Here’s one for those who remember their CSE History from school with dread. This wonderful book is now out in paperback, but you may have already been fortunate to have seen the hard copy. If so, lucky you. The book recounts the story of the 23rd Regiment of Foot during the American War of Indendence from 1775 to 1783. The 23rd, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, come shining out of this book. Mr Urban meets the challenge of bringing men from that long ago to life and really succeeds. In the wider context, he unveils the war in a measured and thoroughly entertaining way.
The author is a devotee of the war and his enthusiasm helps carry off a fresh view of events we either ignore, think we know or wish we knew more about here in the UK. He is out to debunk some of the propaganda and myths created by a number of American historians, many of whom have been content to develop the British redcoat as a murderous automaton bent on rapine and plunder. What we actually learn is that the British army generally behaved well by the standards of the day and did not commit massacres of prisoners and civilians as depicted in some quarters.
Far from being an all-powerful machine, the army was usually undermanned and often poorly directed from London and America. Despite this, the troops in the field and their immediate commanders fought with vigour and distinction. Of the commanders, Cornwallis stands out as the best of the Brits. He cared about his men. You will like him.
The book makes good use of a wealth of original correspondence and diaries. The machinations of the purchasing system for commissions, army discipline and culture are vividly portrayed. The development of tactics to embrace the use of elite units of light infantry by the British (the wonderful Light Bobs) is explained in a very approachable manner.
It is interesting to note that the British army of the eighteenth century was as ill at ease when confronting political murders and intimidation carried out by Washington’s forces as it has been in Ireland and Iraq in the modern era. Nothing much changes. Urban shows that defeat in America, brought on more by intervention of European enemies rather than battlefield failure set the British army on a path to reform that defeated Napoleon. If you see this book in the departure lounge while waiting for your summer flight to the Costas, then choose it over a thriller or other tosh. You will not be disappointed.
Published by Faber & Faver. ISBN: 9780571224883 £8.99