For many labour historians, the soldier appears in their narrative at moments of severe crisis: sent in by desperate or overzealous officials in Peterloo or Tonypandy to quell restlessness and to put down strikes. The workers on one side, the army on the other. Following in the tradition of historians such as Richard Holmes and more especially Peter Way, Nick Mansfield powerfully and convincingly argues in Soldiers as Workers for a more inclusive understanding of Tommy Atkins and his comrades. Far from being the willing agents of state repression, soldiers are shown to be ‘fundamentally working men in uniform, whose working lives, like many of their civilian counterparts, were governed by formal or informal contracts’ (p. 210). This is a vital recovery from the condescension of posterity, if Edward Thompson’s phrase can still be employed with its intended meaning, of an entire section of the workforce that has long been ignored or introduced only on the ‘wrong’ side. And it is unashamedly a class analysis, for class ‘pervaded the structure of the army at every level’ (p. 1).
The book comprises three chapters that deal at length with the class structure within the British army, the working lives of soldiers, and class conflict. But, as Mansfield notes in his introduction, Soldiers as Workers is one half of a much broader project, with a second volume forthcoming that will engage with popular politics. There is some merit to this division because it allows for a clearer delineation of the function of class in relation to the army. It also provides for a more traditional model of labour history: many of the debates that bedevilled (though some would say improved) the field in the 1980s and 1990s are entirely absent (see p. 5) and if there is a guiding influence then it is surely that of Edward Thompson. Although a tightly-defined materialist definition of class is understandable, and the book is largely rich enough in interest and evidence to compensate for some of its weaknesses, it does lend itself to the under-development of certain themes in chapter two, notably gender and sexuality. In this regard, there are a number of historiographical absences notably Matt Cook’s research into late-Victorian London which sheds not inconsiderable light on the reputation of guardsmen and their working role in the sexual underworld of the metropolis. A similar point may be made raised regarding Mansfield’s discussion of entertainers (pp. 129-131).
Of course, the aim of Soldiers as Workers is to ‘define a labour history of soldiers’ and in this Mansfield is resolutely successful. Despite the underdevelopment of some of its themes, chapter two engages with a wide range of non-military labour that soldiers did when they were not directly soldiering. There were those who worked as shoemakers and tailors, for instance, very much mirroring their civilian counterparts in working long hours maintaining the uniforms of their comrades. Alongside them were chefs, carpenters, postmen, and barbers. Although in military uniform, these craftsmen were no different from those found on the high streets of towns and villages except insofar as they enjoyed the relative stability of army pay. As the book demonstrates, these tradesmen can be analysed by labour historians in the same manner as those found in the pages of Eric Hobsbawm’s Labouring Men. There were also lower middle-class jobs such as clerks and teachers, and manual work, all of which introduced into the army divisions between artisan, labourer, and intellectual, even where soldiers came from working-class backgrounds. These divisions within, as well as without, are considered in chapter one where class is nuanced by relative military status. If the worlds of rank and filers and officers were impermeable to each other, it is clear that as in the civilian milieu what job a person did colour their position within the working class itself.
Finally, chapter three explores the ways in which soldiers resisted the structure in which they laboured and became conscious of being workers. Contrary to the prevailing image of soldiers as strike breakers, Mansfield reveals the fascinating ways in which soldiers engaged in mutiny for political purpose. At times they are shown to join in with wider protests, and on other occasions lead their own dissent. As is often the case in labour history, however, dissent was often registered in less visible ways – through what Mansfield refers to as ‘passive resistance’. Here he relies on memoir and autobiographical testimony, teasing out of the sources emotive themes including suicide and alcoholism. Curiously, however, this discussion avoids any relation to civilian life and it is easy to be left wanting to know more about the relative difference between military suicide rates and those of equivalent civilian trades, for example.
Soldiers as Workers is an admirable and valuable attempt at depicting the soldier as a valid subject for labour history. Well-written and absorbing, it is certainly convincing on its own terms. If there is always more to be said, particularly in areas already noted, this surely is a testament to Mansfield’s identification of an important strand of enquiry for scholars. There can be little doubting the historical importance of soldiering as work and thanks to Nick Mansfield’s vital intervention we now have an historiographical foundation on which to build the active recovery of that past. We await volume two with anticipation.