Leadership and Experience: British Officers at Waterloo
By Mark Bois
Leadership is an essential element of any military unit, and the experience level of that leadership is a key aspect of its ability to direct, motivate, and control the unit.
The purpose of this paper is to evaluate the levels of experience in the British infantry battalions that served at the Battle of Waterloo, fought on June 18, 1815. The study will be based upon the lieutenants and captains that served in the battalions. These were the men who commanded the companies: they preformed the essential function of tying the infantrymen into companies, the companies into battalions, and who then executed the commands of the men who commanded the brigades, divisions, and corps.
The data for this study is drawn from The Waterloo Roll Call, which contains the date that each infantry officer achieved the rank in which he served at Waterloo.[i] For example, in the listing for the Second Battalion, 44th Regiment of Foot, under the heading of “Lieutenants” one finds:
There are eleven lieutenants listed for the 2/44th, of whom Lt. Russell was senior. At Waterloo, Russell had been a lieutenant for nearly seven years. We can thus determine that Russell was a company officer of extensive experience. He would have had a very good grasp on the requirements of his position, and been well versed in maneuvering his men in coordination with the rest of the battalion. Further, in those seven years he would have been very familiar with the men under his command, and they would have become very familiar with him.
On the opposite end of the spectrum of experience, we can estimate that men of limited experience would have been less skillful in commanding their men. Many necessary skills would thus likely have been lacking in the junior lieutenant of the 2/44th:
Lt. Reddock had only been a lieutenant for just four months at Waterloo, and it is likely that his contribution would have been less than effective. .
It is, admittedly, a tenuous step to automatically equate experience with ability. Our Lt. Russell may have been a complete incompetent, and learned very little in his eight years as a lieutenant. Further, he may have been a vicious martinet, and hated his men, and they may have hated him in return. It is also possible that Lt. Reddock served as an ensign for an extended period, and that he was an exceptionally capable, active young officer, and was very effective as a lieutenant after only four months.
Further, equating time in rank with experience does not account for experience in active service. A captain of three years experience in the wars in Spain would have had more applicable experience than one who had spent six years on recruiting duty in Sussex.
Those caveats aside, it should be stressed that this paper is dealing with averages. Details of every individual’s experience levels, if ever they could be gleaned from the very thin corpus of primary source evidence, are outside the scope of this paper. This paper is based on averages, and as each officer’s time in his rank is reviewed, we must rely upon the standards and skills of the British army of the time to ensure that over the years the officers in question would have accumulated the skills to serve with increasing efficiency.
The data base of Ensigns, Lieutenants, and Captains is sufficiently large that averages have a statistical relevance. The data base of colonels and majors is so small that averages might give false conclusions, and will not be included here.
The time in rank for each officer, from every battalion, was examined, entered into a data base, and the average experience by rank, by battalion, calculated. For example, the data for the officer corps of the 2/44th Foot was assembled, averaged, and formatted:
The data reflects an interesting mix of experience levels. Of the five captains, three had considerable experience, while the others had received their captaincies quite recently. The mix is similar amongst the lieutenants. Two men had six or seven years in rank, but the other nine were quite new. Four lieutenants had consecutive seniority dates; doubtless they were given their promotions on the same date, and perhaps drew lots to see would be most senior. All of the ensigns were quite new to their position, averaging just 1.5 years in rank.
A key finding of this study is the very discernable difference in the experience levels of officers of different regiments. The data from the 44th can be summarized, and compared to other regiments, thus:
In examining the data from these three battalions, in is clear that all three had captains of substantial experience. Further, the ensigns of all three battalions were of roughly equal experience, all of whom averaged less than two years of experience in their rank.
It is in the experience of the lieutenants that the three battalions differ. The lieutenants of the 1/42nd had twice the time in rank held by the lieutenants of the 2/44th. Another factor is the number of lieutenants present; the 2/44th had the most inexperienced men, but also the fewest. The 1/40th had twice as many lieutenants present, though they were not as experienced as those of the 1/42nd.
The most useful manner to review the time in rank is through graphs that compare the experience levels, by regiment. Please note that the Y axis scale will be the same for each of the graphs, so as to enable an accurate comparison between the graphs.
It is interesting to compare the experience level of the army’s ensigns with the more senior officers. There is a remarkable consistency level across the regiments, and it is clear that an ensign of more than two years seniority was very rare indeed. It is evident that the British army of the day promoted their ensigns at a rather predictable rate, a rate not copied in the higher ranks.
There is a very wide range of experience in the ranks of the army’s lieutenants. Some very well known regiments, including the 1/52nd and the 2/3rd Guards, had very inexperienced lieutenants, while the Highlanders and some veteran Line regiments had men of great experience. The regiment with the most experienced lieutenants was the 1/27th, the Inniskillings. Doubtless that experience helped to hold the battalion together when they took such terrible casualties above the Charleroi crossroads.
There is also a very wide range of experience to be seen in the ranks of the army’s captains. All of the Guards regiments had captains of minimal experience, while again it is the Highland and veteran Line regiments who had the men of the most experience.
And again, it was the 1/27th, the Inniskillings, who had the men of the greatest experience. The Inniskilling captains averaged more than eight years of seniority, while two Guards regiments could field men of just over a year’s service.
A graph of the averages of all company-level officers of each battalion can serve as a quick summary comparison. As was evident in the graphs examining each rank, the summary again shows a handful of veteran Line battalions and the Highland battalions as possessing officers of sharply higher experience, while the Guards battalions are remarkable in the lack of experience of their officer corps.
It is, of course, incumbent upon the historian not just to present facts, but to analyze them. In this instance, four factors are deemed to have influenced the level of seniority, and thus the level of experience, of British company officers at Waterloo. It should be stressed that these factors are not mutually exclusive; one or all of the factors might apply to any one of the battalions studied.
First, the promotion and rotation policies of the British army of the day dictated that the most senior officers of a regiment be gradually transferred to its first battalion. For example, the most senior lieutenant of the 2nd battalion would, upon an opening appearing in the ranks above him, would then move up to become the most junior lieutenant in the first battalion. How regularly this rotation occurred is problematic; the army could not have hundreds of officers leaving their battalions to join their new battalions elsewhere in the world with every regimental opening. One thinks of the 1st Foot in 1812, when they battalions in Canada, India, Spain, and Britain, and how unlikely it would be for the promotion policies to be effectively implemented. But as a general rule, the 2nd and 3rd battalions would have had more junior officers, and while that trend is not so obvious with the ensigns and lieutenants at Waterloo, there is considerable evidence of that trend in the captains’ seniority.
Secondly, the date of a battalion’s raising could equate to a number of very new officers being posted to the battalion. This appears to be the case of the 3/14th, which was raised in 1813. However, the 2nd battalions of the Guards regiments that served at Waterloo were raised in 1803, and the 3/1st was raised in 1804, so those battalions should have had sufficient time to season their officers.
Thirdly, officers of battalions of unique tradition may have been hesitant to leave those battalions in search of promotions with other battalions. This hesitancy to transfer might explain the long-service nature of the officers of the Highland battalions. The unique nature of the Highland battalions stemmed from their dress, clan affiliations and the fact that the Highland regiments were, by definition, Scottish, and the officer corps of those battalions was largely filled by Scots. The clan affiliation is attested to by the nine officers with the surname Cameron in the 1/79th. Further, the 1/23rd was a Welsh battalion, and as there are numerous names on their roster than sound Welsh, it is likely that there was at least some degree of national affiliation there as well.
Promotion policies, the dates on which the battalions were raised, and unique battalion traditions do not go far in explaining the very high levels of experience seen in the veteran Line battalions that dominate the left-hand side of the graphs above. Many of the officers of the 1/28th, 1/32nd, and especially the 1/27th all had remarkably long experience in their rank that cannot wholly be explained by the previous three factors. Nor do those factors explain the very junior nature of the company officers of the Guard battalions at Waterloo.
The fourth factor, and the one which might best explain the gap between the veteran Line battalions and the green officers of the Guard battalions, might well be termed “fashion”. Wealth and influence were important factors in the promotion policy of the British army of the Napoleonic era, and while the merits and detractions of such a system can be debated, one undeniable aspect of the system is that fashionable regiments such as the Guards were staffed by men who were promoted through the system very quickly, while other, apparently unfashionable regiments such as the 1/27th were staffed by very experienced men who had little opportunity to further advance their careers.
All myths aside, both at Quatre Bras on June 16th and at Waterloo on June 18th, the Guard battalions performed no better than the Line battalions. Indeed, at Quarter Bras the Guards were rashly deployed in line as they emerged from the Bois du Bossu, and were summarily tumbled back into the woods by French cavalry. That defeat was not the fault of the men of the battalion, but rather a failure in the battalion’s battlefield leadership.
At Waterloo the center of the Allied line was anchored by battalions whose officer corps were the most seasoned in the British army. The 1/27th, 1/92nd, 1/28th, 1/32nd, 1/42nd and 1/79th had the best company-level officers in the army, and their extensive experience was critical in those battalions holding the center, despite great pressure from French artillery, infantry, and cavalry.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the battalion with the most experienced officers in the British army, the 1/27th, was able to absorb the highest casualty rate of any other unit in the Allied army, and not break. The men of the less fashionable regiments may have lacked the wealth and influence necessary to rise in rank quickly, but they proved their true worth in battle.
[i] Dalton,Charles. The Waterloo Roll Call London: Arms and Armour Press, 1971. (Originally printed in London, 1902) 97-205
Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2008; updated August 2018
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