Did your ancestor fight against Napoleon?

By Guest, 12 August 2019 - 11:37am

On Who Do You Think You Are?​, Kate Winslet discovered her 3x great grandfather was a drum major in the Napoleonic Wars. Trace your ancestors in Wellington’s army with our guide

Napoleonic Wars
The 28th (North Gloucestershire) Regiment fight the French at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801 (Credit: Print Collector via Getty Images)

Britain has a tradition of maintaining a small army (the two World Wars are notable exceptions).

However, the British Army experienced a major expansion during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

Numbering a mere 40,000 in 1793, the strength of the regular Army rose to over 250,000 in less than two decades.

This level of growth, and the change that accompanied it, was almost as dramatic as the wars themselves.

Read the full version of this article in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine August 2019, on sale now

An ordinary soldier’s life was one of strict discipline (flogging was common), poor diet (low-quality meat and potatoes eked out with bread) and meagre pay.

Many enlisted as a desperate last resort to escape something in civilian life, leading the Duke of Wellington to famously remark: “Some of our men enlist for having got bastard children – some for minor offences – many for drink.”

Drunkenness was indeed common in the Napoleonic Army. According to a sergeant of the 43rd Foot during the Peninsular War: “It was no infrequent thing to see a long string of mules carrying drunken soldiers to prevent them falling into the hands of the enemy.”

Those who joined did so for life (meaning until they were worn out), but from 1806 the term of enlistment was reduced to 23 years.

Most came from the lower classes, but a few ‘gentlemen rankers’ – members of the middle class or aristocracy who had suffered some life setback – also enlisted.

In 1800 an infantry private received 1s a day, a cavalry trooper 2s. An infantry sergeant might get 1s 6¼d, while a cavalry sergeant received 2s 11d.

However, daily stoppages for messing, uniform and equipment left soldiers very little for themselves. A detailed list of Army pay can be found at the Napoleon Series.


Who were the drummer boys and drum majors?

Drums were used on the Napoleonic battlefields to convey tactical commands during the din of battle to infantry soldiers fighting in tightly controlled formations, with different drum rolls indicating specific actions or manoeuvres.

Therefore the appointment of drummer was an important one, and the post attracted higher pay.

Another, rather unpleasant, duty was the administration of corporal punishment. A flogging would be delivered to the unfortunate offender by a drummer, the strokes inflicted at the tap of a drum beaten in slow time. 

The uniform of the drummer was essentially that of his regiment, although during the late 18th and early 19th centuries they wore reversed colours: a coat of facing colour and facings (cuffs, collars and sometimes epaulets) of scarlet. Such a distinction was to show soldiers the location of the company commander as well as the drummers themselves.

In addition to their uniforms and musical accoutrements, drummers carried a short sword, their only protection in battle.

Today we might think of drummers as young boys, and indeed most began life in the army at a tender age, but many were adults.

There was no minimum age, but the recruit had to be of adequate size and demonstrate that he had the strength and aptitude to play the drum.

Infantry battalions also appointed drum majors (pictured) – non-commissioned officers with the rank of sergeant.

Their main duty was to train drummers and enforce discipline, often using the cane with younger boys.

They also supervised drummers’ punishment of other soldiers.

Drum major
A drum major of the 17th Regiment, 1830 (Credit: The Print Collector via Getty Images)

Top 3 websites for tracing soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars

1. Findmypast

Findmypast has more than eight million downloadable documents from The National Archives and the Scots Guards relating to enlisted men and officers of the British Army.

2. Ancestry

Find out if your relative received the Military General Service Medal (1793–1814) or Waterloo Medal (1815) for service during the Napoleonic Wars.

3. The National Archives

TNA has created a guide to researching soldiers who served during the 18th and 19th centuries, with links to searchable archives.


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