To be honest, you've already hit upon a couple of points: sleeping on wet ground and using it to stay warm in rainy weather actually occurs all too frequently. It was also used as a sunscreen and makeshift tent so went through quite a gruelling time!
Anyway, I've trawled through this thread (and the 'Blanket'
and 'Thatcher Knapsack
' thread) and put together a collection of what I hope is an insight in to the all too frequent question of blankets/greatcoat rolls carried in/on top of the knapsack for our period. It is long, I know, put please sit back, have a cold/hot drink ready (and a meal, and pillow...) and enjoy...
There’s many an anecdote and not a few official texts concerning knapsacks, blankets and greatcoats.
One thing I think we have learned from these was that nothing was 100% certain in the material culture of the British Army! The mode of purchase, supply and administration seemed to allow for numerous vagrancies. Standardisation, whilst sought for by the powers that be, seemed to elude the army.
1799, Redcoats, foreign service.
"We had each man been supplied with a blanket while in camp on Barham Downs, but had no proper or uniform mode of carrying them; we had no greatcoats, but made use of the blanket sometimes as a substitute in the morning, when we turned out to proceed on our march. We certainly made a strange appearance. Some had their blankets thrown around them, others had them twisted up like a horse collar, and tied over their shoulders in the manner of a plaid; while some had them stuffed into, and others tied on to the top of their knapsack."
25 years in the Rifle Brigade, Surtees, Greenhill, 1996, p.8.
The impression I have from anecdotes (post greatcoat issuing period) is that a soldier would embark for campaign with both greatcoat and blanket and a complete pack. This would mean that in the early days of the first campaign in Portugal, both blanket and g’coat were carried, though in those brutal winter months of the retreat to Corunna I’m guessing that the g’coat would have been worn! Accounts of the retreat talk of the men suffering under the burden of the packs (possibly also alluding to the packs’ design deficiencies if these were the earlier ‘folding’ variety):
The Corunna retreat:
”On this prolonged march, our knapsacks were also our enemy. I am convinced that many a man..dies because of the infernal load he carried on his back. My own knapsack was my bitterest enemy, and I felt I would die in its deadly embrace. The knapsacks should have been abandoned at the very commencement of the retrograde movement for it would have been better to lose them instead of the poor fellows who died on the road strapped to them".
p.108, A Dorset Rifleman, Benjamin Harris, Shinglepicker, 1995
"In this engagement a musketball struck my knapsack, went through my great-coat and blanket, and through a piece of bent leather that we carry for soles, and into my shaving dish, and lodged there, breaking the glass."
p.62 On Campaign with Moore and Wellington, the experiences of a soldier of the 43rd, Hamilton, Leonaur, 2009
"Our colonel had orders for us to throw away our knapsacks, but keep either the greatcoat, or blanket, which we chose. We did not mind parting with our kits, our orders must be obeyed, so we left them at the roadside".
p.13 Where Duty calls me, The experiences of William Green in the Napoleonic Wars, ed J and D Teague, Synjon 1975
2nd Campaign in Portugal
Later, after its return to Portugal, the army eventually establishes a series of depots where kit and supplies to the army could be stored, and either learning from the previous campaign’s experience or having a better understanding of the climate of the Peninsula, put a General Order out to the army:
Celorico, 2d June 1810
- The Officers commanding regiments of infantry are requested, as soon as possible, to make the following arrangement for sending into store the great coats or the blankets belonging to regiments under their command respectively…
- The blankets to be sent in are to be made up in bales…
- The great coats must be marked with the name of the soldier to whom it belongs, and his company…
Even the officers were not exempt;
"During the summer months the superfluous baggage of the officers was ordered to be kept in regimental stores. Every officer was directed to provide himself with 'a small portmanteau which together with with his cloak or blanket and one or two camp kettles per company is all that is to be carried'. Frequent parades in marching order and service order were held. Marching order included the whole of the necessaries and greatcoats, and canteens and billhooks, the greatcoats to be folded in the flap of the knapsack. Service order included blankets and a change of clothing, the rest of the kit being rolled in the greatcoats ready to be sent into stores.”
Verner, History of the Rifle Brigade, p.80;
Though of course, soldiers would still arrive in-country with both:
“…to join the army, having got our camp equipments, consisting of a camp-kettle and bill-hook to every six men, a blanket, a canteen and haversack, to each man. Orders had been given that each soldier, on his march, should carry alongst with him three days' provision. Our mess of six, cast lots who should be cook the first day, as we were to carry the kettle day about; the lot fell to me. My knapsack contained two shirts, two pair of stockings, one pair overalls, two shoebrushes, a shaving-box, one pair spare shoes, and a few other articles; my greatcoat and blanket above the knapsack my canteen with water was slung over my shoulder, on one side; my haversack with beef and bread, on the other; sixty round of ball cartridge, and the camp-kettle above all."
Journal of a Soldier of the 71st by John Howell (1819 print) Page 110
However, The BGO (Board of General Officers) obviously became concerned for the overburdened army:
Board of General Officers, clothing report, infantry of the line, 19th June 1811:
"The soldiers are on no account to be required, as permitted, to carry their blankets, when that article shall be issued to the troops, nor is the weight of their equipment ever to exceed the proportion already specified (ie 12.5 lbs); unless it should be deemed expedient, on particular occasions, to order the soldiers to carry a greater than ordinary proportion of provisions. The blankets, as well as any other extra articles which it my be found necessary to carry with the troops, are to be conveyed by the Commissariat."
Report of the Board established "for the Purpose of Reporting Upon the Equipment of the Infantry" 29th June, 1811:
"The board have inspected the pattern Knapsack submitted to them by the Adjutant General, and, having caused some improvements to be made therein, they recommend that one Uniform Knapsack, of the same dimensions and colour, should be established for the whole Army; it being calculated to contain every thing a Soldier ought to carry, and being a convenient, well looking pack, either with, or without the Great Coat. The number of the Regiment to be marked on the back, without any ornament. -- The weight of the Pack, when fitted with the Articles hereinafter specified
- , will be Twelve pounds seven ounces.
Dec 1811, Pvt Wheeler of the 51st.
"In Carapina camp, when we were almost starved for want of provisions, some of our men sold their blankets, to purchase some biscuits. The Colonel soon discovered by the size of the knapsack what had taken place, and several men were punished.”
And weight seems to have continued to be a cause of concern by the BGO with a reminder going out to all:
“A report by the board on recommendations for regulations of the British Army for clothing, etc, dated 3 Feb 1812;
‘The Breeches, pantaloons, shoes, knapsack, and foraging cap are to be made in strict conformity to the approved patterns of those articles, lodged with the inspector of Army clothing. The number of the Army regiment to be marked on the back of the knapsack, without any ornament. The knapsack is to be of the same dimensions and colour for the whole of the Army.
XXXIII The whole of the necessaries to be carried by soldiers, in their knapsacks, shall not exceed the weight of twelve pounds and a half, the knapsack and Great Coat included.’” - WO7/56 p97-99
"We arrived at a wood, quickly undid our blankets and laid three or four on top of one another, with us underneath."
A Waterloo Hero. The Reminiscences of Friedrich Lindau.(2nd KGL Light Battn.)
Private Wheeler of the 51st Dec 1812;
"Our blankets were so wet that each morning before we could put them into our knapsacks they were obliged to be wrung."
p.102 The letters of Private Wheeler,ed BH Liddell Hart, Windrush 1993
If the greatcoats were put into stores during the summer months, were they brought out in the winter (non-campaign) months when soldiers were in cantonments or billeted in villages?
Private Wheeler of the 51st Jan 1812
"I shall give you an account of the manner I have slept this winter..Every night the contents of my haversack is transferred to my knapsack. This forms my pillow, at the same time secures my kit and provisions from midnight marauders. The haversack is then converted into a night cap. Being stripped, my legs are thrust into the sleeves of an old watchcoat, carefully tied at the cuffs to keep out the cold. The other part wrapped round my body served for under blanket and sheet. Next my trousers are drawn on my legs over the sleeves of the coat, my red jacket has the distinguished place of covering my seat of honour and lastly my blanket covers all"
p.74 The letters of Private Wheeler, ed BH Liddell Hart, Windrush 1993
Pvt Wheeler, 51st, Nov 1813
"I forgot to mention that in this evening I found two musket balls in my knapsack, one was lodged in the blanket".
p.139 The letters of Private Wheeler, ed BH Liddell Hart, Windrush 1993
Cooper of the 7th noted~
'When blankets were issued they had to be folded to suit the square of the knapsack’.
Crossing the Pyrenees 1813;
“After the battle of the Pyrenees…our Division occupied the heights and pass of Roncesvalles, until the beginning of November. On the evening of the 7th of that month, I was, together with a corporal and 12 men, placed on the outlying picket…It rained, thundered, and hailed, nearly the whole night - indeed it was one of the worst nights I ever passed exposed to the weather. Not having great-coats, we made use of our blankets as substitutes; but when morning dawned, they were so saturated and swollen with the rain, that we could not fold them into the knapsack again…”
Memoirs of the 39th Foot, 1808-14, Private John Morris Jones (as published in JSAHR, Autumn 2017, Vol 95, No382)
1813: “Now I am going to show you how to make the bed. Get your knapsack and take out the blanket.”…”
Unpublished memoir of G___ W___, 2/95th 1813-37:
"The men had to give up their overcoats several weeks ago…”
Capt Carl Jacobi Luneburg Field Battalion, 1st Hanoverian Brigade (footnote)
Whilst as a reenactment group we posed for the Waterloo 200 in pack and tins only (no roll on top), there could be an argument that in the peace between Napoleon’s abdication (April 1814) and his return to Paris (March 1815), the army of occupation would have been re-united with full kit and after sitting around Brussels for months, many a soldier may have built up quite an assortment of surplus kit. Whilst Napoleon is building up his forces and Britain and her allies are mobilising, Clinton of the 2nd Division seems to be fretting;
9th May letter to Adams:
“Nothing has yet been made known of the Duke of Wellington's decision respective of greatcoats and blankets, I trust one or the other will be laid aside before we begin to move. I do not venture however to direct that either should be left when the troops march, the more they are accustomed to carry under the current circumstances, when not exposed to any severe fatigue, the better they shall be prepared for what they have to undergo when the campaign shall begin.”
p.35 The Correspondence of Sir Henry Clinton in the Waterloo Campaign, Vol ii. Edited by Gareth Glover, Ken Trotman, 2015
And just two weeks before the battle…
Wellington on 31st May;
"General Orders, Bruxelles, 31st May 1815,
1. The Commander of the Forces is very desirous of relieving the Infantry soldiers of the British army from a part of the weight which they now carry; and he therefore desires that the name and number of each man, and the letter of his company, may be marked upon his greatcoat, with a view of its being taken into store, and the greatcoats may be packed in packages, each containing twenty greatcoats.
2. The packages must be marked each with the number of the regiment, the letter of the company, and the words, `Greatcoats belonging to Captain _______`s company.`
3. This must be completed throughout the army by the 4th of June, on which day the commissaries attached to brigades are to send the greatcoats to the stores at Ostend.
4. The commissaries attached to brigades are to supply the regiments, upon their requisition, with the means of packing the greatcoats, as above ordered.
5. The commissary of stores is to take charge of the greatcoats, and to give a receipt to the Officer handing them over to him.
6. These orders are to be communicated to, and obeyed by, all regiments on their landing."
The General Orders of Field Marshal the Duke of Wellington ... in Portugal ... By Arthur Wellesley Wellington (Duke of), John Gurwood.
On the scramble from Brussels to meet the French in that fateful June, I’m sure some soldier may well have been carrying full kit with them and be way over the limit.
‘After passing Nivelle, we started double quick...Many of our poor fellows tumbled over, quite done up, and at length, after some whispering communications among themselves, as if by word of command, off went every knapsack in the company from right to left but those two or three who felt still strong enough to carry them."
Macready of the 30th foot, en route to Quatre Bras, 16th June 1815, The Hundred Days, Brett-James, NY 1964, p.62.
Soignes, Saturday, June 10th, 1815
Under orders to be in readiness to march at a moment's notice, this arrived when we were all occupied with our blankets , converting them into tents and greatcoats, our greatcoats having been ordered to the rear ( Ostend )...."
Diary of Lt William Thain, 33rd Foot.
1815,"We had no tents, every man carried a blanket in his knapsack the watchcoat outside:”
1815 (on night duty before Waterloo): “…in this situation I remained, some of the men advising me to take the blanket out of my knapsack and wrap it about me, but this I declined because it would be so wet I could not put it in my knapsack or carry it the next day, and if, in consequence, I was to throw it away, or lose it by neglect. I should be tried by Court Martial, sentenced to pay for it, and very likely flogged into the bargain.” - Unpublished memoir of G___ W___, 2/95th 1813-37:
Private Matthew Clay 3rd Guards on the night before Waterloo:
"The storm continued with dreadful violence and we thinking of remaining here for the night were ordered to pitch our blankets, these having been prepared for such purpose with six buttonholes with loops of strong cord and linen with bits of duck at each corner and at each side of the centre. The company having been previously told off in fours cast lots to see which of the four should unpack knapsacks and pitch their blankets…”
Private Wheeler (yet Again!) 51st, eve before Waterloo;
"It would be impossible for any one to form any opinion of what we endured this night. Being close to the enemy we could not use our blankets, the ground was too wet to lie down, we sat on our knapsacks until daylight, without fires..”
p.170 The letters of Private Wheeler,ed BH Liddell Hart, Windrush 1993
Sergeant Lawrence of the 40th;
”The rain descended in torrents all night, and completely soaked us... ...we joined all hands at work in wringing and shaking the water out of our blankets before putting them up into our knapsacks. We were obliged to do this while they were still damp for fear of an attack from the enemy, it being a general rule to keep all in readiness..."
p.120 Sergeant Lawrence, with the 40th foot etc, William Lawrence, Facs, Leonaur, 2007
Advance at the close of the Battle of Waterloo:
“We moved on towards the village…We then formed on the other side of it, and lay down under the canopy of heaven, hungry and wearied to death. We had been oppressed, all day, by the weight of our blanket and greatcoats, which were drenched with rain, and lay upon our shoulders like logs of wood.”
Anon ‘Thomas’ - Journal of a soldier of the 71st. Pickle Partners Publishing (ebook) 2011
So what conclusion?
Army left England and began campaign with full marching order (full kit): a new blanket, around 84 x 66”, full nap and weighing in at around 4¼lbs. Greatcoat on top also as pack overly full…
Once depots established, authorities look at decreasing load of soldier (hot seasonal weather in Peninsula has taken its toll). Not only are items reduced (eg, 2 brushes instead of 3) but orders go out to put greatcoats or blankets in to stores. Do all Commanders obey the order?
During winter months (and later during the peace/occupation) soldiers are reunited with greatcoats and are able to build up a full assembly of kit, some are possibly caught out on Napoleon's advance in to Belgium that June and may have taken up the dash to Quatre Bras and Waterloo in full, heavy marching order.
And finally, one last, little note: The greatcoats were issued with great coat slings/straps. If you are using them with your coat rolled on top, then you need to rely on some other (non-issue) method for blanket carrying as well (see occupation print below).
Purpose made roll sling.