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Rifleman, rebel, revolutionary

The life and times of Frederic Baron von Eben

What does a hero of the Spanish-American Wars of Independence have in common with the 10th Hussars, the adoption of the rifle by the British Army, and the Battle of Waterloo — quite a lot as it turns out. Frederic Christian Baron von Eben was a Hanoverian, born at Creutzburg in Silesia in 1773. The son of a Prussian general, he joined the Prussian Army in 1787 at the age of fourteen, distinguishing himself in his father’s regiment of Hussars fighting the French in the Low Countries between 1792 and 1795, and earning the Prussian Order of Merit for his bravery.

A man with a mustache and sideburns is wearing a ornate blue and red hat while a horse looks energetic in the background.

Frederic Baron von Eben, his appearance in the larger painting of ‘HRH The Prince of Wales at Review’ signifies his importance to the Prince Regent. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Mass.

When Prussia refused to renew the war against France in 1799, Eben resigned his commission and travelled to England. He gained a commission as a captain in the York Hussars in 1800, and by 1802 he was in the 10th Light Dragoons (Prince of Wales’s Own), where due to his status as a socialite, he became friends with the Duke of Sussex who was the brother of the Prince Regent. During his service with the 10th Light Dragoons he composed a book, ‘Observations on the utility of good riflemen‘ which contained instructions for the use of rifle-armed light cavalry and infantry. At a time when fighting was done by standing in long lines and manoeuvring to get the upper-hand on the enemy, the employment of troops using dispersed, hit and run, tactics was something of a bold idea.

Observations on the Utility of Good Riflemen

An old book laid out with its pages open. One side has a picture of a man shooting wit his rifle resting on the back of his horse. Right hand page has hand written notes on rifleman ship.

‘Observations on the Utility of Good Riflemen’

It is unknown how many copies of Eben’s book were produced, but only three which we know of survive. One was presented to the Prince Regent and is held in the Royal Collection, another was presented to the Duke of Clarence, and the third appears to have been his own copy, which is now in the Royal Armouries collection. His book may well have influenced the Duke of York who at that time was in the process of raising the Experimental Rifle Corps (the famed 95th Rifles), which was armed with the Baker Rifle.

Eben’s book goes into extensive detail on the employment and training of riflemen. The most important part of his work was the emphasis on the skill of the men chosen and their training. He stated the men “must be of the most sound body and mind,” and of course good marksmen, as their main goal was to use their rifles to expertly harass the enemy. He drew up numerous methods for training soldiers how to hone their shooting skills including ringed targets with associated score cards, moving targets pulled on trolleys and static targets painted as French soldiers. The emphasis was placed on training multiple times a week with the rifle as opposed to the normal infantry soldier who would not fire his weapon very often and even if he did, might not even shoot at a proper target.

The Prince of Wales’s Own

A man in horse in a red British officer uniform points to the distance while troops maneuver in the background

HRH The Prince of Wales at Review, Attended by Lord Heathfield, General Turner, Col. Bloomfield, and Baron Eben; Col. Quinton in the Distance. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Mass. You can see Eben on the right wearing a red hat.

At the bequest of the Prince Regent, Eben raised a squadron in the 10th Light Dragoons based on the Hungarian Hussars and armed with Baker Carbines for use as mounted riflemen. Their training and uniform which he designed were probably a significant influence when the whole regiment was converted into Hussars in 1806.

A man poses in an ornate black uniform with extensive white trim, a red waste sash, a tall fur helmet and sword.

Officer of the 10th Hussars showing the uniform design laid down by Eben and adopted by the Prince of Wales. National Army Museum.

Although Eben left the regiment in 1806, his works may have had a direct influence on the employment and success of the Hussars. The regiment embarked for Portugal in 1808 and was used to screen Sir John Moore‘s retreat to Corunna in 1809. Evacuating with the rest of the army in January 1809 the 10th Hussars didn’t return to the Iberian Peninsular until 1813, taking part in the invasion of France in 1814.

During the Waterloo Campaign, the 10th Hussars distinguished themselves during the retreat from Genappe on 17 June, when they were ordered to dismount and take up a position on the opposite bank of a river the French needed to cross. When the French came near they opened fire with their Baker Carbines, halting the French advance and preventing them from crossing the river. This action led to the Duke of Wellington’s army being able to move into the positions near Waterloo without harassment from French cavalry. Thanks to the swift action of the 10th Hussars, and the skill of its mounted riflemen, a possible disaster was averted.

Frederic Baron von Eben’s final years

After Eben left the 10th Hussars in 1806, he spent a year fighting as a volunteer in Prussia under General Blücher. In 1808 he went to Portugal where after the embarkation of the British army at Corunna, he formed a corps of a thousand men from volunteers and scattered English soldiers. He was made commander of the region of Braga, and occupied Oporto with around 19,000 troops, but a few days after his arrival his forces were routed by the French under Soult and forced to flee the city.

A painting of mounted riflemen ride across a bridge and one shoots his rifle at the enemy

10th (Prince of Wales) Royal Hussars. Retreat from Corunna 1808 from painting by Richard Simkin.

Eben continued to serve with the Portuguese forces in the army commanded by Wellington, and by 1814 he had been made an aide-de-camp to the Prince Regent. He remained in Portugal, and offered to serve the King in the Army of Brazil, but by the contrivance of his enemies he was implicated in the conspiracy of General Freire de Andrade, was arrested, and sentenced to exile. He made his way to Hamburg where he lived for several years, and then in 1821, he travelled to South America, where he offered his services to the Republic of Colombia. Eventually, he was appointed A Brigadier-General in the Army of the Republic, helped organise and train the army, and played a significant role in the victory of Simón Bolívar.

His final years were spent in Colombia, living his life as a successful commander and hero of republic, and died in Bogata in 1835. Although he wasn’t very well known, his legacy lived on through the 10th Hussars and the other light cavalry regiments, who had adopted many of the methods laid down by his work, and 60th and 95th Rifles.

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