Or epaulettes, or bearskin, or wing, or aigrett. The recent debate on the final moments of the La Garde at Waterloo has got me thinking.
In period, and still today, we have a fascination with elites. Books lionise them. Wargamers shower them with modifiers, to the point it’s almost impossible for Napoleon to lose at Waterloo. Yet then, as now, even elites fail. For every Entebbe there is an Eagle Claw. For ever Embassy Siege there is a Bravo Two Zero. For every Marengo there is a Waterloo.
”The moral is to the physical as three is to one” Napoleon is reputed to have said. Yet all the trappings of an elite do eventually run out. In the end, on that Mint St Jean ridge being ‘La Garde’ could not outweigh being outnumbered, badly deployed or outgunned.
So my question is, elite unit/formation status. How much of that was true or how much is it about our romantic or sentimental desires?
I think it is a combination of both. You train a unit better and more - you select the men for that unit, you give it the best NCOs and officers available in the army, you would create a solid unit.
What one usually forgets that it is very difficult to maintain such a status in war time when attrition and wear and tear could take a terrible toll. Such elites are a double edged weapon, in case they fail, the ordinary soldier would be prone to loose heart immediately and regard the battle as lost, in case they shine, they may encourge other units and raise moral.
It was quite interesting for me to read Clinton's inspection reports and what he had to the about the 52nd of Foot, or Hannovarian Landwehr.
Well, I did say 'arguably.' I think it's a proposition worth considering to help explore the concept. I didn't mean to suggest that there was any exclusivity with regard to skills, or creditable service. Moreover, it is certain that the skills of British rifle troops have at times been exaggerated and indeed, glamourised Nonetheless, the ethos of the rifle battalions was particular to a role that involved operating in a manner distinct to those of standard line regiments. The raw material enlisted in the ranks, regardless had to be trained to carry out that role and once in the field a degree of natural selection took place whereby those unsuited by temperament or resilience fell by the wayside (sometimes literally), or were weeded out. The 'crack shots' crack was overly flippant but enough riflemen hit their marks regularly enough for their role to be considered important and their existence to be valued.
And of course, as a result they did tend to see themselves as a cut above the ordinary line infantryman (as their descendants still do today), although in a diametrically opposite fashion to Guardsmen (ditto). This high self-opinion was doubtless cherished in many other regiments of foot with equal esprit de corps. That returns us to the question as to whether considering oneself part of an 'elite', serving as an effective force multiplier and producing superior effectiveness on the battlefield, is enough to justify that label. Of course, being dependent on performance, it may well only be temporary.
'Elite' is a term much overused. Its original meaning is 'chosen' or 'select' and so in military terms applied originally to units that fulfilled the role of guarding the monarch, good physical specimens, smartly uniformed, immaculately drilled and led by officers of impeccable lineage. Ideally, they would also have a record of prevailing in battle (If they didn't, we don't hear about them, I guess). Whether marching in the vanguard or kept as the final reserve, these were supposedly the finest regiments a kingdom could send into battle. Over the years, a record of success builds up the reputation of these 'elite' corps. Their regimental colours might sport the names of notable victories. Reputation on the battlefield operates in two ways, as Robert says. In the ranks of an 'elite' regiment, it boosts the confidence of soldiers about to go into battle. Across the field, those facing these 'crack' troops may be feeling some apprehension. Unless of course, they belong to regiments enjoying an equal reputation.... Were, for example, the rifle troops of Wellington's army, elite? They were men selected for their aptitude to the independent role of the rifle corps, trained accordingly and then demonstrated the efficacy of that process in battle over the next fifteen years. They weren't smart, they often weren't fine physical specimens ( in common with the greater proportion of British infantry) but were undeniably hard men toughened in months of gruelling campaigning. They were of course, crack shots. Arguably, these specialist troops represented another form of elite. Another regiment, be it the 'Old Mudshires', 'Les Impeccables,' or 'Die alten Stamper,' (other nations are available) might simply have a record of honourable service across the battlefields of the Old and New World, and whose reputation operates on the "Wha's like us?" principle, whereby esprit de corps and ingrained discipline enables them to withstand whatever the fortunes of battle throw their way, until the last man standing.
I do have an issue with the way the term 'Elite' is applied to the period. The dictionary definition is 'a select group that is superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society' but the modern military usage requires an 'Elite' force, like the SAS, to have an element of selection, a specialist role, and special training. These are lacking for many of the units the term is applied to in the Napoleonic period. I think the Imperial Guard can be fairly called elite due to the way the men were selected from long serving men, or those that performed some notable deed. Although this did become diluted over time. The same could be true for grenadier or light companies.
The main problem is when the term is applied to units like Wellington's Light Division, when there wasn't any element of selection for the men, nor extra training over similar regiments, and their role was no different to other light infantry or rifle units. I'm not saying that they were not very good troops, just that elite is the wrong adjective to use as it can be confused with the modern military usage. You could look at numerous other units of Wellington's army and use the dictionary definition of elite, from the Guards to elements of the KGL. And there were units like the Fusileers who saw themselves as better than other foot regiments.
I think the concentration on popular 'elite' units can distort history, with the plethora of books about the Light Division, or Airborne forces in the Second World War, creating the perception that they played a greater role in campaigns than was actually the case.
Often being "Elite" was a mindset. The units believed they were special because in the case of the Old Guard because of their experience. In sports, the elite teams have a history of winning records. . . but they are also repeatedly told they are the best. When you combine the winning record and a belief in themselves you become invincible. . . until you are not.