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Soldiers, sources, and serendipity

Like much historical research, my chapter in the Britain’s Soldiers collection came about more or less by accident. It relates to an incident that I discovered in the War Office papers at in 2007. I was taking a group of History students from Northampton University to The National Archives in Kew, to help them with their undergraduate dissertations. I had a small amount of time to do some of my own research, so ordered WO 43/404. The title sounded promising: ‘A book containing copies of correspondence in 1761, relative to the Behaviour of the Duke of Richmond’s regiment & Militia at Stamford on the 15th April 1761’.

What arrived was a letter book. It immediately struck me as being unusual, as the War Office usually just kept in-letters, whereas this book copied both sides of a lengthy correspondence between the Secretary at War and various other protagonists. Something noteworthy had clearly occurred, and was therefore preserved, possibly as a precedent to inform future action. I was pushed for time, however, so I quickly photographed the whole book and returned to my students.

Four years later I finally had an opportunity to transcribe the letters. What emerged was a bizarre event. In brief, the Lincolnshire Militia was quartered in Stamford and a regiment of the regular army that was on the march approached the town. The regulars had such contempt for the militia that they marched straight in, disregarding the usual military convention that they send advance word, and proceeded to refuse any of the other courtesies that the militia attempted to offer them. The militia’s commander took such umbrage at these slights that he posted sentries at entrances to the town, ‘to prevent any armed Troops entering the Town for the future without my knowledge and consent’. When further regulars attempted to enter the town, the militia stopped them at the point of their bayonets and a fight ensued in which men were injured, and could have been killed.

This was more than a local scrap. Neither side would admit fault and so wrote to the War Office to intercede. Despite the fact that Britain was in the midst of the Seven Years War – the largest global conflict that Britain had then fought – the Secretary at War took the incident very seriously indeed, and the letter book records how the fallout preoccupied him for a further two months. The dispute even drew in the King himself, who as Commander in Chief was keen to preserve ‘that Equality and Harmony in Service which is so much to be wished and cultivated’.

I was intrigued by the story that emerged from this letter book, and a paper trail ensued as I attempted to flesh out the story with other sources. My attempts to find references to the affair in public sources such as newspapers drew a blank, and I had more luck in private family papers and local government records instead. This was not an incident that was publicly known about at the time, which perhaps explains why historians had overlooked it.

As a cultural historian, what drew me to this incident was that it was an example of people behaving oddly. It is often only when people are behaving abnormally that we get an insight into the normal expectations of behaviour that go unspoken – in this case, attitudes towards military precedence and masculine honour. I think that incidents like the one at Stamford in 1761 highlight the crucial significance of ‘polite’ and controlled conduct in the eighteenth-century military. To our eyes, the interpersonal conduct of Georgian army officers may seem terribly mannered – but this is clearly desirable when you have large numbers of men who are highly defensive of their status and armed to the teeth. Rather than just reconstructing micro-incidents like this for their own sake, therefore, it is helpful to think about them more anthropologically in order to shed light on the workings of a past society.

Headline image credit: Battle of Bunker Hill by E. Percy Moran. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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