Huw J Davies on The Wandering Army

Huw J Davies

Huw J Davies discusses developments in the British Army after fighting the War of Austrian Succession.
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Your book opens with the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745 when the British, despite superiority of firepower, were defeated by Saxe’s use of the terrain and positioning of his forces. The use of topography by senior officers would seem to be rather an obvious ‘innovation’ – commanders had been taking advantage of the topography since antiquity. Why were the British so slow to incorporate such considerations when deploying troops?

The Battle of Fontenoy, 11 May 1745.

There were a number of factors at play. The British, and in particular, the Duke of Cumberland, were over-confident, a state of mind which resulted in poor decision-making. This was the result of the perceived superiority of the British musketeer in battle, with many observers concluding that the ability of the redcoat to deliver such a weight of fire, that all obstacles, both human and geographical, would be overcome. Additionally, the long period of peace which had existed between Britain and France since the end of the War of Spanish Succession in 1714 meant that the British were relatively inexperienced in battle. Tactical training might well prepare the redcoats for manoeuvres on the battlefield, as demonstrated by the huge infantry attack which was the centrepiece of Cumberland’s battle plan, but the absence of experience and professional education meant British officers lacked the ability to adapt quickly when presented with unexpected challenges. Contrast this with French commander Maurice de Saxe who had a wealth of experience fighting in Europe, and against a variety of adversaries. Having said all that, Cumberland and his second-in-command, John Ligonier, had, in fact, anticipated the threats posed by Saxe’s use of terrain features, and had dispatched a unit to neutralise them. A combination of factors, including the under-confidence of its commander and the effective French use of irregular tactics to disrupt British activities, resulted in this unit failing to make any headway.

The British rate of firing muskets was a remarkable asset throughout this period. Why were they so good at it?

British musket training was rigorous and relentless, but the ability to fire up to three rounds a minute was secondary to the well-timed delivery of a volley of musket fire. The effective range of a musket was very low – perhaps 30 yards. This meant the redcoat needed to wait until he could ‘see the whites of his enemy’s eyes’ before firing his musket. This required significant discipline. A single early discharge would frequently result in the entire unit firing prematurely, before the enemy’s troops were within range. This would have a negligible effect, and the enemy’s soldiers would then be able to attack with impunity. In 1743, British troops had discharged their muskets early, but so too had the French. The resultant battle was messy and only narrowly resulted in a British victory largely because the redcoats recovered their discipline faster than the French.

Was victory in the French & Indian War south of Canada more down to strategic alliances with the local Native American tribes, as opposed to brilliant British tactics?

James Wolfe

As ever, British victory in the Thirteen Colonies was the product of a combination of circumstances. The British suffered repeated defeats between 1755 and 1757, and only began to turn the tables on the French in 1758, and even then with mixed success. By then, the British had managed to resolve a number of issues. First, British maritime strategy was beginning to have the desired impact, limiting the French ability to resupply their colonies. Second, the British managed to impose or negotiate a degree of unity across the Thirteen Colonies, particularly those directly affected by the war – New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. This meant the adoption of a common strategy, with each colony voting to supply an agreed quantity of troops and resources (albeit with variable success). Third, a concerted effort by the British to win over neutral and previously hostile Native American nations improved Britain’s military position whilst simultaneously undermining that of France. Fourth, the British adapted to the environmental and geographical conditions of North America, for example by adopting irregular or light infantry tactics, and by establishing a resilient supply system. This approach to adaptation arose through a combination of wider experience, learning and theorising about which, which taken together I describe as Britain’s accidental Military Enlightenment. The combination of these factors resulted in British victory, though it is possible to argue that British maritime dominance would eventually have produced a favourable result for the British. Strategic unity and tactical adaptation meant, however, that British success came much earlier, and ultimately at a lower cost.

How influential was General Wolfe on British military theory during the Seven Years’ War, and later after his death?

James Wolfe was a rising star in the British Army when he was hand-selected by the army’s commander-in-chief to lead an operation to seize Quebec in 1759. Before then, Wolfe had distinguished himself in a number of operations in Europe and North America. Despite this, Wolfe had a limited impact on British military theory whilst he was alive. He had maintained a healthy interest in British military history and had been a proponent of professional self-education, keeping abreast of the latest military writing and theorising. As such, he was at the heart of the early stages of Britain’s military enlightenment. He had advised friends and colleagues on what to read to develop and maintain their professional understanding of war. His death at the moment of victory in battle against the French at Quebec in September 1759 propelled him to global fame, and he consequently had a much greater impact on British military development. An edited selection of his general orders was published posthumously as Instructions for Young Officers and widely read. John Moore, future father of the light infantry and hero of Corunna during the Peninsular War, hand-copied the collection as an ensign whilst himself learning the art of war. Many of the methods that had been employed by Wolfe became common practice in the British Army in the late eighteenth century, including the use of two rather than three ranks of infantry during battle and the widespread use of light infantry. His relentless quest for a decisive battle, in which he ultimately succeeded, though at the cost of his own life, heavily influenced military thinking in the years after the British victory in North America, with many officers seeking to repeat the endeavour for personal glory, and politicians for an elusive early conclusion to costly and unpopular wars.

Why were the British so successful in the French & Indian War of 1754-60, but within 20 years in the same theatre humiliatingly defeated?

British success in the French & Indian War arose from the combination of coherent strategy, colonial unity and tactical innovation. Though tactically innovative during the American Revolutionary War, the British lacked a coherent strategy, failed to recognise the character of the war they were fighting, and consistently underestimated their adversary. Added to this, British generals failed to exploit opportunities when they arose to impose unmanageable costs on the Americans. These errors spiralled out of control in 1777 when the French joined the conflict in support of the Americans, and war transformed from a regional civil confrontation into a global conflagration. The Spanish and Dutch also joined the war against the British and, faced with a conflict on multiple fronts, with no allies to distract their European adversaries, the British had to consolidate their resources to protect the British Isles and the main source of economic prosperity for the British empire: India and the West Indies.

Just how much of an impact on the British Army was the defeat in America?

In the wake of defeat in North America in 1783, the British Army was cut to the bone. All regiments numbered above 65 were disbanded, and those that remained were hollowed out. Some of its most experienced officers were put on half-pay or left altogether. Despite this, administrative reforms made during the decade of peace between the American and French Revolutionary War actually helped the British to augment their army quickly after war broke out. Many of the lessons that had been painstakingly learned in America had to be relearned in Europe. Fortunately, the depth of knowledge and experience remained and was eventually acted upon during campaigns in the West Indies, the Low Countries and Egypt. Defeat in America, then, ultimately provided the British with the knowledge they needed to defeat Revolutionary and Napoleonic France.

Your describe the involvement of private soldiers in improving the army’s equipment – what sort of innovations did they come up with?

Faced with the need to fight wars in the most inhospitable places on the planet, the British redcoat proved adept at innovating and adapting to their environment – this was literally a case of adapt or die. During the French and Indian Wars, for example, British soldiers modified their own uniforms and weaponry to make fighting in close, wooded terrain, easier. Some of these innovations and adaptations were used by the unit only for the duration of their deployment, some were observed and replicated by other units. One officer, George Howe – older brother to William – actually adopted some of these modifications throughout his regiment.

Nowadays, and for much of the 20th century, politicians were heavily involved with the senior leadership of the army. How much were politicians involved in the direction of Britain’s conflicts during the late 18th and early 19th centuries? Did they help or hinder?

British politicians were as involved in military conflicts as their modern day counterparts – if not more so. Faced with repeated and unanswerable queries and criticisms of a planned invasion of Holland in 1799, Prime Minister William Pitt uttered the unforgettable phrase ‘all military difficulties are completely overruled’. During the American Revolutionary War, the repeated interference of Colonial Secretary, George Germain, First Viscount Sackville, caused immense problems for British generals. He failed to offer clear direction and guidance, and frequently alighted upon unachievable and unrealistic goals. It is important to note, however, that just as many, if not more, politicians facilitated rather hindered success. Pitt’s father, William Pitt the Elder had a clear-eyed vision of how to prosecute the Seven Years’ War, and executed that vision effectively. His son, despite his pronouncements in 1799, built strategic alliances that helped Britain sustain a two decade long war against the French. And during the Napoleonic Wars, Prime Minister Lord Liverpool, Foreign Secretary Viscount Castlereagh, and Secretary for War, Lord Bathurst, worked closely with Wellington to sustain his campaign in the Iberian Peninsula.
How important was the formation and subsequent deployment of the Light Division in the Peninsular War?

The formation of the Light Division in 1810 was crucial to the success of the British Army in the Peninsular War, but it is important to note that this was no accident, but the product of years of theorising and experience. Indeed, many different historical developments came to a head with the formation of the Light Division. First, there was the influence of the experience of light infantry and the tactical success of irregular fighting practices in America. Second, there was the theoretical writings of Henry Lloyd, who advocated for the use of light infantry in the British Army. Third, there was the organisational reform undertaken by Wellington, but experimented with and sanctioned by the Duke of York earlier in the war. This saw the adoption of a divisional structure in the Peninsular Army. Fourth, the personal experience of soldiers and officers prior to the Peninsular War factored into the argument for an elite division composed solely of light infantry. During the war itself, the Light Division became Wellington’s trouble-shooters, often deployed to rescue a tactical situation, or provide operational manoeuvre and dexterity which the British had previously been incapable of. In several battles, the Light Division proved decisive.

There are many great generals during this time: James Wolfe, Sir John Moore, the Duke of Wellington. Are there any we should know a bit more about?

There are too many to name here, but I’ll give you three little known generals who had considerable influence.

John Forbes commanded the expedition in 1758 that eventually seized Fort Duquesne (the contested fort in the Ohio Valley which had been at the centre of the outbreak of the French and Indian War). A great proponent of the profession of arms, Forbes’ operational plan was based on Turpin de Crissé’s Essai sur la Guerre, who’s logistical plan Forbes adopted wholesale. His papers are held at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and are filled with indispensable detail on his thinking.

Eyre Coote

Henry Lloyd never served in the British Army, but held positions in all the other European Armies from the 1740s to the 1770s. This gave him a unique experience and perspective on warfare, on the back of which he wrote a history of the Seven Years’ War, which included an essay on the Philosophy of War. This is notable because it heralded a different, more critically analytical approach to military history, but most importantly because Lloyd argued that campaigns needed to be designed around operational manoeuvre. He also advocated that battle should only be fought once an adversary had been manoeuvred into a such a disadvantageous position that victory was all but certain. His writings were at the heart of Britain’s accidental Military Enlightenment, and influenced many other famous officers, including Henry Clinton, commander of British forces during the American Revolutionary War, and Arthur Wellesley, who read Lloyd’s book on his journey to India in 1797.

Eyre Coote had a number of operational deployments, most notably, perhaps in Egypt in 1801. Prior to this he had begun his career in the American Revolutionary War, before seeing action in the West Indies and the Low Countries. An advocate for the use of light infantry, Coote kept copious notes on their operational and tactical utility. His extensive papers, which have been described as the most complete of any officer serving in the eighteenth century, are held at the Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

Is there a particular battle that best exemplifies the British Army’s application of theories developed during the period you’ve written about?

There are several campaigns and battles that drew together the various elements of military knowledge that I talk about in the book.

Between 1791 and 1792, Charles, Earl Cornwallis, by then Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in India, fought a sustained campaign against Tipu Sultan of Mysore. The campaign is important because it illustrates Cornwallis’s own learning journey, and saw the adaptation and implementation of a better logistics system, along with a more nuanced approach to operations.

In 1801, Ralph Abercromby commanded an operation to defeat French forces occupying Egypt. The battles he fought on landing in March 1801 illustrated the mix of traditional and irregular infantry tactics which became commonplace later in the war. Though Abercromby himself was mortally wounded on 21 March, the remainder of the campaign was executed in a measured and effective fashion, resulting in British victory in just six months.

On 21 June 1813, the British Army, in conjunction with the Spanish and Portuguese Armies fought a climactic battle against the French at the small town of Vitoria in north east Spain. Whilst the battle itself was a carefully orchestrated affair, with the allies first fixing their adversary and then outflanking and nearly completely encircling them, the battle itself was the result of an operational masterpiece. A month earlier, Wellington, in overall command of the allied armies, set his forces in motion from the Portuguese border. Over the next three weeks, he executed a series of carefully planned surprise outflanking manoeuvres, designed to force the French to retreat without fighting. The operation as a whole was essentially a distillation of the lessons learned and ideas developed over the previous seven decades, and resulted in the almost complete destruction of French forces in Spain west of Catalonia. It was the battle which earned Wellington his Field Marshal’s baton, and was easily the zenith of British military power. It would not have been possible, however, without the combined experience and theorising on war that a variety of British officers had engaged in over the decades.

Huw J. Davies is the author of The Wandering Army: The Campaigns that Transformed the British Way of War , published by Yale University Press.