The armies that fought against Napoleon are some of the most celebrated in British history. Under the leadership of the Duke of Wellington, they drove the French back through Portugal and Spain into France, ending Napoleon’s rule. When the emperor returned in 1815, they were the bulk of the forces that defeated him at Waterloo.
Recruitment was a problem.
Firstly, a huge amount of manpower was required. Wellington’s armies on campaign drew attention as they were actively fighting the French. Thousands of soldiers were also committed elsewhere; whether holding the colonies, defending the homeland, or, from 1812, fighting the Americans.
Secondly, a career in the army was not well regarded or well rewarded outside the officer corps. It was not appealing to anyone who had other prospects.
With 16,000-24,000 casualties per year suffered in the Napoleonic fighting, scores of men were needed. Those recruited were the sort Wellington referred to as the scum of the earth. Uneducated, unhealthy, undisciplined, and often with a history of crime; they were the best that could be found.
Apart from soldiers, the other requirement of the army was equipment.
Most soldiers were regular infantry. They dressed in bright uniforms earning the nickname of “redcoats.”
Their primary weapon was a musket. It was not an accurate weapon and had not substantially changed in a hundred years. Prussian tests showed that, even without the pressure of battle, troops firing those weapons hit enemy troops 25% of the time at 225 yards. It only increased to 60% at 75 yards. Its effectiveness depended upon mass firing, not sharp shooting.
Infantrymen also carried bayonets, which they could fix onto their muskets for close combat.
The experience of the troops was extremely varied. Some had served in the colonies but had not been involved in any action. Others had fought under Wellington in India. Some had battled the French during Britain’s limited land interventions earlier in the war. A large number had barely been through basic training, never mind fighting in a conflict.
The key to turning all those soldiers and their limited weapons into a deadly force was to drill them. With rigorous training, repeated over and over, disparate men were transformed into deadly fighting formations.
There were two critical aspects of British infantry drill. One was loading and firing – to ensure devastating volleys of lead could be launched quickly, consistently, and repeatedly. The other was maneuvering – shifting blocks of men backward, forward, and side to side around the field without descending into chaos.
If both were done well, infantry could be devastating to an approaching foe. They could be used in line against other infantry or in square formations to fend off cavalry.
Wellington was regarded as a particularly hard disciplinarian. Strict control was used to achieve the desired result. Flogging was common, using the vicious cat-of-nine-tails. Hanging was also wielded on those breaking the most serious rules. It would not have been deemed excessive as many civilian crimes also led to the gallows.