3 April 2015

Enlistment and Service in Queen Victoria's army



I want to use this post to talk a little about the enlistment and training process in the late Victorian British Army. I cover this in some of my military history talks and I think it’s useful in helping to understand the typical Victorian infantryman’s career path. I’m going to use some real examples in what follows, and for the purpose of this essay I’m going to assume an enlistment term of seven years with the colours and five on the reserve. The story begins with the man’s attestation, that is, his contract to serve with the British Army for a given period of time. This attestation could take place at regimental depots or it could take place during recruiting drives. This from, The Army Book for the British Empire, published in 1893:

“The enlistment of recruits is as free and as voluntary as possible. In large towns a house or room is hired, so that men desirous of enlisting can go there and obtain from the recruiters, pamphlets and leaflets giving authentic information as to the terms and conditions of service in all the branches of the army, without having to be seen talking with a recruiter in the street or in a public house… Recruiters are forbidden by statute to enlist men under the influence of drink, nor are they permitted to take recruits into public houses to entice them to drink.

“Certain corps being more difficult to provide with recruits than either the cavalry or infantry of the line, by reason of a special standard of physique or of technical qualifications, recruiting sergeants and others are instructed to adopt a regular sequence, so long as these special corps stand in need of men, in recommending corps etc to intending recruits, viz:

a) The Foot Guards, Royal Artillery, and Royal Engineers
b) The territorial regiment of the district
c) The regiments for which special exertions are required to obtain recruits
d) Any corps for which the regimental district is allowed to recruit, as notified from time to time
e) General Service Cavalry, and General Service Infantry ”

It was not uncommon for infantry regiments to recruit whilst they were en route from one station to another and I have highlighted, in another post on Border Regiment recruitment, just how many men were recruited into that regiment in 1906 from outside the regimental district. Having attested, the new recruit was told to report to the regimental depot where he was issued with his regimental number. He would then train at the depot for up to three months before being posted to the home battalion.

The regimental depot was the administrative heart of the regiment and comprised a small permanent strength of around four officers and 60 men who had been drawn from the two (in most cases) regular battalions. There were also around 28 NCOs and men who formed the permanent staff of each militia battalion (which also had its home at the regimental depot) as well as admin staff, Army Medical Corps and Army Service Corps to carry out duties connected with the regimental district.

It was at the regimental depot where the man was knocked into shape. The Army Book for the British Empire has this to say about the regimental depot:

“The chief work of the depot in peace time is to enlist recruits for the regiment to both the regular and militia battalions, and to enter them for training and discipline as soldiers. “many a high-spirited lad will resent being ordered about in military fashion when he first joins… it is therefore most desirable that the officers and non-commissioned officers who are to be their first instructors… will set them a good example, give them sound advice [and] cheerfully assist them in the work they are called upon to perform in the barrack-rooms…”

The italics are mine. Rudyard Kipling, in "The 'Eathen", written in 1895, had another version of events:

The young recruit is 'aughty - 'e draf's from Gawd knows where;
They bid 'im show 'is stockin's an' lay 'is mattress square;
‘E calls it bloomin' nonsense - 'e doesn't know no more -
An' then up comes 'is Company an kicks 'im round the floor.

The young recruit is 'ammered - 'e takes it very hard;
'E 'angs 'is 'ead an' mutters - 'e sulks about the yard;
'E talks o' "cruel tyrants" which 'e'll swing for by-an-by,
An 'the others 'ears an' mocks 'im, an' the boy goes orf to cry.

The young recruit is silly - 'e thinks o' suicide.
‘Es lost 'is gutter-devil; 'e 'asn't got 'is pride;
But day by day they kicks 'im, which 'elps 'im on a bit,
Till 'e finds 'isself one mornin' with a full an' proper kit .

I suspect that Kipling is probably closer to the mark.

The majority of British infantry of the line regiments had two battalions, one serving at home and one serving overseas. When the new recruit had successfully gone through his paces at the regimental of depot, he was posted to the home battalion. These postings happened eight times a year and all men posted as part of a detachment were enrolled in the same company of the home battalion to continue their training. With eight companies per battalion, this system ensured that new recruits were evenly spread throughout the battalion and that each company could expect a fresh intake of new recruits each year.

Transfers from the regimental depot to the home battalion were supposed to take place on the following dates: 7th January, 21st February, 7th April, 21st May, 7th July, 21st August, 15th October and 21st November . What then followed at the home battalion was a further twelve weeks’ regulated training programme of 20 hours a week. For instance, the first two weeks comprised 10 hours of gymnastics with appliances, 10 hours of gymnastics without appliances, 16 hours of individual marching drill, turning and saluting, and four hours’ oral instruction. Weeks three and four comprised 10 hours of gymnastics with appliances, 10 hours of gymnastics without appliances, 14 hours drilling in sections in single file, two hours fitting on accoutrements for marching order and kit inspections, and four hours’ oral instruction; and so on.

The typical recruit would spend between 18 months and two years with the home battalion before being posted to the overseas’ battalion, this posting taking place annually. Remember too, that many recruits joined the army at eighteen years old and men were not to be sent overseas until they were at least 20 years old. The intensive training initiated men into army life and ensured that were both efficient soldiers and old enough to serve overseas.


In the image above, we can see that this man (5089 Michael Hooper of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers) attested on 8th June 1894 and joined his regiment at Naas the same day. He remained with the regimental depot for three and a half months before being posted to the home battalion, in this case the 1st Battalion which was stationed at Sheffield. He then served with the home battalion for 18 months before being posted to the 2nd Battalion in Quetta.

Hooper enlisted for seven years with the colours and five on the reserve, although this period of colour service could be extended to eight years if the man was “beyond the seas” and the reserve service reduced by a year to four years.


In actual fact he served for a total of eight years and four months with the colours before being transferred to the Army Reserve in October 1902.

The Army Reserve was essentially a pool of trained men who, having been schooled in all things military, swapped their khaki for civilian dress and went back to Civvy Street. Rudyard Kipling puts this into context nicely in Back to the Army Again, published in 1894, with his reservist fraudulently re-enlisting after having served, in this case, six years with the colours:

I done my six years' service. 'Er Majesty sez: "Good day -
You'll please to come when you're rung for, an' 'ere's your 'ole back-pay:
An' fourpence a day for baccy - an' bloomin' gen'rous, too;
An' now you can make your fortune - the same as your orf'cers do."

Back to the army again, sergeant,
Back to the Army again;
‘Ow did I learn to do right-about turn?
I’m back to the Army again!

A man o' four-an'-twenty that 'asn't learned of a trade -
Beside "Reserve" agin' him - 'e'd better be never made.
I tried my luck for a quarter, an' that was enough for me,
An' I thought of 'Er Majesty's barricks, an' I thought I'd go an' see.

The man would be “rung for” if “so required by a proclamation from Her Majesty in case of imminent national danger or great emergency ” but in the meantime his “’ole back-pay” was deferred pay on transferring to the reserve whilst the “fourpence a day for baccy” was the man’s “bloomin’ gen’rous” daily pay as a reservist.

Although fourpence a day was hardly a fortune, it was still supplementary to whatever the man was earning in civilian employment and many men choose to extend their period on the reserve by signing up for a further four years as a Section D Army Reservist. Michael Hooper did so and so did Old Sildiers Never Die author, Frank Richards. Richards was on Section D when Britain went to war in August 1914 and as a result, found himself in France shortly afterwards.



Michael Hooper though, was finally discharged on 7th June 1910 having served exactly sixteen years in the British Army. The first twelve years had been a combination of colour and reserve service, and the last four years had been as a Section D Reservist. This last period of reserve service could not be further extended and so Michael Hooper was discharged from the army.

During his entire period of army service he retained his original number, 5089 which did not change whilst he was ay the regimental depot and serving with the 1st Battalion and with the 2nd Battalion. Had he been recalled to the army when he was on the reserve he would have been recalled as 5089 Private Michael Hooper. His regimental number would not have been re-issued and when he was discharged, his number became redundant.

I have often wondered whether the Michael Hooper who would later join the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in October 1914 in response to Lord Kitchener’s call was the same man who had previously seen 16 years’ service with the same regiment in England, India and South Africa.


The image at the top of this post shows men of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers at the time Michael Hooper would have served with them. Extracts from Hooper's attestation papers in WO 97 are Crown Copyright, The National Archives. The medal index card image is courtesy of Ancestry.

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