The War for America: 1775-1783

By Piers Mackesy | Go to book overview

PREFACE
THE SERVANTS OF KRONOS

The Muses attend the births of gods and nations: Clio to record and Calliope to adorn the great event. They tell how the infant Zeus was snatched from the jaws of his father Kronos; and inevitably it is the infant who is sung, while old Kronos fades back into the mists of antiquity, the half-forgotten symbol of an outdated and regrettable past.

So it happened with the American Revolution. The triumph of the rebels was of overwhelming importance for the future of the world, and the struggle was recorded in terms of American battles on American soil. The red coats of old Kronos's hirelings are visible; but the mind that moved them, the Kronos of Whitehall and St James's, was thrust aside to be forgotten or turned into a background buffoon.

This treatment accentuated a characteristic feature of British historiography: the distortion of diplomacy and warfare by the elimination of strategy. Strategy falls between two kinds of history. For the political historian it is a marginal activity of government which occasionally erupts to disturb the course of diplomacy, debate and electioneering. For the military historian it is a background to operations in the field and on the seas; and the decisions of governments, are too often seen through the eyes of distant and half-informed commanders. Sir John Fortescue, the historian of the British army, was a devoted operational historian; and the thirteen volumes of his history, magnificent in their energy, style and range of narrative, form a splendid monument to the vanishing regiments, which made the British empire. Yet his devotion to the army narrowed and warped his judgment. In the sphere where strategy merged with policy, he was incapable of justice. For him the appalling problems of the government which waged the war for America were reduced to 'the folly and ignorance of Germain'.

Though strategy has emerged to take its rightful place in the history of the twentieth century, the direction of war before 1914 is a little known area of British history. In no war has less attempt been made to strike the balance between strategy and operations than in the War of American Independence. There is now much interest in Lord North's administration; yet though the war covered seven of its twelve years of life, the task of assessing its efforts to direct the war in the context of eighteenth- century warfare remains to be done. The neglect is largely due to the consequences of the war, which concentrated the interest and emotions of historians on the struggles of the new state and its embryo armies beyond the Atlantic. Yet the injustice which has been done in the past to Lord North and his colleagues has two other causes: that the war was lost, and that George III and his Ministers were blackguarded by domestic enemies.

The men who conduct a war are more intemperately and uncharitably criticised than those who run an administrative machine in peacetime. Statesmen and commanders are equally victims; for in war the results are swift, harsh and measurable,

-xxiii-

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