An Army Emerges with Honour

By Cecil, Hugh | The Spectator, September 28, 2002 | Go to article overview

An Army Emerges with Honour


Cecil, Hugh, The Spectator


REDCOATS: THE BRITISH SOLDIER AND WAR IN THE AMERICAS, 1755-1763

by Stephen Brumwell

CUP, L25, pp. 349, ISBN 0521807832

The Seven Years War, from 1755 to 1763, was Britain's most successful imperial war, sweeping her French rivals from North America and India, though leading, inexorably, to the secession of her American colonies a few years later. Round the redcoats of Britain's `American Army' simplistic myths were to grow: the first, dominating British patriotic history up until the mid-20th century, concentrated on their imperishable courage under General James Wolfe, the heroic, increasingly forgotten, victor at Quebec, dying in his hour of triumph.

It is the United States myth, however, which now dominates film and fiction: founded on a hostile view of Britain's later conduct in the War of Independence, this depicts the redcoats as over-dressed, brainwashed cannon fodder, led by incompetent aristocratic fops whose shamefully protracted conflict against a numerically inferior French foe was really won by sturdy American-born farmers with an intimate knowledge of the wild.

In Steven Brumwell's fascinating study of the British `American Army' (not to be confused with the similarly named Redcoat, by Richard Holmes, published last year), the redcoats emerge as individual personalities, unearthed by the author from memoirs, court-martial proceedings, collections of orders, veterans' registers, recruiting instructions, petitions to the War Office and correspondence from every rank.

They also emerge as successful. Emphasising their courage and `damn the French poltroons' tenacity after initial disasters, Brumwell dismisses the role of Pitt the Elder in their victories, or that of the British navy, except in its effective landing of troops, a development important for army capability in later wars. As for the accusations of lamentable British slowness despite superior numbers, he points out that the French had advantages more crucial than mere size: interior lines, efficient waterway communications, knowledge of the terrain and numerous Indian allies, whose eventual desertion came too late to work decisively against them.

Far from the backbone of the `American Army' being recruits from American colonial homes, Brumwell shows that these joined unwillingly after the first year: the mass of recruiting was from the British Isles, more than half coming from Highland Scotland and Ireland. Undoubtedly, too, the French Canadian militia, fearsome guerrilla fighters, were superior to the American colonial recruits who were chiefly armed labourers rather than hardened combat troops, though the exceptions included such respected units as George Washington's Virginia Regiment and the famed Rogers' Rangers, masters of irregular warfare.

In England, where a professional standing army still seemed a threat to liberty, the ordinary soldiers were not hailed as heroes, though the victories were popular. Even their own leaders spoke of them contemptuously: Wolfe described General Braddock's men as `rascals, canaille - terrible dogs to look at'. However, officers also took a paternalistic, noblesse oblige attitude towards the men, many of whom wept when Wolfe was killed. His comments, typical of a hierarchical age, were less than justified. Not all were scum, `enlisted for drink', but some were men from worthy trades. Officially it was a 'volunteer' army which people joined for adventure as well as from desperation; but some were press-- ganged and many were tricked by recruiting sergeants into taking the king's shilling. Recruits had to be `free from ruptures, convulsions and infirmitys', at least 5'5" high, unless still growing, and aged between 18 and 40. By the end of the war, however, at least one man of 4'6" was accepted, and some veterans rejoined in their sixties. Few were well educated: William Vernon of the 3rd Foot, whose sonnets were read by his colonel and officers, was a rarity.

Brumwell does not believe that commission by purchase made for many bad officers. …

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