Fusiliers How the British Army Lost America but Learned to Fight
By Mark Urban
First of all, let me apologize for the lateness of the review, things came up but we should be back on track this week (knock on wood).
Fusiliers as I will refer to the book from here out, is a history book focused on the Royal Welch Fusiliers. The Fusiliers were one of the British infantry regiments who served the entire conflict of the American Revolution from Bunker Hill to Yorktown. During that war they engaged in battles from New England to Georgia being present in a number of major battles. More importantly they underwent a series of tactical evolutions as the officers and non coms of the regiment came to grapple with the necessity of fighting on the American battlefield. The book is by Mark Urban, a British journalist, writer, broadcaster and current Diplomatic Editor of BBC's Two News night. A graduate of the London School of Economics and having served as an officer in the British Territorial Army (which makes him another reservist to appear on this review series). He joined the BBC in 1983 and left to join the Independent in 1986. He would rejoin the BBC in the 1990s, serving at time as a general reporter, an embedded reporter (being on the front lines for the first Gulf War) and a number of other crisis's ranging from Moscow to Afghanistan. Somehow during all of this Mr. Urban has written a number of military history books mostly focusing on the Napoleonic wars.
First, let me address the politics real fast, book does cover the American Revolution from the English as an American and a Patriot, I am on the side of the fence that the American Revolution was a good thing. That said I was interested to see what the English view would be, Mr Urban doesn't share his opinion in the book but he does show us the opinion of the troops and officers serving in theater as well as touching on the deeply divided public opinion in the United Kingdom at the time. That said, the opinion of the troops wasn't very divided (well, expect for a number of men who deserted for American land, and American girls) and honestly that didn't surprise me very much. For those of you wondering why, let me reveal a deep secret of military life. The people shooting at you are never very popular in the ranks, we tend to resent that in a deep but not at all secret level of our souls. Us enlisted troops are simple honest types that way. I also found very familiar the gripes of the army as they left America though, complaining about the lack of support from society and lack of leadership from their government. Hell, I've made those gripes before in the past after I got back from Iraq. So at the end of the book I actually feel some common ground with these men, despite having little else in common with them (well... There is Sgt Lamb). There's also the fact in both cases those gripes are true...
Speaking of universal constants, I was very surprised at one thing that the book very briefly touched on and that was the utter lack of a plan or overall idea of what victory would look like. In this book it seems like the British government was just kinda flailing around trying to make the revolution stop somehow. Due to how small the British Army was, there was simply no way for the British to achieve victory through simply military means. While Mr. Urban doesn't really go into detail on the strengths of the Continental Army of the rebelling colonies, it does show through in the quoted writings and over all analysis of the war. While the British Army won the vast majorities of battles, especially the major ones. Rebel armies were simply able to absorb loses and reform, this can be summed up in a quote from General Green of the Continental Army when asked what he intended to, “Rise, Fight, Get Beat, Rise Again.” While the British Army would often pummel rebel forces senseless, the survivors would simply regather and try again later. Meanwhile the British were dependent on their reinforcements coming across an ocean in days where the trip could take months. There were attempts to raise loyalist militia to support the regular army but frankly those forces never amounted to any import in the war. In such a situation, it becomes vital for there to be a political effort to woo away rebel commanders and troops and to create a post rebellion order that will ensure that this doesn't happen again and addresses the root causes of the rebellion in the first place. With a lack of direction from above what you are left with is every commanding officer dictating his own policy and trying to direct the course of the war, often find themselves in conflict with their own fellow officers and troops instead of actually fighting the bloody enemy! As you might guess I felt a distinct feeling that I've seen a later adaption of this story all to close and personal. I guess the moral here is learn History or you'll not just repeat it, it'll stomp you repeatedly.
But moving on past the sour grapes. I mentioned the tactical evolution the Royal Welch Fusiliers underwent, as they moved from a standard British line unit to becoming a light infantry regiment that fought in a open formation often advancing from cover to cover. The evolution starts before Bunker Hill on the march to Concord and Lexington, where British regulars dread ambush and colonial marksmanship. During Bunker hill trying to attack the colonial militia in dug in positions, using more conventional tactics the regiment suffers heavy causalities. Afterwards they swiftly adjusted to realities. Opening up their rank and file (translation: they stopped standing so close together while being shot at). I'm going to speak to this a bit, it's tradition these days to mock the silly people of the past for adopting such tactics in gun battles, but if you look into the realities they were working with... It does make a certain amount of sense. The muskets in use were not very accurate and mass target practice hadn't been adapted yet (this boggles me to but for that matter the NYPD didn't adopt shooting practice for police officer until Teddy Roosevelt made them do it). Add in to this the problem of controlling all these manics and making sure they don't waste ammo... It makes sense to keep them together. The honestly wasn't possible in the terrain of the United States in the late 1700s. There were simply a lack of wide open spaces to slam it out in the preferred Euro fashion. That said the British Army did adapt firing from cover and using open formations with admirable speed. What I found interesting was the adaption of shock tactics where troops would march as close as possible to the enemy before unleashing a single volley at once and charging in to finish it with the bayonet. Given that most of their enemies were poorly trained militia who simply could not accept and hold a charge... It was a very effective tactic and one requiring discipline and courage, given my own experiences it's a lot harder to hold your fire while heading at the enemy at a measured pace, while bullets and screams are flying around you and then to charge head long into them than you could really imagine.
Sadly the tactical flexibly and cold competence of the British troops was not matched by any great organizational ability on behalf of their commanders. To be blunt the training system outlined in the book might as well be nonexistent! With troops being trained on site by their regiment with nearly no basic training before arriving in theater. Fresh troops would be thrown into the next best thing to a prison ship (to be fair towards the end of the war a number of the troops were convicted criminals) and sent off to war. I found myself rather flabbergasted by this and frankly horrified at the burden this would have slammed onto the shoulders of the NCOs and Junior Officers. This also meant there was no unified training system! NONE! Such a thing is terrifyingly medieval and to consider that those same NCOs and Junior Officers still managed to hammer out one of the more professional armed services in the western world at that time is nothing less then miraculous! The in-depth examination of how officers in the British Army had to buy their commissions and promotions was no less horrifying. How this did not result in an utter shambles of a mockery of an army is beyond me and I am left with deep respect for the men who pushed this rolling boulder uphill to create a military that wasn't a mob lead by rich snobs It takes almost all my shuddering courage to consider what other European Armies of the time must have been up to. My courage nearly fails me however when the book presents me with the British logistics system. If I was that badly and inconsistently supplied by my superiors, I would frankly lose all interest in shooting anyone but my commanders and political lords and masters bluntly. That said I'm not blind to the problems faced by the men who were trying to make this ramshackle, rickety mockery of a system work. They had men who were usually illiterate and often not very trustworthy to work with, a transport system that would give the Romans nightmares and weeping fits and a political system that... Well it was a political system that justified armed revolution in a number of nations that were afflicted with it.
Mr. Urban's book provides us with a fascinating and sometimes terrifying look into the inner workings of the British Army during the American Revolution. I did wish at points he wasn't so mono-focused on a single regiment but his following of a single regiment and a handful of it's NCOs and Officers did help give me an idea of the journey and personal challenges that those individual men faced. Many of them were facing uphill battles against their own societies and families on top of fighting a war with next to no support, no real civilian leadership, far from home and surrounded by enemies. I found myself sympathetic to men I not only knew would lose the war but I wanted to lose to the war. The British side of the Revolution is in a lot of ways under examined for a number of reasons but this book convinced me that not only should there be more examination for it's own sake but that such examination would have lessons to teach us that remain viable in the modern world. Because of that Fusiliers How the British Army Lost America but Learned to Fight By Mark Urban gets an A. If you're interested in the other side of the Revolution, the time period, or military history in general, go ahead and give it a read.
So I've been gone awhile folks and I do apologize and thank you for your patience. To help make for that Tomorrow I will give you a bonus review of Rat Queens Volume III. See you then!