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How Cartridge Paper almost killed King George the Third
A strange case of mistaken identities


How Cartridge Paper almost killed King George III composed by R Henderson


      A NEW INNOVATION WAS ROLLED OUT FOR THE BRITISH ARMY AT THE END OF THE 18TH CENTURY.
Change was needed to end dangerous confusion over what was a blank musket cartridge and what ones had a lead ball or bullet in them.  Until the late 1790s all musket cartridges were made from rolled brownish-white paper.  Making a musket charge was a simple process:

1. Cut paper out to a specific wedge-like shape;
2. roll the paper on a round wooden stick (called a former) that was the diameter of the bore
with a musket ball at the end of the stick;
3. tie the end with the musket ball with twine
4. pull the tube off the stick and fill with powder
5. fold the top closed. (Exact 1787 Method of rolling cartridges found here)

18th Century Paper Musket Cartridge
18th Century Cartridge made from writing paper.Note that the ball was
 sometimes tied at both top and bottom (public domain)

However for training, reviews and firing a "feu de joie" or celebratory musket salute, blank rounds were needed. Numerous accidents were reported where a live round got mixed up with the blank cartridge. However the ordnance department had a solution: make the cartridges out of different colours of paper.  To this point, the only thought of coloured cartridge paper was one of mockery.  In the French Army an unsteady or demoted soldier was nicknamed a "cartouche jaune" (yellow cartridge). 

But what colours for each?  The ordnance department was already used indigo blue for cannon cartouches so it was decided that blank musket rounds would be made of the same dark blue paper, and live rounds would remain the brown or whited-brown colour.

  Field Day, 1808 by John Atkinson British Grenadiers firing volley with muskets
Field Day by John Atkinson (pub. 1808)

The new cartridge marking system worked well until May 15, 1800.  On that day in Hyde Park (London) King George III was reviewing the grenadier battalion of the Foot Guards going through their field exercises with volley firing.  During the dramatic display a musket ball flew past his Majesty and struck a spectator behind the King.  King George immediately rode to the fallen man wounded in the thigh: "With his accustomed affability and condescension, His Majesty testifed his sympathy at the occurrence, and instantly directed that the wounded gentleman should be taken care of by one of the surgeons of the regiment."  The King then returned to the demonstration and after the cartridges were inspected to insure all were blank, the firing was allow to continue.

Immediately a military inquiry was ordered into the shooting by the king's son, the Duke of York, who commanded the British Army.  The concern was that jacobites or republicans were in the Guards and had attempted to kill the monarch.  It was a period of social upheaval with rebellion in Ireland and mutinies in the Royal Navy. Concern was justified.

What was discovered could be said the vanity of the Foot Guards was the culprit.  Always wanting to have a little more flare than the rest of the army, the Guards had been making blue cartridges prior to the order for blanks only to be made of blue paper. Maybe the Guards liked how the cartridges matched the blue facings of their uniforms.  Upon further investigation a cache of blue rounds with ball were discovered in the unit's stores and were removed.

Though unfazed by the incident, the King now could rest a little more comfortably in his saddle at the next military field day.

King George III with the Prince of Wales reviewing a field demonstration in 1798 (Painting by Thomas Beechey)
King George III with the Prince of Wales reviewing a field demonstration in 1798 (Painting by Thomas Beechey)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

John Galt, George the Third: His Court and Family Vol 2 (London, 1821)

Thomas O'Neil, A Treatise on the Eighteen Manoeuvres... (London, 1805)

War Office, General Regulations and Orders for the Army (London, 1811)

 

 Author Robert Henderson enjoys unearthing and telling stories of military valour, heritage, and sacrifice from across the globe. Lest we forget.

 

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