Exploring the personal in personnel records of the British Army

A workshop run by Drs Kevin Linch and Simon Quinn at The National Archive on 21 April 2023 bought together a team of historians and archivists to explore military records between 1790 to 1820.

 ‘I am concerned to have to report, that the Honourable Lieutenant-Colonel Cadagon has died of a wound of which he received. In him His Majesty lost an officer of great zeal and tried gallantry, who had already acquired the respect and regard of the whole profession…’

This was just one of the casualties at the Battle of Vitoria on 21 June 1813 that Arthur, Marquess of Wellington (later the Duke of Wellington) reported to the military authorities in London. A one-day workshop at the National Archives, Kew, took the news of this event as a starting point and explored its consequences for Army officers and their families.

Participants explored and discussed fourteen different historical documents held in The National Archives War Office collection. The material included the original letter written by the Marquess of Wellington to the government in London giving information about the battle as a list of casualties, statistical returns of information, and letters from widows asking the government to support them in their distress.

We learned more about how military authorities received and digested information about what was happening in the Army’s campaigns. Exploring these records sparked further questions to address: who compiled the information that was sent to London? How long did it take for information to get to the UK when the Army had troops across the globe from North America to Australia? And what information was lost in transit?

An unexpected discovery in the letters was that the Army became aware of officers wearing medals who were not entitled to them. This led to investigations by military authorities in their own records to discover who had been awarded medals officially, and then the publication of this definitive list in the annual Army Lists so that it was publicly available.

Within the military records, individuals can often be hidden under bare statistics. But in this workshop, we found ways to explore individual stories. Wounded officers were listed according to a scale from ‘slightly’ to ‘severe’, hinting at personal knowledge of these individuals. We found petitions from wives and sisters for support as they had been left destitute by an officer’s loss, challenging the idea that officers (and their families) had significant financial resources.

The team were a mixture of PhD students, archivists, and historians (both working at universities and outside them), including: The National Archives; the Universities of Cardiff, Leeds, Northampton, Sheffield, Stirling, York, and University College London; and The Napoleonic and Revolutionary War Graves Charity.

This workshop was part of the AHRC-funded ‘Re-archiving the individual’ project that is working in partnership with The National Archives. The workshop’s findings will feed into the information that contextualises the database of Army officers that is being constructed as part of this project.

Main image Copyright © 2023 Kevin Linch.