Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

History Paper Award




The Legion

The Rifles


"Injurious to the Service at large."

The Regimental School System and Education in the British Army in the Napoleonic Era[1]

By Stuart Hadaway

"You talk o' better pay for us,
An' schools, an' fires, an' all;
We'll wait for extra rations
If you'll treat us rational." [2]

When Rudyard Kipling put these lines into the mouth of 'Tommy Atkins' in 1892, he was for once slightly off his mark. The British Army had a long established tradition of offering education to its troops. Regimental and Garrison schools had been in existence since the mid-seventeenth century, although it was the dawn of the nineteenth century which would see education opened up to significant numbers and on an official footing to both soldiers and their children. Indeed, the Regimental School system introduced by the Duke of York at the end of 1811 would be the first widespread, state funded education system in this country.

In fairness to Kipling, education was a problem in the British Army, and literacy is probably the only benchmark whereby we can measure this. Estimates show that probably only one-third of British soldiers between 1800 and 1850 were literate to any degree. As late as 1858 the first serious study of literacy in the Army found that 18.8% of men could read but not write, and a further 20.5% were totally illiterate. Only 4.7% were recorded as having 'a superior degree of intelligence', although no indication of what a 'superior degree' was is given.[3] This was twenty-five years after compulsory the state school system had been introduced in Britain, and nearly fifty after Regimental Schools had been established. One only has to look at the numbers of journals and diaries written by common soldiers over the period, using those the number of those from the entirely literate officer corps as a comparison,[4] to get an idea of literacy rates; it is interesting to note, though, that the highest number from the ranks of any single regiment are from Riflemen, who had had an institutionalised education system since their foundation in 1800.[5]

To understand the background to the Regimental School system, it is necessary to outline the development of education in a military context on all levels in Britain before the Napoleonic Wars. Schools had a long precedence in the British Army, and not only for soldiers but also for their children. In 1662 officers on garrison duties at Fort St George, Madras, had obtained funding from the East India Company to employ a schoolmaster, while by 1685 the garrison at Tangiers had three schoolmasters on their rolls.[6] By the latter half of the eighteenth century, Regimental and Garrison schools funded by officers for the education of soldiers and their children were frequent, though highly variable in scope and system. The first such school recorded in England was for the First Regiment of (Grenadier) Guards at the Tower of London in 1762,[7] and the first official attempt to cater for the education of soldier's children came in 1769.[8] The Royal Hibernian Military School (RHMS), in Ireland, was set up as a boarding school to educate the children of Irish soldiers serving abroad, and for those of destitute soldiers serving in Ireland.[9] A mixed school, it was initially ineffective as a military school, with less than one-tenth of the boys who attended the school joining the Army in the first ten years, perhaps because of the very religious and trade-based curriculum. From 1809 the school's record improved as it was brought into line with the Royal Military Asylum as regards methods and syllabus.

It is little surprise that by the Napoleonic era one of the great Army reformers, John Gaspard Le Marchant, decided to overhaul this system. In his plans he was to include provision for the education of the children of the lower ranks, albeit only as a part of the education of the officer corps, another area greatly lacking.

The Legion

It is no surprise to find that the education of men and their children was so neglected officially when the arguably more important area of officer training is examined. The system of military schools in Britain in the eighteenth century can barely be described as a system at all. Apart from informal education from their regiments, the only official institution was the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, established by King George II in 1741.[10] This was for the training of artillery and engineers officers, but it's size never exceeded sixty men at a time before 1793. It grew rapidly in wartime, but even at the height of the defence-building program on the coasts of Britain, the size of the Academy was never more than 250 men.[11] There was no provision for education apart from for the training of Ordinance officers. Army officers, whether infantry, cavalry or even staff officers, could not receive official training in this country, although of course there were private schools at which young men could receive military training at a price. Many families even sent their sons to study the art of war in Europe, mainly in either Prussia or France. Even the young Arthur Wellesley, later the First Duke of Wellington, was given his first lessons in his trade abroad in 1786, ironically at the Royal Academy of Equition at Angers on the Loire,[12] although in later life the Duke could not remember any other British children at the school.[13]

Le Marchant wanted to change all of that. Attempts had been made in the late 1780's by Colonel David Dundas, [14] an advocate for officer training in the British Army and writer of many manuals on the subject. With the support of the Duke of Richmond,[15] he had tried to establish a national military academy, but had been blocked by an anti-militaristic and budget conscious parliament.[16] In 1795 the Duke of York, [17] perhaps the greatest of the Army reformers, became Commander-in-Chief of the Army, and with him came change. Keen on professionalism amongst his officers corps, he gave regiments a greater responsibility to train their officers. Le Marchant had embraced this as a lieutenant colonel of the 7th (Light) Dragoons in 1798, training both officers and men more strictly in their duties and military practice. [18] With his policies gathering momentum, the Duke began to tentatively make the idea of a national officer-training academy a reality.[19]

The first step came in the form of the arrival in Britain of a European professional soldier called Francis Jarry. Jarry was French by birth, but had joined the Prussian Army, serving Frederick the Great and running the military school in Berlin. On Frederick's death, he had returned to France to become a general in the French Army, before leaving France again in 1798. He put forward a plan to run an officially sanctioned academy, with fees covering all but a few small running costs, although the size would be kept down to only thirty students at a time.[20] The plan was approved, but turned out to be more expensive and troublesome than first thought. Jarry fell ill, delaying the opening of the academy until May 1799, and when he recovered and started teaching he did so in French, a language many officers did not understand to that level of technical vocabulary.[21] In January 1799, though, Le Marchant had presented his grandiose scheme to the Duke of York. More costly than Jarry's academy, though ultimately larger and thus far more advantageous, the outline was initially rough and vague in detail. While Jarry floundered, Le Marchant, with the aid of the Duke who devoted considerable amounts of time to the plan, worked intensively on the scheme, making it realistic and presentable to parliament, while also working to gain increasing support for it.

The final plan[22] was laid out before a board, consisting of the Duke of York, Henry Calvert,[23] Sir William Fawcett,[24] David Dundas[25] and, unusually, Le Marchant himself. At this stage it consisted of a system of four schools. Three of these were for the sons of officers or officer cadets. They were progressive, tiered by age and military emphasis. The first (the youngest) was generalist in curriculum, with military aspects, but aimed at delivering a general education with no obligation to enter either the next school or the Army. The second school was an officer training school. Its syllabus was primarily based upon military needs and aimed at producing a competent officer at the end when the cadet graduated to take their commission. The third was for existing officers, sent to be trained in Staff duties. These three schools, condensed into two by the board[26] formed the Royal Military College, still extant at Sandhurst.

The fourth of the schools is the most interesting, though. Known as The Legion, it was to be a free boarding school for the sons of non-commissioned officers and other ranks, preferably those whose fathers had been killed in action. Its purpose was to perform a dual role. On the one hand it was to act as a training tool for the rest of the schools, for officer cadets to hone their skills of leadership and command upon. On the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, it was to educate men to the level were they could become non-commissioned officers upon joining the Army. Technically, non-commissioned officers should be educated and able to read and write, but although King's Regulations required them to have copies of various manuals it did not stipulate any degree of literacy. In reality, educational levels among non-commissioned officers was probably poor, and The Legion would aim to turn out ready trained men, literate and with an understanding of military matters, able to step straight into service. This would become an increasingly important issue, as the Napoleonic Wars spread and the Army needed to both expand its numbers to cover larger areas and make up for the numbers lost in action.[27]

The Legion, however, did not survive the board. Perhaps on the insistence of Dundas, that part of the scheme was taken out of the final plan. The reasons are those that would be a running theme through any educational schemes. The official report states that:

"it was inconsistent with the habits of the country to raise
private soldiers to so close an equality with their officers,
as well as from apprehension that the measure might prove
injurious to the service at large by leading to frequent
promotions from the ranks." [28]

Despite the fact that more than 5% of officers in the Napoleonic Wars would be promoted from the ranks,[29] the Staff at Horse Guards where still obviously apprehensive about promoting men who were not gentlemen to positions of command in the Army. Recent observations of peasant-led rabble armies in Revolutionary France may have shocked them, or it could have been simple conservatism and fear of reform. Either way, this would be a continual worry to the Army. In the official regulations for the school for the 95th (Rifle) Regiment in 1800 and eleven years later when schools were made compulsory careful precautions can be seen in the details, with passive checks to ensure that men did not get above their station. Indeed, perhaps the imposition of regulated schools over the numerous informal ones was a mechanism for curbing and controlling potentially dangerous educations. Rules and regulations could then be brought into affect to make sure that soldiers did not get too intelligent. The Army wanted to breed a better class of Non-commissioned officers, not a worse class of officer.

These fears, however, were not held by all, and The Legion was far from dead. The Duke of York approved of Le Marchant's idea, and on the 19th June, 1801, the Royal Military Asylum, Chelsea, opened to educate the children of non-commissioned officers and other ranks, beating the Royal Military College, which was not to be established for another five days as a Staff College and Cadet Corps, on the 24th June.[30] The Asylum was a boarding school set up on the design of Dr Bell,[31] a noted educationalist of the era. Bell was the Chaplain to the East India Company post at Fort St George, and supervisor of the Military Orphans School there, and he wrote prolifically on educational systems.[32] The Asylum was a 'most complete success',[33] and still exists today as the Duke of York's School.[34] It would prove a template for the later Regimental Schools, with the 1811 orders instructing schools to follow Bell's system.[35] This system was primarily based upon using 'monitors', older pupils who could help instruct younger children in what they had already learnt. As the teaching style advocated by Bell was based purely upon learning facts and figures by rote without explanation or exploration of the meanings behind them, the monitoring system could work well and make classes of up to one hundred children perfectly manageable to a single teacher, keeping down costs and wages.

Even with these cost cutting measures, and fees[36] for all Officer Cadet pupils, who also had to supply their own necessaries and equipment (except those who were the children of officers who had died on service),[37] the schools were expensive. The Royal Military Asylum cost the Army 23,096 in 1813, although this was still only a third of the Royal Military College's costs.[38] The costs of Regimental Schools would add even more to this, and perhaps the first step in the process to official schools also came in 1801, with the establishment of an institutionalised school in the newly formed 95th (Rifle) Regiment.

The Rifles

Simultaneous to his struggle to establish the Royal Military Asylum, the Duke of York was also working on another radical reform to the British Army. He planned to form and train a force of men to use highly accurate (for the time) rifles, initially to be spread around several regiments. To this end he had formed the Experimental Corps of Rifles in 1800 under Lieutenant Colonels Cote Manningham and William Stewart, but having proven it's worth in action it was in the end forged into a single battalion and brought into the line as the 95th (Rifle) Regiment in 1801. The unit was to be a specialist one, made up of only the fittest and most intelligent men to carry out a very, for the time, independent role on campaign and in battle. To this end the training the recruits would undertake was strict and demanding, the Rifles being allowed to turn down any man they thought unsuitable, even at the height of the manpower shortages the war caused. A unique part of this would be a school as an integral part of the Regiment's structure.

When Manningham wrote his 'Regulations for the Rifle Corps'[39] he devoted a quite detailed section to the establishment and running of a Regimental School, as a semi-compulsory element of the training scheme.[40] Non-commissioned officers were expected to attend and had to be able to read and write (with a particular emphasis on reports, passes, and other duty-orientated paperwork) as well as knowing the first four rules of arithmetic. Other ranks were also encouraged to reach at least these standards, and a connection was to be made clear between education and promotion prospects. If a man could read, write and count, his chances of being promoted were greatly increased. Officers were to encourage their men by often visiting the school and offering 'occasional premiums, or small useful presents, [such] as a book, a penknife, &c.' [41] to the better scholars on examination days, with the costs to come out of school funds.

The system for the school was fairly complex. Three classes were formed, with all ranks in together, although non-commissioned officers would sit at separate desks from the other men. The first class was to learn how to read, the second how to write, and the third was to learn arithmetic, including the first four rules, simple geometry, the rule of three and vulgar fractions. Men could only enter these classes on the first of each month, and readiness to pass on to the next class was assessed bi-monthly, on the 30th of every other month. This was assessed by examination by the commanding officer, or whichever other officers were available. This was a part of the close official attention paid to the school, with a monthly roll being sent to the commanding officer, and the school being supervised by the sergeant major and the adjutant. As well as the encouraged visits by officers, the senior orderly officer was also required to visit the school each day.

The schoolmaster kept a daily register, and this was used to calculate the charge for each man, the form for these registers being laid out by Manningham himself. [42] Every man who attended the school had to pay a fee, [43] which also had to be paid if the pupil had been absent, unless a sergeant could attest that the man was on duty. These fees were collected by the company paymaster-sergeant every Saturday evening, and helped to pay for some aspects of the school, as the Army bore as little of the cost as possible. The quartermaster had to supply a room for the school, but the coal and candles for it were supplied by making stoppages from each company's allowance. Rather than employ a trained schoolmaster, one was to be chosen from the Regiment. The schoolmaster was to be a 'sergeant of good character and abilities' [44] to be selected by a board of officers, while if class sizes exceeded twenty men he was to have a corporal appointed as an assistant, who was to be paid 1/3 of the school's weekly income. Class sizes were never to exceed fifty men, and the schoolmaster and his assistant were to be excused all duties except Sunday parade.

The job was not quite as easy as it sounds, though. The hours the school was to keep were phenomenal, and of course there were no school holidays. Modern teachers may claim to be overworked, but a Rifles schoolmaster could tell them what hard work really means. School was open every day except Sunday and Saturday evening. Class started at 'Rouse', which could be between 5am and 7am depending on the time of year, [45] and first break was at Breakfast, either 8am or 9am, again depending on the time of year. [46] School resumed at 11am until Dinner, either 2pm or 3pm, [47] and then after the dinner hour until the evening parade, at either 4pm or 6:30pm.[48] In the winter [49] the school also operated for two hours before Taptoo at 8pm. This was only the start for the schoolmaster, though. Manningham regulated that 'at the intervals, when for one hour the school is not likely to be occupied by the men of the Regiment, the schoolmaster is to give instruction to the children'. [50]

This is another major point about Manningham's Regulations. Not only does it define a well thought out school system as an official and integral part of the Regiment, but he also lays out provision for the education of the children of the Regiment. At 2 pence per week those children were to be in 'regular attendance at school',[51] and to be educated in the schoolmaster's spare time, and were in general to be 'paid every attention'[52] by the company officers. Such schools for children would not be introduced for another ten years in the rest of the British Army.

However, despite the Rifles' apparent desire to enable their men to better themselves, checks were still in place to ensure that the school only educated the men to a level whereby they 'fit themselves for the situation of non-commissioned officers'[53] and no further. Apart from having to pay fees, the students were also required to incur additional expense by supplying 'their own pens, ink, paper and books'[54] and whatever other stationary they needed by purchase from the sutlers. These would be very expensive luxuries to a poorly paid Rifleman, and the education supplied was very limited anyway. There are obvious limits to the curriculum, which was based primarily around making the student a better soldier. By understanding basic arithmetic and geometry, the soldier could better understand the theories of marksmanship, and the overall better intellect would improve the Rifles' 'espirit de corps' and feeling of superiority over other regiments. However, fears such as those of Dundas over the Legion probably dogged Manningham, and firm limits were put on the extent of education. Extra-curricular learning was also limited by the provision of permission for a Regimental Library for the men, but all books having to be supplied by the officers of the unit at their own expense. This would be a passive check upon the library, or the education of the enlisted men, growing too large.



1. I would like to thank Kathleen Navarro de Paz and David Hadaway for all of their help with this article.
2. From 'Tommy'. Kipling. R.Barrack Room Ballads and Other Verses (London, 1892)
3. Lefroy Report, 1859. Carried out by Lt-Col. John Lefroy, Inspector General of Army Schools from 1857. Smith. E.A. 'Educating the Soldier in the Nineteenth Century (part II).' In the Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research. Spring 1988. Volume LXVI. No. 265.
4. To the author's knowledge, no definitive list exists, but a good guide can be found in Oman's revised lists in: Griffith. P. (ed) A History of the Peninsular War Volume IX: Modern Studies of the War in Spain and Portugal 1808-1814. (London, 1999.) Bibliographies B and C. Editor's Note: The Napoleon Series has an extensive listing of British Memoirs that breaks them down by officers, NCOs, and enlisted soldiers: British Memoirs
5. However, it must be noted that the most famous of the memoirs from Riflemen, that of Rifleman Harris, was dictated. Harris himself was illiterate.
6. The Marquis of Anglesey. A History of the British Cavalry 1816-1919 (3 vols., London, 1973) I, 146
7. Smith. E.A. P. 114
8.The Marquis of Anglesey; P. 114
9. Shorter. G, "Play Up The Dukies." The Duke of York's Royal Military School 1801-1986 (Fetcham, 1987) 198-199.
10. Glover. R. Peninsular Preparation. The Reform of the British Army 1795-1809 (Cambridge, 1988) Ch 8. passim.
11. Ibid; P.191-192. 1806 - 248 cadets, 1807 - 246 cadets.
12. James. L. The Iron Duke (London, 1992) P. 3
13. Glover. P. 195
14. Later Field Marshall Sir David Dundas, Quarter-Master General 1796-1803, Colonel-in-Chief 1809-1811. Haythornthwaite. P. J. The Armies of Wellington. (London, 1994) (1996 Edition) P. 267
15. HRH Charles, 3rd Duke of Richmond, Master General of the Ordinance 1784-95. Glover. Peninsular Preparation P. 23
16. Glover; P. 196
17. HRH Frederick Augustus, Duke of York and Albany, Commander-in-Chief 1795-1809 & 1811-27. Haythornthwaite. Armies of Wellington P. 267
18. Thoumine. R.H. Scientific Soldier: A life of General Le Marchant 1766-1812 (London, 1968) P. 57
19. Glover; P.198
20. Ibid; P. 198
21. Ibid; P. 199
22. Details of plan and board mainly come from Glover's Peninsular Preparation Ch. 8. passim, and Smyth. V. C. Brig. Sir J. Sandhurst (London, 1961)
23. Lt.-Gen. Sir Henry Calvert. Adjutant General 1799-1820.
24. Lt.-Gen. Sir William Fawcett. Adjutant General 1781-1799.
25. Then Quarter-Master General (1796-1803).
26. The Staff College, for ages 19+ with two years regimental experience, opened in 1801; the Royal Military Cadet Corps, for ages 13+ and free, in 1802.
27. The numbers of men (excluding officers and non-commissioned officers ) rose dramatically over the period: 1793: 38, 945; 1795: 129,262; 1813: 230,469. Casualties also increased greatly, from 16,070 in 1803 to a peak of 25,498 in 1812. Haythornthwaite. Armies of Wellington P. 21 & 43
28. Smyth; P.. 32
29. Haythornthwaite; P. 28
30. Smythe; P. 47. Like The Legion, preference was given to those whose fathers had been killed or maimed in action. Although established in 1801, the first (mixed sex) intake was not until 1803.
31. Andrew Bell, D.D. & LL.D., (1753-1832) pioneered his scheme in Madras, and later was a founder of education institutions in Britain. Cates. W.L.R. A Dictionary of General Biography (London, 1875) Bell was an advocate of early state education, establishing in 1811 the 'National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church throughout England and Wales.' Simon, B. Studies in the History of Education 1780-1870 (London, 1960)
32. Smithers. A.J. Honourable Conquest: An Account of the Enduring Work of the Royal Engineers throughout the Empire. (London, 1991); P. 26
33. General Order 1st Jan 1812. Regulations and Orders for the Army up to 1st January 1816 (Adjutant-General's Office, Horse Guards, 1816) 332
34. The name changed in 1892, and the school moved to its present location outside Dover in 1909. Shorter. "Play Up The Dukies." P. 27
35. Notes on Bell's methods from: Simon. Studies in the History of Education
36. Fees were on a sloping scale according to rank and length of service of the father. See: General Order 'Regulations regarding the Admission of Students into the Royal Military College.' 4th June 1812. Kings Regulations Pp. 352-55
37. For orphans to qualify for free, their fathers had to have served for at certain ranks for certain lengths of time. General Order 4th June 1812. King's Regulations Pp. 352-55
38. The RMC cost 38,993 in 1813. Haythornthwaite. Armies of Wellington P. 269
39. Manningham, C. Regulations for the Rifle Corps formed at Blatchinton Barracks, under the command of Colonel Manningham August 25th 180 (Strand, 1801)
40. All information on the Rifles School from: Manningham Regulations Part II, Article V: Regimental School, and Instruction.
41. Ibid; P. 91
42. Ibid; Appendices 10 &11.
43. Fees were (per week): Sergeant 6d, Corporals & Buglers 4d, Privates 3d.
44. Manningham; P. 90
45. 5am 1st May-1st Aug, 6am 1st Aug - 1st Nov, 7am 1st Nov - 1st Feb, 6am 1st Feb - 1st May.
46. 8am 1st Apr - 1st Oct, 9am 1st Oct - 1st Apr.
47. 3pm 1st Apr - 1st Oct, 2pm 1st Oct - 1st Apr.
48. 6:30pm 1st Apr - 1st Oct, 4pm 1st Oct - 1st Apr.
49. 1st Oct - 1st Apr.
50. Manningham: P. 90
51. Ibid; P. 81
52. Ibid; P. 81
53. Ibid; P. 89
54. Ibid; P. 91

Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2001


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