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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)
Published: March 7, 2012 at 11:45 am
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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.


In each case, the key battleground was not in the colonies or on the seas, but in mainland Europe where Britain’s primary foreign policy objective was to prevent a single power – France – from dominating the continent. (This had been the case in Elizabethan times, when Spain was the chief threat, and would be again in the 20th century as Germany and then Russia sought European hegemony). “As to armies on the continent,” writes NAM Rodger, our finest naval historian, “it is unquestionable that a continental victory requires a continental commitment” – and by that he meant British redcoats. Not that the British redcoat was always triumphant.

He emerged from the War of the Austrian Succession of 1740–48 with his reputation barely intact; and, though he won many battles, he lost the war against the American colonists in 1775–83 (the only time the modern British soldier has lost a major conflict). But in both cases he learnt from his setbacks, as did his generals, and emerged from the next war as the victor.

The origins of the modern British army go back to 1661 when the restored King Charles II raised a 4,000-strong permanent royal bodyguard to prevent him from suffering the same fate as his father, Charles I, executed after his defeat in the English Civil War (1642–46). The significance of this tiny standing army – comprised of the 1st and 2nd Foot Guards, Life Guards, Blues and a number of non-regimented garrison companies – is that it was the first time a British monarch had maintained field regiments in peacetime.

The first major test of the royal army’s loyalty came in the summer of 1685, shortly after Charles II’s death, when it was called upon by its new master, Charles’s brother James II and VII, to put down a rebellion by his bastard nephew, the Duke of Monmouth. It did so with gusto, destroying the rebel army at Sedgemoor in Somerset.

Yet three years later, when called upon to repel a second Protestant pretender in the shape of William of Orange, many soldiers refused. They no longer trusted the openly Catholic king and feared his purge of Protestants from the Irish army would be repeated in England. Deserted by his troops, James was forced into exile and replaced by his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange. In return they agreed to a Declaration of Rights that limited the monarch’s power, and gave parliament a statutory control over the army that continues to this day. (However, soldiers would continue to be known as royal troops, and their officers would still receive their commissions from the sovereign).

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Feared across Europe

Safely subordinated to parliament, the English army was still no match for its French counterpart that, thanks to a number of significant reforms (including more meritocratic and professional officers) and a string of battlefield victories, had become the most feared in Europe. Yet within two decades of William and Mary’s accession to the English throne the French army’s aura of invincibility would be shattered.

The man chiefly responsible was John Churchill, Earl (later Duke) of Marlborough, the most senior of James’s officers to retain his commission. Marlborough reorganised William’s army so effectively that by 1691 it had defeated Jacobite uprisings in Scotland and Ireland – destroying the ex-king James II’s smaller rebel army at the battle of the Boyne – and helped to thwart the French king Louis XIV’s attempts to conquer the Netherlands. Marlborough fell out of favour with William in 1692 when he was rightly suspected of communicating with the ex-king James II, and was dismissed from all his posts. But he was reinstated in 1698 because William III and II saw him as the only general capable of thwarting Louis XIV’s ambition to dominate Europe.

For much of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14) – fought by a Grand Alliance of England, Austria and Holland to prevent France from uniting with Spain – Marlborough was captain-general of the English (later British) army, deputy commander of the Dutch army and ambassador-plenipotentiary to the United Provinces (Holland). No general since Cromwell had enjoyed such a combination of diplomatic and military authority. In the context of 1944, wrote his most recent biographer, “he would have been Eisenhower, Montgomery and Brooke rolled into one”.

He would prove to be not just a brilliant battlefield tactician and campaign strategist, a superb trainer of men and master of logistics, but also a natural diplomat as deft at handling the oft-recalcitrant Dutch politicians as he was allied generals. In addition he was a superb innovator: introducing the two-wheeled sprung cart that enabled his troops to move further and faster than any of his enemies; and taking advantage of new weapon technology and tactics to make his foot soldiers the dominant force on the battlefield.

And yet all of Marlborough’s talents might have counted for nothing had a recent revolution in public finances not provided him with the funds to fight a war that would last for more than a decade. In the early 1690s, with the cost of war outstripping revenue and virtually no long-term system of borrowing, the government set up the Bank of England and introduced exchequer bills and the concept of the national debt. Marlborough, as a result, would not be starved of resources or men, and at the height of the war would deploy 150,000 soldiers (half of them British).

Marlborough’s greatest victory was in August 1704 when he destroyed a numerically superior Franco-Bavarian army at Blenheim on the banks of the Danube. He would enjoy many more successes – including Ramillies (1706), Oudenaarde (1708), Malplaquet (1709) and piercing the ‘Ne Plus Ultra’

lines (1711) – but none as significant. It was the first major defeat suffered by the armies of the Sun King, who, for the previous 40 years, had swept all before them. From 1704, as a direct result of Blenheim, the most feared soldier on the battlefield was no longer a Frenchman but a Briton.

Yet, in spite of Marlborough’s victories, France fought on and the war was finally ended by negotiation, albeit a peace that was highly favourable to Britain. With Holland in terminal decline, Britain emerged from the war as the world’s greatest maritime power, with a seaborne empire – including colonies in North America, the Caribbean and India – whose trade in slaves and sugar would soon dominate the world’s commerce. It had also assumed, for the first time since Agincourt, the military leadership of Europe.

The Royal Navy had played its part, not least by protecting the expansion of British trade during the war. Yet by far the most significant theatre of conflict was not at sea but on the continent, where the armies of France – the superpower of the day – were met and repeatedly defeated by Marlborough’s polyglot forces. But for the duke’s inspired generalship, and the increasingly impressive performance of his British troops, Louis XIV’s France would have gained mastery over mainland Europe, the channel coast and, ultimately, the British Isles.

By Marlborough’s death in 1722, the once formidable British army had shrunk to just 30,000, a figure that would not start to rise until the outbreak of the next major war. Despite important army reforms during the reigns of George I (1714–27) and George II (1727–60), the record of British soldiers in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48) was mixed: they and the Austrians defeated the French at Dettingen in 1743 (see map); but at Fontenoy (also see map) and Lauffeldt, in 1745 and 1747 respectively, the French emerged as victors, though in both battles the British infantry fought well.

The war was ended a year after Lauffeldt by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle which effectively restored the status quo. Thankfully for Britain, the recent defeats on the continent had been counterbalanced by victories at sea and in North America.

Breathing space

The Seven Years’ War (1756–63) was fought on even less favourable terms for Britain as her chief ally was the newly emerged power of Prussia (led by King Frederick II ‘the Great’), whereas Austria sided with France. Nor did this global conflict begin promisingly: in 1756 the British lost Minorca and Oswego (on Lake Ontario) to the French and Calcutta to the Indian Nawab of Bengal. On the continent, a year later, the Prussians were defeated by the Austrians at Kolin, and a British-led force by the French at Hastenbeck.

The fightback began when Robert Clive retook Calcutta and defeated the vastly superior army of the Nawab of Bengal at Plassey in June 1757, and gathered pace in November 1757 with Frederick the Great’s successive victories over the French and Austrians at Rossbach and Leuthen. This gave Britain a vital breathing space to expand its army and launch new offensives in North America and on the continent. In both cases the troops used tactics designed by a brilliant young officer, James Wolfe, who, but for his untimely death at the age of 32 at Quebec in September 1759 – the Year of Victories – might have equalled Marlborough’s achievements.

A veteran of the battles of Dettingen and Lauffeldt (and also of Culloden, in 1746, when the Jacobite threat was ended for good), Wolfe had risen through merit rather than influence to become the commander of the 20th Foot at the age of just 22. His tireless attention to detail transformed his unit into one of the most efficient in the service. But his greatest contribution was to introduce the new battlefield tactic of ‘fire and steel’. In 1759 this tactic would play a vital role in his victory at Quebec – which ultimately won for the British control of Canada – and in the earlier, and even more crucial, victory by an Anglo-Hanoverian force over the French at Minden.

When peace came in 1763, the chief beneficiary of the war was again Britain. She recovered Minorca and was now master of North America, much of India, and possessor of lucrative new sugar islands and slave stations. Most historians have attributed this success to her naval supremacy, particularly after the victory over the French at Quiberon Bay in 1759. In truth, France’s defeat was a joint effort by both the army and the navy – with the two services enjoying at Quebec, for example, a “perfect good understanding”. It was a vindication of the government’s strategy that the war had to be fought both on the continent, at sea and in colonies across the world. A maritime strategy alone would have enabled France to bring to bear its superior military might, and would probably have cost Britain its growing empire.

Taking revenge

Thanks to defence cuts that reduced its size from 203,000 to just 45,000, the British army that started fighting the American War of Independence (1775–83) was a pale shadow of the one that had ended the Seven Years’ War. Yet there were still numerous early opportunities to crush the rebellion. They were spurned because General Sir William Howe – who as a tough and intrepid 30-year-old colonel of light infantry had led Wolfe’s army up the cliffs at Quebec – sympathised with the rebel cause and was more interested in a negotiated peace than outright victory. After General Lord Cornwallis was forced to surrender to George Washington at Yorktown in 1781, defeat was inevitable and it was confirmed two years later by the Treaty of Paris which gave the Americans their independence.

Barely 30 years after this humiliation, Britain gained revenge by leading a European alliance to ultimate victory in the long struggle with first revolutionary and then imperial France. The Royal Navy made a crucial contribution by guarding Britain’s overseas possessions, imposing a blockade on mainland Europe, and defeating the French and Spanish fleets in a number of great naval battles that culminated with Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in 1805. To topple Napoleon from power, however, required the defeat of his armies on the continent by coalition land forces that included both British soldiers and foreign troops subsidised by British gold.

It was a long, hard road with numerous setbacks for the British army, notably the disastrous Low Countries campaign of 1794–95, the repulse from Buenos Aires in 1806–07, the retreat to Corunna in 1808 (though victory outside the port did allow the bulk of Sir John Moore’s army to be evacuated – see map), and the failed Walcheren expedition of 1809. But matters improved in the peninsula where Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) and his Anglo-Iberian army fought and beat a succession of French marshals from 1808–14.

As well as draining French strength in terms of soldiers and treasure, the peninsular campaign damaged Napoleon’s prestige. Wellington’s victories at Roliça and Vimeiro in 1808 were the first significant defeats inflicted upon the French emperor’s armies in Europe, and they and subsequent French reverses in the peninsula encouraged other continental powers to re-enter the fray. Napoleon’s fate was not decided in Spain and Portugal; but his decision to invade Russia while as many as 250,000 men were still tied down in the peninsula was a key factor in his ultimate downfall. And much of the credit for this, and for the subsequent victory at Waterloo (see map) after Napoleon had escaped from his first exile in Elba in 1815, must go to Wellington and his British soldiers.

He and they had come a long way from the broken, dispirited British force that was driven out of Holland by the victorious French revolutionary army during the bitter winter of 1794/95. The reforms of Prince Frederick, the Duke of York, commander-in-chief of the British army, had helped to create a more effective, meritocratic army; key improvements in British artillery had made it the most effective in Europe; and the long years of almost constant combat in the peninsula – culminating in the great victory at Vitoria in 1813 (see map) – had turned Wellington’s soldiers into battle-hardened veterans to compare with any in history. Certainly Wellington felt that by 1814 no task, however difficult, was beyond them.

“They will do for me,” he declared, “what perhaps no one else can make them do.”

Historians have tended to ignore the army’s role in ‘making Britain great’. They point instead to the development of the Royal Navy, and to the financial, agricultural and industrial revolutions of the 17th to the 19th centuries. All played their part, but without the British army’s contribution to a host of land victories – notably at Blenheim, Ramillies, Dettingen, Minden, Salamanca, Vitoria and, finally, the allies’ crushing triumph over Napoleon at Waterloo – Britain could not have become, by 1815, the dominant imperial and maritime power in the world.

Key developments in the British army

Flintlock and bayonet

In the 1690s the English army’s matchlock musket (slow to load, clumsy to operate and at the mercy of the elements) was replaced by a lighter weapon with a more robust firing system known as the flintlock. At the same time the old plug bayonet gave way to a socket version that fitted around the muzzle and enabled the gun to be fired. When allied to the new tactic of fighting three ranks deep and firing rolling volleys by platoons (18 to a battalion), these innovations made the English (later British) infantrymen the dominant factor on the battlefield.

The soldier kings

The first two Hanoverian monarchs, George I and II, were both soldiers who made important changes to the internal organisation of the British army. George I introduced German methods of organisation, economy and tactics, including a standard arms-drill and annual regimental inspections. He also beefed up the code of discipline known as the Articles of War; and regulated the purchase system for officers’ commissions. George II, who had a horse run away with him at Dettingen, made promotion more meritocratic by rewarding length of service and martial achievement. These reforms would help British troops win the Seven Years’ War.

Fire and steel

James Wolfe is best known for dying at the moment of victory at Quebec in 1759. But his greatest contribution to the development of the British army was the introduction of a groundbreaking new firing drill – known as the ‘alternate-fire’ system – and the use of the bayonet as an offensive rather than a defensive weapon. He combined the two in a simple but effective battle tactic – a close-quarter musket volley, followed by a bayonet charge – that British infantrymen would use to sweep all (or almost all) before them for much of the next century.

The Duke of York’s reforms

A failure as a field commander, Prince Frederick, the Duke of York, found his metier as commander-in-chief by introducing a host of important reforms: he reorganised the Headquarters Staff and founded both the Senior and Junior Departments of Royal Military College (later the Staff College and RMA Sandhurst respectively) in an attempt to ensure that all officers were more professional. He improved service conditions (by increasing pay and reducing the term of enlistment) and training; and he revolutionised the use of light troops by issuing new training exercises and creating a new ‘Corps of Riflemen’ (later the Rifle Brigade).

Shrapnel and gun carriages

During the American War of Independence, cannon were still largely the same weapons that had been used by Marlborough: smooth-bore, muzzle-loading and mounted on heavy two-wheeled carriages, and firing round-shot, canister and shell. But in 1785 Henry Shrapnel invented a new shell for howitzers that took his name and gave British artillery a crucial edge on the battlefield. It consisted of the same hollow cast-iron sphere and fuse as a common shell, but filled with gunpowder and lead balls that burst over an enemy position with lethal consequences. Other artillery innovations at this time were elevating screws for quicker and more precise aiming, and a lighter single block-trail carriage and limber for greater manoeuvrability.

Battles for world domination

6 July 1685: Battle of Sedgemoor

The last set-piece battle on English soil in which 3,000 professional troops of James II and VII’s royal army prove their worth by repulsing a surprise night attack by 3,600 rebels under the Duke of Monmouth, bastard son of the late Charles II.

13 August 1704: Battle of Blenheim

The Duke of Marlborough’s allied army of 56,000 destroys Marshal Tallard’s 60,000 Franco-Bavarians in a battle that saved Austria from conquest and the allies from certain defeat.

It was the greatest English victory on the continent since Agincourt.

Battle of Dettingen

Trapped and outnumbered (60,000 to 40,000) by two French armies, an Anglo-German force under George II (pictured) routs one attack before marching to safety.

It was the last time a British monarch commanded troops in battle.

11 May 1745: Battle of Fontenoy

British infantry successfully storm the well-sited defences of a 70,000-strong French army, but are forced to withdraw when the rest of the Duke of Cumberland’s 53,000 allied troops (chiefly Dutch and Austrians) are repulsed.

1 August 1759: Battle of Minden

An unsupported force of British infantry defeats the cream of the French cavalry in one of the key battles (37,000 Anglo-Hanoverians v 44,000 French) of the Seven Years’ War.

13 September 1759: Battle of Quebec

Wolfe perishes in the decisive action of the Canadian war as his 4,500-strong army defeats a similar number of French on the Heights of Abraham outside Quebec.

September–October 1781: Siege of Yorktown

The decisive moment in the American War of Independence as Cornwallis’s 7,000-strong British army, despairing of rescue by the Royal Navy, is forced to surrender to Washington on 19 October after a long siege.

16 January 1809: Battle of Corunna

Like Wolfe, John Moore dies at the moment of victory as the rearguard of his exhausted 30,000-strong army lives to fight another day by beating off an attack by 20,000 French.

21 June 1813: Battle of Vitoria

Arguably Wellington’s finest victory, and the culmination of a brilliant two-month campaign to drive a slightly smaller French army (66,000 v 80,000 Anglo-Portuguese) out of Spain. It ends Napoleon’s long, costly and ultimately futile attempt to conquer the Iberian peninsula.

18 June 1815: Battle of Waterloo

Assisted by the timely arrival of Blücher’s Prussians, Wellington’s 73,000 Anglo-Dutch-Hanoverians crush Napoleon’s 77,000 French in a land battle that confirms Britain’s status as the dominant world power.

Saul David is professor of War Studies at the University of Buckingham and the author of a new book on the British soldier from the Restoration to Waterloo. His other recent histories include Victoria’s Wars: The Rise of Empire (Viking, 2006)


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


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