Category Archives: Napoleonic War

The making of the British Army – Allan Mallinson

The Making of the British Army - Allan Mallinson

The Making of the British Army - Allan Mallinson

The British Army, which can traces an almost unbroken lineage back to the days of Cromwell, often appears to outsiders as a curious institution. Why is the Navy the ROYAL Navy, and the Air Force the ROYAL Air Force? The answer is inherent in the Army’s culture – the Regiment is the primary loyalty in the Army, and the Army has for hundreds of years evolved to become a confederation of regimental tribes.

Allan Mallinson’s book is not a quick read. But then, the development of the British Army has not been a quick process. Several regiments in the modern Army can trace their lineage back to Cromwell’s New Model Army.

The story of the British Army is one of hard-won military experience. Of campaigns on all continents, in defence of Empire and against tyranny. Yet British culture has almost always placed the Royal Navy in the ascendancy. As an island nation the Navy defends us. With a strong Navy, the need for an Army is minimal, or so naval advocates have argued time and time again. The Army is a bullet, to be fired by the Navy.

So for many years the Army found itself fighting small, colonial wars around the globe, punctuated by rare forays onto the European mainland. But for the most part, at least until the twentieth century, the British Army was not a major factor in British defence planning.

What stands out most of all, is that often the British Army has managed to exert an influence out of all proportion to its size. Why? For one, apart from during and immediately after the two world wars, it has overwhelmingly been a volunteer force. Smaller than most continental Armies, never the less this small, volunteer ethos has continually led to the British Army having a stronger discipline, better training and professionalism. Over time, particular in the past 50 years, the Army has come to have a stronger identity, and a stronger grip over its constituent parts.

The British Army is also one in which people and events have always had an impact way beyond their time. Leaders such as Marlborough and Wellington still influence young army officers today. In particular, valiants stands at Waterloo, Rorkes Drift and Arnhem have a powerful motivational effect on officers and men alike. As Mallinson so aptly tells us, at Goose Green in the Falklands, one 2 Para officer told his men two simple words: ‘remember Arnhem’.

The Army is undergoing a period of change once more: it is engaged in a savage fight against a formidable foe in Helmand province. This is taking place against a background of continual defence cuts and reforms, with many famous old names disappearing as local regiments become increasingly regional in make-up. This might dilute local loyalties, but still I suspect it is easier to feel loyalty to a name than a number. Perhaps for the British Army more than any other, heritage makes it what it is. From the shining examples of victories – and defeats – to the uniforms, names, museums, quirky traditions and pomp and pageantry, history oozes out of every pore.

To try to understand the culture of the British Army, especially from the point of view of someone looking in from the outside, is no easy task. It was once said that an Army should be a mirror of the society that it comes from, but it is much more complicated than that. To explain the history of the British Army by simply charting battles and campaigns is not enough. This book by Allan Mallinson, although by no means an academic text, brings a complex story up to date. Although he is himself an ex serving soldier, his writing is refreshingly free of the ‘old boys’ style where old officers are respected regardless of their achievements – or lack of – and where officers live in the past, with no eye on the future.

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, cold war, Falklands War, Iraq, Korean War, Napoleonic War, World War One, World War Two

Mounted Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard – Ronald Pawly

Mounted Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard

Mounted Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard

From the moment Napoleon Bonaparte emerged to prominence at the recapture of Toulon in 1793, until his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815 and his subsequent exile to Elba, the French Army had revolutionised warfare. Napoloeon developed an Army that was overwhelmingly made up of conscripts, using a large body of poorly trained men who could be easily replaced. At the head of this mass army, however, was perhaps the most formidable Royal Household unit formed since the Roman Praetorian Guard – the Imperial Guard. The Imperial Guard came to set the standard for elite Household units, a mantle picked up by the British Foot Guards and Household Cavalry at Waterloo.

The Mounted Grenadiers were the Imperial Guards heavy cavalry, imposing in their Bearskins and chosen for their physical stature. This book, by Ronald Pawly uses regimental records and is a short history of the Mounted Grenadiers, and also contains many photos of rare weapons and equipment, as well as Osprey’s trademark artwork.

This book is pretty much a historical narrative of the unit, the part that they played in the Napoleonic French Army and the wider Napoleonic Wars. If you are looking for a comparative study of Napoleonic heavy cavalry then maybe this isnt the book for you, but if you are simply interested in reading about an elite force and studying them in depth this will make for a very good read. I can imagine this being especially interesting if you are keen on military models, wargaming or military uniforms. It is packed with facts and figures, and has clearly been written by someone who has done much research on this subject.

I must warn you, however: this book is very difficult to read without hearing the Sharpe theme tune in your head, or upon closing your eyes seeing epic scenes from the film Waterloo!

Mounted Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard is published by Osprey

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204 years since Trafalgar

The Death of Nelson, Benjamin West

'The Death of Nelson', Benjamin West

204 years ago today the Royal Navy, under Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, defeated a combined French and Spanish fleet, in a monumental sea battle off the coast of South West Spain.

The Royal Navy had been blockading the enemy fleet in port for several years. After the peace of Amiens collapsed in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte hatched a plan to invade England. This would require the French fleet, with the support of their Spanish allies, to gain control of the English Channel, to allow the French Army to invade Southern England. To do this, the French attempted to lure the British fleet to the Carribean.

The plan almost worked. The British were lured to the Carribean, but hurriedly returned and prevented the Franco-Spanish fleet from reaching the Channel. The British then kept them bottled up in Cadiz harbour. Meanwhile, Napoleon had tired of his naval commander, Admiral Villeneuve’s failures, and replaced him.

Before his replacement arrived, however, Villeneuve – with nothing to lose – put to sea, intent on fighting the Royal Navy.

The sides were not exactly evenly matched. Although the French and Spanish outnumbered the British by 33 to 27, the British sailors were far better trained, could produce a far greater rate of fire, and were far better seamen. This countered the enemies superiority in terms of the size of its ships. The Spanish in particular boasted the biggest ship in the world, the 136 gun, four-deck Santissima Trinidad. But the French and Spanish had spent many years cooped up in harbour, and had many inexperienced men onboard.

After briefing his Captains, his famous Band of Brothers, Nelson hoisted his famous ‘England Expects’ signal. The battle plan was ingenious. Dividing his fleet into two squadrons, they sailed parallel towards the enemy line. After suffering heavy damage as they approached the French and Spanish, once they broke the line they inflicted heavy losses. By the end of the battle the British had captured 22 ships, although many of these were sunk in a heavy storm after the battle.

The Death of Nelson, however, cast a sombre mood over the victory. Although he certainly had his faults – his adultery and treatment of his wife, and his excessive vanity – he was the nearest that England has ever come to a secular saint. Nelson and Trafalgar would shape the Royal Navy, and British culture, for centuries to come.

Despite the fact that it confirmed British superiority of the worlds oceans for over 100 years, the battle was perhaps not so important in the overall scheme of the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon had already given up the invasion of Britain, and had marched east to the battle of Austerlitz. Although it would be 10 years before Bonaparte was finally defeated at Waterloo, Trafalgar did however mean that no matter how succesful Napoleon was in Europe, Britain would always be free to fight back.

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Trafalgar flag – for the nation?

HMS Achille, Spartiates sister ship

HMS Achille, Spartiate's sister ship

The last known surviving Union Jack flown in battle by the Royal Navy at Trafalgar is expected to sell for £15,000 at auction. The jack was flown from the flagstaff of HMS Spartiate. After the battle on 21 October 1805 it was presented to one of the ships officers, and his family and ancestors have kept it safe until now.

Charles Miller, who is selling the flag in London on Trafalgar Day, October 21, said: “We believe it is the only existing flag that flew at Trafalgar. It is one of the most important historical items any collector could expect to handle. The damage is probably from bullet holes or splinter fragments, but despite this it is in amazing condition.”

HMS Spartiate was a 74 gun ship of the line, built and launched by the French. In 1798 she fought at the Battle of the Nile, and was captured by the British. As was the custom at the time she was repaired and commissioned into the Royal Navy, complete with the same name, and fought at Trafalgar.

In my opinion, something of this importance should not be allowed to get anywhere near private collectors, who would puchase it out of extravagance and keep it for their own gratification. It would far more appropriately be donated to the National Maritime Museum or the Royal Naval Museum, where anyone and everyone could go and see it. Or, god forbid, it might even end up leaving the country. Museums, with their rigid funding, simply cannot compete against wealthy individuals.

Should there be laws to protect items of national importance from being squirreled away, or leaving the country altogether?

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Portsmouth Dockyard

Portsmouth Dockyard

Portsmouth Dockyard

Portsmouth is one of the three main operating bases of the Royal Navy, as well as Devonport in Plymouth and the Clyde/Faslane. Its the base for two thirds of the Navy’s surface fleet, as well as home of the oldest dry dock in the world.

Portsmouth’s importance goes back almost a thousand years. The first major settlement in the area was the Roman and then Norman Castle at Portchester. By the time of King Henry VIII, however, Portsmouth Harbour had began to silt up, so a new naval base was created at the mouth of the harbour, including the first dry dock in Europe. Constructed in 1496, this was situated around the area of the modern day no.1 basin.

As the British Empire grew and the Royal Navy’s commitments abroad multiplied, the important of Portsmouth as a naval base and dockyard exploded. In particular, when Britain was at war with France, Portsmouth was crucial due to its location. Thousands of shipwrights, riggers, caulkers, sailmakers, and all manner of specialist trades worked in the Yard.

Although the importance of the Navy to Portsmouth is well known – and indeed, we can imagine the many thousands of men and indeed women who worked in the Navy and the Dockyard – something that is so often overlooked is the huge infrastructure of supportive industries needed to support shipbuilding and maintenance. Supplies had to be shipped in from far afield – Timber from around the country, Pitch, Hemp and Tar from the Baltic, Coal from North East England and South Wales, and all manner of food and drink. And for many years, the East India Company used Portsmouth as an operating base. Many of the Dockyard’s wonderful storehouses and Boathouses date from this period.

Isamabard Kingdom Brunel’s father, Marc Brunel, established the Block Mills in the Dockyard in the early 19th Century, the first mass-production line in Britain. Other great engineers who have worked at Portsmouth include Thomas Telford and Samuel Bentham.

As the wooden walls of Nelson’s Navy gave way to the great Ironclads of the late Victorian Navy, a new set of skills had to be acquired. The Dockyard expanded massively in the late Victorian era, known as the ‘Great Extension’. During this time, the Yard was the biggest Industrial estate in the world.

Ships made of iron plate, new bigger and heavier guns, steam propulsion, led to new trades. From the launching of the Dreadnoughts, and the two World Wars, Portsmouth was at the heart of Britain’s defence. After 1945 however and the withdrawal from much of Britain’s overseas commitments, the contraction of the Navy meant a gradual winding down of the Dockyard, until it was privatised in the 1980’s. Despite this, the yard put together a magnificent effort to ready ships for the Falklands War, some of which were made ready and sailed for war as little as 2 days after the Argentinians invaded. The oldest part of the Dockyard is now a Heritage area, with HMS Victory, HMS Warrior, the Mary Rose and the Royal Naval Museum open to visitors.

The Dockyard had an incredible impact on Portsmouth and its culture. Whole families have worked in the yard, including many of my family and ancestors. My dad still has quite a few of his Dockyard tools in the shed! Uniquely, Dockyard workers have always been known as Dockies, and not Dockers as elsewhere.

Finally, there is a tale that one day all of the items in Portsmouth that have been stolen from the Dockyard will grow legs and walk back there. Given that so many tools and materials have mysteriously ‘walked’ out of the Dockyard in the first place, one wonders if Portsmouth woud fall apart if this was ever to happen!

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Filed under Architecture, Falklands War, Family History, Industrial Revolution, Local History, maritime history, Museums, Napoleonic War, Navy, World War One, World War Two

Book of the week # 8 – The Spirit of Portsmouth

The Spirit of Portsmouth - Webb, Quail, Haskell and Riley

The Spirit of Portsmouth - Webb, Quail, Haskell and Riley

A city like Portsmouth is always going to be a difficult one to write about. Its got to be nigh on impossible to ever try and write a book about one place, and to be able to say definitely that it is THE history of a town or a city. Let alone a city as momentous, pivotal and diverse and Portsmouth.

Among the plethora of books about Portsmouth, this is probably the closest to a definitive history that you will get at present. Rather than attempting to give a narrative view of Portsmouth, which would take forever and would be very disjointed, the authors take a more thematic approach, offering chapters on Portsmouths geography, the dockyard and Navy, Religion, Government, Leisure, and its future. It is an admirable collection of chapters, particular Ray Riley’s chapter on Wooden Walls and Ironclads, which draws on his wealth of expertise in this area. It also focusses particularly well on Portsmouth’s early development as a town. Another aspect that makes this book invaluable is its considerable bibliography and endnotes, which are a helpful guide to Local History sources.

Reading from a distance of 20 years, it does show its age, however. Modern local history would probably make far more use of ordinary people’s contributions, and would look further than the grand developments and big personalities. This is very much a ‘top-down’ approach, particularly the importance given to religion and Government. Neither is it definitive, and would probably serve more as an intriduction and signpost to other more detailed works, such as the various Portsmouth Papers. But is is a very important contribution to Portsmouth’s Historiography none the less, and hopefully provides a very useful model for a 21st Century version.

Click here to buy The Spirit of Portsmouth

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Sharpe – best historical fiction ever?

Richard Sharpe... ya Bastard!

Richard Sharpe... ya Bastard!

I’ve been doing some more thinking about Heroes. Richard Sharpe has to be one of mine, and he isn’t even real. A creation of Bernard Cornwell, Richard Sharpe joined the British Army as a Private, and served in India, Denmark, Portugal, Spain, France and Belgium. He’s a pretty incredible character. Rough and tough, he was a survivor who got by on his talents and skills in an era when birth and privilege counted for far more. He manages to do pretty bad things in every book, but heres the nub – he only does bad things to bad people. So its OK, they were asking for it. He’s not perfect, by any means. But he always ends up coming out on top- if only real life was that clear cut. He cared about his men and stood up for them, and stood up for what he thought was right. In fact, I reckon Sharpe isn’t a bad role model at all. Just as long as you dont go around bayoneting Frenchmen!

Not only all that, but the books are absolutely fantastic. As someone who has read all of them at least 3 times, I think they are perhaps the greatest series of Historical Novels ever written. The research and accuracy is completely impeccable. I’ve always thought that a writer of Historial Fiction is essentially doing the groundwork for two books at one – a history book and a novel. Cornwell does it so well. The great thing is too, you can see how his writing has matured over the years. You could read all of the Sharpe novels from first to last, and probably learn more about the Napoleonic British Army and Regency British Society than you would reading the same amount of History books.

Its a formula that has been copied so many times over the years. There are so many Sharpe imitations out there, some of them are so bad you could almost change the names and they would be the same characters and stories. How they get on the shelves bemuses me. But hey, I guess imitation is a form of flattery, and Cornwell himself was heavily influenced by the Hornblower series of books. I’ve often sat down and tried to write a novel, but without fail it always ends up being another Sharpe.

The TV series takes it to another level too. Sean Bean IS Sharpe, and Daragh O’Malley is Harper, you couldnt imagine any better casting. Maybe the TV programmes are very truncated, because they have to fit it all into 2 hours and make it slightly more simple, but in my opinion its done very sensitively to the original.

Sharpe got me interested in military history, and the Napoleonic War. I think it also encouraged me to study English and to write as much as I have. I have a feeling that the Sharpe books will be as popular in years to come as they have been since Cornwell penned Sharpe’s Eagle. And Long may it continue.

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