This book looks at the idea that the British army was transformed in the period after the unsuccessful campaigns in the Low Countries of 1793-5. This idea is tested partly by looking at three further campaigns in the same area – the Helder in 1799, the Scheldt in 1809 and Bergen-Op-Zoom in 1813-14, and partly by looking at the actual changes made, the reasons for them and the systems behind them.
I find myself with two distinct views on this book. The first is that I don’t entirely agree with much of the author’s approach to the process of reform in the army. I’m always rather alarmed when anyone starts their argument with ‘the Oxford English Dictionary says’. This is to ignore the difference between the precise dictionary definition of a term and it’s accepted use in historical writing. It also allows the author to cherry pick their preferred definition and then use that as an artificial target for their work. In this case the definition given is ‘considerable change’ or ‘metamorphosis’ in ‘form, character and appearance’, suggesting only a complete, major change would count. However the online OED says ‘the action of changing in form, shape or appearance’ – without any mention of the extent of the change, or the implication that everything has to change. Later on the British army of the late 18th century is crititiced for not carrying out the sort of detailed staff study that made the 19th century Prussian General Staff so famous, and for not using 20th century management techniques. These simply don’t come across as valid crititcisms. The same is true of the idea that senior officers can’t have learnt from their experiences during the American War of Independence because they didn’t do it in a formal, organised enquiry into the war. The key question is surely to examine if there was actually a change in the use of light infantry rather than trying to find a formal management structure behind it.
Later on we discover that some of those changes that were made didn’t count, because they were made in response to acknowledged weaknesses in the army, and not out of an unrelated desire for reform for reform’s sake. This is an entirely unfair crititism – the Prussian army that is often used as an example of the right way to do things only began its own reform process after the crushing defeats at Jena and Auerstadt, and a prolonged period where it was notably conservative and followed the rules laid down by Frederick the Great for far too long.
I’m also not at all convinced by the idea that the conclusions drawn from these campaigns can be expanded to cover the entire performance of the British army during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. The British army took part in a finite number of campaigns during this period, so if you want to make broader conclusions about the overall performance of the army then the best approach would surely be to look at how they went as a whole. Did the army’s results improve as the wars went on? The most obvious problem for Limm’s arguments is that the British army performed creditably in by far it’s longest campaign of the war, in Spain and Portugal. Although it is true that Wellington was never the Commander in Chief of the British Army during this period, a sizable British army operated in Iberia and then in the south-west of Francefrom 1808 until 1814, drawfing any other British contribution in Europe. While it is true that Wellington was a very important factor in the British success during this period, he did still have to operate with the existing British army. It is also worth pointing out that those European armies used as examples of more organised, more thoughtful organisations also had a poor record against the French, who won all of their campaigns until getting involved in Iberia and the invasion of Russia.
My second view is that this is a good history of the British campaigns in the Low Country. Each one is covered in some detail, with a look at the motives for the campaign, the planning that went into each, the forces involved, and the course of the campaigns. There is a slight tendancy to skip over the more successful parts of each campaign to reach the eventual failures, but in general each is dealt with fairly. The British army didn’t perform well in most of these campaigns, but were rarely operating without allies (especially in the campaigns of the 1790s). The disasterous campaign in the Scheldt in 1809 is well known and the subject of several books, but the other campaigns covered here are much more obscure, so this is a valuable addition to the literature on the British Army in this period. Others will no doubt find the sections on the Army reforms more convincing that I did as well!
1 - The British Army and the Dunkirk Campaign, 1793
2 - British Defeat in the Netherlands, 1794-5 and the Duke of York’s Reforms
3 - The Expedition to the Helder, 1799
4 - The Expedition to the Scheldt, 1809
5 - The British Army and the Debacle at Bergen-Op-Zoom, 1813-14
Concluson - The Wellington Factor
Author: Andrew Limm
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military