The two troop types being compared here aren’t actually direct equivalents. French skirmishers were musket armed, and were a standard part of the French army, being present in large numbers at just about every French battle. In contrast the British army also contained musket armed light troops, with the riflemen actually being a rather smaller part of the light infantry force, although admittedly the most famous part. As a result we are comparing a carefully selected elite formation in the British army with a standard part of the French army. The two troop types were also organised very differently. On the French side a company of skirmishers, or voltigeurs, could be found in every battalion. On the British side the riflemen were organised into complete regiments of their own, most famously the 60th and 95th Regiments of Foot. Companies from these regiments were then allocated to particular British forces so the regiments didn’t normally deploy in battalion strength.
The first two examples both come from the Peninsula War. The battle of Rolica came during Wellington’s first brief time in command in Portugal in 1808, and saw the British attacking an outnumbered but well positioned French force. The second came during the Light Division’s time on the River Agueda, and was one of General Craufurd’s most controversial battles, which saw his division almost trapped on the wrong side of the river and forced into a fighting retreat.
The third example used here, La Haye Sainte at Waterloo, saw the riflemen used as the garrison of the walled farm, so not in their regular light infantry role. In this case the focus is almost entirely on the riflemen and how effective they were when defending a fortification. Although some French light regiments took part in the attack, well before Waterloo the French line and light regiments had adopted the same tactical formations and drill. All three examples come from the later years of the long wars, simply because the British rifle regiments didn’t really get involved until quite late.
I’m not sure I’d say the focus of this book is really on the direct clash and comparisons between these two troop types. Instead we are getting parallel examinations of the two different types of light infantry. The choice of examples to be studied is restricted by the British side – riflemen didn’t play a significant role in every British battle of the war, while French skirmishers were almost universally present. In each case we get an examination of the role of the two troop types throughout the battle, rather than when they actually clashed with each other.
For me the heart of the book is the first chapter – Opposing Sides – which is actually split into four sub-chapters, each of which is split into British and French sections. These examine how the units involved were raised, their tactics, the underlying doctrine behind their existence, how they were equipped, organised and commanded. In each case we get a good idea of the motives behind the creation of the two troop types, which help explain how they were then used in the three examples.
The Opposing Sides
Rolica, 17 August 1808
Barba del Puerco, 20 March 1810
La Haye Sainte, 18 June 1815
Author: David Greentree