UBC Theses and Dissertations

UBC Theses Logo

UBC Theses and Dissertations

The politics of self-preservation : a social history of the British Army rank-and-file during the Napoleonic era Kuczma, Roland Paul


The purpose of this thesis was to gain some insight into the common soldier's perception of his existence within the British Army during the Napoleonic era. Specifically, I sought to understand how the vast majority of them managed to cope with conditions that would strike most people today as appalling and which were equally anathema to the greater part of British civilian society at the time. The tendency among historians has been to treat the traditional soldier as an automaton: his loyalty is explained in terms of social deference or innate stupidity. The result is that histories of the British Army either dwell on its purely military side, that is, famous battles and the details of their strategies or else the Army's mundane features, for example, weaponry and uniforms. The most fascinating aspect of war - how it is experienced by those who actually participate in it - is ignored, and consequently valuable insight into the nature of human motivation and behaviour is lost. In an effort to make the soldier's way of life comprehensible I investigated, for the moat part, material written by the combatants themselves, chiefly diaries, letters and journals, and, to a small extent, observations of army life by men outside the rank-and-file, published in dispatches, newspapers, memoirs, and novels. I sought through an understanding of the soldier's perception to isolate the personal needs served by the army as well as to trace the evolution of self-preserving strategies needed to survive its difficulties, with concern to the way in which indigenous social attitudes, the dynamics of group behaviour, trauma, and fatigue contributed to their establishment. The research was, I think, extremely valuable. The importance to a soldier's dedication of his motivation for enlisting was demonstrated. (The desire to escape poverty or the industrial way of life and the promise of adventure and glory were but a few of a number of reasons whey men joined.) The appeals of army life were isolated, and these included for many, the growth of a sense of purpose, a dignity, a feeling of belonging, and an arrant vitality which often develops through constant exposure to the threat of death, an experience that such modern existentialists as Jaspers and Sartre have dwelt upon considerably in their writings. Finally, the soldier's strong survival capacity, his 'tenacity of self-perservation' in the words of E.P. Thompson, made possible through the utilization of coping mechanisms, was recognized. These processes included forgetfulness, depersonalization, regression, romanticism, and the emergence of a belief in strength through adversity. This was not to suggest, however, that the soldier was infinitely flexible; my analysis of the character of the Army in the eighteenth century, included in this paper, pointed out the high level of desertion resulting from its corrupt, brutal, and demoralized state. Reform of the worst features of force, initiated about 1796, thus also contributed to army loyalty, and not only insofar as it made the life more comfortable than hitherto it had been, but also to the extent that it gave men hope that amelioration would continue to occur. Clearly, then, the problem of why men maintained their dedication to the force was an enormously complex one, and it is hoped that in the endeavour to understand it, the British soldier was portrayed accurately and in a humane fashion.

Item Media

Item Citations and Data


For non-commercial purposes only, such as research, private study and education. Additional conditions apply, see Terms of Use https://open.library.ubc.ca/terms_of_use.