Saturday, April 21, 2018


Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket
© 2001 Richard Holmes
400 pgs

‘There is no beating these British soldiers. They were completely beaten and the day was mine, but they did not know it and would not run.’

I first knew red coats as the kit of villains, the bad guys of the American Revolution. A healthy diet of other history, however, has given me a ready admiration of the British army - - one I put aside when I'm watching something like The Patriot and am obliged to  hiss at Jason Isaac's amazingly evil dragoon commander character.  It's hard not to admire an army capable of allowing a small island bobbing amid the Baltic and the North Atlantic to maintain influence across the globe.  Redcoat falls within the area of military history, but does not record military campaigns. Instead, it delves into the organization, operation, and experiences of the men who wore red -- and green, sometimes -- throughout the 19th century. 

Holmes' exact range spans from the Seven Years War to the end of the Crimean war and the Indian Mutiny, or just about a century. In that century, Britain drove France from North America,  fought a dictator who had almost the whole of Europe at his command, and appeared both in the middle east and India for the first time. Drawing from diaries and letters,  Holmes examines different classes of soldiers -- officers and enlisted -- as well as the different services and their evolution.  In this period we find the British experimenting more with light skirmish troops at times,  and cavalry is similarly divided into light and heavy despite there not being much of a difference in practice.  Light infantry were equipped with a more precise rifle instead of the 'Brown Bess' musket employed by the regular infantry:  that musket was only good under 100 yards, while the Baker was effective at twice that range.  (Those familiar with Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe, of course, will remember he carried a Baker.)

Most soldiers came from the bottom ranks of society, enlisting primarily for pay -- taking the "king's shilling"-- while their officers were from the aristocracy.  Even the well-bred had to mix money with their service, however, paying for commissions and commands.  (Officers "buying" companies sounds very strange to our ears, but it's not as if modern professional armies appeared overnight.)  Holmes also includes chapters on medicine and camp followers -- particularly wives. Though soldiers were forbidden to marry without permission, the amount of debilitating venereal diseases prompted Britain's military leaders to allow more wives to travel with their husband on assignment to dampen the lure of prostitution.  Only 12% of wives were allowed, however, and those who did were required to work for the company in the form of laundry or otherwise. 

Students of the period will find this a valuable resource for information on the everyday life and duties of soldiers, including the perils and responsibilities. The chapters on organization and the duties of general officer and such were personally sleep-inducing, but they were soon replaced by horses and artillery and other exciting things.  Holmes doesn't shy away from the terror and gruesomeness of war -- I had no idea solid shot was as dangerous as he describes it, thinking that canister fire was more common.   For those curious about how a horse-and-musket army was organized and fought -- those who want to see behind the scenes of battles like Waterloo, say -- Redcoat should prove a fascinating read.    Holmes has other works on the British soldier in history, including Sahib and Tommy


  1. add another to my wish list with your fine review. Thanks!

  2. I thought I had this but seemingly not - although it could be buried somewhere in one of the piles of books. However I do have something similar which will probably interest you:

    All the King's Men - The British Redcoat in the Era of Sword and Musket by Saul David

    Victoria's Wars - The Rise of Empire by Saul David


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