Rough and brave: what can soldiers tell us about 18th century masculinity? Part II

Guardsmen

Let me begin with the guardsmen at the heart of William Hogarth’s The March of the Guards to Finchley (1750), the subject of a great exhibition at the Foundling Museum. They are an evocative depiction of the troubling charms of the soldier. In the eighteenth century, officers might be considered examples of idealised masculinity: noble, courageous, and self-sacrificing. The other ranks, however, were considered with some suspicion by society – their form and appearance yet to take on the more solid, reassuring appeal they possessed by the mid-nineteenth century. Politically, after all, the military raised fears of standing armies as authoritarian tools of repression, and individually they were examples of the bad behaviour men were supposed to avoid, such as drinking, fighting, womanising, and gambling.[1]

So let’s unpick the masculinity of these soldiers. Firstly, their bodies matter, as Matthew McCormack’s book Embodying the Militia in Georgian England argues. Hogarth depicts a regiment of Guards, who were generally recruited because they were tall.  In the central figure, we see the elite of the elite – a Grenadier of the Foot Guards. In the 1760s it was said that ‘the best bodied Men in the Battalion’ became grenadiers, not only because they could throw grenades further due to their height, but also because they would flank the regiment in their distinctive uniforms at parade.[2]

Detail from William Hogarth, The March of the Guards to Finchley (1750)

Hogarth’s mastery of the senses helps convey the power of such martial masculinities, since it was the form, sight, spectacle, and sound of soldiers that made the armed forces function effectively. Studies of fancy uniforms and martial spectacle, for example, show that both helped form regiments into coherent fighting forces, as well as making regiments more acceptable to a society suspicious of standing armies.[3] These factors also helped convey and fix those aspects of masculinity that were more salubrious and celebrated, such as bravery and self-sacrifice. These guardsmen were dressed in magnificent uniforms that were designed to flatter manly proportions and instil admiration and patriotism in those who saw them.

And yet, these guardsmen are hardly heroic figures: this is a picture of soldiers rousing themselves from a night of misbehaviour and debauchery – still ongoing in many instances, with drunk soldiers, one urinating against the wall, another stealing pies, and others casually sexually assaulting women traders.

Badly behaved, impolite, unruly, undisciplined: surely that was unmanly? Well the problem is that all these behaviours could indicate some degree of virility. Hogarth thus reveals the inherent paradox of masculine identity, since many unmanly behaviours were also those which, in a managed form, were central to the performance of normative masculinity. The question is – at what point did this virility become the immoral behaviour that rendered the perpetrator more bestial than manly in the eyes of society? 

This was always a delicate balancing act and historically contingent. Youth has long been recognised as a period of lack of control, when the juvenile male had not yet fully learned to master temptations and control or channel emotions. Some of these guardsmen might be young and unmarried and therefore given some licence. Some, as you can see, were mature, so that would not excuse them all. So, let’s return to the issue of politeness and its risks which I discussed in part I of my series of blog posts. 

Armies have often served as barometers of national masculinity. In the 1740s and 50s commentators were alarmed that politeness was undermining the manliness of the armed forces, with soldiers enfeebled by the comforts of civilian life and unable to cope with the rigours of war.[4] This was especially acute following the 1745 Jacobite rising and ‘the initial disorganisation of the British army’s response’.[5]  The novelist and editor Eliza Haywood, for example published the essay ‘Effeminacy in the army censured’ in The Female Spectator in 1745 in which she declared:

How long this over-delicacy will continue, heaven knows; but it is yet far from being extirpated:—even among the military gentlemen, there are some, who being infected with it before they become so, find it an insuperable difficulty to bring themselves to that hardiness and neglect of personal ornaments, which suit with the life of a soldier.[6]

Hogarth offers a very different portrayal of guardsmen to Haywood’s – no artificial social polish here or lack of hardiness! Combining fine physiques with behaviours deemed problematic in other men, such as fighting, drinking, and sexual liberty, these soldiers are not cautionary tales against succumbing to temptation. Instead, they answer the gender anxieties of their time, fulfilling the claim of a civic tract from the late 1750s that states that the ‘bravest’ and ‘honestes’t’ men were the ‘roughest’.[7] Roughness is presented as the antidote to a fighting force made inferior by social conventions deemed to weaken manliness. The manliness Hogarth displays here is one that is successfully navigating between the two extremes of the period: the villainous blackguard and the weak fop. The former was part of a counter-culture of anti-civility where socially elite men behaved badly, but whose boorishness was a risk to society, and the latter was equally problematic due to his womanly inferiority.[8]

In some ways Hogarth proffers a martial masculinity more attuned to that of the Jack Tar (the nickname for a sailor), who in popular culture combined carousing with comradeship, sexual prowess, and bravery.[9] Never as reassuring as the Jack Tar, soldiers took longer to be domesticated in popular culture (for which, see the volume I have edited with Michael Brown and Anna Maria Barry: Martial masculinities: Experiencing and imagining the military in the long nineteenth century (MUP 2019)). Two of the guardsmen most reveal the ambiguities of martial masculinity: the grenadier in the centre who takes his leave of his pregnant sweetheart, and the regimental drummer pulling away from his tearful wife and clinging child.

These are early examples of a symbol of martial masculinity that became immensely popular by the later eighteenth century and into the next century: the sailor’s and soldier’s farewell. In these later popular sentimental images, the handsome military man takes his leave of his pretty family; in so doing proving his self-sacrifice, his patriotism, and his feeling – symbols of moral manliness in the age of sensibility that marked out the decades from the 1760s to 1830s. In The March of the Guards to Finchley, before the full grip of sensibility, Hogarth’s departing guards are less comforting and sentimental. Is the pregnant woman a sweetheart, rather than a wife, likely to be abandoned to bear a bastard? And note the difference between the toddler with face buried in its mothers’ skirts and the grumpy boy with clenched fists.

Still, though these men are not yet fully formed as heroic, since their manly roughness is necessary to show their effectiveness as soldiers, their potential for valour, discipline, and self-control is literally on the horizon. As Mark Hallett explains, Hogarth shows the transformation of a ‘sprawling, inchoate mass of men into the well-drilled fighting unit that starts to take shape in the shadowed mid-ground and then marches in perfect formation across the distant, studiously illuminated landscape’.[10]

Detail from William Hogarth, The March of the Guards to Finchley (1750)

He describes the regimental drummer just beginning to drum the beat that will bring these soldiers into fighting order, if still staggering, somewhat punch drunk, into the scene from the left, his bloated face bearing the marks of drinking and fighting.[11] Hogarth’s acoustic talents are heard here as the elaborately uniformed man and boy play fife and drum; crucial sounds of army life since they regulated soldiers’ daily routines, set the tempo of the march, and communicated battlefield signals to company commanders in battle.[12] Military music, we must not forget, also stirred the emotions and senses of civilian onlookers not just to patriotism but to emulate the gender of the martial men. No wonder that men writing in the later eighteenth century recalled their excitement at seeing soldiers and regiments as children and its impact on their sense of selves as men.

These guardsmen surely stirred humour and perhaps some envy in their contemporary audience – as men who could enjoy licence, escape familial obligations, and still emerge as ideals of masculinity. In fact, men in general may well have found martial manliness appealing and something to emulate because it resolved the often-competing aspects of manliness and unmanliness. Thus, military men were useful gender role-models for civilian youths and men because they battled with and overcame the challenges of self-mastery, often in extreme situations.

In the next post I turn to the boxers in The March of the Guards to Finchley, another plebeian patriot who influenced ideas of manliness in the Georgian and Victorian periods.


[1] Scott Hughes Myerly, British Military Spectacle, p. 10.

[2] Matthew McCormack, Embodying the Militia in Georgian England, p. 89.

[3] Scott Hughes Myerly, British Military Spectacle, passim.

[4] Philip Carter, Men and the Emergence of Polite Society, Britain 1660-1800, Harlow, Essex, Pearson, 2001, pp. 130-1 and McCormack, Embodying the Militia in Georgian England passim.

[5] Carter, Men and the Emergence of Polite Society, p. 131

[6] Haywood, Eliza. “Effeminacy in the army censured.” 1745. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 12 Oct 2007. 16 Jul 2019 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/haywood/effeminacy_in_the_army/&gt;. NB – longer quote sought after reading Carter, p 131.

[7] The Tryal of Lady Allurea Luxury 1757 p. 77, cited in Carter, Men and the Emergence of Polite Society, p. 135

[8] Carter, Men and the Emergence of Polite Society, p. 137.

[9] Joanne Begiato, ‘Tears and the manly sailor in England, c.1760-1860’, Journal for Maritime Research, 17:2 (2015), 117-33.

[10] Mark Hallett, ‘Patriotism, Portraiture and Politics’, p. 218.

[11] Mark Hallett, ‘Patriotism, Portraiture and Politics’, p. 218.

[12] Steven M. Baule, ‘Drummers in the British Army during the American Revolution’, Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research 86, 2008, p. 20.

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