Friday, July 10, 2009

Redcoat Tactics Part 2: With Zeal and Bayonets Only

In this post I continue my summary of With Zeal and Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775-1783 by Matthew Spring covering his chapters on “March and Deployment” and “Motivation”.

(Left: Colors of the 47th Regiment of Foot, image courtesy of Ron Aylor, British Regimental Drums & Colours in North America, 1755-1783.)

As was mentioned in the last post increasing mobility became key to British strategy in North America. In his chapter covering the march to, and deployment for, battle Spring unpacks the details of the movement of battalions both as part of larger brigade formations, but especially as independent units of movement. As with other areas of British tactical thinking during the war, Spring notes that in their efforts to speed up their assaults, pursue the enemy and cope the problems posed by lack of information about the terrain and enemy depositions, the British did not strictly adhere to established conventions for deploying their armies.

Generally speaking senior regiments would be placed to the right of the battle line and regiments were to be deployed in a particular order, according to seniority and function, on the march. In America these rules often had to be ignored for the sake of speeding up deployment into battle and for flexibility in responding to enemy threats from unexpected quarters. Even companies within a battalion had an order of precedence based on the seniority of the officer commanding them. This rule also had to be ignored as company commanders were rearranged to cover losses from casualties and reassignment of officers to staff positions.

The rush to deploy and the two-rank, extended-order formations adopted by the British could leave their formations strung out over an large area, making communication and command more difficult and sometimes placing companies in danger of being destroyed in detail. These extended deployments could also leave formations without a reserve of men to follow up any success in battle, cover a withdrawal, or to stop up a hole in the line if things went badly. To sum up, Spring points out that: “British battalions did not deploy, advance and engage in strictly linear fashion but instead fought fluid and ragged combats that defy detailed sequencing and make nonsense of contemporary and modern battle maps” (102).

Unlike many studies of Recoats during the Revolution, Spring explores the motivations and attitudes of British soldiers in some depth. Anyone who has read much about today’s British regimental system can’t fail to be impressed by soldiers’ “tribal” loyalty to the regiment. At the dawn of the Revolution some of the most senior British regiments had a record of service well over 100 years long. Uniform distinctions, such as different colored facings and lace, were an important source of pride, as were the regimental colors, or flags. Some of the most senior regiments in the army were granted special badges, symbols associated with their origins or former campaigns, the dragon badge of the 3rd Foot and the Prince of Wales feathers for the 23rd are good examples for units serving in North America.

(Left: Colors of the 3rd Regiment of Foot, image courtesy of Ron Aylor, British Regimental Drums & Colours in North America, 1755-1783.)

And yet, Spring points out many of the less senior line regiments did not have long traditions of service, or particularly unique regimental distinctions, nor would they likely see their colors while on service in North America. Another problem with viewing the regiment as family is that most soldiers served in garrisons consisting of detached companies spread out over a region. Given that, Spring asserts that smaller formations like companies (30-50 men), mess/tent groups of 5-6 men, and even two file partners, a pair of soldiers who made up one row of a line formation, played a much greater role in developing loyalty among soldiers. A soldier would be loath to let down the men he ate, worked and shared a bunk or tent with. A great deal also depended on the how the officers ran the unit. Officers who obviously cared for their men could, and did inspire intense loyalty.

(Below Right: Drum of the 23rd Regiment of Foot, image courtesy of Ron Aylor, British Regimental Drums & Colours in North America, 1755-1783.)

The relatively rapid and extensive turnover in the personnel of regiments during the war, due to officer transfers, death, and drafting (transfer of soldiers to another regiment) also mitigated against finding many long-term veterans in a regiment. But as the war progressed there was often a core of seasoned veterans to help the new recruits adjust to campaigning and battle. Interestingly, Spring points out that at the beginning of the war even veteran redcoats of several years service had never been in battle and that the disorder noted among troops in early battles like Lexington and Bunker Hill may, in part, be a function of never having been under fire before.

National pride and xenophobia were also major factors affecting British morale. Some regiments sought to focus their recruiting on a particular part of Britain adding a regional character to their units that helped motivate the men. The 23rd Welsh Fusiliers, Scottish Highlanders, and Irish regiments were particularly aware of national pride and rivalries.

Spring also discusses several other factors contributing to a British sense of military superiority. For many units the efficient conduct of even routine garrison and camp work, the good maintenance of uniforms and gear—generally described, as “smartness”—and the crispness of drill were all signs of unit pride. Having one’s unit designated elite was another source of pride. Spring offers several examples of the motivational power of elite status on the conduct of composite grenadier and light infantry battalions in battle.

Finally, Spring explores the redcoats view of their enemies and the cause they were fighting for. Not surprisingly, many redcoats viewed rebels with hostility and held the rebel cause to be unjust and unlawful, if not downright insulting to the King. According to Spring, “…both officers and men often lectured rebel captives on the badness of their cause and the impropriety of fighting against their King” (127). Unfortunately, contempt for rebels sometimes led to mistreatment of prisoners. Rebel soldiers experienced both verbal and physical abuse meted out by angry British soldiers, especially in situations were the rebels employed the irregular, hit and run tactics of petite guerre.

Next Time: With Zeal and Bayonets Only, Part 3, “The Advance” and “Commanding the Battalion”.