Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

British Army Unit Strengths: 1808-1815

By Andrew Bamford


In 2005, I embarked upon a PhD at the University of Leeds, originally envisaged as a study of the British Army on active service during the Napoleonic Wars.[1] It eventually morphed somewhat into an analysis of the performance of the regimental system, and, after further tweaking and a very substantial rewrite, will shortly be appearing in print courtesy of the University of Oklahoma Press’s Campaigns and Commanders series under the title Sickness, Suffering, and the Sword: The British Regiment on Campaign 1808-1815.

From the outset, I sought to establish the extent and nature of both the similarities and differences between the varying performances of different regiments within a given theatre of war, and between the different theatres themselves, and in order to do this effectively I required a large body of basic statistical data. This led me to the Monthly Returns submitted by to Horse Guards by individual units and – in particular – to those compiled by the headquarters staff of the various overseas commands. Forming Series WO17 in The National Archives at Kew, even a focussed selection of these tables took several weeks to transcribe, and, even then, I was forced to be selective with the data. Nevertheless, the resulting spreadsheets were an invaluable resource during the compilation of doctorate and book, and so, with those projects now complete, I offer them to the wider historical community in the hope that they may prove of use to others as well.

Historical Context

Throughout the Napoleonic Wars, each regiment, battalion, or independent detachment of the British Army was required to provide a complete return once a month. Until June 1809 this was to be completed on the first of the month, but this was then changed to the 25th so that there are thus two “monthly” returns for June 1809.  From that date, the regulations required these returns to show “the exact state of the Corps, in which every Officer, Non-commissioned Officer, and Private Soldier, belonging to the Corps, is to be accounted for. […] The casualties which have occurred from the 25th day of each Month to the 24th day of the Month following, both days inclusive, must be accurately inserted in the respective Columns.”[2] Although the regulations went on to state that copies of this return be sent to the “General Officer under whose Command the Regiments may be serving”, as well as to the Adjutant General back in London, the latter practice does not seem to have been much followed: certainly, few examples have survived to be incorporated into The National Archives. However, barring the need for occasional reminders to jar recalcitrant units into getting their paperwork in, and some confusion in the case of detached commands, such as Cadiz, as to which General Officer the returns should be sent to, theatre commanders seem to have generally been able to obtain regular monthly returns for units under their command.[3] This was of course vital for their own understanding of their forces, but also necessary in that it gave them the data to provide, as they were required by regulation to do, “A Return, as soon as it can be made up after the 25th of each month, of the Troops, and of the General and Staff Officers employed at each Station.”[4] This was to be sent not only to the Adjutant General but also to the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies and to the Secretary at War, although the copy for the Adjutant General required, in addition, details of all regimental officers present and absent. It is from these returns that the great bulk of the data presented here is taken.

The exact manner in which these returns were made out differed from theatre to theatre, and their format also changed over time with, for example, an initial distinction between those ill but still present with their unit, and those in hospital, later being replaced by a single total of the unit’s sick. At no point, it should be stressed, was any distinction made between the ill and the wounded – all came under the heading of “Sick”. Another innovation, first seen in June 1810, was the listing of men sent home, alongside those lost through death or desertions, whilst Canadian-raised units serving in that country, being able to send men on leave, made considerable use of the “Furlough” column that was, necessarily, generally left blank in returns from other active theatres. The main columns, however, which remain constant throughout, are those giving the rank and file strength of each unit, broken down into “Effective”, “Sick”, and “On Command”, plus the running totals of deaths and desertions: for mounted units, or those employing draught animals, the total number of horses and the number dead since the last return must also be added. Those listed as “Effective” were those fit for service with the unit, including neither the detached nor the sick. The more confusing “On Command” may be best understood as a catch-all term for men actively employed in the service, but away from their parent unit. In practice, this could variously encompass anything from a handful of men overseeing some small task under the supervision of an NCO to several companies detached on an expedition, as well as most things in between.

The Spreadsheets

The spreadsheets themselves form two distinct series. The first is composed of the original sheets produced by transcription of the actual returns, divided up by theatre and with a return for each month, as well as a composite spreadsheet for each theatre with monthly all-arm totals. Within these, in addition to the transcribed data, I have calculated the percentage of each unit returned as both Effective and Sick. On those returns that separate men sick in hospital and those sick in quarters, I have also calculated the total sick to allow direct comparison with those returns showing only the total.

The second set of spreadsheets, created almost entirely from the data contained within the first, comprise a composite month-by-month listing for each individual unit. These were set up on a standard format, running from September 1808 to July 1815, for which reason the reader may need to scroll down to find any entries for a unit that may only have been sampled during the later years of the war. As well as the data itself, also included are some basic graphical representations tracking strength over time and marking peaks and troughs in deaths and desertions. I have created such a spreadsheet for every unit that appears in the initial run of theatre returns, although there are several which, as a result, carry only a month or two’s actual data. In order to keep the graphs balanced, it was necessary to work around the problem of there being two June 1809 returns by producing composite figures for that month which combine the strength totals of June 25th with the combined losses from May 1st to May 31st, from the June 1st Return, with those for June 1st to June 24th from that of June 25th. Because artillery and engineer units are always listed as total figures for each theatre, these have been treated a little differently and there are individual spreadsheets for, say, the Royal Artillery in Flanders or the Royal Engineers at Cadiz, rather than breakdowns by individual company.

It must be remembered that the spreadsheets were created with a specific task in mind, namely the easy like-for-like comparison between units, and that therefore certain compromises had to be made that limit their wider utility. Most importantly, it should be understood that the figures provided are for the rank and file strengths only, with no details of officers, sergeants, or musicians. Including such would have doubled the amount of time necessary to make the transcriptions, and rendered the project unmanageable in terms of scope without adding much to its utility for the purpose for which it was undertaken. Unfortunately, this means that the closest one can come to knowing the full all-ranks strength of a unit is to follow Oman’s formula and add ten per cent to the figures given here. Nor was a record kept of every single column heading, so that no information is here reproduced relating to transfers of men and horses, nor of men discharged and horses cast (although some idea of these may be had by comparing the rise and fall of total figures – it is generally fairly obvious, for example, when an infantry battalion has received a batch of reinforcements). Finally, the focus of the project for which these sheets were created was on units on active service in Europe and North America, so that there is no data for units at home, nor for those in the East and West Indies. Coverage for the East Coast of Spain begins only in mid-1813, prior to which date I believe that returns from this force were included with those for Sicily, which station was not included in the sample for reasons of time – this omission I intend to correct in due course. Where possible, gaps whilst a unit was on passage between theatres have been filled by consulting the unit’s own returns sent direct to Horse Guards, also to be found in the WO17 series, but these are very patchy in terms of what has survived; the same method has been used to provide strengths for KGL detachments in Germany in 1813-14. Within these confines, however, it is hoped that readers will find this data of use.



[1] Supervised by Dr Kevin Linch and Prof. Edward Spiers, and completed in 2009 with the thesis title, “The British Army on Campaign 1808-1815: Manpower, Cohesion, and Effectiveness”.

[2] General Regulations and Orders for the Army, Adjutant General’s Office, (London, 1811), p.266; see also ibid, pp.267-271 for detailed instructions as to how the forms were to be completed and what additional information was to be included.

[3] See, for example, GO of October 9th 1810, The General Orders of Field Marshal the Duke of Wellington KG, ed. Lieut. Colonel Gurwood (London, 1838), Vol.II, pp.179-181. Regarding Cadiz, see notes to the Monthly Returns for Portugal of April 25th and August 25th 1810, TNA, WO17/2465.

[4] General Regulations, p.261, italics as original.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: February 2013 - May 2014


Organization Index ]

©Copyright 1995-2016, The Napoleon Series, All Rights Reserved.

Top | Home ]