Just Finished Reading: Fusiliers – How the British Army lost America but learned how to Fight by Mark Urban (FP: 2007)
I’ll be the first to admit that, prior to reading this excellent book, my knowledge of the American War of Independence was rather scant. I knew it happened, I know the date 1776, I know we lost. I know the name Washington (as in General) and that battles happened at Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill and Yorktown. But that’s about it. Until this book I couldn’t have named a single British commander and I couldn’t have said with certainty who won any of the battles listed – never mind the further battles mentioned in the book that I’d never heard of before. I guess that my American readers in particular might find this rather peculiar. After all this conflict is a large part of the American foundation myth so it stands to reason that, even after all this time, we still feel the hurt of separation. Not so much it seems!
As far as I can remember, apart from the fact it happened, I don’t believe that we ever studied the War of Independence at all in school. That’s over an educational era spanning 11-13 years. Maybe, mostly because we lost, it just wasn’t a hot enough topic to impress the minds of youngsters with. Anyway my ignorance was almost total so, as you might imagine, I learnt quite a lot in just over 300 pages. To give the story coherence the author focused (mainly) on a single regiment – The Royal Welch Fusiliers - and looked at the events from a singular point of view. This was essentially just how bad the British army was at the beginning of the conflict and just how good they were at the end (despite losing the war!). Inevitably much of the early part of the book is dedicated to the faults – endemic and deep seated – with the British military system. The most notorious was the practice of the purchase of commissions – essentially the way to get promoted or to enter into the officer class you simply paid for the post. The more money and higher position in society you had the higher rank was on offer to you. Ability, training or experience had no influence of this. You could be a complete novice with a lot of money and, moments after handing over a wodge of cash become a Colonel in His Majesties army and lead hundreds if not thousands of men into battle. The younger sons of the gentry started, often in their teens, as lieutenants straight from school and were expected to ‘learn on the job’ often with the blood of the men they led into the carnage of the 18th century battlefield. Ordinary soldiers, no matter how good or how experienced, who had neither money nor patronage languished at the bottom end of the rank structure until they died or left. Promotion of any sort – together with any kind of living wage – was a dream that few actually realised. Almost another side to this coin was the indiscipline of the common solider who was not beyond striking his officers, looting and other illegal acts of war and deserting at the earliest opportunity. Such tendencies were not helped by leniency at the highest levels who all too often commuted harsh sentences to much lessor ones or who wrote them off completely. It wasn’t until a succession of defeats or near defeats (with higher than expected casualties to match) forced a rethink.
This, the author strongly contends, was the beginning of the greatness in the British army who, not that long after losing America, went on to resoundedly beat the great Napoleon Bonaparte. Lessons learned on the battlefields in America, as well as lessons rejected from the Prussians with their parade ground precision in Europe, produced a force that could not only take a great deal of damage during an encounter with the enemy but then return the favour in kind and them some thereby shattering the Napoleonic columns that had previously defeated every other army thrown against them.
My knowledge of the Independence struggle of our American Colonies is much better now though admittedly from a very shallow base! As will most successful revolutions this one was too far advanced to successfully oppose long before the first shot was fired. The British took more than 6 years to realise that fact before throwing in the towel and sailing away to future glory on the battlefields of continental Europe. Whether or not without the War the British might have, ultimately, been defeated by the French is an interesting speculation. How the world might have turned out if that was the case is even more interesting to think about! A very interesting look at a pivotal moment in world history from the point of view of, this time, the losing faction.