The Legend is Born

Although many individual Rifle veterans remained in obscurity, or indeed poverty, the regiment was to make a dramatic mark. As Simmons and Fairfoot aged in the role of lowly regimental officer, other veterans of the 1st/95th were scaling the heights of the Army. Sidney Beckwith, Andrew Barnard and Harry Smith all became generals. In fact, among those officers who sailed with the battalion in May 1809 and survived the wars, there were to be seven generals, although some, like Alexander Cameron, achieved the rank through seniority but did not serve actively in it. The 43rd and 52nd similarly produced many of the generals who would command Queen Victoria’s armies in India and elsewhere in the Empire; the three regiments of the old Light Division in aggregate provided the backbone of the Army’s staff throughout the mid-nineteenth century.

With the promotion of so many ex-Light Division officers into senior positions, the survival of the special Peninsular system of fighting and discipline was assured. The success of the tactics developed at Shorncliffe and then used to devastating effect in Iberia was enshrined in the issue of a new drill manual for the entire Army in 1824.

Major General Sir Henry Torrens’s book Field Exercise and Evolutions of the Army finally laid the 1792 Rules and Regulations to rest. Torrens extended the subtle skirmishing used by the Light Division to the Army as a whole, stipulating that a battalion in line could space its men, ‘at any distance, either by single or double files’. This gave official sanction to the breakdown of the old linear tactics (which had in fact been comprehensively subverted in the Peninsula) in which the deployment of a compact, regulated line was deemed vital. Torrens also gave instructions on skirmishing that could be traced directly back through the 95th’s training manuals, such as Sergeant Weddeburne’s, to the original rules for riflemen published in 1798. In the pivoting of companies or the formation of squares, the light-infantry drills also became the order of the day.

If the Torrens rules contained a powerful dose of Light Division tactics, then it cannot be said that these new principles triumphed unchallenged. Quite a few officers emerged from the Napoleonic wars with the conviction that the bayonet was the key to success. This, after all, had seemed to be the lesson of Waterloo. To many observers, particularly those who had not been present at Wellington’s battles, the image of the impassive British line awaiting the shouting French, giving them the close-range volley and then the bayonet, seemed like the expression of a stoic national character, and this was an age in which such notions were extremely powerful.

A heated debate got under way about whether this blade was the arbiter of the battlefield. Lieutenant Colonel John Mitchell, a veteran of the Peninsular War, scorned what he saw as a myth, that the redcoats had charged across the fields of Spain impaling their enemies:

The bayonet may, in truth, be termed the grand mystifier of modern tactics … that in some scrambling attack of works or villages, a soldier may have been killed or wounded with a bayonet is possible; but to suppose that soldiers ever rushed into close combat, armed only with bayonets, is an absurdity; it never happened and can never happen.

Mitchell’s point was that an attack delivered in this way rarely connected with the enemy – either it faltered, or it resulted in that foe running away before they were skewered. The colonel argued that in every French attempt to break through the British line, Wellington’s men had galled them with long-range skirmisher fire before delivering a thumping close-range volley, which meant the enemy ‘halted in order to fire … and got into confusion’.

French theorists drew the opposite lesson from these contests, and developed a preoccupation with delivering an unstoppable bayonet charge. The musings of French generals on this subject led to the final obscenity of sending men on bayonet attacks in the First World War without any ammunition, so that they would be unable to halt and return fire, having no choice but to continue their onward rush or die where they stood. Colonel Mitchell would have had none of this nonsense, believing that attempts to charge were far too unpredictable in their consequences, and that instead, while some improvements in marksmanship had been made, the infantry as a whole needed to reach a much higher standard in it.

There were quite a few officers who took issue with Mitchell’s thesis in the columns of the United Service Journal. The intensity of military conservatism and the vehemence of some of the arguments can be judged by this passage:

It is discipline, which is nothing but each man, shoulder-to-shoulder, depending upon a whole, instead of himself alone, that has raised our ragamuffins to an equality … with more able bodied individuals; and it is this that has enabled civilised nations, with their very scum, first reduced to order and mechanical obedience, to overcome and conquer the boldest, bravest, and most athletic barbarians that ever dwelt on the face of the earth [the French].

The author of this vitriol, who signed himself only as W.D.B., added, ‘Each soldier is, comparatively speaking, but a sixpenny knife: therefore to make the soldier of infantry depend upon himself is the destruction, the pulling to pieces of the machine.’

W. D. B.’ s attitude, with its emphasis on rigid linear tactics and contempt for the ordinary soldier, flew in the face of everything the Rifles had demonstrated in their campaigns. It was hardly surprising, then, that John Kincaid was one of the Rifles officers who joined these debates in the Journal, giving Colonel Mitchell some supporting fire. The veterans of the old 95th would do much in their writings to try to give the lie to such repugnant ideas.

Jonathan Leach, never one to mince words, wrote, ‘Our corps gained the reputation, which it wrung from friends and foes, not by aping the drill of grenadiers, but by its activity and intelligence at the outposts; by being able to cope with, in all situations, the most experienced and best trained light troops which the continent of Europe could produce; and by the deadly application of the rifle in action.’ Holding up to scorn the image of the grenadier, like some clockwork automaton, Leach insisted that the rifleman was a universal soldier able to undertake all duties from skirmishing behind rocks to standing in the firing line or storming a fortress like Ciudad Rodrigo or Badajoz – the business reserved for those parade-ground soldiers in the eighteenth-century conception of warfare. In such bloody storms, Leach boasted, the 95th ‘proved itself equally efficient in the form of grenadiers’.

Wellington managed to synthesise the opposed views expressed in these debates. He did indeed appreciate the value of well-trained riflemen as well as light infantry, although he sought to differentiate these special troops from the common or garden line. As far as those regiments were concerned, the Iron Duke readily accepted that the British recruit was ‘scum’ who had to be kept in his place by fierce discipline.

The 95th’s officers considered these questions during their later years with humanity and realism. The rifleman was not some component in a machine, let alone a ‘sixpenny knife’, but a man who had to be motivated, praised, even kept amused. They gave much thought to the psychology of battle, Kincaid for example arguing that skirmishing soldiers needed to be kept moving in order to stop them dwelling on the dangers they faced under fire. In this way it was actually easier to fight in skirmish order, since the men did not have that sickening feeling of powerlessness that came from standing in packed ranks while enemy gunners knocked over your comrades with roundshot.

Distinctions between different types of soldiers, of the kind Wellington and many other senior officers believed in, were an important part of military psychology before the Peninsular campaigns and were to prove so again after them, but while the regiments were fighting hard against a shared enemy it was apparent that the different categories had rather more in common than was supposed. Before the Peninsula, many of the 95th’s enthusiasts had believed that the regiment would only be really effective when firing at long range – even over 250 yards. There had been concern that the rifleman’s slower rate of fire might make him unable to defend himself in a close-range fight.

In battle, though, the rifleman was rarely able to engage targets at very long range. On one of the occasions when he did, the action at Arcangues in December 1813, the 43rd with its smooth-bore light-infantry muskets joined in the fusillade at some enemy artillery 350 to 400 yards away with equal effect. At Barba del Puerco, early in 1810, the Rifles had shown themselves able to stand against greatly superior numbers in a close-range fight – circumstances which the pre-war orthodoxies suggested would spell deep trouble for them.

Similarly, the use of a great proportion of a regiment, sometimes the entire corps, in extended or skirmish order, might before the wars have been regarded as the preserve of the 95th, but these tactics were practised so successfully by the other regiments of the Light Division that they were spread to the entire infantry in Torrens’s 1824 regulations. The rifleman’s mission of picking off leaders – which proved highly effective in the campaigns against the French – was clearly not invented by the 95th, and had also spread pretty extensively through the Army by the end of the Peninsular War.

Because of the constant cross-fertilisation between Light Division corps like the 43rd and 95th, many issues in the emergence of light-infantry tactics became blurred. Many could claim paternity of the Light Division’s success: Colonel Rottenburg for laying out the original ideas on skirmishing; Colonels Stewart and Manningham for founding the 95th and inculcating new ideas on discipline and promotion; Colonel Kenneth MacKenzie of the 52nd and General Sir John Moore for spreading those to the red-coated 43rd and 52nd while developing new drills for them too; Craufurd for his emphasis on vigilance in the outposts as well as his scheme of marching; Colonel Beckwith of the Rifles for being the most successful tactical commander of the Light Division and providing his superb model of leadership at Sabugal; Barnard for maintaining this high standard of command during years when much of the battalion was sick of fighting and longed for peace. In the years after the wars, partisans for Moore and Craufurd in particular would claim one or other to have been the key architect, but no single figure can be given all the glory.

Although there was much gradual evolution and cribbing of others’ ideas in the way that a recognisably modern British soldier emerged from Wellington’s campaigns, it is worth recording that certain honours must be reserved for the 95th. Their uniqueness derived from several factors. The emphasis on marksmanship training or skill at arms made them the Army’s best shots and showed the future shape of warfare in engagements such as Sabugal or Tarbes, demonstrating that firepower would prevail over mass. Their dark clothes, emphasis on using cover while skirmishing and on concealment in their observation positions were novel and, as an unwanted by-product, often resulted (for example at the Coa, Ciudad Rodrigo and Vitoria) in the thoroughly modern phenomenon of the 95th being accidentally engaged by its own side. And although credit can be given to the 5th/60th Rifles for many innovations, this mercenary battalion was almost always split in penny packets and therefore unable to demonstrate, as the 95th did, the power of riflemen en masse. In deploying whole battalions of these special troops (or even eighteen companies together, at Tarbes), the 95th was able to show that even powerful fortifications such as the French works in the Pyrenees did not require the old linear tactics, but could be taken by skirmishers in a frontal assault.

The 95th’s French opponents were often confused about which regiment was aiming such deadly fire at them. But they ended the Peninsular War convinced that the British were the ‘best marksmen in Europe’. During the Revolutionary wars, the French had pioneered the mass use of skirmishers and attempted, with their poor marksmanship, to decapitate the enemy by killing his officers. This tactic was turned back on them to devastating effect by British riflemen in the Peninsula, Marshal Soult complaining in 1813, ‘This way of making war and harming the enemy is most disadvantageous to us.’ Those British officers who had come through the wars and wanted to advocate this form of warfare had no access to the French Army’s internal records of officer casualties. If they had, they would have seen that rifle fire stripped out the French regimental officers at Busaco, Sabugal and the Bridge of Vera, paralysing their forces.

Many of these notions about what made the 95th special have been formed with the benefit of two centuries’ hindsight. In the decades after Wellington’s campaigns, professional debates, particularly about the bayonet, raged over the port at the United Service Club and in the pages of its Journal. It was hardly surprising that a wider national interest in these battles and in the exploits of one or two regiments in particular should arise. The public thirst for knowledge about these subjects focused not on dry technical stuff about floating pivots or marksmanship training but on the place of the wars in British history and experience.

In 1828, William Napier began publishing his History of the War in the Peninsula and in the South of France – a six-volume series that he only completed in 1840. As a veteran of the 43rd Light Infantry, it was inevitable that Napier would have much to say about the Light Division’s fights. But he had even more to say about the character his troops had shown in action. He wrote of the British infantryman: ‘The whole world cannot produce a nobler specimen of military bearing.’ Napier managed to turn the epic fights into a page-turner, and the prejudices exhibited in his prose simply enhanced its appeal. In places, he was unashamedly populist: ‘Napoleon’s troops fought in bright fields where every helmet caught some beams of glory, but the British soldier conquered under the cold shade of aristocracy; no honours awaited his daring; no dispatch gave his name to the applauses of his countrymen, his life of danger and hardship was uncheered by hope, his death unnoticed.’

Fired up by such eulogies, the public would want to hear more from these unsung heroes. Memoirs had started appearing, and many extolled the valour of the Rifles. Major Blakiston’s, for example, published in 1829, noted, ‘I never saw such skirmishers as the 95th.’

The stage was set for the Rifles to tell their own story. John Kincaid led off in 1830 with Adventures in the Rifle Brigade. While many such books had a print run of only two or three hundred copies, Kincaid’s is thought to have been double or treble this figure. Not to be outdone, in 1831, Jonathan Leach, the only officer of the 1st Battalion to have gone uninjured all the way through the events of 1809–14, followed with his Rough Sketches. The books sold out almost immediately. Kincaid followed up with Random Shots from a Rifleman in 1835. In 1838 the publishers issued a second edition of Kincaid’s Adventures and Leach wrote three more books.

Kincaid and Leach adopted a similar style: laconic, picaresque, heroic in an understated way. Consciously or not, they pandered to their public and its preconceptions about the British character in adversity. They are stirring accounts and the evergreen nature of their appeal is such that it is easy to buy reprints even today. Their philosophy of soldiering neatly dovetailed with the requirements of the market; there were many anecdotes about officers and ordinary riflemen. While avoiding any personal trumpet-blowing of the kind favoured by French diarists, they did not refrain from hyperbole in describing the feats of Wellington’s Army in general or the Light Division in particular. One wrote that ‘there, perhaps, never was, nor ever again will be, such a war brigade’.

In the Kincaid and Leach accounts there was hardly a mention of the flogging that punctuated their marches, and none at all of incidents such as the resignation of the cowardly Lieutenant Bell after Badajoz or the flight of a hundred or so men at the battle of Waterloo. Some other indiscretions, such as the large-scale larceny on the campaigns or the bullying of Second Lieutenant Sarsfield, were briefly recounted, but presented as humorous episodes. The memoirs did discuss the execution of the Ciudad Rodrigo deserters, presenting it as a tough but justified measure, but kept from the reader how many other riflemen deserters had escaped this draconian fate.

The memoir writers were perhaps most guilty of selective memory or indeed hagiography in their treatment of General Robert Craufurd. Both Leach and Kincaid, it is true, acknowledged his unpopularity in a coded way. Neither, however, was willing to share the intense hatred felt for him during the campaigns with their readers. Indeed Leach – one of the general’s bitterest critics – seemed to reverse some of his views in the most perverse way. In 1809 in his (unpublished) journal he had castigated Craufurd for issuing the ‘most tyrannical and oppressive standing orders that were ever compiled by a British officer’; but in one of his books of 1835 the same orders were described as ‘most excellent, and extremely well calculated to ensure regularity on the march’.

It is evident that Craufurd grew in the estimation of many Light Division veterans after he had fallen in battle, and Kincaid explicitly said so. This revisionism stemmed in part from negative experiences under other generals, particularly the hopeless Erskine. It seems, however, that the attitudes to their long-dead chief expressed in print were coloured to a great extent by the fact that Craufurd had ascended into a sort of pantheon of national martyrs of the anti-Bonaparte struggle, along with the likes of Sir John Moore and even Nelson. Craufurd had many political friends who saw to it that his reputation was extolled in print, as did Moore. Besmirching his name might have led a Leach or Kincaid into all sorts of difficulties, ranging from a lawsuit from some relative to a duel.

The lionisation of Craufurd took a further turn with the publication of two memoirs from the ranks: Edward Costello’s in 1841 and Benjamin Harris’s in 1848. Both men expressed warm approbation for Black Bob – but both did so with the assistance of gentlemanly ghost writers. Harris, an illiterate, was written up by a former officer in the 52nd and stated, ‘I don’t think the world ever saw a more perfect soldier than General Craufurd.’ Notwithstanding that Harris only served alongside his hero for a few weeks in late 1808 and early 1809, his book was full of anecdote and had a lasting appeal.

Costello at least benefited from being one of those who had gone all the way through from 1809. His memoirs, initially published in a magazine, managed an honesty unmatched in almost all other accounts of the Peninsular War. He freely described the soldiers’ thieving along with their bravery in battle and contempt for skulkers, and he even dealt frankly with the rapes and other crimes committed after the fall of Badajoz.

Leaving aside Costello’s honourable exception, the memoirs, particularly of officers, generally eschewed the sordid or cowardly and extolled the heroic. As one 95th author joined another in print there was a sort of upward spiral of praise for the regiment, with the most effusive panegyrics often coming from those who had been in other corps. Major General Bell, who had served in the 34th alongside George Simmons’s brother Maud, and may well have been influenced by discussions with him, described the 95th, for example, as ‘the most celebrated old fighting corps in the Army or perhaps the world’. By the 1860s, when most of the Peninsular veterans had died, the laudatory parameters for these works had been set – the 95th had achieved legendary status. That said, it is quite possible that the numbers of copies of all of the 95th memoirs put together circulating in, say, 1865 did not exceed twenty thousand.

It took another twenty-five or thirty years, until the end of the nineteenth century, with the Wellingtonian generation long buried, the price of books falling and literacy burgeoning, for the popular appeal of the Rifles’ story really to show itself.

‘A remarkable revival of curiosity in the events of the time of Napoleon has lately arisen,’ wrote one author in a magazine article presenting the reminiscences of an old Rifles man, ‘and there is a romance and interest in the wars of those times which attach to none of the more recent contests.’

The ‘romance’ derived from several factors. Napier had already shrewdly identified that the public ignorance of the Peninsular Army’s years of privation and suffering at the time of the campaigns created a kind of national debt to the veterans. What better way to discharge it than to patronise their writings? In the case of the Light Division or 95th men, the sense of indebtedness was even stronger because they had fought so often and regularly performed their duty against dreadful odds. There was something too about the rifleman’s personal sovereignty – deciding when to fire or when to drop into cover before getting up and charging forward again – that seems to have appealed to British sensibilities.

Kincaid’s Adventures were reprinted in 1900 and 1909. George Simmons’s journals and letters were ‘discovered’, edited and printed in 1899. Harry Smith’s memoir was finally published too, having hitherto only existed as a manuscript for circulation within the family. Sir Charles Oman meanwhile fed the interest by publishing the massive and authoritative A History of the Peninsular War, starting in 1902. The growing secondary literature emphasised glory and self-sacrifice, holding Wellington’s Army up as mythic warriors, examples to a nationalistic Britain at the peak of its powers.

The 95th’s specific role in this publishing phenomenon grew out of the popular appeal of their saga. These were not the memoirs of cannon fodder, packed into their red-coated ranks awaiting death, but of spirited individuals who, by slaying a senior French officer or storming a post, somehow made a difference to the tide of history.

Inevitably, as the essence of these first-hand accounts was boiled down by writers or historians who were not present, certain episodes were glossed over or mythologised. Costello, for example, bore an early share of the responsibility for promulgating a widely held view that the men of the 95th were rarely flogged and had somehow escaped the system of brutality that typified the eighteenth-century Army. The early twentieth-century authors often took this rosy picture at face value. As we have seen, though, the desire of the officers who founded the 95th that their men should be spared the lash was to prove no more than a noble aspiration, particularly under Craufurd. But it is also only fair to the general to point out that even regimental officers of the 95th such as Beckwith, Barnard, Cameron and O’Hare, as well as lowly fellows like Lieutenant James Gairdner, all ordered riflemen flogged. In short, riflemen got no special treatment in this regard.

While the 95th were not spared the stick, they were offered various carrots by way of incentive. Some of these, such as the pillage of French convoys, were regarded as the reward due to enterprising fellows in the advance guard. In other respects, though, the acknowledgement of the Rifles officers – particularly Colonel Beckwith – that bathing, football, coursing and races could all make a soldier’s life enjoyable, marked a radical new departure for the Army. Beckwith’s approach in this regard was complemented by a reduction to the minimum of the drills repeated endlessly in other regiments. Many redcoats, for example, practised the ‘manual exercise’ of loading their musket ad nauseam on the drill square but almost never actually fired a cartridge. The 95th, on the other hand, maintained its high standards of marksmanship by constant target practice, even when they were just a few miles from enemy outposts. The fun and games helped build regimental and company spirit and, as Leach and others explicitly pointed out, meant the soldiers were ready to follow Beckwith into hell when the time came. They also helped maintain physical fitness, an Army preoccupation that can also be said to have begun with the Light Division. As for the marksmanship, it laid the ground for a far more professional attitude to soldiering.

The 95th’s founders also wanted to provide motivation in the shape of promotion and distinction for deserving soldiers. Here too they achieved remarkable results. Robert Fairfoot can be seen as a prototype. His father served almost twenty-nine years in the Army without escaping the rank of private. But young Fairfoot ended his days as a commissioned officer and a perfect model for young riflemen to emulate. William Brotherwood might well also have ended up as a sergeant major or even an officer had he not been killed in 1813. The Rifles did not invent this type of promotion, but in trying to extend it widely, by educating privates and non-commissioned officers, the 95th was quite directly subverting the class system. Conservatives did not like it one bit: Wellington himself commented that this ‘new fangled school mastering’ would be the cause of revolution in England if there ever was one.

The way that the 95th undermined the old social hierarchy during its Iberian campaigns may be seen, along with its innovative tactics, as its most lasting and significant achievement. A life on outposts or in the skirmish line meant officers and soldiers shared the same hardships. A captain of the Rifles or the 52nd usually slept out in the pouring rain, just like his men did. Their position in the advance guard meant they were not allowed the tents and other officers’ camp comforts enjoyed in the eighteenth-century Army or even in many of the other Peninsular regiments. The spirit of mutual respect between battle-hardened soldiers became the cement that held the regiment together and that allowed it to enter battle again and again, to the admiration of so many others in Wellington’s Army.

In the Rifles, a passionate bond emerged between fighting soldiers, and it usually extended to the leaders as well as the led. While such feelings became quite a common hallmark of the twentieth-century experience of war, this was a strange new feeling to men of the early nineteenth century. Costello summed up these feelings admirably when telling the tale of how the soldiers had given their last biscuits to a sobbing toff, eighteen-year-old Second Lieutenant the Honourable Charles Spencer, as they all starved during the retreat to Portugal in November 1812: ‘These are times when Lords find that they are men and men that they are comrades.’ John Kincaid even referred to the 95th as a ‘band of brothers’.

The bonds were all the stronger between those who came through the 95th’s final trials without succumbing to battle exhaustion or stress. Between August 1813 and the battle of Quatre Bras in June 1815, more than thirty men deserted the 1st Battalion of the 95th, many of them veterans. This marked a significant proportion of those who had survived the Peninsular campaign and set the scene for the flight of something like a hundred rieflemen at Waterloo. Clearly they had been pushed by years of fighting beyond some personal cracking point. But for those who had not – still the majority of the old hands – there was all the more reason to marvel at the depth of their own camaraderie and forbearance.

Officers of the Rifles were unusual, even within the Light Division, in that they often fought with firearms. This was another decided break with custom – for most commissioned men considered the sword to be the only gentlemanly weapon. There were no illusions of this kind in the 95th, particularly among the young subalterns, at least one of whom managed to bayonet a French soldier to death. While all officers died like common soldiers, and those of the Light Division often lived like them, those of the 95th actually killed like them too.

Some of the officers did not know how to respond to this subversion of the usual assumptions about the social divide. A man who had raised himself by his bootstraps, like Peter O’Hare, was therefore more likely to respond to carping in the ranks by cuffing the culprit, bellowing obscenities at him or even having him flogged. The officers most respected by the men were those who were comfortable with the exercise of their authority in this relatively informal atmosphere. For their part, these successful leaders – like Simmons, Leach or Harry Smith – lived for the esteem of a soldiery whom others derided as scum. The friendship between Simmons and Fairfoot, it is clear, was lifelong and intense.

In February 1856, an old soldier stiff from his many wounds, George Simmons received a letter. He had retired to Saint Helier in Jersey. There Simmons grew used to reading of the passing of the old riflemen whose campaigns had ended more than forty years back. Leach had died the year before. Fairfoot had crossed the Styx way back in 1838, but his widow Catherine had moved to Jersey, where Simmons was able to keep a protective eye on her. He could see from the back of the letter that it was from an old Peninsular comrade, Charlie Beckwith, who had commanded a company of the 95th. Beckwith had been perturbed to read of the deaths of two old regimental friends the previous year. He told Simmons:

Our friends it is true are fast descending into the tomb and we shall soon follow; but we shall lay down by the side of brothers who loved us during our lives. [They] and a long list down to the rank and file were all united in one common bond of common danger and suffering. God Bless them all!

Those words are an excellent epitaph for the 1st Battalion, 95th. They became legendary not just because of their training and tactics – which were truly innovative. Their real secret, however, was that they lived and died for one another and in doing so unlocked a true fighting spirit: that precious unity that inspires men to suffer the worst of hardships, to maintain the respect of their brothers in arms, in pursuit of victory.

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