How the Redcoat Learnt the Art of War

Huw J. Davies

The lessons learnt in America led to victory over Napoleon years later.
The Battle of Passchendaele, 1917.
Home » Articles » How the Redcoat Learnt the Art of War

How the Redcoat Learnt the Art of War

By May 1779, the American Revolutionary War had transformed from a regional civil conflict into a global war, and Britain faced French aggression in the West Indies and India. The British government was forced to redistribute its modest forces in North America, leaving General Sir Henry Clinton, the new commander-in-chief, badly under-resourced. No longer able to challenge his adversary directly, Clinton opted instead ‘to draw Washington forward before he is reinforced by indirect manoeuvres.’ If Washington, who was sheltering in the highlands of New York, ‘gives into my views,’ Clinton hoped ‘no effort shall be wanting to strike at him whilst he is in motion, but if he persists in keeping his present post, I must not flatter myself that it will be easy to gain any advantages over him.’

General Sir Henry Clinton

Clinton had long advocated a campaign based not on direct confrontation, but on clever manoeuvre, designed to place his adversary at a disadvantage. He had, however, been consistently over-ruled by his predecessor and politicians in London eager for an elusive decisive victory that would bring the war quickly to an end. Clinton’s so-called ‘indirect manoeuvres’ were a product of a combination of theorising, experience and professional learning arising within the British Army of the mid-eighteenth century.

Besides Clinton, who had witnessed the success of campaigns of manoeuvre during the Seven Years War in Europe, British military theorist, Henry Lloyd advocated similar ideas in his essay on the Philosophy of War. The two had formed a long-lasting friendship in the 1760s, which continued with a Grand Tour of Europe and included visits to several historical battlefields. By reviewing multiple historical uses of military power, the two concluded that the unrelenting drive for decisive victory in war rarely produced the desired result and more frequently caused paralysing losses.

‘Indirect Manoeuvres’ were a logical response to these repeated failures. Rather than seeking to fight an enemy army at the earliest opportunity, Clinton and Lloyd advocated a campaign of manoeuvre which would force an adversary to adopt a disadvantageous position. Further operations, such as wide outflanking attacks, and turning manoeuvres, might even force the adversary to capitulate without fighting, though battle remained most likely. The point was that the adversary army’s options and morale would be so limited and reduced that British victory was rendered almost certain.

Derived as it was from a combination of military experience, theorising and discussion, the concept of indirect manoeuvre provides an instructive example of the creation, exchange and adaptation of military knowledge. In The Wandering Army, I argue that the acquisition and application of military knowledge from the British Army’s unique experience of war across the globe, was central to its rebirth and eventual success during the Napoleonic Wars. I expose the networks of correspondence, camaraderie and learning which helped mobilise Britain’s military knowledge.

Ironically for Clinton, whose military knowledge was based principally on his experience of European warfare, his ideas were poorly received in America, where manoeuvre had traditionally proven impossible and an approach based largely on a combination of irregular tactics and direct attack had usually won the day. Clinton’s ‘indirect manoeuvres’ proved ineffective and were derided by those with more experience of American conflict. The result was a catastrophic series of defeats and the eventual loss of the thirteen North American colonies.

Only when the British learned to integrate the lessons of North America and Europe, as well as their experience in India, were they able to leverage their unique global experience of war. Indirect manoeuvre might have failed in North America, but the approach proved decisive during Britain’s campaigns against Napoleon.

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