What a British Rifleman Carried in 1809
By Robert Burnham, FINS
There are many books that describe in great detail the uniforms the soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars. Whether it is a description of the button lace on a Prussian officer's coat or a catalog of the evolution of the French infantryman's shako plate, the information is there and relatively easy to find. What is missing however, are descriptions of what the soldiers wore underneath their uniform coats, extra clothing carried in their backpacks, and those essential items they carried with them for their personal use.
Fortunately Sergeant Edward Costello, a rifleman in the British 95th Rifles, has left a detailed list of what he carried in July 1809, on the forced march that brought the Light Brigade such fame.
In or on the knapsack:
The above list does not include the clothing he wore: the shako, jacket, trousers, and shoes.
In addition to his own personal equipment, the rifleman also was required to help carry the four billhooks assigned to his squad. These billhooks were used for cutting brush and weighed about six pounds. A squad was authorized 8 riflemen, which meant every other day he had to carry an extra six pounds.
Sergeant Costello claimed that the equipment they carried weighed about 80 pounds, which is probably not too far off the mark. The Baker Rifle weighed over 9 pounds and if he carried the 80 balls (which were 20 to the pound) this was another 4 pounds, not including the powder! The greatcoat weighed in at about 5 pounds, depending on the manufacturer, while the standard "Italian" canteen weighed 3 pounds empty. If they carried three days rations in their haversack, that would be another 6 pounds (1 pound of bread and 1 pound of meat per day).
Sergeant Costello went on to note, that at the time they were carrying this equipment, his unit was fresh from England. By the end of the war five years later he did not think there was a man in the regiment who "... could show a single shirt or a pair of shoes in his knapsack."
The British rifleman's uniform was designed by their founder, Coote-Manningham, to blend into the background, providing a primitive, but effective, form of camouflage. The photographs show how effective this camouflage was.
For those interested in comparing the rifleman's load to what a French soldier carried in 1812 should read the article "What a French Fusilier Carried in 1812"
The photographs were generously provided by Roger Fuller of the Napoleonic Association's 3rd Battalion, 95th (Rifles) Regiment of Foot (North America). For those who would like further information about this superbly equipped re-enactment unit see: 95th Rifles
 Bob Burgess of A Load of Old Billhooks, notes that "the largest axe made by the Brades company was a 7lb felling axe - a 6 lb billhook would be a comparable beast. Most English billhooks weigh about 1.5 lbs - the heavy nosed military pattern, which dates from the mid 19th century weighs about 2lb. Before that I guess any locally purchased billhooks would have sufficed. All four billhooks would weight about 6 lbs, each soldiers carrying only one of them??? British makers did not show the weights of a billhooks in their catalogues, but French makers did (see the page from the Bret catalogue attached) - typically a mid-sized billhook was between 600 and 800 grams (1.5 to 2 lbs). Known in the USA as a fascine knife, they were also used for cutting saplings for constructing gabions and fascines for making reinforced earthworks, as well as cutting wood to make shelters or tent poles, cutting firewood and also gathering fodder for horses." (March 2012)
Brett-James, Anthony. Life in the Wellington's Army London : Tom Donovan; 1994.
Costello, Edward. The Peninsular and Waterloo Campaigns Hamden : Archon Books; 1968.
Fosten, Bryan. Wellington's Infantry Volume 1; London : Osprey Publishing; 1981.
Fosten, Bryan. Wellington's Infantry Volume 2; London : Osprey Publishing; 1981.
Haythornthwaite, Philip J. Weapons & Equipment of the Napoleonic Wars London : Arms and Armour Press; 1996.
Verner, Willoughby. The History and Campaigns of the Rifle Brigade: 1800 - 1813 London : Buckland and Brown; 1905.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: 1997; updated March 2012
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