19th Century

George W.M. Reynolds’s Exposure of Army Brutality | Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo is a writer and historian based in Leeds, UK, and in this post he examines G.W.M. Reynolds’s novel The Soldier’s Wife (1852-53).

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First issue of G.W.M. Reynolds’s The Soldier’s Wife (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)

The radical novelist and journalist George W.M. Reynolds (1814–79) was no stranger to controversy. His weekly serial novels The Mysteries of London and The Mysteries of the Court of London (1844–56) had regularly shined a light on the misdeeds and depravity of the ruling classes.

So controversial were his novels that Charles Dickens branded Reynolds’s very existence

A national reproach.

Just as controversy had attended the publication of Reynolds’s previous novels, more was to follow for Reynolds drew the ire of the British Army’s bureaucracy. This occurred as a result of the publication of one of Reynolds’s finest novels: The Soldier’s Wife (1852–53).

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G.W.M. Reynolds in later life (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)

The Soldier’s Wife

The Soldier’s Wife told the story of two young lovers, Frederick and Lucy, living in the village of Oakley. The former is a poor farm labourer and the latter is from a middle-class background. Lucy’s father will not allow her to marry Frederick because he is too poor. A recruiting officer then visits the village and convinces the young lads assembled in the village square to enlist by beguiling them with tales of exciting adventures overseas:

“Talk of the hardships of a soldier’s life … why it’s the most beautiful state of existence that can possibly be conceived. Here you have great lords and wealthy gentlemen paying large sums of money out of their own pockets to travel on the continent and see the fine things there; but the soldier travels to the most distant parts of the earth at no expense of his own. His sovereign pays for him. Think of that, gentlemen—only think of that, I say! What an honour to have your sovereign take such an interest as to pay your travelling expenses.”[1]

Frederick devises what seems like a simple plan: he will join the army. This will necessitate some time away from his sweetheart but he will make some money and gain respectability so he can finally marry Lucy.

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Frederick is flogged with the cat ‘o’ nine tails (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)

Yet Frederick is not treated well in the army—he has the ill luck to make the enmity of an aristocratic officer who orders Frederick’s flogging. Realising that his life will be made a misery in the army under the command of the aristocrat, he deserts and returns to Lucy in Oakley.

The young couple then flee to the continent where they get married. After some years and the birth of a son, Lucy and Frederick are called back to England on the pretence of visiting Lucy’s dying father. Unfortunately for Lucy and Frederick it was a scheme hatched by the original recruiting officer, in concert with Lucy’s estranged father, to arrest Frederick and make him serve out the rest of his time in the army.

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Lucy in her miserable garret, working as a seamstress (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)

When he is back in the army Frederick suffers further floggings and makes several attempts to desert. In the meantime, Lucy is forced to take lodgings in a miserable one room apartment and work as a lowly-paid seamstress to support the whole family, for Frederick’s wages do not cover their expenses, especially as he becomes an alcoholic.

Towards the end of the novel he stops drinking and tries to abscond from service once again but is caught. He is sentenced to die by firing squad. Lucy and their son later die of an unspecified illness. This is a story without a happy ending.

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Frederick dies by firing squad (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)

A Campaign Close to Reynolds’s Heart

Melodramatic but well-executed, The Soldier’s Wife caused a sensation in public life and particularly among the army’s top brass. The writing of the novel was part of Reynolds’s personal crusade against the army’s standard punishment of flogging.

The abolition of flogging was a cause that Reynolds had thrown his weight behind as early as 1844. In The Mysteries of London he broke the narrative—which he often did—to deliver a thundering excoriation of flogging in a recent case where, on the orders of the Duke of York, a poor private soldier was flogged to death.

When Reynolds wrote The Soldier’s Wife, then, he probably recalled his own words from the Mysteries written over half-a-decade earlier:

We shall here interrupt the thread of our narrative for a brief space, in order to make a few observations upon the condition of the private soldier. And, in the first instance, let us record our conviction that there is not a more generous-hearted, a nobler-minded, or a more humane set of men breathing than those who constitute the ranks of the British Army; while there is not a more tyrannical, overbearing, illiberal, and self-sufficient class than that composed of the officers of this army. But how is the latter fact to be accounted for? Because the Army is the mere plaything of the Aristocracy—a means of providing for the younger sons of noblemen, and enabling titled mammas to show off their striplings in red coats. What opinion can we have of the constitution of the army, so far as the officers are concerned, when we find Prince Albert suddenly created a Field-Marshal! Such a spectacle is nauseating in the extreme; and the German must have execrably bad taste, or else be endowed with inordinate conceit, to hold the baton of a Marshal when he has not even the military knowledge of a drummer-boy. Since the Army is thus made a mere tool in the hands of a rascally Aristocracy, what sympathy can possibly exist between the officers and the men? The former look upon the latter as the scum of the earth—mere slaves on a level with shoe-blacks; and hence the barbarous cry of “Flog! flog! flog!” But there is no love lost between the classes: for the soldiers hate and abhor their officers, whom they naturally and most justly look upon as their tyrants and oppressors. It is enough to make the blood boil with indignation to think that those fine, stalwart, gallant fellows should be kicked about at the caprice of a wretched ensign or contemptible cornet just loosened from his mamma’s apron-strings,—or bullied by older officers whose only “excellence” is their relationship to nobility, and their power to obtain promotion by purchase. The generality of the officers in the British Army are nothing more nor less than a set of purse-proud bloodhounds, whose greatest delight is to behold the blood streaming down the backs of those men who alone win their country’s battles. When the Duke of York (who was a humane man, though as great a scamp as ever had a COLUMN OF INFAMY erected to his memory) limited corporal punishment to 300 lashes, the full amount was invariably inflicted in nineteen out of twenty cases: but even this would not satisfy the bloodhounds, who annoyed and pestered the Duke on the subject to such an extent that he was literally bullied into empowering them to hold General Regimental Courts-Martial, by whose decision 500 lashes might be administered to the unhappy victim. For years and years was the torture of military flogging in England a shame and a scandal to all Europe; and it was absolutely necessary that a fine fellow should be murdered at Hounslow by the accursed lash, before the barbarous Government would interfere. All the world knows that a BRITISH SOLDIER was murdered in this revolting manner, and in the presence of his horror-stricken comrades: for be it remembered that when these appalling spectacles take place, the eyes that weep and the hearts that grow faint are those of the soldiers—never of the officers![2]

The Smear Campaign

In view of Reynolds’s repeated denunciations of flogging and the publication of The Solider’s Wife, the army banned soldiers from reading Reynolds’s novels. The army bureaucracy also launched a smear campaign against Reynolds.

Naval and Military Gazette, later published as Naval and Military Gazette and Chronicle of the United Services

In September 1853 the United Service Gazette, which was the main organ of armed forces published an editorial attacking Reynolds and his correspondence with a pseudonymous Private Robert Lithgow, who had leaked the details of several instances of army brutality to Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper.

The article in the United Services Gazette criticised the immorality of The Mysteries of London and mocked Reynolds and Fergus O’Connor for having ‘got up that queer revolution in 1848’, which was a reference to Reynolds’s speech at Trafalgar Square in February of that year, after which there were riots.

The United Services Gazette also lampooned Reynolds’s working-class readership by saying that

His newspaper is in the hands of deluded thousands who can just manage to spell and absorb discontent over their pipes and pots.[3]

The army authorities’ banning of Reynolds’s works, of course, only made him more popular with the rank-and-file and the result was that more soldiers decided to write to Reynolds with their tales of army brutality. One army correspondent assured Reynolds that, in spite of the United Service Gazette’s condemnation of Reynolds’s work,

The perusal of [Reynolds’s] paper, [was] a luxury, not only to me but to all my acquaintance because it abounds with a commodity in which too many others are bankrupt; viz., truth.[4]

Over a decade later some in the army were still bitter towards Reynolds and attempted to place the blame for soldiers’ drunkenness on his allegedly ‘seditious’ writings in Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper—charges against which Reynolds was forced to publicly defend himself.[5]

Flogging Finally Abolished

It would not be until 1868 that the British Army abolished flogging as a punishment for soldiers serving in peacetime. It was not until 1888 that flogging was completely abolished in law. However, for some time after this soldiers were on occasion subjected to corporal punishment. Between 1902 and 1903 several cases of flogging came to public notice and there was justifiable outrage. As late as 1946 it was clear that, in some corners of the army’s ranks, floggings were occasionally meted out as punishment for minor offences.


[1] George W.M. Reynolds, The Soldier’s Wife (London: John Dicks, 1852–53), p. 10.

[2] George W.M. Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, 4 vols (London: G. Vickers, 1844–48), IV, 293.

[3] ‘Sedition in the Ranks’, Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper, 25 September 1853, 4.

[4] ‘Exposure of Tyranny and Cruelty in the Army’, Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper, 25 September 1853, 4.

[5] George W.M. Reynolds, ‘To the Editor’, Standard, 18 December 1866, 3.