I've seen it claimed that the British army was the best trained and best disciplined army in the Napoleonic Wars. Is this true?

Mar 2016
1,106
Australia
#1
Maybe I'm wrong in this impression I've got from reading around a bit on the topic, but I've seen the claim that while Britain's army was significantly smaller than the armies of the other major powers of Europe (e.g. France, Austria, Russia) they made up for it having highly trained and well-disciplined soldiers that, on a individual level, were superior to their continental counter-parts. Can someone more knowledgeable in this topic shed some light on this?
 

pugsville

Ad Honorem
Oct 2010
9,048
#2
There's some element of truth to it. Vaguely. But all these generalizations are problematic in the details,

The British certianly allocated allocated more rounds per solider for actually shooting their muskets in trianing (IIRC around 60 compared to 6 for others per year) BUT the factors leading to better trianed more disciplined army were the conserving teh army by Wellington leading to higher porportion of veterans compared to other armies, over time the British accumulated a greater proportion of veterans. IIRC about half the men going into the Army come from the Militia and were at least partially trained. I think the 1805 French army was the pinnacle of preparation and training, the best trained force (considering it's size)

Doctrine - there were some things the British did better doctrinally, the British generally placed more empahiss of leveling the muskets (aiming up or down for the distnce to target) which was often a large factor in ineffective volleys. But the British placed great value of fire discipline, not firing until the order was given, and reserving their fire to very close range. (maximizing it's effectiveness, often after 1 or 2 volleys followed by a short baynot charge even in defense)

Light Infantry the Birtish has sepcialised light infantry in relatively large numbers who were well trained, the light infantry school and Moore. This addition of very skilled skirmishers added a lot to British performance.

Disicpline, depends what you mean, there is differnet types of discipline.

Parade ground Discipline - Moving as automatons, on the parade ground, the Prussians and Russians after that but really not that important.

Coolness undeer fire dicipline - mostly a function of experience. Though the Russians had a strong reputation for this,. British doctrinial differences might have aided this aspect, French practice was often to 'work up' (get excited, stressing valour aggression ) their troops during assaults, while Brtish doctrine stressed waiting silently. To a very small degree the psychological of British doctirne was better suited to maintaining 'coolness'.

Looting & dicipline - generally the British discipline was better but when it broke it broke down very badly. french troops were more prone to looting and many expected to do so, living off the land and foraging much more often oppotunities to loot (and all so easy to move from foraging to looting)

Punishment & dicipline - all armies except the French had pretty brutal punishments on the books, but i gather often not used, depending on command. Generally feel (but it's very loosely held opinion) the others armies more constant with lower level phsyical punishment, the British more sporadic but brutal, though the Prussians/Russians extreme punishments were very harsh.
 
Last edited:
Feb 2016
4,342
Japan
#3
There’s a valid argument for it being “better trained”.
As already pointed out, militia recruits were already competent, and with no enemies in-country troops were rarely sent abroad before they were ready, and fire discipline was heavily emphasized.

More disciplined... well the discipline was harsh in most armies. British units could breakdown just like French or Austrian ones. And the army of 1794 was quite a different machine to the army of 1813.

Flogging was brutal, but then in the Prussian army they used to beat you, and as some soldiers said the British flogged where the others would hang or shoot you. And the lash was not consistently applied ... that would depend on the CO.

Naturally the circumstances of some European armies led to troops who were not “ready” being sent into combat.... which leads to misleading ideas.

The British army was small and almost entirely volunteer, which usually helps with morale, and while pay was not always on time it was usually paid eventually. Food was also important... English and Scottish troops were noted to be grumblers and complainers if not well fed, and if prolonged could be difficult, interestingly Irish soldiers were considered better at coping with extreme conditions... hunger, cold, wet... as it was assumed they grew up hungry, cold and wet so could handle it better.

In short British soldiers 1794 are probably equal in all respects to all European troops. Very little difference.

By 1811- most of the major armies have been gutted, smashed several times, had to rush troops through training, enlarged their forces, called up conscripts and militia, were fighting over depleted areas with large amounts of fatigue and unwillingness.
The British on the other hand were undamaged, remained a small proffesional Force, were usually well supplied and equipped and had the luxury of complete training.
 

pugsville

Ad Honorem
Oct 2010
9,048
#4
Also the British formed line in 2 ranls and otehr Nations 3. Genrlaly teh thrid rank was very ineffective, French doctrien had the thrid rank loading and swaooing muskets with teh second rank, but this did not work well in pratcice. Often you ended up with teh thid rank firing over the heads of teh second rank totally ineffectively. 600 man British line has frontage of 300 others 200. 50% more muskets firing effectively.
 
Feb 2016
4,342
Japan
#5
Actually British drill books maintained 3 ranks, and training and drill would be done in 3. In the field they often switched to two ranks as units were understrength and it was important to maintain frontage.

French, Austrian and Prussian establishments maintained 3 ranks but the 3 rank was often deployed as skirmishers.
 
May 2011
498
UK
#6
the main difference was the development and adoption of platoon firing which allowed British infantry to concentrate their fire on the battlefield. Most continental European armies consisted of conscripts with limited training so were forced to rely on fire by rank. As at the Battle of Fontenoy, a battle the British lost yet the British infantry column at the centre shattered the French line through platoon firing
 
Feb 2016
4,342
Japan
#7
Platoon Firing was very complicated, and even the British said it would not last more than two firings before smoke, noise and Adrenalin reduced it to firing at will.

But Dutch, Bavarian, Hessian, French, Austrians and Prussians all had platoon firing drills.
It was replaced in 1760s by alternate firing, which was a quicker Prussian system.

By the AWI it had fallen out of favour and been replaced by a quick volley followed by a bayonet rush... though successful against the earlier American units.. at Monmouth they came off worse to Americans using the Alternate firing method.

By the Napoleonic Wars I’m not sure if platoon fire was back in vogue.
 
May 2011
498
UK
#8
The tactics used by the British army in the AWI were largely specific to that war, which was an infantryman's war without any heavy cavalry and those tactics did not carry over to later wars. The British infantry relied on looser formations and quick movement because of the lack of cavalry there was a greater emphasis on close combat with the bayonet to close and destroy the enemy

The differences go further than just the greater emphasis on platoon firing by the British army. Continental infantry also tended to deploy in columns, which was more advantageous when maneuvering larger bodies of men on the battlefield, however for example French infantry in columns often could not bring the full weight of their firepower that the British could bring in extended line
 
Feb 2016
4,342
Japan
#9
Well, British doctrine in the Napoleonic wars, later half, DID take a lot of lessons from America.

Including volley fire and rapid advance with bayonet, extra skirmishers, detached light troops, etc. It was only in the early, revolutionary wars, when they had seemingly forgotten the lessons they learned in the colonies, interestingly this was also their least successful period.

French doctrine advocated an attack in column in certain situations, against the British their Intention was normally to deploy into line, D’Erlon was doing this at Waterloo, and giving Pictons Division a pasting, it was achieved at Albuera hence the ensuing blood bath, but in many cases they were surprised by the sudden appearance of a British line over a ridge or hill crest. But even French attacks without lines could beat British lines... at Salamanca Clausel pushed on with out stopping and forced the fusiliers to run, and Bonnets Brigade has the same success against some Portuguese.

Most armies held broadly the same principles, advance in column, deploy and engage in line. It was only in periods of mass levy and low training that line was considered bad .. so for the French 1790s and post 1813-4 conscripts, for the Prussians Landwher and so on. The British were in column of attack at Rolica though that might have only been the 29th..., and I’m almost every attempt at storming a castle they advanced in attack column.
 
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