The British Army in the era of Empire saw action all over the world, and more detail was gathered on the ordinary soldier
With the exception of the Crimean war against Russia (1854–55) the British Army stayed out of any major continental conflicts and became a kind of colonial police force, though this involved some serious and difficult fighting, notably the Indian Mutiny (sometimes referred to as India’s First War of Independence) of 1857 and the Second Boer War 1899–1902, but with scores of small battles fought in China, Burma, Egypt, Sudan, Southern and Western Africa, Abyssinia (the then Ethiopian Empire) and even Canada.
At home, with the prospect of war looking far off, the Militia was once more allowed to wither so that when it was required, to provide cover for units going to the Crimean War, it was found to be horribly deficient in men and equipment and had to be rapidly expanded, re-equipped and trained. Horrendous experiences in the Crimea resulted in a huge reform of the army that went on for over 20 years. The supply and transport system that badly let down the troops went through a series of changes eventually becoming the Army Service Corps, supplying and transporting food and fuel.
Infantry were reorganised so that old regiments with one battalion were merged into two battalion regiments, with a depot in a specific county, to which they were permanently linked (the County Regiments) and the County Militia became formally linked to them, usually as the 3rd Battalion, as a reserve. During the initially disastrous and prolonged Boer War (1899–1902) many Militiamen were embodied for garrison duties at home and some also served overseas.
The period also saw the creation of scores of Volunteer units (in response to an 1860s French invasion scare) which paid for their own weapons and uniforms and resisted coming under the control of the War Office, created in 1857 to administer the army. Many photographs of soldiers from the period are actually of the Volunteer units.
Reforms after the Boer War eventually saw the Volunteers come properly under the War Office as the Territorial Force, usually as the 4th or 5th Battalions of their county regiment. Many volunteer cavalrymen served in the newly created Imperial Yeomanry and served in South Africa during the Boer War.
There was a gradual increase in interest in the welfare of the ordinary soldier. Pay was increased, education became more readily available and even necessary for promotion. Discipline became less harsh and training more regulated. Rations were improved and proper, permanent
barracks built with separate married quarters. The War Office began taking note of married soldiers so that, by the late 1860s, Musters (not online for this period but available at TNA, Kew) started listing wives and children.
Musters also begin to give more information on the individual soldiers often saying when and where they were recruited, and their age, in a separate section for recruits. Details of soldiers discharged for any reason (including desertion and death) are also often recorded giving place of birth, place enlisted, trade on enlistment and district in which they intended to live in retirement. Unfortunately few musters survive after the early 1890s.
Soldiers’ discharge papers for the early part of the period are similar to Napoleonic period ones but in the latter half of the century they begin giving details of marriages and children and records began to be kept for soldiers even if not discharged to pension (though many are still missing). By the end of the 19th century discharge papers also give details of service abroad, including campaigns fought in and medals awarded as well as some idea of the soldier’s conduct generally.
If no records can be found for a man who served in the late 1880s or after it’s worth checking First World War service records as many volunteered to serve again and their previous record (or at least reference to it) might be found here.
Records for Officers, though plentiful, are scattered throughout WO series at TNA but few have been digitised. Some may be found by name searches in WO 25 and WO 76 series and downloadable free through TNA website’s digital microfilm collection. WO 31 series at TNA (not online and see previous section) runs up to 1870.
Musters also begin to give more information on the individual soldiers
The Boer War battle of Belmont, 1899, was one of many overseas actions at this time