Reviews: Military Books

Redcoats against Napoleon

Divall, Carole.  Redcoats against Napoleon: the 30th Regiment during the Revolutionary & Napoleonic Wars.  Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword, 2009. 256 p. ISBN# 9781844158518.  $40.

During the 19th Century it seems like every regiment of the British Army had an official or unofficial history published.  These histories are long out of print and the originals are very expensive when available.  (Naval and Military Press has begun publishing some in paperback, but it will be years before all are reprinted.)  Although many of these histories are well written, they usually have to cover 100 – 150 years of a regiment's history in only a couple of hundred pages.  Thus, even though the Napoleonic Wars are often covered in some length, they are only part of the story these histories tell.  After the First World War, there were few regimental histories published, however with the start of the 21st Century we have seen a small reversal of this trend.  In the past five years we have seen a small revival of the regimental history.  Mark Urban's Wellington's Rifles was published in 2004, while Alistair Nichols' Wellington's Mongrel Regiment: a History of the Chasseurs Britanniques Regiment of the British Army 1801-1814 came out in 2005.  Don Graves study of the 23rd Foot, Dragon Rampant: the Royal Welch Fusiliers at War, 1793-1815, will be published in early 2010.  What is unique about these histories is that they focus solely on the regiment's role in the Napoleonic Wars and draw heavily on memoirs and diaries that often were not available to the authors of earlier histories.

Carole Divall's Redcoats against Napoleon is another fine addition to these modern histories.  It looks at a relatively obscure regiment, the 30th Foot, and traces its actions from 1793 to 1827.  The regiment was involved in the siege of Toulon in 1793, Egypt in 1801, the Peninsular War from 1810 – 1813, the expedition to Flanders in 1814, the Waterloo Campaign, plus numerous minor campaigns in India.  What makes this history even more unique is that the regiment's 1st Battalion was stationed in India during much of the period, so the majority of the book focuses on the deeds of its 2nd Battalion. 

Ms. Divall takes a different approach when writing the story.  She tells the story of the regiment through the eyes of one officer, Alexander Hamilton, who joined the regiment in 1787 as a 16 year old ensign and would serve with it for forty years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel and commander of the 1st Battalion in India.  Much of that time, however, he was with the 2nd Battalion in the Peninsula and in the Waterloo Campaign.

Although Ms. Divall draws on Neil Bannatyne's History of the Thirtieth Regiment, she also intersperses her narrative with excerpts from the regimental books, including tidbits about courts-martial, and several unpublished memoirs by three officers of the regiment.  Lieutenant William Stewart left a detailed journal of his time with the battalion in 1810, but unfortunately it ended right after the battle of Fuentes d'Onoro.  The regiment would spend the next eighteen months in the Peninsula as part of James Leith's 5th Division, fighting at Badajoz, Salamanca, and Villa Murial.  Although Ms. Divall was not able to find any memoirs from soldiers in the 30th Foot during that time, she used memoirs written by soldiers in other regiments assigned to the 5th Division at the time, to portray the fighting and hardship the 2nd Battalion underwent during those two years.

Redcoats against Napoleon superbly illustrates the problems that a 2nd Battalion on active service underwent.  The regiment's 1st Battalion was stationed in India and even though it was on— what was for all practical purposes, garrison duty— it had priority on replacements.  The 2nd Battalion paid the price for this policy.  By early 1813 it was so under strength that it was ordered home from the Peninsula to recruit, but only after leaving behind most of its effectives to form part of the 4th Provisional Battalion, which was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton.  However, the 4th Provision Battalion was considered so weak, it was disbanded a few months later and the remnants of the 2nd Battalion 30th Foot returned home.

The 2nd Battalion would not remain in the British Isles long.  Less than a year later, it was up to strength and was sent to Flanders as part of General Graham's expeditionary force.  It would remain there until the outbreak of the Waterloo Campaign, where it was heavily involved.  The reader is fortunate because in the 30th Foot was a young volunteer hoping to obtain a commission, named Edward Neville Macready.  He would be commissioned and was assigned to the Light Company.  By the night of Waterloo, he was the senior surviving officer in the company and would command it through to Paris. Lieutenant Macready was the consummate memoirist, who wrote vivid descriptions of life on campaign and of the 30th Foot's part in the battles.  Redcoats against Napoleon draws heavily on his memoir to bring to life the campaign! 

Ms. Divall should be commended for bringing back to life the history of a regiment with a proud record of accomplishments during the Napoleonic Wars.  Redcoats against Napoleon is an enjoyable read and I recommend it to those who are interested in the British Army.  Hopefully, it will be the first of many future histories of the regiments that formed the bulk of Wellington's Army, but are greatly overshadowed by those with more famous lineages.

Ms. Divall maintains a website that contains further research on the 30th Foot that is not included in her book.  It can be seen at:  Redcoats against Napoleon

 

Reviewed by Robert Burnham, FINS
Placed on the Napoleon Series: December 2009

 

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