Labour History Review

‘The Blackest Perjury’: Desertion, Military Justice, and Popular Politics in England, 1803-1805

Labour History Review (2014), 79, (3), 255–280.

Abstract

Framed around an account of the last deserter ever to face the firing squad in England, this article assesses the extent and significance of desertion from the land forces after the Peace of Amiens. Recent historical accounts have tended to use the large number of soldiers and volunteers raised in this period as a measure of the depth of popular loyalism at this time. This article seeks to temper these arguments by examining the difficulties the government had in retaining recruits for the army and militia between 1803 and 1805. Using official returns, court martial transcripts, and little-used deserter bounty certificates it will be demonstrated that levels of desertion were unusually high in England at this time and that the scale of desertion caused great anxiety among both the civil and military authorities. Moreover, through an examination of the motives which drove thousands of men to desert from their regiments, a more variegated plebeian experience of armed service will be presented, one which did not always engender loyalism or nationalism.

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Author details

Cozens, Joseph

Cozens, Joseph