Tag Archives: Napoleonic War

The Lee Enfield .303 and British marksmanship

Thanks to x for pointing out this video.

You’ll often read in Great War history books about how the regular troops of the British Expeditionary Force at Mons in 1914 managed to put out such a rate of fire that the German’s thought that they were being faced with Battalions of Machine Guns. Watch this video and its easy to see how well trained troops could put out some serious lead with an SMLE! Multiply this rate of fire by 1,000 – the strength 0f a Battalion – and you really wouldn’t want to be in the way.

Historically, British marksmanship has always been pretty good compared to other armies. I can remember reading about how even during the Napoleonic War the British Army was the only one that practised with live rounds, and reading the Sharpe novels you get a real sense of how important massed ranks of volley fire were. When you add in the early interest that the British Army took in the Baker rifle, then you also have a heritage of accuracy too.

All this possibly goes some way to explaining why the establishment feared the Machine Gun – the Generals preferred their soldiers to fire deliberate, well aimed shots, making each one count. But, as any good guitar player will tell you, speed is a by product of accuracy – get it right first, and then get it fast. Read Dan Mill’s ‘Sniper One’ about the insurgency in Iraq in 2004, and you’ll see how apparently the insurgents found it seriously uncool to aim their AK47’s, and simply to blaze away from the hip. No wonder during World War Two the Army feared the sub-machine gun – calling them’gangster guns’ – apprehensive that soldiers would begin blasting away like Al Capone!

This culture might also explain why post-WW2 Britain adopted a rifle like the SLR, rather than something like the M16.

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Guthrie’s War: A Surgeon of the Peninsula and Waterloo by Michael Crumplin

I’m not the greatest of people with squeamish stuff – graphic descriptions of nasty wounds make me toes curl. I studied ‘medicine through time’ for GCSE History, and even then medical history, although interesting, would make my stomach churn. Yet despite that, I could never deny that Medical History is interesting. Its at an intersection between history and science. And more often than not, most medical advances are inspired by war. And this book is a prime of example of a skilled medic who honed his skills during war time.

George Guthrie is one of the unsung heroes of the Napoleonic Wars. Not only was he one of the most forward thinking surgeons of his time, he also kept detailed case records and statistics, which here are edited by Michael Crumplin, himself a retired surgeon.

There are some pretty gruesome cases described here. Its not surprising that terrible wounds shock us, as most Hollywood films show the hero being shot cleanly through the heart, saying ‘tell Jane that I love her’ and then lolloping his head to one side. As Guthrie shows, bullets do not make nice neat holes, neither do swords. As a Historian I would be pretty much lost trying to make sense of some of the more scientific details, so its a smart move for Guthrie’s account to be edited by a doctor.

War gives the surgeon many more opportunities to examine the human anatomy, that in peacetime would only come from dissecting dead bodies. And the opportunity to get to grips with complex trauma wounds led to discoveries and innovations – Guthrie found that when amputating limbs a tourniquet was not always necessary, and that all an assitant needed to do was apply firm pressure on the right arteries. Guthrie also developed an understanding of how to run hospitals with minimising the risk of infection and disease in mind.

We often find that the treatment and suffering of wounded during wars brings about a national outcry – particularly the Crimean War, the First World War and to a lesser extent the current Afghan War and Help for Heroes. The Napoleonic Wars might not have caused a revolution in nursing like the Crimea, nor the forming of charities such as after 1918. But its effects were more subtle – slowly, the authorities began to see the importance of good medical services to warfighting. Much as Wellington won his battles partly through solid logistical organistation, he also made medical services an inherent part of planning, and not just a bolt-on.

Interestingly, it seems that Guthrie came up opposition from his contemporaries, particularly on his policy of only amputating when absolutely necessary. If we believe other contemporary accounts – such as Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, and also accounts of Naval surgery, it would seem that Napoleonic military surgeon’s were knife-happy butchers.

Maybe the historical convention that all Napoleonic-era military surgeons were butchers needs to be re-thought? There also seems to be a convention that the only Napoleonic doctor with any kind of forward-thinking was the Empereur’s personal surgeon, Dr Larrey. Yet this account of Guthrie’s war service suggest that medical science in the British Army was not as barbaric as we might immediately think.

Guthrie’s War is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Napoleonic War, Uncategorized