Blessing or Curse?

The British army in the light of Waterloo.

“As a battle of science, it was demonstrative of no manoeuvre” wrote Sir Harry Smith sometime between 1820 and 1848. Writing in July of 1815 Baron Marbot was incredulous at the defeat and confirmed that “We were manoeuvred like so many pumpkins”. Smith went on to say “It was no Salamanca or Vitoria, were science was so beautifully exemplified: it was as a stand up fight between two pugilists “Mill away” until one is beaten. The Battle of Waterloo, with all it’s political glory has destroyed the field movement of the British Army. So scientifically laid down by Dundas, so improved by that hero of war and drill, Sir John Moore. All that light troop duty that had taught, by which the world, through the medium of the Spanish war was saved, has been replaced by the most heavy of manoeuvres, by squares, centre formations, and moving in masses, which require time to collect and equal time to extend; and all because the Prussians and the Russians did not know how to move quicker, we, forsooth must adapt to their ways…”

Sir Harry Smith 95th (Rifle) Regiment of Foot.
Sir Harry Smith.

The operational tactics of the British army post 1815 can be summarised by well over 30 Squares at Waterloo and a single line at Balaclava. The traditions of the British army were born in 1815, throughout the 19th century it took its character from the exploits of the national contingent at Mont St Jean. Determination, courage, stolidity, resilience, the rock hard determination to stand unflinching against all odds. The strange thing is that he opposite was true previously. All through the 18th century, when the bedrock for the traditions of Waterloo was set down, from 1701 to 1814, the focus was on amphibious landings, offensive movement and increasingly open formations, as the experiences of war in America altered strategic thinking. By 1854, the lessons of the 18th century had all been relegated to a few benchmarks in history. People and soldiers only remembered Marlborough, who was in any event a conventional soldier, but who preferred artful attack of the Cromwellian tradition, to bulldog defence. Of Wolfe, his legacy was an inaccurate painting of his death, and few would relate his linear victory at Quebec with the daring amphibious night landing and mountain climb the night before, an audacious move worthy of Marlborough. In 1790 the experience of the American Revolution was being used as a model for retraining the infantry, to be able to fight extended and in line, which had excellent effect in Portugal and Spain, but by the mid 19th century all anybody remembered was the boys own image of clever American patriots sniping and stupid unimaginative walls of redcoats. However in reality it showed the army to be an exceptionally flexible machine, that had learned from the French & Indian War to fight as the land allowed. Regimental traditions kept some of these events alive, such as the infantry at Minden etc, but regimental memory, which ensured each man developed a deep pride in his own unit’s record as if it was his own, rarely influenced higher tactical thought.
All in all by the Peninsular War the army only needed a competent commander to bring the best out of it, and it got one. By the end of the war the army might well have been on a path that would have seen it taking a very different shape to what it did, but Waterloo erased all that, and some 40 years later Balaclava obliterated it.

93rd Highlanders, the thin red line.
93rd Highlanders, the thin red line.

Sir Harry, was a soldier of great experience, having served in Spain under Wellington as a subaltern, and was a brigade major at Waterloo, then much to his surprise in later life, he commanded an army in India, which he led to victory over the Sikh’s at Aliwal, a battle vaunted as the Waterloo of India, or the “Battle without a mistake”. As we can see he probably preferred the latter accolade. Despite being a loyal supporter of Wellington, Smith was right about Waterloo, a fact which even Wellington admitted was true, Waterloo was a pounding match. The Duke’s remark about Waterloo being the nicest thing you ever saw should not be taken literally, for nice meant walking a dodgy line, it took him a long time to refer it in any but dark terms.

Strip away the political significance of the battle and you see that Sir Harry is dead right, there was little scientific soldering, no art, to Waterloo. The old General’s writing reminded me of a thought that had once entered my muddled mind, about how the British army changed in the period between 1815 & 1854. This period, was mostly taken up with peacetime duties and colonial campaigns, were a tradition of immobile stolidity birthed by the dogged stand at Waterloo began to emerge. The most dramatic example of the transformation occurs in the Crimea in 1854, blending together the immovable British line, and the established image of the stolid British square.

As a fighting force the British army suffered a marked neglect in both strategic thinking and organisation during the relative lull between Waterloo and Alma. Strategically, if anything the establishment regressed, as the importance that commanders like Wellington put on battalion flexibility was replaced by the image of his stand at Waterloo. Much blame has indeed been apportioned to Wellington for not modernising the army when he served as Commander in Chief. However much of this is unfair, though doubtless his conservative stance and pride in the achievements of the army did create a time capsule, which when put in the hands of a lesser commander failed to work the same way. Nevertheless though organisational failings can with some justification be laid at the Duke’s door, the strategic thought pattern that the British army fell into cannot. Between 1815 and 1854 the heavy handed bludgeon tactics Smith criticised are evident, both Sikh wars are best remembered for the large casualties sustained by the attacking British forces. The 1st Afghan War doesn’t even bear thinking about, and was the greatest military disaster Britain had suffered since the American wars. Four Cape Frontier Wars against the Xhosa saw some more flexibility due to the irregular nature of the enemy and the ground, but Colonial campaign’s rarely influenced strategic thinking in Europe.

What they failed to grasp was that Wellington did not need to be artful at Waterloo to defeat Napoleon. It served the interest of a quick victory better to gamble that he could hold his ground with his rather clunky, unimpressive army, and keep the French fixed for as long as it took for the Prussians to arrive and thus achieve a crushing numerical superiority that Napoleon could not resist.
Wellington had probably seen at Quatre Bras that his army was not at all ready to perform flexibly under pressure, but that it could take a great deal of punishment if deployed correctly.
Manoeuvring once they had lost the initiative was a losing game anyway, against so flexible a foe. He did not have an army he trusted to perform like the one he had in Spain (an army he had taken about four to five years to get into shape, and it is telling that he fought defensively until it was ready), so it was a strategic choice and was not a doctrine he usually practiced. Nor one that he would have proliferated had he continued fighting. Nor was it as some authors have recently absurdly claimed, a politically motivated stand that sacrificed the lives of his men for some distant and uncertain political gain. As it was, as close as it was, he judged the situation perfectly.

Essentially allot comes down to the commander on the ground. It isn’t that the British army stopped being effective in light of Waterloo, rather that it appeared to become limited in its operational ability. Wellington was known as a defensive general, masterful though he was at anticipating were an attack would hit, this is a fallacy, for he was just as able in attack. In Spain, the years 1812-1814 showed a relentless offensive movement which drove the French back into their own country. Illustrated in these campaigns were the use of light troops, of rapid manoeuvres to catch the enemy off guard, the adoption of light infantry tactics by entire regiments of line infantry. It was no empty boast that the Peninsular Army was for its numbers the best in Europe, it could literally do anything. Waterloo’s legacy was to instil a tradition of “Well we stood at Waterloo, we can stand anywhere” and it was remarkably effective, the British infantry were imbued with a stolid quality born from the squares on Mont St Jean ridge, an inspirational image of the old British squares at Waterloo, which later joined forces with the thin red line of Balaclava and the linear frontal attack at Alma. At Balaclava instead of forming square in the face of cavalry, the 93rd stayed in line with their new rifles, did not manoeuvre and volleyed the mindless charge away. At Alma, the first set piece battle the army had seen against and industrial foe since Waterloo, the divisions marched in line, across a river, up a hill with no cover, at midday against prepared earthworks. Had the Russians improved their own tactics or equipment since 1812-14 then it is doubtful it would be remembered as a victory.

Battle of the Alma.
Battle of the Alma.

So the impact of Waterloo caused a dramatic shift in the army’s tactical thinking. This was helped by the lack of European or industrial enemies until 1854, and the lack of intelligent audacious officers commanding them when they fought the Russians afterwards. By the 1840s the old brigade that had fought in Spain were thinning and by the end of the Crimea they were all but gone or too old to give the game the same energy. After the shock of the Crimea, it was obvious things needed to change, and change did come with characteristic slowness that trailed behind the adoption of new and better weapons. There was a deployment of light troops and the renewed interest in open order training saw a marked revival with the introduction of accurate breech loading rifles. The lack of commanders using these tactics correctly is shown, ironically at iSandlwana were the extended line of the 24th was turned and penetrated. Here a square would not have gone amiss at all. Indeed though the new weapons altered regimental drill somewhat, it did not in any way alter the mindset of the officer corps. By and large the Victorian army stood by the doctrine of massing their new and overwhelming firepower to achieve victory in the old close order formations, and thus they carried the old Waterloo spirit into battle from 1860 until the Boer War, sometimes with glorious but also fatal results. The Victorian army looked back to the old traits, ever the romantic sentimentalists, they were already trying to reach back to supposedly simpler times, but missed much of what they were looking for.

The British Square in action at Quatre Bras.
The British Square in action at Quatre Bras.

The purity of the image of the resolute square of redcoats, or the plucky thin red line, bristling with bayonets, held by grim bushy faced veterans and noble young braves, staring down hordes of enemies, was an emotive one. It carried on not only in tactical thinking (right onto the barbed wire and Mauser sights of the Boers) but into the popular imagination of later civilian generations. Before the “spirit of the Blitz” overtook it, many 20th century books, Hollywood movies and TV all remembered the Square and Line as the nascent symbols of British courage and “stiff upper lip spirit,” which was in a sense Waterloo spirit.

The enduring image of an ordinary war correspondents report of a quite extraordinary and out of the everyday military event of an infantry line repulsing a cavalry charge. (A feat nevertheless achieved at Minden, Abukir, El Bodon and Quatre Bras) shows how hard it was to break from this pattern.
Kipling sums up the idea of the invincibility of the once quite ordinary box formation, in his poem “Fuzzy Wuzzy” were he lauds the Dervish “In his home in the Sudan” as the greatest opponent of the British Tommy, because they broke the “British Square”.


0 Replies to “Blessing or Curse?”

  1. excellent review – ultimately i suppose technology forced the greatest change to military tactics – interesting that a force that learned to be so flexible and innovative changed possibly for the worse in some ways after such a considerable victory. As you say much depends on the leader in the field. Similar things can be true of business leaders. we will always need the right person at the right time perhaps. As always interesting and though provoking.

  2. Great blog Josh – as Napoleon said on 3rd March 1821 on St. Helena “War is a business that is governed by the actual moment!” no doubt Wellington would have agreed.

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