Here is the first of the abstracts for our forthcoming book on transformation and innovation in the British military. All of the contributors are interested in your thoughts.
‘The British Army, 1795-1815: An Army Transformed?’
Andrew Limm (University of Birmingham)
This essay questions the widely held view that the British army of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars underwent a transformation in the period 1795 to 1809. The catalyst for this transformation, as argued by a number of historians, notably Richard Glover, was the organisational and tactical reforms instigated by the Commander-in-Chief of the army, the Duke of York. According to Glover et al, this transformation led to resurgence in the fortunes of the British army from 1795, enabling it to play a key role in the allied defeat of the French in the Iberian Peninsula and at Waterloo. This thesis has been accepted into the mainstream history of the British army, with the current historiography being dominated by studies of British successes, particularly the victorious campaigns of the Duke of Wellington.
Although the Duke of York’s reforms arguably brought about a transformation in the organisation of the British army, they did not lead to instant military success. Instead of achieving a series of continental victories against France in the period from 1795 to 1815, the British army was forced, by French domination of the continent, to conduct a series of difficult amphibious operations, mainly against the Low Countries. These expeditions often resulted in abject defeats for the British. Poor planning, limited manpower and reliance on unreliable intelligence combined to undermine British operations. Bad weather and poor quality inter-service cooperation were also factors in bringing about British defeats. Only in the Peninsula, under Wellington, did the British achieve continued military success, elsewhere the British army was largely unsuccessful.
This essay reviews the conduct of the British army in a number of expeditions, notably to the Scheldt in 1809, and concludes that its catalogue of defeats there, and elsewhere in the world, should add an element of caution to the claims that the victories in the Peninsula and at Waterloo, marked a transformation in the fortunes of the British army over this period.