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The British Volunteer Force

Frederick Engels

The great review of volunteers which took place in London a few weeks ago has attracted attention to the citizen soldiers of Great Britain. The volunteers must not be confounded with the militia, which is a separate arm of her Majesty's service. On the 1st of April, the militia numbered, according to Government statistics, 50,000. Of these, 23,735 were embodied, England contributing 13,580, Ireland 7,471, and Scotland 2,684. The militia represents the lower classes; the volunteers the middle class. The assertion of the London Times[a] that in the ranks of the troops reviewed on the 22d "all classes were represented" is merely a way of giving things a popular coloring. It is not quite three months since a deputation of respectable mechanics waited on the authorities for the purpose of being supplied with arms, to "defend their country," in case of invasion. Their application was refused. The only working men admitted into the volunteer corps are those whose outfit and expenses their employers provide, and whose services are under-stood to be permanently at the command of those employers.

The total strength of the British volunteer force, notwithstanding the larger figures of many recent statistical tables, is short of 90,000. It is true that Col. Macmurdo declared, at a dinner given some time since to the St. George's Rifle Corps, that there were 124,000 registered for voluntary service; but when pushed for particulars he included half the militia in his estimate. The newspapers count every regiment at the nominal strength of 800 or 1,000 men, when in reality few ever muster on parade more than 500 or 600. Mr. Sidney Herbert, whose position at the Horse Guards entitles him to be an authority on the subject, stated in Parliament a day or two before the great turnout in London, that "on paper, the force has maintained considerable numbers, who, however, cannot be accounted for, and never answer at roll-call."[b]

The speech in which this passage occurs appears in the same number of The Times that chronicles "the magnificent success" of the national volunteer review. Even the Hyde Park parade itself furnishes a striking illustration of the exaggerated manner in which the London Press speak of such matters. The Times of the 20th anticipated that "no less than 35,000 men would appear before her Majesty."[c] Tom Taylor, writing to The Manchester Guardian from London on the 21st, says that there were over 46,000 in the Metropolis. Yet the whole number of soldiers who passed before the Queen, according to Col. Macmurdo, who would hardly underestimate them, was 18,300. Certainly, this is not a very extraordinary army to be over-jubilant about. In October, 1803, nearly 13,000 native Londoners were inspected in the garb of volunteers; and, by way of comparing British military valor of those days with that of the present time, we subjoin a brief statement of the volunteer force, registered in Jan., 1804:

Total of effective rank and file341,687
Grand total379,943

Even the 124,000, to which England hopes to raise her present voluntary army, would not figure creditably beside this table. One man in every ten of the present able-bodied of Great Britain's male population would amount to 500,000 men. It does not appear from these facts that Englishmen are becoming more desirous to take up arms in defense of their native land than they ever were before, the statements of London journals to the contrary notwithstanding. According to the careful statistics of a writer in The Army and Navy Gazette, we find the total militia and volunteer force of England to be, of militia 50,160, and of volunteers 88,400, making 138,560 in all. Of these, the writer of The Gazette states that at least 20,000 would, from various causes, prove unavailable in case of need, so that 118,560 men constitute the grand total of England's militia and volunteers.

Written between June 25 and 28, 1860
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5994, July 11, 1860 as a leading article;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1579, July 13, 1860


[a] The Times, Nos. 23655 and 23658, June 25 and 28, 1860.—Ed.

[b] Sidney Herbert's speech in the House of Commons on June 26, 1860, The Times, No. 23657, June 27, 1860. Instead of "and never answer at roll-call", The Times has "and never appear on parade".—Ed.

[c] "London, Friday, June 22, 1860", The Times, No. 23653, June 22, 1860. The figure in The Times is 30,000.—Ed.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 17 (pp.403-405), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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