It being the 18th June and the 199th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo I came across a reference in a newspaper to the Napoleonic War version of the Home Guard, the militia regiments that were recruited during the years of the war with France and her allies. During the early 19th century regiments were formed in local communities to defend the country from enemies, both external and internal. Militia largely comprised of the landed gentry or the middle classes, Catholics and some Nonconformists were excluded although restrictions were lifted later when the country faced an acute manpower shortage after 1812 when wars against the French and the Americans drained resources. Over 100,000 men joined the Militia and recruitment increased sharply when there was a possibility of French invasion during 1803-4. The number of men under arms was staggering with something like half of all men of military age donning uniform. The presence of the military in everyday life even finds itself described in the pages of “Pride and Prejudice” with the flighty
Lydia drooling over the presence of
the uniformed Mr Wickham and his soldier colleagues. The need for large numbers
involved in the war caused strains on the manufacturing capacity of British
factories and shortages of uniform and weapons were reported which reminded me
of similar problems faced over 100 years later when the Home Guard was formed.
Their duties were varied and could include guarding prisoners of war. In 1799 the Staffordshire Militia were called out to guard Dutch prisoners, the task of standing watch over captured enemy combatants grew more onerous as the war progressed and more prisoners were landed in the country. By 1810 prisoner numbers stood at 52,000, some of the number finding their way to Leek which housed 300 French POWs.
The Militia were also called to suppress civil disorder in times of hardship. One example occurred at the “
Battle” of Macclesfield in
April 1812 when 300 rioters descended on the town demanding shop owners lower
their prices. It was an example of what
the late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm would have called “collective
bargaining by riot” Order was eventually restored by the Stockport Militia who
even brought up cannon to deal with the disturbances. (On one occasion the
Militia sided with the rioters when soldiers in Portsmouth demanded that butchers reduce
their prices). Staffordshire Militia were also ordered to Nottinghamshire
during the Luddite uprising in the same yea.
There were also times of display when the Staffordshire Militia paraded before the Prince of Wales at
Windsor in 1799 to
celebrate his birthday.
Discipline could be lax and whimsical; the Dorset Volunteers fined soldiers 6p for laughing when the command of “attention” was given. Nearer home in Cheadle in April 1809 the local regiment “composed of well sized and muscular young men” who were well drilled, but lacked control as the following incident illustrates. One of the recruits insulted the commanding officer Colonel Wilson. The man was condemned to be flogged, but
revoked the order and addressed the company on the need to follow orders which
had a “salutary effect of the corps”