Wellington’s Scum: The History and Legacy of the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars

Written by Charles River Editors
Category: · History

*Includes pictures
*Includes online resources and a bibliography for further reading
*Includes a table of contents

Today, the British Army is one of the most powerful fighting forces in the world. Its highly trained professional soldiers are equipped with the most advanced military technology ever made. Its international interventions, while controversial both at home and abroad, are carried out with incredible professionalism and little loss of life among British servicemen and servicewomen. Naturally, the history and traditions behind this army are also impressive. Britain has not been successfully invaded in centuries. Its soldiers once created and defended a global empire, and during the Second World War, it was one of the leading nations standing against the brutal Axis forces, leading the way in the greatest seaborne invasion in military history.

But it was not always like this. For most of its history, Britain was a patchwork of competing nations. England, the largest of its constituent countries, was often relatively weak as a land power compared with its European neighbors. Moreover, Britain’s armies, like those of the other European powers, were neither professional nor standing armies for hundreds of years.

The 18th century was a tumultuous period for the British army, one often overlooked in popular accounts of British history. It began with the formal unification of Britain—a period of great success for the nation’s armies—led by one of Britain’s greatest generals, the Duke of Marlborough. This was followed by a period of global activity and military reform as the British Empire expanded. Though naval power played a greater part in this success, it led to new obligations and challenges for the army. Even as the empire soared to new heights, the 18th century was one that was initially marked by triumph but ended in failure and decline. The late 1770s and early 1780s brought about a disastrous war for control of the American colonies, during which the British Army was ultimately defeated by colonial militiamen allied with French forces. In the aftermath came a period of decline and complacency, leaving the nation ill-prepared for war with Napoleon and France.

In the wake of the French Revolution, other European powers were eager to suppress the revolutionary example before it spread to their nations, and to capitalize on France’s turmoil to their advantage. Encouraged by exiled French aristocrats, they went to war to restore the old France, only for the resulting wars to make France more powerful than it had ever been. Under Napoleon, the nation’s armies took control of the Iberian and Italian Peninsulas, as well as large swathes of central Europe, and humbled great states such as Prussia and Austria. Though their march against Russia in 1812 ended in disaster, that it happened at all was remarkable.

Wellington famously referred to his men as the scum of the earth, even as he took pride in their skill and successes. This was an army that took rough material and shaped it into something refined and effective. The demoralized army emerging after the American Revolution became something new and powerful, respected around the world. These were the men who had given Britain its era of greatest glory. These were Wellington’s scum.

Wellington’s Scum: The History and Legacy of the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars examines the history of the British Army during one of history’s most pivotal eras. Along with pictures of important people, places, and events, you will learn about the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars like never before.


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