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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.
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on 9 October 2003
This book is a cracking read.The author peels away layers of myth and tells it like it was.
The officer who hid in his tent to avoid a battle gets his due, so does the sergeant who got himself a comfy job in the hospital store room to avoid fighting. At the same time the guys who fought the French again and again - desperate not to let their regiment down despite suffering terrible conditions get the praise they deserve. In other words the 95th can at last be judged as real men rather than the two dimensional heroes of previous books.
Urban flags up the stories of several soldiers and officers to show what kind of people they were, where they came from, what their hopes and fears were. He shows also how the cameraderie between officers and men came to blow away the class system - with men of the Rifles themselves using the term 'Band of Brothers' that is now so familiar to us.
There are plenty of battle scenes and as many villains seem to wear British uniform as French. It really is an eye-opener, especially if you've read a bit about the Rifles before.
My only criticisms: not enough maps and it could have been longer - quite a few soldiers who you want to know more about but just get walk on parts.
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on 17 June 2007
Having been a student of military history at uni and having grown up reading Bernard Cornwell's adventures of Richard Sharpe it was very interesting to read the true life accounts of the men of the 95th (or at least the 1st Battalion). Urban manages to make his book both informative and interesting, there are enough first hand accounts to stop it reading like a text book but there is still a wealth of academic information to keep the military historian happy. It was very interesting to follow the lives of several key figures within the battalion watching as their careers developed or indeed ended abruptly on the battlefield (or in at least one case, in front of a firing squad).

This is not a campaign history of the Peninsular war, although there is plenty of information on the subject, nor is it a regimental history of the 95th; it is more a personal history of the men of the 1st battalion of that unit that followed Wellington from Talavera to Waterloo. It focuses not only on their experiences in battle, be it in small skirmishes, large set piece battles or the storming of a breach but also on the day to day lives of the soldiers covering such topics as food, shelter, desertion, advancement, money and entertainment. All in all a great book and well worth a read for anyone wishing to find the true Richard Sharpes of Wellington's army.
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on 19 May 2004
"Rifles" really brings the Light Division involvement in the Peninsula Campaign to life incredibly well. The characters become quite familiar, and their various histories are woven together brilliantly. I found the book very readable and enjoyable. But it fell apart with the maps. Virtually unreadable sections of what seem to be Victorian maps without any orientation are absolutely no help in getting the bigger picture of the individual battles. I kept trying to see what was going on and finding the maps were useless. Hitting you with a profusion of Portuguese and Spanish names with no attempt to provide maps of where the action is taking place and how the action progressed completely let the book down for me. The illustrations were largely uninformative and the old style of glossy maps provided were unreadable. How much better it would have been to provide maps and diagrams of the Lines of Torres Vedras, hand drawn charts of the major battles detailing the course of the action, photogaphs of the surviving fortifications or locations of sieges, photographs of the locations of the bridges where actions took place. Brief descriptive dialogue describing relative locations of units during battles just weren't enough to give a mental picture of what was going on and nowhere near matched the excellent commentary in the text. The culmination at Waterloo was very brief and unsatisfying, granted that this was from the point of view of the Light Brigade only and not a general battle tour. The book held my attention, and I found the subsequent histories of some of the characters very touching. A definite recommend, but diagrams, maps, photographs of locations....more!
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on 8 January 2006
- and excellent Peninsular War history -
The Rifle brigade is one of the most extraodinary of the British Napoleonic War regiments. Only put together in around 1800 by Sir John Moore - it played a pivotal role in the Peninsular War, and later at Waterloo. They were the first of the Rifle brigades based on the Austrian and French regiments such as the Voltigeurs and Tiralleurs - they were to the be first in and last out of most encounters.
Mark Urban's book is at one an intelligent and academic account of each of the battles of the Peninsular War, as well as a personal and readable style of writing. His efficiency in text allows the book to flow nicely.
As always with these types of history books (and no doubt because the reading audience are likely to be limited) there are never enoughillustrations - I thinkanyway. But there are enough to show the point, I just wish there could be more because this books begs for more illustrations and I know they are available.
It is lucky that there are so many accounts from all walks of life in the Rifle brigade, funny and articulate men who Urban has made good use of. I especially enjoyed his use of Jonathon Leach's books - some of the harder accounts to get hold of, and some of the most interesting ones.
The book is divided into chapters by major incident starting with Talavera - I was disappointed that the major incident prior to this, that is the retreat to Corunna isn't covered in here - although this subject has been dealt with efficiently in other accounts recently such as Summerville's March of Death - this is a slightly different angle - this is on the Rifle Brigade and they played a significant role in that retreat. This is dealt with in passing in the very first chapter.
I was interested in the depth of detail Urban got into. From how the personalities in the army got on such as the problems of 'Black bob' Crauford and Beckwith's different styles down to the minor details of how the regiment marched, made camp, even dug their ablution trenches
This really has become the standard work on the 95th during the Peninsular campaign and one I really enjoyed. It is highly recommended.
Urban has also written another exceptionally readable Napoleonic Wars history on George Scovell called the Man who Broke Napoleon's codes, I would also recommend this in the highest
Urban is an author I will watch out for and buy - his books are academically researched and well written and highly enjoyable.
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on 28 April 2007
This is an enjoyable account of the 95th Rifles in the Peninsular war (with a final chapter covering Waterloo and later developments of the 95th). I'd recommend the book if you're at all interested in this period of history, military history in general or a fan of the Richard Sharpe books. A highlight of the book is the sketches of some of the characters - especially Robert Craufurd who is as memorable and paradoxical as any fictional character I've read. One minor problem is towards the end of the the battles (and some of the characters) tend to merge into one - I think this is due mainly to the nature of the subject and Urban in general has produced a very readable book.
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on 22 July 2010
Mark Urban's Rifles, tells the heroic and at times heartwrenching story of the soldiers of the 95th, following them through Potugal Spain and France from 1809 - 1815.

One would have thought that as the Worlds most powerful and richest country at the time, we would have at least been able to furnish our lads with tents,and adequate food during a terrible war which held very little, if any reward for them.

Urban tells of amazing actions by these brave and,on the whole, loyal men, some of them did on occasion dessert,but only because of the inhumane and disgraceful treatment dished out by our ' gentlemen ' officers.

Welly Wellington described them as scum, someone should have reminded him it was 'scum ' such as these that built the Empire, and enabled the likes of him to live such a comfortable life,it is noteable that nosey did'nt seem to put himself in any danger at the time.

As you can see this is a very thought provoking book, and well worth a read, Urban puts it together nicely.

If it has any faults, then they are that the battle accounts are little vague, but this is more about the plights of men in war.

A good book at a good price.Rifles: Six Years with Wellington's Legendary Sharpshooters
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on 12 January 2005
definately worth a read if you are into the factual 'story' behind the 95th rifles. Breaks away from the glossier stories of the Sharpe series, to provide a gritty, realistic view of what life was like in Wellingtons army.
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on 19 February 2006
For all fans of fast furious history, this book has it all. Romps along as fast as the regiment marched. Only critism, and agree with other reviewers, is some maps and the occasional birds eye views of what was going on at a strategic level would have helped. But overall great stuff.
Well done to Mark Urban
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on 8 July 2008
I would never thought of buying this book. I've never really been into the Napoleonic wars even though I only ever tend to read military history. However I was given this book as a surprise birthday present, which I read whilst on holiday. What a cracking read! A well written and researched account of this ground breaking regiments deeds during the peninsular war, and the final encounter at Waterloo. Mark urban does a grand job of putting across the feeling of regimental comradery that must have bonded this fighting elite. While reading you get the feeling the rifles were to all intense purposes modern day soldiers fighting in a 19th century war. This lot would 'soften up' the massive French columns before the ordinary soldiers of the line unleashed their murderous volleys at a closer range. The heroism displayed and told in actions and hand to hand is both immense and impressive. Brilliant stuff, and a poignant quote used in the last couple of paragraphs of this book left me tears.
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