Hi Welcome to the Age of Victoria Podcast. I’m your host, Chris Fernandez-Packham.
If your new to the podcast, I’d strongly recommend listening to the introduction and the first 2 episodes. I’ve just been building up to the Waterloo campaign and the forging of the legend of Waterloo.
We talked about France quite a lot in the last episode, so I think now is the time to see what the coalition were doing and to take a closer look at the British army on the eve of its great triumph of 1815. I know that last time I said we would cover the invasion but we haven’t even looked at the British armed forces that would be fighting in the campaign.
Like France, Britain was one of the great powers of the age. She already possessed the seeds of the world dominating empire that would come to its height under the Victorians. She was not the super power colossus that she would become. The first traces of the industrial revolution were beginning to transform Britain but the real changes were far ahead. Still, if not quite the titan she would become, Britain was a financial powerhouse and had a surprisingly large population for her land size.
Britain was certainly militarily respected, especially after her Peninsular victories, but she was primarily regarded as a naval power. As I’d mentioned in earlier episodes, British foreign policy was bent towards supporting the navy and preventing any single power establishing dominance on the continent. The navy was, and remains, the Senior Service. In contrast the army was small and regarded with suspicion. It was mistrusted as being an instrument of royal power and repression. Its woeful performance in the American Wars and its habit of losing men in the thousands to disease in the Caribbean meant that it was not seen as an attractive prospect for recruits. In contrast the navy rarely saw defeat, was well armed and supplied, highly prestigious, allowed a great deal of advancement on merit, and provided the glorious possibility of prize money. The amounts could be staggering – some crews were lucky enough to receive 10 years pay after the capture of two Spanish frigates in 1799 and the British Captains got a then mind boggling £40,000. It is difficult to convert monetary values over time, but there is some excellent work out there and is an issue we will probably spend time on at various points in our podcast. As a rough estimate, that £40,000 would probably translate to £1.3 million in today’s 2017 money. Keep in mind though that this was before the mass consumer market, so whilst it might translate to the purchasing power of over £1.3 million, the products you could have spent it on would have varied enormously. Property, food and clothing were the essential items to cover, and the upper middle class would add servants to the list of essentials. So let’s take Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice as an example. I looked at an article to give us a comparison. This is taken from an article written in 1988 so inflation will have changed the figures a far bit. “How Wealthy is Mr. Darcy – Really? Pounds and Dollars in the World of Pride and Prejudice by JAMES HELDMAN (Persuasions #12, 1990)“
[QUOTE] Mr. Darcy is very wealthy. He has an income of £10,000 a year; if we multiply that by $33.13, then we see that Mr. Darcy has an income of well over $300,000 a year. On the face of it, that hardly makes him Lee Iacocca. But Mr. Darcy’s income is at least 300 times the per capita income in his day. Moreover, Mr. Darcy belongs to a very select group. G.E. Mingay, an economic historian, estimates that in 1790, about twenty years before the time of Pride and Prejudice, there were only 400 families among the landed gentry in England whose incomes fell within that range, a range from £5,000 to £50,000 a year, with the average being £10,000 a year. [END QUOTE]. That begins to give you an idea of how amazing that £40,000 in prize money was for those captains. With careful management they had acquired an income equivalent to Mr Darcy’s for around 4 years. That would probably have made them an eligible catch for any Elizabeth Bennets. As you can imagine events like this were lottery wins, but highly motivating for the Royal Navy.
In contrast the army paid a small amount for horses or guns captured. A prize money system existed but was fraught with delays. The British private soldier had to supplement his meagre income with looting – an offence that could potentially see him shot. Still, you will see that vast fortunes were looted by the Victorian army. The sacking of the Old Summer Palace in China in 1860 by the French, British and Indian troops is a notable example and the wounds it created fester to this day.
The British army of 1815, unlike the continental armies, was in theory almost entirely professional, made up of willing volunteers. Recruitment was a vexed issue as annual wastage for the British army in the Napoleonic Wars never fell below 16,000 men. Imagine finding 16,000 men every year. The army came to rely on tricks and dodges, plus a huge boost from foreign troops or mercenaries. A small number of naval shipmen were “pressed” but the army didn’t make use of a press A lot soldiers enlisted because poverty left them no other choice. A number were gaolbirds or convicted criminals, offered the choice between service or the gallows. Given the state of prisons during the 19th century, the risks of a soldiers life might have been more attractive, plus there might be a chance to dissert later. A small number joined for pure patriotism, others to escape unhappy marriages or starvation or the pure boredom of a long life behind a plough on the farm, some had been tricked by unscrupulous recruiting sergeants. The recruiting sergeants were more than willing to get men drunk to trick them into enlisting. There was an infamous incident in 1795 when a recruiting sergeant gave a gullible boy a shilling to buy him tobacco from a nearby shop. When the lad took the money, the sergeant grabbed him and told him that he’d take the King’s Shilling and was required to serve. Luckily the boys cries brought an angry mob to dunk the sergeant in a nearby pump. The recruiting sergeants were more than willing to get men drunk to trick them into enlisting.
In theory the army was rigidly structured on class lines. The officers were expected to be gentlemen. Commissions were purchased not earned on merit as in the French army. The system of commissions is actual a more complex issue than straight forward aristocratic privilege. They provided the officer with a stake in the regiment provided and were also a form of pension for a retiring officer when he came sell his commission. Whilst they allowed the talentless to rise, they allowed the rich and talented to gain command at a comparatively young age. The Duke of Wellington wouldn’t have achieved such a high rank at such a young age without the system.
Commissions could be granted for gallantry or patronage though, and any commission was considered to mark the holder as a gentleman. The commission itself had a fixed warrant price, but there was invariably an additional and illegal non-regulation premium. To avoid being accused of making an illegal payment over the regulation warrant price, the deal was made privately and usually handled via an agent. A good example is Edward Cooper Hodge of the 4th Dragoons. His father, Major Hodge 7th Hussars died near Quatre Bras the day before Waterloo. Edward Cooper Hodge was given a Cornets commission at 16 when he left Eaton by the Duke of York as an act of Patronage, sparing Hodge the £840 regulation price. His jump to Lieutenancy cost him £350 regulation and an additional £250. His Captaincy cost £2,035 regulation and £1,200 on top. His Majority and Lieutenant Colonelcy cost him even more. All told he paid over £9,620 for his ranks. It was money well spent though, as it gained him command of the 4th (Royal Irish) Regiment of Dragoon Guards at the Battle of Balaclava. His bravery at the battle earned him his full Colonelcy on merit. For his service during the battle of Balaclava he was promoted to Colonel on the 28th of November, 1854, and made a C.B.
For his services during the campaign, he also received the Crimean War medal with three clasps (which he disliked) and the Turkish Crimea medal. He received the 3rd Class Order of the Medjidie and was made an Officer of the French Legion of Honor. Promotion to Major-General and then Lieutenant General and various commands followed but he clearly remembered his beloved 4th (Royal Irish) as he got himself appointed Colonel of them in later life. When he finally died at his home at 26 Cornwall Gardens, London on the 10th of December, 1894, it was as General Sir Edward Cooper Hodge, G.C.B., Colonel of the 4th Dragoon Guards. Not bad for a boy from the small town of Weymouth in Dorset.
What particularly strikes me about Sir Edward’s career is the variety. He was clearly not a rich, thick aristocrat playing at soldiers. He got his introduction from a rich patron, and his quick rise up the ranks was by purchase, but his service in the Crimea was difficult and dangerous. It involved the major battles of Balaclava and Inkerman, the siege of Sebastopol, the night-attack on Russian outposts on the 19th of February, 1855, and the battle of Tchernaya. He certainly hungered for distinction. In his diary he wrote [QUOTE] I wish I could get the Legion of Honour and a high caste Turkish Order [END QUOTE]. He achieved both, but interestingly he felt that medals should be available to all front line troops who had been under fire. Idle bubbles were not what he strived for. He clearly earned his generals rank on merit. We will met him again.
Officers were expected to be brave, honest, and to lead from the front. They were often heavy drinkers, and given to fighting and duelling. This last custom caused Wellington significant agitation as he didn’t want to lose talented officers that way. He also felt it set a very bad example to the men, and he learned to distrust officers who drank heavily. Unlike some continental armies, the British Officer was by and large expected to be at the front sharing danger with his men. There were exceptions as with everything in life. Some NCO’s did receive field commissions provided they could read and write. Some gentlemen could not afford to purchase a commission. They served as private soldiers awaiting an officers vacancy and they messed with the officers. They were known as “Gentlemen Rankers” These Gentlemen held a social standing somewhere between the “proper officers” and the rank and file. They would receive purchase free commissions when a vacancy became available. They were a well known enough feature of the army to inspire Kipling to pen “The Gentlemen Rankers” but they weren’t common. Other educated men who couldn’t afford to purchase a commission could perhaps find a specialist role.
Like their French opponents, the British relied on a mix of musket armed infantry, with the study heavy .75 calibre Tower Infantry Musket known as the “Brown Bess”, combined with cavalry and artillery. The British army also included a number of dragoons plus some unique units like the light infantry armed with Baker Rifles, or the Rocket Battery composed of Congreaves artillery rockets. Specialist units of sappers and engineers were available, and the Marines were occasionally pressed into land service. All in all the British Army of the period, especially in the peninsular was highly professional, tough and to use the awful modern phrase “punched well above its weight.” It had its share of bad officers or low quality units, but if well led it had some world class units, especially the crack Light Division. Its military reputation in the Napoleonic period was mixed as it had suffered a number of disasters in Buenos Aires, Holland, Flanders, the US war of Independence and the War of 1812. The Victorians and modern British tend to remember the brilliance of Wellington in Spain and the success at Waterloo, and forget the mixed record of the period.
It was highly disorganised in terms of an overall structure. Hierarchies were confused, and the artillery was actually not part of the army at all. It reported to the Board of Ordinance in London. Its officers were promoted solely based on seniority, not merit. This caused Wellington no end of headaches and there were times when he was virtually at war with his own gunners. When he did find a gunnery officer he liked and wanted to have a command position, he was rarely able to get the officer into the position due to the obstinacy of the board in London. When praise was due, Wellington lavished it on his infantry and cavalry but rarely passed up a chance to snub his long suffering gunners. It caused a great deal of resentment. British troops in Ireland were not under the control of the War Office, instead they were moved to the control of the Irish Establishment. The Corp of Engineers also remained under separate control. Also, sitting uneasily along side this were the vast independent armies of the Honourable East India Company.
The British army suffered a habitual drink problem at all ranks, and many foreign military observers of the period considered it a drunken, barely disciplined rabble that fell apart if not carefully supplied. As we will see the Victorians took the view in general that since Napoleon was brilliant but was beaten by Wellington, then that made Wellington the greatest soldier who had ever lived. It followed that to try to reform the army was to tinker with the work of the Great Duke and that would be unthinkable. This would become more and more of a problem for the British as we move through the 19th century.
- The big difference between the British and European armies was that the small British army believed in the offensive fire power of the line combined with British fire drill and discipline. The British volunteer troops were trained for a minimum 6 months, compared to the 2-3 weeks for the French. Napoleon and the Marshals certainly did believe in extensive training, but with a few exceptions it was done much more on the march with blank rounds. The British line infantry was usually higher trained than most other armies, especially when it came to live fire practice.
The British expected to fire a minimum of 3 rounds a minute. Some of the very best could fire 5. That compared to the French standard of 2 to 3. Luckily the British, as the richest nation in the conflict could afford to keep up plentiful supplies of ammunition including a large number of live practise rounds as well as blank practice rounds.
With light troops or riflemen pouring fire into the columns as they approached, and then the disciplined and brutal volleys of the line regiments, the British created a murderous killing zone that was nearly impossible to cross. As a highly professional army they were far, far less likely to break under pressure from attacking columns than the conscript armies of Europe. It wasn’t that individual British troops were braver than other nations, rather there seemed to be a core of stubborn steadiness that kept the British army in place when others cracked. This might in part be due to the strong regimental system of the British but also that the British were beginning to see the NCO’s of the army as modern Roman Centurions. Many Victorians would go on to almost idolise Roman discipline, social customs and success at Empire and it is clear that as the role of the sergeant evolved, they came to be seen as the backbone of the Imperial Armies. The image of the tough, brave and loyal sergeant guarding the colours, stoic in the face of impossible odds armed only with a bayonet and a mighty beard or moustache was one that would tug the Victorians heartstrings. These were hard men like Sergeant William Napier V.C of the 13th Foot, himself the nephew of a Waterloo veteran. He won his V.C. rescuing a wounded man who was under fire. Napier began bandaging the private when he was hit above the eye himself. The blood flow nearly blinded him, and the enemy closed in. Williams fought them off, still tending to the wounded private and his own injuries. He then dragged the private back to the safety of the convoy. He refused an officers commission as a reward but accepted the V.C. and advancement to Sergeant Major. Already a Crimea Veteran of 4 major battles, he would go on to fight in another 9 battles in India before seeking his discharge. Later colonial wars would show that the Roman model of expecting small numbers of superbly trained and disciplined troops to take on horrific odds and win was largely right. The tough determination of men like Sergeant Williams certainly helped.
A quick note on some terminology. The British army is organised by way of regiments but the regiments are typically broken down into Battalions. It was rare for a whole regiment to serve with all its battalions together in the field. Most regiments fielded a battalion and retained another battalion in Britain that acted as a training and recruiting battalion. Some regiments would become single battalion regiments during the various reforms. Typically a battalion is given a number in front of the regiment name or number. Take the famous 24th Foot, a regiment with a distinguished history starting in 1689. It fluctuated between 1 and 2 battalions. During the most famous event in its history, Rourkes Drift, it had 2 battalions. So they would be referred to as 1/24 for the first battalion and 2/24 for the second battalion. More confusingly though, battalions would usually fight in collections of companies whilst sending some of their companies off to do other tasks. Therefore it was possible for a regiment or battalion to fight in a number of different actions at the same time. The 2/24 fought at the disaster of the Battle of Isandlwana but a company of them was present at the battle of Rourkes Drift at almost the same time. I should note though that Isandlwana was only a disaster from a British point of view. The Zulu’s would naturally have counted it as an exceptional military victory.
It would be a mistake to think that the British infantry was only a defensive force. As the Russians would find out at Balaclava or numerous colonial foes would realise, the British line was like the Roman legion, able to defend against mass attacks, or deliver a brutal assault. Riflemen Costello gives a good example [QUOTE] the 88th Foot [Irish] next deployed into line, advancing all the time towards their opponents, who seemed to wait very coolly for them. When they had approached to within 300 or 400 yards, the French poured in a volley or I should say a running fire from right to left. As soon as the British regiment had recovered the first shock, and closed their files on the gap it had made, they commenced advancing at double time until within 50 yards nearer to the enemy, when they halted and in turn gave a running fire from their whole line, and without a moment’s pause cheered and charged up the hill against them. The French meanwhile were attempting to reload. But being hard pressed by the British, who allowed them no time to give a second volley, came immediately to the right about, making the best of their way to the village.”[END QUOTE] That quote has some interesting points to pick up on. The French were firing at longer range in an organised fashion and to some good effect. The British regiment received the volleys but their morale remained high enough not just to stand or hold cover, but to actually advance with discipline. Notice that they are said to advance at the double but then halt, give a return volley at close range and then execute a charge into melee. That requires incredible discipline and bravery. Of course the 88th Regiment of Foot was an Irish regiment of renown “The Devils Own.” Wellington happily employed them as shock troops and street fighters in the Peninsular Campaigns. Strictly speaking though the 88th Foot did not become the Connaught Rangers until it merged with the 94th Foot much later.
Standing and receiving a British volley then a bayonet charge was a hellish experience and most enemies broke before the charge was pushed home rather than face a fierce Londoner or Highlander with a bayonet.
There is considerable debate about the bayonet as a weapon system. It is a fairly simple weapon. It was a knife, dagger or sword that fitted over our under the barrel of a musket or rifle. The idea was to give the wielder a close combat weapon, indeed it may have originated as a back up hunting blade. Soldiers naturally adapted it to serve other duties such as wood cutting, or later on wire cutting. They could be laced together in camp and rammed into the ground to make improvised cooking stands or tent pegs. Crucially when fitted they extended the length of a musket to various degrees, combining the advantages of a spear with the firepower of the musket. They also allowed the formation of infantry squares. These squares would have bayonets fixed and pointing outwards. Charging cavalry horses would refuse to press home into the hedge of spikes presented by the bayonet. Early bayonets would plug into the barrel of the musket, meaning that firing had to stop. Developments in attachment types meant that bayonets could be fitted and muskets still fired.
Some historians take the view that the bayonet had a huge impact on warfare. Bayonets made the pike obsolete but still allowed black powder infantry to fend off cavalry. They also believe that bayonets allowed infantry to engage in real melee combat rather than the less effective push of pikes of earlier eras. Other historians are more skeptical about it. Casualty rates caused by bayonets were extremely low. It was almost certain that either the side receiving the bayonet charge would break and retire rather than engaging in a stabbing melee, or they would hold and the attackers would refuse to push home the charge into the defenders bayonets. Whilst clearing a position is often vital in military actions, the fundament point of military engagements is to engage and destroy the enemies main force to reduce his will and ability to resist to zero. Causing an enemy to retreat for no gain didn’t really help achieve that. If the charge wasn’t pushed home, a short range firefight was often the result. This could be confused and deadly, and potentially isolated an attacker from his artillery support. Another drawback was that commanders, especially Russian commanders, would use the bayonet charge in place of fire and manoveour to make up for the poor training and equipment of Russian troops. This would lead to excess casualties. Bayonets also made loading much slower, and made the weapon difficult to use in a confined space.
Bayonets haven’t ceased in military use, but from the US Civil War onwards their importance has declined as the lethality and range of other weapon systems has increased. Modern bayonets have become much more utility pieces, serving multiple roles although they are still used to clear determined resistance in close quarter battle situations such as in the Falklands War, in Iraq and in Afghanistan.
Officers of course would typically be armed with a pistol and sword of some description, which were easier to use in a confined space or a close quarter battle situation. A sword also marked the wielder as a gentleman. Line infantry officers were cursed with the 1796 pattern infantry sword. The blade was straight, thin and flimsy making it deficient in both cutting and thrusting. Prone to bending, it also had a inadequate hand guard. Such a poor quality weapon probably led to unnecessary casualties.
British light cavalry were lucky enough to receive the excellent 1796 light cavalry pattern sword. This beautiful sword 33″ long weighing about 2lb 2oz with it’s strong curved blade was an excellent cutting weapon, and was adopted by the Prussians. Well balanced and extremely durable, it was not a delicate weapon nor was it suitable for fencing but it a wicked cutting and slashing sword, easily capable of cutting off an arm or a leg. Lt Henry Lane carried one at Waterloo. Modified versions were issued to officers in the Rifles and light companies.
Of course no discussion of British swords would be complete without a mention of the heavy cavalry blade loved by Bernard Cornwalls fictional Major Sharpe. It had a straight, single edged blade that was ideally suited to bludgeoning enemies in melee from horse back. At 35″ long weighing about 2lb 2oz it was easily capable of smashing bones and splitting skulls. The hilt guard was perfectly shaped to act as a knuckle duster and troopers used it to smash the enemies teeth and jaw with glee. Even if the enemy survived, they would be disfigured and left in pain their whole lives as the rudimentary medicine of the time didn’t stretch to reconstructive surgery. It was an ugly but very effective weapon. Of course officers could and did purchase non-regulation swords. Usually officers would purchase an ornate dress version of the standard issue sword that was used for special occasions. They would also get a campaign sword that was essentially a very well crafted, but plain version of the standard issue sword. This meant the fine and flashy dress sword wasn’t scratched in a battle, and it made the wielder less of a target. A fancy sword marked a man as worth targeting and killing to try and loot the sword. Officers would usually change into their dress sword for ceremonial occasions. Again this would make Major Sharpe stand out; he carried his campaign sword at all times rather than switching. It is a nice touch. It is isn’t totally out of the realms of possibility either. Officers like Henry Lane had their swords given fancy hilts long after Waterloo but retained the original blades as a mark of their veteran status.
In contrast to the superb infantry, the British cavalry of 1815 was rather undisciplined. When it worked it was world class, but it never really matched the overall long term operational efficiency of the French cavalry. Another quirk of the British cavalry was that the light cavalry tended to ride heavier horses and be heavier men than light cavalry in other armies, meaning that there was sometimes little real difference between the light and heavy cavalry. Dragoons were being phased out in favour of Hussar or Lancer regiments but the process was uneven.
Also, please try to get the idea out of your mind that uniforms were actually uniform. Soldiers, unless on parade, typically carry different bits of kit in different ways. Many soldiers would acquire non-standard items that subtly change their appearance. Riflemen might swap out shakos for caps, backpacks and coats might be looted from the enemy. Dyes on coats would run in the rain, and trousers would end up patched and discoloured. The tailors and cobblers that accompanied any army were valuable men who could stop a man’s boots coming apart, or trousers turning to rags. With supply chains often precarious or ad hoc, losing boots could result in injured feet, incapacity or death.
The other super weapon of the British was the Shrapnel shell. Cannon of the period could fire a variety of ammunition. The standard was solid round shot, perhaps heated during a siege and with a long range. It could cut a man in half and do the same to two of three men standing behind him. There was chain shot for chopping down masts on ships, grape shot that looked like a bunch of grapes in a bag, but burst into fragments as they spat out of the cannon’s mouth. Canister shot was similar to grape but was held in a wooden container. At 400 yards canister would wreck havoc with enemy formations but like grape was made for short range work. It was extensively used and later adopted by the Americans, causing fearsome casualties in the American Civil War. The genius of Colonel Shrapnel was to produce a form of Canister Shot that could be fitted with a timer, allowing it to fire at a long range before air bursting above the target, spraying them with high speed fragments of metal. At long range British gunners could hit targets with round shot, then switch to the more deadly canister style shot at medium range using the Shrapnel shells, then to canister at close range. In contrast, the French were often limited to round shot as their grand batteries either acted at long range or had to be close to the enemy to switch to canister.
The French never really adapted to the British tactics. The marshals learned the brutal efficiency of the British killing machine in defeat after defeat in Spain. When Napoleon at Waterloo proposed a frontal attack on the British line on the ridge, they and their generals must have shivered a little – they were to assault the master of defence on ground of his choosing up a ridge and in the face of some of the most lethally disciplined fire power in the world.
Right, I think that’s probably enough of a background about the British army for now. Most Napoleonic era European armies fought with fairly similar equipment, tailored to their requirements and doctrines, although the rifle and shrapnel shell were limited to the British in the main.
If it seems like I’m spending a lot time on the Waterloo campaign, it is because it really is important to the Victorian period. Some of the key actors of the era were shaped by their experiences during the campaign. Not just Wellington, but a number of prominent Victorians were heavily influenced by the Napoleonic conflicts. Sir Edward Hodge was born in 1810 and lost his father in 1815. As you now know he will be involved in the key conflicts of the Crimea. Who knows how his life would have turned out if his father had survived Quatre Bras and Waterloo. Perhaps his son would have been sent into another career entirely. Harry Smith, was a dashing Peninsular hero who rescued and later married the lovely Juana María during the siege of Badajoz. He later became the Sir Harry Smith who fought in India in the 1840’s and in South Africa, becoming a colonial governor. His beloved wife had a number of towns named after her more formal name “Ladysmith” A much less successful British Officer Lord Raglan was a junior staff officer and military secretary to Wellington at Waterloo, where he lost an arm. Colin Campbell was learning his trade and receiving wounds in the Peninsular campaigns long before he became the famous & successful Victorian general. The Napoleonic Wars cast a long shadow indeed. More than that though, the post Waterloo political manoeuvres would draw the map of Europe for nearly 100 years and Europe was about to become the dominant area of the world in a way scarcely imagined even before.