Weapons and Tactics

It is necessary to understand the weaponry available to the Napoleonic soldier and the tactics enforced on them by the limitations of these weapons before one can fully understand the options available to a general, fighting a battle in the era of Waterloo. The branches of service in an army of this period would not be unknown to a modern soldier in many respects, the three main arms available being the foot soldier, the horseman or cavalryman whose modern equivalent drives a tank and the artillery; with specialist units attached in support roles, such as Staff troops for communication and clerical duties, supplies, engineers and medical personnel. Clearly the capabilities of each branch were in their infancy in relation to the technical abilities of modern army units.

However, the basic organisational tree of the modern army is also quite similar, indeed the idea of a corps being a semi autonomous all arms unit that can function independently in all respects as a mini army was developed during the Napoleonic wars. The rank structure of individuals within the modern army and the company/battalion/regiment/brigade/division/corps structure is little different from that utilised during these wars. The difference only becomes marked when one considers the uniforms, the limitations of the weapons and the battlefield tactics imposed upon the troops by their weaponry.

The Napoleonic wars often initially attracts interest because of the brightly coloured uniforms, as we are in a period way before the invention of highly accurate long range weaponry and the era of drab but essential khaki and camouflage. The personal weaponry of this period was almost entirely restricted for use within two hundred yards and often much less; warfare therefore remained largely face to face, often at arm’s length and such a close proximity to one’s enemy precluded the need for drab camouflaged uniforms. Colour, vivid colour was therefore the order of the day with uniforms of red, yellow, brown, pink, blue and white abounding. Tall hats with great plumes and shoulder padding were added to aid the impression of height and strength with broad shoulders; all were designed to psychologically impose their superiority over the enemy. If you could not hide from your foe, then you might as well show off your presence as impressively as possible!

The core of any army, and as now the most numerous, was the foot soldier and most Napoleonic armies would expect to number over eighty percent of their force within this category of troops in some guise or other. The infantry were then often subdivided into specialist roles, each having their own characteristics and uniforms, but almost all were universally armed with the mainstay of every army, the musket. Every army included a number of well built staunchly loyal veteran troops who were formed into a bodyguard for their monarch/Emperor on ceremonial occasions; many of these units had now grown much larger and formed mini armies in their own rights and formed the pinnacle of the infantry arm. The British Guard regiments and the world renowned Imperial Guard of France were to play a significant part in the Waterloo campaign.

The majority of the infantry were formed into ‘Line’ regiments, which as the name makes obvious, formed the main line of troops in a Napoleonic battle. The third and upcoming variety of infantry were the light troops, variously described as legere, jagers and occasionally riflemen. These troops were usually also armed with a musket, but were trained to fight independently as skirmishers in front of the line troops. Some units of Jager and most famously the British 95th Foot were armed with a slower firing, but much more accurate rifled weapon, however Napoleon had rejected the use of rifles within the French army.

The standard musket, the British one colloquially known as a ‘Brown Bess’ and the French as the ‘Charleville,’ was a very basic smoothbore weapon, whereby a lead musket ball and powder cartridge was pushed into the base of the barrel and fired using a spring loaded lock which struck a flint against a striker plate; this caused a spark which ignited the gunpowder and propelled the musket ball forward. The lead ball could travel over three hundred metres, but as it had been fired from a loosely fitting barrel with no form of rifling, the trajectory of the ball was extremely inaccurate. Tests revealed that an aimed shot from a musket had a reasonable chance of striking the intended target up to a maximum range of one hundred metres; beyond this range, one would be very unlucky indeed to be struck by an aimed shot, you were much more likely to be hit by a ball fired at somebody else! There was therefore little emphasis on aimed fire by the musket armed infantry battalions, rather an un-aimed volley repeated as rapidly as possible to present a hail of musket balls to the enemy formation.

Beyond three hundred metres or so, the ball may strike a body but had often lost the kinetic energy to break the skin or to penetrate simple cloth uniforms but caused severe contusions or temporarily incapacitated their victim. This was usually described by soldiers of the day as being hit by a ‘spent shot’.

The musket also carried a bayonet which could be fitted whilst still allowing firing; this could be used for very close action, both in defence or attack, although medical evidence proves that two sides rarely closed with bayonets, one side usually breaking before contact was made and most bayonet wounds were usually found therefore in the back.

Muskets could realistically be loaded and fired in a battle scenario about twice a minute for a few minutes of intense firing, but misfires were common and the barrels becoming too hot or fouled by heavy usage increased this problem. Once the musket had been fired, the soldier was vulnerable to attack, with little to defend himself beyond a bayonet until reloaded; this vulnerability forced the use of tight formations and coordinated actions. Officers carried swords and some British colour sergeants still carried a half pike, or ‘spontoon’, which harked back to Medieval days.

The main formation of every army was the battalion, which numbered anywhere from 500 to 1200 men depending on the country, with a number of battalions usually forming a regiment. The infantry were trained unceasingly until they followed the orders repeated by the drummers instantaneously and mechanically. Whilst on the march across country, the infantry marched in long columns a few men abreast, carrying their packs weighing over 60 pounds. This formation was too cumbersome and weak for use on the battlefield and here a solid shorter and wider ‘column’ of troops was preferred for manoeuvring, but was a vulnerable target to artillery. The artillery, which had grown significantly in power and manoeuvrability, had made the ‘column’ a vulnerable formation in defence, with cannonballs often carving a lane through such tight masses of men, with one strike incapacitating up to forty men; the ‘line’ formation had been developed to counteract this. The staple infantry formation was therefore  the ‘line’ where the infantry were stretched out in a long thin line facing the enemy, usually only two or three ranks deep, although four ranks were used to stiffen the formation at Waterloo. This allowed most of the men in the battalion to bring their fire to bear on their opponents and maximised their firepower. Fire was occasionally discharged on mass, but more usually was carried out by section in a rolling fire which meant that a constant ripple of fire would emanate from the formation. However, the line was extremely vulnerable to cavalry attack, especially if the cavalry could strike the line from the flanks or rear, when they could simply roll up the line and destroy the infantry at will. There are rare examples of regiments in line repulsing cavalry charges by musketry alone, but these always occurred when the cavalry attacked directly from the front or rear and when the discipline of the infantry allowed their commander to turn his rear rank to face the attack; this took great nerve and required huge confidence in the ability of their commander, but these were very much the exception. The infantry’s defence against cavalry was the ‘square’, although the formation was more often oblong in shape as battalions of six or ten companies could not form equal sided formations quickly and easily. The order to ‘form square’ would be reacted to with urgency and once formed the infantry would be formed three or four ranks deep in a hollow ‘square’ with the officers and supernumeraries formed in the centre, the outer ranks kneeling with muskets grounded and bayonets pushed outwards to form an impenetrable wall to horses, whilst the other ranks stood and fired at any cavalryman who dared to approach too close. The ‘square’ did however suffer from the same vulnerability to artillery fire as the column and would only be used when cavalry attacks were imminent. The moment to form square was always a tricky one for commanders, too early would cost unnecessarily heavy casualties from artillery, but too late could lead to total devastation if the cavalry reached the formation before the square was fully formed. In such circumstances infantrymen could form into ad hoc mini squares known as ‘rallying squares’ but were rarely successful in fending off a determined cavalryman.

These three basic infantry formations were the cornerstone of their tactics both in attack and defence, all of which concentrated on the psychological effect of the mass and the level of training achieved. In defence, the line offered maximum firepower and low vulnerability to artillery but little protection, the square and column offered maximum solidity but heavily reduced firepower and increased vulnerability to artillery. In attack the line was preferred by many nations as offering the maximum firepower, but as has been explained was very vulnerable to cavalry attack. An alternative which had gained some success during the Napoleonic wars was the ‘attack column’ which proved effective for poorly trained troops who would struggle to form square in adequate time. The French had utilised this formation against Continental European armies in line and had seen great success, causing many including the Prussians to adopt the formation. However, the early column formations with narrow fronts and deep ranks which made them very vulnerable to artillery fire and reduced the firepower of the unit significantly was modified during the wars and by the time of Waterloo, columns could be formed in many different ways, with columns now often showing much wider faces to enhance the firepower of the formation and being much shallower to reduce their vulnerability to artillery fire.

The formed battalion being the lynchpin of the infantry, it also required a speedy and accurate response to orders and a great deal of effort by officers to coordinate movements of each wing, particularly when extended in line. The role of the officers, non-commissioned officers and drummers to ensure coordinated action cannot be overstated whilst the battalion colours were the vital rallying point and ultimate prize for the opposing force. The destruction of these key elements therefore became a priority for contending parties. Units of light troops were used, mostly armed with the ubiquitous musket, but a few were armed with an early rifle, with a tighter fitting round and a rifled barrel ensuring greater accuracy at distance. These would be sent out as a cloud of skirmishers in front of the main body to disrupt the opposition by placing particular emphasis on picking off these key elements, to reduce cohesion and thus morale. Such light troops, working independently in pairs, one covering whilst the other fired and vice versa, were highly trained and expert shots but very vulnerable to cavalry. With no chance of forming squares, their only option was to play ‘dead’ and hope that the cavalry would ride by without stabbing them in the back with lance or sword.

The cavalry were an expensive but vital part of any army, often equating to less than fifteen percent of the total force but they could make a decisive impact on a battlefield if used correctly. Cavalry were armed and trained in different ways to cover different functions, but there were two main subgroups, light and heavy. Just like modern cavalry, with tanks differentiating between lightly armed, fast and manoeuvrable tanks for reconnaissance roles and heavy battle tanks which are slower, heavily armoured and ideal for battle, the horse cavalry of the Napoleonic wars were designed for exactly the same roles. The light cavalry, designed for speed and manoeuvrability on small horses, were ideal for reconnaissance and intelligence work, but were also able to utilise their rapidity of movement against vulnerable lightly armed targets. These cavalry variously termed Light Dragoons, Hussars, or Chasseurs were generally armed with a light curved sword, which slashed through flesh, causing horrific injuries, often leaving huge flaps of flesh hanging down, but could also sever limbs and heads with a single stroke. More recently some of these cavalry had been converted to Lancers or Uhlans, who carried a long wooden lance with a metal spear tip which had the advantage of outreaching both sword and musket with bayonet. This weapon could be deadly in expert hands but required a huge amount of training to develop their skills in the dexterous use of the lance; these Lancers also usually carried a sword, the second rank only carrying a sword to prevent lance injuries to the front rank.

The heavy cavalry rode much bigger, heavier horses and were the shock troops of battle, rarely being used for other roles. These cavalrymen, variously termed Carabiniers, Guard cavalry, Heavy Dragoons and Cuirassiers usually carried a heavy straight sword more often designed for stabbing, but was certainly heavy enough to cleave a helmeted man’s head in two. Some of these cavalry, particularly the French Carabiniers and Cuirassiers wore body armour, consisting of a heavy metal breast and back plate, not unlike those sported by the Household cavalry when on ceremonial duty today. The British infantry had not faced the Cuirassiers before the Waterloo campaign and significantly they are often mistakenly referred to as cavalry of the Guard. This armour was impervious to swords but was to prove little protection against close range musket fire and absolutely none against cannon fire, its true importance was in its perceived invincibility both to the Cuirassier and his opponents. Most cavalrymen also carried carbines, a short barrelled musket, or pistols, but both were notoriously inaccurate and seldom actually used with effect.

Cavalry often supported the wings of infantry attacks, both to protect their own infantry from flank attacks as they advanced and to be ready to take advantage of a fleeing enemy or if their flanks became exposed; but cavalry were very vulnerable to losses from musketry fire, a strike on either man or horse removing them from the fight. Therefore attacks on formed infantry from the front were deemed as suicidal and rarely attempted whilst attacks on formed squares were thought equally rash and rarely succeeded and often caused significant loss to themselves.

The artillery of the period had become quite efficient in the art of destroying life and played a very significant part in the outcome of any Napoleonic battle, despite rarely exceeding five percent of any army in terms of personnel. Artillery was basically formed into two main types; the first was foot artillery, where the guns were moved by horse but the artillery personnel were required to march alongside the guns on foot. This form was much cheaper and therefore more prevalent and allowed the use of heavier calibre weapons with far greater reach and more destructive capabilities, but was slow to manoeuvre. The second and recent innovation was horse artillery, where both the guns and all artillery personnel attached were mounted, allowing lighter guns to manoeuvre with the cavalry and forming a rapid response artillery capable of instantly galloping up and unlimbering to open fire within minutes. The artillery was organised into batteries of foot and troops of horse artillery each usually of six or eight guns, often consisting mainly of cannon with one or two howitzers attached.

Cannon were the traditional weapon we are all familiar with which fired horizontally, although there was some opportunity to alter the angle of trajectory; howitzers were designed to have a much wider angle of fire with the ability to angle the barrel up to fire almost vertically in a plunging shot, which was particularly useful for engaging troops behind cover. The artillery teams carried a range of weaponry to fire depending on the prevailing circumstances. At long range, up to a thousand metres, the only viable weapon was the round shot, a solid iron ball fired singly or very occasionally two at a time which reached great distances, and on hard ground, the ball would bounce a number of times before finally coming to rest. As the ball fell below head height whilst travelling, until it bounced on the ground, which took it back over head height, the ball would literally smash through anything in its path. It was not unknown for cannon balls to wipe out large numbers with one strike on a dense mass, removing the heads of those in front, cutting those behind in two and smashing the legs of those further behind before repeating this devastation in reverse, as it rose from the ground again. A cannon ball striking human or equine flesh had a traumatic effect, ripping off limbs or smashing torsos and heads into an unrecognisable pulp. Even cannon balls running slowly along the ground near the end of their travels, were dangerous to green troops. The kinetic energy it retained being powerful enough to cripple any soldier foolhardy enough to try to stop its journey with their foot. At medium range a second weapon available to the artillery man was the ‘shell’, a hollow shot filled with powder and fired by the howitzers with a high trajectory, designed to land  in the midst of formations where it would then explode, the outer casing causing horrendous casualties to those stood near. Shells could also be filled with incendiary material which was designed to cause fires within defended buildings; this was attempted with some success at Hougoumont during the Battle of Waterloo.  At close range ‘canister’ was used, this was simply a thin tin canister filled with iron balls a bit larger than musket balls packed into it. When discharged at short range against formed infantry or cavalry, this weapon was truly devastating, the canister breaking up and the balls spreading out in an arc ripping through everything within three hundred metres, like a great burst of machine gun fire. This was sometimes incorrectly referred to as ‘grape’, which was actually a naval term for a similar weapon, where a number of larger balls were tied up in sacking, resembling a bunch of grapes and fired to damage rigging or maim personnel on deck.

Two refinements to the weaponry had been embraced by the British artillery but not copied by the other protagonists during the Waterloo campaign. The Austrians had used rockets for a while and the British Horse Artillery converted two troops into rocket troops, although they were still in their experimental stage even at Waterloo where one of the troops fought. The large rockets were fired lying on the ground directly facing the enemy, or from a bombarding frame which could be used to fire rockets vertically to land on areas far to the rear. There is a claim that one of these frames was used at Waterloo but I have not discovered any corroborating evidence of this happening. Rockets were still in their infancy and were at best erratic and at worst highly dangerous to all. There are reports of very accurate strikes causing the destruction of complete gun teams and causing havoc and panic within units of formed cavalry or infantry, but these are countered by numerous descriptions of rockets fizzling out, rocketing skywards or even turning back on their own side! Wellington was not in favour of rockets and the troop at Waterloo carried both rockets and conventional cannon and indeed used the conventional guns a great deal more.

The second invention was particular to the British throughout the Napoleonic wars and was seen as somewhat of a ‘secret weapon’. Invented by a Captain (later General) Henry Shrapnel, the ‘Spherical Case Shot’ or more commonly the ‘Shrapnel shell’ was a thin cased shell filled with musket balls. Designed to detonate at around head height over enemy formations, the shell would expel a lethal circle of balls which would devastate units, it had been employed to great effect throughout the Peninsular war and by the time of Waterloo British artillerymen were experts in its optimum use.

Napoleon had developed the tactic of the ‘Grand Battery’ and this was copied to some extent by the other continental armies, where a large number of guns were deployed on mass and concentrated their fire on a particular area, designed to destroy the defences and decimate the defenders before the infantry and cavalry attacked. Wellington preferred to use artillery piecemeal spread throughout the army and countered the threat of enemy artillery by placing his troops on the rear slopes of his position where they were largely unseen and difficult to reach with conventional cannon.

Counter battery fire was practised by many armies, but was considered wasteful by Wellington as the target was small and spread out, causing most cannonballs to pass through harmlessly. However, such fire did have an effect on the allied artillery at Waterloo, particularly if the enemy battery could engage from the flank.

Coordinated attack or defence by all three arms was vital to a Napoleonic general, each individual part vying to exert its destructive power on the enemy whilst trying to avoid heavy losses because of their weaknesses or vulnerabilities, in a vast human game of chess.

The experience and morale of each nation involved in the campaign is also of vital importance to an understanding of the Waterloo campaign.

The French army collected by the Emperor Napoleon largely consisted of veteran troops with a huge amount of experience and rabidly devoted to their Emperor. The re-issue of eagles to each regiment was an inspired decision, the vast majority of the French soldiers being determined to lay down their lives to save the eagle which surmounted the flag pole. The flag bearing their battle honours and the staff, paled into insignificance alongside the small gold eagle figure itself. However, the confidence and morale of the French soldier was fragile during the Waterloo campaign, with rumours of betrayal and treason abounding. Many of the officers had rallied to King Louis on his return and had changed sides once again to follow Napoleon, but the troops did not trust their generals and the frequent high profile desertions to the allies during the campaign caused this distrust to fester within the ranks.

The Prussian army had demobilised rapidly with the end of the war in 1814 and hence struggled to provide sufficient full time troops in the field in 1815. Large numbers of Landwehr troops, more akin to Militia, although better trained and motivated, were called to form the ranks, They were brave and good fighters in static defences but not ideal for rapid movement and coordinated attacks, more a blunt instrument, hence often taking heavy casualties. The Saxon troops recently attached to the Prussian army were handled inconsiderately and a mutiny, in which Blucher was forced to flee for his life, caused them to be sent back to Germany. However, the greatest asset the Prussian army possessed was their leader Marshal Gebhard Blucher, who although in his seventies still had the heart of a lion and a passionate hatred of the French. Blucher was not a subtle general, put simply he was a bruiser and always bounced back after defeat. His nickname of ‘Marshal Forwards’ reveals his character in full; loyal, honourable to his word and determined to defeat Napoleon at all costs. The loyalty of his troops and their determination to follow Blucher wherever he went played a huge part in the Waterloo campaign. Without Blucher, the Prussian army would almost certainly not have been at Waterloo on that fateful day.

Wellington’s army was a complex matter and is much more difficult to describe due to its unique amalgamation of the troops of many nations under one commander. One has to look at each national contingent to gain some insight into the whole.

The British troops present are often described as the mainstay of the allied army, but this is too simplistic a view. It is true that twelve months previously Wellington had commanded perhaps the most complete British army ever seen, but with the end of the war many of the most experienced units were immediately shipped to America to finally sort out the fledgling American army once and for all, something they signally failed to achieve. Meanwhile the veteran heart was ripped from those units returning to British shores as the government rapidly disbanded second battalions in the ‘peace dividend’ and numerous soldiers now heartily tired of war took their option to retire from the service and take their army pension. However, the government agreed to aid the retention of veteran troops by an immediate halt to the loss of limited service men, who’s time was shortly due to expire. They were to be retained for a further six months.

But, Wellington was scathing of his army and the generals he was sent to command them; on 4 May the Duke wrote to Earl Bathurst that:


It will be admitted that the army is not a very good one; and, being composed as it is, I might have expected that the generals and Staff formed by me in the last war would have been allowed to come to me again: but instead of that, I am overloaded with people I have never seen before…


The core of Wellington’s British army in the Netherlands was formed from the troops sent there in 1814 under Sir Thomas Graham and who had partaken in the abortive assault on Bergen op Zoom, whilst the majority of the battalions sent from Britain were full of fresh faced youths who had never heard a shot fired in anger. All of this resulted in a motley mix of a few experienced units and a number of very raw battalions, the situation being helped at the very last minute by the arrival of veteran troops returning from America now that peace had finally been agreed in that futile war. The majority of his infantry wore conventional grey trousers, but his Highland infantry wore the kilt.

The British cavalry was however the very cream and was certainly the best that Wellington could have hoped for; expert cavalrymen on superb horses, but often led by inexperienced officers and rash fools who did not understand how to preserve their units in battle.

The artillery was extremely competent and experienced and the decision by the Earl of Musgrave, Master General of the Ordnance, to upgrade many horse artillery units to 9 pounders from the old 6 pounders just before the battle was a huge and possibly decisive improvement. The King’s German Legion troops which formed part of the British Army were at least equal to their British counterparts. It was fortunate that they were available as the original agreement for the King’s German Legion troops meant that their period of service expired six months after the Treaty of Paris, however, a new agreement was reached for them to serve for a further six months of service, which meant that they were still available for Waterloo. With regard to the new Hanoverian levies, Hanover also supplied a large number of Landwehr units, which were raw units and had received some limited training but were bolstered by a wholesale draft of K.G.L. officers and NCO’s to command them when the K.G.L. battalions were reduced from ten to six companies each. Even the Duke of Cambridge when writing to Wellington, after ordering his troops to join him, added ‘they are…not in the state of drill I could wish them’. General Alten had suggested that they should be added to the King’s German Legion but this was declined by the Hanoverian government. A Hanoverian Subsiduary force had been in Holland since 1814 and a Reserve Corps was rapidly formed in 1815.

With such a polyglot force, Wellington replicated his successful practise developed in the Peninsular war of forming his divisions from a mix of strong and weaker units, both to give these raw units confidence and to spread these weaker elements across the battlefield. However, Wellington could not take this to its ultimate, as the other national contingents were to remain separate, fighting within their own brigades/divisions as distinct units.

The combined Netherlands army was the second biggest contingent, but this fledgling army, with a mass of untried Militia units recently raised and poorly trained, and incorporating many Dutch and Belgian units which had only recently been fighting for Napoleon, made their loyalty at least suspect in the eyes of the British. Only in May 1815 did their line formation change from three ranks to two ranks deep to conform with the British troops which may well have had a detrimental effect on the troops who were not used to this formation. But despite British reservations and many a disparaging remark regarding their actions throughout the campaign, it is clear that many of these units fought doggedly and did their best, only to break when losses had become too heavy, something that happened to troops of all nationalities. What is telling however is that despite the many criticisms of them by British troops there is not one mention of them deserting to the French.

The small corps of French troops who were loyal to King Louis and led by the Duc de Berri, were not regarded well by Wellington and were thus left at Alost, out of harm’s way.

The Brunswick corps led by the Duke of Brunswick himself and all sporting the ‘Death’s Head’ symbol as a cap badge, had served with the British for some time and there were a core of experienced soldiers within their ranks, but like many units, their regiments had recently been bolstered by numbers of new recruits who had only completed their basic training. These troops are sometimes described by British observers as mere boys, although others call them excellent troops, but they are universally praised for standing their ground under intense pressure and despite heavy losses.

Finally we come to the Nassau force, which often confuses, because part served within the Netherlands Army whilst a further contingent was supplied independently by the small German state itself. The Nassau troops within the Dutch service were experienced troops who had fought alongside Napoleon’s armies until they defected to the allies in 1813, whereas the Nassau contingent consisted of almost raw recruits, rushed into service and receiving only basic training before marching to war. It is reported that these troops suffered heavily during the battle from artillery fire as they were unable to form any other formation than a solid column.

Wellington had also requested that his old Portuguese troops might be able to join the army in Belgium, but the government did not pursue it as the sum required to transport them would produce a greater number of German soldiers for the same amount.

Napoleon was secure in the adoration of his soldiers, if not of all his officers and Blucher knew that his troops would follow him to the end of the world; but Wellington had no such confidence in his army of the amalgamation of nations. Too many raw recruits, differing command structures, languages, battle tactics, weapons, supply systems and even differing reasons to fight, led to a disparate army. To his credit Wellington melded this polyglot force into a functioning army and stayed its inherent fragility; given these factors, his cautious use of it was perfectly understandable.


About the author

Gareth Glover

Click here to add a comment

Leave a comment: