Magazine article The Spectator

The Road to Yorktown

Magazine article The Spectator

The Road to Yorktown

Article excerpt

FUSILERS: EIGHT YEARS WITH THE REDCOATS IN AMERICA by Mark Urban Faber, £20, pp. 384, ISBN 9780571224869 £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

The American War of Independence is one of my least favourite periods and I expect it's the same for a lot of Englishmen. For a start, the wrong side lost. Also, it's fiendishly complicated, what with all the Whigs, Tories, Loyalists, Patriots, Frenchmen, Indians, Militia, Virginians, Marylanders, Light Bobs, Fusiliers and Continentals biffing one another in a confusing melee. And there is the lurking suspicion that, as Michael Rose has recently argued, it has depressing things to tell us about the US's (and her allies') current involvement in Iraq.

Indeed, about the only thing that persuaded me to read a book on the subject is that it was written by Mark Urban.

I have been a huge fan of his ever since reading The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes, an extraordinary true story as gripping as the Enigma one, but set in the Peninsular War.

Like all the best military historians, Urban has a knack of finding a perfect balance between telling personal detail and the broader historical perspective.

And given the range of his source material, a good deal of it primary, I'm astonished that he finds the time to research and write these excellent books (Rifles is another) while still holding down a job as Newsnight's Diplomatic Editor.

His new one focuses on the New World adventures -- between Lexington Green in 1775 and Yorktown in 1781 -- of the 23rd Regiment, otherwise known as the Royal Welch Fusiliers. In the colourful first chapter, he enticingly sets out his stall, introducing the key characters whose exploits we'll follow. Only two of the four will survive, he announces, and only one of these will prosper, with the other facing disgrace. You read on, eager to find out more.

At which point, I suspect, Urban realised he had a slight problem. For one thing, as he admits in his introduction, there's a distinct shortage of first-hand combatants' accounts of the American War of Independence. For another, you can't really concentrate on the exploits of one regiment without putting its campaigns in their wider context -- at which point you run the risk of having the smallscale story you wished to tell overwhelmed by all the background. …

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