Redcoats

Whereas we have thought fit to order a Regiment of Fencible men, to be forthwith raised under your command, which is to consist of ten companies, of 4 sergeants, 5 corporals, 2 drummers, and 95 men in each, with 2 fifers to the Grenadier Company, besides a sergeant-major and quartermaster-sergeant, together  with the usual commissioned officers; which men are to serve in Great Britain and Ireland only.

I sometimes like to look back, where we were long years ago. How did our lives look like and what could a common person expect. Recently reading Wellington: The Iron Duke and Cornwell Sharpe Series, got me thinking on the redcoat infantry.

What was the most important moment in every soldier’s life?

Standing 50 yards from each other, redcoats had to withstand a volley of musket bullets and respond in like. Sometimes these exchanges could take minutes, before any side charged to melee fight. Black powder guns were incredibly inaccurate, but still the casualties on both sides weren’t small. The shots were also producing lots of smoke.

Now to picture this. You and your fellows stand in line, guns pointed at the other guys. The other guys point their guns at you. You need to keep your formation, else you might be hit-by-a-cane into obedience by ever-watchful sergeants or tapped for flogging after the battle (up to hundreds, even thousands lashes, sometimes applied in several instalments). You wait to be shot and then shoot yourself. And once you shot or the other side shot, you plain can’t see each other due to the excessive smoke. This is where you are ordered to charge.

If we are talking about being man enough for any task, this would be something, that meets my definition of the saying.

Coming back to the redcoat infantry. First of all, it was one of the smallest armies in terms of numbers. It numbered around 90k soldiers on the payroll in 1801-1816 (the period of and around the Napoleonic Wars). To compare, Napoleon, at the height of the conscription, has over two million recruits being trained.  I want to concentrate on this period, as this is when the British redcoat infantry was at its heights.

With 600 men per battalion (constitution listed at the beginning of the article, sourced from here), they had their commanding officers (colonel, major, captains, lieutenants and ensigns), who just were filthy rich and usually bought their commissions (battlefield promotions were really scarce). They were drilled into obedience (through flogging), well-trained in shooting (see volleys), while standing in 2-men deep line (through more beating and flogging), forbidden to steal or misbehave (flogging again) and ready to practice with live ammunition.

British infantry fighting tactic was interesting, that it deployed only 2 men files and this usually granted them from 30 to 60% more of firepower on the battlefield.

The British Army drew many of its raw recruits from the lowest classes of Britain. Since army life was known to be harsh, and the remuneration low, it attracted mainly those for whom civilian life was worse. The Duke of Wellington himself said that many of the men “enlist from having got bastard children – some for minor offences – some for drink”.

On top of the above, army would pay for forage and the supply of ammunition and powder. So soldiers would rarely go hungry. They were also issued a ration of rum, what actually was, one of the bigger perks being offered. Alcoholism among soldiers was wide-spread and even encouraged, if the enemy offered a battle. Drunken soldiers were more likely to stand firm and forget their fears, when the lines met.

The salary of a rank-man, was about sixpence a day. That’s £1.1 in today’s money.  Most soldiers were however in constant debt, as they had to pay for their equipment. To compare, a daily wage of a Lieutenant Colonel was 16 shillings and six pence. That’s £36.73 in today’s money and 5 times the average worker’s pay in 19th century England.

For all these conditions, British redcoats remained the only army in continental Europe, that never broke to Napoleon’s dreadful column attack strategy (excellent article on military formations here).

The deadly thin-red-line platoon volley fire vs columns made to attack more with sheer force and bayonets. In these battles, gun was always winning over knife.

How the British infantry was superior, Waterloo shows. 1 in 4 British soldiers was killed or wounded. Still they stood a whooping 7 hours of constant artillery barrage, 12 charges of cavalry and 3 separate infantry attacks. In the end, they have had enough strength to charge the fleeing French coalition troops and routed them.

Redcoat infantry was one of the better units on the battlefield, in the early ages of gunpowder-based weapons. They were paid low, had to march a lot, were drunk and flogged frequently. In the end it was them, who stopped Napoleon’s ambitions. Whether there is a discussion about it or not.

A bit below on how an infantry line attack might have looked like. Lets hush the point they wouldn’t have put their bayonets on for firing (damn innacurate) 🙂

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