While the Napoleonic Wars are rarely, if ever, mentioned in Jane Austen’s novels, they do provide a backdrop to many of the stories. Many of the male characters are, or had, a military connection. This is the first in what is intended to be a series of articles covering that military background to her works, in the hopes of fostering a better understanding of her works. As my own interest is focused on the land forces, most of the compositions will focus on the Army and Militia rather than the Navy, although there will be some overlap. This first section is intended to outline the basic functions of the Officers in the British Army of the time. Later sections will look at such things as the system of Purchase and promotion, how one was expected to be an Officer and a Gentleman," the Militia, and other such topics.
There was a definite hierarchy amongst the various British land forces. At the top were the General and Staff Officers, Household Regiments of Cavalry and Infantry followed by those of the line. Tied to them, but administratively separate were the Artillery and Engineers. There was also the East Indian Company’s own Army, again separately administered, but integrated in terms of operations. Below them were the Militia and Volunteers under the Home Office. The British Army underwent a major transformation following the disastrous Low countries Campaign (1793-95), where the training and discipline, poor equipment, bad morale and inferior leadership demonstrated the weaknesses in the existing system. George III’s son, the Duke of York, instituted a series of reforms. Amongst these, he set a minimum age of 16 for when an Ensign’s commission could be purchased, and the period of time an officer had to spend at each level before advancing to the next rank. He also instituted changes in instruction for all ranks, from the lowest to highest, and from the level of the squad to that of Brigade and Division, as well as changes in equipment, supply, and administration.
The basic tactical unit of era in all European Armies was the Battalion." In the British Army this usually consisted of ten "Companies of (on paper) up to 100 men each. Each Company was commanded by a Captain. Commanding a Battalion was the Lieutenant-Colonel, assisted by one or two Majors. Above them was the Colonel, who might have a single, two, or more Battalions within his Regiment. (Note: a custom of addressing Lieutenant-Colonels as "Colonel" can make it confusing when trying to determine the actual rank when that term is used.) Those ranks above Captain were collectively known as "Field Officers". Under, and assisting the Captains were the "Subalterns" the Lieutenants and Ensigns (the junior rank), while a few Regiments had Second Lieutenants between those ranks. There were usually two Lieutenants per Company (and are noted to be the most common rank on the half-pay list). Surprisingly, formal training for the lowest commissioned rank, the Ensign, was almost absent. However, it was a first step into the world of being an Officer, after which they picked up most of their education "on the job", so to speak.
In addition a Battalion would have other Officers: Adjutant, Regimental Paymaster and a Quartermaster, Surgeon (also Assistant Surgeon and in the Cavalry Veterinary Surgeon), and possibly a Chaplain. The Adjutant was usually an experienced Subaltern. The Surgeons had their own selection process, while Paymaster and Quartermaster often fell to former Sergeants.
Most Officers entered the Commissioned Ranks as Ensigns either by purchasing that rank, although some were raised from the Rank and File (Privates, Corporals and Sergeants) for performing extremely valorously in battle, or had enrolled in the Army as a Gentleman Volunteer in the hopes that a "Vacancy" would occur which would enable him to enter without paying. Promotion could be by purchasing the next step upward, or through Vacancies resulting from the death or incapacitation of other Officers. This became very common during actual warfare. Often the Colonel’s function was purely administrative, and they rarely personally lead their troops into battle. Often, he was a General granted the title as a reward for past services. (Generals were only paid while actually functioning as such, thus as a Colonel they could continue to receive their Pay and Allowances.)
Up until May of 1803, three of those Captains also held the positions of the Field Officers. That is acting both as a Company Captain and as a Major, etc. The Colonel’s Company (often the Grenadier’s) came under the direction of the "Captain-Lieutenant" who received the pay of a Lieutenant, but had the status of a junior Captain. After that date, all Companies were to have their own Captain. (Some compensation was paid during the change over.) This did open up a great number of Captaincies.
There was an interesting Regulation set down that it was forbidden to have both the Lieutenant-Colonel and the Major absent from the Battalion at the same time. However, it was not unknown for those officers to arrange to alternate taking Leave, so long as one of them stayed with the Regiment.
has been a re-enactor since 1982 with a group representing a red-coated Canadian regiment of the War of 1812. For the past five years he has been its Commanding Officer. Other interests include Modern Ballroom, and Regency Country Dancing.
Military Re-enactment Society of Canada / Incorporated Militia of Upper Canada
Great Britain, Adj-General’s Office, General Regulations and Orders for the Army, 1811.
Ibid, Rules and Regulations for the Manual and Platoon Exercise, Formations, Field Exercise, and Movements of HM Forces. (1807)
Reid, Stuart, The British Redcoat (2): 1793-1815, (Osprey Warriors Series, nr.20, 1997)Ibid., "Officers and Gentlemen", The Age of Napoleon, v. 30 and 32.
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