In one of the early episodes of the excellent Wolf Hall, the worldly soldier turned lawyer Thomas Cromwell instructs the naïve aristocrat Harry Percy “the world is not run from where you think it is, from border fortresses. Not even from Whitehall. The world is run from wherever the merchant ships set sail. Not from castle walls but from counting houses, from the pens that scrape out your promissory notes.”
This echoes a line by the famous Roman statesman Cicero “the sinews of war are infinite money.” He may well have come up with it after observing the actions of his contemporary - Julius Caesar, who was undoubtedly one of history’s most successful generals. His soldiers loved him because he brought them victory, but he also doubled their annual salary on top of bringing in regular post battle bonuses of loot and slaves.
Closer to home, Britain has a history of punching above its weight when it comes to a nice bit of war. Unlike in many other cultures, Britain’s successes frequently came from the military traditions of its working classes rather than its aristocracy. It was yeomen archers who devastated the elite chivalry of France at the battles of Crecy and Agincourt. Centuries later it was humble sailors and marines commanded by the decidedly middle class Admiral Nelson who confirmed that Britannia ruled the waves, and the Emperor Napoleon was finally brought down by the stolid persistence of the British and Irish soldiers who were charmingly referred to by their own commander the Duke of Wellington as “the scum of the earth.” And what spurred on these men at the bottom of their societies with slim to no chance of a pension or healthcare? I’m sure king and country and adventure and hardship played their part, but so did profit.
Medieval knights would commonly be taken prisoner rather than killed on the battlefield. They would then buy their freedom at great expense. A lowly archer who managed to capture a great lord would invariably sell on his prisoner to one of his own lords to ransom, but could still expect a huge bonus of several year’s wages in one lump sum. One of the great shocks of Agincourt was Henry V having to order the execution of large numbers of French prisoners mid-way through the battle – the English soldiers had become so preoccupied with taking and guarding lucrative captives that they were in danger of losing the battle against the vast numbers of Frenchmen who hadn’t surrendered yet. Similar motivations existed for Nelson’s sailors – when they captured an enemy ship they were all entitled to a share of its value and also the value of its cargo. One of the highest prize awards came in 1799 when four British frigates captured two Spanish warships carrying a cargo of 2 million silver dollars. The total value of £652,000 was split up amongst the British crews –even the lowest ranking sailor was paid £182, or the equivalent of 10 years pay. An able seaman at the time would earn wages roughly in line with skilled labourers – so in modern terms you’re talking about £250,000 each for a hard day’s fighting. Their colleagues in Wellington’s army were less well rewarded, but when Napoleon’s brother King Joseph of Spain was beaten at the battle of Vittoria, British troops got stuck into looting the 12 mile long baggage train of treasure and valuables – the kind of free for all behaviour that gave rise to the glorious expression “fill your boots.”
We’ve come a long way since then however, and live in civilized times where genuine public service is rightfully recognised as something people should be grateful to be allowed to do in the first place, and any kind of monetary reward would cheapen the whole thing. The idea of a British sailor or solider being handed a £250,000 bonus after a harrowing battle seems ridiculous now of course. Bonuses aren’t for people who risk their lives in defence of their country. They’re clearly meant for people who risk other people’s money in search of more money for themselves. Of course most of the soldiers and sailors throughout history never saw anything like that kind of reward, even if they were in a winning army. And our servicemen now get good pensions at least. Unless you’re a soldier like Sergeant Lee Nolan, who was made redundant in 2012 three days before he reached full service, thus saving the government £100,000 in future pension payments. Caesar, you feel, would not have let that happen to one of his legionaries. David Cameron wrote Sergeant Nolan a letter explaining that it was all due to an administrative error but not giving him his job or his money back…Et tu Brut? Britain’s empire and centuries of prosperity was built on military victories, which were encouraged by the stick of fierce discipline and the carrot of financial success. The stick remains but the carrot has disappeared, and people have noticed.
The UK is still one of those bloodthirsty countries where army recruitment applications actually go up in wartime. We haven’t really gone off war, make of that what you will. But this government has treated its armed forces very shabbily and very publically so. The regular army is going to shrink to 80,000 men, and the government is convinced it can recruit another 11,000 part time reservists over the next few years to plug the gap. Last year after an intensive, very expensive recruitment campaign, there was a net gain of 60 reservists. To our shame at least ten times as many young Brits joined ISIS than joined our own reserve army last year.
So why aren’t people flocking to take up a rewarding part time vocation with a chance to meet lots of interesting people, some of whom you may be allowed to shoot at? Well one of the reasons may be the daily rate of pay for a new entry private solider in British reserves, which according to the army website is £36.38. Over an 8 hour day that means £3.03 an hour. A Captain in the army reserves, a soldier in command of upwards of 80 men, will earn a daily rate of £97.53. Which equates to £8.12 an hour. Which is lower than the London Living wage. There’s doing things on the cheap, and then there’s taking the piss.
Oh well, luckily they’re still recruiting for the regular army. The yearly rate of pay for a new recruit in the regular British army is £14,492. The UK average income is £26,000. Going back to historical examples, the average soldier in medieval times and sailor in the eighteenth century were paid around the skilled worker mark – so essentially an average income, but with the opportunity to get lucky with some plunder. Today in our wisdom we pay less relative salary than those days, with the added bonus of no chance of getting a bonus. Interestingly one of the key factors behind ISIS’ success is how well funded they are. Yes the European jihadi nutjobs with youtube accounts don’t seem particularly money motivated but the backbone of ISIS are its tribal fighters, and those men have been won over by the high wages paid regularly and efficiently, along with compensation for families in event of death. New Isis recruits are paid around £3000 a year. Which doesn’t sound like much until you realise the average income in Iraq is £2700 and in Syria is £822.
To be fair to our government ISIS made most of its defence budget by robbing the Iraqi national bank in Mosul of $400 million, while in the UK it’s the banks that tend to rob the government. We can’t just kidnap people and oilfields to raise extra cash. However, ISIS have grasped something we seem to have forgotten. You get the army you pay for.