February 02, 2004


Gary Farber is taken with a review of a new 95th Rifles history in the Guardian. While Gen. Ramsbotham is a vivid reviewer, he seems to have either repeated mistakes in the work reviewed, or slipped in his own: for instance, crediting Napoleon's victories on the extensive use of rifles in the French army, which is simply mistaken. French voltigeurs (light infantry) almost exclusively used a regular musket.

The history of the Moore reforms (which led both to the Light Infantry tradition and the first Rifles units) is rather oversimplified by Ramsbotham in his review as well. Too bad, because it's a fascinating melange of influences. While it's technically true the 95th Regiment was the first British regiment to use rifles and dress in green, that's only part of the story.

Here's the short version. The 60th Royal American Regiment, formed to fight the French and Indians in the Seven Years War, had always been a little unorthodox (they still wore redcoats, but their first commander, the Swiss mercenary captain Bouquet, trained them in independent skirmishing, rather than close-order drill). They were well-trained in the emerging "ranger" doctrines, pioneered by innovators such as Robert Rogers, Frederick Haldimand (another Swiss mercenary), and Bouquet, among others, as the only sound response they could see to the problems of fighting Indians in the Americas.

It was Rogers who would train the cadres for the first ever "light infantry" companies, which were added to all British regiments in North America to help fight the Indian problem. This innovation was judged successful enough that in 1770, this was extended to all British regiments, but it affected only one company in each regiment out of ever 10. Bouquet's Royal Americans, on the other hand, was the first "all-light" infantry regiment, and their training was to a higher standard generally.

In 1798, yet another Swiss soldier in British service*, Francis de Rottenburg, took the remnants of a couple battered German mercenary jager corps (the European light infantry/rifle tradition) and formed them into the 5th battalion of the 60th Regiment. They were the first British regular unit to wear green uniforms, and carry rifles. Technically a unit in the British regular army, the men were by birth mostly German. De Rottenburg would also write his "Treatise on Light Infantry" around this time, outlining the principles of this kind of light infantry work. In 1800, the 95th Rifles were formed, from volunteers of other British units, as a sort of homegrown equivalent to his unit.

Light infantry practice only became imbedded in the regular British army, however, with Sir John Moore, at one time himself a major in the 60th Royal Americans, who in 1803 was given command of the forces at Shornecliffe Camp. This included the new 95th, but also the redcoated, normally armed 43rd and 52nd regiments, which were renamed the "Light Infantry." Together these units formed the Light Division. Both redcoats and greenjackets were trained in the same drills, emphasizing the self-motivation, independence and initiative found in the jagers and the Indian fighters of the old 60th: to Moore the training of a soldier was far more important then his equipment.

Moore died horribly in 1809 in Spain. Wellington, who replaced him, would continue to expand and develop both red and green versions of light infantry. In Spain he would use the 5/60th, 95th and his growing number of other light infantry battalions interchangeably, alongside German mercenary jager units from the King's German Legion, as well, to beat the French light infantry opposite them in the preliminary stages of his battles.

The point here is that, Bernard Cornwell and his Sharpe novels notwithstanding, the important innovation of the Light Infantry was not the use of rifles or the discarding of the red coats per se, as much as it was the new emphasis on better trained soldiers in general that had been refined in North American service, collected in de Rottenberg's writing, and spread to the British army as a whole under first Moore and then Wellington. (De Rottenburg would bring the story back to its place of origin in 1813, in a way, when he took over command of the British forces, light and regular, in what is now Ontario during the War of 1812.)

*UPDATE: I should add a caution here, because absolutely nothing is firmly known of the Baron De Rottenburg before he is recorded joining Louis XVI's army as a hussar officer when still a young man. We know he later went east to fight for the Poles, and after their defeat turned to British service. The place of his birth is actually still open to some speculation... it's known he was fluent in French, English and German. Berton and Stanley both concluded, on scanty evidence, that he was Swiss. Turner and the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, on the other hand, argued he was actually born in Gdansk, possibly the son of a local Polish merchant. The barony of Rottenburg itself would have been near Stuttgart, Germany, in what then would have been known as Wurttemburg... while he was certainly treated as a nobleman by other class-conscious British officers, like George Prevost, how he got the title of baron is also unclear. It's remarkable that so little is known about one of the most influential military thinkers of the early 1800s.

Posted by BruceR at 05:18 PM


Ariel Sharon, the old mountebank, announces he plans to evacuate Gaza. This, along with the wall's near completion, has convinced me that Sharon has been following the Flit plan for Palestinian peace recently. Good job, guy! Come back any time!

Since I'm patting myself on the back anyway, I'd also like to take this opportunity to point out that I concluded Iraq's "WMD's" were "largely illusory" six months before the last war. This, of course, makes me better than the entire Office of Special Plans and the British PM's office combined. I continue to look forward to the summons of various international commissions curious how a guy with a PC who knows where Google is can enjoy a better track record for his predictions than David Kay, 007, and all the other secret-mountain-lair inhabitants put together. This, combined with the fact I recently got my tie caught in a self-serve sushi bar, means suggestions that I am some kind of cyber-Johnny English are, I now feel, entirely deserved.

Stay tuned next week, when I explain how we can make this whole "tastes great-less filling" schism among light beer drinkers finally come to an amicable end. Hint: UN peacekeepers.

Posted by BruceR at 02:08 PM