School Uniform: British Military School

Figure 1.--Here are two brothers at the Duke of York's Royal Military School, Dover in 1940. The boy on the right is Art Cockerill. To learn more click on the image.

Military schools have been operated in many European countries and America. I have relatively little information on them, but believe some originated in the 17th Century. The age of the boys and conditions varied substantially from to school. We note several military schools in England, both army and naval schools. Very few of the large number of British boarding schools, however, are military schools.

Historical Background

Officers in the modern military obtain their commissions by attending military academies. There is also cadet program that allow students in reguilar schools to persue military careers. This is, however, a very modern system. Through the early 19th century, English officers purchased their commissions. Thus officers were created through social status rather than aboility.

Purchasing commissions

For centuries British army and navy officers purchased their commissions. The result of course was that the officer corps was primary composed of many individuals who were incompetent. The officer corps was dominated by the airistocracy, often the sons of the nobility that were not in a position to inherit a title. Britain's famed commanders like Marlbourgh, Wellington, and Nelson all camfrom the airistocracy. It was not impossibloe to rise by merit, but it was difficult for commoners to rise to high rank. This did not begin to change until the 19th century. Revolutionary France mobilized the entire citizenry to protect the Revolution when forces loyal to King Louis and neigboring monarcies invaded. Vast numbers of soldiers and officers were needed. The carnage of the Napoleonic battles created a constant demand further demands for officers and men. Napoleon, forvexample, in 1812 entered Russia with a massive force of over 1 million men--the largest military force ever organized in Europe up to that time.

Creation of schools

As a result of the need for trained officers, schools weere needed. The threat of Napoleon was the initial impetus, but other factors were involved. The impact of the American and French Revolution created the basic for the increasing democritization of European society. The rising power of the middle class demanded appointment and promotion by merit. The increasingly technical sophistication of modern warfare also demanded increasing competence. Commisions were still being purchased in Britain in the mid-19th century. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband, helped to end the purchase of commissions and creation of a new system involving promotion by merit. Prince Albert early on concluded that Britain's existing military schools were ineffective. Boys emerged from the schools that were barely literate or unable to perform the most basic matamatical computation. Many may have never read a book in their entire lives. They did emerge from the schools with instruction in handling guns and belief in a brutalizing discipline regime. Albert believed that military schools should seek to more fully educate boys. It was in fact the same advise that he gave Prussian Prince Frederich (Fritz) who was to marry the Princess Royal Victoria, future parents of Wilhelm II. He told his future son-in-law that he should "learn more and soldier less".

Individual Schools

We note a range of school age military schools in England, both army and naval schools. Very few of the large number of British boarding schools, however, are military schools. And the British system is quite destinctive. Britain like America has military academy for university-level studies (Sanhurst and the Royal Naval Academy in Portsmouth). There have been, however, schools for younger students, including school age boys, over time. Some of these school still exist. Unlike other countries, these schools were not limited to cadet schools training future officers, but some were designed to train ordinary soldiets and sailors.

Army schools

Two of the earliest English military schools that I know of were founded in the 18th and early 19th century. The Royal Military Academy at Woolwich established in 1741. The Royal Military College at Sandhurst was established in 1802. Lord Cornwallis of Revolutionary War fame attended a military school in London. I do not know if the school in question was Woolwich or not. He was commissioned an ensign in the 1st Foot Guards in 1756. Patrick Ferguson attended a military school in London. Commissioned as a cornet on July 12, 1759. While it was more common for English boys to go to boarding school than elsewhere in Europe, relatively few of the schools by the 1920s were military schools. England appears to have the most limited number of military schools of any major European country. A school opperating in the late 18h and early 19th century was the Royal Hibernian Military School (1769-1824). The Duke of Yorks School (and one ot two others) are still in existence in England. But Britain has never had a system of military schools like the United States. The principal army academy is Sandhurst which Winston Churchill attended. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband took an interest in Sandhurst as part of his desire to modernize the British military. The cadets clashed with school authorities over the harsh discipline enforced at the school. Albert suggested to authorities that as there was a scale for punishments that there should be a corresponding scale of rewards. He though this would help the cadets see the connection between their conduct and prospects. [Bennett, pp. 362-363.]

Navy schools

Surprisingly there have been relatively few actual naval schools. British seamen were traditionally trained aboard ships in a kind of on the job training. Young boys might serve as a ship's boy. Future officers would serve as endsigns. Schools in the modern sence are a much more recent development. The navy in the 19th century operated "naval training ships" (even though most of them were on land) rather than physical schools. The first real school was launched at Osborne, the home built for Queen Victoria by Prince Albert in the 1840s. Their son Bertie, the future Edward VII, did not like Osborne and donated it to the nation after his mother's death. A portion of the estate was turned into the Osborne training facility. Interestingly, Victoria and Albert's graet grand sons, the future Edward VIII and George VI, attended Osborne as cadets, living in dormortories that were once their greatgrand parents' stables. The best known British naval school is Darthmouth.


I am not precisely sure what happened to the English military school. I would guess that public revilsion to World War I may have caused parents to question sending their sons to a military school.


Bennett, Daphne. King Without a Crown: Albert Prince Consort of England, 1819-1861 (New York: J.B. Lippincott, 1977).

Cockerill, A.W. Information*Research*Publications.

Cockerill, Art W. Sons of the Brave, The Story of Boy Soldiers.


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Created: November 27, 1998
Last updated: 8:09 PM 10/15/2011