Friday, 16 August 2013

"The scum of the earth": British infantry tactics from the Peninsula to Waterloo

"Twenty-eighth, remember Egypt!" Lady Butler's The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras

At the Battle of Vitoria in northern Spain in 1813, the army of King Joseph Bonaparte was decisively smashed by an allied British, Spanish and Portuguese army. However, the chance to pursue the beaten French was lost when the British troops paused to plunder the French supply wagons. Enraged by this gross abandonment of discipline (not withstanding that a large number of Old Master paintings recovered from the wagons would later hang in Apsley House), the Duke of Wellington declared; “we have in the service the scum of the earth as common soldiers”. Yet these “scum of the earth”, the British Army that defeated Napoleon on the Iberian Peninsula and at Waterloo, have been described as “the only military force not to suffer a major reverse at the hands of Napoleonic France.” It seems astonishing that the poor bloody infantry of Wellington could have defeated the same troops that rolled over the far more militaristic Prussians and the numerically-vast Russians and Austrians. Today, I’m going to examine the training and organisation of the British infantry, and the tactics of the decisive battles of Busaco, Fuentes de Onoro, Salamanca and Waterloo, and attempt to answer the question of how British troops in the Peninsula and Belgium repeatedly turned back French forces when so many others had failed.

Before we can discuss the typical images of Britain in the Napoleonic Wars – the thin lines of redcoats versus unstoppable French columns and the infantry squares holding their own against Napoleon’s cavalry – we must first discuss the factor that drove these tactics: the advantages and limitations of the smoothbore musket. The British Army musket of the Napoleonic Wars was that “out-spoken, flinty-lipped, brazen-faced jade”, the Brown Bess. Sturdier than the French Model 1777 and considered perhaps the best musket in Europe, the Brown Bess nevertheless had the same limitations as its counterparts, namely poor accuracy and low rate of fire. Hitting a man beyond a hundred yards was more of a matter of luck than skill, and the great Comte de Guibert, the main contributor to that enormously influential French drill manual, the Réglement of 1791, remarked that out of five hundred rounds fired, one hitting the target was a reasonable score. Three rounds per minute were considered an acceptable rate of fire for a man standing in a battalion line, though an experienced soldier could get off four.

Thus, the only way to ensure that soldiers actually hit anything was to mass them in large formations, firing in volleys to maximise the chance of rounds hitting the opposing formation. This also ensured that part of the line would always be firing, thus ensuring that the formation as a whole got off a high rate of fire. A Prussian battalion of 1792, standing in a line of three ranks, with the front two ranks totalling some four hundred men firing, could fire off in one minute a comparable number of rounds to a modern machine gun in the same time.

The British line infantry battalion was somewhat larger, with a theoretical strength of one thousand men, split into ten companies: Eight Line Companies, a Grenadier Company, and a Light Company. When the battalion fired, it was by company or groups of companies. This, coupled with the two- rather than three-rank line formation that was preferred in the Peninsular War, thus bringing a larger number of muskets to bear, would give it a somewhat higher rate of fire.

The organisation and drill of the battalion owed much to the drill manual Principles of Military Movement, published in 1788 by the great Scottish soldier General Sir David Dundas. So influential was this manual that its drills survived mostly unchanged until 1845. While the line was the preferred battle formation, movement, either to the battlefield or across it, was usually done in a column of companies.

With their weapon and their two main formations considered, we can now consider the men themselves: the Redcoats. Wellington’s army on the Peninsula was trained to an extremely high standard. Unlike the French, who were surrounded by enemies on all sides and so had to rapidly raise, train, and deploy troops, Britain was guarded by the Channel and the Royal Navy and so could afford to commit to a longer training programme for its soldiers: in the words of Richard Holmes, “it might take six months for a man to pass off the (drill) square to the sergeant major’s satisfaction.” In contrast, the British line infantryman’s French counterpart might receive less than three weeks training before being rushed off to war. Britain’s European allies – Russia, Prussia and Austria – were beset by the same problems as France, having to rapidly raise large armies, thus producing troops of questionable quality. Britain’s campaign in the Peninsula, however, was expeditionary, limited and long-term, allowing them to raise a small yet high-quality army. When it appeared that the French might gain the upper hand, the British Army would retreat to defensive positions in Portugal to regroup and rearm, as it did after Talavera in 1809 and Burgos in 1812.

Raising huge numbers of men also diluted the amount of materiel the European powers could commit to the training of each man: in weapons training, a British rifleman would receive sixty live rounds and sixty blanks; a light infantryman, fifty live rounds and sixty blanks; and a line infantryman, thirty rounds. In contrast, a Prussian jäger received sixty rounds total, while a Prussian fusilier received thirty. An Austrian line infantryman never received more than ten rounds, while a Russian infantryman would be lucky to get six. It was this superior level of training that allowed the often-outnumbered British redcoats to stand firm against the same French columns that battered their way through the less-disciplined Spanish lines in the Peninsular War.

Aside from discipline, drill, and confidence in their training, there was another, less tangible factor that encouraged the men to stand firm: the famous British regimental system. In post-battle interviews with the officers of the regiments that had fought at Waterloo, while many of them admitted that they had thought the Anglo-Allied Army would lose, not one of them believed that it would be their regiment that would break first, “but I thought some other would.” The interviewer went on to record, “the English regiment will not give way, because the English regiment of the same brigade has done so, but will mock the fugitive, and in all liklihood (sic) redouble its own exertions to restore the fight – a true bull-dog courage against all odds – if well led.”

This attitude is best immortalised by Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Picton’s exhortation at the Battle of Quatre Bras, two days before Waterloo. With other battalion squares around him breaking before Marshal Ney’s cavalry charge, Picton roared “Twenty-eighth, remember Egypt!” Reminded of their epic victory at Alexandria, despite being attacked on the front and rear ranks of their line, in Egypt in 1801, the 28th (North Gloucestershire) Regiment of Foot stood firm. Even though they were already thoroughly battered and surrounded by French cavalry on three sides, they refused to break. In the words of Holmes, “there were probably very few present that day who could remember Egypt, but the appeal to ancient virtue worked, and the regiment stood firm.” Their feat is immortalised in Lady Butler’s painting The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras, seen at the top of this page. This competitive, almost tribal regimental spirit, and fierce loyalty to one’s fellows and colours was what held officers and men fast in their lines.

The interviewer who made his study after Waterloo makes an important final point: a regiment will only stand “if well led.” Thus, they needed, and possessed, good officers. Though the practice of the sale of commissions was in place through all of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, this did not produce the kind of incompetent, more-money-than-sense type of officer that is associated with future conflicts such as the Crimean War: The officer corps suffered particularly high attrition in the wars against Napoleon, discouraging this type of potential officer from seeking service. Barely 20% of commissions were by purchase, while 5% of officers came from the other ranks. A large number also had prior experience in the Militia. Furthermore, whatever the source of their commissions, nearly every regiment required its new officers to do basic training, marching with ordinary soldiers, conducting weapons drill, and performing sentry duty. Among the military reforms of the Duke of York was the requirement for officers to have served two years before moving up to the rank of Captain, and a further six years before they could be promoted to Major. Thus, battalion O.C.s would have at least eight years of experience when they first took command.

Officers were expected to lead from the front, displaying courage for his men to emulate. This went up to the highest levels, and Wellington was regularly in the thick of the action in battles on the Peninsula (he was hit three times by musket balls, though all without causing serious injury). At Waterloo, he rode between squares even as the French cavalry flowed around them, saying; “Stand fast! We must not be beat! What will they say of this in England?” The British regiments visibly increased their efforts. At the Battle of Busaco, Colonel Alexander Wallace of 88th Regiment of Foot (Connaught Rangers) was at the head of his regiment all the way through their counterattack, fighting like his ancestor of old. While the deeply ingrained class structure of British society never allowed Privates to find Marshal’s batons in their knapsacks, it did produce officers with a paternalistic bent who felt deep affection for and responsibility to the men under them. In officers’ journals, the men and NCOs are not faceless drones, but are remembered with affection and regard, and most officers thought of their “lads” in much the same way as a father would think of his sons.

There was a final factor in the British infantry’s success on the Peninsula, and it was in fact one that Napoleon himself had dismissed. The British Army’s adoption of the rifle as a weapon for its light infantry gave them an enormous advantage over French columns armed solely with inaccurate, shorter-ranged muskets. The Emperor had dismissed the rifle as a poor weapon owing to its low rate of fire, but he had failed to consider its uses in the special niche it occupied. Three battalions of the 95th Regiment of Foot (Rifles) were equipped with the Baker rifle, though its most famous wielder is Bernard Cornwell’s “brilliant but wayward” fictional hero Richard Sharpe. This formidable weapon only had a rate of fire of roughly two rounds per minute, but in contrast to the Brown Bess, it could hit a target at two hundred yards with great accuracy. The most famous use of the Baker rifle was by Rifleman Thomas Plunkett at the Battle of Cacabelos during the retreat to Corunna in 1809, when he famously shot and killed the French General August de Colbert at what may have been a range of six hundred yards, a feat the stunned the rest of the Rifles. As if to prove that his shot had not been a fluke, he reloaded and shot Colbert’s aid at the same range. Plunkett’s case is of course exceptional, but Bugler William Green recorded of the 95th at the Battle of Corunna:

“Our bugles sounded the advance; away went the kettle; the word was given ‘Rifles in front extend by files in chain order!’ The enemy’s sharpshooters were double and triple our numbers. We got within range of their rifles, and began to pick them off. We held them in check until our light division formed in line, and then the carnage commenced.”

Despite being heavily outnumbered, the superior range and accuracy of the Baker rifle clearly allowed Green and his comrades to hold off the French skirmishers until the rest of the division was ready. Companies of riflemen were attached to every brigade operating in the Iberian Peninsula, and such was their proficiency that accounts exist of French units being devastated by having their officers singled out and shot by British riflemen.

The training and quality of the redcoats and their officers is reflected in their conduct in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo. We can now consider specific examples of the British infantry holding against the French. The classic image of the Peninsular War is of course the British line on a reverse slope throwing back an advancing French column. Two good examples of this can be found at the Battle of Busaco in 1810, and another at the Battle of Sorauren in 1813.

At Busaco, Wellington kept almost the entire allied army on the reverse slope of the ridge, with only the Light Companies visible to the advancing army of Marshals Andre Masséna and Michel Ney. It was typical practice to keep the Light Company of each battalion thrown forward as skirmishers to harass the approaching enemy. In the centre of this “magnificent defensive position”, as Michael Glover put it, was Colonel Alexander Wallace’s 88th Regiment of Foot (Connaught Rangers). A French division under the command of Major General Pierre Merle made the exhausting climb up Busaco Ridge in column, only to meet the Connaught Rangers and three other battalions arranged in a dish-shaped formation, able to bring fire on both its flanks. Notably, upon seeing the allied battalions in front of them, Merle’s men did attempt to deploy into line from column, but as Guibert put it, “any unit which attempts to manoeuvre in front of the enemy is in a state of crisis”. The Connaught Rangers pursued the French aggressively, and Wallace, to again quote Glover, “never slackened his fire while a Frenchman was within his reach. He followed them down the edge of the hill, and then formed his men in line, waiting…for any fresh body that might attack him.”

A comparable incident occurred just a few hours later in the same action. Battalions of the 52nd (Oxfordshire) Regiment of Foot and the 43rd (Monmouthshire) Regiment of Foot under Brigadier General Robert Craufurd stayed out of side behind the crest of the ridge, while a French division under Major General Louis Loison fought its way through a particularly thick British skirmish line. As per British tactics, Craufurd watched the French advance from the brow of the hill, until the French, exhausted, shot ragged by canister fire, and completely disordered by the rough terrain, came within “a very few yards of him”. When the French finally crested the hill, they found themselves facing a line of British infantry barely twenty yards away. Craufurd then roared, “Now, 52nd, revenge the death of Sir John Moore! Charge, charge!” His infantry, who had been lying out of sight behind the hill (as would later be repeated at Waterloo), stood up “and in an instant the brow of the hill bristled with two thousand British bayonets”. On the right, Captains Lloyd and William Napier were able to bring their companies wheeling round to flank the French column, while a Major Arbuthnot did the same with his company on the left of the battalion. Being fired upon at extreme close range and being charged at with bayonets, the French column collapsed, and the 52nd chased the French all the way back down the hill. French casualties in this single engagement were over two thousand. In the whole battle, they lost 4,500 dead or wounded, compared to 1,250 British and Portuguese casualties.

The French suffered a comparable defeat to the reverse slope at the Battle of Sorauren in 1813, which was the end of Marshal Soult’s abortive attempt to regain Pamplona. An action here had Brigadier General Ross with the 20th Foot (East Devon) and 23rd Foot (Royal Welsh Fusiliers), with seven hundred allied skirmishers, against General Jean Lecamus’ brigade, which was preceded by eight hundred skirmishers and supported by four light guns. Despite being outnumbered three-to-two with no artillery, Ross’ men successfully held their position: The French, who had advanced nearly five hundred feet up a slope, were driven back nearly halfway down by a volley of musketry and a bayonet charge from the British, who held the top of the slope and kept that position for the rest of the day. 2,600 British, Spanish and Portuguese troops died or were wounded at Sorauren, compared to 4,000 French.

These three incidents demonstrate the terrible weakness of the French column against well-drilled troops in a good defensive position. The British use of the line gave them a far greater frontage than the column, which allowed them to bring to bear a far larger number of muskets against the French than the French could at them, and also allowed the companies on the extreme ends of a battalion line to direct fire into the flanks of the column, which happened twice at the Battle of Busaco. Additionally, the British tendency to stay right behind the brow of a hill, sometimes lying down to stay concealed, meant that when they crested the hill, exhausted from the climb and disordered by the rough terrain, the French would find themselves face to face with British infantry, with no time to deploy into line and facing a devastating volley of close-range musketry, followed by a bayonet charge.

Notably, however, there were successful instances of the French deploying into line to face the British, as Merle’s men tried at Busaco. At Waterloo, two battalions of the Middle Guard – the 1er/3e Chasseurs and the 4e Grenadiers – successfully formed into line while facing Maitland’s Guards Brigade of two battalions, the 2/1st and 3/1st Foot Guards. A long exchange of musket volleys followed, causing heavy casualties on both sides: From a starting strength of around 1,080 men on June 18th, Maitland’s two battalions recorded 492 casualties, or 45% losses. Against the other three battalions of the Middle Guard that had advanced, however, things occurred in more or less “the same old way”, as Wellington put it. On Maitland’s right flank, the Middle Guard’s 2e/3e Chasseurs failed to deploy from column to line and a company of the 52nd (Oxfordshire) Light Infantry succeeded in outflanking them on their left. The 1er/3e Chasseurs eventually retreated when they saw that the battalions on their flanks had been driven off.

An iconic image of the Battle of Waterloo is the British squares holding firm against repeated charges of Ney’s cavalry. The infantry square (though more often an oblong) was a hollow box formation adopted in the face of a cavalry charge, as the line, the actions of the 28th at Alexandria notwithstanding, was fatally vulnerable to a cavalry assault. The sides of a square were usually two companies – or four ranks – deep, but an Edward Macready of the 30th Regiment of Foot recalled how at Quatre Bras, his battalion formed square so quickly that two of its faces were six ranks deep. The front two ranks would kneel, presenting a hedge of bayonets that no horse would go near. The rear ranks meanwhile would fire volleys. Squares were arranged in “checker” formations to ensure that one was never in another’s field of fire.

Along with Waterloo, an excellent example of the infantry square in action can be found in the Battle of Fuentes de Onoro on May 5th 1811. On the second day of the battle, Wellington had the Anglo-Portuguese Army in position on a ridge, but a plateau on his right flank opened the possibility of a flanking manoeuvre by the French cavalry. Robert Craufurd’s Light Division, reinforced by British and King’s German Legion cavalry, was sent to the right to reinforce the 7th Division against Masséna’s cavalry. Forming battalion squares on the plateau, the Light and 7th Divisions began a fighting retreat of over two miles back to the ridge. Barely four thousand men of the Light Division and 1,500 cavalry faced a force three or four times their number, and yet the squares refused to break, despite fighting on an open plain that was perfect for cavalry action. Contemporary accounts described the French cavalry ineffectually flowing around the British squares. Private William Wheeler of the 7th Division recalled of the retreat:

“He (his commanding officer) took advantage of the ground and led us out of the scrape without loss. I shall never forget him, he dismounted off his horse, faced us and frequently called the time ‘Right, Left’ as he was accustomed to when drilling the regiment... he would now and then call out ‘That fellow is out of step. Keep step and they cannot hurt us.’”

Thus, British troops were trained to the point that they could execute their drills on the battlefield as flawlessly as they would on the parade square. The Light Division and the battered 7th Division made it back to British lines. The Light Division sustained barely forty-three casualties in this engagement. This whole incident reflects extremely well on the level of training and drill British troops received.

As well as its defensive superiority with its mastery of the reverse slope and the square, the British infantry also possessed an excellent system of tactics for attacks. Attacks were almost always made with battalions grouped into brigades, and the system was extremely flexible, leading to attacks on the Peninsula being carried out in formations that somewhat resemble the French “ordre mixte”. In its most basic form, this would consist of three battalions approaching the enemy in column, preceded by their light infantry companies as skirmishers. When they closed with the enemy, the centre battalion would form into line, while the other two battalions would stay in column to secure its flanks. When battle was joined, the flank battalions could remain in column; deploy into line to assist the central battalion in dealing with enemy infantry; or if cavalry approached, form a solid square from column to give the line time to form its own square.

The brigade in the assault was seen at El Bodon in 1811: A brigade of the 4th Division under Pakenham advanced with the 7th Fusiliers in line formation in the centre, but with the 23rd and 48th in column on its left and right securing the flanks. In the same year at Albuera, brigades of the 4th Division under Myers and Harvey advanced with their battalions in column before they deployed to line to meet the enemy, but kept a battalion in column on each flank. At Castrillo in 1812, Wellington made use of a larger-scale variation on this tactic and advanced one brigade in line, while splitting the Portuguese Brigade and keeping their battalions in column on each flank.

The Battle of Salamanca on July 22nd 1812, fought against Marshal Auguste de Marmont and General Bertrand Clausel, provides an excellent example of a British brigade in the offence. Under the command of Sir Edward Pakenham, a brigade of three battalions of the 3rd Division advanced uphill towards French troops positioned behind the crest. The French skirmishers hoped to take advantage of the delay in deploying from column to line to inflict damage on the brigade, but “Pakenham told Wallace to form line from open column without halting, and thus the different companies, by throwing forward their right shoulders were in line without the slow manoeuvre of deployment.” British infantry on the Peninsula were drilled to the point that they could form line from column in less than thirty seconds, and this movement stunned the French skirmishers, who could make only “an irregular and hurried fire”.

Now in line, the brigade advanced to the top of the hill. Alexander Wallace’s Connaught Rangers were in the first line of Packenham’s attack. At the hill they were met by the French division, which fired and “brought down almost the whole of Wallace’s front rank and more than half of his officers”. The French, it seemed, were about to beat the British at their own game using a reverse slope defence. In spite of this, however, the French saw to their horror that Wallace continued to lead his brigade. French fire became increasingly panicked and sporadic, and finally stopped altogether. With a cheer, Wallace’s men charged, and “the mighty phalanx, which but a moment before was so formidable, loosened and fell in pieces before fifteen hundred invincible British soldiers in a line of only two deep.” The French divisions were smashed within forty minutes, and their losses were horrendous: one regiment of 1,100 men suffered 800 casualties; another regiment 1,500 out of 1,750.

That the British continued to advance despite the terrible effect, both physical and psychological, of the French’s first volley, and successfully broke the French despite being in a position that they had trapped the French in numerous times – facing an enemy on the reverse slope – is a testament to the excellent drill they received and the amount of trust and faith they placed in their fellows due to the regimental system. Wellington, meanwhile, launched a series of devastating blows along the entire French line in oblique order, and the French were sent reeling. British and Allied casualties were just over 5,000. French casualties approached 14,000. “I never saw an army get such a beating in so short a time,” wrote Wellington. “What havoc in little more than four hours.”

In conclusion, the British infantry was able to defeat the French on the Iberian Peninsula time after time due to its organisation, its training, and the skill of its commanders. The regimental system forged an almost tribal spirit among the officers and men of a regiment. This loyalty to their colours, cap badge and comrades created an atmosphere in which no man believed that it would be his regiment that would break, and equally, no man believed that would he be the one that would make his regiment break. The protection afforded to Britain by the sea and the Royal Navy meant that the British Army had the luxury of time to train its troops, something that France, Russia, Prussia and Austria never had. Furthermore, the small size of the British Army and the wealth provided by Britain’s overseas trade allowed each recruit to have a considerably greater amount of materiel devoted to his training than his counterparts in European continental armies. This, together with stringent requirements for officer selection, produced an extremely high quality of solider and officer. In the field, this superior training and ethos was expressed in their exceptional use of terrain in the defence, such as at the Battles of Busaco, Sorauren, and Waterloo; their holding of ground in the face of difficult odds, such as at the Battle of Fuentes de Onoro; and their exceptional aggression and zeal in the attack, such as at the Battle of Salamanca. All in all, the British redcoats were indeed worthy of the accolade Wellington gave them after Vitoria when his temper had cooled: “it really is wonderful that we should have made them the fine fellows they are.”

Works consulted

Gregory Freemont-Barnes, Napoleon Bonaparte
Michael Glover, Wellington’s Peninsular Victories
Paddy Griffith, French Napoleonic Infantry Tactics 1792-1815
Robert Harvey, The War of Wars
Philip J Haythornthwaite, Weapons & Equipment of the Napoleonic Wars
Philip J Haythornthwaite, British Napoleonic Infantry Tactics 1792-1815
Richard Holmes, Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket
Peter Hofschröer, Prussian Napoleonic Tactics 1792-1815
Jan Read, War in the Peninsula
Peter Snow, To War with Wellington 


  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.