The Duke of Wellington famously described his troops as 'the scum of the earth'. It was a vicious and scathing attack on the men who had won him every battle that he had fought, but was it actually a fair comment? Evidence suggests that a significant number of men did enlist from the lowest sections of society. Post your thoughts below, and let the discussion commence!
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First an apology; I posted earlier then deleted it, as I had not checked facts. Must do better.
I suggest there was deteriorating behaviour in the allied army through the Peninsular War. Up to 1812, it tended to be behaviour away from conflict i.e. plundering. Wellington was not happy and tried to stop it but it was not affecting his operations. At the siege of Burgos there was behaviour that affected operations and during the retreat there was misbehaviour that was not related to the supply issues. The discipline problems after Vitoria are well publicised and then there were the claimed issues around the behaviour of the 5th Division at the first assault at San Sebastian. The troops' behaviour was now affecting Wellington's operations and this is what made him angry. The letter from Wellington after the retreat from Burgos criticising the conduct of officers during the retreat was the predecessor to the later 'scum of the earth' comment which was directed at the soldiers.
Drawing soldiers from the economic disadvantaged classes is nothing new. The keys, here, are understanding the context of Wellington‘s remarks, recognizing the gulf between classes, and noting the connection between enlistment and economic downturns. Oh, and realizing that there is NO evidence that these men were criminals when they enlisted. I always thought that Wellington’s comments were due, in part, to the ongoing issues of their behavior when he couldn’t feed his army properly, which was most of the time. Did they plunder? You bet. I have seen little evidence that they committed grievous crimes against local populations, however. Yet, Wellington‘s words continue to be accepted as gospel truth, which slants historical analysis of the army and its regulars.
Every army in history has drawn most of its recruits from these places.