Why I Write About British Redcoat Soldiers, by Paul Fraser Collard
“For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’Chuck him out, the brute!
But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot;”
Rudyard Kipling, Tommy
I have been fascinated with the British soldier for as long as I can remember. I can still vividly recall the first time I saw the film Zulu on a grey and wet Sunday afternoon when I must have been around ten years old. The images that I saw filled me with a desire to know more of these fabulous red-coated soldiers, one that is still with me to this day.
The British redcoat is, to my mind, one of the best fighting soldiers the world has ever seen. From the fields of the Peninsular, to the siege of Sevastapol, the British redcoat has endured it all. Yet in the main these men were as far from professional warriors as you could get.
The ranks of a redcoat battalion were filled by all manner of men, from every part of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Many were criminals. The ranks of the British army were long filled with the scraping of the jails, with many a local magistrate happy enough for criminals to be taken off his hands by the local recruiters, to save the cost and the time of a trial. Other would-be soldiers were simply desperate. Many a man would look on the harsh life of a soldier as being an improvement on the miserable existence that they endured in civilian life. The promise of regular meals, a bed at the end of every day, decent clothes, regular pay and a daily ration of rum, seemed like heaven to men used to the hardship of a life without hope. Then there were the proud and the gullible. The dreamers who joined up fuelled the desire to serve their country standing shoulder to shoulder with those gulled by the blarney of the recruited sergeants. The ranks of the British army were nothing if not varied.
Nor were our British redcoats physically impressive specimens. In the main they averaged around five foot four tall, their diminutive size the result of childhoods that provided barely enough sustenance for them to survive, let alone fill out and grow strong. These were certainly no Spartan warriors, men trained from birth to be the finest fighting machines possible. They were the product of polluted and over-crowded cities, who were taken and moulded into soldiers in a harsh and unforgiving environment where discipline was enforced with the ever-present fear of flogging or even of death.
Yet these British redcoats won a proud John Bull victory after victory. They showed resilience on the battlefield that was scarcely creditable, enduring dreadful hardships before walking into the dreadful maelstrom of battle, taking their muskets and their bayonets, against whichever nation was the country’s current foe.
When it came to writing my first novel, I could not even contemplate writing on any other subject. I simply had to write about redcoats. Researching their stories has been wonderful. I have lost count of the times I have forgotten what I was searching for as I found myself mesmerised by the tales of the lives they endured as much as by the battles that they fought.
It appears I am not alone. From Bernard Cornwell, to John Wilcox, from Saul David to Adrian Goldsworthy and on to A.L. Berridge and Patrick Mercer, many of the current crop of fantastic historical writers have been lured into tales where the British redcoat takes centre-stage in their adventures.
We are all drawn to these wonderful men. Wellington may have famously called them “the scum of the Earth”, but he also once pointed at a red-coated figure and said, “it all depends on that article there whether we do the business or not. Give me enough of it, and I am sure.” The Iron Duke knew that the battles he faced were not won by the killing power of the machines in his artillery batteries or by the gaudy dandies in his cavalry. Wellington knew that battles were won by the tenacious ranks of the bloody-minded infantry. If “that article there” stood in his line, endured everything the enemy threw at him and then closed to deliver his close-range volleys followed by a devastating bayonet charge, then, and only then, was victory assured.
It is this indomitable spirit that compelled me to write stories about the men who fought in these famous red coats. They were the unloved product of our society and yet somehow, and for some reason, they fought and died for their country with a fierce pride and determination that is simply awe-inspiring, winning the victories of which we are still so very proud to this day.
They are quite simply the best and I love writing about them.
Glyn Iliffe’s author website: www.paulfrasercollard.com
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