"The British troops who fought so successfully under the Duke of Wellington during his Peninsular Campaign against Napoleon have long been branded by the duke’s own words—“scum of the earth”—and assumed to have been society’s ne’er-do-wells or criminals who enlisted to escape justice. This book shows to the contrary that most of these redcoats were respectable laborers and tradesmen and that it was mainly their working-class status that prompted the duke’s derision. Driven into the army by unemployment in the wake of Britain’s industrial revolution, they confronted wartime hardship with ethical values and became formidable soldiers in the bargain
These men depended on the king’s shilling for survival, yet pay was erratic and provisions were scant. Fed worse even than sixteenth-century Spanish galley slaves, they often marched for days without adequate food; and if during the campaign they did steal from Portuguese and Spanish civilians, the theft was attributable not to any criminal leanings but to hunger and the paltry rations provided by the army.
Coss draws on a comprehensive database on British soldiers as well as first-person accounts of Peninsular War participants to offer a better understanding of their backgrounds and daily lives. He describes how these neglected and abused soldiers came to rely increasingly on the emotional and physical support of comrades and developed their own moral and behavioral code. Their cohesiveness, Coss argues, was a major factor in their legendary triumphs over Napoleon’s battle-hardened troops.
The first work to closely examine the social composition of Wellington’s rank and file through the lens of military psychology, All for the King’s Shilling transcends the Napoleonic battlefield to help explain the motivation and behavior of all soldiers under the stress of combat."
So reads the blurb online anyway. This is an eye-opening read. Meticulously researched offering an interdisciplinary perspective that blends science and history in a way that has become a hallmark of Coss's work. Coss's appreciation of what it means to be a soldier is part of what works especially well in this book - that recognition of what actually motivates the soldier is one of the most important takeaways from this book, and I personally find the arguments about primary group cohesion compelling. They can, of course, be debated. When studying the German Wehrmacht, Omer Bartov questioned the extent to which primary group cohesion can be overplayed as a factor in success. Nonetheless, this is, in my view, an important book for those who want to better understand the life of the rank and file of the British Army during this period.
P.S. In the replies to this post can we please avoid a repetition of the discussion about Coss's work on Napoleon's mental state which has been done to death at least three times in the last week.