Friday, 14 February 2020

By Fire and Bayonet, Grey's West Indies Campaign of 1794 - Steve Brown


I've just finished reading a book I got for Xmas and one I've been looking forward to reading since its publication by Helion back in 2018 with the stunning cover artwork 'The Landing at Martinique' by Peter Dennis immediately catching my eye when I first saw this advertised.

My decision to embark on building a new collection of 1:700th age of sail collection themed around the French Revolutionary and later Napoleonic War period, conveniently coincided with this book doing the rounds and so made an easy choice to include on my Xmas list.

Helion have, in recent times, cornered the market in publishing highly interesting and very specific military titles that focus in depth on a particular campaign, leader or both, often not covered by other publishers in modern or past times and they are to be congratulated and better still supported in their efforts to bring these important titles to the military book reading customer.

I'm doing my bit by having a couple of English Civil War titles by them and a more recent acquisition on my bookshelf,  'The Key to Lisbon', which formed an important part of my Peninsular War battlefield research library prior to my setting off touring the area last summer and a book I reviewed in June last year.

 The Key to Lisbon - Kenton White

Thus it was that I started to get reading this book almost immediately it was out of the wrapping paper.

Lieutenant General Sir Charles Grey 1794 - Henry Bone

My familiarity with Sir Charles Grey was from an interest in the American War of Independence during which Major General Grey developed his very individual way of leading his soldiers, arriving in New York in 1777 and leading a brigade during General Howe's Philadelphia campaign in that same year.

Advancing on Philadelphia after the Battle of Brandywine, Howe ordered Grey to neutralise an American brigade under the command of General Anthony Wayne encamped near Malvern in Pennsylvania, that saw him initiate an attack on the American camp at Paoli Tavern on the 20th September 1777, a little after ten o'clock at night; instructing his composite light battalion and their supports, the 42nd Highlanders and 44th Foot, to remove the flints from their muskets, to ensure the attack would be carried out with the bayonet and with no chance of any accidental discharges on the approach, with his troops ordered to go:

"in a silent manner by a free and exclusive use of the bayonet."

The British attack at the Battle of Paoli

The British troops attacked in three waves, catching the encamped Pennsylvanian and Maryland troops completely by surprise and routing them without a shot fired, with the American brigade losing 53 killed, 113 wounded and 71 captured, for the loss of 4 killed and 7 wounded.

He would repeat the same shock tactics a year later at Old Tappen, New Jersey when on the 27th September 1778 he led a battalion of light infantry and grenadiers supported by the 33rd and 64th Foot against a similarly encamped Continental Dragoon regiment housed in farm buildings.

Only forty cavalrymen escaped the attack, leaving fifteen of their comrades dead and another fifty-four wounded or captured, again without a shot fired.

It was the result of these actions that saw Sir Charles Grey earn the title by both sides, 'No-Flint-Grey', a compliment in British circles, but less so among the American rebels who labelled him a butcher and sought to propagandise the attack at Paoli Tavern as the Paoli Massacre, inflating the casualty report in their efforts to turn what was an embarrassing defeat into a way of raising sympathy for their cause.

Ill health would force an early exit for Grey from the American War, to be followed by a period back home, that would see his Whig political leanings interfere with his opportunities for further advancement, eventually causing him to retire to his estate and a focus on family and a private life away from military affairs, until the outbreak of war with France would see his summoning back to command forces earmarked for an expedition to the West Indies and planned attacks on French possessions.

The regulation dress of British infantry operating in the tropical West Indies during Grey's Campaign
Private, Grenadier Company, 45th Foot, Sergeant, Light Infantry, 48th Foot, Officer, 9th Foot.
Martinique 1793 - Bryan Fosten , Osprey Wellington's Infantry (1) Men at Arms Series 114

It is after this introduction to Grey and the tactics he developed in America that he would again use with outstanding success in this next campaign that Steve Brown commences his book taking a look at the state of the British army at the start of the long war with France and the plans for the expedition.

As Brown highlights in his outline for Grey's campaign, the West Indies and Caribbean theatre had been a significant battleground between France and Great Britain during the American War with several large naval engagements featuring, that culminated in Admiral Sir George Rodney's defeat of Comte de Grasse at the Battle of the Saintes, 12th April 1782; a battle that effectively restored British naval supremacy in a war that had seen a few significant set backs that threatened the British hold on its global possessions and its position at the negotiating table when the war reached its inevitable close.

Vice Admiral Sir John Jervis, later Earl St Vincent , pictured here in 1795 by Lemuel Francis.
Described in the book as a 'fist of iron in a velvet glove', Jervis' relationship with Grey and his abilities as a naval commander formed a pivotal role in the outstanding success achieved between February and April 1794 before Yellow Fever and French reinforcements took a hand.

The importance of close naval cooperation in a theatre composed of islands loomed large in the upcoming campaign of 1794 and Brown looks closely and pays tribute to the other key personality in the campaign, Admiral Sir John Jervis, who was a close personal friend of Sir Charles Grey and whose abilities as a naval commander coupled with their bond of friendship formed one of the key strengths of the early success that the campaign enjoyed.

So with the outline of the two British commanders earmarked for the West Indies campaign of 1794 clearly established, the book goes on to describe the plan of campaign developed by the British administration under Prime Minister William Pitt; as a badly prepared nation geared up for yet another war with France, resting as it did on the need to support European allies (Austria, Prussia, Holland and Hanover), offering practical aid to opponents of the revolution in France and using the navy to capture French colonies.

The third aspect of that strategy bears some inspection as it was key to undermining the French will and ability to wage war, with the French Sugar Islands, as the West Indies possessions were often referred to, being a significant contributor to the funding of such a war. The region provided as much as 40% of French overseas trade and the attached income that it provided in taxes and tariffs, with 50% of that trade reliant on Haiti. The revolution created new tensions in the islands with French Royalist held plantations heavily reliant on a large slave populations now offered the chance of a bit of 'liberte, egalite and faternite' if they were willing to keep working and fighting for the republic.

France was practically bankrupt following its involvement in the American War and was fast losing its ability to feed its population, thus loss of its French West Indian Islands would be a major blow at its attempts to stabilise its situation and to spread its revolutionary ideals and guillotines outside its own borders.

As well as looking at the French situation Brown does a good job at illustrating the frustrations and inadequacies affecting the British with regards to deploying its limited manpower and assets to support its strategy and thus we see just 7,000 fresh faced recruits pulled together to form the force that Grey would take with him, when the plan quite clearly illustrated a need for twice that number of troops to allow for losses from Yellow fever and casualties, not to mention a total lack of planning for the administration of the islands once they were captured..

The great equaliser for forces campaigning in the West Indies in the late 18th century. Not known at the time but Yellow Fever, described as an acute viral hemorrhagic disease, that causes fever, headaches, jaundice, muscle pain, nausea, vomiting, fatigue and often death was spread by infected mosquitoes, the effects only enhanced among tired men worn out by the demands of campaigning and combat.

Then we see a large part of the force dragged off to support the Duke of York's campaign in Flanders, which it successfully performs but which causes it to depart for the Caribbean two months behind schedule, a schedule carefully planned to avoid the campaign extending into the months when disease rates would increase dramatically, as events would prove.

What stands out from the description of this governmental mismanagement is the patient control of events by both Jervis and Grey as they set about working to their best abilities in the circumstances they found, best exemplified by Grey's training and leadership instilled in his new command, bringing all the experience and knowledge he had gained in the American War.

The Capture of Fort Louis, Martinique, 20th March 1794 - William Anderson.
As HMS Asia 64, and the sloop HMS Zebra, provides covering gun fire against the fort, Commander Faulknor leads his men up the beach to attack the fort on its landward side. This picture well illustrates the mobile war fought by the British in the campaign. 

Brown details the organisation put in place by bringing together the detached grenadier and light companies to form six elite battalions that would spearhead Grey's attacks, utilising the 'shock and awe' aspect, to use a horrible modern term so loved by the media, of silent fast moving attacks with the bayonet often at night or in the early hours to take out key positions, relying on the steady British line companies, artillery and naval parties to deal with Republican forces in open field battles.

The close naval support from Jervis is also well outlined, as the navy with its boat and naval landing parties able to rapidly move troops to various beaches, and provide support on land with their marines and sailors, often hacking paths through virgin forest and dragging large guns over mountains to provide heavy artillery support against French held forts.

The 6,500 man force sailed to the Caribbean on Monday 3rd February 1794 that culminated in a campaign that saw three French islands, (Marutinique, St Lucia and Guadeloupe) rapidly captured and occupied, with Guadeloupe, the largest, falling on the 24th April of that year.

Donatien-Marie-Joseph de Vimeur, vicomte de Rochambeau, commander of Republican forces on Martinique
skilfully made the best of his small garrison that forced Grey to fight longer than he had intended to capture the island thus setting back an already tight timetable designed to avoid the worst ravages of the fever season.


However the masterful generalship displayed by Rochambeau on Martinique was to badly derail British plans for an even more rapid conquest than it turned out.

The lost time only added to the woes of an inadequately sized force that had performed brilliantly to capture the islands but was too weak to hold them, and with losses suffered to disease and combat, most units could expect to lose half their compliment by campaign end due to disease, coupled with senior officers distracted with civilian administration duties instead of garrison command, the inevitable setbacks soon followed with the arrival of fresh French troops and naval support lead by the dastardly rabidly Jacobin Victor Hugues.

Victor Hugues reads like a Serbian militia leader from the war in Bosnia specialising in eradicating friend and foe alike when it suited him, developing a favourite tactic of roping together suspected royalists and their sympathisers before a large pit, before shooting the group with massed musketry, causing the dead and wounded to pull those still alive into the mass grave, before rapidly covering it up to snuff out the cries of the wounded and those still very much alive.

Quite depressing really to see that war criminals haven't changed much over the centuries even if muskets have been replaced by modern assault rifles.

The behaviour of Hugues contrasts dramatically with Grey who hanged several of his soldiers after warning them against looting French property and having to make examples of the very few that disobeyed his orders. The result was that after several French towns fell to British assault, the citizens did not suffer the pillaging that characterised other assaults on towns in later campaigns.

By Fire and Bayonet was a thoroughly good read and informed me about a campaign that I had only a passing knowledge of before reading the book.

Steve Brown has put together a wealth of information about the campaign and provides a really strong narrative of the operations and the subsequent action that followed, together with the political manoeuvres that preceded and followed the campaign.

Just as interestingly he charts the careers of the key characters that survived the campaign together with the many famous names that I immediately recognised of junior officers who would feature large in the later campaigns of the Duke of Wellington in Spain, Portugal and the Low Countries.

Jean Baptiste Victor Hugues

Sadly Victor Hugues died in his bed, but I have to imagine his last hours must have been somewhat troubled.

So I really enjoyed this book but have a few rather minor criticisms. The regular complaint of books not having enough maps is not one I can level at this particular tome, however it is really frustrating to have a map of Guadeloupe or Martinique that doesn't have indicated the places where much of the fighting is being described in the text. Thus they provide an overview of where the forces were and where they went, shown in the form of arrows, and the key towns. However there are forts and prepared positions where the fighting took place that are simply omitted.

The other quibble is the several mis-types with words missed out or mis-spelt that caused me to go over several sentences to make sure I understood what the intent of the sentence was, which is surprising, but maybe a casualty of the cost involved in proof reading these days. Helion as I say are to be congratulated for their efforts in producing books like this, but attention to detail such as this is important in being able to command an appropriate price for the end product.

By Fire and Bayonet is 244 pages and includes the following;

List of Plates
List of Maps
1. The West Indies Theatre
2. Grey's movements on Martinique, March 1794
3. The Capture of Saint Lucia, April 1794
4. The Capture of Guadeloupe, April 1794
5. The Loss of Guadeloupe, October - December 1794
Preface
Acknowledgements
Naming Conventions

Prologue
1. Never was a Kingdom Less Prepared
2. Grey
3. Jervis
4. Ostend and Back
5. The Knife-Edge
6. The Capture of Tobago
7. A Lock Step Banditti
8. Landing and Consolidation
9. Falstaff's Corps
10. Saint Lucia
11. High-Water Mark
12. Enter Hugues
13. We Have Been Greatly Neglected
14. Prize Money
15. Daily Expected
16. The Cost
17. The People

Appendices
I. British Forces in Windward and Leeward Islands June 1793
II. Return of Troops Disembarked at Barbados 1 February 1794
III. French Garrison of Martinique February 1794
IV. Returns of British Forces in Windward and Leeward Islands in 1794
V. State of Martinique Garrison in November 1794
VI. Grey's Officers
VII. Royal Navy Squadron at Martinique, February 1794
VIII. Royal Navy Squadron at Guadeloupe, April 1794 

Bibliography
Index

I have to agree with Steve Brown's conclusion that Sir Charles Grey is one of best British general officers of his generation and indeed of the period, demonstrating a great flare for developing a very unique offensive system that proved to be a battle winner when used by British troops under his command, but also a very clear ability to manage forces at a higher level with the use of his multiple columns to envelop and overwhelm the French forces defending these islands rapidly.

Of course Grey's ability on land relied on his close working relationship and friendship with another great commander, Sir John Jervis whose abilities at sea were equally of a very high order and his influence on the Royal Navy in terms of organisation, training and discipline paved the way for others that came after him.

From a wargaming perspective, I found myself looking at a naval campaign in one of the Too Fat Lardies Specials, combining the use of Kiss Me Hardy and Sharp Practice to run a fictional campaign of island hopping in the Indian Ocean. With a book such as this, why bother with a fictional campaign when you could easily conduct the historical one instead - just a thought.

By Fire and Bayonet is in glorious hard back as well as being available on Kindle, but frankly I would recommend getting the former, just for Peter Dennis' excellent cover and the feel of a beautifully made hardback book. From a brief inspection of the net you should be able to pick it up for between £15 to £20 new.

4 comments:

  1. It’s a title that has appealed to me, lots of room for fun wargames scenarios and campaigns, including combined ops as you noted. It’s a sad commentary on Britain’s policies that they sent so many to die in the Caribbean capturing sugar islands instead of dealing with the bigger problem in Flanders.

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    1. Hi Peter,
      Yes the death toll among the troops sent out to the West Indies is truly staggering, with Brown estimating total British losses in the period 1793 to 1798 in the order of 50,000 men of which 40,500 were dead, the rest including deserters and those left so badly affected as to be invalids.

      But then in a period of history when life was relatively cheap the death toll is put into perspective when you consider that those in power with a vested interest in the profits made from the sugar trade saw customs duty paid on brown sugar rise by 50% in the same period and accounted for 97% of the exports from the Leeward Islands.

      The modern equivalent to this kind of business would be oil exports and we only have to consider how readily super powers in modern times have been only too willing to insert their military resources when that business has been threatened.

      When looked at it from that perspective, Revolutionary France teetering on bankruptcy and political anarchy, probably seemed less of a priority, especially as it faced the combined professional armies of Prussia, Austria and Great Britain and looked likely to be contained within its own borders until it wasn't.

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    2. True enough. Also if Austria, Prussia and Russia weren’t busy carving up Poland...

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  2. Good review thank you. Yes, sugar was a real generator of massive profits in the period. I don't think that many people are aware of that today.

    ReplyDelete