Lessons from Sir John Moore and the Rifles

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In 1760 Frederick the Great’s Prussian army of perfect obedience and mass formations was considered the finest army in the world. Just forty years, later, in 1806, the French used small units acting independently to supplement their mass formations and defeat the Prussians at the twin battles of Jena-Auerstadt.

Those independent soldiers were new to Europe, but not to warfare. The British suffered from American sharpshooters during the Revolutionary War. John Moore was one of the young British company commanders in that war.

By 1801 he was Sir John Moore and his regiment was the first to be designated “light infantry.” In 1803 he established a training camp at Shorncliffe to train a new kind of independent soldier. He thought that regular English soldiers could learn to shoot rifles.

The prevailing wisdom was that only people from “hunting cultures” could shoot well. The English hired mercenaries, especially Austrian mountain soldiers, as sharpshooters. Moore thought any soldier could be taught to shoot reasonably well. He was right.

Sir John Moore Lesson Nr 1: The prevailing wisdom is often the prevailing prejudice. Proving the prevailing wisdom wrong can be a source of great competitive advantage.

To get permission for his light troops to learn to shoot, Moore appealed to the British pride in their history. He equated his “Rifles” with the archers who won the day at Cressy and Agincourt.

Sir John Moore Lesson Nr 2: If you want to go against the prevailing culture, it’s best to use one of the culture’s strong beliefs to make your case.

The Americans had used sharpshooters, but not disciplined “light infantry” tactics. The French had tried light infantry tactics but never connected them with marksmanship. Moore’s training at Shorncliffe did both. One reason the combination worked for the English and not for the French was that the English had the Baker rifle which was accurate and robust enough to function in the field.

Sir John Moore Lesson Nr 3: Sometimes available equipment or technology is what makes improved performance possible.

The Rifles, light infantry units trained in marksmanship, made their reputation between 1809 and 1815, beginning on the Iberian Peninsula and ending at Waterloo. By the end of that time, the 95th Rifles and their distinctive green jackets were the best-known regiment in Britain and demonstrated that the great armies of the future would be made up of soldiers who acted independently.

The Rifles were part of a great wave of change. One of the officers on the field for Prussia in 1806 was Karl von Clausewitz, whose writing would influence Helmut Graf von Moltke. Von Moltke’s principles, in turn, would remake the German army. His thinking echoes in the strategic doctrines of today’s US military.

Sir John Moore Lesson Nr 4: Sometimes organizational change rides the wave of social change. When that happens it’s always best to go with the current.

Lieutenant General Sir John Moore did not live to see the triumph of the Rifles or the great changes in military practice he helped bring about. He was killed during the battle of Corunna in early 1809 and buried where he fell in a burial service held under fire.

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