Kevin Linch uncovers the origins of Redcoats to Tommies (co-edited with Matthew Lord) and explains how it takes a new approach to the long and varied history of the British Army, a history that the Army itself prizes greatly.
The British Army has a long history dating back to the seventeenth century, and this new collection of essays explores Britain’s soldiers throughout three centuries, bringing together histories that are often separated by era and periods. This book – the first in Boydell & Brewer’s Britain’s Soldiers series – focuses on the stages of soldiering, including mobilisation and enlistment, experience of service, identity and representation, and their relationship to society.
This book’s origins lay in a conference organised at the University of Leeds in 2018 on the theme of Britain’s soldiers, where we aimed to bring together up-to-date research from a new generation of early-career researchers and reflections from established scholars across the entire history of the British Army from its founding in the 1660s. We weren’t disappointed by the response, as we had 29 papers over two days. Alongside hearing an interesting and varied set of presentations and discussions we then thought more carefully about the longer ‘military history of an unmilitary people’, as Ian Beckett describes it in the final chapter of this book. This meant breaking out of the well-used periodisation that tends to dominate the way the Army’s history is packaged. Generally, this falls into eras of Georgian and then Victorian soldiers, the First and Second World War, and the post-conscription soldiers of the 1960s onwards. We wanted to take a wider time frame to explore what had changed and what has endured in army life.
This longer viewpoint is echoed in the Army itself. As an institution the Army has a pervasive sense of its traditions and history, in some cases dating as far back as the seventeenth century. This is present in its self-conscious concern with lineage and heritage, a type of military genealogy for which it has become famous. In our collection, we wanted to move away from focusing on regiments and battles, and explore themes and issues that run through the Army’s history from eighteenth century into the twentieth.
But what do we mean by the ‘British Army’? Often this is taken to mean the named regiments and units recruited from Britain and Ireland. Outside of these units, though, was a much wider set of land forces in Britain’s service. Within Britain there was an amateur military tradition, such as the militia and yeomanry in Britain and Ireland. Whilst outside Britain and Ireland units were also raised for the Army or Britain’s military service including the armed forces raised for and from Britain’s colonies (most notably the East India Company (EIC) army), and the ‘foreign’ units within the Army. And so this book includes histories of Britain’s soldiers, including the nineteenth-century yeomanry in Britain, officers of the East India Company and its successor the Indian Army, alongside explorations of British and Irish soldiers within Britain and across the globe.
Sadly, we couldn’t include all the conference presentations in the edited collection like Redcoats to Tommies. Nor can we claim that the collection is a comprehensive survey of the British Army’s three centuries. It includes twelve chapters arranged into four sections; recruitment; experiences in the military; the soldier in politics and society; and military identity and memory. Across these chapters, we hear about soldiers in South America in 1807 and interwar Glasgow; the late nineteenth-century Indian Army Officer Corps and the British Yeomanry Cavalry; and Irish military cultures in the Army from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. As the first book in the new Britain’s Soldiers series, it highlights the range of work being done to further explore and better understand the personnel of the British Army, whatever colour uniform they wore.
This guest post was written by Kevin Linch, Associate Professor of Modern History at the University of Leeds. He specialises in the history of Britain in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, focusing on the interaction between Britain’s armed forces and wider social and cultural trends.
Matthew Lord specialises in British military culture and counterinsurgency after 1945, particularly focusing on the interaction between politics and the honours system. He has worked as Lecturer in Military History at Aberystwyth University.
CONTRIBUTORS: Ian Beckett, Timothy Bowman, Gavin Daly, Peter Doyle, Edward Gosling, George Hay, Kevin Linch, Matthew Lord, Eleanor O’Keeffe, Adam Prime, Michael Reeve, Jacqueline Reiter, Robert Tildesley, and Christina Welsch.