Wednesday, 11 March 2015

The British Light Infantry Arm c 1790-1815, David Gates

I have finished reading The British Light Infantry Arm by David Gates and I thought I would share my thoughts and give you a review of the contents.

This book, like the earlier title written by Gates, "The Spanish Ulcer", that I reviewed last month, was published back in the late 80's and my copy was a second hand one published by Batsford in 1987.

As the preface explains, the book is an examination of the creation, training and combat role of the light infantry regiments that were added to the British land forces during the period of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

What follows is a series of seven chapters that looks at the evolution of light infantry forces among the European powers during the period 1740 to 1815, turning to consider in detail the specifics of the development of the various British units and their battle record.

The chapters follow a very logical format, looking at the development of light infantry forces prior to the French Revolutionary Wars, with the adoption by European powers, such as Austria and Prussia, of irregular troops to provide forces capable of operating in more broken terrain that prohibited the deployment of the linear tactics that prevailed. This use of foreign irregulars extended to the British who tended to regard all skirmish warfare or "petite guerre" skills to be the expertise of Germans in particular, and it was to these formations of jagers that Britain turned to with its wars in the American War of Independence. Interestingly, the skills learnt in the Seven Years War in North America quickly having been forgotten and lost with the disbandment of the Rangers and Light Infantry units formed during that conflict.

Prince Frederick, Duke of York in 1795,_Duke_of_York_and_Albany

Peace time always seems to fossilise military developments and the time between the end of the American War of Independence to the beginning of the French Revolutionary Wars was another one of stagnation in military thinking across the Ancien Regimes of Europe. The skills of the light infantry, so painfully learned in America, had again been quickly forgotten, and the only saving grace for the army was the reforms brought in by the Duke of York who became commander in chief on the 3rd April 1795.

The principle reform he introduced was a common drill book, "Principles of Military Movements" for the whole of British land forces published by Sir David Dundas in 1788. The book explains that the dispersion of British infantry battalions around the UK often used as police formations by civilian authorities in peacetime meant that little opportunity was available for bringing units together as brigades to practice a common drill. This lack of group training left battalion drill to the whim of each colonel and soon units could not perform the same movements together. Alongside the common drill, came reforms to the Officer Corps with major changes to the purchasing of commissions. A new Military College was set up, to improve the education and professional knowledge of Officers, at High Wycombe which would develop into the Staff College of later years. Its first commandant was General Francois Jarry, a Frenchman and former head of the Prussian Army's Military School in Berlin.

Formed in 1798, the 60th Rifles were the first of the British Light Units,
even if they were made up of mostly Germans

However, the Duke's introduction of the Dundas drills, whilst bringing order to the line infantry was detrimental to light infantry developments; as "Pivot" Dundas, an advocate of Prussian methods, paid scant attention to the requirements of providing drills for light infantry and reinforced the attitudes of many conservatives in the Army that they were forces that were unmilitary and lacking in discipline. Indeed Dundas is quoted,

"The {heavy} battalions...have been taught to undervalue themselves, almost to forget, that on their steadiness and efforts the decisions of events depends; and the light infantry - yagers, marksmen, riflemen etc., vanish before the solid movements of the line."

The Duke's experiences in the Flanders campaign of 1793 and the bitter encounters with massed French sharpshooters taking the neatly dressed ranks of redcoats apart whilst using cover and avoiding close combat with the British lines convinced him of the need to redress these inadequacies. The Duke set the agenda by becoming the Colonel of the first unit to be established as a British Light Battalion, the 5/60th rifles composed initially of those Germans recruited from the emigres units that had served the British forces previously.

The scourge of the ancien regimes of Europe, French infantry
able to skirmish at will in large numbers

The British military establishment were forced to re-examine the experience and ideas of men such as Maj Gen John Money a veteran of the AWI and former major of the 62nd Foot who had experienced the tough "petit guerre" with the fighting at Freeman's Farm in 1777. He recalled,

"In the action at Freeman's Farm, the 62nd regiment charged four times . . . quitting their position each time: the conflict was grievous to behold; the contest was unequal; the rebels fled at every charge deeper still into the woods; but when the British troops returned to their position, they were slowly followed, and those who had been the most forward in the pursuit were the first to fall"

To men like Money, the requirement to oppose French skirmishers with troops of their own description was self evident.

With the fear of invasion by French troops under their new Emperor Napoleon, the need for change only accelerated and the need to furnish the military forces with more specialist light infantry units became a more urgent issue as tensions rose with the recommencement of hostilities following the Peace of Amiens. The south coast of England offered ideal close terrain for light troops to operate in and with the supply of German troops cut off by the advance of the French revolutionary armies, the need to train home grown forces became more obvious.

General Jarry observed that:
"If the French attempt a landing in this country, they will, no doubt, endeavour to disembark a considerable body of troops (active and skillful light infantry) and, indeed all their troops are accustomed to fight en tirailleur . Their army will be constantly covered by sharpshooters, concealed behind enclosures, hedges, trees, bushes, walls, houses, inequalities of the ground; they must be dislodged by a chain of English sharpshooters advancing under the same sort of cover." 

Gates then charts the rise of the key leaders that came forward to challenge Dundas and the more conservative elements and their role in the development of British recruited and trained light infantry. The model for these units having been established with the creation of the 5/60th Rifles, leading to the setting up of a fully British battalion, the 95th Rifles. Rifle battalions faced their own opposition in that the rifle was not considered as a weapon that, because of its slowness in loading and its requirement of careful maintenance and fine powder, could be used on a large scale as easily and successfully as musket armed soldiers. Those against the adoption pointed to European forces such as the French relying wholly on musket armed troops.

Major General Coote Manningham

Despite initial objections, the Duke of York proposed the setting up of an experimental rifle battalion on January 7th 1800 appointing Colonel Coote Manningham to oversee the training. Starting with Manningham, David Gates takes the reader though the pantheon of great names that populate any history of the development of British Light Infantry forces and the establishment of their new home, Shornecliffe in Kent.

95th Rifles
With the development of the experimental rifle battalion into what would become the 95th Rifles, we see the new training and ethos behind the new light infantry battalions. The recruiting of intelligent, more self reliant soldiers, to be disciplined with encouragement to achieve and maintain high standards of performance, instead of reliance on the lash. The 95th Rifles issued merit badges worn on the uniforms for levels of marksmanship, at 100, 200 and 300 yards. All these new developments in training would become the model for the development of the all round soldier, rather than the line trained automatons of the Prussian school.

Lieutenant General Sir John Moore
The establishment of the Shornecliffe Camp in 1802 for Light Infantry is described as being very much under the oversight and patronage of the then military commander for the Southern District of England, General Sir John Moore, who carries much of the credit for the creation of the light brigade (95th Rifles, 52nd & 43rd Light Infantry). However the text makes clear that Sir John's greater responsibilities, meant that his influence could not be "hands on" in the basic training and developments implemented in the new school. The real talent he displayed was in getting the right man for this very important role, and the credit for that work is rightly attributed to the then Colonel Kenneth Mackenzie.,_1st_Baronet

It is Mackenzie who was responsible for producing what became known as the Shornecliffe battalions, with the addition to the 95th Rifles of two former line battalions, the 52nd and 43rd Foot, rid of their inappropriate soldiers, officers and men, and molded by Mackenzie into the best, elite force in the British army.

43rd Light Infantry

As well as developing all the skills needed for operating as skirmishers and as standard line infantry, the men of the Light Brigade were instructed in aimed shooting. This was a requirement with the Rifles, making full use of the weapons range and accuracy, but was unique among musket armed troops. The difficulties associated with looking along the barrel of a smooth bore musket and taking deliberate aim are well covered. The men of the 43rd and 52nd, were instructed to squeeze the trigger firmly and as the lock fired to count mentally one to two whilst holding their aim.

Officer of the first new Shornecliff trained Light Infantry Battalions
Moore's own 52nd

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is chapter VI which focuses on the British light infantry at war between the years 1809-15. The chapter describes General "Black Bob" Craufurd's masterful campaign of observation and raiding conducted by his Light Division on the Portuguese Biera frontier and along the River Azava in the spring and summer of 1810 as Marshal Massena's army and, in particular, Marshal Ney's VI Corps laid siege to Cuidad Rodrigo prior to the third invasion of Portugal.

Major General Robert "Black Bob" Craufurd

The descriptions of the small scale warfare conducted in those months is a mine of information for the designer of skirmish scenarios,(I have my notes made) together with the description of Craufurd's mathematical attention to detail in planning out how to use his small force to cover such a large area. This is the best description I have read so far of this very interesting little campaign of "petite guerre".

The final chapter really dates the book with Gates considering the role of light infantry and light forces in the era of the Cold War, when tensions were very high in the mid to late 80's. His comments about elite trained, rapidly deployable light units, hold true today. The rise of Islamist fundamentalist forces and the threats posed by Russian destabilisation tactics in eastern Europe make these kind of forces as important as ever.

I really enjoyed this book and it makes a welcome addition to the reference library in JJ's mancave. If I were to fault it at all, it would be in his description of the KGL and Portuguese light infantry battalions as being wholly rifle armed. This as far as I know is not correct. Both the KGL Light and Line Infantry battalions were musket armed in the main with the light or sharpshooter companies armed with rifles. The KGL light battalions had a higher proportion of rifles, but were, despite being dressed similarly to the 95th Rifles, in the main, musket armed light infantry.

Like wise, his description of the Portuguese Cacadores battalions as being rifle armed is incorrect. They too were predominantly musket armed with a Tiradore (Hunter) company, composed of the best marksmen, armed with rifles. Two little points that I had to check when I was reading his analysis of skirmish numbers between Anglo-Portuguese and French forces.

Another good read from David Gates and well worth picking up a copy if you haven't seen it.

Source consulted for this post


  1. A very good review of the book. Excellent and detailed overview as with all your reviews! Keep up the good work!

  2. Thanks for the review, Jonathan!

    I first saw this book on eBay only last week and was very curious about its content. Gates' Spanish Ulcer was a good and and I had high hopes for this one too.

    Your book reviews are always most welcome and informative.

  3. Cheers guys, thanks for your comments.

    Next book will be looking at things from the other side of the hill, "Incomparable - Napoleon's 9th Light Infantry Regiment". Very timely as well as the 9th Legere were very much in the thick of things at Talavera.