THE BRITISH ARMY.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE SPECTATOR.
Leamington, 10th January 1842.
SIR—Had your correspondent upon the subject of military promotion, in your number of the 8th January, confined himself to giving his own opinions on the matter, 1 should not have considered it necessary to trespass upon your space ; for, seeing that he proves no defects and proposes no remedy, I should have preferred leaving well alone : but his lucubrations acquire a certain spe- ciousness from an invidious manoeuvre, which demands an answer, viz, the putting weak arguments which no practical man would advance into his ad- versary's mouth, and then claiming a victory for confuting them. In the re- marks I am about to make upon his letter, in order to be thoroughly under- stood, I must beg to state once for all, that in using the word " British Army," I am to be understood as including the whole armed force of Great Britain, Army, Navy, Ordnance, and Militia,—for the subject is by no means the holy- day theme that your correspondent seems to hold it; upon the officering of which force its efficiency and trustworthiness mainly depend: and that force is not like a Yeomanry corps or a posse of Special Constables—a body created in a day, at their own firesides, whither they return for their jug of ale and warm bed at night. The armed force of Great Britain is an important, costly, deeply-trusted, ever-active, and absolutely indispensable portion of the most gigantic machine the world ever saw, the power of Great Britain ; a machine whose mission and direction, through the medium of colonization and com- merce, (both of which require arms to protect them,) is manifestly to perform a leading part in the christianizing and civilizing the globe. I may also here remark, that those who wish to form a due idea of the na- ture of warfare and the duty of an army, must divest their mind of the one idea that fills the heads of most civilians, viz, battle. Warfare and battle are totally different ; and now to his remarks.
The shadow of a Greek or Roman commander he conjures up, need not terrify the British officer much ; nor would he lose his patience at such an " in- fatuated and criminal system," as your correspondent calls ours. The Greek and Roman commanders were soldiers and statesmen. The Greek would look at home ; he would recollect the most prominent armies of his country—how AGAMEMNOISS took ten years to take a town, which they only then got pos- session of by a stratagem so coarse as to argue the most pitiful imbecility on the part of their adversaries. He would remember that XENOPHON'S army was so deficient in officers as to be obliged to intrust the command to an ama- teur; for XENOPHON himself was present only as a spectator at Comma; he was not in the service of Crites. He would remember that ALEXANDER'S army mutinied so repeatedly and dangerously, that it was only shamed into a return to its duty by the creation of bodies of Persians, corresponding to the privileged corps of Greeks, such as the Companions, &c.; and what happened after his death, and the leading sentiment in his mind, were the whole system comprehensively explained to him, would probably be how the duties of the British Army were done at all, under five times the number of men em- ployed. The Roman armies, as troops, were first-rate ; as portions of the state, they were both mischievous and dangerous : turbulence, disregard of the civil power, the assumption of the power of electing the sovereign, and finally the habit of aching the imperial crown, marked the Imperial Roman armies. In its pure military character, the British Army shrinks from comparison with none. In its civil, social, and political relations with the country, probably few armies can venture to enter into comparison with it.
The first argument he puts in our mouths is, " The present system has worked well, and therefore it would be dangerous to alter it." This may be very pretty table-talk, and very suitable to crusted port and walnuts, especially if there were nobody by who would be so cruel as to analyze it ; but a man must have no re- sponsibility and little regard for his character for clear-headedness who uses such an illogical argument. This much, however, there is in it, which he seems to have overlooked—that the system, having worked well, entitles its ad- vocates to throw upon its opponents the onus probandi that theirs would work better ; which might possibly puzzle them. Of similar value are his other two arguments, as he calls them—that it is impossible to discover officers' charac- ters in peace ; and that the abolition of purchase would drive the aristocracy out of the Army ; sayings just strong enough to make a show of standing by themselves, and just merit enough to be knocked down by the citizen. As to the presumed indifference of British officers to their profession, and its being " the height of bad taste to interrogate a military man in general society upon any subject connected with his profession, except the cut of his coat " I can only say, that it is sixteeen years since I entered the service, and this is the first time I ever heard of it being so. I shall not imitate your correspondent in understating the case on the opposite site : I appear as the advocate of the present system generally, and shall now proceed to set forward the real working reasons in its favour, which are the results produced directly by it. The fur- nishing the Army with officers is just as much a matter of business as the fur- nishing a coach with horses. The same principle regulates both—the best article at the lowest price. 1st. It in a great measure limits the selection of officers to men of respect- able families, good education, a high sense of honour, and some means, mixing habitually with good society at home ; and experience has shown almost every- where that that class, in a state which is best fitted for the peculiar duty of officering an army, and probably least fitted for any thing else, is the poorer aristocracy. 2d. The increased efficiency of the body of officers, from increased rapidity of promotion, involving and stimulating a more active military spirit and a dimi- nished average of age. 3d. A retirement, free of expense to the state, to all officers, rich or poor ; of course of most importance to the poorest. 4th. A fair working rule to regulate promotion, which is well known and understood by all, and which protects the friendless and rewards the veteran, who can sell what he never bought. On the first of these reasons, viz. aristocratic officering, it may be remarked- lst. That the average of courage, whether it arises from pride, shame, or even less respectable feelings, is almost universally higher among the higher classes than among the lower; and the real working courage we want for our officers is not the mere animal courage that hardily confronts danger, but that higher courage that keeps the head clear in difficulty and doubt, the presence of mind that enables the officer to reflect and decide, to see what is to be done, and to know how to do it. The blow tells as it is directed.
2d. The above-mentioned qualities, gentlemanlike manners, the trustworthi- ness alluded to below, admitted superiority in education and refinement, and the strong aristocratic feeling that yet exists in the British lower classes, have created in the minds of the British soldiery a respect and affection for their officers who are gentlemen, which they by no means extend to those who have come from their own ranks. The British soldier takes a personal pride in his officer : he sees in him not a successful rival, but rather an indulgent and care- ful master • and cheerfully, in fatigue, want, danger, and death, does he repay the care that he feels has been bestowed upon him. His solitary fault,-intem- perance, has no reference to his officers, and is beyond their control; but in every other respect, probably, no officer in the world, excepting in feudal and peculiar local circumstances, enjoys such a degree of moral influence over his men ; and certainly none takes the field with such thorough confidence that affairs must be very desperate indeed that his men may not be depinded upon to set to rights with their bayonets.
3d. The stake they hold in the country, the value of their position in so- ciety, which they cannot venture to compromise, and the high sense of personal honour which prevails among the upper class, (often, it may be admitted, to excess,) have banished from the ranks of our officers such crimes as treason, treachery, dishonest surrender of a post, selling information, desertion, plun- dering, oppression of inhabitants, violence to women, receiving bribes, defraud- ing soldiers, making false reports, passing false accounts, or connivance.at any of the above-mentioned crimes—crimes some of which in some shape or other exist in almost all other services ; and this general trustworthiness, extending from the very highest to the very lowest, adds immeasurably to the effective- ness of the Army, scattered and divided as it is all over the face of the globe, and performing its duties with an incredibly small number of men, and a still more incredibly small expenditure of their lives. As to the second result of purchase, viz. the rapidity of promotion, nobody doubts the advantage of it in a military point of view; but it must here be se- marked—and it is an observation that those who profess themselves the advo- cates of the poorer class of officers cannot consider too carefully or examine too minutely—that this rapidity, so caused, benefits the poor man equally with the rich. The discontented officer reaches the head of the list, and younger ones go over his head : he complains of this as a grievance ; but he forgets that the same system which puts them over his head has already removed a dozen men out of his way. Other men selling their commissions, who would not otherwise have retired, brings him to the point where his grievance commences : true, had there been no purchase he would have had no grievance, but he would have also had no promotion. The practical proof of this exists in the Artillery, Engineers, and Marines : the officers who have got on the fastest in those corps have hardly kept pace with the slowest in the Line, (who have served honestly and regularly—for before a man complains of being treated unjustly he is bound to show that he has shirked or declined no duty, and if, as is often the case in cases of apparent slow promotion, he had changed his regiment repeatedly, why he did so); and the advanced age of the superior officers in those three corps constantly militates against their officering on foreign service.
The third advantage I have stated, that of offering an inducement to quit the service by a sum of money, free of expense to the state, works well in a mere military point of view, by tempting certain classes to leave the service ; such as discontented officers, who have failed or been unfortunate in their pro- fession and are getting old in their ranks, dissipated men who are in embarrass- ments, married men who in the inferior ranks are always objectionable, and habitual rumblers. Any officer having served twenty years is entitled to sell his commission, whether he has purchased it or not : by that time he is at least a Captain, and receives 1,8001. at least; and more probably, by an irregular custom, (which, however it has been found impossible to put down,) some hundreds more. The value of any given sum of money to the individual who receives it, is of course proportionate to his own means ; and no one will deny that 2,000f. is a greater object to a penniless veteran than to a younpter with a thousand a year. In short, the practical working of the system is clear gain to the efficiency of the Army, greater gain to the poor man relatively than the rich, and no cost to the state. Your correspondent lays great stress upon the good qualities of the British soldier ever since the seventeenth century: he does them no more than justice ; but when he hears of such a thing as a body of good soldiers existing two centuries without good officers, it is to be hoped be will let us know where they are to be found, that we may ascertain how the miracle was performed. The Americans certainly fought gallantly and skilfully for their indepen- dence, and conquered it honourably ; but it was a large country against a small army ; and numbers will tell in warfare, notwithstanding that the experience of a full private in the Yeomanry, and a Special Constable, "enables-him confi- dently to say that the efficiency of a corps is tripled under an able officer." Passing the implication contained in this sentence, that the British Army is not furnished with able officers, the Soldier maybe allowed to ask the Citizen, would the presence of NAPOLEON, CIESAR, or WELLINGTON, enable a corps of four hundred men to furnish the same number of sentries as one of twelve hundred, to throw up the same amount of intrenchment during the day, to dig the same quantity of trench during the night, to line the same extent of wall, to construct the same length of road, to fell the same quantity of timber, to watch the same line of river—in short, to furnish the same amount of thoso duties of guard and fatigue upon which the most important operations of war- fare depend ? or, if they must be brought into action toplease him, can they de- liver the same fire ? Your correspondent complains of want of ability in Bri- tish officers, so repeatedly and querulously, that one ignorant of the real facts would suppose that the country was in hourly dread of an invasion in conse- quence of their incapacity. Would he remedy this by accepting a less de- gree of ability ? for that would be the consequence of substituting uncultivated faculties for those already carefully cultivated. He makes us take our stand upon an absurdity, and then says triumphantly, " The idea of poor but able officers becoming dangerous to the liberties of their country, is so preposterous that it scarcely deserves refutation ": nor does it in the present state of things in Great Britain; but has it ever occurred to him, that this system, inducing great numbers of ambitious young men of the middle and lower classes to enter the Army in the hope and with the expectation of becoming officers, five-sixths of whom must be disappointed, might be a process which would in- fallibly produce, in a very few years, a restless body of disappointed and dis- contented non-commissioned officers, who would be very prejudicial to the dis- cipline of the Army ? and this is not a vague speculation of mine; the fact ex- ists at this instant in the French Army, where the theory of selection for merit, services, &c. &c. is carried (in theory) to its fullest extent. The practical working is this : the battalion commanders, in self-defence, select, as ours do, their best men to be non-commissioned officers, from whom the Minister of War selects two-thirds of the officers : but here jobbing enters into the selec- tion—political jobbing, electoral jobbing, court favour, and family. considerations, have their weight, as they would have with us ; the non-commissioned officers are the flower of the men, but the commissioned officers are by no means the flower of the non-commissioned officers; and the result is, that disappointed am- bition, and the idea that their merits are overlooked, have created in the French Army a very dangerous body, all but deliberative, bound together by identity of interest, identity of passion, and as they think, identity of injustice, which goes by the name of the non-commissioned officers' party. This is the party whose unappeasable restlessness necessitates the reckless and unprofitable war in Algiers ; this is the party to which many look for a change in the succes- sion to the Throne at the King's death ; this is the party which the French Princes are everlastingly labounng to conciliate; and though no such party in the British Army could produce such results in the British state, in the pre- sent order of things, still we are better off without any party in the Army at all. He asks, was there promotion by purchase in CROMWELL'S army ?— Certainly not. Does he wish to see the Army of 1842 reenact the scenes per- formed by CROMWELL'S army ? Does he wish to hear the ominous words, " You are no longer a Parliament ; the Lord has done with you "? to see the mace removed, a Lord-Protector proclaimed by a council of officers, or any other of the playful irregularities with which the companions of Rotate and IRETON disported themselves? The expense of the measure seems never once to have entered his head. Without a gigantic act of robbery committed on the Army, which he probably would not recommend, it would cost about seven millions of money to redeem the commissions of those at present on full-pay; to say nothing of the immense numbers of officers on half-pay who retain a dormant property in their commissions, which revives the instant they are employed; and the very considerable increase that must infallibly take place on the half-pay and pension-lists : for the old, worn- out, disabled officers cannot be turned penniless adrift—if the state deprives them of their property, it must compensate them. For the real effect of this sweep- ing measure, as concerns the Chancellor of the Exchequer, would be the de- struction of a large mass of property held in unexceptionable hands, and of the nature of a pledge to the state of the good conduct of the holders, to be made good afterwards in one shape or other by the state. Towards the end of his letter he seems to mollify a little, and admits that " there are an immense number of able and talented officers ; and so there would be were the selection made by ballot." So there might be, but certainly not the same number; for the ballot would only give a fair average of the population, whereas the aristo- cratic system picks its men, not as individuals, but as a class. The work would not be done cheaper, because the pay of the officer is now barely sufficient to support him ; and the utmost ingenuity of the whole Army, stimulated by the natural wish to live as cheaply as possible, and by the incessant interference and exertions of the superior authorities, has been exerted for years and years in vain to produce any diminution of the necessary expenses. But the work would certainly be done worse; because the officer from the ranks, assuming his personal qualities to be equal to or higher than the officer of aristocratic con- nexions, would never, in the present temper of the British Army, receive from the soldiery the same ready obedience or command the same respect and affection. The world of matter into which the Citizen plunged, including China, percussion-locks, transcendentalism, James the Second, CLIVE, CaorawELL, NAPOLEON, and a private in the Yeomanry, together with, as I said before, the largeness of the subject itself, have stretched these observations to a most unconscionable length ; and yet I regret to say that I have been obliged by consideration of space to leave many unimportant points untouched ; and among others, none more important than the difficulty of getting, upon any terms whatever, even from the most highly-educated classes, men capable of performing the endless varieties of duty to the state, not strictly military, of which the task of the British officer is composed, at all sorts of distance from advice or assistance, dealing with all languages and all religions, under every conceivable diversity of circumstances, and upon which task the sun never sets. C. H. IL P.S. Some errors in the letter, strictly military, I have refrained from no- ticing, as they do not bear upon the subject.