** boys in the military: England

Boys in the Military: England

Figure 1.--Boys continued to serve in British military units as late as the 1890s. The Drum Major of an infantry battallion is seen here inna photograph probably taken in the 1890s. This is the Drum Corps of the 1st Battalion, Northampton Regiment stationed in Aldershot during 1892.

British Army rgimentss generally had a few boys. TYhere was ifficial authorization fir a small number. Rhe youngr boys were assigned to be muscians, but not all the nuscins were boys. The younger boys learned to play a musical instrument and marched with the regimenyt. There was lkso a reghimental band. The younger boy beat yhe trums. The older boys wih more ling power plted trumprts and buggles. Others worked asaprentices under skilled tradsmen to learn trade important to the unit. Trades such as cobbler and tailor were examples. The Pioner Seargent might also use a few boys. He had a section of men responsible for all the building repairs, such as the barracks. They had to be familiar with bricklaying, plumbing, carpentry, and other trades. Most of the boys by the late 19th century served in the Drum Corps. The regultions nd usde of boys changed iver time. The Army after stopping the enlistment of boys in 19??, developed various youth progrmas such as the cadets and the Boys' Regiment.

The Regimental System

The Rrgimental System was a uniquely European military orhanization stytem, developed as the Europeans were extending their sway over the rest of the world (17h century) It was a factior in European military success. It was particularly pronounced in the British Army and an important factor in the the major European Wars (18th-19th centuries). Ir was a factor in British operayioins in North America during both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. The Regiment was the major unit of organiation during the American Civil War. The orgins wre French. France and the armies of Louis XIV dominated Europe (17th century). This is why so mmany military terns are French. One of those is régiment. There are known regiments during the late-medieval period (13th century). It was, however, not tell later that the term entered standard military usage in Europe (late 16th centur). At the time, Europpean armies were evolving from the medieval collections of feudfal retinues who followed knights. What was devekoping was permanently organized royal military forces. At first, regiments were commonly named after their commanding officer--normally a colonel. They were disbanded at the end of a campaign or war. Early European regiments under the direction of the commanding colonel might recruit from and serve different monarchs or countries. Gradually they became strongly national in characyr. It became customary to name the regiment by its precedence in the line of battle and to recruit from specific areas--called cantons. The rehiment was effective because it attracted and rhriughkt traune rectuts as a professional and duciolined miitary body. As a result they could often face up magainst muchg larger, but less dicuplimed militarty forces. This occurred in colonial wars, including the Amerucan Revolution where much of the Patriot force was poorly trained militias. Regiments had become the standard oeganizational unit of European armies (early-18th century). They had become permanent units with distinctive titles. National armies had developed basuc uniforms, but regiments commonly has desctivive feratures. A regiment at full strength cimmonly was composed of two field battalions of about 800 menm usyally divided into 8–10 companies.

Figure 2.--Another photograph of the Drum Corps in a British Army battalion. Note the dog that the boys have. This is another photograph of the 1st Battalion, Northampton Regiment. It was one of the many country reguments that made up the bulk of the British Army.


One issue that is more difficult than it msay seem is the age of boys rfecruited into the Army. The pronlem is that the regulations changed over time and were often ambioguous over the ages of boys that could be recruited. The maximum age of recruits is normally clearly stated. The minimum nages are more difficult to ascertain. A good example is regulations issued in 1802 during the Napoleonic Wars. It established uniform recruitung regulations for British infantry regiments. "In the Infantry, Men enlisted...are not to be taken above Twenty-five [Thirty] years of Age, nor less than Five Feet Six [Five] inch high; but growing Lads from Seventeen to Nineteen Years of Age, may be taken as low as Five Feet Five [Four] Inches.... The Lads and Boys are to be enlisted as Privates, without any Promise or Expectation being held out to them that they are to be of the Band, or put on Drummer's Pay." The numbers in [ ] are revisions made later in the war. This was required as it became harder and harder to find suitable recruits. One source suggests, "From the study of descriptive rolls and inspection returns of regiments it appears the "growing Lads" phase was used as a loop hole to recruit those quite under the required height, and some of the boys that were enlisted were under 5 feet in height." [Henderson] Notice that no mininum age is imdicated, although the implication is that recruitment begins at 17nyears of age. The focus on height was probably a practical matter as birth certioticates were anot vas rasilyb maintained as as is the case today. And hights coulkd be easily measured. Here in effect not only restricted short maen, but also nyoing boys. The minimum heights basically kinted recreuit mnen to teen agers, but at the time many younger teens were under the minimum.

The Drum Corps

The Drum Major

The Drum Major was a staff seargent who commanded about 16 drummers, although the precise number varried from unit to unit. They also provided music separate from the band with fife and drums. One of the main functions was traditional to provide bugglers. The buggle in the late19th century was not yetpurely ceremonial. The buggle was usually an older lad and until the invention of improved battlefield communications served a major role in communication on the battlefield. Drummer boys learned the buggle and would use it to mark the daily events at each post. Every day, one drummer would be on duty with the barracks guard based in the guard-room. He would sound the buggle calls needed for the battalion routine. Through the day from "Reveille" in the morning to "Taps" at night, life on a military post would be punctuated by buggle calls. These traditional calls are still heard, although now by tape recorder and loud speakers.


Boys in British army units, like the other enlisted members, wore a variety of uniforms. The variety of uniforms make them quite complicated to follow. There were both dress and field uniforms. The uniforms varied over time. To further compivcate the matter, there was not one standard uniform worn throughout the army. Rather different units like the Cold Stream, Grenadier, and Scotts Guard had quite destinctive uniforms.

Figure 3.--This boy is a trumpeter of the 17th Lancers. The unit was a calvary regiment that gallantly participated in the Charge of the Light Brigade.

The battalion

A British Army battalion consisted of eight companies, eachbcomposed of 80-100 men who lived in great barracks blocks. Each room contained a section of 16-20 men. The boys, whether drummers or not, lived in the same room under the authority of the Drum Major. They had no privacy. The beds were lined up either side of the room, with shelves and pegs for the boys to hang their clothes and equipment. They were not allowed personal,property. Their military vequipment had to be laid out in regimental fashion. Each bed was the same, except for a few family photographs that they were allowed to display.

Personal care

The Victorians were becoming aware of the importance of clenliness. The boys re expected to take a bath once a week. Shirts and socks had to be changed weekly. One of the soldier's wives was paid to do the laundry. The pay was 6d (2 1/2p) daily paid forthnightly, out of an entitement pf 7/-s (35p) they would be charged 3/6d for rations, and a small amount for washing, haircuts, etc. Any damage to the barracks or their uniforms would also have to be paid for. That did not leave them much mondy. Their conditiins were, on the whole, better than many on the other side of the barracks gate. <,br>

Daily activities

The military day started wth "Reveille" at 6:00 in the summer and 6:30 during the winter. The boys would get up for their ablutions to wash. Two would be detailed as room orderlies. The first order of business was to take the urine tub to the ablutionds, empty, and rinse it out. Once everyone was washed and dressed, they would fold away the beds, clean their equipment, and lay it out in the proper manner for inspection. veryone was respnsible for thde clenliness of their own bed spacce. The room orderlies tidied and cleaned the fire place and the tables and benches in the center of the room. Meals were eatten in the barracks room. When the duty drummer sounded "Mess call", the room orderlies from all the barracks rooms reported to the kitchen where they were given the food to take back to the barracks to be shared out. Breakfast consisted of tea and bread. For dinner they would have meat, potatoes, and vegetables. At tea time there would be bread and jam. The meat and bread was provided by the Army, everything had to be provided for by pay stoppages.

Figure 4.--This drummer boy wears the dress uniform of the Coldstream Guards. The Coldstream Guards along with the Grenadier and Scotts Guards, were the eliete of the British Army.

The working day consisted mostly of drill parades. This was not hust the ceremonial drill that we now associate with soldiers. but the chnging formations that the batallions would need in battle for attack and defense, to advance and withdraw, bayonet charge and fire. As well as attending these oarades the boys ould spend a lot of time in the music practice rooms learing their skills. The boys were not traned to fight, nor were they given weapons training. The only firearms that were issued to them were the short swords worn by drummes and band boys.


Every batallion had a schoolmaster who ran classes for the soldiers, many of who were ileterate. The Army required them to have a knowlwedge of reading, writing and arithmatic before they could gain promotion. Rach day the boys would attend one period in class untill they earned an education certificate.

Free time

The working day ended at 4:00 pm and the boys were ten free to walk out of the barracks. They had to be smartly dressed innside cap, best tunic, belt, and carrying a cane of regimental pattern. The belt had to be shitened and the buttons polished. Men could staubout until 10:00 pm when "Last Post" was sounded and the gates locked. The boys, however, had to be in by 8:00 pm when they had to be present by their beds for rollcall. I'm not sure just what the bys got up to outside the barracks. The fact that they were dressed up somewhat limited their activties. Some boys would go fishing. Accounts note 14-yearold William Harbourn, a tailor boy in the 2nd battalion Grenadier Guardsd, was fishing in a canal near Pirbright Camp on the afternoon of ASugust 3, 1888. Nearby two small boys were playing and one, a boy of 7 years fell into the deepwater above the lock. He would have inevitably been drowned had not quick-thinking William plunged in after him. After two exhausting dives, gallantly brought the boy to the bank in an exhaustive condition. The Royal Humne Society awarded William their bronze medal and it was presented to him on parade in front of his Batallion by the Commanding Officer. For those who remained in barracks there was the canteen for cakes and lemonade. Dominoes and other games could be played. They could go to the skittle alley. Innthe library they had access ton the "penny dreadfull" novels thatvwere so popular at the time.


On some days the battalion would march out of the barracks into the countryside to conduct manouvers. They would join other infantry battalions s well as regiments of calvary and artillery to carry our mock battles. From the Drum Corps, two drummers were detached to each company to act as bugglers. They moved with the officers and transmitted their orders by buggle call. These manouvers were often a popular breal from the mundane routine of barracks life. The manouvers could be hot and tiring as they trugged miles along dusty back roads. They carried their day's rations in their haversack and a water bottle. If they stayed out over night, they set up a tent with Bell Tents.

Figure 5.--This is Drummer Dunn in the khaki uniform he wore with the 1st Battalion Fusiliers during the Boer War.

Actual battle

In the wars that Britain fought in defence of King and Country, these boys bravely stood with the men against all of the dangers of the battlefield. There are many accounts of the bravery and tragic deaths of these boy soldiers. Britain in 1879 forced a war on the Zukui Nation of present day South Africa. The first battle of that war was a disaster. The Zulus armed mostly with spears attacked a tented camp of the 24th Regiment near Isandlwana Mountain. By weight of numbers they overwealmed a thin line of redcoats, slaughtering the entire regiment. When reinforcements arrived, they were shocked to find the bodies of their slaughtered friends. One soldier wrote, "Even the little boys we hand in the band .... It was a pitiful sight." For the rest of the war, the Zulus were treated without sympathy until they were finally defeated in the Battle of Ulundi. Eventually the warrir nation, unequipped to confront a modern European Army, was broken and their King captured. The British Army 20 years later found itself at war in South Africa agaian. This time with Dutch settlers called the Boers. At the Battle of Colenso, the first soldier hit was No. 6406 Drummer Dunn, the 14 year-old drummer with A Company, 1st Battalion Dublin Fusiliers. The company had a hard time of it in the fighting with 37 killed and wounded out of 84 men. The Battalion had just crossed the Tugela River and charged the Boer trenches. Dunn was in the front with the officers when a shell burst near them driving pieves of shrapnel into his chest and right arm. He remained concious until loss of blood caused him to pass out. He was placed on an ambuance wagon and taken to the hospital in Maritzburg. Later he returned with other wounded soldiers to England and the military hospital at Netley. English newspaers had reported on the plight of this plucky drummer boy. During his 18 days in the hospital, well wishers sent him letters and presents of chocolate. He also was visited by Princess Christian. When fully recovered he returned to his regimental duties in barracks. He had seen his share of active service and was not sent back to war waging in South Africa.

The Boys' Regiment

In Britain during the late 1930's, 40's and 50's, youths of 18 and over were drafted into the army. One Britisdh conontributor to HBC reports that at 18 he found himself in the Royal Artillery. He served some 18 months as an Instructor in the Boys Regiment of the Royal Artillery, the name later being changed to Junior Leaders Regiment, RA. This regiment was made up by boys who enlisted for fixed periods of time. Cant remember whether it was 13 years and up or 14 years. Many of these boys came from poor families or from military families. In the case of the poor, a sign up bounty was paid in cash probably to the parent. I cant remember the amounts but it would seem a lot at a time when two pounds a week would be the pay. Possibly I am being generous in the amount. I was stationed at an army camp in Hereford. Boys learned to be gunners on the 25 pounder guns and also musicians in the Regimental Band which was excellent. Uniform in the band was that of the late 1800's. Uniform in the regiment was close neck collar battle dress type uniform. Boys mustered at either 17 or 18. That means they went into the regular army.


British schools and schools in their colonies had a cadet program. American schools had comparable programs, the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC). I do not yet have detail on the creation and organization of these programs. Some information is available on their uniforms.


British Army Officers initially took members of their own household staff with them when they went to fight in order that they had someone cook, clean and generally tend to them. These were not slaves (although not far off from that in many cases) but Servants in paid employ. Valets and sometimes Butlers would attend. These were the days when the aristocracy formed the Officer class. Later the Army appointed Batmen, a form of Steward, to fulfil the needs of Officers. This was a peculiarly Army thing as the Royal Navy and Royal Flying Corps (later to become the Royal Air Force) Officers never took their own staff but relied upon Stewards employed by the Services to look after their needs in their Officer Messes. Lower ranks also had Mess Staff but as ranks increased the level of service corresponded. I am not yet sure about the ages of batmen.

Individual Boys

We would like to add here accounts about actual boys. One such boy was Stanley Davies of the Newcastle Hill Bridgend. He joined as a bugle boy. In the Welsh Regiment he became a segeant. He was killed in World War I. Compiling this section is a little complicated because not all the boys we have found wearing Army uniforms were actuaslly in the Army. We note S.S. Guen in the 1880s, for example, wearing an emaculate uniform. He seems to be, however, an Eton student rather than a boy recruit. We are not entirely sure why he is wearing the uniform. We note an unidentified Irish boy , we think in the 1890s. At the time, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, and there were Irish regimnts in the British Army.


Gilmore, Graham. Gilmore orivided the original draft ot this pagr. contributed the initial draft of this page (January 23, 2000).

Henderson, Robert. "Taking the King's shilling: Recruitment for the British Army, 1812," ThevWar of 1812 Website (2001).


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Created: January 23, 2000
Last updated: 3:20 AM 4/8/2022