The Influence of the Napoleonic Wars upon the British Military, 1815-1854

Here is another abstract for one of the chapters from our forthcoming book. It is by Peter Randall of the University of Reading. Thoughts and comments welcomed.


For the armies of continental Europe, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars constituted a seismic event, provoking a period of introspection and military reform and heralding the Napoleonic military revolution. By contrast, there was not a similar level of reform to the British Army.

This essay first sets out to examine the factors, which prevented reform, or made it undesirable. Britain’s individual situation was obviously important, as being an island with large colonial holdings across the globe the Royal Navy was of utmost importance for British grand strategy. Additionally, the task of colonial warfare and conditions outside Europe also made reform of the Army unnecessary. Additionally, the relationship between Parliament and the Army, and financial pressures reduced the possibility of reform, as did the influences of Horse Guards, the Duke of York and the Duke of Wellington. Finally, victory in the Napoleonic Wars acted to reinforce British bad habits.

With these barriers to reform in mind, the essay then takes the path less trod, and examines the changes that did come out of the Napoleonic Wars, both positive and negative: the bloated pay and pensions list; the growth of the Colonial Office and police forces; alterations to drill and tactics; and the modest growth of military publications.

Finally, the essay goes on to look at how these changes, or lack thereof, contributed to the experience of the Crimean War, and briefly evaluates the influence of this period in the post-Crimean reforms.

11 responses to “The Influence of the Napoleonic Wars upon the British Military, 1815-1854

  1. Pingback: The Influence of the Napoleonic Wars upon the British Military, 1815 … | Armyrats·

  2. Pingback: A Military Transformed? Table of Contents « Birmingham "On War"·

  3. Im post grad student at Leeds studying the perception of the French army in the Crimean War and the impact of the French army on pre and post crimean reforms. It might be good to bash heads together sometime! Ant

  4. Anthony I will pass this on to Peter and he will hopefully come here and comment. Your work sounds very interesting. Are you doing your PhD?

    • The pattern of stripping down the British army and navy to nothing in peace and then massively inflating it in times of war is one that is pretty much observable from Marlborough onwards. It stems from a deep distrust of militarism and of a standing army: even barrack building was considered “totalitarian” and there was considerable opposition to the various volunteer movements (especially that of the 1860s!). Ross, I am at leeds and starting my PhD after doing an M.Res examining the impact of the perception of the French on the British army.

      • Anthony very true. I suspect a lot of comes from the aftermath of the ECW and the fear that created of a military system. Not a good position when trying to have a consistent foreign and defence policy.

        Your research sounds intersting. I look forward to hearing more about it in the future.

  5. Very interesting. These are many of the same problems blocking Army reforms during the 1950s, uncanny really. BTW, Ross, when is this due to be published?

  6. It is strange how that happens. I know we should avoid the idea that History repeats itself but it has a tendency to be very similar.

    Hopefully the book should be out next year. We should have all the contributions edited by the end of the year so it will then be down to the publisher.

    • Good stuff, I can’t wait to get my hands on it. I know what you mean about the danger of drawing sweeping conclusions, but I think this says a lot about British strategic culture and defence policy-making more generally.

  7. Simon I agree. British defence policy tends to an undesirable factor in domestic policy. An irony given that we are quite willing to go to war but fail to maintain our military in peace, though the Cold War may be an exception to that. However, there were certainly times when that was not the case a may explain our reliance on nuclear weapons.

  8. My focus of interest is on the British cavalry regiments in India c1815-c1860. I have come across many officers (and Other Ranks) in India who were veterans of the Peninsular and Waterloo campaigns. I’m preparing a short paper (which may or may not be accepted for the Wellington Congress next year) on whether the presence of these veterans contributed to the performance of the cavalry in India e.g. at Bhurtpore, in Afghanistan, and by passing on their experience to younger officers, in the Anglo-Sikh wars and the ‘Mutiny.’ The contrast is very strong here to the cavalry officer corps in the Crimea, where almost no officers (drawn as they were from the home army) had any campaigning experience at all. An interesting topic!

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