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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Books on military subjects

Wellington’s Rifles: The Origins, Development and Battles of the Rifle Regiments in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo

Cusick, Raymond P. Wellington’s Rifles: The Origins, Development and Battles of the Rifle Regiments in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword, 2013. 192 pages. ISBN: 9781781592878. Hardcover. $39.05.

Wellington’s Rifles

Sir Charles Oman’s classic study Wellington’s Army contains an extensive “Regimental Bibliography.” Nearly every regiment which participated in the long and sanguinary Peninsula War is represented therein, with some receiving disproportionate representation – and the 95th Rifles easily top the bill with eleven entries. Add to that the extensive interest in the Rifles generated by the likes of the Sharpe series, and the 95th Rifles still tend to top the military history charts for words written about the British army in this period. So when I received a book titled ‘Wellington’s Rifles’, I wondered why the market required another.

The author, Ray Cusick – better known to the world, or at least the parts of it obsessed with Doctor Who, as the man who designed the Daleks – was a former Rifleman, having served with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps in the Middle East many years ago. Sadly he died in February 2013, before this book was published. However, despite the market saturation, and the title, this book is different; of the 170 page running-length for the main text, the Peninsula War does make an appearance until page 119. The earlier sections deal with the evolution of rifle-armed troops in the British Army from 1758 until 1808. The book opens with Major-general Edward Braddock’s disastrous expedition to Fort Duquesne in July 1755, a foray which involved in its planning and execution no lesser persons than George Washington, Daniel Boone, Benjamin Franklin and Horatio Gates. The expedition ended badly, with British regulars in formation being trounced in the back-woods by French, colonial and Indian irregulars fighting from tree to tree. This and other similar experiences in North America led to changes in thinking on light infantry roles, and the use of rifled muskets in particular.

The first advocate of the light infantry role (long before Moore, Stewart and Manningham) was Major-general William Howe, who wrote a manual on light infantry drill, and set up a light infantry training camp at Salisbury in 1774. Another pioneer was the Baron Francis de Rottenbourg, original commander of the green-clad 5/60th Foot on their raising in 1797. The book reminds us that the first rifle-armed regiment in the British army list was actually the 1st Battalion, 60th Foot who received their Prussian-manufactured rifles whilst serving in Canada in 1794. These weapons were so robust that the 5th Battalion used them for many years and did not receive their first batch of Baker rifles until 11 June 1808, five weeks before embarking for Portugal.

Interesting details abound within. The description of the uniform tests conducted in 1800, to determine which of red, green or grey was the optimal colour for the new Rifle Corps, led to the conclusion that grey was the best option on a smoky battlefield. The thought of the Rifles in the Peninsula looking like confederates is an intriguing one! Nonetheless, green was selected as the colour of choice, no doubt influenced by contemporary European jaegers. I also did not know about the rules for awarding plumes – no plume for the recruit, a white one for a second class shot, and a green plume for a marksman – or that a rifleman could be ‘plumically’ demoted. The quantities of Baker rifles, hand-made in Ezekiel Baker’s workshops in 24 Whitechapel Road, London, quoted on page 105 of the book are frighteningly small; production never exceeded about eighty a week, in contrast the Tower muskets which were manufactured for fifteen shillings by the lowest bidder in massive quantities.

The book is not without its faults. It reads more as a collection of articles linked together than a cohesive book; too much information is repeated numerous times and one sub-chapter title is repeated three times throughout the book. The section on Waterloo inexplicably concentrates much more on the exploits of the 52nd Foot than what the Rifles were doing. The KGL light battalions do not get much of a look-in throughout, and there is virtually no mention of the Rifle’s exploits at Buenos Ayres, Walcheren, Flanders in 1814 or Cadiz. The unfinished state of the author’s footnotes at his passing is the reason they were omitted, which is a pity because they may have fleshed out some of the details and provided attributions to quotes.

I would have to say this is a book for those more interested in the evolution of the British rifle regiments before 1808, or a beginner seeking an entry point into the history of the rifles. Those wanting greater depth of coverage for the services of the rifle regiments in the period 1808-1815 could then consult Verner (95th), Beamish (KGL) or Rigaud (5/60th) for a more detailed history. However for the period from 1758 to 1808, this book is an important addition.

Reviewed by Steve Brown

Placed on the Napoleon Series: January 2014

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