1815–1914

The Bri­tish Army in the era of Em­pire saw ac­tion all over the world, and more de­tail was gath­ered on the or­di­nary sol­dier

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - ARMY ANCESTORS -

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

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