Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Wellington's Mongrel Regiment - Alistair Nichols

Wellington's Mongrel Regiment, A History of the Chasseurs Britanniques Regiment  1801-1814

I decided to read 'A History of the Chasseurs Britanniques Regiment' (CB) as I was acutely aware that as a student of the Peninsular War and Wellington's army in particular, this originally French emigre regiment had passed my scrutiny and I only had a basic knowledge centered on all the established clichés from Oman and others about its high rates of desertion.

On reading Alistair Nichols history of the regiment I soon discovered the large gap in my knowledge together with a certain confirmation of the previous impression which reinforced my thinking that the CB were a rather enigmatic regiment, very difficult to pin down in character.

By that I mean that the regiment displayed great acts of stoicism and bravery during its service in British arms but this contrasted hugely with its inability to maintain its numbers causing it to be withdrawn from picket duties because of desertion to the enemy, causing much aggravation with its brigade comrades forced to take on their duties as extra work.

The enigmatic nature of this regiment even extended to its role, with the name and role planning suggesting a light infantry battalion to be a cornerstone battalion in Wellington's second Light Division which became the 7th Division. The 7th Division, known as the 'Mongrels' to the rest of Wellington's army due to its composition of many foreign elements (The CB, Brunswick Oels and two battalions of KGL Light Infantry) never lived up to the reputation of their predecessors and for all intents and purposes developed into another Line Division.

This confusion in roles is emphasised by the CB themselves adopting many dress items of the Light Infantry as illustrated in the officer above with shoulder wings, green plum and bugle shako badge, but with the battalion companies dressed as a line battalion with a grenadier company, fusilier companies with standard shako plate and white and red and white shako tufts. The officer seen below in a Line Officers bicorne illustrates this point.

There are other peculiarities in uniform, covered in the book such as the black and/or white cross-belts and also the look of the unit in the Revolutionary period. There is a very good section covering the national demographics of the regiment which changed from its mainly French Royalist cadre to include other significant national groupings encountered in Spain.

The book left me with an impression of the frustration Wellington must have felt about the battalion when he expressed his exasperation at there desertion rates, particularly with crossing over to the enemy; which due to the risk of giving the French, free easy intelligence on Allied forces and intentions, carried a capital penalty for those members returned into British captivity, certainly in the early-mid part of the Peninsular War.

This issue contrasted with the battalion that performed stoically on the slopes of the Pyrenees as Wellington's forces faced a surprise French offensive lead by Marshal Soult which required individual battalions to fight their own combats and stands very often with little support from divisional or army assets.

For the wargamer looking to rate such a unit, it left me thinking that you couldn't really know which CB battalion would turn up on any given day or how many of them. However, as Nichols points out, they were reliable enough for Wellington to keep them in his service and several British battalions soon found themselves relegated to garrison duties in Lisbon, Gibraltar or Cadiz if they didn't perform so this speaks favourably of the CB overall.

Nichols does a good job of looking at the problems faced by the CB of keeping men from different nationalities focused on the reasons they joined the ranks in the first place, particularly in a British army that enforced a draconian level of discipline foreign to many of the men. Overall I think I agree with his conclusion that the Officers of the CB did a pretty good job and that Wellington could often be the harshest of critics.

The caption states boldly that the CB was a light infantry regiment, but as Spock once said to Captain Kirk " not as we know it Jim". The account suggests that the CB fought and were accoutered in the main as a British Line battalion.
The 248 page book consists of the following sections:

List of Maps - ( 1.Southern Italy & Sicily, 2. Egypt 1807, 3. Portugal and Western Spain, 4. The Western Pyrenees.)
List of Graphs - (1. Sickness rates in the brigade, March 1811 to June 1814, 2. Nationalities of the men, 3. Men under arms in the brigade, March 1811 to June 1814).

I The Prince of Conde's Army
II Unusual Redcoats
III Sicily and Egypt, again
IV The Defence of Sicily
V Under Wellington's Command
VI Success and Failure
VII From Portugal to the Pyrenees
VIII Returning Home

A Officers, Chasseurs Britanniques Regiment, 1801-1814
B Some of the other ranks, Chasseurs Britanniques Regiment, 1801-1814
C Establishment of the Chasseurs Britanniques Regiment, 1804, 1808, 1811
D Inspection Return, 25th December 1812
E Uniforms of the Chasseurs Britanniques Regiment
F Events at Rosetta, 31st March 1807

Select Bibliography

In addition there are eight pages of photographs of portraits of key notables, battle sites and documents pertinent to the text.

I enjoyed  reading this book particularly for the coverage of the early history of the CB and the fighting in Egypt and Southern Italy. The Peninsular War coverage less so as I thought there was too much coverage of the brigade activities rather than the CB regiment itself, but that is probably down to a lack of information.

I know I mention this again and again just like many other readers, but please, please, pretty please can we have more maps to illustrate where the action is taking place and where units were operating in any given action. I am sorry but the maps in this book were in the main "pants" (a British expression meaning not at all good).

The one that stands out for me was the map on page 140 of the Western Pyrenees which had a multitude of tiny black triangles, some filled in to indicate where peaks were that funnelled the fighting into the many valleys or on the ridges. I'm sorry Pen and Sword, I love the service you offer of bringing great military books to the interested reader but you should know that maps like this are not good enough.

The many battles mentioned in the text warrant a map if only to show where the CB regiment was when the fighting mentioned in the text happened.

One other useful addition would have been some illustrations of the uniforms worn throughout the period covered. I have included some here in my post as I feel a picture is worth a thousand words. Oh and if you were hoping this book would shed some light on the look of the Regimental Colours, I'm afraid that information seems still lost to history.

A useful tome to have on the shelf when it comes to the time when I start work on this famous and interesting regiment and a good book to add to my knowledge.


  1. Whilst currently on hold, the next expansion to my Allied 7YW army will include 3 Battalions of Legion Brittanique fighting as Formed Light Infantry ,(I had to ask what that meant as well).
    Apart from various detached duties they were present in 2 battles , Warburg 1760 in which their only contribution was to loot the town and Vellinghausen 1761 where two battalions helped to contain the French attack . After that they were transferred into Prussian service.
    Each battalion even had their own Dragoon Squadron until amalgamated into one unit.
    The 4th battalion,whilst detached ,was defeated by the French at Stadberge and 200 were captured, the French exchanged the lot immediately even the French deserters !
    This was also were their commanding officer Captain William Delaune was killed , he had fought with Wolfe at Quebec but was ...the polite term I guess is eccentric , this from Kronoskaf...
    "The man could not be persuaded to ever mount a horse, but claimed he could march so well that he easily would tire two horses in a day. He refused alcohol and never bothered to sleep in a bed. Unfortunately, he neither spoke or understood German nor French, and he also refused to ask for Pardon. This eventually killed him in a rather disgraceful manner. In January 1761, he failed to place proper outposts in his quarters in Stadtberg. As a result, his unit was surprised and captured. He was found undressed in his quarter and was massacred as he refused to surrender.

    1. Ha what a great story.
      I reviewed a book on the British Light Infantry in the Napoleonic Wars about a year ago and there was a interesting reference that pointed out that British thinking before the French Revolution was that British Infantry were not amenable to using light infantry skirmish tactics and were much better employed in the line of battle.Thus the British Army regularly turned to Germans or occasionally renegade French soldiers who were thought much better troops to be employed for such duties.

      This recruitment of foreign light troops was going on right up until Sir John Moore set about creating the Light Infantry School at Shornecliff, with the 60th Royal American Rifles. Thus it is not surprising that the Chasseurs Britannique were thought to be natural Light Infantry material, after all they were French so they must be good at that kind of thing!

  2. Does the author cover the services rendered by a battalion of CB as part of the forces used in raids along the Atlantic coast during the War of 1812? The general idea of course was to inflict "fire and sword" upon His Majesty's American enemies, but their behavior was recorded at the time as being so barbaric that even British commanders were appalled. (Perhaps for that reason they were not part of the forces that attacked Washington/Baltimore, nor New Orleans.)

    Best regards,

    Chris Johnson

    1. Hi Chris,
      He does cover the American War assertions. Nichols references Grouvel making this assertion followed latter by others that two Independent Companies of Foreigners were sent to America but states that the use of an alternative name of 'Canadian Chasseurs' may have caused confusion. He states that some recruits in the Foreign Depot intended for the CB had been diverted to the Independent Companies of Foreigners but states firmly that no part of the CB regiment was sent to North America.

      If you would like to know more, Nichols references his own work on this subject in his article 'Desperate Banditti? The Independent Companies of Foreigners 1812-14, JSAHR, Winter 2001'.


    2. JJ,

      Many thanks for the heads up! I'm embarrassed to admit I had never heard about the possible confusion with Canadian Chasseurs; I've always just accepted the CB reference. I will need to look Nichols's article up!

      Best regards,