Positions of the armies at the start of the 1794 campaign.
There reached a point in many of the young Prince’s games where the number of servants available for duty on the lawn proved insufficient for the lesson at hand. Frederick, fifteen years of age during the summer of 1778, as General Howe relinquished the American command, heartily enjoyed his practical military education. ‘The grounds of Kew House were transformed into the terrain of the Seven Years War,’ one contemporary observed. In his enthusiasm, the Prince herded gardeners, maids and footmen into lines of troops. His war games were overseen by his military tutors and followed much study of European campaigns, in particular those of the Prussian King after whom George III had named his son. The Prince of Wales, just one year older than Frederick, occasionally played along in these sessions, but even at this early stage of their lives, it was his younger brother who relished the part of soldier.
George had encouraged his sons to cultivate a ferme ornee at Kew, a place where, following the aristocratic fashion of the day, they could till the soil and learn the simple pleasures of farming and good economy. Alas, the growing shoots were often trampled underfoot by phalanxes of servants, as Frederick, captivated by his namesake’s Seven Years War victories, strove to re-enact battles like Rossbach and Leuthen.
For the Prince, schooling in generalship began with classroom study of great generals from Julius Caesar to the King of Prussia. The early manoeuvres at Kew in turn gave way, late in the summer of 1780, to his departure from England, en route to the Continent to learn from the great generals of the day. Rumour suggested that the impregnation of one of the Kew milkmaids sped his departure. Frederick’s itinerary, however, was designed with serious study in mind. He would remain overseas for seven years. That George III sent his son to learn warfare from the great German masters of the late eighteenth century (the Duke of Brunswick and, after this preparation, the Prince’s idol, Frederick the Great of Prussia himself) may be seen as a sign that the achievements of Marlborough and in the Seven Years War had not lessened Britain’s inferiority complex in matters of military science. The Duke of York had therefore been carefully schooled prior to assuming command and had benefited from a professional education more complete than almost any other British general who might be called upon to lead an expeditionary corps. But, of course, he lacked practical experience or read regimental service, so when the chance finally appeared for him to lead an army in battle, nobody knew whether he could do so successfully.
The French attack of 6 September 1793 on the Austrian lines near Herzeele was typical of the Revolutionary Army. The phalanxes advanced, a riot of Jacobin fervour tempered by the experience of veteran cadres from the old Bourbon regiments. There was much shouting, cheering and general high spirits from the ragamuffin soldiers. They had been thrown forward by their general, Lazare Carnot, a man who would be dubbed ‘the organiser of victory’ for his vigorous mobilisation of society in defence of the Revolution. On this day in the Spanish Netherlands — modern Belgium — Carnot’s troops punched a hole in the Allied front and headed almost due north, towards the sea, just ten miles away.
As it happened, a British army, under the command of Field Marshal the Duke of York, occupied positions in the dunes around Dunkirk. The government at home had ordered this British contingent of the allied army to take the French-held port. Military men had not been consulted in this decision, and the Navy was reluctant to provide any support, even though doing so would have entailed little more than sailing across the Channel. So the British had achieved nothing during the first week of their siege, and in any case had none of the special artillery needed to batter down the town’s walls. Indeed, it could barely be called a siege, since the absence of naval support meant French gunboats harassed the British lines and kept open the garrison’s communications with the outside world.
By 6 September, some heavy guns had finally arrived and were being assembled near the town. At the Duke’s headquarters, reports of a French attack to the south were therefore treated with a concern that grew into alarm. If Carnot’s advance continued, British troops around Dunkirk would soon have the enemy to their flank and rear. Orders were given to break camp and withdraw from positions surrounding the port.
As accounts of the French advance flew about the British regiments, there was considerable disorder and many panicked. The 30 siege guns brought over from England were left behind, along with 300 barrels of gunpowder and other valuable stores. A loss of this kind was considered disgraceful by professional soldiers; indeed, when something similar happened in Spain twenty years later, Wellington insisted the general responsible be court-martialled. But such a punishment would have been too embarrassing to King and Ministry to be countenanced. Instead, the Duke rallied his troops after the debacle. One of his staff officers wrote home: ‘His good humour and spirits never forsake him, and he meets the unfortunate events that have happened with a degree of constancy and resolution that do him infinite honour.’ The task of commanding the small field army that Britain could deploy in 1793 had been given to the Duke, in part, because it was assumed that being a prince would help in the difficult matters of diplomacy needed to bind together the polyglot forces of the anti-French alliance.
Frederick was only thirty years old at the time of Dunkirk. A striking figure, over six feet tall, broad chested (but increasingly stout), his shock of hair and straight nose gave him a bearing considered by many at the time to be the acme of noble good looks. He had also, prior to September 1793, demonstrated bravery in action and some skill at the head of his troops. Following Dunkirk, though, many officers serving in Flanders wrote accounts that suggested the Duke was an incompetent dilettante, more fond of wine and women than of grand strategy. These reports produced a rapid effect — much malicious gossip in the corridors of Westminster and a measure of public ridicule, including a caricature by the master, James Gillray, showing the Duke ‘campaigning’ with a whore astride his lap and a bottle in his hand. One courtier, visiting the Duke’s headquarters a month after Dunkirk, wrote home, ‘Some of the things reported in England may be true, but I am persuaded that he is both good natured and humane, although, by sometimes talking absurdly, he gets a contrary character.’
It was the Duke’s habit of holding forth to his young staff that was at the root of these problems. One noble visitor (and politician) surveying the scene in Flanders told a confidant: ‘He talks too much, and is careless to whom. I ventured to tell him so, and took an opportunity of recommending him to ask the superior officers to dinner; and, as he could not prevent their writing home, to try at least and furnish them by his conversation there with materials which would do no harm [original emphasis].’ In terms of modern political management, Frederick’s mistake was not briefing the right people with the right line.
There has been some debate about whether the ‘Grand Old Duke of York’ rhyme was a response to the events of 1793-4 in Flanders or to the brief campaign he led five years later in Holland, but the essential point is that early in his career the Prince became an irresistible target for popular lampoon. The King had sent one of his sons to lead an army fighting in defence of monarchy (so barbarously defiled by the French regicides). Failure was dangerous to that principle in Britain itself because the Jacobins had plenty of sympathisers there, even in Parliament. In our own era the shocking defeat of an army led by the King’s son would obviously create a huge news story. We should not be surprised, then, that it caused a sensation in London more than two centuries ago, for even then irreverence, republicanism and merciless satire were widespread.
After the shock of September, the campaign settled down somewhat in the latter part of 1793. The armies contesting the Low Countries found themselves in a predicament very similar to that faced during Marlborough’s time. So many troops had used these open lands as their thoroughfare during the preceding centuries that a dense network of fortresses and defensive barriers had evolved. These checked rapid progress by either side and demanded constant resort to siege warfare. During the marches between strongpoints the British contingent recovered some of its equilibrium, and in April 1794, for example, the Duke received widespread praise for planning a brilliant cavalry attack at Beaumont. But grand designs to smash the French were to be rudely discomfited just a few weeks later.
On 17 and 18 May, the protagonists fought the Battle of Tourcoing. It consisted of an attempt by the Duke of York to concert multiple attacks on 40,000 men of the French Armee du Nord, which held an exposed portion of the line. Frederick’s British corps was not large enough to mount this attack on its own, so allied cooperation was the order of the day. The Austrians were brought into the fight — and in such strength that command of the whole devolved to an Austrian field marshal. The battle turned into a dismal fracas because York’s plan relied on several different columns marching with equal determination to envelop the French Army to their front. Once the various columns had begun their trek, their commanders began to hesitate and the whole design felt apart. During the second day, the French pressed home counter-attacks and the allies lost 4,000 men killed or wounded and 1,500 captured.
Following Tourcoing, the coalition campaign in the Low Countries fell apart. The Austrians decided, after a year of see-saw fighting, that their province was more trouble than it was worth and effectively gave up trying to defend it. Once the largest contingents in this multinational army had begun to abandon it, in the second half of 1794, the other allies had no choice but to join their retreat into the Netherlands. There were scenes of much confusion and disorder during these marches, and cooperation between the nations effectively collapsed amid mutual recriminations.
This saga is important mainly because it showed the British Army struggling to make a good show of itself. From its dispatch the previous year, a bewildering array of shortcomings had been exposed on the battlefield. There were one or two chapters where a single brigade of horse or foot distinguished itself, it is true, but overall, taking to the field ten years after America had won its independence, the organisation had displayed every symptom of an atrophied, inefficient, peacetime army. Although the army had shrunk somewhat in the 1780s, it still remained substantially larger than it had been before the American rebellion. However, its need for recruits outstripped the supply of fit young men, largely because the economy was still so healthy, with emergent industries skimming surplus men off the land. Those who tried to fill the ranks thus often relied on ‘crimping’, or cheating of various kinds: signing up the old or patently unfit; taking men who were re-enlisting having already deserted; and doing deals with local magistrates to put convicted felons into uniform.
Towards the end of 1794’s marching up to the top of various hills and marching down again, Lieutenant Colonel Harry Calvert, one of York’s most trusted staff officers, wrote to an old friend, a major general, in England. His letter reveals the extent of this army’s deficiencies or ‘wants’ and the rage that such military incapacity aroused in a keen young colonel:
We want artillerymen, we want a general officer at the head of the artillery, we want drivers and smiths; we want three major generals of infantry; we want a commanding engineer of rank and experience; we want a total reform in our hospital; we want at least two out of the four brigades of mounted artillery with which his Grace of Richmond is amusing himself in England; we want a total stop put to that most pernicious mode of bestowing rank on officers without even the form of recommendation, merely for raising (by means of crimps) a certain number of men, to restore to the army those independent disinterested feelings, and those high principles which should actuate a soldier, and form the basis of the military discipline of a free country, and to relieve deserving officers from the intolerable grievance of seeing men without merit, without family, or the smallest pretension to any military ability, pass over their heads and arrive at a very high, and till now a very respectable rank in the army, solely through the means of a rascally crimp.
Without going into every particular of Calvert’s invective, the key shortcoming that he identified was in the leadership of Britain’s army — both at the level of hopeless regimental officers who owed their position to political patronage and in the inability to find any capable superior officers who had exercised higher command. These failings in George III’s army were just as apparent to Britain’s allies. ‘Even more disadvantageous for the English infantry was their rare knowledge and intercourse of the company-officers with their men,’ wrote one Brunswick officer, adding: ‘It happened often that one could notice whole regiments on the march, of which the officers followed only hours later, when they had finished breakfast at leisure.’ Under such circumstances, the regiment turned out under the command of its non-commissioned officers. The same was true of drill at home, where the absence of officers also often led to sergeants running the show. This unfortunate pattern did at least produce one good side-effect: Britain entered the Napoleonic Wars with a cadre of skilled NCOs, and certainly they provided the disciplinary backbone for its army.
Officers’ amateurism was matched at national level by the ignorance of Britain’s political leaders about how to make best use of their armed forces, a shortcoming that produced the bungled siege of Dunkirk. During the first decade of struggle against the French revolutionaries, the desire to ‘do something’ while hazarding little and staying close to the sea, ready for evacuation by the Royal Navy, was a defining characteristic of British policy. This led one French authority to comment derisively: ‘To doubt the defeat of an army sent by the British Ministry to any part of the Continent to contend against our troops would have been imputed to disaffection.’
Of course, not everything was woe: the redcoats did show certain impressive qualities during the fighting of 1793-4. The cavalry managed some dashing charges, which was a little surprising, perhaps, given that the mounted arm was later considered one of the weaker parts of the machine, but their successes were due in part to the strength and breeding of their horses. A quality bloodline — some indescribable quantum of grit or determination — was also evident in the British foot-soldier, who frequently stood in situations where others would have broken. Lastly, although the officer corps in general was sadly lacking in professionalism, some zealous, impressive men emerged in middle tiers of the army in the Low Countries: Calvert himself, later a key member of the army’s higher staff; Colonel John Moore, who commanded a brigade under York; Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, who led the 33rd Foot; and John Le Marchant, who distinguished himself as a cavalry officer and would later become an important military educator.
During 1793-4, the legions of France withstood the attempts of ancien regime Europe to throttle their new society. In these campaigns the Jacobins taught grim lessons to the professional soldiers of many other countries. French armies attacked with an alacrity and creativity that old Austrian or Prussian generals accustomed to stately eighteenth-century warfare found very hard to counter. Carnot and Jourdan, another Armee du Nord commander, crafted new decrees that created in France the world’s first true mass army — one of conscripts from the breadth of society. Not only did this produce vast numbers of recruits but it brought artisans, intellectuals even, into the ranks, whereas Britain struggled to recruit volunteers of quality.
All in all then, by late 1794, the members of the first great anti-French coalition were smarting from lessons learned in the Low Countries and were keen to end hostilities as soon as it could be done in a dignified way. For the British Prime Minister, there was an added problem. William Pitt knew that the continued presence of the Duke of York at the head of this battered army afforded the opposition an irresistible handle both against the Ministry and the King. It therefore finally fell to Pitt to write to George III requesting that the Duke be recalled. His letter, dated 23 November 1794, is a long and difficult read, because in it Pitt had to tell the King just how problematic his son’s continued command had become, while surrounding this distasteful message with sugary expressions of loyalty and courtly courtesy. ‘It is indeed impossible that the zeal and meritorious exertions of the Duke of York should be disputed by anyone who has the opportunity of being accurately informed of his personal conduct,’ noted Pitt before slipping in the dagger: ‘but the general impression is formed on other grounds . . . the want of experience and of habits of detail may have made it impossible for him to discharge all of the duties of his situation, and effectually to prevent or remedy abuses and evils which have crept into the service.’ The Prime Minister noted how difficult ‘the impression’ of this incapacity made it for the Duke to carry on leading the army in the Netherlands before alluding to the bigger underlying issue: ‘it is impossible to say how far this impression, if it is not removed, may operate in Parliament and in the Public to the disadvantage of Your Majesty’s Government . . . it will be impossible to prevent this subject from being brought into Parliamentary discussion.’
In a single lifetime, that of George III, the presence of a king or royal prince at the head of an army had changed its symbolic role dramatically. His father, George II, had in 1743 been the last British sovereign to lead his armies into battle, at a time when such a gesture was still seen as an expression of commitment and statesmanship. But by the end of Frederick’s command in Flanders, it was clear that the political costs of associating the royal house so closely with a failed expedition were too great to stomach. Pitt’s letter thus marks a turning point in the relationship between army and society in Britain. In Russia, Austria or Prussia, sovereigns and princes continued to lead the campaigns against France in person, for they did not have a raucous democracy like Westminster’s to contend with, one in which they would be held accountable for failure.
Removing the Duke required considerable delicacy, and for several weeks after his recall to England he remained in a sort of official limbo. He was still a young man who expected some active employment in life, but there were precious few posts appropriate for someone with the exalted rank of field marshal. In a rather distracted way, ministers decided to offer him the post of C-in-C, in place of the septuagenarian, inactive Lord Amherst (of Seven Years War fame), who had held on to the position for years like some military bed-blocker. The C-in-C, who occupied offices on London’s Horse Guards Parade, was at this stage a sort of inspector-general who tried (often unsuccessfully) to instil some sort of common standards among the scattered regiments of the British Army.
So, a tactic devised by Pitt and his colleagues to relieve the Duke of York of his field command ended up producing spectacular dividends. For it did not take long after the Field Marshal started work at Horse Guards in February 1795 for the great advantages of this scheme to make themselves felt. First, his role in the Flanders campaign, with all its problems, had made him an excellent person to diagnose the army’s ills. His youth and feelings of anger at those recent transactions also energised him to his new task. Finally, the very royal pedigree that had become a liability in his field command proved a vital asset when scaling the mountain of army reform, for it placed him and his mission above petty political vendettas. Virtually any other general who could have been considered for the post would have soon attracted the label of ‘Whig’ or ‘Tory’.
The first general order issued on 14 February 1795, as the Duke took up his new office, announced, ‘all matters respecting His Majesty’s Military Service, excepting what may relate to the Foot Guards, should pass through His Royal Highness’ hands’. Leaving aside the usual awkwardness of the Guards, this order gave the Duke a plenipotentiary mission to reform the army. Such a broad rubric might have caused paralysis in someone too indecisive to use it, but York and the small team he had with him were determined to wreak change. Not only did the pride of the army demand it, but the threat of French invasion and national catastrophe appeared increasingly real.
In 1795, the army headquarters at Horse Guards consisted of about 35 people. The Duke had brought with him four picked officers (including the fulminant Colonel Calvert) to act as his trouble-shooters. Apart from the Commander-in-Chief and his office, there were two principal branches of the staff: the Adjutant General (dealing with personnel and legal matters) and the Quarter Master General (whose task was to sustain the army). The whole amounted to about twenty officers and a dozen or so secretaries and clerks. The army of 1795 could hardly, then, be accused of being overmanaged or carrying a vast retinue of civil servants. This may well have helped the new C-in-C in his great mission, since it made it easier to grip the machine and turn it to his purpose, and in the years following his appointment, the staff were in a continual frenzy: firing off directives, general orders and circular letters. Someone had taken charge at last.
Early in May 1799, the Antelope, an inn near High Wycombe, to the west of London, received an unusual group of visitors. The dozen or so men in their twenties and thirties were the first ever class of a new, as yet untitled academy. (In 1801, as a result of the Commander-in-Chief’s patronage, it was finally christened the Royal Military College.) The class of 1799 arrived with their trunks, portmanteaus and valises, banging about the inn’s narrow corridors, each vying for the best quarters. Their stay in Wycombe was intended to last for a year, and during that time they would be taught the skills needed to organise an army on operations: everything from map-making to finding forage and making proper reports to generals.
This small nucleus of men was part of a broader drive for military education being forced through by the Duke of York. In Flanders, six years earlier, there were simply no British officers qualified for service as staff officers for the Quarter Master General, so the five men chosen for this duty had been foreigners. The principal lecturer at the Royal Military College was General Francis Jarry, a distinguished old Frenchman who had served both his own sovereign and Frederick the Great. This business of organising an army, it will be noted, could only really be learned from a foreigner; Jarry was a savant of some renown in Europe and therefore considered quite a catch by the college’s sponsors. Classes began (in rooms at the Antelope) on 4 May 1799, with the lessons given in French, which soon exposed the poor education of some of the students.
Colonel John Le Marchant, who attributed many of the French successes on the Continent to superior headquarters organisation, was the leading figure in the creation of this first British staff college. The task of launching the RMC was full of petty frustrations, though, and Le Marchant wrote to one friend demanding, ‘How can we be so absurd as to oppose that, neglecting as we do all instruction and the aid of science in our military enterprises, we are to be victorious over troops that possess those advantages in the highest degree of perfection?’
York and those around him at Horse Guards had set the improvement of professional standards in the officer corps as one of their main objectives during his first three years as Commander-in-Chief. Military education was evidently critical. In 1802 the RMC opened a much larger junior division to prepare hundreds of teenagers for commissioning as officers; this was the beginning of Sandhurst. In 1803 the Duke of York’s School was also established, giving a basic education to more than 1,200 boys.
Whatever measures were taken to instruct the officer corps, it was well understood that time would be needed for these new establishments to have an effect. It was also the case that this training, even of captains or majors in staff duties, was reform from the ‘bottom up’ that could not, particularly in 1795, when the Duke took over, solve the problem of there being so few senior officers who knew their business. Similarly, the system of promotion by seniority of the ranks above colonel made it extremely difficult for the Duke to put gifted officers like Moore and Wellesley in command of brigades as quickly as he’d like.
From the outset, therefore, there were attempts to force those in place to do their jobs better. In May 1795, for example, the headquarters at Horse Guards issued a general order to the army demanding that regulations for the manoeuvring of troops ‘be strictly followed and adhered to’, and setting out a weekly training regime to be followed by all regiments. Monday and Friday were allocated for regimental training; on Tuesday and Saturday the regiments had to combine for brigade exercises; and Wednesday was set aside to put ‘the whole line’, what the French at this time were calling a division, through its paces. The aim of this was to encourage regimental, brigade and higher commanders to learn the basics of their craft: to see how long it took to effect certain formation changes on different types of ground; to observe how other regiments behaved; to encourage competition between them; and to understand how larger armies had to be organised in the field.
Each regiment was to be exercised ‘under the personal direction of its own Commanding Officer’, an allusion to their frequent absence and the woeful lack of commitment shown by many lieutenant colonels. The absenteeism noted by the Brunswick officer in Flanders permeated all levels of command. When regiments were posted to India or the Caribbean, where disease carried off so many, it was the norm for many officers to make their excuses and disappear. Often they exploited a loophole whereby a man commissioned or promoted into a regiment serving overseas had up to one year before having to present himself to his commanding officer. The staff at Horse Guards tried to tackle this problem with an angry letter to commanding officers in September 1795, threatening that those who did not report forthwith for embarkation to their regiments serving overseas would be ‘reported to His Majesty and superseded’. The scale of these abuses can be deduced from the fact that the letter was addressed to the colonels of no fewer than thirty-nine regiments.
Threatening officers with ‘supersession’ meant putting them to the back of the promotion queue. This tactic shows how limited the Duke’s options were in trying to force out men who held commissions purely because they were the idle sons of minor gentry owed a favour by someone of influence. Sacking or court-martialling them for dereliction of duty was almost impossible. In this and other matters, many of the Duke’s early orders were only partially successful. The reputation and social standing of the army thus remained low, with one leading admiral even proposing that it could be scrapped and replaced with a larger force of marines.
Other methods were tried to lick the officer corps into shape. The practice of ‘recruiting for rank’, basically a medieval tradition whereby a man who raised enough men for the King could get a captain’s or even a colonel’s commission, was ended. This method put unqualified officers in charge of men who were often too old or crooked (in either sense) for service, the ‘crimping’ referred to by Calvert in his angry letter home from Flanders.
Within more established regiments the Duke tackled another abuse: the buying of commissions to advance a young man to the rank of major or even lieutenant colonel while still in his early twenties. Many of these transactions took place while the ‘officers’ were in their teens and still at school. New rules stipulated that promotion from ensign (or second lieutenant), the first officer rank, through lieutenant to captain required at least two years’ regimental service. Those seeking to become majors had to have been soldiers for at least six years.
Changes to the commissioning and promotion system touched a nerve in British society. An officer’s warrant was one of the most easily defined marks of gentility. Those with money and influence had become used to trading in such papers, buying respectability for their sons. They resented the change. Many openly opposed notions that merit should be the principal measure for promotion in the army.
To Britain’s landed class, the army was part of a bargain. They paid tax and in return they got the vote and something for their family: a decent way for a son to earn a living. This same principle applied to the Navy, Church and magistracy. But by the end of the eighteenth century the army was the biggest source of patronage and enough of its commissioned class were also serving as Members of Parliament to make any radical change fraught with difficulty. Some 65 of the 558 MPs in the Parliament of 1796-1800 were army officers, making them the largest single occupational group.
In the battle for reform, the Duke brought a unique ability, as the King’s favourite son, to steer such socially sensitive change. What higher loyalty could redcoated reactionaries espouse than devotion to the Crown? Sir Walter Scott noted: ‘No rank short of that of the Duke of York — no courage and determination inferior to that of HRH — could have accomplished so great a change in so important a service but which was yet so unfavourable to the wealthy and powerful whose children and proteges had formerly found a brief way to promotion.’ The C-in-C knew that reforming the officer corps was one of his most difficult tasks; it would take many years, and even the early steps made him some implacable enemies.