John Manners, Marquis of Granby
Warburg, at the headwaters of the Weser, 31 July 1760
Minden, fought on 1 August 1759
Quebec had vindicated George II’s high opinion of Wolfe, just as Minden had proved his low opinion of others. ‘Mad, is he? Then I hope he will bite some of my other generals!’ had been the King’s famous reply to a courtier who ventured an unfavourable estimate of the young major-general. Whether or not he would have touched Marlborough’s sphere had he lived longer is debatable, but Wolfe had been capable of boldness and tactical ‘grip’ at a time when British generalship was otherwise not at its best. For generals were having to learn their trade on the job: without a large army in peacetime there was little opportunity to practise except in the service of a foreign prince.
As for Lord George Sackville, his court martial after Minden was unanimous in its verdict: he was ‘unfit to serve His Majesty in any military capacity whatever’. He was replaced by his thrusting second-in-command, the marquess of Granby, whose cavalry he had expressly held back at Minden.
Granby’s German command would have a stronger British contingent, too, for such was the optimism after the annus mirabilis of 1759 that London sent more regiments to the Continent in what became known as ‘the glorious reinforcement’. And Granby was in no doubt that after Minden the cavalry had a debt to settle.
Despite the wonders of 1759, however, in the early months of 1760 the war did not go well. The Prussians had suffered sharp defeats at the hands of the Austrians and the Russians, and the French had pushed the British – Hanoverian – Hessian army back north once more. By July they were threatening Kassel on the River Fulda, only 100 miles south of Minden. Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick, still in command of the allied army, strengthened the garrison at Kassel, his main base, but withdrew the bulk of his force north of the city to allow himself more freedom of manœuvre. A deal of skirmishing for the crossings of the various smaller rivers followed towards the end of the month, while Brunswick’s co-commander Karl Wilhelm, the Erbprinz (heir apparent) of Hesse-Kassel, occupied nearby Köbecke, intending to attack the main French positions on the ridge north-west of Warburg.
The French here numbered about 20,000 – thirty-one squadrons of cavalry, twenty-eight infantry battalions and twenty-four guns. The Erbprinz’s force was slightly inferior in cavalry and infantry – twenty- two squadrons, including two British regiments of dragoons (the 1st, or ‘Royals’, and the 7th), and twenty-three battalions of infantry, including two British battalions of the 1st Foot Guards, and the 87th and 88th Highlanders – but equal in artillery. In terms of the usual ratio for successful attack, however – three to one – the Erbprinz was severely under strength. At last light on 30 July, therefore, having sent a column to take the Desenberg, the hill north-east of Warburg, to distract the French, Brunswick marched west to reinforce him.
By dawn the two generals had met and Brunswick’s troops were not far behind, but there was a distance still to march to the Warburg ridge. The mist was in their favour, however, so they decided to attack as planned, with the Erbprinz making a concealed, right-flanking approach. The French commander, the chevalier du Muy, unaware of what was unfolding on both his front and left, mustered his troops without particular urgency along the ridge behind which they had bivouacked.
Fortune continued to favour the allies, who were able to close to the ridge in the late morning without being discovered. At about midday the Erbprinz’s outflanking column (including the Guards and Highlanders) burst from the mist and in short order took the Heinberg, the round-topped hill anchoring the left of the French line. Du Muy counter-attacked strongly, but the Erbprinz’s second column attacked the French in rear and over-ran the guns. There was a brisk infantry fight, and then a charge by the Royal Dragoons decided it: the French began swarming from the ridge.
But du Muy’s cavalry (all thirty-one squadrons) on the right of the line had yet to join the battle: a determined charge might yet have thrown back the Erbprinz’s men. The marquess of Granby’s twenty-two squadrons of horse had now come on to the field, however, and, having summed up the situation with the much-prized cavalryman’s coup d’œil, Granby attacked at once.
And at speed. Granby himself galloped so fast that his hat and wig flew off, and he went ‘bald-headed for the enemy’ – providing the inspiration for many a public house name and its bald-pate sign. These were heavy cavalry (dragoons and dragoon guards) – big men on big horses, with straight swords to impale rather than slash: the hooves thundered, the ground shook, and the shock of collision knocked all fight from those French brave enough to stand their ground. For most had just turned their reins and run from the field with the rest of du Muy’s men. The Minden debt had been spectacularly repaid in full.
It had in fact already been repaid in part a fortnight earlier, 60 miles to the south-west at Emsdorff as the allied army was withdrawing on Kassel. The newly raised 15th Light Dragoons – altogether smaller men on smaller horses, carrying lighter, curved swords for cutting in the duel – had repeatedly charged unbroken infantry, cavalry and artillery, against all expectations of what a light regiment could do, and taken 2,000 prisoners and two dozen guns. As reward they were given the right to bear ‘Emsdorff’ on their helmets and guidons – the beginning of the system of battle honours.
The cavalry was unquestionably the shock arm of the battlefield once more, as Prince Rupert had been certain it should be, and as Cromwell had made it.
The Seven Years’ War British Army
A hundred years after Monck had paraded the remnants of the New Model Army at Blackheath, the British infantry stood at last as a formidably large corps as well as a capable one. By 1763 it had grown to four battalions of Foot Guards and 147 of infantry of the line of battle, including twenty-three of Highlanders. It fought in line three ranks deep, and sometimes only two, or in square when attacked by cavalry; and unlike the French it advanced in line too, its effectiveness lying not in numbers and the juggernaut column, but in musketry – firing on orders, as one body. A few commanders, especially those who had seen ‘light infantry’ in North America, thought there was a place for troops moving and firing on their own initiative under looser control, but for the time being what gave the winning edge in battle was the volley, and it needed iron discipline – unflinching obedience to orders through constant drill.
The Royal Artillery, although still handicapped by having no permanent teams of drivers (who, like carters at harvest-time, were hired only ‘for the duration’) was also now, in quality at least, a match for that of the continental armies, its guns much handier and able to get about the battlefield in a way that Marlborough would have envied. The duke of Brunswick wrote to one gunner officer after Minden to commend his skill – ‘It is to you and your brigade that I am indebted for having silenced the fire of a battery of the enemy, which extremely galled the troops’ – and gave him and his fellow captains generous bounties. British field artillery was coming of age.
With infantrymen who could stand their ground by fire and take the enemy’s ground with the bayonet, and with cavalry that could charge home but remain under control, supported by artillery that was handy enough in and out of action to be able to shape the course of the battle, George II’s army now had the potential to be as good as any in Europe. All that was required for a successful campaign was their proper handling before and during battle – in other words, generalship.
But if Marlborough had shown the way, disasters such as Sackville’s at Minden, Loudon’s in America and Sir John Mordaunt’s at Rochefort showed that good generalship was still elusive, and certainly not a precise science. It did repay study, however; many a continental general had been primed in his profession at one or more of the European military academies. But Britain had only Woolwich, a technical college for the artillery and engineers. The odd Englishman had studied abroad, but it was unusual. Some had served with continental armies, but the majority of senior officers had not. Nor was it easy to discern in peace the characteristics of a good general in war. George II had correctly identified Wolfe’s ability, but had at first been scathing of Granby’s, calling him ‘a sot, a bully, that does nothing but drink and quarrel’. Granby was no Marlborough, though he would become commander-in-chief, but he did share Corporal John’s common touch, and gained a reputation for generosity towards his own troops which undoubtedly spurred other officers into humanity in a way that would have been strange to the armies of the ancien régime.
One of the problems of British generalship lay in the criteria for promotion. The first requirement of an officer in the first half of the eighteenth century was absolute loyalty to the house of Hanover. Better an untried man with a stake in the Hanoverian succession than a proven soldier with uncertain loyalties (and perhaps even closet Jacobite sympathies). John Campbell, fourth earl of Loudon, a key player in suppression of the Forty-five, had afterwards been promoted to command in America. Benjamin Franklin wrote of him: ‘On the whole I then wonder’d much, how such a Man came to be entrusted with so important a Business as the Conduct of a great Army; but having since seen more of the great World, and the means of obtaining & Motives for giving Places, & Employments, my Wonder is diminished.’
Likewise Mordaunt, so timorous in the Rochefort raid, was a staunch Whig MP who had commanded the reserve at Culloden and pursued the Highlanders after the battle. And Sackville was the son of the duke of Dorset, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. These were men who could be relied on politically. Nor were they without courage: Mordaunt had handled his brigade resolutely after the near-rout at Falkirk, and even Sackville had led the infantry from the front at Fontenoy. Yet they had no aptitude for managing a campaign, or perhaps even handling large numbers of troops in a field battle. When the duke of Wellington was asked who should take over from him in the Peninsula were he to fall, to the surprise of many he replied: ‘Beresford. He may not know how to lead an army, but he knows how to feed one.’ 45 Unlike in the century before, there were fewer men rising from the ranks of the minor gentry, men who had spent most of their time soldiering, and more who were appointed to command from the aristocracy, whose ‘social obligations’ could frequently detain them in London or on their family estates. The army was increasingly a gentlemanly pastime, not a means of advancement.
It was also extraordinary just how hard Parliament sometimes made it for a general to do his job. The veteran (Huguenot) field marshal Lord Ligonier was both commander-in-chief and Master General of the Ordnance. Just as Marlborough had done when he held both appointments, Ligonier tried his level best to unite the efforts of the cavalry and foot, which answered to his first title, with those of the artillery and engineers, which answered to the second. But Parliament kept the lines of responsibility and the budgets of the two departments strictly independent of each other, and this was inevitably mirrored in operations on the ground. It was the same with supply and transport: victualling and clothing were the responsibility of the Treasury, with the same civilian commissary arrangements as in the century before, while billeting and movement of troops at home remained the business of the secretary at war. The army owned not a draught horse or a waggon of its own, relying instead on civilian hire. It was a perfect system for making sure the army could not threaten the peace of the realm; it was equally imperfect for making war on the King’s enemies. Such was the inheritance of Cromwellian militarism and the Jacobite scares.
Marlborough had overcome the problems through force of personality and willingness to put money into the right hands. Half a century later, few generals had Marlborough’s personality and ability to scheme, and fewer still his experience. Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick complained of being unable to take to the field after winter quarters in 1760 because ‘I have a monster of a commissariat independent in some respects of me, and composed of several heads independent of each other, each with its own chief or protector in England, but together as ignorant and as incapable as they are avid to line their own pockets.’
Thus the know-how of generalship was largely the preserve of elderly officers schooled somewhat cynically in working the system. And although age did not necessarily make them incapable in battle, as Lord Stair had demonstrated at Dettingen, it did not make for campaign flair either. Even Granby, for all his dash, knew that the art of campaigning did not come easy to him, for ‘sudden marches, alarms &tc drive the Commissariat business sometimes right out of our heads’. There were, of course, officers like Wolfe who rose with astonishing speed, but the system as a whole was haphazard. Perhaps, in the end, failure on the Continent was not so calamitous: war there was a diversion after all, and there were always Prussian field marshals and German troops to pull the fat from the fire. And when a raid on a sugar island or a coastal fort went wrong the Royal Navy could usually sort out the mess, landing more supplies or evacuating the army.
But in North America it was different. There, as the early defeats in both wars of the mid-century had shown, mistakes of generalship were not so easily mitigated. The next trial would hammer the point