The fact that the British army was composed entirely of professional military men carries none of the elite implications that the expression may suggest to the modern reader. The soldierly profession, badly paid and subject to the harshest discipline, was not greatly appreciated in the United Kingdom—was, in fact, a decidedly proletarian vocation. It was no accident that a high percentage of those who enlisted were Irish, since Ireland, overpopulated as it was with a deeply impoverished peasantry, had always been the major provider of cannon fodder to His Majesty’s armies; except for a few Scots regiments whose recruiting had been notably regional, Irish soldiers generally made up between 20 percent and 40 percent of the infantry battalions that Wellington marshaled at Waterloo.
Furthermore, in the course of the Napoleonic Wars, the British army, desperately short of men, had been obliged to avail itself of the reservoir of recruits constituted by the militia: Men chosen by lot in local drawings to join the territorial regiments were strongly pressured to sign up for the regular army after completing their training; hence, in many regiments at Waterloo, more than half of the men had enlisted after some experience in the militia. These recruits likely produced a statistical rise in the average level of education and social class among the troops, which by then included some decently educated, lower-middle-class young men whose ineluctable fate it was to become noncommissioned officers; to such men we owe the relatively few letters or diaries written by enlisted men, as opposed to officers, in Wellington’s army.
The vast majority of soldiers still came from the ranks of the otherwise unemployed, men who had not found another way to earn a living. The few available statistics show that around half of the troops had been farm laborers and the rest textile workers or apprentice tradesmen. In such a class-conscious society as England’s, the proletarian origins of the troops opened a chasm between them and their officers; one day the Duke of Wellington, a man devoid of democratic feelings and little given to mincing his words, said that the English army was recruited from among “the scum of the earth.”
His enemies shared this uncharitable judgment. Years later, when French veterans recalled the Angluches, they were still surprised by the rigid class lines that divided the men from their officers. According to the French, English soldiers obeyed blindly; if they commited a fault, they were punished with the whip; and when off duty, they got fabulously, unconscionably drunk. The noncommissioned officers were excellent; “they never rise higher in rank; the concept of class is so ingrained in them that they take this to be the natural order of things.” As for the officers, “they are, for the most part, quite courageous, but fairly ignorant of their trade, for the English education is not directed toward the profession of arms; moreover, all their manners are those of aristocrats: haughty and disagreeable.” The impression that the British and their army made on the French was a reflection of undeniable social realities. As one of Napoleon’s veterans remembered, “The officers were all upper-class, all nobles or gentlemen, and the soldiers, who were all from the working class, obeyed them without question.”
A more modern attitude, the notion that troops should be treated more humanely, was just beginning to manifest itself in English society; but Great Britain was still the country where a person could be sentenced to death for any one of more than sixty different crimes, and where women or half-grown children were hanged every day for the theft of a piece of fruit. Unsurprisingly in such a society, army officers, particularly those of the old school, maintained a rigid, pitiless discipline. Even for minor infractions, a soldier could be condemned to hundreds of lashes, which grew to one or two thousand in the most serious cases. Lashes were administered with a cat-o’-nine-tails until the victim fainted. In the weeks that preceded Waterloo, several sentences of this type were carried out in public, to the disgust of the Belgian citizenry and the dismay of the local authorities, who appeared before the British high command and requested them to put a stop to these barbaric displays.
Not all officers, however, were members of the aristocracy. Among the lower-ranking officers in the British regiments, many were the sons of clerks or shopkeepers, members of the hardworking urban middle class that was creating England’s wealth. Still, such officers were unlikely to receive much advancement; lacking the money to buy a higher rank, they grew old as lieutenants or captains. Indeed, the customary way to obtain promotion in the army was to purchase a “commission,” which was both a rank and an appointment to a command. There was a comparable practice in all the old monarchies, where all public offices were for sale to the highest bidder. In every respect, the acquisition of a rank was an investment; if an officer grew tired of military life, he could always sell his commission. The War Ministry limited itself to ratifying the transaction and to making sure that no one skipped one or more grades, for an officer on his way up in the army was required to occupy all the ranks, one after the other.
The rich were still able to advance quickly, buying a commission to the next-higher rank as soon as one was offered in any regiment whatsoever. Before he became the Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley had been an ensign at the age of eighteen and a lieutenant colonel at twenty-four; in six years, he had received five promotions, all of them in return for payment, and he had passed through seven different regiments, without having served a single day in battle.
Nonetheless, promotion based on merit was not totally unknown in His Majesty’s army, and there were several astonishing cases of men who started at the bottom and came up through the ranks. Sir John Elley, a colonel in the Royal Horse Guards, wounded at Waterloo while serving on Wellington’s staff, was a porter’s son who had enlisted in the army as a simple soldier. The criterion the ministry followed was to grant promotions on merit only in order to replace officers fallen in battle, since in such cases the positions came open of themselves and there was no need to reimburse anyone. Accordingly, one can understand why the officers of Sir John Lambert’s brigade, sailing from America to England in spring 1815, exulted when they learned that Napoleon had escaped from Elba. Major Harry Smith, the brigade adjutant, upon hearing the great news from a merchantman encountered in the English Channel, threw his hat into the air: “Such a hurrah as I set up, tossing my hat over my head! ‘I will be a Lieutenant-Colonel yet before the year’s out!”’ Troops of the Fortieth Regiment on board another ship learned the news from an English frigate, and “the young officers, who were looking ravenously forward to promotion, were so rejoiced at the news that they treated all the men to an extra glass of grog, to make everybody as lively as themselves.”
By 1815 the British army had been fighting without interruption for many years, and the battles of the Peninsular War had exacted an enormous toll in blood; it seems legitimate, therefore, to assume that the percentage of officers who had been promoted on merit was much higher at Waterloo than it had been a few years before or would be a few years later. All in all, Wellington’s army was more middle-class and more meritocratic than one might suppose, yet this alone did not make it more professional. Wellington complained that nobody in the British army ever read a regulation or an order except as one might read an amusing novel, and the conduct of many British officers at Waterloo corroborated his observation. The worth of a good officer was determined by the physical courage with which he led his men, and by nothing else. His bravery was the result of the rigid sense of honor that all gentlemen shared.
The process by which officers were assigned to command a brigade, division, or corps was quite deliberate. Such assignments could not be purchased; rather, they were temporary appointments, granted for the duration of a campaign. In this matter—the selection of the army’s highest commanders—the government proceeded with great care, as befitted one of the old monarchies. The average age of the corps and division commanders in the British army at Waterloo was forty-four and a half. An exception was the Prince of Orange, the son of the king of the Netherlands, to whom the command of a corps had been entrusted—for obvious political reasons—even though he was only twenty-three years old, in conformity with another custom that was widespread in the old monarchies.
On the whole, the harsh judgments on the British army pronounced by the Duke of Wellington and the French veterans had nothing to do with its military efficiency. However proletarian and semiliterate he may have been, the English soldier, well-nourished with meat and beer, stimulated with gin, and convinced of his own racial superiority to the foreign rabble he had to face, was a magnificent combatant, as anyone who has ever seen hooligans in action at a soccer match can readily imagine. This analogy is not disrespectful, given that Wellington himself admitted the frequency and the enormity of the crimes committed by his soldiers against the civilian population, adding that he could not explain it except with the fact that many soldiers in the army, lured by the temptation of a few guineas to finance their binges, had left their families to starve.
On this subject, the French general Foy, basing his remarks on his experiences in Spain, wrote that “the English soldier is stupid and intemperate,” but that this was an advantage: “An iron discipline exploits some of these faults and blunts the others.” All in all, Foy wrote, the British army’s “main strength lies in the fact that its masses of ignorant men allow themselves to be led blindly by men who are more enlightened than they are.” The Duke of Wellington would certainly have agreed with Foy’s judgment. The full version of the duke’s scathing comment about his troops reveals that he was actually pronouncing a kind of ambiguous tribute to the British soldier: “Our friends—I may say it in this room—are the very scum of the earth. People talk of their enlisting from their fine military feelings—all stuff—no such thing. Some of our men enlist from having got bastard children—some for minor offences—many more for drink; but you can hardly conceive such a set brought together, and it really is wonderful that we should have made them the fine fellows they are.”
Maximilien-Sebastien Foy (1775-1825) was a graduate of the artillery school at La Fere and saw his first action at Jemappes in 1792 before campaigning in Holland, Germany and Switzerland in the 1790s. A friend of Moreau, one of Napoleon’s enemies, Foy narrowly escaped being arrested for treason but his qualities as an artillery officer, clearly evident in the campaigns of 1805 and 1806, were such that he continued to serve. IN 1807 he was sent on a technical mission to Constantinople and on his return in 1808, he joined Junot’s Army of Portugal as a colonel. For the next six years Foy served in the Peninsula, fighting at Vimiero in 1809, Bussaco in 1810, Salamanca in 1812, Vitoria in 1813 and Orthez in 1814, being wounded twice but reaching the rank of général de division. Foy’s last battle was Quatre Bras in 1815 where he was badly wounded.
After 1815, Foy turned to writing and having fought the British soldier for so long, he was in a good position to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of both his opponent and the army in which he served. In his Histoire de la Guerre de Peninsule sous Napoléon, translated and published in London in 1827 as History of the War in the Peninsula under Napoleon, Foy added an appendix which contained “Observations on the Character and Composition of the French, British, and Spanish Armies,” from which the following excerpt was taken. It was also reprinted by W.H. Maxwell in his Victories of Wellington and the British Armies published in 1852.
Foy’s comments are, of course, highly coloured by his own experience in the Peninsula as one can gather from his discussion of the qualities of British infantry (“the best portion of the British army”) and the uselessness of British cavalry (“In cavalry service it is not sufficient for the soldiers to be brave … there must also be science and unity”). On the whole, he is more admiring than critical but then he had good reason to respect an enemy he had fought many times and his observations are a critical analysis of Wellington’s army an enemy who had reason to know both that army’s good and bad aspects.