by Mark Urban
New York: Walker & Co., 2004. Pp. 351 pages.
Illus., notes, biblio. $27.00 . ISBN: 0-8027-1437-4
Most readers will be familiar with the famous greenjackets of the 95th Rifle Regiment through Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe's Rifles series. This is ironic because, while Sharpe and his core followers are soldiers of the 95th Rifles, the 95th itself appears only in the very first novel and then the Waterloo installment. Therefore, Wellington’s Rifles should have an instant audience among fans of the popular Cornwell serial who are curious about the famed, hard-fighting outfit that lends Sharpe so much mystique, but appears very rarely in his adventures.
Mark Urban has not strayed very far from his previous work, The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes: a profile of the Duke of Wellington's intelligence chief. In this history of the 95th, Urban details the regiment’s participation in the campaigns of the Peninsular War of 1809-14, and then in the climactic battle of Waterloo. The 95th built its reputation in numerous engagements with the French stemming from outpost duty, vanguard and rearguard actions, raids, and the storming of fortresses. As elite light infantry the men of the 95th participated in most of the major battles of the Napoleonic British Army, but were never at the center of set piece actions. Paradoxically then, the Rifles saw considerable action without being front and center at any famous battle.
Nevertheless, the regiment’s considerable action in small affairs makes the book exciting to read. Urban ably weaves a story of Napoleonic soldiering through the personal experiences of a wide cast of characters, ranging from lowly privates to Brigadier "Black Bob" Craufurd, the founder and first commander of the Light Brigade (later the Light Division). Heroism, chivalry, and honor stand side-by-side with privation, shirking, and floggings in Urban's honest storytelling.
In a afterward outlining the rise of several officers of the 95th and the larger Light Division into the ranks of the general officers, Urban discusses how they came to dominate the mid-19th Century British Army, and how the Rifles tactics lived on to permeate the tactics and methods of that Army. The 95th Rifle Regiment itself lives on in the British Army (along with the sharpshooters of the 60th Royal Americans) as Her Majesty’s Greenjackets, and their adventures live and breath in the pages of Urban's excellent book.