The book outlines how class is single most important factor in understanding the British army in the period of industrialisation. It challenges the 'ruffians officered by gentlemen' theory of most military histories and demonstrates how service in the ranks was not confined to ‘the scum of the earth’ but included a cross section of ‘respectable’ working class men.
Common soldiers represent a huge unstudied occupational group. They worked as artisans, servants and dealers, displaying pre-enlistment working class attitudes and evidencing low level class conflict in numerous ways. Soldiers continued as members of the working class after discharge, with military service forming one phase of their careers and overall life experience.
After training, most common soldiers had time on their hands and were allowed to work at a wide variety of jobs, analysed here for the first time. Many serving soldiers continued to work as regimental tradesmen, or skilled artificers. Others worked as officers’ servants or were allowed to run small businesses, providing goods and services to their comrades. Some, especially the Non Commissioned Officers who actually ran the army, forged extraordinary careers which surpassed any opportunities in civilian life.
All the soldiers studied retained much of their working class way of life. This was evidenced in a contract culture similar to that of the civilian trade unions. Within disciplined boundaries, army life resulted in all sorts of low level class conflict. The book explores these by covering drinking, desertion, feigned illness, self harm, strikes and go-slows. It further describes mutinies, back chat, looting, fraternisation, foreign service, suicide and even the shooting of unpopular officers.
Overall, Mansfield shows himself to be the master of summary and synthesis and Soldiers as Workers achieves its goal of defining a 'labour history of soldiers' (210). Many of the subsections on military tradesmen and class conflict could be extended into article-length investigations. This work therefore provides an invaluable introduction for labour historians interested in researching the military.
Joe Cozens, Labour History Review
Mansfield has brought individuality and complexity to a topic that used to be treated fairly homogeneously. It adds to a wave of historiography that has refused to accept characterizations, initially perpetuated by commanders, of rankers as infantile drifters and wastrels in need of constant discipline..... Rather than seeing mechanical automatons in blind fear of the lash, Nick Mansfield recognizes the men beneath the uniform and their complex histories and motivations. This book paves the way for an integrated history of the British poor that stresses the connections between the manufacturing trades and soldiering. Historians have separated these groups far too often.
Jennine Hurl-Eamon, Canadian Journal of History
Soldiers as Workers addresses a lacuna in labour history, and one hopes that Mansfield will pursue these questions more fully in future work
Lynn MacKay, Labour/ Le Te Travail
Mansfield has written a very informative and engaging book from many perspectives and this will be a useful resource for labour and military historians hereon in.
Alan Southern, North West Labour History