British Army: War with Revolutionary France, 1792–1801 Part I

Frederick, Duke of York (1763-1827)

Like Benjamin Franklin’s two immovables of human existence – death and taxes – in the eighteenth century there were two certainties of British life, at least in retrospect: war with France, and more red coats. More red coats, that is, after first a drastic reduction in their numbers. But as the century entered its final decade, the nature of war with the old enemy was changing. Britain was fighting a very different sort of France and a very different sort of French army, and the war – or more accurately wars – would see the ranks of red swell to a size that would be unmatched for another hundred years.

In February 1793 the ‘Committee of Public Safety’, the executive government of Revolutionary France, had declared war on every power in Europe except Russia. This time the contest was neither dynastic nor commercial, however, for the ends of the Revolution were ends of principle and ideology: the fight against it was a fight for the survival of Britain’s constitutional monarchy (and to many, therefore, for the survival of Britishness). And at first it looked as if the Revolution’s resources would be as infinite as its goals, for the Committee of Public Safety passed a measure authorizing a levée en masse, and France would soon have 850,000 men in its army. But because the Royal Navy, ‘the wooden walls’, had been so determinedly strengthened in the decade before, that vast army of Frenchmen would not be able to come to England by sea. On the other hand, because the British army had been so comprehensively run down, Britain would not actually be able to take Paris, the only certain way of defeating France. The strategy would have to be indirect, therefore: the Royal Navy would squeeze the enemy commercially, seize its colonial wealth – principally the sugar islands of the West Indies – and use those gains to subsidize the continental powers traditionally able to field large armies. It would be Russia, Prussia and Austria that would do the ‘heavy lifting’ in battle with the massive, vigorous new armies of La République.

So for ten years the British army had little to do except, as Macaulay put it, take some sugar island, courtesy of the Royal Navy, or ‘scatter some mob of half naked Irish peasants’ who made trouble for absentee landlords or who, in 1798, rose more ominously in support of a half-cock French landing. Occasionally the army might try some ‘descent and alarm’ in a diversionary attack, usually in the Low Countries, but the legatees of the great victories of Blenheim, Dettingen and Minden would soon be, in Macaulay’s words again, ‘beaten, chased, forced to re-embark, or forced to capitulate’. It was breaking windows with guineas once more, and a double humiliation after retreat from America.

To make matters worse, yellow fever killed so many men in the West Indies that military recruiting was desperately blighted. Britain, unlike France, had no system of conscription – nor much likelihood of being able to enforce one. The navy had the press gang, but the army’s only means of coercion (the ballot) was employed in filling the ranks of the militia, the nation’s unlikely safeguard in the event that a few transports should evade His Majesty’s ships in the Channel.

Nor were some of the measures taken to make up for lost time very helpful. The decision in 1793 to appoint the first commander-in-chief since the American war was a good one, but the decision to appoint the 76-year-old Lord Amherst, the hero of Ticonderoga in the annus mirabilis of 1759, whose health and vigour was even feebler than his age suggested, was certainly not. When he was replaced after two years by the duke of York, Henry Dundas, the secretary of state for war – at last a cabinet post in its own right – complained that ‘Amherst was a worthy and respectable old man … but the mischief he did in a few years will not be repaired but by the unremitting attention of many’. In 1795, then, the army’s stock stood as low as the life expectancy of its troops.

Remarkably, however, the army did not entirely lose heart. Or rather, enough of its capable officers did not. Indeed, a sort of grim determination now took hold which would be a useful example during the frequent periods of military doldrums in the following two centuries, perhaps best exemplified by the remarks of the young Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Wellesley after the ill-fated expedition to Flanders in 1793–4: ‘At least I learned what not to do, and that is always a valuable lesson.’

A valuable lesson indeed, if scant comfort to countless widows and orphans. There were, though, some less bloody lessons to be learned during the lean years of the 1790s. The ‘variety of steps in our infantry and the feebleness and disorderly floating of our lines’, of which the young James Wolfe had complained after Dettingen, were replaced, if with some resistance, by a standard drill. It had been devised by Colonel Sir David Dundas, known (and not always affectionately) as ‘Old Pivot’, for the drill was based on Frederick the Great’s instructions, with their emphasis on the lines of infantry changing direction, and thus the direction of their fire, by pivoting on the left, right or centre points of the line – a slower method than hitherto, but one that cured the problem of Wolfe’s ‘floating’. Still, ‘made in Germany’ was not a recommendation to every officer, and the 1792 Rules and Regulations for the Movement of His Majesty’s Army took a deal of enforcing – which the duke of York’s appointment went some way to doing, convinced as he was that it was better to have an imperfect drill understood by all than a hundred and one different variants all claiming to be the perfect system.

Indeed, the painfully slow reform of the army really began with York’s outrageous promotion to field marshal and commander-in-chief at the age of 32 – and without the distinction of success in the field. There was just something in the character of George III’s younger son that recommended him to generals far more experienced than himself. It was, of course, prudent for any ambitious officer to be on good terms with the King’s son, but this alone could not have explained the near-universal respect for York’s energy, devotion to the army, administrative ability – and, though it had been comparatively little tested, physical courage. Not for nothing was he known to all ranks, rather like the marquess of Granby, as ‘the soldier’s friend’. If only he had won even a minor victory in the field and had possessed the figure of a Wellesley or a Moore rather than the corpulence of his brother the Prince Regent, there might today be a worthy statue of him in Whitehall.

One of York’s most pressing tasks was to reform the purchase system. In the decade or so of stagnation after the American war the worst practices had returned, and there were as many new ones. Other than in the artillery and engineers, where commissioning and promotion were still conducted on merit and tightly controlled by the Board of Ordnance, in many regiments the officers were neither capable nor even at duty. The system of a hundred years before, whereby a man of modest means could enrich himself (or at least make a living) through foreign service had developed into a system by which a rich man could buy himself an agreeable, prestigious life. The rough and ready country gentry of Marlborough’s day did at least have to be present in order to make their money, whereas now the ‘gentleman’ could use his family means to buy himself a fine uniform and the admiration of London or Bath, and as long as his regiment was not required for duty overseas his presence on parade was scarcely desired. When his regiment was posted abroad he simply exchanged into another that was returning home: there were always impecunious officers keen enough for the cheaper life in India or, while life actually lasted, the West Indies. Sometimes it did not even have to be the tropics to put off a blade: Beau Brummell famously sold out of the 10th Light Dragoons when they were posted to Manchester on the grounds that he had ‘not enlisted for foreign service’.

York managed to curb some of the worst excesses of purchase but in truth it needed the active support of the entire officer corps to end the abuse, and in a sense every officer, good or bad, had a stake in the old system. Arthur Wellesley himself had risen to command of the 33rd Foot (which by then he had taken to India) entirely by purchase and without doing a day’s actual duty in several of the regiments through which he had advanced in rank. What York did manage to do was impose minimum qualification times, so that an officer at least had to spend a decent period in each lower rank before buying his way into the next one up, and establish a reporting system by which he was able to advance outstanding officers on merit without purchase. Frederick the Great had abolished purchase in the Prussian army and substituted a rigorous system of selection and training of cadets, and Revolutionary France had swept away purchase along with much else of the ancien régime; but both countries had universal conscription and therefore a better class of soldier. Perversely, perhaps, Britain’s ‘scum of the earth’ responded quite extraordinarily well to being led by the sort of men who would pay for the privilege of doing so – backed up, of course, by the lash. The job of these ‘gentlemen’s sons’ was by and large straightforward: ‘the NCOs showed us how to fight,’ wrote one old soldier after Waterloo, ‘and the officers how to die’.

There continued to be a stiffening of professionally minded officers, however, many of them from the ‘marches’ and beyond – Scotland and Ireland: men of good, ancient family whose fathers’ estates could not run to supporting a fashionable life either out of or in uniform, or who found the prospect of life in their native counties somewhat too confined. Arthur Wellesley was one of these, although his family was a shade grander than the average laird’s son or rack-renting Irish landlord.


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