In the 18th century, era of musket-and-bayonet warfare, the British Redcoat Infantry formed the core of the British regular army. Recruited from the poor, landless, and unemployed, they took the “king’s shilling” after being plied with drink, or tempted by the glamor of army life, or even as an alternative to imprisonment for petty crime. Yet these “scum of the earth,” as the Duke of Wellington called them, were turned into resolute fighters who won many victories, notably over the French in the Napoleonic Wars.
Drill and Discipline
The Redcoat Infantry were trained to fight as a unit, giving unhesitating obedience to orders and suppressing individual initiative. This was achieved through relentless drill, brutal discipline—with extensive use of flogging—and the cultivation of loyalty to the soldier’s regiment and his colleagues. The emphasis on drill and discipline was essential given the weapons and tactics of the period. The key British infantry arm, the Brown Bess musket, was wildly inaccurate and thus effective only if infantry were trained to fire in volleys. They had to learn to form lines or squares on the battlefield (the latter to resist cavalry) to advance unarmored into musket fire, or stand firm under artillery bombardment. Holding steady was the surest way to avoid casualties, presenting an unbroken line of bayonets as the last line of defense. The bright red coat made sense on battlefields where men had to identify friend and foe through the thick smoke of gunpowder.
British Redcoat Infantry squares fought off French cavalry in the last battle of the Napoleonic Wars at Waterloo in June 1815. Ably led by the Duke of Wellington, British soldiers proved a match for Napoleon’s forces throughout the later stages of the war, showing discipline and steadiness under fire.