THE RIFLE BRIGADE

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Origins, History and Campaigns of the Rifle Brigade

By the end of the eighteenth century several European armies included infantry specialised in the rolls of skirmishing and reconnaissance and the British followed the formation of the 5th Battalion of the 60th Royal Americans with the ceation in 1800 of an Experimental Corps of Riflemen, its members hand-picked from other regiments, dressed in green and armed with the Baker rifle. Within four months of its first parade the new unit led an assault landing at Ferrol and two months later it ceased to be `experimental` and was gazetted under the new title of The Rifle Corps. Its first Colonel, Coote Manningham, was one of a handful of officers whose thinking shaped the Light Infantry of the Army, while William Stuart as Commanding Officer was ideally suited to putting theory into practice, as well as being an original thinker in his own right.

Copenhagen (1801)

A year after its formation a company of the Rifle Brigade served aboard Nelsons ships at the battle of Copenhagen, earning its first battle honour and later a naval crown in its cap badge.

The Light Brigade

In 1803 the regiment, now named the 95th or Rifle Regiment, joined the 43rd and 52nd to form the Light Brigade under the command of Sir John Moore. But this formation was never kept in being for more than a few years at a time and in 1807, the 95th, now two battalions strong, took part in the storming of Monte Video and a mis-managed attack on Buenos Aires. Later that year, serving for the first time under Sir Arthur Wellesly, the future Duke of Wellington, both battalions were once again brigaded with the 43rd and 52nd for the siege of Copenhagen.

 Sir John Moore
Sir John Moore by T Lawrence
Courtesy RGJ Museum

The Peninsula War - The First Round (1808-09)

On the renewal of hostilities in the Peninsula the two battalions of the 95th, at first grouped with th 5/60th in a brigade of Riflemen, fired the first shots of the campaign at Obidos. But shortly afterwards they were reunited with their colleagues of the Light Brigade for Moore`s advance into Spain and provided the rearguard when the approach of a far larger French army forced him to retreat to Curunna and Vigo.

The Walcheren Expedition (1809)

During the summer of 1809 the 2nd battalion of the 95th, together with those of the 43rd and 52nd, took part in a fruitless expedition to the island of Walcheren in the Low Countries. There were few battle casualties but heavy losses from fever and their return to the Peninsula was delayed by a long period of recuperation and recruitment.

The Peninsula War - Second Round (1809-14)

The 1st Battalion 95th returned to the Peninsula in the summer of 1809 and took part in the Light Brigades famous forced to Talavera. During the next year further companies arrived peacemeal until three complete battalions were engaged. Throughout the rest of the Peninsula War the Light Brigade and later the Light Division was to make an ouitstanding contribution to Wellington`s victories. At Tarbes in 1814, the three battalions of the 95th on their own dislodged and defeated a superior French force deployed in successive ranks on a hillside. Sixteen Battle Honours were earned by the regiment.

Officer, The 95th or Rifle Regiment, Peninsula circa 1811 by Alix Baker  Officer 95th or Rifle Regiment Peninsula 1811

Waterloo (1815)

All three battalions were represented at Waterloo, the 1st holding the crossroads at la Haie Sainte all day and the 2nd and part of the 3rd in Adams brigade joined the famous charge of the 52nd which finally broke the French Imperial Guard. The 2nd Battalion was chosen to lead Wellington`s army into Paris.

The Nineteenth Century

In 1816 the Rifles were taken out of the numbered regigiments of the Line`and retitled The Rifle Brigade. They saw no more active service for thirty years, until they fought in South Africa in the Kaffir Wars of 1846-47 band 1852-53, against the Boers in 1848, in the Crimea, in the Indian Mutiny and colonial campaigns in Ashantee, Afghanistan, Canada, Burma and Sudan, including the Battle of Omdurman.

The Crimea War (1854-56)

Two battalions of the Rifle Brigade fought in the Crimea, one leading the advance over the River Alma and both taking part in the hard fought battle of Inkerman and the long siege of Sebastopol where they suffered severely from the bitterly cold Russain winter. This campaign saw the first awards of the Victoria Cross and the regiment won eight of them, more than any other regiment.

 Fording the Alam
Fording the Alma, September 1854
by Louis A Johns.
Showing 2nd Bn. Rifle Brigade leading the Light Division across the River Alma during the Crimean War.
Courtesy RGJ Museum

The Indian Mutiny (1857-59)

The Rifle Brigade were engaged at Cawnpore and   the relief of Lucknow, as well as in many smaller actions, and earned four more VCs to add to its tally from the Crimea. A detachment marching to reinforce the Cawnpore force covered forty-nine miles in twenty-six hours and another seventy-five miles without rest after four months on a troop ship, so emulating their forebears at Talavera. In the fighting that followed the Riflemen captured two long fourteen-pounder guns and dragged them with ropes to their own lines - a distance of more than three miles.

The South African War (1899-1902)

Like the 60th The Rifle Brigade had battalions in both the relief and defence of Ladysmith and distinguished itself in numerous actions. In several sorties the Rifles showed themselves a match for the Boers at fire and movement, and at Bergendal successfully attacked up 1500 yards of open hillside to seize the crestline. A further two VCs were won , one of the by Captain (later General Sir Walter) Congreve, whose son Major Billy Congreve was to be awarded a postumous VC in 1916.

World War 1 (1914-18)

In action from 25th August 1914, during the retreat from Mons, the 1st Battalion held up three German Jaeger battalions and a cavalry brigade all that day, giving such a display of rapid fire that the enemy mistook it for machine guns. Then as operations ground to a halt and trench warfare took over, more and more infantry were needed until by 1916 eleven Rifle Brigade battalion were in France and Flanders and one in Salonika. A further ten battalions of affiliated Territorial Regiments served, mostly on the Western Front but also in Gallipoli, the Middle East and India. After four years of fighting in atrocious conditions, facing concentrated artillery and machine gun fire as well as poison gas and flame throwers, the war was won, but at tremendous cost. The regiment lost 11.575 dead. Ten VCs were won as well as 1743 decorations for bravery.

World War 11 (1939-45)

The Rifle Brigade joined the 60th in 1937 in forming the first motor battalions regaining a specialised roll fitting their traditions of speed and initiative. One of these was sacrificed at Calais in 1940, but not before the the three Rifle battalions had significantly delayed the German panzer divisions advancing to interfere with the British Expeditionary Force`s evacuation through Dunkirk. Thereafter battalions fought with distinction in North Africa, including the celebrated `Snipe` action at El Alamein, where 2nd Rifle Brigade distroyed some fifty-one enemy tanks in sixteen hours and Lieutenant Colonel Turner was awarded the VC.

Four battalions of the regiment fought in Italy, the 1st returning to England in December 1943 to prepare for the invasion of North West Europe. The other three were formed into 61st Infantry Brigade, but continued their accustomed roll of co-operating with armour when conditions allowed. Their brilliant capture of the hills of Perugia involved four successive night attacks. 

The 1st and 8th Battalions landed in Normandy in June 1944 and fought their way through France, Belgium and Holland to end the war in the vacinity of Hamburg.

The Post War Years

In 1948, after nearly 150 years of service, the 2nd Battalion was disbanded. In 1953 the 1st Battalion reverted to anormal infantry role to serve in Kenya and Malaya and, having changed its title to 3rd Green Jackets (The Rifle Brigade) in 1958, in Borneo.

 THE REGIMENT I HAVE CHOSEN HAD NO COLOURS; IT HAD ONLY A SILVER BADGE WORN BY ALL ITS MEMBERS, BEARING THE NAMES OF ALMOST EVERY FAMOUS VICTORY IN MORE THAN A CENTURY AND A HALF OF BRITISH HISTORY. IN THE HOUR OF CRISIS ITS RIFLEMEN COULD NOT RALLY, LIKE OTHERS, ROUND A COLOUR, FOR THEY FOUGHT IN EXTENDED ORDER, EVERY MAN DEPENDING FOR COURAGE ON THE INVISIBLE COLOURS CARRIED IN HIS HEART
  ‘ THE BLACK AND THE GREEN, THE FINEST COLOURS EVER SEEN’.

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