Wellington's Rifles

Wellington's Rifles

Martin Walker

Six Years to Waterloo with England’s Legendary Sharpshooters.
By Mark Urban

Read Time:
3m 8sec


Six Years to Waterloo with England’s Legendary Sharpshooters.
By Mark Urban. Walker. 351 pp. $27

The way to the Duke of Wellington’s victories against Napoleon’s forces in Portugal and Spain in the opening years of the 19th century was paved with British defeats in the American Revolutionary War. American sharpshooters with accurate rifles took advantage of cover to torment the well-drilled British ranks and kill their officers. In response, the British deployed sharpshooting Americans who had remained loyal to the Crown. Once the war was over, many of these loyalists deemed it prudent to depart with the British. Some of them remained in the army, where they joined thoughtful British officers to build a specialized corps of riflemen.

These riflemen were to prove invaluable in the wars against Napoleon. Dressed in somber green with black buttons (rather than the shining brass ones that could give away a position), they blended with the landscape. Deployed as skirmishers in ones and twos ahead of the stolid lines of British infantry, they repeatedly decapitated French attacks by killing the officers and sniping at the gunners of the redoubtable artillery.

The French, too, had developed a new style of warfare that relied heavily on skirmishers. Their armies used their excellent and highly mobile artillery (modernized under the monarchy) to bombard the drilled ranks of their enemies, then deployed swarms of skirmishers (known as voltigeurs, or leapers) to torment the battered ranks further. The difference was that the voltigeurs used smooth-bore muskets, barely accurate even at 30 yards, whereas the British sharpshooters had sturdy Baker rifles. Although their rate of fire was much slower, British riflemen were usually sure of a kill at 200 yards. Wellington won battle after battle by using his riflemen to repel the voltigeurs, posting his ranks of infantry behind the brow of a hill to protect them from French artillery, then deploying the infantry in double lines so that each man could shoot (only the front ranks in the French columns could fire).

This is the context for the highly readable and entertaining book by Mark Urban, a former British officer turned journalist. He uses memoirs, hitherto-unpublished diaries, and French archives to give a detailed account, focusing on six soldiers of the celebrated 95th Regiment. He describes their campaigns in Portugal in 1809, through Spain and into southern France in 1814, and finally at Waterloo in 1815.

Urban reproduces a British recruiting poster of the day: “You will carry a Rifle no heavier than a Fowling-Piece. You will knock down your enemy at Five Hundred Yards, instead of missing him at Fifty. Your clothing is green, and needs no cleaning but a brush.” In fact, with extra rounds, spare shoes and socks, mess tin, water, and other supplies, each rifleman had to carry more than 70 pounds. Once, to reach the battlefield of Talavera, in Spain, the sharpshooters marched 30 miles uphill in 24 hours. And, marching at the quickstep, they moved markedly faster than the standard infantry.

Much of this is familiar territory for Urban, whose last book was The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes, a fascinating account of the Peninsular War through the exploits of the staff officer who learned to read Napoleon’s “Great Paris Cipher.” But the riflemen make for a better story, offering at once a broader yet more focused canvas that illuminates the way all armies at the end of the 18th century sought tactics to cope with the massive killing power of the new artillery and the massed musketry fire of well-trained troops. Wellington consistently beat the French because the riflemen gave him the means to do so, just as the American sharpshooters had frustrated and beaten the redcoats.

—Martin Walker

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