Siblings or Subordinates? – History Symposium talk

On Saturday 27 February I gave a presentation as part of the Heritage Days 2021 History Symposium. For those unable to attend the (virtual) proceedings, a recording of my talk, which explores honour, hierarchy and discipline among British army officers during the era of the Napoleonic Wars, is now available on YouTube.

Siblings or Subordinates?  Brotherhood, Hierarchy, and Discipline among Napoleonic-era British Army Officers

Although a regiment’s officer corps indeed formed an ‘exclusive club with its own distinct values’, Napoleonic-era martial masculinity was profoundly indebted to the social milieu in which most officers were bred. Gentility and politeness were considered essential for military leadership, enhancing discipline and social harmony, while preoccupation with personal honour promoted battlefield bravery. However, if some aspects of civilian elite masculinity proved germane to army life, other doctrines imported from wider society threatened military discipline. The civilian credo of manly autonomy, encouraged by a mess-room culture of fraternal camaraderie, fomented resentment of soldierly subservience, while duelling, socially expected among gentlemen, imperilled military authority and cohesion. Officers were obliged to negotiate the competing conduct codes of law, honour and martial subordination, with the limits of mess-room brotherhood and hierarchical obedience often contested and ill-defined. Was it acceptable, for instance, to challenge superiors to duel? Did rank still apply at mess? While military authorities insisted on absolute subordination, junior officers championed a vision of regimental social relations instead defined by fraternal egalitarianism. To the frustration of their commanding officers, subalterns often considered the mess a space of brotherly comradeship free from hierarchical trammels and regularly asserted their right to overrule superiors at collective meetings and courts-martial. Exploration of these contemporary points of conflict reveals both the tensions implicit within early nineteenth-century military masculinity and the influence of civilian elite culture on mess-room life.

Click on this link to view the presentation:

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