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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The Role of Battle


Combat was an experience the vast majority of Napoleonic soldiers on both sides had in common. Going into battle held an ambivalent position in the thoughts and attitudes of soldiers. For some it was a crucible of manhood, for others the field of glory, and for many a place of fear, pain, and death; none of them mutually exclusive. For the soldiers themselves, battle was the ultimate and defining experience of their military lives, and one of the major bases for the creation of military identity. Soldiers going into battle brought with them the identities they had brought with them from civilian life, as well as what they had acquired from becoming part of a military unit. Combat ultimately served to cement that shared identity, binding men together in the face of deadly danger. The long-term effect of combat on those soldiers who survived is difficult to state with any certainty, as eighteenth and early-nineteenth century society tended to be a lot less open about, and considerate of, such matters than that of today. Those who would today be regarded as mentally ill would at the time have been dismissed as mad, and almost certainly executed or otherwise disposed-of if their situation led them into criminality.


Nevertheless there is limited evidence that soldiers were aware of such problems, including a mention by Private Wheeler of a certain corporal Shortland who appeared to go insane, though Wheeler claims that ‘we all thought that he was acting the old soldier;’
His head was ornamented with an old bee hive and the other part of his dress consisted of an old blue petticoat, tied round his neck, the bottom scarcely reached so low as a Highlander’s kilt, his legs and feet were bare, in his right hand he carried a shepherd’s crook. Thus dressed and equiped (SIC) he was hailed with three cheers…The poor fellow is now in Hospital.0

Not all memoirs describe combat directly, though there is a distinctive style in those that do. Descriptions of actual combat tend to be brief and concise, focussing on what the author was immediately aware of. Rees Gronow’s description of his first experience, crossing the Bidassoa river, is an example;


Three miles above, we discovered the French army, and ere long found

ourselves under fire. The sensation of being made a target to a large body of men is at first not particularly pleasant, but “in a trice, the ear becomes more Irish, and less nice.” The first man I ever saw killed was a Spanish soldier, who was cut in two by a cannon ball. The French army, not long after we began to return their fire, was in full retreat; and after a little sharp, but desultory fighting, in which our Division met with some loss, we took possession of the camp and strong position of Soult’s army.0


As can be seen, Gronow had little to say about the action itself. Most of the focus is on his own experience, of becoming hardened to the danger and of seeing a man die for the first time. In accordance with Ramsey’s conclusion on the sentimental nature of contemporary memoirs, Gronow’s language takes a turn for the emotive when, in covering his part in the Battle of Waterloo, he describes the suffering of wounded horses;
It was pitiable to witness the agony of the poor horses, which seemed really

conscious of the dangers that surrounded them: we often saw a poor wounded

animal raise its head, as if looking for a rider to afford him aid. There is nothing perhaps among the episodes of a great battle more striking than the débris of a cavalry charge, where men and horses are seen scattered and wounded on the ground in every variety of painful attitude. Many a time the heart sickened at the moaning tones of agony which came from man, and scarcely less intelligent horse, as they lay in fearful agony upon the field of battle.0
Thomas Pococke goes a step further, describing his own feelings in facing and surviving his first battle in some depth;
This was the first blood I had ever seen shed in battle; the first time the cannon had roared in my hearing charged with death. I was not yet seventeen years of age, and had not been six months from home. My limbs bending under me with fatigue, in a sultry clime, the musket and accoutrements that I was forced to carry were still insupportably oppressive. Still I bore all with invincible patience. During the action, the thought of death never once crossed my mind. After the firing commenced, a still sensation stole over my whole frame, a firm determined torpor, bordering on insensibility. I heard an old soldier answer, to a youth like myself, who inquired what he should do during the battle, “Do your duty.”
It would be very easy to accuse Thomas of talking up his own emotional resilience in the face of what must have been a terrifying experience. But his subsequent admittance that he was forced ‘to turn aside my head from the horrid sight’ of the battlefield adds plausibility to his account.0 But despite the horrors a soldier might experience on the battlefield, he did not necessarily regard battle as his worst experience. Thomas seems to have become gradually inured to whatever battle might bring, even claim that he ‘preferred any short struggle, however severe, to the dreadful way of life we were at this time pursuing.’ He goes on to describe the frustration of many of his comrades at the fight that never took place, and admits to similar feelings later at ‘running away from an enemy we had beat with so much ease at Vimeira, without even firing a shot.’0 Gronow for his own part alludes to the visceral aggression he and his comrades felt during the Battle of Waterloo, when the time came to counter-charge the oncoming Imperial Guard;
We were instantly on our legs, and after so many hours of inaction and

irritation at maintaining a purely defensive attitude,-all the time suffering the

loss of comrades and friends,-the spirit which animated officers and men may

easily be imagined. The impetuosity of our men seemed almost to paralyse

their enemies: I witnessed several of the Imperial Guard who were run through the body apparently without any resistance on their parts.0

These accounts describe an experience of combat which, while not exactly positive, was not one from which a soldier would necessarily shrink. Neither Gronow nor Pococke seemed to have suffered any psychological ill-effects from combat, and neither did countless other British soldiers, though doubtless there was an unknown and unknowable number that did. As shown by the words of the old soldier in Pococke’s account, to perform well in battle represented the ultimate proof of a soldier’s worth, be he officer or enlisted man. Rifleman Harris noted that the enlisted men tended to observe closely the behaviour and conduct of officers, especially in combat situations:


It is, indeed, singular, how a man loses or gains caste with his comrades

from his behaviour, and how closely he is observed in the field. The officers,

too, are commented upon and closely observed. The men are very proud of

those who are brave in the field, and kind and considerate to the soldiers

under them. An act of kindness done by an officer has often during the battle

been the cause of his life being saved.0


It was not entirely necessary for a regiment to have been on the winning side in a battle. If it was, then a regimental tradition would be marred by every defeat. It was only necessary for the regiment itself, and each man in it, to have done their duty. All the same, success in combat was the greatest source of pride for a regiment. Each success would be marked with a battle honour embroidered upon its regimental standard. One of Private Wheeler’s letters, 5th August 1809, shows how regimental commanders could draw on a regiment’s history to inspire their men, and to help draw newcomers into the collective identity:
The next morning, 1st of August, a remarkable day, it being the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Minden. Colonel M- could not let this opportunity slip without addressing us. I wish I could give you his speech, that is impossible. He told us that all the pleasure and happiness he had ever felt fell short of the pleasure he now felt at being at the head of that Corps, who on that day fifty years had by their native valour repulsed and defeated the whole body of the enemy’s Cavalry before Minden. He shewed (SIC) us the word Minden on our Colours, and reminded us that it was inscribed on our breast-plates. He said it was probable we should fall in with the enemy that day, and if we did not give them a good drubbing, how could we ever return home to our Fathers, Mothers, etc. Our country expected much from us, the Regiment in its infant state had performed prodigies of valour on that day, and now that we had grown grey (some of us) in the service, would it not be expected we should eclips (SIC) them in glory etc. etc.0


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