Lowering the Bar – British Army Recruiting Practices During the American Revolution
Before the American Revolution, Great Britain maintained a rather small standing army that was made up of volunteers. While the British navy routinely “pressed” or drafted sailors when they needed them, there was strong resistance to the idea of granting the army such authority. Some able-bodied petty criminals were allowed to volunteer for the army as an alternative to jail, but they could not be compelled to do so. Army enlistment practices changed in 1778 when the British defeat at Saratoga and the entry of the French into the war caused Parliament to pass the Recruiting Act of 1778, a law “for the more easy and better recruiting of his Majesty’s Land Forces.” In reality this was a conscription act that allowed “all able-bodied idle, and disorderly Persons” to be enlisted in the army against their will. This act also reduced the minimum acceptable height for an army recruit from 5 feet, 6-1/2 inches, to 5 feet, 4 inches.
The soldiers obtained under the Recruiting Act of 1778 proved to be much poorer physical specimens than were the pre-war volunteers. As one British officer lamented, “The magistrates … sent in wretched objects totally unfit for service.” Such was the need for soldiers though, that these “wretched objects” were still herded aboard transports sailing to America. The mortality rate among army conscripts was very high. In the case of one British regiment serving in America, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, more than half of the men sent to the regiment in 1779 were to die in less than two years, principally from disease.