The Wandering Army, by Huw J. Davies

Evelyn Webb-Carter

There are faint echoes of Iraq and Afghanistan in this study of the British Army of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Home » Book Reviews » The Wandering Army, by Huw J. Davies

It was General Eyre Coote, an interesting man whose career came to an unfortunate end who coined the phrase “A Wandering Army”. The title presents us with the notion of The British Military Enlightenment in the 18th and early 19th centuries that was developed during campaigns around the world. However the tragedy is that much of it is forgotten during the Crimean War.

The period covered, 1745 to 1856, includes a remarkable number of conflicts from the Battle of Fontenoy to the conclusion of the Crimean War, but the more interesting sections of the book cover the campaigns in America and India where the Army and its commanders learn the trade of warfare, which they applied with increasing effect in Europe.

In the chapter on military theory we are told the “rivers, woods, ravines, mountains….together form the great book of war; and he who cannot read it must be forever content with the title of brave soldier, and never repair to that of a great general”. I fear I must aspire to be one of the former.

Davies refers to the period as one of great military enlightenment. For example the use of light troop sometimes raised locally proved in America to be very effective whilst in Europe such development was slow to be recognised. However not everybody, including James Wolfe in America agreed; he thought they were “in appearance little better than a canaille”.   In this we see the development of fire and movement something the Army has taken for granted for a century or so. It is also interesting to note that the French with their “tirailleurs” were often ahead of the game. Le Marchant gets extensive coverage for his skill in training staff officers and creating what we now know as the Royal Military Academy. One of the prime movers of British military thinking of the time was General Henry Lloyd and it is clear that many of our famous commanders including Arthur Wellesley paid a due attention to his writings.

In this age there is the necessity for commanders to make decisions on how they see the situation in front of them.  Pitt’s instruction to Amherst in 1759 is a perfect example of such. But then as the British expedition under Ralph Abercrombie (you have to be careful as there are three Abercrombies mentioned in the book) was preparing meticulously  for the Den Helder campaign in 1799 Pitt declared, reminiscent of Winston Churchill  “all military difficulties are overruled!”

The book has several nuggets of fact which will have escaped most of us. For example I was amused to observe George Washington fighting for the British in 1755; how things were to change. Also there is a wonderful story of a message being hidden in a musket ball by a courier. However when captured he swallows the musket ball and when attempts of extracting with an emetic fail his captors wait for nature to take its course.

This book is a serious study of the British experience in 18th and 19th centuries underlining a theme of lessons learnt and some being forgotten. As such it is a suitable book for any student of War Studies. They  may well find there are faint echoes of Iraq and Afghanistan as the battles at Saratoga in 1777 and Yorktown 1781 reveal the weakness of the prevailing the British strategy.

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

Evelyn Webb-Carter is Chairman of the Waterloo Association.