Sickness, Suffering, and the Sword: The British Regiment on Campaign, 1808-1815

Sickness, Suffering, and the Sword: The British Regiment on Campaign, 1808-1815


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Although an army’s success is often measured in battle outcomes, its victories depend on strengths that may be less obvious on the field. In Sickness, Suffering, and the Sword, military historian Andrew Bamford assesses the effectiveness of the British Army in sustained campaigning during the Napoleonic Wars. In the process, he offers a fresh and controversial look at Britain’s military system, showing that success or failure on campaign rested on the day-to-day experiences of regimental units rather than the army as a whole.

Bamford draws his title from the words of Captain Moyle Sherer, who during the winter of 1816–1817 wrote an account of his service during the Peninsular War: “My regiment has never been very roughly handled in the field. . . But, alas! What between sickness, suffering, and the sword, few, very few of those men are now in existence.” Bamford argues that those daily scourges of such often-ignored factors as noncombat deaths and equine strength and losses determined outcomes on the battlefield.

In the nineteenth century, the British Army was a collection of regiments rather than a single unified body, and the regimental system bore the responsibility of supplying manpower on that field. Between 1808 and 1815, when Britain was fighting a global conflict far greater than its military capabilities, the system nearly collapsed. Only a few advantages narrowly outweighed the army’s increasing inability to meet manpower requirements. This book examines those critical dynamics in Britain’s major early-nineteenth-century campaigns: the Peninsular War (1808–1814), the Walcheren Expedition (1809), the American War (1812–1815), and the growing commitments in northern Europe from 1813 on.

Drawn from primary documents, Bamford’s statistical analysis compares the vast disparities between regiments and different theatres of war and complements recent studies of health and sickness in the British Army.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806143439
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 05/22/2013
Series: Campaigns and Commanders Series , #37
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Andrew Bamford is a freelance historian and writer.

Military historian Donald E. Graves is the author of several books, including most recently Dragon Rampant: The Royal Welch Fusiliers at War, 1793–1815.

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Sickness, Suffering, and the Sword

The British Regiment on Campaign, 1808â"1815

By Andrew Bamford


Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8932-1


The British Army and Its Campaigns

The British Army of 1808, despite having undergone an extensive program of reform over the previous decade, was still very much a mixture of the old and the new. Thanks to the measures instituted under the aegis of the Duke of York following his appointment as commander in chief in 1795, the British Army was a far more professional body than heretofore. During this thirteen-year period, its command structure, both military and civil, was reorganized, leading to the concentration of responsibility into a relatively small number of posts. This restructuring enabled Viscount Castlereagh, then occupying the senior civil post of secretary of state for war and the colonies, to complement York's military reforms with a shake-up of the way in which the British Army was recruited and its manpower systems organized. It was the resulting increase in manpower available for active service, at the expense of reducing the numbers of men assigned to home defense, that enabled Britain to mount the campaigns covered by this work.

Yet although York could influence how a regiment was trained and led, and although Castlereagh's reforms gave it better access to fresh manpower, the regiment nevertheless remained a decidedly independent entity. In theory at least, a great deal remained in the hands of the regimental colonels, who, position notwithstanding, tended to be fairly senior general officers. On a more day-to-day level, much depended on the seniority and reputation of a regiment, on the character and experience of the field officers commanding it, on its station and service, and on its success or otherwise in attracting recruits. But whilst this book is ultimately about successes and failures at a regimental level, that focus would make little sense without an understanding of how the higher levels of command functioned. Such an overview is all the more essential since it also serves to place the statistical sources used in this study in their historical context. The modern historian may have the advantage of software-aided analysis, but the returns and reports that underpin the conclusions presented in this work were just as keenly pursued at the time, at all levels of the military and civil hierarchy, and, at least when the system was working efficiently, decisions of strategic import were taken as a result.

Indeed, one could even go so far as to assert that strategy was at times directly dictated by the rise and fall of the totals at the bottom of every column of every return. In 1809, for example, Britain found that it simply did not have the manpower available to mount successful campaigns in two different theaters of war, whilst in 1814 there were three different theaters competing for a decidedly finite pool of resources. It then, of course, fell to the government to decide on its priorities, and for the staff at Horse Guards to allocate manpower accordingly. The same was true on an operational level. Not only did the availability of manpower dictate the course of events on a local scale, determining whether troops could be spared to reinforce a garrison here, or to mount an expedition there, but also in a larger sense, regulating whether or not a force could operate in a particular area at all. During the winter of 1809–10, for example, Wellington was torn between political demands that called him to maintain his army on Spanish soil, and the practicalities of the fact that the soil in question was the malarial marshes of the Guadiana valley around Badajoz. In the end, the practical outweighed the political, and he was compelled to make a substantial redeployment of his troops for the simple reason that many of them would otherwise have succumbed to illness. Without an understanding of the course of the campaigns, therefore, one cannot fully appreciate the nature of the demands that they placed on Britain's military systems; without an understanding of those systems, it is impossible to fully appreciate why these same campaigns took the form that they did.

Military Organization: The High Command

The professional head of the British Army was the commander in chief, who was always London-based in this period although the Duke of York had taken the field in the Netherlands in 1799 and entertained some hopes of doing so again when it was first mooted to send an army to Portugal. York, who had first been appointed to the post in 1795, remained in it until forced to resign in March 1809, as a result of the Mary-Ann Clarke scandal, in which his former mistress was implicated in alleged corruption relative to taking payments in return for using her influence with the Duke. General Sir David Dundas filled the post for the next two years until York, his reputation rehabilitated, was able to return in June 1811, serving thereafter until his death in 1827. The other two senior home-based staff appointments were those of adjutant general, filled throughout this period by Lt. General Sir Harry Calvert, and quartermaster general, held by Lt. General Sir Robert Brownrigg until 1811, and by Lt. General Sir James Willoughby Gordon thereafter. The latter post was concerned with arranging the movements and postings of regiments, whereas the former dealt primarily with matters of drill and discipline. Additionally, York raised the profile of the military secretary, previously a civilian post, by appointing Gordon to the role in 1809 to shoulder a portion of the commander in chief's administrative tasks, replacing him with Colonel Henry Torrens when Gordon stepped up to become quartermaster general.

On the civil side—although the military-civil distinction was blurred by the appointment of serving officers to some civil posts—the major roles were those of the secretary at war, responsible for financial matters, and the secretary of state for war and the colonies, a senior Cabinet minister with overall responsibility for coordinating the war effort. The former post was successively held by General Sir James Murray-Pulteney, Lord Granville Leveson-Gower, and Viscount Palmerston; the latter by Viscount Castlereagh until September 1809, then by Lord Liverpool until his becoming prime minister in June 1812, and finally by the Earl of Bathurst until after the peace. Also worth mentioning at this juncture, since his name repeatedly crops up in correspondence throughout the period, is Colonel Henry Bunbury, an experienced staff officer and wouldbe strategist who served as undersecretary of state for war and the colonies—that is to say, the junior minister assisting the secretary of state—from November 1809. Finally, the roles of head of the ordnance services and de facto in-house military advisor to the Cabinet were combined in the office of master general of the ordnance, which was filled by Lt. General the Earl of Chatham until 1810, and by General the Earl of Mulgrave thereafter.

The resulting system was complex, with the civil element at times duplicating military functions: something that can be seen as stemming, at least in part, from deep-seated fears of military absolutism dating back to the seventeenth century. Most strikingly, the secretary of state for war and the colonies had considerable control—albeit by indirect means—over matters that for all intents and purposes were purely military issues. Bathurst in particular elected at times to meddle in matters that did not, by rights, lie within the remit of his office. Yet, despite its unnecessary complexities, the system did work effectively enough when put to the test, but the relationships between the various posts need to be understood correctly if the successes and failures of the period are to be understood and a degree of credit and blame apportioned. The key point to be grasped is the comparatively subordinate nature of the commander in chief and his staff, who were, in effect, there merely to put into practice the military policies decided upon by the Cabinet. That body relied on the master general and the secretary of state for military advice, supplemented, where necessary, by input from the first lord of the admiralty, the foreign secretary, and the prime minister himself. In practice, however, as well as the always-possible wild card of royal intervention, the commander in chief could exercise a considerable amount of restraint on the government, with York successfully quashing proposals for a descent on Boulogne in 1808 by making it clear that the troops required were simply not available.

It was for this reason that the maintaining of an up-to-date appreciation of the strength and fitness of the various regiments and battalions became a matter of vital importance, and, by keeping himself up to date, the commander in chief was far more effectively positioned to turn the demands of government into practical military operations. A prime example of military statistics being used to this end is in the exhaustive scouring of manpower to put together the Walcheren expedition of 1809, for which Dundas was quickly able to call upon a detailed and accurate account of the state of the troops then in Britain. Conversely, as we shall see with regard to the years 1813 and 1814 in particular, misunderstanding or misinterpreting the information contained in these returns could lead to troops being sent overseas in a manifestly unfit state. The equal significance of these reports, states, and returns for a commander in the field are obvious. Wellington utilized them to keep an extremely close account of the state of his forces in the peninsula, and used Warren Peacocke, commandant at Lisbon, to carry out additional inspections of newly arrived units so as to instantly gauge their fitness.

Commanders needed to know two primary things about any given unit—its strength and its quality. The first was in many ways the most important—not least because it provided a partial answer to the second—and each regiment, battalion, or detachment on active service was required to provide a complete return once a month. Until June 1809 this return was to be completed on the first of the month, but this was then changed to the 25th. From that date, the regulations required these returns to show "[T]he exact state of the Corps, in which every Officer, Non-commissioned Officer, and Private Soldier, belonging to the Corps, is to be accounted for.... The casualties which have occurred from the 25th day of each Month to the 24th day of the Month following, both days inclusive, must be accurately inserted in the respective Columns." Although the regulations went on to state that copies of this return be sent to the "General Officer under whose Command the Regiments may be serving," as well as to the adjutant general back in London, the latter practice does not seem to have been much followed; certainly, few examples have survived to be incorporated into the National Archives. However, barring the need for occasional reminders to jar recalcitrant units into getting their paperwork in, and some confusion in the case of detached commands, such as Cadiz, as to which general officer the returns should be sent to, theater commanders seem to have generally been able to obtain regular monthly returns for units under their command. This was of course vital for their own understanding of their forces, but also necessary in that it gave them the data to provide, as they were required by regulation to do "A Return, as soon as it can be made up after the 25th of each month, of the Troops, and of the General and Staff Officers employed at each Station." This return was to be sent not only to the adjutant general but also to the secretary of state for war and the colonies and to the secretary at war, although the copy for the adjutant general required, in addition, details of all regimental officers present and absent.

The exact manner in which these returns were made out differed from theater to theater, and their format also changed over time with, for example, an initial distinction made between those ill but still present with their unit, and those in hospital, later being replaced by a single total of the unit's sick. At no point, it should be stressed, was any distinction made between the ill and the wounded—all came under the heading of "Sick." Another innovation, first seen in June 1810, was the listing of men sent home, alongside those lost through death or desertions, whilst Canadian-raised units serving in that country, being able to send men on leave, made considerable use of the "Furlough" column that was, necessarily, generally left blank in returns from other theaters. The main columns, however, which remain constant throughout and which have been the most heavily used in the preparation of this work, are those giving the rank-and-file strength of each unit, broken down into "Effective," "Sick," and "On Command," plus the running totals of deaths and desertions; for mounted units, or those employing draught animals, the total number of horses and the number dead since the last return must also be added. The meaning of these various headings should be self-explanatory, with the exception of "On Command," which may be best understood as a catchall term for men actively employed in the service but away from their parent unit. In practice, this category could variously encompass anything from a handful of men overseeing some small task under the supervision of an NCO to several companies detached on an expedition, as well as most things in between. With such a level of detail, one can glean a great deal as to the effectiveness of the unit in question from these returns, including the general state of its health and, if stationed at home, the progress of its recruiting. It is data from these returns, their coverage detailed in appendix 1, that form the statistical backbone of this study.

Nevertheless, it is apparent now as it was then that only so much could be gleaned from statistical data alone. Accordingly, the General Regulations for the British Army also contained the requirement that all units, at home or overseas, be subjected to a biannual inspection by a general officer. In theory, these inspections were to take place in May and October, although the dictates of active service meant that the latter was frequently delayed until the end of active campaigning. At home or on active service, an inspection was an occasion of some importance, and even those memoirs that otherwise touch little on military matters tend to mention them in some detail. One can imagine that the preparations, no doubt entailing much cleaning and polishing, and punctuated by the curses of harassed adjutants and angry sergeants, made quite an impression on those concerned. John Green remarked in his account of life in the ranks of the 68th that when the battalion was due to be inspected whilst still on home service, the extra drills required to perfect the battalion's evolutions began some three weeks before the appointed day. The day itself was also evidently a lengthy one; the men of the 2/34th were under arms from five in the morning for their inspection by Brigadier General Catlin Craufurd at Lisbon in 1809, although this may well have represented an unusually early start due to the need to complete proceedings before the hottest hours of the day.


Excerpted from Sickness, Suffering, and the Sword by Andrew Bamford. Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

List of Tables viii

Foreword Donald E. Graves ix

Preface and Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction xvii

List of Abbreviations xxiii

1 The British Army and Its Campaigns 3

2 Regimental Identity and Leadership 44

3 The Regimental System in Practice 86

4 The Limits of the System 127

5 Beyond the Regiment 177

6 Strategic Consumption 217

7 Beasts of Burden 260

Conclusion: A System Reassessed 286

Appendix 1 Details of Data Sample 303

Appendix 2 Men Returned as Sick after the Corunna Campaign 305

Appendix 3 Sample of Returned Deserters in the Peninsula 307

Notes 309

Bibliography 337

Index 349

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