Sunday, 25 February 2018

With Zeal and with Bayonets Only, The British Army on Campaign in North America - Matthew H. Spring

I think I first became interested in the American War of Independence when introduced to the period in history at school somewhere around age fourteen or fifteen in the early seventies. I remember our history teacher, Mr Colclough, outlining the campaign of General Burgoyne setting off from Canada along the lakes, planning to meet up with an army from New York under General Howe and with the plan to see the Americans, under General Washington, surrounded and surrendered, thus ending the war in 1777, game set and match.

Then we went through how things didn't quite turn out that way and a description of the terrain and the differences between the two armies, and I think it was then that I started to imagine what battles must have looked like during that time and perhaps some of the first sparks and embers of the historical wargamer today were generated at that time.

Thus it was, with some pleasure, that I read that Matthew Spring, as well as holding a History Ph.D. from Leeds University, teaches history down here in the south west at Truro School and my early memories of interest in this period came flooding back.

I well remember the 1976 bicentennial of the war here in the UK and still have my copy of 'Redcoat' by Scotty Bowden, my first introduction to wargaming the period, which has been added to over the years, culminating most recently with C&G II and Maurice.

The Battle of Bunker Hill, Howard Pyle 1897 "Stiff backed automatons"

Of course a lot of myths have grown up around this war that has typically portrayed the combat between stiff backed, automaton like, British redcoats, marching in line into the teeth of massed American musket and canon fire from behind sturdy bulwarks; or tricorn, long tail-coated redcoats feebly picked off by rifle wielding American militia making best use of cover, all of course based on elements of truth but overblown into a representation of the combats as a whole and giving the impression of a rigid, unadaptive British military system.

This misrepresentation of the combat in general and British tactical methods in particular has, as Spring points out, only been exacerbated by a catalogue of "chauvinistic and self-congratulatory" collection of "colourful campaign and battle narratives" written in the main, by non-academic historians, selectively choosing patriot accounts of a limited selection of mainly British defeats whilst ignoring the accounts of British, Provincial and German eyewitnesses.

The situation has been remedied in recent times with a new generation of academic historians re-analysing the historical record and ditching the second hand accounts to produce more rounded and detailed accounts that Spring has referred to in this, his analysis of British, Provincial and German battle tactics.

As a student of British Napoleonic period tactics I found myself making comparisons with those described in Spring's book by the generation that preceded it and the one thing that immediately struck me is the large disparity in first hand accounts by British, in particular, soldiers, be they ordinary ranks or officers compared with the Peninsular War. This, I would suppose, is not entirely surprising when you consider the first was a war lost and the reluctance of those concerned to highlight their service during it, which leaves the gap we have in the record and the importance of close analysis of the few accounts we do have.

Again with my 'Napoleonic' era hat on, I have spent a lot of reading time looking at the development of the British volley and charge system that stood the 19th century redcoat in such a commanding position on the battlefield during the first half of that period, ranging from Alexandria to Balaclava. 

It was during the first decades of the 18th century illustrated by the instructions given to the 20th (East Devon) Foot, in 1755,  by General Wolfe and as discussed by Spring, developed during the American War of Independence (AWI) that you see the early incarnation of this tactic.

Spring describes how General James Wolfe instructed the 20th to maintain their silence so as to better hear the instructions of their officers, a tactic that also unnerved many attackers sensing the destructive fire that awaited them as the range closed, then to have the shock of the fire amplified by the cheer that accompanied the charge.

"The battalion is not to halloo or cry out upon any account whatsoever, although the rest of the troops should do it, until they are ordered to charge with their bayonets; in that case, and when they are upon the enemy, the battalion may give a warlike shout and run in." 

and when instructing them in how they should deliver their fire he went on:

"there is no necessity for firing very fast; a cool and well-levelled fire with pieces carefully loaded, is much more destructive and formidable than the quickest fire in confusion."

The really interesting aspect for me was Spring's explanation as to the adaptation of these principals of fire and bayonet developed by the likes of  Cumberland at Culloden, Wolfe at Quebec and later by others with the almost relegation of firing in favour of a quick decision with the steel. I was not as clear on this distinction in tactical methods during the American War as with the other theatres and it was a revelation for me to see the analysis that backed up this assertion and the logic that underpinned it.

In simple terms, the size of the army available to the 18th century British general and its limited scope for replacing losses meant that there was a need to avoid costly fire-fights with an enemy that was very capable of engaging in destructive fire particularly from cover. This coupled with the rebel troops inability to take on the redcoats with the bayonet, particularly among the militia and riflemen encouraged tactics that allowed the rapid closure to contact that would limit the amount of firing in favour of casualties to the enemy once broken by the British charge. 

This tactic could only be enabled by some other 'American adaptations' which saw the British troops adopt, what would become their 'trademark formation', the two deep open order line with 18" or more between files to facilitate rapid movement over broken terrain and, with a lack of enemy cavalry to disrupt such an approach, a viable tactic for the theatre. In addition it became necessary to avoid allowing the rebels to conduct their defence from hard cover and so we see the British developing their flanking attacks to unhinge American positions and drive the rebels into more open ground where the bayonet charge could be delivered more effectively.

These tactics served the British command well in the early period of the war, following the lesson delivered at Boston, and nearly delivered the war winning battle defeat deemed necessary to force Washington and the Congress to negotiate a peace, when Howe skilfully outmanoeuvred the former at Long Island and had several opportunities to bag a large proportion of the Continental Army.

However in a war where the British were on the wrong end of a very long supply line, needing a decisive victory on the field of battle, further complicated by a huge overestimation of the support for the Crown within the colonies, the longer the conflict continued the more likely that the situation would become untenable by rebel improvements in their own tactics and abilities.

Thus we see Washington adopt a 'Fabian' approach to dealing with the British in the north, avoiding battle unless on favourable terms and engaging the enemy in a destructive small war, whilst with operations shifting to the south we see the weaknesses in British tactics and abilities amplified with the smaller but more effective rebel units now benefiting from better training and a sizeable and renewable cadre of veterans better able to neutralise the British bayonet charge by combining a defence in depth in broken terrain, supported by their own light cavalry.

Tarleton's follow-up after the Battle of Camden, a rare example of a destructive British cavalry pursuit 

The position in the south also revealed the two glaring weaknesses in British tactics, covered up in the early period, first a lack of cavalry and light cavalry in particular, better able to finish off a beaten enemy and destroy his army in the pursuit and the gradual degrading of British skirmish and light infantry capability as the light infantry evolved into an elite heavy infantry better able to deliver a formidable bayonet attack rather than act in a screening role as expert light infantry.

Spring goes through clearly, why these deficiencies occurred and how they were taken advantage of, particularly in the south, where the enemy excelled in both departments and that enabled them to neutralise the threat of the British redcoat whose abilities remained as formidable as ever. 

Spring's description of British, Provincial and German tactics, and it is important to add that distinction as each was a variation on the common theme, namely how to adapt to the terrain and the enemy, not only shows 'the how' but just as importantly for understanding, 'the why' the tactics used were chosen. This when matched with the numerous examples of battles won and battles lost really gives a vivid interpretation of those tactics and I found the book a compelling read.

I think for me, the stand out message from this book was that the British forces and their commanders responded in the main quite well with their adaptations to dealing with the enemy in the circumstances they were presented with. The war was always going to be difficult to win on the battlefield alone even with the vast majority of the population trying to stay out of the conflict, but without Crown troops to protect them often coerced into declaring their allegiances by a very energetic rebel militia that backfilled the territory vacated by the opposing field armies.

That said the British forces almost fought the war to a stalemate with the French nation bankrupted by it and eager for a resolution and with little prospect for that war winning engagement up to Yorktown, and indeed if the Battle of the Saintes had occurred before Yorktown, perhaps Washington may not have had French allies to cooperate with.

Admiral Sir George Rodney's victory at the Battle of the Saintes came too late to reverse the outcome of the American War of Independence

Even then, the hostility generated towards the Crown during the conflict would probably have lead to another soon after the conclusion of the first, assuming the British had achieved a negotiated settlement, and the growing demands of empire would most likely have overstretched British capabilities for fighting another such war.

The plaudits for this much needed analysis are many and copious in their praise and I would echo many of them. 

From an historical wargamers perspective, eager to bring the historical reality into their games, the book is a must read to gain a thorough understanding of the ability and limitations of the British forces involved in the conflict and I would highly recommend getting a copy for your library. Mine is a former library hardback edition in a protected dust jacket and now has pride of place among my AWI tomes.

The layout is straight forward and logical, with eleven chapters following the Preface and Acknowledgements:

  1. The Army's Task
  2. Operational Constraints
  3. Grand Tactics
  4. March and Deployment
  5. Motivation
  6. The Advance
  7. Commanding the Battalion
  8. Firepower
  9. The Bayonet Charge
  10. "Bushfighting"
  11. Hollow Victories
The chapters are supported by fifty eight pages of notes providing details of the sources quoted and this is further supported by twenty two pages of Bibliography source references.

Finally there is a comprehensive fourteen page index to rapidly find the quotes, some of which I have used in this post, that you will find most useful the next time you find yourself sense-checking a particular rule set to see if it lives up to the latest thinking on the subject.

Recommended reading


  1. Very kind words! I am so very glad the book is still proving entertaining and useful reading, esp. for those who (like me) have one foot in the gaming camp. Thank you, sir, for your very positive review.
    Matt Spring, Head of History, Truro School.

    1. Hi Matt, thank you for a very interesting and informative book, as you might have gathered I very much enjoyed the read. If you are ever up in Exeter and fancy a game, you are very welcome.

  2. Good review of a great book -- which was a key text for me, when developing my own AWI rules and refighting many of the major actions with our group in Holborn and at the Wargames Developments annual conference.

  3. A cracking read - very good book on the subject .

  4. Liked your book very much, even on this side of the pond. Thank you.

  5. I feel this book is one of the few that captured truly the fighting spirit & elan as well as correct tactics of the British forces here in the colonies during the AWI. Many books regurgitate earlier works thus we see the same stale or incorrect materials all over.
    Thank you for your research and work Matt!

  6. That's one of my favorite books on the period!

  7. Thanks for your comments chaps. It's great to read that I am not the first person to have found this work a fascinating and thought provoking book.

  8. Thanks for highlighting the book, paperback or hardcover is now my decision....