Fighting in the Americas was the great challenge facing the 18th-century British army. Whether confronted with French, Spanish, native or colonial troops, they had to adapt to an environment very different from that of Western Europe. The old tactics would seldom lead to success on these unfamiliar battlefields, so they had to evolve quickly.
The obvious response to new circumstances was to train the troops in dealing with them. It’s often overlooked that General Braddock, whose force was virtually destroyed by French and native forces on July 8th 1755, had tried to train his men specifically for the war they faced. His aim had been to prepare them to fight in the wilderness, rather than in the open battlefields and siege lines of Europe. However, lacking time, backing and a tactical framework to do a thorough job, he still led his men to disaster.
2. Tactical Innovation
Many in the army were disinterested in modifying their tactics to the new environment. Yet some officers aspired to innovate in the way they fought, and even wrote books about it – Robert Rogers’ Journals, Roger Stevenson’s Instructions for Officers Detached, and Major Robert Donkin’s Military Collections and Remarks among them. These focused on looser light infantry tactics.
3. Light Troops
Having seen the Austrians introduce light skirmishing troops, the British started using their own in America during the Seven Years War. At first, these were small groups of men with initiative and scouting skills who fought as part of existing regiments, protecting their flanks on the march. Entire regiments of light troops were later formed, such as the 60th Royal Americans.
These units were largely disbanded following the end of the Seven Years War. Light companies reappeared in the 1770s and became a fundamental part of the army.
Colonel Henry Bouquet, the commander of the 60th Royal Americans, made a number of innovations in the way British troops worked. One of these was a greater emphasis on self-sufficiency, learning to live off the land. This made soldiers less reliant on the baggage trains and supply lines that could make large formations vulnerable.
Bouquet made his men’s uniforms more practical, breaking away from the stiff jackets and high collars used to encourage discipline in line formations of the time. However, these changes did not spread far. Hessian mercenaries working for the British during the American Revolution wore absurdly ostentatious uniforms that got tangled in trees and made them easy targets for snipers.
Muskets were not extremely accurate weapons. Able to hit massed ranks of soldiers, they were much less effective against individual targets. For such sharp shooting, rifles were needed.
Being more costly to produce and unnecessary in massed troop battles, rifles were not provided for most soldiers. However, a growing number were provided for light troops, with Colonel Bouquet giving them to the best marksmen in his units.
7. Using Locals
When commanders recognized the need for skirmishing and scouting skills their own troops lacked, they sometimes turned to local forces. Robert Rogers’ irregular unit of rangers provided Lord George Howe with experienced light troops for sharp-shooting and intelligence gathering, and Native Americans also filled this role. But few commanders were as open to the idea as Howe, and his death in 1758 set back these initiatives.
8. Relaxing Discipline
The hardships of war in a strange climate full of unfamiliar diseases could make it hard to recruit and keep troops. To reduce the risk of desertion or mutiny, discipline was often loosened, creating a less formal army than was kept at home.
As part of this loosening of discipline, officers turned a blind eye to heavy drinking. This was especially true in the Caribbean, where isolated outposts stricken by tropical diseases made dreadful experiences for soldiers. Rum rations were increased or other alcohol permitted, and drunkenness was rife. While this created its own discipline problems, it helped to distract men from the horrors of their situation – a situation in which incurable sickness was a far greater risk than enemy fire.
The staple army diet of salt meat and biscuits was seldom adequate for troops anywhere in the world. For those stationed in the Caribbean, who could provide little for themselves and whose rations often went bad on the trans-Atlantic crossing, scurvy and malnutrition were rife, making men even more vulnerable to disease.
With terrible slowness, the government responded to the requests of doctors and began improving the diet in some stations. Though it took a long time, troops in Florida in the 1760s were eventually supplied with fresh meat, vegetables and spruce beer – a local drink useful in combating scurvy.
11. Supply Reform
Getting supplies to the troops could be problematic as the Americas lacked the extensive network of roads and ports that existed in Europe. Huge logistical support was needed, including road and bridge building, as well as organizing the movement of food and ammunition over great distances.
Baker, Kilby and Baker, a London company, took over supplying the army in America in 1756 and did a great deal to improve logistics. Using their business knowledge and desire for profit through efficiency, they got five million rations to American troops over two years and made a tidy sum doing it.
12. Disease and the Limits of Change
Though the British army made some changes to cope with service in the Americas, they were never really adequate. The British army and government were conservative bodies, institutionally averse to change and ill-prepared to bring it about. Even when a change was agreed, it was slow to be put into effect.
The greatest problem was one they could not have addressed if they tried – disease. Without later advances in medicine, they did not understand the causes and cures for tropical diseases. This was a huge American problem to which the British could not adapt.
- David Chandler and Ian Beckett (eds) (1994), The Oxford History of the British Army.
- Geoffrey Regan (1991), The Guinness Book of Military Blunders.