When the military genius Napoleon Bonaparte first came up against the British Army’s rather ramshackle 30th Foot Regiment at the Siege of Toulon in 1793, he must have been singularly unimpressed.
However, notable and brave their individual deeds during the French Revolutionary skirmish, it was obvious to all that they were part of an army that had grown rusty with disuse after the disasters of the American War.
Twenty-two years later, the same regiment met Napoleon again and acted as a central plank in one of this country’s greatest ever victories - the Battle of Waterloo.
So just who were this assorted collection of men and officers who made up the backbone of the army, and how did they become an integral part of what was arguably the finest military machine Britain has ever produced?
Carole Divall, an expert on the history of the British Army during the Napoleonic wars, has all the answers and more in a fascinating new book which gives us the inside story of a typical infantry regiment 200 years ago.
Rather than a detailed account of the 30th Foot’s military actions and campaigns, Inside the Regiment is a superbly entertaining and revealing exploration of its organisation and traditions, its rigid hierarchy, the ethos that held it together and, of course, the soldiers who fought and died under its colours.
Many of these soldiers were serving during one of the most critical periods of British history and through regimental records, War Office documents, letters and journals, we learn about the men underneath those fancy red coats.
Along with the rest of the ‘poor bloody infantry,’ the 30th Foot, or Cambridgeshire Regiment as it was officially known, formed part of the army’s disregarded workhorse, the footsloggers who were pivotal in winning or losing battles.
The great Duke of Wellington might have labelled his foot soldiers as ‘the scum of the earth’, but he was also inordinately proud that ‘we should have made them the fine soldiers they are’ by the time of his resounding victory in 1815.
Back in 1793, the British Army had been bedevilled by the stigma of defeat, low public esteem, lack of money and a corrupt administration.
The formation of a two-battalion system and a series of particularly fine lieutenant-colonels helped to lift the 30th Foot’s fortunes along with the court martial system, the role of religion and improved discipline, morale and medical treatment.
Recruitment had always posed a problem; one contemporary commentator noted that ‘men of a nation of shopkeepers could not be expected to fly from their desks, benches or counters to the ranks of the worst reputed institution in England’.
After labourers, many of them Irish, the most common occupations of those who did take the king’s shilling were textile related, hardly surprising as weaving was a declining industry. The choice for them was stark...become a Luddite machine-breaker or volunteer for the army.
Whatever his reasons for enlisting, a man quickly became part of the process which transformed raw recruits into rough soldiers and despite Edward Gibbons’ assertion that the life of the average private could prove nasty, brutish and short, for the impoverished classes it also brought the certainty of food, clothing and shelter.
They learned to march, fire a musket, follow battalion manoeuvres and become adept on the field of battle. Discipline might have been strict but often receiving the lash for crimes was a far better outcome for a soldier than the death penalty he would have received in a civil court.
And to top it all, there were the added attractions of ‘the bounty, the prospect of plunder and travel, and the distinctive dress’ – no contest in comparison to ‘the long toil, the monotonous round and the weary drudgery of a working man’s life’.
Divall’s lively and colourful history covers every aspect of the regiment’s structure as well as providing a valuable window onto life in early 19th century Britain.
A superbly told and well-researched story.
(Pen & Sword, hardback, £19.99)