Weapons and Tactics of the Napoleonic wars and at the battle of Waterloo                         

An army in the Napoleonic Wars had three arms, infantry, artillery and cavalry. To make sense of the formal manoeuvres they used in the battle, one always has to remember that none of their weapons could be accurately aimed. Most of the infantry carried muskets during the Napoleonic wars, which fired an iron ball three quarters of an inch in diameter. A soldier had to stand up to put the powder and ball down the barrel and ram them home, so he usually fired standing, and a well trained man could fire two shots a minute.        


Musket shot could be lethal at several hundred yards when used in great numbers and fired at a general target, but it needed more luck than skill to hit even a rank of men at more than about 70 yards. At close quarters, bayonets were used. Some units had rifles, which were first used in the British Army in 1800 during the Napoleonic wars. They also fired a round ball. The rifling made them more accurate, but also slower to load. The artillery were of two kinds, horse artillery which was mobile, and foot artillery which took up a commanding position before a battle and usually stayed there. The guns ranged from six to twelve pounders, being measured by the weight of the solid iron ball they fired.

This solid shot could kill a score of men before it lost momentum. You could see it in flight if it was coming straight at you, but it was considered cowardly to duck, and you could see it easily when it began to bounce. The artillery also used shells, which were round and exploded by a time fuse, and at short range they used the kinds of shot called grape, case or canister.



These were large numbers of musket balls or scraps of iron clamped together or packed in canvas bags, which burst open when they were fired. A single well timed shot at very short range could mow down a whole rank of men or horses. Guns were aimed simply by turning them on their wheels, and estimating the range and elevation by eye. They had no mechanism for absorbing recoil, so they moved every shot and had to be aimed again. But a good gun crew could work up to the Same rate of fire as a man with a musket, two shots a minute. The cavalry were well armed with sabres and pistols or carbines. Some regiments carried lances. At Waterloo the only amour, apart from helmets, was worn by the French cuirassiers. It gave some protection against sabres and it could turn aside a glancing shot from a musket, but it was cumbersome, especially when its wearer was unhorsed.  



Because the weapons of the Napoleonic wars were so inaccurate, infantry officers, mounted and conspicuously dressed, could lead their men to within a few yards of the enemy. And Wellington himself could ride along the skyline all day in full view of the French; he was always in danger from the masses of aimless shot that were flying everywhere, but not in special danger from being deliberately shot at. The three arms were all dependent on each other. In a standard attack, the artillery began with a long-range bombardment, intended to disorganize and demoralize the enemy. Then the infantry advanced in formation, usually in a line from two to four ranks deep.


Horse artillery often came with them, stopping to fire and then moving on again. Skirmishers sometimes went ahead; they fought individually, using what cover they could, to distract and annoy the enemy with musket fire. Traditionally, a defensive line was three deep: the front rank fired a volley, and the others followed while the first was reloading. But during the Peninsular War, Wellington had come to prefer a line two deep. The attacking infantry held their fire until the last 50 paces or so from the enemy line. After firing their volleys they charged with the bayonet, and there was a crucial point at which the cavalry were expected to join in the action after the enemy's front line of artillery was overrun, and before his infantry could recover and form squares. As soon as possible after a bayonet charge, the infantry reformed their ranks for self-protection. Many things contributed to the defeat of the French at Waterloo although they unquestionably had the finer army.

One prime cause was that they departed from these accepted tactics, once by attacking with cavalry alone, and twice by sending their infantry forward in massive blocks instead of line abreast. Such blocks of men looked formidable, and the French had used them with success against less determined infantry. But they had two weaknesses: only the front three ranks could use their muskets, and they were vulnerable to artillery, since a cannon ball which hit the front rank was likely to plough through all the ranks behind. Wellington had defeated them in Spain by the Same tactics he used at Waterloo.

There has been controversy ever since about the reasons why the French made these choices. But one reason is undoubtedly that they believed, before each of their attacks, that Wellington's line had already broken and fled; and each time, they only discovered it had not when they were already in musket and grapeshot range and it was too late to change their formations. It is only by standing on the field itself that one can see how this was possible - how the French command was deceived by the gentle folds in the ground that Wellington chose to defend.

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