and letters held by the Regimental Museum of the Queen’s Royal Lancers, and those in the National Army Museum. These included writings by both officers and other ranks of the Sixteenth Lancers. The quantity of this material pointed not only to a high literacy rate amongst soldiers that has not previously been recognised, but enabled me to make comparisons between different attitudes and points of view about regimental soldiering in India.
Despite many historians presenting this experience as a hell on earth alleviated only by drink, many men in fact enjoyed their service in India. Indeed, when regiments were warned for return to England, about half the men usually volunteered to transfer to other regiments in order to stay in India.
Soldiers with a working-class background enjoyed a partial freedom from military chores (the East India Company provided them with servants), as well as the exotic surroundings, and activities such as hunting. Many also seem to have married mixed-race girls, ‘recruited’ from orphanages. Other men, however, were miserable, including James Gilling, who bought himself out after service during the Anglo-Sikh Wars with the Ninth Lancers, and Samuel West of the Sixteenth, whose letters home in the 1820s are full of complaints about army life.
One of the fascinations of being an historian is to be able to weigh the various sources – to ‘compare and contrast’ – in order to arrive at an overall picture that one can be satisfied is at least a defensible approximation of the truth (at least until the next historian upsets one’s theory with a new set of evidence!). For me, the balancing act was between the soldiers’ own accounts and the official records, mostly held by the National Archives. These may seem dry-as-dust at first glance; Muster Rolls with long lists of men repeated every three months for each regiment, twice-yearly inspection reports on standardised proformas, and questionnaires detailing a soldier’s career when he applied for discharge. But patterns can emerge that confirm, expand or illustrate chance mentions in diaries and letters.
Cholera, the disease described anecdotally by men who had seen comrades struck down within a few hours, is graphically illustrated by the long rows of names listed as died during epidemics. Muster Rolls also list those men who opted to stay in India when their regiment returned home. The drily-named ‘Soldiers’ Documents’ describe every aspect of the soldiers’ military careers – promotions and demotions, courts martial, campaigns, wounds and medical history. But they also give us more personal details, such as where the man was born, where he enlisted, what trade he declared and even a physical description – height, complexion, hair and eye colour, and where he intended to live after discharge.
I used all this data (official and unofficial) to build up a potted biography of every officer and man who served with the Sixteenth Lancers in the Sutlej campaign. This enabled me to construct a picture of who these men were, who stood in the ranks at the Battle of Aliwal. It thus became not just a military, but a social history of a group of men who reflected the society from which they came – whether they were a labourer, a skilled artisan or a scion of the landed gentry. In the process, I came across many surprises and confounded many previously-held theories, which I hope are presented in Discipline, System and Style.
Editor: The Life of a Lancer in the Wars of the Punjaub, or, Seven Years in India, 1843-50 (Helion, 2014).
Author: Discipline, System and Style. The Sixteenth Lancers and British Soldiering in India 1822-1846 (Helion, 2016).