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© 2018 by Zack White and the NapoleonicWars.net team.  Proudly created with Wix.com

New Beginnings

July 31, 2017

 

Today is a special day in many ways. Yesterday, i formally ended my job as a teacher (an event which my students fondly referred to as Wh-exit), so the 22nd July 2017 therefore marks the start of my PhD process. However, in a more important, and historical, sense, the 22nd July marks the anniversary of a pivotal battle of the Napoleonic era - the Battle of Salamanca. To mark the 205th anniversary of that battle, i have written a separate post below about whether Salamanca should be considered to be a wasted victory.

 

However, the purpose of this post is to briefly outline my PhD project, what I already know, and where I plan to go. The Duke of Wellington famously described his men as the 'Scum of the Earth' in a furious letter written in 1813. Crucially, after the Battle of Vittoria, poor disicpline led to the troops plundering the abandoned French baggage train, instead of pursuing the retreating French units. Wellington felt that this had limited the scale of his victory (a topic which is still open to debate).

 

On a number of occassions, Wellington had felt that the discipline of his men was not what it should have been, and made equally angry outbursts. It is therefore very easy to get the impression that disicpline was a recurring problem in the British army during this period. However, the reality is that we know very little about the day-to-day realities of discipline in the British army. We do know that punishments were very brutal by modern standards - punishments such as floggings of 1000 lashes were not unusual. However, this must be set within the context of the time, when theft was punishable by death.

 

There is very little work on this topic. The last major piece of historical research on disicpline was done over 100 years ago, by the great Peninsular War expert Sir Charles Oman, but his work raises as many questions as it answers. There was therefore a gap in our understanding that was waiting to be filled. I had first become interested in the idea of discipline whilst researching my MA dissertation. In that I explored the idea of confidence, and began to investigate the numbers of crimes that had been committed to try to measure the attitudes of the troops. The deeper that I delved, the more apparent it became that discipline in the British army during the Peninsular War was a huge topic, which would take years to research properly. From that, my PhD concept was born!

 

In the weeks and months ahead, I want to explore how crimes were punished, how soldiers were brought to trial, examine whether the judicial process was fair, and whether the victims actually received true justice. Equally, why did some crimes go unpunished? How widespread were issues of discipline in reality? And how did Wellington personally invovle himself in the process of keeping his troops disciplined? These questions, and many more, will be answered over the next three years.

 

I don't mind admitting that I am incredibly excited about the prospect of the journey ahead. As I discover the answers, I will keep you updated via this blog. I hope that you will join me for the journey!

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