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Monday, 5 May 2014
Incomplete but full of gems
Book Review: Wellington's Rifles: The Origins, Development and Battles of the Rifle Regiments in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo by Raymond P. Cusick
(Book cover art and plates kindly provided by the publishers. Please do not reproduce without obtaining permission)
Whether related to the fact that Ray Cusick’s book was published posthumously, or to publisher’s considerations, the title of this book is a misnomer. It is not dedicated to the 95th Rifles in the Peninsular War and Waterloo. The subtitle, The Origins, Development and Battles of the Rifle Regiments in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo, comes closer to an accurate description of the contents, but even this falls short, as it covers much more.
The book deals primarily with the historical background to the creation of light infantry in the British army, including the adoption of the rifled musket, the formation of the experimental corps of riflemen and the early history of the 95th Regiment. There is at least as much mention of the Royal American Regiment (60th Foot) and the 43rd and 52nd regiments of light infantry as there is of the 95th.
The broader content than the title suggests, which may be a disappointment to some readers, was a bonus to me. The wider subject matter means that there is a lot of detail about the French & Indian War, a fascinating period and one that has been of great interest to me (and that I have studied in some detail) since a visit to Quebec in 1990. Despite having a reasonable knowledge of the period, the were still many gems of useful information, interesting anecdotes and new information that made it well worth a read.
More than anything else, the genesis of light infantry in the British army was Braddock’s defeat at the Battle of Monongahela. While I have read numerous accounts of this famous military ‘disaster’, Cusick’s description of Braddock’s mission, expedition to Fort Duquesne and the resulting battle is a fine re-telling and one that yielded much new information.
Other gems were Major Roger’s rules for his Rangers, the formation of the 60th, which involved military, political and social considerations, and the falling from favour of light infantry between the French & Indian War and American War of Independence, all of which were new to me. Other points of interest in this section regarding the early years of the light infantry are the difference in philosophy between Gage's light companies and Howe's light battalions, the formation of the 5/60th, who were trained to fight in pairs, along with other aspects from de Rottenburg’s manual, and, lastly, the state of the British army in the late 18th C, government attitudes, the Duke of York’s reforms and formation of the training camp at Shorncliffe under Moore.
A re-enactor dressed as a soldier of Gage's light infantry (80th Foot). Image kindly provided by the publishers. Please do not reproduce without obtaining permission.
My pleasant surprise at the broad subject coverage of the book was negated to a large extent by the repetitious, and confusing writing style, often incorporating two, three or more ideas in a paragraph that is loosely, and only loosely, related to the next one. The main reason for this is that the book is an incomplete work, since Mr Cusick passed away before it was completed (and published). No wonder it reads like a compilation of essays on the topic. It is a shame that the editors decided to remain true to his manuscript, rather than to edit it to improve the flow of topics and logic through the book and to remove the repetition.
It is not until the seventh chapter that we hear about the rifles, further illustrating the misnomer of the title. This chapter covers the formation of the experimental corps of riflemen in February 1800, from men of companies from various units who initially wore their regimental uniforms. Cusick tells us that some colonels sent troublesome individuals, who were rejected and by June 1800 the idea that the corps would be an élite formation had become entrenched. The men were initially armed with rifles from Prussia or Durrs Egg, but, in February 1800, Ezekiel Baker’s rifle was chosen as the armament for the regiment. The new regiment received its baptism of fire on 25th August 1800 when it landed at Ferrol with the 52nd regiment.
Chapters 8 and 9 repeat much of the information from chapters 1–3 (muskets vs rifles, line vs light infantry tactics, volley fire, about the rifle, formation of light infantry and Sir John Moore’s role), along with some additional, interesting snip-bits, e.g. riflemen carried lead and mould to make balls on campaign and that each rifle was individually numbered.
A 95th rifleman in 1810. One of only two plates depicting riflemen (of the 16 in the book). Image kindly provided by the publishers. Please do not reproduce without obtaining permission.
In Chapter 10 we have the first of three chapters that specifically address the subject of the book, i.e. the rifles in the Peninsular and at Waterloo. This first covers the period 1808–12, focussing on the action at the River Coa. The chapter begins at the start of the Peninsular War, but has surprisingly little about the retreat to Coruña in which the 95th ‘cut its teeth’ and which is considered to have shone and maintained discipline when other units and formations were not.
This potted history of the 95th continues in Chapter 11 with Sabugal and Fuentes de Oñoro and Chapter 12 with Waterloo. Lastly the book’s Appendices present ‘The manoeuvres of General How as practised in 1774 at his light infantry camp at Salisbury’ (Appendix I), ‘Extracts from Regulations for the Exercise of Riflemen and Light Infantry and Instructions for Their Conduct in the Field’ (Appendix II) and ‘Titles of the Regiment’ (Appendix III).
Overall we have a book that contains some excellent material, but which is downgraded immensely because of the poor writing style and repetition. Nevertheless, it is still a worthwhile read with much to offer, but what could have been a great read is only a good one.