A comparison of British and French Military Identity and Organization during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars Timothy Paul Candlish Phd university of York History March 2012

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Officers’ Motivations

That officers were willing to serve appears to go without saying. After all, unlike some among the enlisted men, officers were not in any way subject to coercion. Indeed, the very idea that a gentleman might be forced to fight would have seemed outrageous and absurd. For to be an officer in the British army was to be a gentleman not only figuratively but literally, for an officer’s commission was accompanied by the title of esquire, the aristocratic grade directly below that of a knight. The apparent willingness of well-off British men, generally quite young, to become officers can be ascribed to three possible motivations. A gentleman might become an officer in order to rise in the social hierarchy, or to affirm his place within it. He might serve in the hope of financial gain, for good breeding did not necessarily equate to high finance. He might even do so out of a deep-rooted desire to pursue a military career, though this is as likely to manifest after the fact as before it. These motives are in common with those of many pre-Revolutionary French officers, and even their backgrounds are more similar than is immediately apparent. Around one quarter of all regimental officers and half of all generals and proprietary colonels were drawn from the aristocracy and landed gentry, both titled and untitled, while the bulk of the remainder of regimental officers came from lower-grade gentry. Whereas their French counterparts were fully-fledged and titled aristocrats from birth, British titles were generally only inherited by the eldest son, with younger sons being styled ‘the honourable’ and regarded as ‘gentlemen.’0 The laws of primogeniture that reserved titles for the eldest son acted in the same way on property, forcing younger sons to seek ‘suitable’ employment. Indeed, many of the lesser gentry families who provided officers were engaged in the professions or even trade. For gentlemen who possessed neither land nor money, a military career represented a means of honourable subsistence that would be recognizable to many of the worse-off French aristocrats. In some cases the connection extended over many generations, leading to the phenomenon of ‘army families.’0

An insight into the attitudes of new officers in the period can be found in The Reminiscences and Recollections of Captain Gronow. The author was Rees Howell Gronow, who describes entering the army directly after leaving Eton:
Though many years have elapsed, I still remember my boyish delight at being

named to so distinguished a regiment and at the prospect of soon taking part in the glorious deeds of our army in Spain. I joined in February 1813, and cannot but recollect with astonishment at how limited and imperfect was the instruction which an officer received at that time; he absolutely entered the army without any military education whatever. We were so defective in our drill, even after we had passed out of the hands of the sergeant, that the excellence of our non-commissioned officers alone prevented us from meeting with the most fatal disasters in the face of the enemy.0

This took place in December of 1812, meaning that he was almost eighteen years old at the time. Considering the successes British forces had enjoyed in Spain, it is not at all surprising for a young man to be enthusiastic about joining in. The candour with which he describes the battles in which he became involved, even in light of Ramsey’s conclusions regarding their sentimentality, suggests that his apparent enthusiasm was genuine. His complaint about the lack of training will become relevant later in this chapter.
Desire for a military career was not unique to his generation, however. A memoir of Sir Ralph Abercromby, written by his son, mentions ‘an ardent desire to devote himself to the military profession.’0 Dunfermline describes Sir Ralph’s father as taking this badly at first, having thought that he would do well in the legal profession, reconciling himself only gradually to his son’s intentions. General Sir George Napier, in his own account, describes himself as having come to the army only after having decided against both the Navy and the Church, choosing the army ‘as I said I liked fighting, a red coat, and a sword!’0 The pleasure he derived from being a young officer is described more directly a little later on;
As soon as I had got all my things and bought some horses I joined my regiment in Dublin barracks, and you will easily imagine what a happy fellow I was to be my own master at fifteen, with a fine uniform, a couple of horses, a servant, and about fifty pounds in my pocket. This certainly was one of the happiest periods of my life, and little did I then think I was destined to be an actor in, and witness, so many extraordinary events as have taken place during the last thirty years!0
This youthful desire for independence strikes a chord with the restlessness expressed in the accounts of many enlisted men, a timely reminder of shared human nature.

Training of Enlisted Men

For eighteenth-century armies, training was a somewhat less complex activity than today, mostly because the skills required by individual soldiers were nothing like as complex or wide-ranging. There was also little difference between the armies, since they fought and conducted themselves in a broadly identical fashion. Training can be divided into two categories, the first being basic, the second being advanced or operational training. The essential purpose of basic training was, as it is today, to transform a civilian into a soldier, and as such encompassed not only physical and mental development, but also changes in identity and psychology. The physical aspect consists of bringing the recruits up to the required standard of physical prowess, while the mental aspect includes the acquisition of necessary skills and knowledge. The psychological aspect covers the thought processes, namely the ability to think and behave like a soldier, while identity covers whether or not the recruit believes himself to be a soldier. A good description of the underlying ideals of training can be found in the British Army’s 1807 drill manual:

‘To attain this important purpose, it is necessary to reconcile celerity

with order; to prevent hurry, which must always cause confusion, loss

of time, unsteadiness, irresolution, inattention to command, &c; to ensure precision and correctness, by which alone great bodies will be able to arrive at their object in good order, and in the shortest space of time; to inculcate and enforce the necessity of military dependence, and of mutual support in action, which are the grate (SIC) ends of discipline;’0
For eighteenth-century armies the most basic training technique, covering all four aspects, was drill. Otherwise known as parade-ground drill, square-bashing, and by other even less flattering terms, drill was essentially simple, yet vital to the effective training of recruits. This was generally carried out on the parade ground of the barracks, if one was available, though any clear and flat space would suffice. Finding suitable ground was a more serious issue for the cavalry, which needed far more space than infantry even in their smallest numbers. British army drill was divided into five basic elements; the ‘manual exercise’, which covered individual movements such as loading and firing a musket; the ‘platoon exercise’, which consisted primarily of volley firing; ‘evolutions’, which covered basic movements in rank and file; ‘firings’, which covered the more complex systems of firing; and finally ‘manoeuvres’, which covered complex movements as a large unit.0 Of these, the first three can be regarded as ‘basic’ while the latter two can be considered ‘advanced’, a delineation that was practiced at the time.
Training was physically taxing, at least to begin with, and mind-numbing in its repetitiveness, enlivened only by colourful language from the ever-present figure of the drill-sergeant. Thomas of the 71st found his training most unpleasant, though as his account describes he bore it with the mind set of one who had joined of his own will:
Now I began to drink the cup of bitterness. How different was my

situation from what it had been! Forced from bed at five o'clock each

morning, to get all things ready for drill; then drilled for three hours with the most unfeeling rigour, and often beat by the sergeant for the faults of others—I, who had never been crossed at home—I, who never knew fatigue, was now fainting under it. This I bore without a murmur, as I had looked to it in my engagement.0

For line infantry, it was nonetheless indispensable, for it was the only effective way to learn the manoeuvres they would use in battle. As such, it served the physical purpose of providing near-constant exercise and the mental purpose of teaching the required manoeuvres. It also served to imbue psychological prowess, better understood as discipline. Having been constantly and repetitively drilled, recruits became able to carry out required tasks with minimal conscious thought. In order to maintain these effects, even veteran soldiers subject to drilling, the regularity increasing as active service drew near. Drill had the additional effect of imbuing a sense of military hierarchy, with recruits getting accustomed to the idea of taking orders. This was reflected in an ironic way by the attitudes of the officers, who found drill so beneath them that they tended to offload the responsibility onto the sergeants.0 The final, and least obvious, effect was on the identity of the recruits. The physical, mental, and psychological changes served to change the recruits’ self-images, in effect remaking them as soldiers. This symbolic rebirth could be reinforced, where practical and convenient, by military ceremonies such as parades and reviews. Though the practical military use of drill has disappeared in modern times, most modern armies still practice drill to a limited extent, largely for the psychological and identity factors. As for the time it took approximately six months for recruits to reach the required standards, discretion as to their readiness lying with the regimental sergeant major.0

Though British units were most commonly trained at the battalion level, larger-scale exercises were carried out on occasion. Known as ‘sham fights’ or ‘field days’, these were essentially mock battles, intended to allow officers and men to get used to working as part of a full army. John Houlding claims that while their value was understood at the time, practical matters meant that these exercises were relatively rare.0 To gather together enough units to form an army was no small matter, in terms of expense, logistics, and organisation. The lack of a standard drill manual before the publication of Dundas’ Principles meant that few knew how to manage large formations, and the experiences of the British army in North America had not filled the gap. The very different environment in which British troops fought in the American War of Independence is well-documented, suffice it to say that it tended to involve small formations of only a few thousand on both sides, compared to tens of thousands in European conflicts, while the broken terrain required open rather than closed formations. The effect of this war on British military thinking, and available experience, was the basis of Dundas’ complaints against light infantry, which he regarded as unsuitable for European wars.0 Private Wheeler describes one such exercise in which he took part in a letter dated February 13th 1809:
A muster of the troops in the district took place, a Grand field day and sham fight was the consequence. Lord C- had the commd. (SIC) of a brigade. After some manoeuvring, which his Lordship as well understood as the nag that carried him, the line halted and a general discharge of musketry took place. Lord C- was delighted. He rode up and down the line, calling to the men to load and fire as quickly as possible. At length the fire slackened. He enquired the reason the men did not fire brisker. When he was informed the ammunition was nearly expended. ‘Well’ said he, ‘let the men stand at ease.’ The troops had now began (SIC) to advance but Lord C-‘s brigade remained stationary. The staff was despatched (SIC) to order Lord C- to push forward his brigade. It was all to no purpose. His Lordship was inflexable (SIC). ‘We want powder’ was his reply, ‘what use is going into battle without powder etc.’ At length the General came galloping calling on his Lordship to move on. He might have saved himself the trouble. It was vain to try to persuade Lord C- that he should move on. ‘I want more powder.’ ‘You have spoiled the line and in the event of a real fight you would endanger the safety of the whole Army. Let me entreat your Lordship to move on.’ ‘D- it man, what is the use. I want powder.’0
Wheeler’s account provides an insight into how officers and enlisted men regarded field exercises and their role in training. ‘Lord C’ refers in this case to Thomas Onslow, Viscount Cranley who at that time was a Colonel of the Surrey Militia. Wheeler describes Cranley as a good-natured eccentric, regarding him with some affection for an incident in which he helped a lame soldier reach Ashford Camp, then forced the resignation of a particularly unpopular Major.0 Wheeler’s tone in his account of the exercise nonetheless suggests that his ability as a commander was not so well regarded. This in itself implies that at least a certain proportion of officers and enlisted men understood the value of field exercises and took them seriously. The Duke of York certainly did, ordering a series of training camps to be held over the summer of 1795 for that purpose. The camps were organised on a weekly basis, with two days a week for battalion drill, two for brigade drill, and one day for the commanding general to drill the whole line, with the remaining day aside from Sunday set aside for remedial training.0 The biggest single problem in carrying out field exercises, and the most likely reason as to why they were not more commonly held, was in finding suitable land. This was particularly problematic for the cavalry, as they needed considerably more space than infantry.0

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