Home History How Awful Life Was For A Napoleonic Soldier

How Awful Life Was For A Napoleonic Soldier

by Enochadmin

What was life like for squaddies throughout the Napoleonic Wars? Think about, if you’ll, two completely different troopers of these days: a British fusilier in 1808 and a French gentle infantryman in 1812. Their uniforms, gear and weapons differ, as do their languages and private appearances. But there are nonetheless some issues that they’ve in frequent. The summer time warmth is an element for every of them: the fusilier in Spain in addition to the sunshine infantryman in Russia as he marches towards the Battle of Borodino. Every man is sweating profusely. The straps of his pack are too skinny, or the pack is simply too heavy for the straps, or the load improperly adjusted. Regardless of the cause, weight is a continuing bodily presence that alternates between inflicting stabbing ache within the shoulders and a crushing ache within the decrease again. Their particular person weapons are muzzle-heavy and imbalanced, including extra weight to their already overladen shoulders. 

These males are chafed, blistered, filthy, exhausted, and scent very unhealthy contemplating that they haven’t bathed in weeks. Every is drained, however that doesn’t even start to explain the extent of their exhaustion. Each are so dehydrated that pounding complications hammer behind their eyes, and so they really feel sick—both as a result of they’re simply recovering from a bout of dysenteric diarrhea, or as a result of they’re coming down with one.

They don’t know if their sickness is attributable to unhealthy meals, unhealthy water, or each—and understanding wouldn’t make any distinction. Their toes damage resulting from poorly fitted footwear that are heavy and rigid if not actually falling aside. These squaddies on the march put one weary foot in entrance of the opposite for mile after seemingly limitless mile—however they had been the hardest males of their day, and this was simply half and parcel of soldiering. 

When Style Trumped Perform

Terrain, climate, and distance have all the time contributed to the exhausting distress that’s a part of infantry life in each period and battle, however the issues with which troopers are laden additionally play a component. Within the Napoleonic period, simply as right this moment, squaddies of most armies had been overloaded with a staggering quantity of army gear. Some gear was crucial and a few not, at the least within the opinions of the boys who needed to carry it.

Rfn. Benjamin Harris, who survived the grueling winter retreat to Coruna in 1809, described the British infantryman’s load as being virtually greater than a person may handle in these situations. Some males couldn’t handle and perished in consequence. “The load I toiled below was large…,” he wrote, “certainly, I’m satisfied that a lot of our infantry sank and died below the burden of their knapsacks alone. For my very own half… I marched below a weight enough to impede the free motions of a donkey…”

By his personal admission, Harris was no imposing bodily specimen. “Altogether the amount of issues I had on my shoulders was sufficient and greater than sufficient for my needs, enough, certainly, to sink slightly fellow of 5 toes seven inches into the earth.”

It was not solely the sheer weight concerned that proved an issue. In these occasions, lengthy earlier than the idea of ergonomics was ever utilized to the design of army loadbearing gear, squaddies suffered from poorly organized hundreds. “Nay, so awkwardly was the load our males bore in these days positioned upon their backs,” Harris wrote, “that the free movement of the physique was impeded, the pinnacle held down from the pile in the back of the neck, and the soldier half overwhelmed earlier than he got here to the scratch.” 

Moreover, probably the most battle-tested armies of that period went into motion wearing a way fully unsuited to the exhausting job of soldiering within the discipline. But the impracticality of army uniforms was not the results of a scarcity of expertise within the bodily calls for of soldiering. Custom mattered greater than troopers’ consolation, and trend normally received over operate.

Depicted right here on the Battle of Jena, often known as the Battle of Jena-Auerstädt, fought in October 1806, Napoleon I used to be recognized to wield his infantry in highly effective columns with gentle artillery items introduced as much as blast holes within the enemy strains.
(Château de Versailles)

Blaze de Blury was a lieutenant within the Grande Armee that marched into Russia in 1812. After the horrific retreat that destroyed most of that military and Napoleon’s ambitions with it, de Blury was fortunate to nonetheless be alive to report his expertise. “I’ve by no means understood,” he later wrote, “why below Napoleon, after we had been continually at battle, the soldier ought to have been pressured to put on the ghastly breeches, which, by urgent on the hams in the back of the knee, prevented him from strolling simply. On high of that, the knee, which was lined by an extended buttoned-up gaiter, was additional strangled…”

This was the uniform of an infantry that walked in all places throughout Europe. “It was, all in all,” de Blury concluded, “a conspiracy by three thicknesses of fabric, two rows of buttons one on high of the opposite, and three garters to paralyze the efforts of the bravest of marchers.” Impractical uniforms weren’t an issue for the French alone. To various levels each military of the interval outfitted their infantry in clothes that ranged from the poorly designed to the downright absurd.

The Myths of Napoleonic Musketry

Not less than one ungainly piece of the infantryman’s fight load was indispensable, and that was his weapon. It is likely to be tempting to dismiss the Napoleonic soldier’s musket as a reasonably simplistic weapon. In any case, it was a single-shot, smooth-bore, muzzle-loading black powder firearm with extremely primitive sights. Utilizing it successfully was as a lot a matter of self-discipline acquired from expertise as understanding how one can greatest shoot inside its limitations. It was primarily a heavy and crude point-and-shoot weapon. If firing it was a easy matter, the loading and reloading sequences weren’t. For French squaddies in 1815, the musketry drill consisted of eight primary steps in loading their items. The British drill of the identical interval required 10 steps. This had a predictable impact on charges of fireside.

Within the chaos and smoke of massed infantry fight, a veteran unit of well-trained infantry would possibly have the ability to obtain a sustained price of fireside of solely three to 4 rounds a minute. The British—one of many solely armies on this planet to recurrently practice their infantry with stay ammunition—may persistently put out charges of fireside barely higher than that, however had been additionally restricted by the inefficiency of their weapons. 

The picture one generally encounters in movie and fiction of a Napoleonic-era soldier biting open a paper cartridge and holding a ball in his mouth earlier than pouring within the powder and spitting it down the barrel might be inaccurate. After firing just some rounds, the muzzle of the musket was scorching sufficient to blister pores and skin on contact.

Accuracy with these weapons was notable for its virtually full absence. When it got here to infantry firepower, all Napoleonic armies pressured amount over high quality—that’s, as a lot massed fireplace as attainable.

This was the place self-discipline got here into play. To maximise the impact of musketry, it was crucial for infantry to face agency and wait till the enemy superior perilously shut earlier than unleashing the important first volley. In 1814, the famous British ordnance skilled Maj. George Hanger wrote, “A soldier’s musket, if not exceedingly ill-bored (as many are), will strike a determine of a person at 80 yards; it could even at 100; however a soldier have to be very unlucky certainly who shall be wounded by a typical musket at 150 yards, offering his antagonist goals at him; and as to firing at a person at 200 yards with a typical musket, it’s possible you’ll as nicely fireplace on the moon and have the identical hope of hitting him.”

Hanger was an absolute realist about the usual musket’s issues with accuracy.

“I do keep and can show,” he wrote, “that no man was ever killed at 200 yards, by a typical musket, by the one who aimed toward him.”

Marksmanship doctrine of the day may very well be summed up merely: degree your piece within the common course of the enemy’s ranks, let fly, and hope for the perfect.

Wild Firing And Skirmishing

There have been just a few exceptions. The riflemen of the British Military’s ninety fifth Rifles had been persistently in a position to hit targets out to a lot higher ranges as the results of each higher coaching and their specialised weapon, the Baker rifle. Other than the plain benefit of getting a rifled bore, the Baker additionally benefited from utilizing spherical, leather-patched ball ammunition that match tightly within the barrel to offer the ball a ballistic spin when fired. This higher accuracy got here at the price of a decrease price of fireside—the Baker rifle took significantly longer to reload than a standard-issue smooth-bore musket. Thus rifle corporations normally crammed the skirmisher function. 

The Baker rifle had a bladed sword bayonet, however the British Brown Bess and the French Charleville muskets used socket bayonets when closing with the enemy battle line. Mass firing by opposing forces ranks was merely a prelude to the bayonet assault.

Firing volleys was to melt up one’s opponent. This remained the usual infantry assault tactic till the American Civil Warfare when the brand new, rifled musket primarily decreased the bayonet to a “cooking utensil.”

Troops are proven engaged in heavy preventing throughout the 1809 Battle of Ratisbon, often known as the Battle of Regensburg. Dense smoke clouds from muskets and artillery fireplace impeded the imaginative and prescient of troopers in fight and will trigger confusion.
(Château de Versailles)

This decreased price of fireside sarcastically prompted Napoleon Bonaparte to determine towards issuing rifled muskets to the voltigeurs, the sunshine skirmishers of the French military—a call which put them at a substantial drawback after they confronted British riflemen. One other issue within the French choice to arm all infantry with commonplace muskets could have been a want to retain a measure of flexibility of their fight function.

All French infantry skilled as skirmishers. Below French doctrine, a battalion of standard infantry was anticipated to have the ability to deploy as skirmishers on command, then regroup right into a column or line of battle because the tactical state of affairs required. As one historian notes, “solely the French can lay declare to the common employment of their line infantry as skirmishers.”

Relying on the military wherein they served, common infantry within the line and grenadier regiments of the Napoleonic Wars had been armed with the British Land Sample Tower musket (the well-known Brown Bess), or the French Mannequin 1777 musket, the New Prussian Mannequin 1809, or the Austrian Mannequin 1798. Accuracy was not an possibility for any of those weapons. There have been no aiming sights to talk of— only a small rectangular bayonet lug on high of the barrel close to the muzzle which served as a primitive entrance sight.

Not like the Baker rifle, commonplace infantry muskets had been loaded with balls that had been free within the barrel and which might rattle round if not rammed down with wadding (the paper “cartridge” containing free powder and the musket ball).

How British Coaching Foiled the French

Ammunition was the opposite integral a part of the weapons system. A soldier may have the best firearm ever designed, however as soon as he ran out of ammunition it was little higher than a membership or a spear with the bayonet. The quantity of ammunition troopers carried diverse significantly relying on the military and the soldier’s particular person function, however these small, deadly cartridges of gunpowder and lead had been essential to his capability to face and battle. It doesn’t matter what else a soldier would possibly throw away to lighten his load, the essential load of ammunition was not casually discarded. Skirmishers, working independently, usually used ammunition at a sooner price than battalions firing in command volleys.

For armies of the Napoleonic Wars, particular person rounds of ammunition had been issued in cartridge kind, product of paper (robust, however not waterproof) which contained a lead ball and about 150 grains of free black powder. The standard of the powder diverse vastly, relying on the producer. Within the ninety fifth Rifles, the place particular person marksmanship mattered as an expert ability, troopers used the next grade of powder for his or her rifles. Once they needed to accept inferior shares of standard-issue gunpowder, they floor down the grains to a finer pressure themselves as a way to enhance the ballistic efficiency of their pictures.

Different expertise had been important to a soldier of that period, and most required extra than simply the bodily conditioning of route marching or the repetition of parade-ground drilling. The achievement of the infantry’s function because the sharp finish of the military’s spear all the time got here all the way down to the person soldier’s ability in musketry—in different phrases, his capability to place rounds downrange as quickly as attainable, normally whereas below fireplace.

Marksmanship coaching, as rudimentary because it was, obtained lesser or higher emphasis in numerous armies and generally got here perilously near being uncared for altogether. When the marching stopped and the preventing began, musketry was all the time the infantry’s important technical ability.

Resilience, self-discipline, and braveness may make all of the distinction within the battle.

A capability to face agency whereas torn by the enemy’s fireplace, ready for the essential second, generally with out having the ability to return fireplace, was the issue that decided the result on battlefields from Austerlitz to Salamanca.

The British fielded what had been in all probability the best-trained infantry formations of their day, at the least by way of their battle drill in musketry. Forming double strains of squaddies firing in alternating volleys gave them an enormous benefit within the quantity of firepower they might convey to bear throughout their linear entrance. To attain this in battle, the British drilled their infantry regiments with a single-minded depth.

Crammed Columns, Poor Visibility

All armies of the day used a number of ranks of alternating fireplace of their linear formations, however what made British musketry so efficient was the truth that British infantry fired stay ball ammunition in coaching. Remarkably, few different armies of that period did so. Which will have had one thing to do with financial realities—“a single spherical,” as one historian notes, “value at the moment virtually as a lot as meals for a full day…”

Different armies acknowledged the fight worth of British coaching however couldn’t hope to equal it. The Prussians, recognized for having a first-rate military in most respects, “identified that their very own troops, even in three-deep strains, didn’t have the self-discipline, coaching and particular person stability to carry such formations and didn’t attempt to use them.” 

In distinction, the French military normally superior its infantry in massed columns, bringing the bodily drive of the columns to bear on an enemy’s static place which was seldom as deep, entrance to again. Napoleon used a “mixed arms” method—infantry and artillery—with the infantry advancing in highly effective columns after which gentle artillery items introduced as much as actually blast holes within the enemy line. Infantry advancing in line had been extra apt to be thrown into dysfunction by terrain or obstacles, notably in the event that they had been inexperienced or poorly skilled. 

French portrayal, circa 1850, of the grim actuality of life on the march for Napoleon and his males crossing the Alps.
(Walker Artwork Gallery, Liverpool)

For French brigades, advancing in column was usually merely the best choice. Gen. Antoine-Henri Jomini, drawing on a wealth of expertise in his observations, as soon as remarked, “The French, notably, have by no means been in a position to march steadily in deployed strains,” so the column was the usual formation within the assault. It was the precept of the battering ram towards the wall. As a tactic it labored for the French repeatedly towards armies throughout Europe. 

It didn’t all the time work nicely towards the fearsome musketry of well-led British infantry. In battle after battle within the Peninsular Warfare, the British demonstrated {that a} broad entrance of extremely skilled, well-disciplined squaddies standing their floor whereas firing one crashing volley after one other in fast succession virtually all the time trumped the extra visually intimidating bulk of a brigade in column.

Sustained infantry fight was exhausting on each males and weapons. The nameless British narrator from the 71st Regiment, remembering the savage preventing at Fuentes de Oñoro in 1811 within the Peninsular Warfare, mentioned that by the point that day’s battle was ended, “My shoulder was as black as coal, from the recoil of my musket…”. He had fired 107 rounds of ball cartridge that day—practically all of the ammunition he had. French troopers additionally discovered the expertise of toe-to-toe infantry fight exhausting.

Jean-Roch Coignet, preventing the Austrians in 1800, later wrote, “Their columns had been continually strengthened; nobody got here to our assist. Our musket-barrels had been so scorching that it grew to become unimaginable to load for worry of igniting the cartridges. There was nothing for it however to piss into the barrels to chill them, after which to dry them by pouring in free powder and setting it alight unrammed.”

Nineteenth century infantry battle was a relatively short-range affair, besides a person soldier’s view of the battle was usually restricted. Multiple soldier commented that, within the hottest a part of the brawl, dense clouds of white smoke made all of it however unimaginable for squaddies to see forward or close by. Seeing motion throughout the sphere was even much less seemingly. 

As a British veteran wrote in his account of the preventing at Waterloo, “The noise and smoke had been dreadful. At the moment I may see however a little or no method from me, however throughout the wounded and slain lay very thick.” 

Harris described a lot the identical expertise. “I personally was very quickly so hotly engaged,” he wrote, “loading and firing away, enveloped within the smoke that I created, and the cloud which hung about me from the continued fireplace of my comrades that I may see nothing for a couple of minutes however the pink flash of my very own piece amongst the white vapour clinging to my very garments…” A soldier’s world narrowed round him in these situations. “Till some pleasant breeze of wind clears the house round,” he wrote, “a soldier is aware of no extra of his place and what’s about to occur to his entrance, or what has occurred (even amongst his personal comrades) than the very useless mendacity round.” 

The Proof At Waterloo

The Battle of Waterloo was a ferocious take a look at of army self-discipline for the British troopers holding their positions. French cannon fireplace ripped bloody swaths by their ranks. Time and time once more the British regulars obeyed the orders of their officers and NCOs to shut the gaps over the our bodies of their fallen comrades. They needed to stand quick, firing volley after volley into the French that got here up towards them, sustaining the massed formations that had been essential to beat back the French cavalry that repeatedly tried and failed to interrupt their squares. Because the day wore on and their casualties mounted, even that iron self-discipline started to waver. 

Infantry in sq. introduced splendid targets for artillery, and each time the French cavalry fell again, the supporting French batteries blasted killing sweeps of spherical shot (and canister, when the vary was brief sufficient) by the British formations. Had it not been for Wellington’s reverse-slope place sheltering his infantry from the worst results of the French gunnery, it’s honest to surprise if the British infantry may have held their floor below such sustained, direct artillery fireplace.

Scottish battle hero Cornet Charles Ewart is proven capturing a French commonplace throughout the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The battle, a fierce take a look at of British troops’ self-discipline, was considered by hardened battle veterans as certainly one of their hardest fights.
(Nationwide Military Museum, London)

The British capability to face agency owed to self-discipline and private management. Thomas Morris, who fought at Waterloo with the 73rd Regiment, described a second the place an officer’s private instance was the very important antidote to the worry spreading by his regiment. 

“As soon as, and solely as soon as, throughout the dreadful carnage at Waterloo,” Morris wrote, “did the strict Seventy-Third hesitate to replenish a niche which the relentless iron had torn of their sq.; their Lieut.-Colonel (Brevet Colonel Harris) without delay pushing his horse lengthwise throughout the house, mentioned with a smile, ‘Properly, my lads, in case you received’t, I have to;’ it’s virtually useless so as to add that instantly he was led again to his correct place, and the ranks closed up by males nonetheless extra devoted than earlier than.”

Wellington famously remarked that Waterloo was “the closest run factor you ever noticed in your life.” He was not a person given to exaggeration or hyperbole. Even a number of the hardened veterans within the British ranks thought it was one of many hardest fights that they had seen. Morris wrote that his sergeant-major was “a courageous soldier, and had been by the entire of the engagements within the Peninsula,” however Waterloo proved past even his appreciable expertise.

Within the worst a part of the day at Waterloo, as casualties mounted and the British ranks had been being torn aside, the sergeant-major instructed his colonel, “We had nothing like this in Spain, sir.” The sergeant main was deathly pale when he mentioned it, and his use of profanity elevated because the battle went on in a positive signal of his stress.

All these components—exhausting marching in impractical uniforms, cumbersome weapons and repetitious drill, in addition to the chaos and carnage of battle—comprised an infantryman’s life throughout the 12-year span of the Napoleonic Wars. Whether or not preventing for the British, French, or any of the opposite nations that made up the shifting alliances of the day, troopers of all armies on battlefields from Spain to Russia shared the identical grim view from the infantry’s ranks.

this text first appeared in army historical past quarterly

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