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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 October 2006, 12:21 GMT 13:21 UK
Were soldiers ever well paid?
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First World War soldiers

UK forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans will receive cash bonuses to pay off their tax bill. But an argument over low pay for high risk is nothing new in the British army, writes Peter Caddick-Adams.

"Extra tax-free bonus?" "Yes, please. I'll have some of that." The news that British service personnel in combat zones are to receive a £2,000 tax-free supplement to their pay will be welcome news for the soldiers, their dependents and many supporters.

Forces' pay scales have always been a contentious issue and Defence Secretary Des Browne's windfall distribution is a nod to the fact that UK forces these days never fight on their own, but in coalitions of many nations.

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And in such alliances, soldiers, sailors and airmen inevitably compare their pay and conditions. The bonus is actually a belated recognition that the pay and welfare package offered to UK forces has fallen behind that of other nations.

In Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia, peace-keeping and war fighting is undertaken by alliances of up to 20 nations, each with different pay scales and cultural approaches to the military.

Many of these nations support their soldiers by waiving their taxes when on military operations, or paying them a higher rate of pay.

Two shillings per day

It's not just the money; some nations are generous with free parcels for soldiers, free phone calls home, good food, and extensive internet and entertainment facilities.

Dunkirk production shot
Conscripts in the Second World War were paid 14 shillings per week

This is very necessary in the pressure cooker of high-tempo military operations, when each day personnel are risking their lives, in a way that civilian personnel back home do not.

Alas, the UK forces have found they were lagging behind in most of these respects, compared with other nations, and the government is now addressing the issue.

Ex-soldiers of a certain age may grimace and recall that during the conflicts of World War Two, Korea, Suez or Borneo they had no such benefits, but then again the British forces largely fought on their own, and the opportunities to compare pay and conditions arose less often.

Nevertheless, pay was never as generous as today. A soldier in the Somerset Light Infantry recalled that when he was conscripted in 1939, his pay was two shillings (10 pence) per day, or 14 shillings per week (70 pence), but that his civilian job had paid him £6 (120 shillings per week).

By contrast, when the better-paid American servicemen arrived in England from 1942 onwards, they were referred to as "oversexed, overpaid, and over here", by their underpaid British counterparts.

Pay grousing

Part of the jealousy arose from the Yanks luring many British girls with their smarter uniforms and higher pay, and seemingly unlimited access to rationed items like cigarettes, chocolate and nylon stockings (though why the US military should come equipped with huge quantities of nylon stockings has always mystified me).

War graves
Munitions workers earned more than soldiers in the First World War

Soldiers with time on their hands have traditionally groused about pay and conditions - indeed one general observed he would know there was something wrong with his army if they were not complaining.

In World War One, when a serviceman's basic wage was one shilling a day (5 pence), soldiers found it unfair that women war workers in munitions factories earned much more on piecework than they did, and could afford to take them out for a drink, rather than the other way about.

British soldiers and sailors were traditionally paid sixpence a day for their services, which rose to eight pence during the reign of Queen Anne.

From the Duke of Wellington's day, every British soldier was issued with a pay book. (The sample name the Duke chose to show soldiers how to complete it was "Thomas Atkins", hence British troops ever after being known as "Tommies".)

This eventually became the 'Service and Pay Book', whose 20 pages recorded every aspect of your life, and became, in effect, your passport.

Last will and testament

Army Book 64 for generations of service personnel contained your service number, personal ID, training records, employment history, medical data, next of kin identification and a page for your last will and testament.

You had to keep it on your person at all times and failure to produce it was a punishable offence. As it contained details of all pay advanced to you, money (or lack of it) was never far from a soldier's mind.

Although Army Book 64 has long been replaced by automated payslips, and salaries are paid monthly by credit, rather than weekly in jingling cash, pay is never far from the serviceman's mind.

Usually because if death is around the corner, the fear is that partners and families could be left destitute - and that is not a concern that most civilians share.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

When you break it down, a soldier in the British Army is paid a daily rate - the lowest rate for a qualified soldier being £37.99. When you take it in the military that sometimes you work hellish long hours during deployment this daily rate equates to £1.58 per hour you can see why the average British soldier feels a bit undervalued in comparison to other occupations. I know this over simplifies the amount paid but as an ex-serving soldier I can testify to frequently going for days on end with very little sleep, surely the time has come to pay a decent rate of pay for the job our troops do, after all we don't ask much for defending the country.
Michael Godfrey, Ayr

I'd have to disagree with you on the issue of the fear that partners and families being left destitute. Even civilians take out insurance and assurance policies to benefit their families in the event of their death. Keeping a sense of perspective, there will probably be more British people dying on the roads of the UK today than will die in military action as British soldiers.
John Airey, Peterborough

In answer to to of your contributers, John Airey and Trish of Scotland. Most insurance policies exclude war risks or charge a substantial surcharge for life cover for a serviceman. The housing which the guys and girls live in is rented ie they pay rent out of their wage just as they would in civilian life, they also pay council tax and for gas water and electricity. I am sure that Trish wouldn't like to live in some of the housing the troops have.
Ian, Fareham

The army¿s own website says: The Army provides heavily subsidised food and accommodation which means that more of your salary ends up in your pocket for you to decide how you want to spend it. And also: All soldiers who are in receipt of full-time pay are members of the non-contributory Armed Forces Pension Scheme . Not too bad... If you don¿t like it, don¿t join!
Peter

When I served in Egypt 1952 to 1954 I was paid the grand sum of 28 shillings a week and bed and board free (joke). The only thing that was free was the national insurance stamp.
C Forse, Yatton

Obviously when several nationalities serve together, some aspects of each nation's conditions of service will be better than others. But in Bosnia, we were worst off all round. Other nations didn't pay tax, and received UN pay (no-one ever explained where the money from HQ UNO given to HM government for our troops went). British troops got 10 minutes use of the highly-distorted military telephone network twice a week (mobiles don't work in a war zone!) When I was detached to the Canadians, and asked if we could use their satellite telephone network to call home, the answer from the Commanding Officer was "Son, use it whenever you want - I don't pay for it!
Stjohn Williams, Bath

My Son-in-Law has recently returned from a tour in Iraq. He is a naval medic. Not only will he not receive any additional pay nor any tax advantage because his tour was only for three months,(not six)but the travel allowances he receives in the UK were withdrawn. So in effect his pay was reduced by several hundred pounds a month. To add insult to injury he will not be receiving a campaign medal as it was a peace keeping mission. It has to be said, however that whilst my daughter, who is six months pregnant, was eternally grateful that her husband was only away for three months, she did miss the 'travel' supplement in his pay packet...
Steve Clement, Broadstairs

Privateers and militia men can be said to have been well paid. Look to the likes of Captain Morgan and in later times members of the East India Company. Private armies are a viable option when faced with world turmoil.
Simon, London

While I agree that soldiers might be underpaid, there are other considerations. I believe (although I may well be wrong) that a lot of army type people live in housing on barracks. So they don't need money for stuff that most of us do. Also, the last paragraph - actually there are an awful lot of civillians worried that if they die, their families will be destitute. Me for one.
Trish, Scotland

I thought we were underpaid here. I guess not. At least I finally know what a shilling actually is even though im an Anglophile. You guys need to pay your boys (and girls) better pure and simple. We get crap for pay here, but its still better than what you give your boys. Even living in barracks or on a base; even though its cheaper to live there, life has too many costs. I must applaud your services for putting up with low pay; especially your sailors. Anchors Aweigh my Brit sailor cousins
Justin Jacobson, Petty Officer-US Navy Reserve, Retired, Chicago, Illinois

I think it is an absolute disgrace that British soldiers do not receive a higher rate of pay. When you consider at the rank levels that the police often employ people with very few academic qualifications yet pay them more than soldiers it would appear the miltary personnel are being exploited or that the police are overpaid. The remuneration should be fairer. Is it the case that because some soldiers are from disadvantaged backgrounds their level of expectation is exploited to the full? It is also worth considering the very low number of military persons who are classified as too sick to work and therefore entitled to payment whilst not working. I wonder how this compares with other public sector workers.
Mark Haworth, Oxford

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