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.

1 comment:

  1. Berndard Cornwell's Sharpe's series was set in this time period. Excellent reading...and the British TV series was pretty amazing, also.