A Background on War

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    This is a brief outline of the British Army of the early Nineteenth century - the army that fought through the Peninsular War of 1808-1814 and Waterloo in 1815. It is by no means a definitive guide to the army but hopefully it will give you a general idea of the structure so you can understand a little better the background to some of the authors such as Heyer.

    There were two branches that administered the army.
    1 - The Horse Guards which looked after the Infantry and Cavalry
    2 - The Board of Ordnance which administered the Engineers and Artillery.

    For the purposes of this I'll only talk about the Infantry and Cavalry.

    Commissioning Officers

    To become an officer you could either purchase a commission in a regiment or you might, with a letter of recommendation by from an appropriate person, be granted a commission. When Britain needed its most recruits obtaining a commission by this latter method was relatively simple. But a commission in a line Regiment, if purchased, might otherwise cost over a thoousand pounds. Purchase of commissions was meant to prevent the need to provide officers with pensions once they retired, in effect they carried their pensions with them and when they 'sold out' they had a tidy nest egg to live off.

    Officer, 1815, from 4th Dragoons.

    The Cavalry

    The Cavalry was divided into 3 types, Heavy, Light and Household.
    The Household Regiments were the sovereigns bodyguards and so didn't go on many of the campaigns - but they appear at Peninusular and later at Waterloo.
    The Heavy Cavalry were the Dragoon Guards and Dragoons. There was no difference to the role they fulfilled, the only difference between the two groups was the uniform. A Heavy regiment refers to their role in battle where they would make heavy and decisive charges in pitched battle, they usually had heavy war horses than 'light' dragoons.

    Numbering can be a bit confusing. There were seven Dragoon Guards regiments numbered from 1 to 7 and there were six Dragoons Regiments which were classified as heavy were numbered from 1 - 6. Dragoon Regiments with numbers over 6 were classified as light regiments.

    The Light Cavalry had a slightly different role to the heavy regiments. Much of what they did was in the role skirmishing, communications between army encampments. They provided a vital communication, listening and watching role. They proved pivotal in roles such as retreats where they could hold off the enemy giving their army valuable time to regroup or cover distance before galloping back. The light regiments of the British Army were Dragoon Regiments numbered from 7 to 25. In 1806 4 of these Dragoon regiments were changed to 'Hussar' regiments - the 7th, 11th, 15th and 18th. This was really only a change in uniform.

    Cavalry regimental structure was simple. A battalion had ten troops of around 90 men. These troops paired off to make 5 squadrons. It was usual for a battalion to send four squadron's into the field and leave one squadron at home. This was like a bank of potential recruits meaning the natural attrition of war and sickness could in part be countered by having replacements trained and ready at hand.

    Dragoon - A name given to mounted soldiers, said to have originated from the French 'Dragon' or short musket used by them and so called because of the shape of the cocking piece.
    Hussar - A word from 15th century Hungary meaning 'one in twenty'. This relates to the conscripting of one man in twenty from every village.
    Other terms for cavalry you may have heard are the French Cuirassiers, they were the only armoured cavalry of this period.

    As a general grouping Heavy cavalry are termed as Cuirassiers and Heavy dragoons. Lancers, Hussars, and Light Dragoons were light cavalry. The Lancers were named for the weapon they carried which was - unsurprisingly - a longish lance, which was about the only effective weapon for poking at the enemy when they were formed in their 'squares.' Britain had no Cavalry Lancers at this time.

    It must have been impressive and frightening watching the cavalry approach, they increased in speed and generally only galloped for the last 50 yards so the horses wouldn't be blown before getting to the enemy's line. When meeting the enemy cavalry unit it was standard to meet them at speed to - two lines of horses galloping towards one another!


    There were two divisions in the army, the Foot Guards and the Line. The Foot Guards were the Infantry's elite regiments usually have the most aristocratic officers and the best recruits.

    Again, as with the cavalry, each regiment had a certain number of battalions, at least 2 per regiment and sometimes up to three or four.

    Each battalion had ten companies of up to 100 men (see the glossary for more information .) The intention of having more than one battalion was that a regiment would keep one battalion at home and send the other one into the field. Again being able to send men to replace the ones killed, invalided or struck down by sickness.

    In 1811 there were 46 battalions on the Peninsula, only 9 of these had more than 700 in active service, the rest had around 550 (that's almost half strength), one had 263.

    Sometimes a Regiment's second battalion was called into service which was when problems really began to arise. A second battalion would be already reduced in strength having contributed to the strength of the first battalion so they were invariably much weaker.

    As I have said each Battalion had ten companies. Two of these, the best two, were determined the right and left flanks for the battalion. The right flank company had once been issued with grenades and so were called the Grenadiers. The left company were called the 'light'. These two companies were vital. A battalion was most exposed on its flanks so it needed to have its most experienced men to protect them there.

    And why the size of companies and the size of battalions? Well this was the age when communication was through drums and trumpet. This was deemed both the most manageable size for a group to be able to fight as a unit and still know what was happening. Larger than that and control could be lost. And manouvres as a cohesive unit were vital infantry battalions were only strong if they worked together and there were very specific drills that they were drilled in interminably. Learning them was the difference between life and death on the battle field. Although a packed unit was vulnerable to fire from artillery and muskets, as a group they could escape the every present problem or cavalry who easily picked off men in loose lines of infantry.

    Staff Officers

    Staff officers (Aide de Comps or ADC's) were detached from their regimental duties to form part of chain of command - they were message carriers. The ADC would carry messages to the 'Brigades' under their general's charge. The ADC would carry messages for the Generals passing them on to the correct people. It was the 'Brigade Major', who was also detached from his own regimental duties, that passed the General's orders on to the hierachy in his brigade and it was up to him to make sure that the brigade followed these instructions.

    Brigades and Divisions?!

    A brigade was a unit of two or more infantry battalions. Although it had been done to some extent before Wellington was the first man to institute a fixed divisional system. To strengthen the whole army he mixed battalions of raw recruits and experienced veterans together in 'divisions' of 2-4 infantry Battalions. At first there weren't enough artillery to assign them permanantly to divisions but this changed with time. A rifle company (principally from the 60th regiments 5th Battalion) was assigned to each division.

    To see some typical letters of this period, you might also want to check out the Shanahan's Postal site - here are two;
    To Mrs Bowes from her brother, J.S. Johnson, who was killed at Badajoz and the second one also to Mrs Bowes is from her husband General Foord Bowes.

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