Book Review:

Six Years with Wellington's Legendary Sharpshooters

By Mark Urban


One of the most famous British units to emerge from the Peninsular War was the 95th Rifles, a regiment of hard-fighting soldiers with a record second to none.

They have been immortalised in books by Bernard Cornwell - the Sharpe series - and in the television productions of those books.

The 95th was part of the Light Division and was responsible through their successes to a marked change in the British army whereby individual skills began to count for more than massed ranks and firing in unison.

In Rifles: Six Years with Wellington's Legendary Sharpshooters, author Mark Urban looks at the 95th and does so in a warts-and-all way that may draw some fire from his own side.

For in Rifles Urban looks at the myth of Robert 'Black Bob' Craufurd, the general who has been highly esteemed in military histories and fair turns his reputation on its head.

Always known as a brutal disciplinarian, Urban also shows Craufurd to be a bullying, attention-seeking, general whose need to prove himself on the battlefield endangered his men and earned the undying hatred of his fellow officers and troops.

I have to say the venomous words used against Craufurd from contemporary accounts stunned me and even more surprising was the fact that he was so close to be sacked and sent home in disgrace other than for Wellington's belief in him.

The man Urban rates as being the true leader of the 95th was General Sydney Beckwith and following him General Andrew Barnard.

By good leadership these men won the faith of their men and inspired them to amazing feats of arms.

But Urban doesn't just dwell on the good points of the 95th in Rifles, he looks at the regiment's strength, weaknesses and doesn't avoid murders, desertions and wicked deeds done by men in rifle green.

Rifles covers the clashes and battles the 95th found themselves in and as you would expect from Urban, the campaigns and actions are described in a wonderfully clear manner.

The clash of the Coa is - where the Light Division could have been destroyed by Craufurd's wilful incompetence - is page-turning stuff and the horrors of the storming of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz have you on the walls themselves.

The heroes of Rifles include Lieutenant George Simmons, Captain Peter O'Hare, Private Robert Fairfoot, Ned Costello, Corporal William Brotherwood. Not all survived but all make up Urban's striking tapestry of individuals who fought for each other between 1808 and 1815.

Of all the Napoleonic authors running around at the moment I would pick up a title from Mark Urban before any others.

Rifles is history explained at its best.

- Richard Moore





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