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The Napoleonic ‘Dad’s Army’: The British Volunteer Movement 1794-1814

The Napoleonic ‘Dad’s Army’: The British Volunteer Movement 1794-1814

    The Napoleonic ‘Dad’s Army’: The British Volunteer Movement 1794-1814

Paul L. Dawson

Frontline Books, an imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd. (2024), hardcover

ISBN 978-1-39903-772-3

246 pages

Illustrations: 16 black and white

This book covers a much-neglected area of British military life, the birth and rapid expansion of the auxiliary forces of the British army during this time. It was also an arena of political confrontation between the emerging educated lower middle classes and those who had traditionally held control of the local levers of power such as the magistracy, the established church, the gentry and through them the landed classes. That the emerging middles classes of France had seized power had smashed these traditional levers of control made the government of William Pitt wary of accepting the role of ‘volunteer’ units who did not automatically come under the control of the regular army.

What it does not cover is the experience of the county militia regiments who were a different entity within the British army. Well before the conscription of World War One, the county militia provided a balloted force of almost entirely very poor working men, who often served for a wage, rather than for any higher political ideal. They initially served for five years and could opt to serve for longer. In peacetime they were ‘called out’ or employed for several weeks in the early summer, for each of the five years they served, whereas in wartime they were mustered for five years of continuous service. Unlike the Volunteers, in wartime, they were subject to the same conditions of service as any regular soldier.

The Volunteers on the other hand often saw themselves as socially and economically superior to the militiamen. Not for them the endless months of guarding the coastline of Britain whilst they left their workshops and offices in the hands of others. Instead, they stood ready to guard their locality when invasion threatened or (as with the county militia) when the magistrates called them out in aid of the civil power. Though on occasions Volunteers sometimes refused to muster when ordered to do so by a magistrate such as during the food riots of 1795, believing that the miserable plight of the poor superseded the demands of the law. Such independence of thought amongst the rank-and-file volunteers was pointed out by traditional ‘Church and King’ commentators such as William Cobbett who in 1804 famously described the dangers as he saw it, of the Volunteer unit committees who encouraged a ‘mutinous, democratizing and rebellious tendency’. They organised themselves to debate political matters, he said and were more ‘republican and democratic’ than any other body known previously.

Dawson has laid out his book logically in nineteen chapters, dealing with both the infantry (including the ‘Local Militia’) and the different forms of cavalry, the invasion scare of 1798, how officers were appointed, the role of the churches, how emerging liberal and traditional political views influenced the local units and at times worried the government. As Dawson shows it was to be several years before central government gained military control of the Volunteers, made them adopt regular army drill and stopped many of these amateur soldiers from avoiding balloted service in the militia.

What strengthens an already very interesting book, are two points. One is that Dawson has concentrated his research on documentary sources from within the old county of the West Riding of Yorkshire, including a leading regional newspaper of the day The Leeds Intelligencer, which gives us a close examination of several volunteer units within a distinct English location. The other is his examination of the motivation of these soldiers. Their political views, often allied to their non-conformist opinions and for others a willingness to contribute to the defence of the nation but not at the loss of their workshops or offices of business. Highly recommended.

Paul F. Brunyee

May 2024