The Importance of Accuracy
Airfix was proud to claim accuracy for their kits, emphasising their quality and attention to detail, and naturally wished this reputation to also apply to the figures they produced. After all, many of their buyers were knowledgeable enough to complain if they made mistakes, and in the 1970s there were plenty of competitors who could step into the gap if the figures proved to be inaccurate. So, how well did they fare with the Military Series? To make a judgement, let’s go back in history to the fateful day of Waterloo, 18 June 1815.
The French Infantry
During the years of Napoleon, the French army defeated most of the Great Powers of Europe. In 1812, however, the attempted conquest of Russia disastrously failed, and within two years French dominance was shattered and Napoleon was in exile. In what proved to be his swan song, Napoleon returned to France in 1815 in an attempt to revive his rule, only for his hopes to be dashed by the allied armies in Belgium at possibly the most famous battle that the British Army has fought in, Waterloo.
The backbone of any army of this era were the musket-armed infantry. In the French army, the great majority were the ‘line’ infantry (so named to distinguish them from the elite formations of the Imperial Guard). They served throughout Europe, and in all of the major campaigns. At Waterloo they led the attack, assaulting the British positions including the strongpoints of Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte.
Airfix are quite explicit about the subject of their set – French infantry at Waterloo, 1815. In fact, on the back of the box, they further specify the troops covered, where it states “The figures in this set are fusiliers in the 1812 pattern uniform”. Some words of explanation are required…
A battalion of line infantry was divided into 6 companies. Two of these were ‘special’ or ‘flank’ companies – the grenadiers (theoretically the biggest and most fierce soldiers) and the voltiguers (trained to act in loose formation as skirmishers where necessary). These troops were identifiable by their helmet plumes and epaulettes on the shoulder, and the grenadiers carried sabres in addition their muskets. The remaining four companies were fusiliers, the subject of this set.
Over the years the uniform of the French troops underwent many changes, but of most relevance to us is that in 1812 several tweaks were made to the line infantry uniform. The most obvious were the shortening of the coat tails, the closing of the lapels at the lower front of the tunic, the shortening of the gaiters so that they ended below the knee, and the adoption of a brass eagle to the front of the helmet. This is the style of uniform that most of the line infantry at Waterloo would have worn.
The Airfix Set
Airfix 51463-5 French Line Infantry
Year first produced:1974
L74xW20xH67, Plastic 3g (av), Scale 1:32, Features: 0
The set contains 29 figures in mid-grey polythene, in 7 poses. I’m not sure how precisely the mix of poses was controlled by Airfix, and the set that I have is missing one figure, so the following contents list is strongly indicative, but not definitive.
- An officer charging, sword drawn
- Four fusiliers standing firing
- Five fusiliers kneeling firing
- Five fusiliers kneeling ready
- Four fusiliers running, musket held high
- Six fusiliers reloading
- Three fusiliers lunging with the bayonet
The box has a special design, applied to all of the Waterloo sets, incorporating a national flag on a standard reminiscent of those that would have been carried by the troops concerned. On the back of the box is a front and back colour illustration with textual painting instructions, and to the right a brief historical outline of the French line infantry.
There is a tendency to consider that accuracy when applied to Napoleonic troops is all about the uniforms and equipment. Well, the uniforms are complicated and somewhat strange to our modern eyes, so this is natural. But let’s begin our consideration of the accuracy of this set elsewhere.
In the box there are 28 fusiliers and a single officer. A fusilier company would (in theory) comprise about 120 men and 3 officers, so the mix in the box seems quite reasonable. The focus on action poses rather than the less glamorous but probably far more typical marching, advancing or just standing stances is understandable. It’s worth noting that there are two kneeling poses. In theory this is quite reasonable, because some drills called for it, and obviously a human can kneel. But, in practice, it’s doubtful that infantry ever adopted a kneeling posture, especially while firing, because it was difficult to reload a musket from that position, and enemy within musket range could be within bayonet range quite quickly, when anyone kneeling would be at a disadvantage. Skirmishers might kneel to take advantage of cover, but fusiliers were seldom used for this. So kneeling postures are possible, but unusual.
The figures in the set roughly measure 5cm from toe to crown of the head. At 1:32 scale this would mean a man measuring 1.6 metres high (just over 5 foot 2 inches). This sounds on the short size, but is in fact pretty accurate given that people in earlier centuries were much shorter than today.
So, how about the uniforms?
Except for the officer, the figures are dressed identically, wearing boots with gaiters, trousers, jacket and helmet. As per the 1812 regulations, the gaiters reach to below the knee. The jacket is correctly cut to the waist at the front where it is closed by buttons, and has short tails at the rear emblazoned with a crown and capital N (signifying, of course, the Emperor); at the neck is a stiff collar. The sleeves have chevron-shaped cuffs, whereas in reality they were square with a strip of 3 buttons along the arm at right angles to secure them. Maybe the chevron was an attempt to approximate the resulting shape, but it really doesn’t look the same.
The helmet worn is the shako, a tall cylindrical hat widening towards the top, adopted by the French infantry in 1806, faced with the bronze eagle introduced in 1812 and topped with a wool pompon that was coloured to indicate which company the fusilier belonged to. This is all good, but on the other hand the shako is erroneously decorated with cords and, at least to my eyes, looks a little squat and flares more than it should.
The figures carry a single belt over the left shoulder to which a cartridge box and scabbard for the bayonet are attached; on their backs are knapsacks surmounted by a rolled greatcoat. This is all as it should be. Missing, however, is that essential item, a water bottle.
The muskets are all fitted with bayonets (except for that held by the man reloading), which would have been normal practice in action, but are missing the slings, which would indeed be difficult to model but is nonetheless an omission. The Charleville 1777 pattern musket was 152cm long without the bayonet, which at a scale of 1:32 should be 4.75cm. Our figures however have muskets that are 4cm, so they are a little short. The bayonet scales out correctly. The shortening is perhaps a minor difference, but I think the extra length would have a strong visual impact on the figures (although it would probably bend terribly, thus lessening the effect!).
The gallant officer leading the charge is clothed somewhat differently. He wears long boots and a long coat. Below his neck he wears the gorget, a symbolic metal plate denoting his rank, on his shoulders he has epaulettes, and he carries a sword. This is all correct, although once again the sword is slightly short.
So, from what we can see, the figures are broadly and satisfyingly accurate. Well done Airfix, I expected nothing less from you! But before leaving the subject, there is one area of inaccuracy that I have to mention, and this concerns the painting instructions on the back of the box.
In the illustrations on the box, the figures wear cross-belts. From the belt over the right shoulder, hangs a sabre and the bayonet. However, only grenadiers and perhaps voltiguers carried a sabre, not fusiliers, so this is an error. Bizarrely, the textual painting instructions fail to mention the basic colour scheme of the infantry at all – not much use then, are they? – but focus instead on the decorative details of the flank companies, with their gaudy plumes and epaulettes. This is despite the fact that the text to the right states that the box contains only fusiliers and of course, the actual figures confirm this! Tut-tut, someone should have corrected this!
The other sets that Airfix produced covering the battle of Waterloo were 51461-9 British Infantry, 51462-2 Highland Infantry and 51460-6 French Grenadiers. Sadly, there were no Prussians, and they didn’t create any cavalry or artillery to accompany the foot soldiers.