While the dregs of society did indeed count among the King’s troops, the great majority were young countrymen from rural England, Scotland, and Ireland. They were farmers, unskilled laborers, and tradesmen—blacksmiths, cordwainers, carpenters, bakers, hatters, locksmiths, and weavers—who had
been recruited, not pressed into service, drawn by the promise of clothing, food, and steady, if meager, pay, along with a chance at adventure, perhaps even a touch of glory. In their rural or small-town origins they were not greatly different from their American counterparts.
The average British regular was in his late twenties, or about five years older than the average American soldier, but the average regular had served five or six years in the army, or five or six times longer than the average volunteer under Washington. To the British rank-and-file there was nothing novel about being a soldier. The harsh life was their way of life. They carried themselves like soldiers. They had rules, regulations, and traditions down pat. They were proud to serve in His Majesty’s army, proud of the uniform, and fiercely proud of and loyal to their regiments.
On a day such as this, on the eve of battle, they would have given close attention to all the particulars of their arms and accoutrements, and each man to his own appearance. Most would be freshly shaved and their uniforms made as presentable as possible. On the move, seen from a distance, they looked glorious in their red coats and crossbelts, marching rank on rank, their huge regimental battle flags flying at the front atop ten-foot poles. Seen up close, however, the red coats, waist-length in front, longer at the back, were often faded and out at the elbows. Cuffs were frayed, knees patched, stockings or marching gaiters often torn beyond mending, try as each man would to look the part.
And with the pride in who and what they were went a very real contempt for, even hatred of, their American foes, whom they saw as cowards and traitors.
But by no means were they all battle-scarred veterans. Some of the older soldiers and officers were veterans of the killing fields of Europe during the Seven Years’ War, or the French and Indian War in America, or had survived the retreat from Concord or the Battle of Bunker Hill. The rest, the great majority of the British forces on Long Island, including the Germans, knew only the drill and routine of army life. For as long as the average soldier in Howe’s ranks had been in service, it had been longer still, more than ten years, since Britain had last waged war. For most of the redcoats, soldiers and young officers, like nearly all of the Americans, the battle to come was to be their first.
On reaching the Brooklyn side, he saw, as he never had, the blood and suffering of wounded men. “What were the feelings of most or all the young soldiers at this time, I know not,” he would remember, “but I know what were mine.”
I saw a lieutenant who…. ran round among the men of his company, sniveling and blubbering, praying each one if he had aught against him, or if he had injured any one, that they would forgive him, declaring at the same time that he, from his heart, forgave them if they had offended him…had he been at the gallows with a halter about his neck, he could not have shown more fear or penitence. A fine soldier you are, I thought, a fine officer, an exemplary man for young soldiers! I would have suffered anything short of death rather than have made such an exhibition of myself.
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