Thursday, 28 January 2021

All at Sea, Naval Support for the British Army during the American Revolutionary War - John Dillon


As the saying goes 'Amateurs study tactics while professionals study logistics' and John Dillon's addition to the body of work looking at the the role of the British Royal Navy in what is commonly known as, on this side of the pond, the American War of Independence, adds a very important look at the Cinderella aspect of warfare throughout the ages, namely logistics.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'logistics' as 'the branch of military science relating to procuring, maintaining and transporting material, personnel and facilities.'

Simply put, without careful attention to the key aspects covered in the definition of logistics as described, experience tends to show that military expeditions, campaigns and the conduct of a war as a whole is often doomed to failure before the first boot has got onto the ground to use a horrible journalistic cliché, and I promise not to use anymore.

As Dillon's book highlights, the war with her thirteen American colonies coming on the back of a highly expensive but extremely successful conclusion to the Seven Years War in 1763 was for Great Britain a war she neither needed or in the early stages of the dispute believed was a distinct possibility; and as usual following other major conflicts, the savings on military expenditure was well underway, with cutbacks in both the army and navy together with additional taxes designed to pay off the British national debt incurred to fight that war. 

Frederick North, Lord North, and British Prime Minister 1770-1782 - Nathaniel Dance
With frequent requests to the King to be allowed to retire from his position being rejected, Edmund Burke would describe North as 'of admirable parts, of general knowledge, of a versatile understanding, fitted for every sort of business, of infinite wit and pleasantry' but who 'wanted something of the vigilance and spirit of command that the time required.'   

The dispute that erupted in to all out war between the mother country and her colonies, left many on both sides sympathetic to the other, with no clear divide in what was as much a civil war, perhaps the first American Civil War, that left many folks caught up between the warring forces just trying to avoid taking sides one way or the other and with several senior and junior British commanders reluctant to press military action against those they saw as fellow British subjects.

However with a seemingly belligerent attitude from King George III and his determination that the colonies should submit to Parliamentary, and de-facto his authority, the opportunities for concessions and a peaceful resolution quickly and seemingly irrevocably faded with the so called 'Boston Massacre' in 1770, the  burning of HM Customs Schooner Gaspee in 1772, to the arrival in Boston of a British force of four regiments to the one already in garrison along with the boastful Lieutenant General Thomas Gage who had told the King that that would be all he would need to bring the Americans to heel.

Thus military conflict looked more and more likely to be the solution to the impasse, although Gage would soon reel back from his boast, quickly requesting, after his arrival in Boston a force of 20,000 men to get the job done.

Thus we are led through the series of events that led to a war that not many right thinking people at the time were either contemplating or looking for and was probably very avoidable had smarter heads been involved.

The British military authorities and indeed government could not have been less prepared for war than it is possible to imagine and indeed would see British troop numbers increased from 10,000 to nearly a staggering 100,000 men in three to four years as the conflict grew from one of a minor colonial dispute to a full on global war between the Bourbon monarchies of France and Spain, later joined by the Dutch, as European neighbours sort to gain at the expense of British overstretch.

As an historical wargamer interested in this period of British military history and one who has indulged that interest in many a tactical and strategic level game around the war, I found John Dillon's book a fascinating and insightful look at the actual issues faced by the military of all sides but particularly the British, tasked with sending an army overseas with a 3,000 mile long sea journey between it and its supply base, subject to vagaries of enemy ships, wind and tide on a fleet of wooden warships and merchantmen in the era before canned food or any modern method of food preservation, whilst also trying to fight multiple enemies on multiple fronts in an age when communication could be months in the sending and receiving of information, long out of date after its arrival.

The numbers and statistics quoted in terms of supplies, reinforcements, equipment and horses for the British army are truly staggering, with Dillon's analysis for example taking the reader through the requirements for one man's rations over seven days through to what that looks like when supplying provisions for 40,000 men for twelve months, specifically 14,560,000 lbs of flour, 7,280,000 lbs of pork, 1,820,000 lbs of beef, 780,000 lbs of butter etc.

These supplies had to be brought from Britain once the war closed down the opportunity to purchase supplies in America, and note the word 'purchase' as this was not a Napoleonic army living off the land and 'making war pay for itself' to quote a famous French Emperor of later years. Generally British forces sought to purchase provisions locally, in efforts to not antagonise Americans, that is unless they refused to supply the King's forces when force could be used to enforce a request.

In addition to supplying the troops the British authorities would see themselves needing to provide supplies for several thousands of Loyalist civilians forced to evacuate to the safety of British administered coastal areas around places like New York and Charleston.

All this was done, sometimes barely, with the garrison in New York sometimes only several weeks away from running out of key foodstuffs before a relief convoy would arrive to replenish stocks, but this fact alone meant that increasingly British Army commanders were unable to launch major expeditions into the interior through their inability to keep the troops fed once they moved away from their coastal depots.

Dillon describes the lengths gone to, to purchase supplies at home, ensure their preservation and storage over long weeks at sea and thus be still fit for consumption on arrival, with officers charged with identifying poor of bad produce so that reparations could be had from the supplier when traced back, with a surprisingly low failure rate in the good provisioning of foodstuffs.

The stress put on requisitioning enough merchant ships to not only carry supplies but also to move British troops in theatre is described in detail, highlighting the problem for the authorities at home to find enough shipping, particularly exacerbated by the habit of British commanders not releasing merchants to sail home after unloading stocks to be able to pick up and bring out further supplies, but instead being held in American ports to store the supplies carried, through lack of suitable warehousing, or to be used to carry troops on amphibious operations.

Initially this supply operation for the army was carried out by the Treasury who were responsible for putting out tenders to supply contractors such as the marvellously named 'Drummond and Franks' who very soon were advising the government that things would quickly go awry through a combination of the break down in acquiring local supplies from in and around Boston due to 'radical elements' and the nature of the town out on a narrow peninsular with the British troops confined and unable to forage locally.

The fact that the British Army could not conduct operations without the support of the Royal Navy, together with the fact that the navy were a supply and provisioning organisation in their own right, well versed in producing ships and equipment as well as providing provisioning for their ships around the globe, made it an obvious though reluctant decision on the part of the navy, for them to take responsibility for supplying the army as well as their own ships.

The two most prominent figures in the cabinet during the American War of Independence
First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Sandwich (left) and Lord George Germain, Secretary of State for America (right)

Thus after the King and Prime Minister, Lord North  and alongside the much criticised Lord George Germain, Secretary of State for America, whose most prominent failure, among many, was not to have appointed a Supreme Commander of British forces in America and possibly the Caribbean, steps on to the pages of this interesting account the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Sandwich on to whose desk came all the numerous requests for increased supply and troop transport capacity, whilst he busied himself running the naval war with inadequate naval resources and numerous demands on their deployments

In several ways this book splits into two sections that neatly mirrors the changing magnitude of the war as the early chapters focus on the minutia of the British authorities getting their heads around supplying their ever growing forces in America, following the retreat from Boston and the appointment of the Howe brothers to command both land an sea operations as the army commenced operations to capture New York with a view to using it as a base to advance plans to control the Hudson valley up to the borders of Canada and cutting New England off from the wider continent.

The amphibious landings conducted by the Howe brothers at New York, Kipps Bay and Head of Elk stand testament to the ability of the British army and navy to cooperate successfully in combined operations to land and supply large numbers of troops even facing opposed landings and it was in the operations around New York that saw the British opportunity to win the war finally slip away.

The two brothers showed how talented and cooperative command between the two services could bring outstanding results and as Dillon remarks, it is surprising how close Britain came to winning the war in 1776 as the British ran rings around Washington and his outclassed Continental army, only to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory possibly down to the Howe's both being Peace Commissioners, not pressing home their advantage more vigorously, a charge that would cause them both to be recalled home to defend their conduct to Parliament.

With the defeats in the winter of 1776 and the debacle of Burgoyne's invasion as the Howes ignored the original plan to cooperate along the Hudson but decided to evict Congress from Philadelphia instead, the threat of French involvement, at first clandestine, morphed into an outright challenge to British interests and a declaration of war, with the second part of this book changing focus in line with the British military authorities led by Lord Sandwich to shift attention and resources away from America to much more important strategic imperatives such as the defence of Britain's Sugar Islands and the gateway to the Mediterranean, Gibraltar soon to be under siege as the other Bourbon power Spain joined France in 1779.

As the war ramps up with the involvement of Britain's traditional European enemies, Dillon takes more of a focus on the amphibious and naval operations conducted by the various navies, contrasting sharply the brilliantly executed operations at New York, Kipps Bay, and Head of Elk (Philadelphia) by the Howe's, with its precise landing tables for troops reminiscent of D-Day to that of D'Estaing off Savannah and Rhode Island where the lack of experience was painfully exposed.

The Second Battle of Virginia Capes - V Zveg
The British inability to secure naval supply line to Cornwallis's army at Yorktown, that alone why Cornwallis was their in the first place was just one of a series of events that predicted how the war in America was likely to end, with supplies and logistics drawing a line under any further British involvement in the thirteen colonies.

However the fact remained that because of a severe lack of supplies, British troops would remain tethered to key coastal towns, supplied by the navy and if poor cooperation between army and navy existed between the commanders, exemplified with the description of Clinton and Arbuthnot, with the Admiral failing to attend a prearranged meeting after Clinton had ridden across the best part of Long Island or with Clinton and Parker off Charleston in 1776 when neither party would join the other for a command meeting on each other's ship, preferring to send letters via a jolly-boat to one another whilst anchored yards apart, then the potential for disaster was only one operation away.

Then if you throw in an Admiral with the worst credentials for such an important command as North America (Arbuthnot) together with the army falling out among itself (Clinton and Cornwallis) then the debacle of Yorktown became the self fulfilling prophecy that the description of previous adventures foretold.

Admiral of the White, Lord George Brydges Rodney - Thomas Gainsborough
Pictured here behind him with the captured ensign of De Grasse's flagship at the Battle of the Saintes,
the Ville de Paris 

In the end the British supply situation was barely holding things together when the peace was finally signed with British garrisons in Charleston and New York having weeks to spare between needing urgent resupply; and Lord Sandwich can take credit for braving the King and many other detractors by insisting on the appointment of a fighting Admiral such as George Brydges Rodney, who for all his many faults knew how to take the war to the enemy at sea and in the end contributed hugely to Britain being able to secure the terms of peace that she did and continue to hold her possessions in the Caribbean and Gibraltar despite the loss of her American colonies.

John Dillon's book is very well focussed on the specifics of what it quite clearly sets out as its brief, namely to look closely at British arrangements around supplying their troops and organising combined operations between the navy and army whilst contending with the other demands of naval warfare during the American War of Independence. 

Thus it is not another book looking purely at the naval operations of that period, and there are plenty of other great books that cover that subject matter, one coming immediately to mind and reviewed here recently on JJ's being  The Struggle for Sea Power, A Naval History of American Independence by Dr Sam Willis and so if you come to this book looking for descriptions of the dramatic naval battles and actions of this period then you might find Dillon's work unsatisfying.

The Battle of the Saintes 9-12th April 1782 - Thomas Whitcombe
The French flagship, Ville de Paris in action at right with HMS Barfleur.
Rodney's victory reasserted British naval dominance and laid the foundation for the further development of British naval tactics exposed during the American War of Independence.

However if you want to get a better understanding of the challenges faced by the British in particular, looking to commit their forces to action in America and elsewhere and the challenges faced in commanding, supplying and maintaining them with the background of the wider war events to give context then this is a great read and I know the next time I am happily moving my forces around the map during a game of Washington's War, my appreciation for what stresses that would have imposed on my logistics chain will be that much better understood.

My only criticism of the book is the poor quality of the maps accompanying the text with the outlines of various land masses barely visible, only really confirmed by the position of dots identifying key coastal towns and cities of the time. However I didn't find myself referring to them that much, being fairly familiar with the places mentioned, but newcomers to the subject might find them slightly irritating.

All at Sea is another really interesting and valuable contribution from Helion & Company and is 293 pages containing the following:

List of Maps

  1. East Coast of America
  2. The English Channel
  3. Boston Harbour
  4. New York area
  5. Philadelphia area
  6. Rhode Island
  7. The Caribbean
  8. Charleston 1780
  9. Yorktown and Chesapeake Bay
  1. Revolt, hostility, and rebellion'
  2. 'Blows must decide'
  3. 'Good, wholesome, and sound'
  4. 'On which the subsistence of the army immediately and entirely depends'
  5. 'Hell is in the forecastle, the devil at the helm'
  6. 'Few people dare to supply us'
  7. 'In bad plight we go to Halifax'
  8. 'Our safety depends on our having a powerful fleet at home'
  9. 'His Majesty's Troops being landed without opposition'
  10. 'The Expectation of war increases here Every Hour'
  11. 'The country that will hazard most will get advantage in this war'
  12. 'Oh God! It is all over'
  13. 'Their Command of the Sea gives them Advantages'

All at Sea is in paperback with a very nicely designed and robust feeling cover, something I immediately noticed when taking it out of the package. At the time of writing it can be purchased from Amazon at £15.51 saving £9.49 on the list price.

Next up: I'm all at sea in the Western Approaches refighting the first naval action of the French Revolutionary War, HMS Scourge versus the French Privateer Brig, Le Sans Culottes as my mate Bob Connor joined me via Zoom to do some remote tabletop wargaming, and much fun it was too.

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