Wednesday, November 17, 2010

British Soldiers of the Napoleonic War

In our Regency-set Harlequin Historicals the heroes often are soldiers or have been soldiers fighting in the Napoleonic War. In my Three Soldiers Series (Gallant Officer, Forbidden Lady, Dec 2009; Chivalrous Captain, Rebel Mistress, Sept 2010; Gabriel's story, TBA) the Napoleonic battles of Badajoz and Waterloo figure prominently in the first part of each book.

I thought that readers might wonder about some elements of being a soldier in the British Army during this time and about why they fought war the way they did.

1. Why did they fight in such fancy uniforms?
Why the big hats and bright colors? Why the fancy stuff on uniforms, like epaulettes on the shoulders?

The big hats and epaulettes were designed to make the soldiers look taller, broader-shouldered, in other words, more formidable to the enemy. Cavalry on both sides had perhaps the fanciest uniforms, bright helmets with huge horsehair plumes, for example, making them look even more frightening when they charge the enemy.

Colors of uniforms helped the soldier identify who were his comrades and who were the enemy. During a battle, smoke from musket fire and cannon made it difficult to see. The easier it was to recognize your fellow soldiers, the better.

2. Why did the British all stand in a line to fire? Didn't this make it easier for the enemy to attack them?
In this time period state of the art warfare meant that huge numbers of soldiers faced each other on an open battlefield. Artillary (cannon) could be positioned to fire upon the enemy in such a setting, but the sheer numbers of soldiers were the trick to winning a battle.

The formation of a line was actually an effective and deadly tactic. The soldier's musket was not a very accurate firearm. The more accurate firearm was the rifle. But if the soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder and all fired at the same time, the enemy facing them would be rained with musket balls. It did not matter that the soldier could not aim at one specific target; the rain of fire would mow down great numbers of advancing enemy.

The musket only fired one shot and reloading was more complicated than today's firearms, so the lines were actually three or four soldiers deep. The front line advanced and fired, then immediately dropped down to reload, while the line behind them stepped forward and fired.

In this manner, the enemy faced an almost constant barrage of musket fire. Because so many muskets were fired at once, the chances of them hitting some target was maximized and more of the enemy would be hit.

3. What's a square and why would soldiers form into a square?
The square is a formation to defend against against a cavalry charge. The cavalry's biggest weapon is the horse. The cavalryman carries a sword, but at best would have only one shot in one pistol. To use his sword, the horse must carry him close to the enemy. If the enemy forms into a square, the cavalry horses will not get close enough for the sword to be used.

The square is just like it sounds. The British soldiers position themselves into a square and stand 4 soldiers deep. The first line of soldiers put their bayonets on their muskets and point the bayonets outward. The second line fires their muskets at the advancing cavalry, then drop back to reload and the men behind them step forward to fire. If any side of the square is opened, by artillary fire or by soldiers wounded by the advancing cavalry, the remaining soldiers quickly close the gap. Cannons and artillary men might be pulled inside the square so they can't be disabled by the cavalry. Officers on horseback can see better what is happening and can quickly shout orders to the men.

4. If rifles were more accurate, why didn't they use rifles?
They did use rifles. Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe, played so well on TV by Sean Bean, was a riflemen. Several riflemen were attached to a company. Their job was to go in advance of the line of soldiers and to fire at specific targets. They often targeted the enemy officers or the artillary men who were manning the cannon. Because rifles could be aimed at specific targets, riflemen could be very effective at rendering the enemy less efficient in their attack.

Here's the Trailer for the 1970 movie Waterloo. The battle scenes show, I think, a pretty accurate view of what battle would have been like:

Do you have any other questions about warfare during the Napoleonic War? I'm not an expert, but I'll try to answer.
Do you like books that include the war or do you prefer not to have the details of the battles in your romances? What do you think of soldier heroes in Regency-set romances?


Francine said...


Intriguing post, and of relative historical value period Napoleonic Wars (plural, for their were several wars as such. With regards uniforms and epaulettes (French word: epaulettes were a French invention, coming from the French word epaule for "shoulder" when soldiers needed to be able to identify their officers in the heat of battle. Epaulettes with their fringes are noticeable from a distance and helped identify officers from non-commissioned officers who in turn wore emblems of rank on upper sleeve.

The red uniform of English soldiers dates back to King Henry VIIIs bodyguard (Yeoman of the Guard) hence Tudor Beefeater hats still worn by Beefeaters at the Tower of London.

In 1642 Charles Is bodyguard (Household Cavalry)wore red, too, so did most of the Royalist soldiers. But certain regiments of the King's horse adopted blue (Royal Blue) which Prince Rupert (Netherlands) wore as a Cavalier Commander of Cavalry, the resulting regiment now known today as Blues & Royals alongside their red counterparts Royal Escort of Household Cavalry. Sashes worn by soldiers at that time denoted difference in regimental leader: the King's colours denoting royal regiment: no officer epaulettes, but little trailing ribbons on Cavalier shoulders.

By the time of the Napoleonic Wars post French Revolution, the English court had been much influenced by French fashion in female and male dress, the French and English throne closely related in family ties, hence the Revolution and Boney's subsequent rise to power challenged Royal houses across Europe. As army's expanded and combined forces in united opposition to Napoleon, so uniforms changed in appearance, with Hussars etc. The Napoleonic era can be said to be interesting times for many reasons!


Diane Gaston said...

Thanks for the additional information, Francine. There is always more for me to learn about this time period.

I know I left the impression that all British soldiers wore red (except Rifles) but I know better!