Who were the men in the line at Malplaquet?
Britain’s peacetime army was very small when the War of the Spanish Succession began in 1701. During the war it rose to about 70,000, with an average of around 20,000 serving with Marlborough in Flanders at any one time. The Redcoats would routinely fight alongside Continental allies, mainly Dutch, German, and Imperial troops. Since there was no conscription, recruiting parties would tour the towns and villages of Britain, ideally seeking fit ex-soldiers, otherwise other able-bodied young men. Though recruiting-sergeants offered a range of inducements – enlistment bounties (‘the King’s shilling’), regular pay, the promise of adventure, a share in plunder – the army had few attractions for men of any substance. Poverty was the primary motivation. But this was rarely sufficient to fill the ranks. The shortfall was made good by enlisting criminals, vagrants, and debtors – often as an alternative to prison or the gallows.
On the other hand, some men did enlist out of conviction. Ireland’s bitter divisions – as well as its poverty – turned men into soldiers, and others too, like exiled French Huguenots resident in England, volunteered to fight for political and religious reasons. Though nationalism did not exist in its modern form, other ideologies had the power to arouse martial passions. This was especially true among officers.
The quality of Marlborough’s junior officers was variable, since purchase – not just of rank but of entire regiments (and the exploitation of both for personal profit) – was the norm. Nonetheless, alongside the gilded fops of the aristocracy were serious professional men like Captain John Parker. Two others of similar mould worthy of mention are Colonel William Kane, also of the Royal Irish, and Lieutenant-Colonel John Blackadder, of the Cameronians, both of whom, like Parker, have left us military memoirs recording their service under Marlborough.