There is one quote that is the bane of my life – my professional life, I should say – when it comes to how people think about the rank and file in the British army during this period, and it's Wellington’s “scum of the Earth” comment, which is infamous and full of sarcasm and ire.


And a lot of people don't get the context or they try and explain it away. So one of the things that people often say is, ‘Oh, Wellington didn't believe his men were the scum of the Earth’. No, I'm sorry, he absolutely did. He used the comment on four separate occasions, so he was utterly committed to that belief.

Some people say it was a backhanded compliment. Well, on one of the occasions, yes, it was. So much later, after the Napoleonic Wars, he turns around and says that the army was composed of the scum of the Earth, and it was remarkable what fine fellows the British army was able to make out of them.

Where does 'scum of the Earth' come from?

But the original comment actually comes from 1813, and it comes after the battle of Vitoria. About a fortnight after the battle. Wellington gets a lot of complaints from locals, local Spanish individuals.

In fact, the mayor of Vitoria writes to him and says, ‘Look, we're very grateful that you won the battle of Vitoria and that you've liberated the region from French control. But there's a problem. And that problem is that lots of your soldiers are marauding the countryside, casually holding up people going about their lawful business and robbing them. Could you possibly do something about it? Because it's not great.’

Series of rants

Wellington makes a series of rants about this throughout his time commanding forces on active operations, and this is actually instalment number four in a series of letters.

And he writes in a private capacity to a member the British government and says, “It is quite impossible for me or any other man to command the British army under the existing system. We have in the service the scum of the Earth as common soldiers,” which is a really bruising and brutal comment to make.

Now the bottom line is that it's not true. So we've taken that and we've kind of created this perception that everybody in the rank and file of the British army was poor – which is often true, you know, these weren't rich people quite obviously – but on top of that, these were the criminal cases, the underclass beneath the working class. And that's just not true.

Recruit from prisons

You do have scope, actually, to recruit people from prisons. It was a way to boost recruitment. There are lots of kind of variables within that. One of the things is that part of that system is that you can sentence somebody to serve, in the worst cases. So, if you're caught having committed theft, for example, one of the sentences that the Old Bailey occasionally hands out is service in the army or the navy, and you quite often get the choice.

But those individuals tend to be drafted straight off to the penal battalions that man the West Indies (the ‘Fever Islands’), and they're sent there because that's where most people end up dying if they're on active service and they're Western European because of issues with disease.

We're only just discovering things like the smallpox vaccine during this period, so people haven't got on top of immunology and so they send these people who are not particularly promising in terms of qualities that you want in a soldier, and they send them that to die basically. And if they survive their service, well, that's great.

Spikes in recruitment

But the majority in the army are actually sort of labourers, people who end up on hard times, and you see these spikes in recruitment actually occurring when the labouring classes can't find work. So they tend to be quite kind of seasonal and when there are depressions or when there are food shortages.

That's when people really start to look to the army because, in theory, it should give you a daily wage and two meals a day. The reality doesn't necessarily match that, but that is people's hope. And so actually the whole “scum of the Earth” thing has become a massive distraction, in terms of how the rank and file were really kind of comprised socially.


Dr Zack White was speaking with David Musgrove on the HistoryExtra podcast, discussing crime and punishment in the Duke of Wellington’s army during the Napoleonic wars. Hear more from this conversation in the full the audio episode, or watch the whole video interview.