In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section British Army

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals and Resources
  • Primary Sources
  • Army and Civil Society
  • Leadership and the Officer Class
  • The Rank and File
  • Training and Discipline
  • Political and Intellectual Currents
  • Army, Empire, and the “Other”
  • Army and Gender

Atlantic History British Army
Matthew P. Dziennik
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0180


Despite its seminal importance to the nation’s security in the long 18th century, the British army occupied an ambiguous place in British society. A small professional force composed of long-term volunteers, augmented during wartime by bounty-induced enlistments, foreign servicemen, and forced impressment, the army was the subject of profound resentment which was slow to dissipate even after the first Mutiny Act (1689) and the Statute of Rights (1694) brought the institution more firmly under parliamentary control. The 17th-century fear that a standing army might subvert constitutional liberties survived into the 1730s and suspicions of the arbitrary authority encouraged by military law continued to raise frequent concern among theorists and commentators. Even more enduring was the vilification of the army as an institution that bred drunkenness and criminality. While a stream of victories, culminating in the battle of Waterloo in 1815, improved popular perceptions of the army, it was well into the 20th century before the negative image of the rank and file began to dissolve. As a result, interpretations of the army in the first half of the 20th century swung between two extremes: On the one hand, traditional historiography emphasized the view that the army epitomized the greatest virtues of the British nation. Another approach continued to emphasize variants on the older view that recruits were, to repeat the Duke of Wellington’s 1831 quip, “the mere scum of the earth.” Historians are currently qualifying both extremes. Recent research has shown that the common soldiery came not from the dregs of society but from professions most vulnerable to fluctuations in the market economy, particularly semiskilled artisans. The huge expansion of the peacetime “establishment” from 12,000 men in the first decade of the 18th century to almost 50,000 by 1775 also provides the context for many questions, the extent of the army’s professionalization being key among these. The 18th-century army performed well but a chronic lack of funding, inconsistent training, inadequate pay, and an unqualified officer class undercut effectiveness. The British state was at war for 70 of the 127 years following the Glorious Revolution, a condition that amplified the demands of war on British society and the state’s bureaucratic structures. Future research is likely to focus increasingly on the army’s diversity. The regular army was a heterogeneous institution, both socially and ethnically. It was a polyglot Atlantic, even global, institution, drawing its manpower from all parts of the British Isles, the German states, Africa, Canada, the English-speaking Americas, and India.

General Overviews

The evolving methodologies of the new social history have had a profound impact on military studies. Since the 1970s, academic military history has experienced a phenomenal increase in quality and depth. This “new” military history, which posits that the army was a social institution that reflected the society from which it was drawn, has become a distinct branch of historical enquiry. For background information, students should start with Chandler and Beckett 1994, Carpenter 2002, Holmes 2002, Manning 2006, and Conway 2021, all of which exhibit the effects of new military history. Rogers 1977 serves as an early and rudimentary example of the effects of social history on military studies. Tatum 2007, on the other hand, suggests that new military history is an increasingly outmoded and tired methodological distinction that can only provoke continued dissonance between military historians and the mainstream academy. Tatum suggests a new division between histories of the army as a functional institution and broader histories of warfare that analyze the role of the military in a given society’s development, ideologies, and self-perceptions.

  • Carpenter, Stanley D. M. “The British Army.” In A Companion to Eighteenth-Century Britain. Edited by H. T. Dickinson, 473–480. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631218371.2002.00040.x

    A short but detailed overview of the topic, split into sections concerning organization, army life, training, and tactics.

  • Chandler, David, and Ian Beckett, eds. Oxford Illustrated History of the British Army. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    Offers the best collection of introductory chapters, all written by historians whose work is vital to current interpretations of the British military. A sizable number of the essays, five of twenty, cover the long 18th century.

  • Conway, Stephen. The British Army, 1714–1783: An Institutional History. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword, 2021.

    Sophisticated analysis of the interior workings of the army across the eighteenth century. Emphasizes negotiation between officers and the rank-and-file as the core of command and control.

  • Holmes, Richard. Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002.

    Accessible and lively account of life in the 18th and 19th centuries’ British army. Makes ample use of direct quotations and is best suited to undergraduate students or the general reader.

  • Manning, Roger B. An Apprenticeship in Arms: The Origins of the British Army, 1585–1702. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199261499.001.0001

    Essential reading for understanding the development of the army prior to the Treaty of Union. Overestimates the extent of professionalism in the army by 1702 despite a vast improvement compared with affairs in 1585.

  • Rogers, H. C. B. The British Army of the Eighteenth Century. New York: Hippocrene, 1977.

    One of the first general overviews of the army from a socio-military perspective. Relies too heavily on the work of others and is inhibited by its top-down perspective while lacking sufficient statistical depth.

  • Tatum, William P. “Challenging the New Military History: The Case of Eighteenth-Century British Army Studies.” History Compass 5.1 (2007): 72–84.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1478-0542.2006.00371.x

    Provocative review essay that outlines the direction of British army studies since the mid-1970s. Most controversial is Tatum’s twin assertion that new military history has produced neither an autonomous methodology nor a guiding interpretive principle.

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