“En tirailleur”: light infantry tactics and bugle calls in non-light infantry corps

1297327244204_ORIGINAL-1.jpg
6th (1st Warwickshire) Foot, Light Company (St. Catharines Standard)

Over the past few years, I have repeatedly encountered evidence of non-light infantry formations in the Napoleonic-era British armed forces practising skirmishing manoeuvres. During the same period, the bugle, commonly associated with the light infantry, began to supersede the drum as the favoured instrument for issuing musical commands even in some line regiments. These developments demonstrate the army’s ability to innovate and adapt to the practical demands of warfare, as it had previously done in the Seven Years and American Revolutionary Wars.

I recently came across another example of the use of light infantry tactics outside the light infantry proper in an unexpected place – the Home Office papers chronicling post-war radical reform disturbances – and thought I would share it on this blog.

In the aftermath of the failed April 1820 Grange Moor rising in West Yorkshire, the 6th (1st Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot under Lieutenant-Colonel Archibald Campbell was dispatched to the area to overawe would-be rebels. In a letter written to his superior on 23 April, Campbell included the following aside:

‘On the moor, my people [6th Foot] are out frequently, either all together as a small Batt[alio]n, or two companies at a time practising light movements, having always accustomed my Batt[alio]n companies to act when necessary “en tiraileurs”.’[1]

The word ‘tirailleur’, of course, was a contemporary French appellation for light infantry skirmishers.

Archibald Campbell exchanged into 6th Foot in 1812, commanding the 1st Battalion during the Peninsular War and later in Canada during the closing months of the Anglo-American War of 1812.[2]  Despite the letter’s post-war date, his phrasing indicates that the regiment’s battalion companies – and not just its solitary light company – had been instructed in skirmishing tactics during their previous years of active service.

However, even if non-light infantrymen received some light infantry training, there was always the risk of miscommunication when employing unfamiliar bugle calls. At Maguaga in the Michigan Territory during the War of 1812, the 41st Foot Grenadiers managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by misinterpreting a bugle command at the climax of the engagement.

'Battle of Monguagon' by J.C.H. Forster (Windsor Public Library).jpg
A twentieth-century depiction of the Battle of Maguaga by J.C.H. Forster (Windsor Public Library) – note the 41st Foot bugler at right.

Thomas-René-Verchères Boucher de Boucherville (1784-1857) recalled the blunder in his journal: “At the appointed moment, with the two ranks face to face, Major [Adam] Muir ordered the bugler at his side to sound the bayonet charge. Just then the company of grenadiers of the 41st commanded by Captain Bullard [Bullock], which General Procter had sent to reinforce us, came up. We were not at all sorry to see them for things were getting decidedly hot for us… The grenadiers, who had been sent by the General to reinforce us, were stationed in the centre. The signal which Major Muir was to give for the charge had not been explained to them, and thinking it was an order to retreat, they turned to the rear without firing a single shot… Finally, we were obliged to draw back because of the unexpected and groundless retreat of the grenadiers and that, too, at the very moment of victory, for the enemy’s centre had broken…the grenadier company, in place of helping us, succeeded only in throwing our ranks into disorder and was the sole cause of our defeat. This is painful to say, yet it is the simple truth.”[3]


[1] UK National Archives, HO 40/12, f.320, Letter to Maj-Gen Sir John Byng from Lt-Colonel Archibald Campbell, dated Leeds, 23 April 1820.
[2] Further details of Campbell’s varied career can be found in his 1839 United Service Journal obituary.
[3] War on the Detroit: The Chronicles of Thomas Verchères de Boucherville and the Capitulation by an Ohio Volunteer, ed. M.M. Quaife (Chicago, 1940), pp. 96-98.

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