Friday, May 18, 2012

The Making of Your Regency/Napoleonic Era Military Hero

He made for some great history!
Given that today is the 209th anniversary of the start of the Napoleonic Wars, I thought it fitting to take a look at the very human factors that made all the difference in the outcome of that conflict.  Technologically, the combatants were evenly matched.  The crucial differences were those of ideology and intellect.  Ideology and intellect, of course, do not fight or win battles, but they do manifest themselves in the type of army that is fielded and the way the army fights.  This human factor is of interest not only to historians, but to those crafting and reading stories that take place during that time, and it is the human factor that this post will explore.

George III
The years spanning the overlap of the Regency Period and the Napoleonic Era are extremely popular with readers of both romance and historical fiction.  The Regency Period began in 1811 when King George III was, due to severe mental illness, deemed unfit to rule.  For the next nine years, the United Kingdom was ruled by the King’s son, the Prince of Wales acting in the capacity of Prince Regent.  With George III’s death on January 29, 1820, the Prince Regent became King George IV, formally ending the era.    The Napoleonic era began on November 9, 1799 when Napoleon Bonaparte seized control of the French revolutionary government.  France would find itself at war with Britain until July 1815, when a coalition led by Britain finally defeated Napoleon’s forces.   The period’s popularity isn’t surprising.  Combining the start of the Industrial Revolution with class based social upheaval and dashing soldiers blooded in the Napoleonic wars, there is no shortage of plot engines and compelling characters.   The British infantry fought – and won (the British infantry was the only force never to be decisively defeated by the French) many battles against huge numerical odds.  When crafting characters and scenes from this period, it is important and useful to understand both the people and the tactics that yielded the successes and made the heroes upon which books and screenplays dramatizing this period rely.
The Prince Regent

Who were the Poor Bloody Infantry?

In the late 18th century, Britain was divided into three recruiting areas:  South Britain (England and Wales), Ireland and North Britain (Scotland).  Each of these was subdivided internally into individual districts.  A parallel recruiting organization existed for the law enforcement and home defense “army,” which was composed of the Militia, the Veteran Battalions, the Yeomanry and the Fencibles. (These formations were separate from the regular army, and were not subject to deployment overseas.)
The regular British Army was an all-volunteer force, drawing most of its recruits from the lower social classes. Army life was known to be harsh, the discipline severe and the pay abysmally low.  As a result, it was most attractive to those for whom civilian life offered options that were significantly less appealing.  Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, also known as the Duke of Wellington indicated that British soldiers often came to the army from questionable circumstances.  “Many,” he said “enlist from having got bastard children – some for minor offences – some for drink.”  The Duke’s opinion was, tempered by the transformation worked upon the soldier by the army “They were the scum of the earth; it is really wonderful that we should have made them to the fine fellows they are.”
British Infantry, circa 1809
 In Scotland however, a number of men enlisted due to the economic collapse of the weaving trade (displaced due to the ongoing industrial revolution) and came from skilled artisan and/or middle class households.  Up until 1806, soldiers enlisted for life in exchange for a bonus of £23 17s 6d.  Unfortunately for the soldiers, most of the bonus was held back by the army to cover the cost of basic kit and “necessities.”  During the height of the wars, and in recognition of the need to field a larger army against the huge French land forces, a “limited service” system was established in 1806.  Under the new system the terms of service were lowered to seven years for the infantry and ten for the cavalry.  Additionally, corporal punishment (which had included flogging so severe that it normally left a man scarred for life) was limited only to serious derelictions of duty, and improved an improved infantry training regimen was adopted.

British Officers, 1815
Contrary to popular belief, officer positions were not limited to the wealthy and the nobility.  They were required to be literate, but beyond that, the British Army’s officer corps carried widely in terms of social and educational backgrounds.  (The term “officer and a gentleman” referred to the officers character and conduct rather than his social class.)  Indeed, the Napoleonic Wars saw the army make great strides toward a merit based officer corps.  Five percent of the officers were commissioned from the ranks and less than twenty percent had purchased their initial commissions.    Relatively few officers were from the English nobility.  In 1809, only 140 officers on the active service list were peers.  Promotions for officers generally came through seniority, with less than twenty percent being gained by purchase.  Merit promotions were somewhat rare, but increasingly common as the war progressed.

Tactics and Procedures

Four elements combined to make the British infantry the finest in the world, and to return them victory after victory.  These were a long-service volunteer force, the line formation, musket drill with live ammunition and the bayonet. 

Unlike European armies, the British army was an all-volunteer force.  Prior to 1806, enlistments were for life.  The confluence of these two facts was an organization with exceptionally high morale, unit cohesion and standards of discipline and training.  Add into the mix a professional non-commissioned officer (NCO) corps (corporals and sergeants), and the result was an army so familiar with battlefield drill and maneuver that conducting complex formation movement, such as deploying from a march column into a firing line was almost autonomous.   European conscript armies, such as the French, whose soldiers had vastly less military experience, and who lacked a mature, highly capable and well-seasoned NCO corps were unable to execute complex tactics efficiently or to effectively use tactics that depended on a highly disciplined soldiery.   

Column meets line.  Only the front ranks of the column can shoot whereas the entire line can fire into the column.
The tactical formation that defined the British infantry – and that was made possible by the countless hours of drill endured by its professional soldiers – was the line formation.  The line formation allowed a British infantry battalion to deliver an incredible amount of firepower for the early nineteenth century – as much as 2,000 rounds per minute.  Moreover, it allowed every soldier in the unit to bring his weapon to bear on the enemy formation.  Contrast this to the French column.  In the column formation, soldiers marching together in one or more files, in which the file is significantly longer than the width of ranks in the formation.  The column formation was significantly easier to teach to less experienced soldiers, much easier to control in battle, allowed the unit rapid movement and made for a very effective charge due to weight of numbers.  However, by its nature, only a fraction of its muskets would be able to open fire.    During the Napoleonic Wars, the British Army adopted a thin two-rank line formation which compensated for its relative lack of numbers and maximized its fire frontage.
The Duke of Wellington

When columns met disciplined lines, the firepower advantage of the line told, and the columns were, time and time again, shattered.  In this way, numerically inferior British formations consistently defeated far larger French forces.  The firepower advantage derived not only from the British Army’s formations, but also from its high standard of firearms training.  Whereas the conscripts in European armies may have trained with their muskets by going through the motions of loading and firing, the British Army regularly used live service ammunition in training.  Units were expected to train to a standard of three rounds per minute (the French conscripts could generally manage two), and well trained veterans could fire as many as five per minute.  

The smoothbore India Pattern infantry musket, or Brown Bess, used by the British Army fired a .75 caliber soft lead ball weighing a bit more than an ounce.   When several hundred were discharged by a tightly packed line formation at a massed column of men 50 yards away, the leading ranks of the column went down as though cut by a scythe.
"Brown Bess" or India Pattern Musket
The  Brown Bess was equipped with a seventeen inch long bayonet that fit onto the weapon’s muzzle.  Triangular in cross section, it inflicted fearsome wounds.  Once the enemy column had been halted or dazed by the slaughter inflicted by the constant drumming of the line’s regular, steady volleys, the infantry was loosed in a bayonet charge.  The shock effect of the bayonet charge broke many French attacks during the war.

The Regency/Napoleonic British Army was marked by high standards of professionalism and discipline.  Importantly, its officers weren’t princes and its soldiers weren’t supermen.  They were ordinary people who regularly performed extraordinary feats, aided by a culture that prized discipline and honor and at the same time extolled fierceness and savagery in combat.  This “everyman” motif is especially useful when crafting heroes (and villains) who are tempered by the combination of discipline and combat into whatever your book or screenplay demands.

Monday, May 14, 2012

A Gentleman's Gun

Chin chin, old boy.  Edwardian Gentleman by Emil Fuchs
You’ve decided to set your work sometime in the first forty years of the 20th century, either in the Edwardian era or at some point between the wars.  Your hero is a British gentleman, your heroine a woman of pluck and spirit.  Plot and story possibilities abound:  The British Empire spans the globe, offering tempting settings and venues from Dorsetshire to Delhi to Durban.  Victorian notions still govern interactions between women and men and between gentry and working classes.  However, dark clouds that threaten both your characters and social order loom in the guise of bomb throwing anarchists, conspiratorial Bolshevik agents provocateurs setting labor on a collision course with capital, colonial liberation movements, an emerging women’s rights movement and, depending on when your novel or screenplay is set one of two incipient world wars.  Amidst the turbulent tides of time stands your hero (or, I suppose, your heroine), battered but defiant, staring death in the face and brandishing…Wait a moment, what exactly is our plucky hero, Richard, the twenty third Earl of Warfelnutterstone Manor brandishing?

Frederick Selous, one of the last "Great White Hunters"
The difficulty attendant to properly outfitting an upper class British hero with a firearm has much to do with contemporary British attitudes toward firearms, which are, to put it mildly, negative and restrictive.  The pervasive nature of these attitudes in modern English society might lead one to think that firearms were never a significant part of English culture.  This is not only historically incorrect, it is a complete volte face from the attitudes of the Edwardian and interwar eras, when gentlemen (and that group included men who made their fortunes in industry in addition to those with inherited titles and wealth) were expected not only to own a number of guns, but to also use them regularly to hunt everything from doves in the English countryside to stags in Scotland, tigers in India and elephant and Cape buffalo in Africa.  That being the case, let’s take a few moments to explore what Sir Richard might retrieve from the gun room upon hearing mischief upon the moor at night.

It is unlikely that Sir Richard’s gun room would contain much in the way of military style firearms.  The standard British infantry rifle of the period, the Rifle, Short, Magazine, Lee-Enfield, or SMLE, was a well designed battle implement that served His (and Her) Majesty’s forces from its 
Rifle, Short, Magazine, Lee-Enfield

introduction in 1904 through two world wars, and in a somewhat modified form, as a sniper rifle until the mid-1990s.  It was less than ideal as a hunting rifle (which doesn’t mean it wasn’t used for hunting), being both heavy and long for its caliber.  Instead, he would probably have an assortment of English “doubles,” and “magazine rifles” for use on terrestrial game as well as one or more shotguns used as fowling pieces. 

A double is a double barreled rifle, with the barrels next to each other in a side by side configuration.  Most were made by one of the masters of the English gun trade in either London or Birmingham.  It should be noted that at the turn of the twentieth century, there were literally thousands of gunmakers in Britain.  Many of these have been lost to time, forced out of the industry by death, bankruptcy, consolidation and an increasingly hostile legislative climate.  A few names remain well known.  These include the London firms of (the legendary!) Holland & Holland, W.J. Jeffery and John Rigby & Co., famous Birmingham companies such as Westley Richards and W.W. Greener and George Gibbs of Bristol. 

Holland and Holland Royal Grade Sidelock Double Rifle
Doubles are found in two main varieties, sidelocks and boxlocks.  Both operate in a similar manner (and, indeed, take advantage of the same invention, the Anson & Deeley boxlock, covered by British patent number 1756):  When the action is opened, internal hammers are automatically cocked, cartridges are inserted, and the action closed and locked.  Two triggers are supplied, one for each barrel, with the front trigger firing the left barrel, and the rear trigger the right barrel.  Sidelocks (the “lock” is the gun’s firing mechanism) are the older of the two and are a carryover from the days of flint and percussion muzzleloaders with exposed hammers.  With the advent of breech loading metallic cartridge ammunition, the hammers were brought inside the frame.  The boxlock appeared in 1875.  The difference between a sidelock and boxlock is that the sidelock carries the hammers, springs and sears on two sideplates. The boxlock hinges all the working parts - the tumblers (hammers), sears and their springs - within the action, and the back of the exterior of the action is square to the stock.  Of the two, the boxlock lends itself much more readily to mass production, and as a result, there have been more boxlock doubles produced than sidelock, and their cost is significantly less.

William Evans Boxlock Double Rifle. Note difference in receiver shape.
Lower cost is a good thing, because, as John “Pondoro” Taylor, the famous British elephant hunter pointed out in his seminal work African Rifles & Cartridges, doubles are “infernally” expensive.   Their great cost – and, thus, their position as status symbols in the hands of peers and the wealthy – was entirely due to the extraordinary amount of labor that went into their production.  Sir Richard didn’t simply promenade into Holland & Holland’s premises in Mayfair, pick up a nice looking double and say “See, here, my good man, please have this wrapped and sent to Warfelnutterstone Manor, along with the bill.  Thanks ever so.”  Not on a bet.  Buying a double was much more like being fitted for a custom suit.  

Holland & Holland "Try Guns" for the Fitting Process
Having made up his mind that a new double was called for, Sir Richard would make an appointment with Holland & Holland or Rigby, and call at the specified time.  He would be interviewed by a gunmaker, who would inquire as to what sort of game Sir Richard expected to be taking with this rifle, where he anticipated using the rifle, and at what distances.  Based on this, the gunmaker would recommend a small number of cartridges, loads and bullet types.  Between the gunmaker and Sir Richard, a single load would be selected.  This process was critical when buying a double as the rifle would be made for – and permanently regulated to – a single cartridge/projectile combination.  Sir Richard would then be measured.  The size of his hands, the breadth of his shoulders, the length of his arms – all of these dimensions were of critical importance.  For a hunting piece in general, and a large bore, heavily recoiling rifle in particular, a proper fit meant the difference between a rifle that could quickly, comfortably and accurately be brought to bear, and one that was clunky, uncomfortable and unpleasant to shoot.  The dimensions would then be given to a master stockmaker, who would, one shaving at a time, convert a block of English walnut into an exquisite and perfectly proportioned gunstock that fit Sir Richard perfectly.

The most expensive part of making Sir Richard’s double would be regulating the barrels.  On first blush this seems like a simple affair – they’re just two parallel tubes, and all that’s needed is to braze them together, right?  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The barrels aren’t parallel.  They are assembled so that shots from either will converge at a fixed distance from the muzzle.  To achieve this, the barrels are taken to the range, and assembled with wire and clamps.  Each is fired in turn, by an experienced shooter, and subtle, almost imperceptible adjustments are made to the clamping mechanisms.  When the regulation process is complete – and it can take many hours or days – both barrels are shooting to the desired point of impact with the desired load.  At this point, they are soldered to the central rib.

Finally, the rifle is exquisitely finished, inside and out.  Interior finishing is intended to make sure that the piece is utterly reliable in almost any condition.  External finishes may range from simple rust bluing to highly engraved and inlaid metalwork.  When it is complete, Sir Richard will have a one of a kind piece made just for him.  And he will have paid for it.  To give an idea of cost, a new (2012) sidelock double rifle from Holland and Holland will run between $100,000.00 and $150,000.00 (yes, the commas and decimal marks are in the right place).  A comparatively inexpensive boxlock double can run anywhere from $45,000.00 to $100,000.00.

“Magazine-rifle” referred to a bolt action repeating rifle with an internal magazine holding anywhere from two to four cartridges.  Almost universally these rifles are based on the Mauser 98 action.  The Mauser 98 dates from 1898, and has yet to be improved upon when it comes to bolt action rifles.  It was to form the basis of the rifles used by both Germany and the United States in both world wars as well as a very large percentage of contemporary hunting rifles found in the United States.  Mauser rifles and actions were initially brought to England by Mauser-Werke’s agent in London, the John Rigby & Co.  Rigby took advantage of the Mauser’s great strength and multiple shot capability by 
John Rigby & Co. African Express Rifle, .416 Rigby

introducing a proprietary big game cartridge, the .416 Rigby, designed expressly for use in a custom Mauser bolt action rifle.  Other companies followed suit.  Gibbs came out with the .505 Gibbs, Jeffery with the .404 and .505 Jeffery, Westley Richards with the .425 and Holland and Holland with the legendary .375 H&H Magnum.  The Mauser action was more than amply strong to handle all of these huge cartridges as well as their more conventional (and smaller) brethren.  Importantly, a Mauser actioned magazine rifle could be had at a significantly lower cost than a custom (or even a used) double.  For cost comparison, the suggested 2012 retail price for a factory Mauser in a magnum cartridge such as .505 Jeffery or .375 H&H is between $3,000.00 and $4,000.00.  A custom rifle may cost between two and three times that much – expensive, to be sure, but far less than a double.

Mauser-Werke, Oberndorf am Neckar, 1910
A large part of the cost savings comes from economies of scale.  During the first part of the 20th century, factories in Germany, Belgium, Sweden and Czechoslovakia (to name a few) were churning out Mauser actions as fast as they could.  While these were primarily intended for military markets, the large production volume helped keep costs low.  The other factor contributing to the Mauser’s low cost was the fact that it had a single barrel, thus obviating the need for the huge skilled labor costs associated with barrel regulation.  This didn’t mean that a magazine rifle was cheaply or poorly made.  The fitting of a custom stock was largely the same.  Additionally, the rifle’s magazine box, which was absolutely critical for reliable feeding, was generally hand fitted for the specific cartridge.  At Sir Richard’s request, his magazine rifle could be as plain or ornate as he desired. Naturally, the more ornate the embellishments, the more expensive the rifle.

All of this brings us back to the original question:  With what are we going to arm our plucky British hero?  Double or magazine rifle?  Sidelock or boxlock?  The short answer is “with whatever you like.”  Sir Richard wouldn’t be poorly, or historically incorrectly armed on his coffee plantation in Kenya with a Rigby magazine rifle in .416 Rigby, on a tiger hunt in India with a boxlock double in .450 Nitro Express or standing on the moor, in the middle of the night, alert and prepared with his .577 Nitro Express Holland and Holland sidelock double at the ready.  It all depends on how wealthy and how much of a “sportsman” you want your character to be.