British Army during the Napoleonic Wars

British Army during the Napoleonic Wars

] The British Army during the Napoleonic Wars experienced a time of rapid change. At the beginning of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1793, the army was a small, awkwardly administered force of barely 40,000 men.Chappell, p. 8] By the end of the period, the numbers had vastly increased. At its peak, in 1813, the regular army contained over 250,000 men.Chandler & Beckett, p. 132] The British infantry was "the only military force not to suffer a major reverse at the hands of Napoleonic France."


The British Army comprised both infantry and cavalry line regiments, as well as the Household Divisions. The regiments of the line were numbered and, from 1781, were given territorial designations, which roughly represented the area from which troops were drawn. This was not rigid, and most English regiments had a significant proportion of Irish and Scots.Haythornthwaite (1987), p. 6] The majority of regiments contained two battalions, while some had only one, and a few had more, including the 60th Foot, which had seven. Commanded by a lieutenant colonel, an infantry battalion was composed of ten companies, of which eight were "centre" companies, and two flank companies: one a grenadier and one a specialist light company. Companies were commanded by captains, with lieutenants and ensigns (or subalterns) beneath him. Ideally, a battalion comprised 1000 men (excluding NCOs, musicians and officers), but active service generally saw the numbers depleted; the 1st (or senior) battalion of a regiment would draw fit recruits from the 2nd battalion to maintain its strength. If also sent on active service, the 2nd battalion would consequently be weaker. In periods of long service, battalions were generally operating under strength.Haythornthwaite (1987), p. 7] The majority of discharges and death were due to disease, rather than battle casualties. During the Peninsular Campaign, the army lost almost 25,000 men from disease, and less than 9,000 from enemy action.Glover, p. 37] Seriously under-strength battalions might be dissolved, or temporarily drafted into other regiments.


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quote = Those veterans had won nineteen pitched battles and innumerable combats; had made or sustained ten sieges and taken four great fortresses; had twice expelled the French from Portugal, once from Spain; had penetrated France, and killed wounded or captured two hundred thousand enemies — leaving of their own number forty thousand dead, whose bones whiten the plains and mountains of the Peninsula.
source = Sir William Napier on the Peninsular War [Napier, p 549]
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The British Army fought on a number of fronts during the Napoleonic wars. In August 1806, an expedition was mounted to to Copenhagen, led by General Wellesley and culminating in the Battle of Copenhagen in 1807.Chappell, p. 17] In 1808, the army established itself in Portugal, where the Battle of Vimeiro was fought while the army provided cover for army landings at the nearby Maceira Bay. Following the battle, the British commander Wellesley was superseded in turn by two superiors, Sir Harry Burrard and Sir Hew Dalrymple respectively, who signed the Convention of Sintra. This action inspired their recall to England, and command of the British troops devolved on Sir John Moore.Chappell, p. 18]

In October, General Moore led the army into Spain, reaching as far as Salamanca. In December, they were reinforced by 10,000 troops from England. Moore's army now totalled 25,000, but his advance was cut short by the news that Napoleon had defeated the Spanish, held Madrid, and was approaching with an army of 200,000. Moore turned his men, and retreated to Corunna, over mountain roads and through bitter winter weather. French cavalry pursued the British Army the length of the journey, and a Reserve Division was set to provide rearguard protection for the British troops, which encountered much fighting. About 4,000 troops separated from the main force and marched to Vigo. [Glover, p. 82] The French caught up with the main army at Corunna, and in the ensuing battle, in January 1809, Moore was killed; the remnant of the army was evacuated to England.

That year, a number of regiments were involved in the Walcheren Campaign.

Also in 1809, the army returned to the Peninsula, fighting at Talavera, Coa and Bussaco. Following the latter, Wellington's army retreated back to the Lines of Torres Vedras. The French were unable to broach the Torres Vedras defences, but engaged the British army in a number of small skirmishes, including the Battle of Sabugal in April 1811, and Fuentes d'Onoro in May.

January 1812 saw the Siege of Ciudad Rodrigo, after which the army turned its attention to Badajoz, another strong fortress, which the British had failed to carry on an earlier occasion. On 6 April, the breaches were deemed practicable, and an attack made. Heavy fighting and high casaulaties resulted, and Wellington ordered a withdrawal. However, elsewhere, the fortress walls were achieved by escalade, encouraging an attack on the breaches again. The fortress was taken, at great cost (over 5000 British casualties), and for three days the army sacked and pillaged the town in undisciplined revenge.Chappell, p. 24] Soon after the assault on Badajoz, Wellington marched his men to confront the French near Salamanca. For a month the armies marched and counter-marched against each other, seeking advantage, and on 22 July Wellington attacked in the Battle of Salamanca, achieving a comprehensive victory. In August, Wellington attempted to take Burgos. The siege was unsuccessful, and it was lifted by Wellington in June and the army retreated back into Portugal. This "Winter Retreat" bore similarities to the earlier retreat to Corunna, as it suffered from poor supplies, bitter weather and rearguard action.Chappell, p. 33]

In spring, 1813, the army returned to the offensive, leaving Portugal and marching northwards through Spain to Vittoria where the French stood in preparation for battle, which took place on 21 June..Chappell, p. 34] The battle proved an overwhelming victory for the British. Battles were fought through the Pyrenees, and at San Sebastian. Crossing into France, battles were fought at Nivelle (November 1813), Nive (December 1813) and Orthes, in February 1814.

As well as supporting Wellington's actions in the south, the British government agreed to send a small force to Holland under Sir Thomas Graham to capture the fortress of Bergen op Zoom, on which an attempt was made during the night of 8 March, 1814. The general attack was not a success, and the British were repelled, with heavy losses. [Bryant, p. 86]

On 31 March, 1814, allied armies entered Paris, and Napoleon abdicated on 6 April. [Glover, p. 326] The news was slow to reach Wellington, who fought and won a battle against the French at Toulouse on 10 April. [Glover, p. 329]

Once peace agreements had finally been settled – the French Governor being the last, on 26 April – the army left the Peninsula; the infantry marched to Bordeaux for transportation to their new postings, while the cavalry rode through France to Boulogne and Calais. [Bryant, p. 98] Within a month of Napoleon's abdication, he had been exiled to Elba. [Nofi, p. 13] It appeared that war was finally over, and arrangements for the peace were discussed at the Congress of Vienna. But on 26 February, 1815, Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to France, where he raised and army. By 20 March he had reached Paris. [Nofi, pp. 19, 28] The Allies assembled another army and planned for a summer offensive. [Nofi, p. 31]

Basing themselves in Belgium, the Allies formed two armies, with the Duke of Wellington commanding the Anglo-Allies, and Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher commanding the Prussians. Napoleon marched swiftly through France to meet them, and split his army to launch a two-pronged attack. On 16 June, 1815, Napoleon himself led men against Blücher at Ligny, while Marshall Ney commanded an attack against Wellington's forward army at the Battle of Quatre Bras. Wellington successfully held Quatre Bras, but the Prussians were not so successful at Ligny, and were forced to retreat. Hearing of Blücher's defeat on the morning of 17 April, Wellington ordered his army to withdraw level with his ally; they took position near the Belgian village of Waterloo.


The British Army drew most of its raw recruits from the lowest classes of Britain. Since army life was known to be harsh, and the remuneration low, it mainly attracted those for whom civilian life was worse. Wellington himself said that many of the men "enlist from having got bastard children – some for minor offences – some for drink"; they were, he once said, "the scum of the earth; it is really wonderful that we should have made them to the fine fellows they are." Almost all soldiers at the time signed on for life in exchange for a "bounty" of £23 17s 6d, most of which was absorbed by the cost of outfitting "necessities". Unlike other armies of the time, the British did not use conscription to bolster army numbers, with enlisted remaining voluntary. Originally, enlistment was for life, but to attract recruits, a system of 'limited service' (seven years for infantry, ten for cavalry and ten years for artillery) was introduced. [Haythornthwaite (1995) pp. 30–31]

Officers ranged in background, also. They were expected to be literate, but otherwise came from varied educational and social backgrounds. 5% of the officers from regular battalions had been raised from the ranks, and, while preferment by purchase was possible, less than 20% of first commissions were by purchase.Haythornthwaite (1987), p. 8] Similarly, only a small proportion of officers were from the nobility; in 1809, only 140 officers were peers or peers' sons. A large proportion of officers came from the Militia, and small number were gentlemen volunteers, who followed the army until commissions became available.

Promotion was mainly by seniority; less than 20% of line promotions were by purchase, although this proportion was higher in the Household Division. Promotion by merit alone occurred, but was less common.Haythornthwaite (1987), p. 9] By 1814 there were over 10,000 officers in the army.


The line formation was the most favoured amongst the British infantry. The line formation offered the maximum firepower to any enemy, about 1000 to 1500 bullets per minute [Haythornthwaite (1996) p.26] . While the French favoured column formation, the line formation enabled all muskets available to fire at the enemy and it also forms a wider front, as in contrast, only the few soldiers in the first rows of the column (about 60) are able to fire [Haythornthwaite (1996) p.5] While line regiments fired in volleys, light infantry skirmishers fired at will, taking careful aim at targets. [Chappell, pp. 14–15] Specialised rifle units were armed with the Baker rifle, due to their improved accuracy, but expected difficulty and expense in obtaining sufficient rifled weapons resulted in the standard infantry musket being issued to most troops. Most of the infantry were provided with muskets, which had an effective range of only 50 yards. 10 yards provided the accuracy of point-blank range. [Chappell, pp 15–16] Although the French infantry (and, earlier, the Americans) frequently used multi-shot and grapeshot in their muskets, the British infantry used only standard ball ammunition.Chappell, p. 14]

Elite infantry regiments

There were a number of elite regiments amongst the infantry. These included the Foot Guards, a group of regiments from the Household Division. In background and natural attributes, recruits to the Foot Guards differed little from those recruited into other regiments, but they received superior training and were expected to maintain rigorous discipline.Fletcher & Younghusband, p. 13]

Also seen for the first time in the British Army during the Napoleonic wars were dedicated regular light infantry regiments. During the early war against the French, the British Army was bolstered by light infantry mercenaries from Germany and the Low Countries, but the British light infantry companies proved inadequate against the experienced French during the Flanders campaign, and in in 1799, and light infantry development became urgent. [Chappell, pp. 9–10]

In 1801, the "Experimental Corps of Riflemen" was raised (later designated the 95th Rifles), and a decision was made to train some line regiments in light infantry techniques, so they might operate as both light and line infantry. Sir John Moore, a proponent of the light infantry model, offered his own regiment of line infantry, the 52nd Foot, for this training, at Shorncliffe Camp, where they were later joined by other line regiments.Chappell, p. 11]

Daily life

While on campaign, it was customary for men to sleep in the open, using their blankets or greatcoats for warmth. Simple blanket tents could be made from two blankets, supported by firelocks, a ramrod, and fixed to the ground with bayonets.Bluth, p. 62] At other times, huts could be made using branches covered with ferns , straw or blankets.Bluth, p. 63] While tents were frequently used by officers, they were not issued to the men until 1813. [Bluth, p. 65] Soldiers were allowed to marry, but wives were expected to submit to army rules and discipline, as well contribute to regimental affairs by performing washing, cooking and other duties. Six women per company were officially "on the strength" and could accompany their husbands on active service, receiving rations and places on troop transports. If there was competition for these places, selections would be made by ballot.Venning, p. 31] Many soldiers also found wives or companions from amongst the local populations, whose presence in the army train was generally tolerated, despite being beyond the quota. [Venning, p. 15] However, at the conclusion of the Peninsular War only those wives officially on the strength were allowed to return to England with their husbands, resulting in a large number of women and children abandoned in France, with no provisions or means of returning to their homes.

Officers also needed permission from their commanding officers to marry, and for their wives to accompany them, but they were not subject to quota, although restrictions might be made due to the officer's age or seniority. [Venning, p. 14]


The standard uniform for the majority of regiments throughout the period was the traditional red coat. There was no standardised supply for uniforms, and it was generally left to the regimental colonel to contract for and obtain uniforms for his men, which allowed for some regimental variation.Haythornthwaite (1987), p. 14] Generally, this was in the form of specific regimental badges, or ornamentation for specialised flank companies, but occasionally major differences existed. Highland regiments generally wore kilts, although six of these regiments dropped the kilt in 1809. Light infantry regiments wore tailless coats, retaining the traditional red despite their skirmishing role, but the two rifle corps – 95th Rifles and 60th (Royal American) Regiment – wore rifle green.

Officers were responsible for providing (and paying for) their own uniforms; consequently, variable style and decoration was present, according to the officer's private means. Officers generally wore silver or gold epaulettes (depending on regimental colours), with regimental badge to designate rank. An 1810 order stipulated that company officers wore one epaulette, on the right shoulder, while field officers wore one on each shoulder, badged with a star (for majors), a crown (lieutenant colonels) or star and crown (colonels).Haythornthwaite (1987), p. 37]


Most British battalions carried flags known as "colours": the First, or "King's Colour", and the Second, or "Regimental Colour". The First had the Union Flag with the Regiment's number in the centre, surrounded by a wreath. The Second was in the colour of the regimental facings with a small Union Flag in the corner; the regimental number took the centre.Sumner & Hook, p. 3] The colours were carried into battle for identification, and as a rallying point, in the care of sergeants or ensigns. Attending the colours in battle was dangerous, since they were a target for enemy artillery and assault; due to the symbolic significance of the colours, their loss was a grave issue, and extreme measures were often taken to prevent such dishonour occurring. [Sumner & Hook, pp. 20-1] The skirmishing and forward positions maintained by light infantry frequently made the bearing of colours inconvenient. For this reason, the newly raised 95th Rifles received no colours, but the converted line regiments retained their existing colours. Some light infantry regiments opted not to carry them in the Peninsula. [Sumner & Hook, pp. 22-23]

Later history

Following the conclusion of the wars, the army was reduced. At this time, infantry regiments existed up to no. 104, but between 1817 and 1819, the regiments numbered 95 up were disbanded,Haythornthwaite (1995), p. 19] and by 1821 the army numbered only 101,000 combatants, 30% of which were stationed in the colonies, especially India.Haythornthwaite (1995), p. 18] Over the following decades, various regiments were added, removed or reformed to respond to military or colonial needs, but it never grew particularly large again, and the Empire became more reliant on local forces to maintain defence and order.

ee also

*History of the British Army
*Timeline of the British Army
*Coalition forces of the Napoleonic Wars
*National Army Museum
*Napoleonic Wars casualties
*Types of military forces in the Napoleonic Wars



*Bluth, BJ; "Marching with Sharpe", UK: HarperCollins, 2001, ISBN 0004145372
*Bryant, Arthur; "The Age of Elegance: 1812–1822", London: Collins, 1950
*Chandler, David; Beckett, Ian; (2003) "The Oxford History of the British Army", UK: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0192803115
*Chappell, Mike; (2004) "Wellington's Peninsula Regiments (2): The Light Infantry", Oxford: Osprey Publishing, ISBN 1841764035
*Fletcher, Ian; Younghusband, William; (1994) "Wellington's Foot Guards", UK: Osprey Publishing, ISBN 1855323923
*Glover, Michael; (1974) "The Peninsular War 1807–1814: A Concise Military History", UK: David & Charles, ISBN 0715363875
*Haythornthwaite, Philip J. (1987) "British Infantry of the Napoleonic Wars", London: Arms and Armour Press, ISBN 0853688907
*Haythornthwaite, Philip J. (1995) "The Colonial Wars Sourcebook", London: Arms and Armour Press, ISBN 1854091964
*Haythornthwaite, Philip J. (1996) "Weapons & Equipment of the Napoleonic Wars" Arms and Armour ISBN 1-85409495-5
*Napier, Sir William; (1952) "English Battles and Sieges in the Peninsula", London: Chapman & Hall, [ online]
*Nofi, Albert A.; "The Waterloo Campaign: June 1815", 1998, USA: De Capo Press, ISBN 0938289985
*Sumner, Ian; Hook, Richard; (2001) "British Colours and Standards 1747-1881 (2): Infantry", UK: Osprey Publishing, ISBN 1841762016
*Venning, Annabel; (2005) "Following the Drum: The Lives of Army Wives and Daughters Past and Present", London: Headline Publishing, ISBN 0755312589

External links

* [ Redcoat: Officer fatality lists]
* [ "London Gazette" archives] – army and battle dispatches; officer appointments, promotions and casualties

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