The British Army in the Napoleonic Wars: Manpower Stretched to the Limits?
By Robert Burnham, FINS
The British Army during the Napoleonic Wars served throughout the world, in either the far-flung outposts of the Empire or in ill planned expeditionary forces that participated in campaigns in: Egypt in 1801; India in 1803, Germany in 1805; Argentina, India, and Italy in 1806; Denmark and Egypt in 1807; Holland and the West Indies in 1809; the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean, and Indonesia in 1810; North America in 1812 - 1815; Germany and the Low Countries in 1813 - 1814. On 25 August 1813 the British Army was deployed in the following overseas locations:
The numerous campaigns fought outside of Spain and Portugal are often overshadowed by the British effort in the Iberian Peninsula (1808 - 1814) and the Waterloo Campaign of 1815. Yet the impact of these "minor" campaigns and garrisons can not be ignored, for they diverted much needed troops from the main theater of the war for the British: the Iberian Peninsula. In 1809, there were more British troops participating in the ill-fated Walcheren Campaign in Holland, than Wellington had serving with him in the Peninsula. By 1813, even after his numerous successes in the Peninsula, Wellington never had more than 20% of the British Army available to him.
British casualties in all the campaigns were beginning to take their toll. Their casualties were small when compared to French and Russian casualties in 1812, but the British relied on volunteers to fill their ranks. There was no conscription in the British Isles. In 1811, the British Army only recruited 26,000 men to replaced the 23,000 casualties they had the previous year, plus as replacements for ALL of the regiments on active duty, not just those serving in Spain and Portugal. When the number of men who were released from active duty because enlistments were expired are factored into the equation, there was an actual drop in overall numbers. Although this negative trend stopped the following year, the situation did not improve dramatically. The British were forced to recruit more and more foreigners to fill their ranks. In 1813 the number of foreigners comprised 21% of soldiers in the British Army, as compared to 11% in 1804. By 1813, volunteers were becoming so difficult to find for some British Regiments, Wellington was forced to combine several severely depleted regiments and to recruit Spaniards into others.
Although British casualties were not catastrophic, combined with the numerous global commitments and poorly planned and executed expeditions, the pool of available manpower was stretched to the limits. By early 1815, the British Army of Peninsula War fame had been widely dispersed, with many of the units serving in North America. When Napoleon escaped from Elba, the British were so hard pressed to field an army in 1815, they asked the Portuguese to provide some of their regiments to serve with Wellington in Belgium! If the Napoleonic Wars had continued for a few more years, two things would probably have occurred: the British would have had to cut back on their overseas deployments or begun some form of conscription.
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