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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Unit Identities


Military identity is essentially compound, with specific identities existing at different levels. The largest unit individual soldiers may identify with is obviously the army itself. Even at this basic level there appear divisions and caveats. The most obvious is that while professional soldiers invariably identify themselves with the army as a whole, this is not necessarily the case for conscripts or draftees. The latter may identify with the body-politic as a whole, or may have difficulty accepting their military role, a particular problem if coercion of any kind is involved. Unit-related identities may exist at any level, but it is generally agreed that these identities become more profound the smaller they are in scale. Soldiers will identify most closely with their immediate units, usually the squad or fire-team in modern parlance. The unit identities that might exist depend to a great deal on the culture of the army in question, the most obvious example being the Regimental system. This approach focuses on the regiment as a basis for unit identity, with traditions, uniforms, and organisation revolving around it. The British army exemplified this approach, but it also appeared in the French army, both before and after the Revolution.


In the British army, the regiment was the centre of a soldier’s life. Smaller units were defined as parts of a regiment, and larger formations were combinations of regiments in turn. Each regiment had its own battle-flag and distinct uniform, by virtue of minor variations in design and secondary colours. These formed an important part of regimental identity, for it was upon its flag that a regiment’s battle honours were embroidered. This provided, at least to soldiers who could read, a constant reminder of the regiment’s past, in so doing creating a sense of continuity.0 Uniforms represented a simple but effective means of identity construction, and proved especially useful in attracting recruits. Rifleman Harris admits rather candidly in his Recollections that the reason for his enlistment in that particular body was ‘their smart, dashing, and devil-may-care appearance,’0 referring by implication to their uniform and their general manner. Regiments were also named, originally for their Colonels, then later numbered, then given territorial designations, which were supposed to refer to the areas from which they recruited.
The practice of naming regiments for their Colonels was convenient, but not entirely efficient, since the regiment’s name would change upon the change of its Colonel. To make matters worse, it was quite possible for multiple regiments to have Colonels of the same surname. This was famously dealt with in the case of twin Howard’s regiments by granting them specific names, making them the ‘Buffs’ and ‘Green Howards’ in reference to the colours of their uniform facings. A numerical system was introduced in 1751, with regiments being numbered in the order of their founding.0 Ordinary soldiers took great pride in their regimental identities, which were consciously developed and maintained for that purpose. Regiments also acquired nicknames, which could derive from any number of causes. The 1st Regiment of Foot, the Royal Scots, reputedly acquired their nickname of ‘Pontius Pilate’s bodyguard’ from a boasting competition with a French unit. The 2nd Queen’s Royal Regiment of Foot acquired their nickname of ‘Kirke’s Lambs’ from their colonel and their paschal lamb emblem respectively, though there is a tradition that the name was given in ironic reference to the regiment’s reputed brutality at the Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685.0 Other regiments had more low-brow nicknames, which may have been more popular with the enlisted men. The 33rd Regiment of Foot were known as the Havercakes, reputedly due to their recruiting sergeants’ practice of luring hungry recruits with a havercake, or oatcake, stuck on a spontoon or bayonet. The rifle battalion of the 60th Regiment, the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, had the nickname ‘Jaggers.’ This most likely refers to the German word ‘Jaegar’, meaning hunter; the term used in German armies for specialist life infantry.0
Fortunately for, or perhaps for the benefit of, their largely illiterate membership, British regiments identified themselves through symbols. One does not need to read or write to be able to recognize a distinctive symbol or mode of dress, and as the previous example by Private Wheeler shows, even a written word can become a symbol if it is pointed out as such. All British regiments possessed recognizable symbols, which could be presented in various forms, such as on buttons and shako plates. These represented only minor differences on the whole, but they represented a vital means by one which soldiers of one regiment distinguished themselves from those of another.0 The need for physical symbols was also important for more practical reasons, as there was no way to make the uniform clothing sufficiently distinctive in a practicable way. Each specific branch had its own uniform colour, along with facings and lace of specific colours, and some distinctive features. Digby Smith’s Uniforms of the Napoleonic Wars is a particularly helpful source in covering contemporary uniforms and their variations.
Infantry all wore red, apart from the 95th Rifles in their distinctive dark green. Dragoon cavalry also wore red, while light dragoons and hussars, including those of the King’s German Legion, wore blue. The 1st and 2nd Life Guards wore red, while the Royal Horse Guards wore blue, a distinction that would manifest itself as late as 1969, when it was amalgamated with the 1st or Royal Dragoons to become the ‘Blues and Royals.’ Infantry primarily wore the well-known ‘shako’ hat from the beginning of the nineteenth century, which was replaced by the distinctive ‘Belgic’ shako, with a raised front plate, in 1812. Shorter, wide-brimmed hats became popular with regiments serving in the West Indies, while light troops sometimes wore forage hats similar in appearance to berets, and grenadiers wore short black bearskins. Cavalry headgear varied between classical-themed helmets for the guards regiments, and plumed ‘Tarleton’ helmets or shakoes for the dragoons and hussars. The Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers also tended to wear tarletons or shakoes, along with dark blue jackets. Foreign units wore distinctive uniforms in a variety of colours and styles. A common method of distinction within units was shoulder wings, similar to epaulettes, with the flanking companies wearing wings in the facing colour while grenadiers wore red wings. The alternate ‘facing’ colours were worn on collars, cuffs, and shoulder straps, while officers also wore gold or silver lace.0 As there were only a limited number of facing colours, this was not sufficient on its own.

Most regiments had their own distinctive symbols, though some seem to have had no official symbol at all, while some regiments had symbols in common. Regimental symbols may have had a heraldic significance, though these are not always easy to identify. ‘Royal’ regiments tended to include crowns in their symbols, while regiments that served at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801 were rewarded with the Sphinx as their symbol, and many Scottish regiments incorporated thistles into their symbols. Light infantry units were identified by a curved hunting horn, symbolising the origin of light infantry as hunters. David French argues in Military Identities that the existence of regimental symbols was a deliberate connection to a chivalric past, intended to imply a direct link between past and present.0 This makes sense in light of the role of historical achievement in regimental identity, while his further implication of a political role may also have merit. Regimental symbols could from time to time play their own part in the development of regimental identities. The badge of the 9th Foot was Britannia, an honour which by regimental tradition was granted in 1707 by Queen Anne. This led to a curious misunderstanding during the regiment’s service in Spain, where Britannia was widely mistaken for the Virgin Mary. This earned the regiment the nickname ‘the Holy Boys.’0


The ultimate symbols and treasures of a Napoleonic British regiment were its flags. Much has been made of the reverence in which British soldiers held their flags, and their importance is beyond doubt. The Union flag was meant to bind the regiment to the King, for each one had in theory been presented by a Royal hand at some point in the regiment’s history. Where possible, the Union flag was indeed presented by the reigning Monarch or a nominee, thus strengthening this connection. Regimental flags bore the regimental symbols, and also the regiment’s battle honours. As shown in Wheeler’s account, the regimental flag could become a physical prop to a telling of the regiment’s history, a physical symbol of its past achievements. There do not appear to have been any hard and fast rules about which battle honours a regiment could claim, or on what basis, a fact that caused problems for nineteenth-century attempts to properly codify regimental traditions. So sacred were they that flags were never actually destroyed, but rather ceremonially enshrined in churches when they became too worn and ragged to be used.
Soldiers were inculcated with the idea that their flags represented all that was proud and noble about their regiments, and that that to lose them was to lose their very identity.0 This tendency can be traced back to the reputed ancient Roman practice of disbanding a legion that lost its eagle, though no British regiment is known to have disbanded a regiment on that basis alone. On at least two occasions British troops in North America burned their flags rather than let them be captured.0 There are also examples of regiments trying to conceal the loss of their flags, whether by getting them back or replacing them without the loss being officially noticed. Examples include the 3rd Foot, who lost their colours at the Battle of Albuera in 1811, and the 69th Foot, who lost theirs at Quatre Bras in 1815. Whereas the 3rd manage to retrieve their flags, albeit without the poles, the 69th did not, and an attempt to secretly replace them failed.0 Despite this disgrace, they served throughout the Waterloo campaign, including at the battle itself.
If losing the colours was a disgrace, then regaining them was an imperative and a triumph, as Thomas Pococke recounts;
Still onwards we drove, up one street, down another, until we came to the church of St Domingo, where the colours of the 71st regiment had been placed, as a trophy, over the shrine of the Virgin Mary. We made a sally into it, and took them from that disgraceful resting-place, where they had remained ever since the surrender of General Beresford to General Liniers. Now we were going to sally out in triumph.0

Ironically, the sacrosanct nature of regimental flags made them the ultimate prize to an enemy. Capturing an enemy standard brought great renown, both to the man that took it and to his regiment, and its bearers were unlikely to part with it easily. The first French eagle to be taken by British soldiers in the Peninsula was that of the 8th Regiment of the Line, at the Battle of Barossa on 5th March 1811. The eagle was only secured after a heated struggle, in which seven French officers and men were killed trying to protect it.0 The glory went in the end to Sergeant Patrick Masterman, written as Masterson in some sources, who was rewarded for the capture with an officer’s commission.0


Regimental identities may have been important, but the issue nevertheless arises as to how they could have remained in continuous existence. Sylvia Frey argues that strong regimental identities existed as far back as the American War of Independence, referring to incidents of British prisoners or deserters voluntarily returning to their regiments, despite what likely awaited the latter.0 Despite this, Kevin Linch raises an important point in Britain and Wellington’s Army that the realities of military organisation militated against the existence of permanent identities.0 A regiment could be disbanded or reduced in peacetime, or even amalgamated in order to bring battle-damaged units up to full strength. Nevertheless, British policy seems to have been to preserve regiments wherever practicable, especially senior regiments. One common method of replenishing weakened units was to ‘draft’ additional soldiers from units judged unlikely to see combat, essentially an extension of the practice each regiment keeping its second battalion at home.
Weakened units might be combined to create whole new battalions, but it was equally if not more likely for newer regiments to be drafted to feed older regiments. Houlding points to the example of the 93rd Foot, which was repeatedly milked for reinforcements throughout its brief life before being finally disbanded in 1763 after only three years. This practice was even more common in the period from 1793 to 1795, a time of severe manpower crisis. In the summer of 1795 alone, one quarter of all foot regiments were drafted to replenish the rest, while all regiments numbered above the one-hundredth, out of one hundred and thirty one, were disbanded and folded into those below.0 This tendency shows that older regiments were valued over newer regiments when hard decisions over manpower had to be made, strongly suggesting that the longer a regiment’s tradition, the more valuable it was considered.

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