Reviews: Military Books

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

Bamford, Andrew. Sickness, Suffering and the Sword: the British Regiment on Campaign, 1808-1815. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013. 383 pages. ISBN# 978086143439. Hardcover. $36.

Thousands of books have been written about the organization, uniforms, regiments, and battles of the British Army of the Napoleonic Wars.  When I picked up this book I thought surely the author cannot provide any more information that has not been already written.  By the time I had finished the first chapter, I realized that I could have not been more wrong! Sickness, Suffering and the Sword is not a study of the different regiments nor is it, despite its title, a campaign study.  Instead it is an examination those factors that had an impact on the ability of a British military, be it an infantry battalion, cavalry regiment, or artillery brigade / troop to maintain its strength on active service. Andrew Bamford lays out his goals for the book quite clearly in his introduction:

“. . . a systematic study of original returns and reports, in order to offer a fresh insight into how the British Army functioned in the field during the Napoleonic Wars. This approach, in turn, starts to pose new questions as to just how effective the British regimental system actually was.  The question is not one of impact on battlefield performance, where the historical record largely speaks for itself, but rather one of how the system stood up to months and years of sustained campaign service in a war far more immense in scale than anything it had been designed for.”[1]

The British Army in 1804 had strength of about 150,000 men, of which about 11% were foreigners.  By 1813 it had expanded to 255,000 men of which 21% were foreigners. Yet the British Army under the command of the Duke of Wellington had only 60,000 of these troops – less than 25% of the total force! An impressive number, however between 1804 and 1813, the British Army had over 220,000 casualties -- virtually the equivalent to the number of men on active duty in 1813.  In 1811, the British Army only recruited 26,000 men to replace the 23,000 casualties they had the previous year, plus as replacements for ALL of the regiments on active duty.  When the number of men who were released from active duty because enlistments were expired is factored into the equation, there was an actual drop in overall numbers.[2]  So its ability to reduce the number of men who died and recruit replacements was critical to winning the war.

Sickness, Suffering and the Sword studies the different factors that impacted a unit’s ability to have enough men present on the battlefield to make it combat effective. The author first examines the British regimental system and the importance of the regiment was to the soldier.  The British Army was unique for its time, for unlike the rest of the major combatants of the Napoleonic Wars, the officers and soldiers were all volunteers and they identified themselves more with their regiment than with the army.   From there he explores the impact a good and bad battalion or regimental commanders had on their command – its ability to recruit, enforcing discipline, looking after the troops’ welfare (such as ensuring they received their rations on time, keeping their encampments clean and orderly to reduce disease, etc.) – all of which affected immensely the number of soldiers the unit would field during a campaign.

In theory, an infantry regiment was supposed to have two battalions.  The 1st Battalion was to be sent wherever it was needed, while the 2nd Battalion stayed in garrison where it was responsible for recruiting and training replacements for the 1st Battalion.  However, as the demand rose for more troops to meet military commitments quite often, the 2nd Battalion was also deployed, sometimes even a 3rd Battalion was deployed and in a few cases even a 4th Battalion was raised.  By 1814, the 60th Foot had eight battalions! Mr. Bamford devotes a considerable portion of the book in examining how this system worked in practice, its strengths and how the relentless demand for more men eventually caused it to crack, and eventually come close to breaking, under the stress. The author is not reluctant to assign blame where it is due and the Duke of Wellington is faulted as much as the politicians with their willingness to make further military commitments, without taking into account the realities of the weaknesses of the system.  It was fortunate for the British Army that Napoleon abdicated in 1814, before their system fell completely apart.  The author also looks at the stopgap methods the military used to keep as many men under arms as possible.  For example, he discusses in detail Wellington’s use of battalions of detachments, provisional battalions, and the constant fights he had with Army headquarters to keep the men he had.

Sickness, Suffering and the Sword does not just look at the struggles experienced by the units in keeping up their strength, but it also explores the factors that caused casualties in the first place.  Not surprisingly disease had a huge impact on the British Army.  In Wellington’s Army, between 1808 and 1814, 21% of the force was hospitalized at any given time.  Between 1812 and 1814, almost 17,000 soldiers died in hospitals in the Peninsula.  In addition to disease and sicknesses, Mr. Bamford also looks at desertion – why it happened, why some units were more likely to have higher desertion rates, and why a unit’s location was a key factor.

The final chapter covers a topic that is often overlooked.  It is how the army kept its units supplied with horses and other beasts of burden. The author looks at the mortality rates of different regiments and tries to determine what factors led to some regiments having greater losses than others.  He lists for each cavalry regiment the average number of horses loss per month and the number is staggering.  For example the 16th Light Dragoons averaged losing 18 horses a month or over 1100 mounts during the 62 months it spent in the Peninsula.   The regiment’s average monthly strength in horses during the same period was 445.  This meant over the five years the regiment spent on active service in the Peninsula it had close to 250% casualties among its mounts.[3]  Mr. Bamford then examines how the replacement system for mounts worked.

Sickness, Suffering and the Sword is based on Andrew Bamford’s doctorate dissertation.  When I heard this, my first thought was that I would have to wade through dense text that was written for the academic community rather than for the public. Once again I was wrong.  The author’s writing is clear, concise, and very easy to read.  He supports his arguments with an abundance of data and documents all of his findings, but does so in a way that doesn’t detracts from the story he is telling.  A 300 page history book normally takes me about a week to read.  I finished Sickness, Suffering and the Sword in half that time.

Many books have been written based on data the author has uncovered in his research.  Normally the author provides samples to illustrate his findings, but never all of the data.   Sickness, Suffering and the Sword is unique because Mr. Bamford has very generously provided to the Napoleon Series ALL of his data for the reader.  There are thousands of files and they can be found at: British Army Unit Strengths: 1808-1815.  In these files are the monthly returns, by year, for each regiment in the British Army. To make it even accessible, the author has also provided all the monthly returns, by year, for the different armies and campaigns. 

Writing a review of a book is easy for me because I only write reviews for books that I believe are worth reading.  However, I was at a loss for words when it came to writing a recommendation about Sickness, Suffering and the Sword. I have over 350 books on some aspect of the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars and have co-authored two books on the topic. Simply put this book is the best book I have ever read on the British Army. It should be in every library.

Reviewed by Robert Burnham


[1] Page xviii

[2] Burnham, Robert. The British Army in the Napoleonic Wars: Manpower Stretched to the Limits?. 1999.

[3] Page 277


Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2013

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