Eamonn O'Keeffe: Siblings or Subordinates?  Brotherhood, Hierarchy, and Discipline among Napoleonic-era British Army Officers

While a regiment’s officer corps indeed formed an ‘exclusive club with its own distinct values’, Napoleonic-era martial masculinity was profoundly indebted to the social milieu in which most officers were bred. Gentility and politeness were considered essential for military leadership, enhancing discipline and social harmony, while preoccupation with personal honour promoted battlefield bravery. However, although some aspects of civilian elite masculinity proved germane to army life, other doctrines imported from wider society threatened military discipline. The civilian credo of manly autonomy, encouraged by a mess-room culture of fraternal camaraderie, fomented resentment of soldierly subservience, while duelling, socially imperative among gentlemen, imperilled military authority and cohesion. Officers were obliged to negotiate competing conduct codes of law, honour and martial subordination, with the limits of mess-room brotherhood and hierarchical obedience often contested and ill-defined. Was it acceptable, for instance, to challenge superiors to duel? Did rank still apply at mess? While military authorities insisted on absolute subordination, junior officers championed a vision of regimental social relations instead defined by fraternal egalitarianism. To the frustration of their commanding officers, subalterns often considered the mess a space of brotherly comradeship free from hierarchical trammels and regularly asserted their right to overrule superiors at collective meetings and courts-martial. Exploration of these contemporary points of conflict reveals both the tensions implicit within early nineteenth-century military masculinity and the influence of civilian elite culture on mess-room life.


Eamonn O'Keeffe is currently a third-year DPhil (PhD) student at the University of Oxford researching British military musicians during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Originally from Toronto, he has published several articles on military music and courts-martial and edited the memoir of a Napoleonic-era Coldstream Guards sergeant, the Narrative of the Eventful Life of Thomas Jackson, which was published in March 2018. He currently serves on the council of the Society for Army Historical Research and shares some of his work on his personal blog, 1812 and all that (https://1812andallthat.wordpress.com).