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Not So Easy, Lads: Wearing the Red Coat 1786-1797

Not So Easy, Lads: Wearing the Red Coat 1786-1797

    Not So Easy, Lads: Wearing the Red Coat 1786-1797

Vivien Roworth

Helion & Company Limited (2023)

ISBN: 9781915113863

Pages: 298

Images: 61 b/w illustrations, 13 colour illustrations, 4 maps, 18 tables, 4 graphs

O it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes,” when the drums begin to roll.’[1] Written nearly a hundred years after the Napoleonic Wars, the redcoats of that era were still casting a long shadow over Rudyard Kipling’s Tommy serving in the late Victorian epoch. It is these redcoats that take centre stage in Vivien Roworth’s Not So Easy Lads, through the experience of William Roworth a soldier in the 44th (East Essex) Regiment of Foot. Roworth charts the progress of the 44th from the short peace following the American War of Independence (1775-1783) to the opening salvoes of the War of the First Coalition (1792-1797) against Revolutionary France.

 Not So Easy, Lads follows the experience of William Roworth, whose family donated his letters to the Nottinghamshire archives. Commencing with William’s enlistment in the 44th Foot, in Manchester in February 1786, the author explores the motivation of men like William, who chose to enlist in the British Army. Using local newspapers from across Britain and Ireland, Roworth charts the postings of the 44th from barrack room life in Portsmouth, to anti-smuggling duties on the Isle of Man and garrison duty in the tempestuous atmosphere of late 18th century Ireland. These contemporary sources provide an intimate picture of life in the 44th, charting the redcoats’ routine duties as part of Britain’s peacetime garrison.

However, life in barracks was soon ended with the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, and the subsequent War of the First Coalition against France. William and the 44th found themselves whisked away from home to take their place at the heart of Britain’s contribution to the First Coalition, the Duke of York’s expeditionary force dispatched to the Low Countries. From here Roworth’s narrative of the 44th enables her to chart the steady fall in the British Army’s fortunes, which reached a crescendo during the horrific winter retreat of 1794-95. Roworth does not shy away from highlighting the many excesses committed by the retreating British and Allied units, including stealing food and burning Dutch property for warmth, as an illustration of the deteriorating relationship between the Coalition Armies and the Dutch as many civilians started to look to France for salvation from the ravages of the war.

The final section of the book, takes the reader onto the 44th‘s next posting, the Lesser Antilles of the West Indies. Here the 44th came under the leadership of Sir John Moore, one of the principal figures in the formation of the British Army’s light infantry and later commander of the British Army at Corunna in 1809. Moore’s plans for the light infantry have been attributed to his tenue as governor of St. Lucia, following the island’s capture by Sir Ralph Abercrombie, supported by Sir Hugh Cloberry Christian of the Royal Navy. The 44th would also form part of the invasion force on St. Lucia, after which they remained under the command of Moore to form part of his command. Garrison life in St. Lucia was spent fighting against freed slaves who had been liberated and trained by the French Revolutionary Government. Campaigning was harsh and made deadly by one of the worst outbreaks of Yellow Fever in the Caribbean, which resulted in horrific symptoms and devastating effects on the 44th, as the disease decimated the British garrison, and with them poor William Roworth, who left a widow and child in Nottingham.

Not So Easy, Lads, is a deeply personal story of a single battalion at the beginning of the French Revolutionary Wars. It reflects the experience of many soldiers at the time, where garrison life, consisting of parades and assisting the civil powers, was suddenly replaced with endless route marches across foreign fields. The short sharp skirmishes and scuffles in the Caribbean jungle proved the exception rather than the rule of life on campaign. Roworth has constructed a compelling portrait of the trials and tribulations of the 44th, recounting their story with heart and sympathy for her subjects and bringing to life the experience of the first generation of redcoats sent to fight the masses of Revolutionary France.

Owen Davis

May 2024

[1] Rudyard Kipling, “Tommy”, The Kipling Society, last accessed 21st April 2024, https://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/poem/poems_tommy.htm