The triumph of the redcoats

The Royal Navy may regularly take the plaudits yet, argues Saul David, the true springboard for Britain's rise to global dominance was the brilliance of its army

A painting depicting the Duke of Wellington at the battle of Waterloo. "Wellington’s victories at Roliça and Vimeiro in 1808 were the first significant defeats inflicted upon the French emperor’s armies in Europe," says Saul David. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the March 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

From the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 to the downfall of Napoleon in 1815, Britain won a series of major wars against France that enabled her to lay the foundations of a global empire. Hitherto, most of the credit for this extraordinary period of martial success and imperial expansion has gone to the sailors of the Royal Navy, who protected sea-lanes, helped to launch amphibious attacks and opened up new areas of trade. Yet only a land force as professional, flexible and effective as the British army could have won no fewer than three great conflicts against France – the War of the Spanish Succession, the Seven Years’ War and the Napoleonic Wars – in just over a hundred years.

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