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"The More The Danger, The More The Honour"
on 15 September 2003
Mark Urban, the author of "The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes," has written another very good book. He tells the story of the "legendary" 95th Rifles, following them from when they embark from England in 1809 (to take their place in the Peninsular War) up until their involvement at the Battle of Waterloo. We travel along with them through Portugal, Spain, France and Belgium and get to know the hardships they endured- seemingly endless marching; the confusing advances and retreats; sleeping out in the open in the cold, rain and snow; and going long periods, sometimes up to 3 days, without any food. This, in addition to the many skirmishes, sieges, and battles they engaged in- which were more numerous than those fought in by any other regiment. I enjoyed this book for many reasons: Mr. Urban writes very well, with a witty, yet informal, style; there are many first-person accounts, so we really get to feel that we know these men and what they are going through; in addition, the author doesn't try to hide the less noble aspects of the 95th- besides the many examples of bravery and loyalty that we read about, we also see drunkeness, desertion, looting, and shirking of duty. But let me emphasize that Mr. Urban doesn't do a "hatchet-job" on the regiment. This is not revisionist history, it is just a full history...warts and all. And, believe me, the positive vastly outweighs the negative. Considering the amount of combat these men saw over an extended period (6 years), and the privations they suffered, one comes away from this book with a great deal of admiration and respect. Another nice thing about the book is that Mr. Urban goes to great lengths to explain what made this regiment so special- and what wasn't unique to them. For example, they became excellent marksmen because they practiced actual shooting. This was unusual because most soldiers of the time, although they practiced formations and loading their weapons, did not get much, if any, "target practice." On the other hand, while the 95th was known for its ability to "pick off" French officers in battle (causing confusion and loss of morale amongst the common French soldier), this practice did not originate with them. What made the 95th so special was their ability to hit the target! Before this time, British army leadership was under the impression that only "woodsmen," such as German and Swiss mercenaries, could become sharpshooters. The 95th showed that, with enough practice (and with the right weapon) the common British soldier could do just as well. The 95th, through their long years of combat, also showed that sharpshooters had value not just as skirmishers: they could also fight in a line, and they could also be effective in siege operations...as they proved at Ciudad Rodrigo. The reason I am giving this book 4 stars rather than 5 is because it does suffer from a few defects. Firstly, the maps are very poor. They are few in number and not detailed enough. It is very difficult to follow the author, sometimes, as he tries to describe in detail what is going on during the course of a battle. Secondly, Mr. Urban is almost exclusively concerned with the "small picture"- following the 95th in action from one battle to another. It would have been helpful if he had stepped back once in awhile to explain the broader strategy- what Wellington or Napoleon had in mind at a particular time. In the overall scheme of things, however, this is small beer. This is a very good book, and well-worth reading for its "insider's view" of what camp-life and battlefield conditions were like for both officers and common infantrymen who served under Wellington.