Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - About London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1860 - Chapter 16 - The London Volunteers

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IN spite of Lord Palmerston's injudicious attempt to check the rifle movement in its infancy, there can be no doubt now but that it is a complete success. The appeal to the martial spirit - more or less strong in the hearts of all Englishmen - has been most cheerfully responded to. Something of the kind was evidently required to excite the energies and to occupy the leisure hours of our numerous youth. We are always in danger of becoming too peaceable a folk. Our avocations, all of a mercantile or professional character,-our amusements, less out-door, and more sedentary, than ought to be the case, - the very humane spirit which pervades all English society, - our enormous wealth; all tend to make us peaceably disposed. None can be alarmed at our warlike demonstrations. No nation in Europe need fear a British invasion. No foreign government can possibly pretend that the British government harbours designs of active hostility against any European power. Indeed, the naturally and necessarily peaceful intentions of this country are can-[-166-]didly acknowledged by the most eminent men in France itself. Michel Chevalier, in his account of a recent visit to this country, has done ample justice to our moderation, and to our desire to be at peace with all the world.
    We may, then, view the increase of our volunteer riflemen without any alarm - nay, rather with a considerable amount of pleasure. People connected with fast life, tell us that the falling off of the attendance of young men at the casinos is something very remarkable; the reason of this is attributed to the fact that they are engaged and interested in their drill. It is with unmixed satisfaction, that we see, day by day, the long columns of the Times filled with the names of the towns which have just joined the movement, and the proceedings of those which already possess a corps of riflemen. The Times tells us, that already the force thus raised consists of 170,000, of whom half nearly are Londoners; but the movement, we trust, will continue to be developed for some time to come. Every young man should join it, as it gives him healthy recreation, soldier-like habits, and a feeling that he is a son of our common mother-fine Old England, the land of the brave and the free. We are much in the habit of doing our work by proxy. Shareholders, in companies, leave the management to a few directors, and learn, too late, to curse their folly. Institutions of the most excellent character, in the hands of a few become perverted, and are often real stumbling-blocks in the way of reform. So it is with our army and navy. We pay for them handsomely, we intrust their [-167-] management to a few, and then we wake up to find that we have been trusting on a broken reed; that our guns, and muskets, are old-fashioned; that routine and favouritism in office are more than a match for the cleverest of officers and the bravest of men; and that we have almost all our work to begin over again. Now, one great advantage of the rifle movement is that it throws us back upon ourselves - that it teaches us all to feel that we have a personal stake in the defence of the country - that it recalls the martial energy which we are fast in danger of losing, and makes all panic - fear for the future impossible. Surely, also, the moral effect of all this on Europe must be great. The nation that arms itself is always respected. It is the French army that makes the name of the French Emperor so famous in all parts of the world. Again, the nation that is always protected is safe from attack. People do not go to war with strong states, but weak ones. In the fable, the wolf quarrels not with the wolf, but the lamb. It ought not to be so, we freely admit; but we must take the world as we find it, and act accordingly. And the morale of all history is that there is no such safeguard of peace as the knowledge that a nation has set its house in order, and is thoroughly prepared for war.
    Look back at the olden time, when we triumphed at Agincourt, Cressy, and Poietiers - when we won for England her foremost place among the nations of earth. A writer in the Cambridge Chronicle has collected all that he can find relative to "The Longbow of the past, [-168-] the Rifle of tke future,"and done good service by its republication under the title already given.
    There is a muster-roll of the army of Henry V. preserved among Rymer's unprinted collection in the British Museum. The Earl of Cambridge appears in it with a personal retinue of 2 knights, 57 esquires, and 160 horse archers. The Duke of Clarence brought in his retinue 1 earl, 2 bannerets, 14 knights, 222 esquires, and 720 horse archers. The roll includes 2,536 men- at-arms, 4,128 horse archers, 38 arblesters (cross-bowmen), 120 miners, 25 master gunners, 50 servitor gunners, a stuffer of bacinets, 12 armourers, 3 kings of arms. A Mr. Nicholas Comet, a physician, also brought 3 archers, 20 surgeons, an immense retinue of labourers, artisans, fletchers, bowyers, wheelwrights, chaplains, and minstrels. Foot-archers were not enumerated, but the total number of effective soldiers amounted to 10,731. These were the men who gained the field at Agincourt. Philip de Comines acknowledged that English archery excelled that of every other nation, and Sir John Fortesque states "that the might of the Realme of England standyth upon archers." In the reign of Henry II. the English conquests in Ireland were principally owing, it is recorded, to the use of the long bow. The victory gained over the Scots, by Edward I., in 1298, at the great battle of Falkirk, was chiefly won by the power of the English bowmen. In 1333 Edward III., with small loss, gained a signal victory at Halidown Hill, near Berwick, when attacked by the Scots under the Earl of [-169-] Douglas. Speed gives, from Walsingham, the following description of the battle :-" The chief feat was wrought by the English archers, who first with their stiff, close, and cruel storms of arrows made their enemies' footmen break; and when the noble Douglas descended to the charge with his choicest bands, himself being in a most rich and excellently tempered armour, and the rest singularly well-appointed, - the Lord Percy's archers making a retreat did withal deliver their deadly arrows so lively, so courageously, so grievously, that they ran through the men-at-arms, bored the helmets, beat their lances to the earth, and easily shot those who were more slightly armed through and through." Gibbon notes the singular dread with which the English archers filled their enemies in the crusades, and states, "that at one time Richard, with seventeen knights and 300 archers, sustained the charge of the whole Turkish and Saracen army." In the reign of Richard II., in 1377, the Isle of Wight was invaded by. the French, who landed iii great force at Franche-Ville (called afterwards New-town), which they destroyed, and then directed their march to Carisbrooke Castle, for the purpose of taking that stronghold. The news of the invasion soon spread throughout the island, and no time was lost in mustering the forces which it possessed. These forces consisted chiefly of archers, who so admirably posted themselves in ambush, that they rendered a good account of the advanced division of the French. The other division of the enemy had commenced an attack on Carisbrooke [-170-] Castle, when the victorious archers advanced to its relief, and soon cleared the island of the intruders. The battle of Shrewsbury, in 1403, was one of the most desperate encounters ever seen in England. The archers on both sides did terrible execution. Henry IV. and the Prince of Wales on one side, and Earl Douglas with Henry Hotspur, son of the Earl of Northumberland, on the other, performed prodigies of valour. At length, Hotspur being slain and Douglas taken, Henry remained master of the field.
    The bow was the most ancient and universal of all weapons. Our ancestors in this island, at a very early period of their history, used the bow, like other nations, for two purposes. In time of peace it was an implement for hunting and pastime; and in time of war it was a formidable weapon of offence and defence. It was not till after the battle of Hastings that our Anglo. Saxon forefathers learned rightly to appreciate the merit of the bow and the cloth-yard shaft. Though a general disarming followed that event, the victor allowed the vanquished Saxon to carry the bow. The lesson taught by the superiority of the Norman archers was not forgotten. From that period the English archers began to rise in repute, and in course of time proved themselves, by their achievements in war, both the admiration and terror of their foes, and excelled the exploits of other nations. The great achievements of the English bowmen, which shed lustre upon the annals of the nation, extended over a period of more than five centuries, many [-171-] years after the invention and use of firearms. All the youth and manhood of the yeomanry of England were engaged in the practice of the long bow. England, therefore, in those times possessed a national voluntary militia, of no charge to the government, ready for the field on a short notice, and well skilled in the use of weapons. Hence sprung the large bodies of efficient troops which at different periods of English history, in an incredibly short time, were found ready for the service of their country. These men were not a rude, undisciplined rabble, but were trained, disciplined men, every one sufficiently master of his weapon to riddle a steel corslet at five or six score paces; or, in a body, to act with terrific effect against masses of cavalry; while most of them could bring down a falcon on the wing by a bird-bolt, or, with a broad arrow, transfix the wild deer in the chase. There is little at the present day in England to afford any adequate idea of the high importance, the great skill, mid the distinguished renown of the English archers. Some few places still retain names which tell us where the bowmen used to assemble for practice,-as Shooter's Hill, in Kent; Newington Butts, near London; and St. Augestine's Butts, near Bristol. Many of the noble and county families of Great Britain and Ireland have the symbols of archery charged on their escutcheons; as, for instance, the Duke of Norfolk, on his bend, between six crosslets, bears an escutcheon charged with a demi-lion pierced in the mouth with an arrow, within a double tressure flory and counterflory. [-172-]  This was an addition to the coat of his Grace's ancestor, the Earl of Surrey, who commanded at Flodden Field, in 1513. There are also existing families which have derived their surnames from the names of the different crafts formerly engaged in the manufacture of the bow and its accompaniments; as, for instance, the names of Bowyer, Fletcher, Stringer, Arrowsmith, &c. If we refer to our language, there will be found many phrases and proverbial expressions drawn from or connected with archery; some suggesting forethought and caution, as "Always have two slings to your bow;" it being the custom of military archers to take additional bowstrings with them into the field of battle; " Get the shaft-hand of your adversaries;" "Draw not thy bow before thy arrow be fixed;" "Kill two birds with one shaft". To make an enemy's machinations recoil upon himself, they expressed by saying, "To outshoot a man in his own bow." In reference to a vague, foolish guess, they used to say, "He shoots wide of his mark;" and of unprofitable, silly conversation, "A fool's bolt is soon shot." The unready and the unskilful archer did not escape the censure and warning of his fellows, although he might be a great man, and boast that he had "A famous bow- but it was up at the castle." Of such they satirically remarked that "Many talked of Robin Hood, will never shot in his bow." Our ancestors also expressed liberality of sentiment, and their opinion that merit belonged exclusively to no particular class or locality, by the following pithy expressions, "Many a good bow besides one [-173-] in Chester;" and "An archer is known by his aim, and not by his arrows."
    And what was the result of all this practice with the bow ?-why, that we never feared invasion. Those were not times when old ladies were frightened out of their night's sleep. Every Englishman was a free and fearless soldier; the foe might growl at a distance, but he never dared to touch our shores - to plunder our cities - to massacre our smiling babes - and to do outrage worse than death to our English womanhood; and so it will be seen now that the bow has been superseded by the rifle, when our young lads of public spirit respond to Tennyson's patriotic appeal, "Form, Riflemen, form!"

source: J. Ewing Ritchie, Aboutf London, 1860