A Brief History of British Light Infantry until 1800
By Adam Barnes
The 18th Century saw massive steps forward in the tactics of warfare, with a shift from hand to hand combat in a meat grinder of pikes, supported by muskets, to lines of infantry, armed with muskets firing volleys at each other. Within the British Army, these developments grew further, with a more organised restructuring of the Regimental System and the increasing importance of the two flank companies, consisting of one company of Grenadiers and another of Light Infantry, within the Battalion’s line.
It wasn’t until 1758, during the Seven Years War, that all British infantry battalions were ordered to train up one company as designated Light Infantry companies. Many units went further with this, adapting uniform and equipment to allow greater speed and freedom of movement across the battlefield. However, the life of the Light Infantryman was short lived as, with the end of the Seven Years War, the need for Light Infantry diminished and these light troops returned back into the line as regular infantry.
British Infantry during the Seven Years War
It was not until the American War of Independence where the need for Light Infantry would rear it’s head once again, for example ,General Money describes the Battle of Bunker Hill between “undisciplined peasantry… and the best… regiments in the British service, the raw peasants of the country… killed and wounded, out of 2000, no less than 1054 British officers and soldiers.” Money in effect highlighted the limitations of rigid formations when facing free moving, irregular troops.
These limitations were answered in part by the formation of two “Legions” of Light Infantry, Simcoe’s ‘Queens Rangers’ and Tarleton’s ‘British Legion’, who were able to fight their own petit guerres against rebel forces. Alongside these, other light infantry units were also raised; such as ‘Ferguson’s Sharpshooters’ in 1776, who were armed with rifles, one of the first instances of a regular Army unit employing rifles. By 1779, Ferguson’s Sharpshooters had effectively been destroyed, and the rifle had mostly been removed from service.
Simcoe's Queen's Rangers
With the cessation of hostilities in America another decline in the need for Light Infantry occurred, and by the 1790s, very few units retained the skills and training necessary for Light Infantry to carry out their duties effectively. Across Britain, there remained very little support for Light Infantry, with players such as Sir David Dundas claiming that large scale introduction of Light Infantry would be of the most fatal consequence. However there was another train of support towards the introduction of a permanent Light Infantry corps from General Money and General Sir John Moore.
1799 saw a huge turning point, after a disastrous campaign to Flanders. Plans were quickly drawn up to devise a programme for the creation of the first permanent regiments of Light Infantry in the British Army. This coincided with an appeal to the government from Colonel Coote Maningham and Lieutenant Colonel William Stewart, pointing out the potential importance of a corps of infantry armed with rifles. Thus, on January 17th 1800, the Experimental Corps of Riflemen with its manpower coming from ‘volunteers’ from fourteen regiments under the instruction of Colonel Coote Manningham and Lieutenant Colonel the Hon. William Stewart was formed.
Horse Guards: January 17, 1800
Addressed to Officers Commanding the 2nd Battalion Royals, the 21st, 23rd, 25th, 27th, 29th, 55th, 69th, 71st, 72nd, 79th, 85th and 92nd Regiments.
Sir, - I have the honour to inform you that it is His Royal Highness the Commander in Chief’s intention to form a corps of detachments from the different regiments of the line for the purpose of its being instructed in the use of the rifle, and in the system of exercise adopted by soldiers so armed. It is his Royal Highness’s pleasure that you shall select from the regiment under your command two sergeants, two corporals, and thirty private men for this duty, all of them being such men as appear most capable of receiving the above instructions, and most competent to the performance of the duty of Riflemen. These non-commissioned officers and privates are not to be considered as being drafted from their regiments, but merely as detached ffor the purpose above recited they will continue to be borne on the strength of their regiments, and will be clothed by their respective colonels.
His Royal Highness desires you will recommend one captain, one lieutenant, and one ensign of the regiment under your command, who volunteer to serve in this corps of Riflemen, in order that His Royal Highness may select from the officers recommended from the regiments which furnish their quota on this occasion a sufficient number of officers for the Rifle Corps. These officers are to be considered as detached on duty from their respective regiments, and will share in all the promotion that occurs in them during their absence.
Eight drummers will be required to act as bugle-horns, and I request you will acquaint me, for the information of His Royal Highness, whether you have any in the – Regiment qualified to act as such, or of a capacity to be easily instructed.
I have, &c.
Despite this order being issued with the authority of the Duke of York and General Moore, six of the fourteen regiments did not take the order seriously, preferring to send the worst men from their ranks. This problem is illustrated by the fact that one such regiment sent a total of twenty-two men unfit for service out of the thirty requested.
The volunteers mustered at Hythe under the instruction of Mannigham and Stewart to form the Experimental Corps of Riflemen, and were given the now famous Green Jackets, and armed with Baker Rifles, as opposed to the familiar Red Coat and Brown Bess Musket. The experiment was deemed a success in 1803, as the Experimental Corps were brought into the Line,, designated the 95th (Rifles) Regiment of Foot.