Were more troops sent to quash the Luddites than to fight Napoleon?

One of the most popular facts about the British Industrial Revolution is that more troops were sent to quash the machine-breaking Luddites than were sent to fight Napoleon in the Peninsular War — one finds it endlessly repeated (see here, here, here, etc).

But it’s not true. Not even close.

The total number deployed against the Luddites was 12,000. But at the Peninsular War’s peak in October of 1813, there were 73,000 British troops in Iberia (Linch, p.16) — a vastly higher figure. The total number deployed over the course of the war must have numbered over 100,000. Indeed, the war’s British casualties alone numbered 40,000 (Daly, p.3).

Most economic historians have been careful to cite a comparison that is more precise. One example that comes to mind (among many) is in Lever of Riches (p.257): “During the Luddite outbreaks in 1811–13, the British government deployed 12,000 men against rioters, a force greater in size than Wellington’s original peninsular army in 1808” [emphasis added].

But even this more precise comparison is not true. Recent historians have been misled! Britain initially committed a force in August 1808 of 30,000 — a number more than twice as large as that sent to quell the Luddites (Daly, p.3). And this was reinforced in December of 1808 by a further 10,000.

So where does the factoid come from? Who has been so misleading?

Tracing the references, it was popularised by Eric Hobsbawm in Labouring Men (p.8): “Mr Darvall has done well to remind us that the 12,000 troops deployed against the Luddites greatly exceeded in size the army which Wellington took into the Peninsula in 1808”. So Hobsbawm in turn got it from Frank Ongley Darvall.

But it was Hobsbawm who seemingly added the specifics. Darvall’s Popular Disturbances and Public Order in Regency England (1934, p.260) reads simply: “It was a veritable army, larger than many actual armies with which British Generals had wages and won important foreign campaigns”. No mention there of Wellington or the Peninsular War!

So Hobsbawm was responsible. But where did he go wrong? Well, Wellington did indeed set sail from Cork in July 1808 with a force of 11,000 (Daly, p.44) — slightly smaller than the 12,000 sent against the Luddites. The additional fact, which Hobsbawm failed to notice, is that Wellington’s force was not the only one deployed.

But even if Hobsbawm had been correct on the numbers, he is guilty of cherry-picking to serve his narrative. Presumably the Peninsular War was chosen because it was concurrent with the Luddite riots. But why compare the Peninsular force of 1808 with the anti-Luddite force of four years later? Comparing the relevant figures for 1812, there were 50,000 in the Peninsula versus the 12,000 in the Midlands (Linch, p.4).

And even if Hobsbawm had been correct and hadn’t cherry-picked, the comparison fails. Kevin Linch, in Britain and Wellington’s Army (pp.4–5), explains: “[The comparison] betrays a lack of comprehension of Britain’s military structure. . . . the troops used in the Luddite disturbances were mainly militia regiments that could not be sent overseas. Any comparison between the troops used against the Luddites and the force under Wellington is misleading.”

The force sent against the Luddite was not just quantitatively lower than that under Wellington, it was also qualitatively worse. These were local militia-men, maintained cheaply at home, not soldiers to be sent abroad at great expense.

Regardless, however, the spirit of Hobsbawm’s comparison should not be dismissed. By the early nineteenth century, the British state had without a doubt sided firmly with the industrialists. And it did so using the workers themselves: Linch (pp.90–1) notes that significant proportions of the militia-men raised in the Midlands, had originally been weavers, made unemployed because of the initial strikes of 1807–08. Thus, many of the troops stationed to quell the rioting weavers of 1812 were themselves unemployed weavers!