During the Napoleonic Wars, the King’s Royal Rifle Corps saw action in the Peninsular War. The first four battalions had been raised as regular line battalions, but in 1797 a 5th battalion had been raised on Barbados, with additional companies formed on the Isle of Wight, and equipped entirely with rifles. The troops of the 5th battalion were so effective that Sir Arthur Wellesley recommended their use to the divisional commanders describing them as the “most useful, active and brave troops in the field”.
Marshal of the Empire Soult had been ordered by Napoleon to drive the Anglo-Portuguese army under Sir Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, and its Spanish allies back into Spain. He had failed, and now the enemy was approaching the borders of France. Bonaparte seldom took news of defeat well. On Soult’s desk were reports from his divisional commanders, and long casualty lists.
When he toured his demoralised battalions, Soult saw that some of the units had been reduced to just two or three officers, even though only a sixth of the men had fallen. He asked his generals why this was the case. The commanders explained the reason for the heavy losses. Soult took up his pen to report the situation to the Minister of War.
“There is in the English army a battalion of the 60th consisting of 10 companies. This battalion is never concentrated, but has a company attached to each infantry division. It is armed with a short rifle. The men are selected for their marksmanship. They perform the duties of scouts, and in action are expressly ordered to pick off the officers, especially field and general officers. Thus, it has been observed that whenever a superior officer goes to the front during an action, either for the purposes of observation or to lead and encourage his men, he is usually hit.”
The unit that had proved so deadly for Soult’s commanders was the 5th Battalion of the 60th (Royal American) Regiment of Foot: the first rifle battalion in the British Army.