23 May 2008

The Development of the British Way of War in the Napoleonic Era

One of the great tensions of the British war effort during the First World War was the struggle between "Easterners" and "Westerners" as to the overall strategic direction of the war. (You'll find one man's view of the struggle both during and after the war in this pdf.) The Germans more or less enforced the victory of the latter, through their success in the field over Russia, leading to a somewhat uncharacteristically British victory in the field over the main force of a continental enemy.

In my experience, if you wanted to work in the British military history establishment during the 1980s, it was necessary to write a work praising Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. Subsequently, British military historians moved to the British Expeditionary Force of 1918, which exonerates that villain of the 1950s and 1960s, Field Marshal Douglas Haig. The funny thing here is that both, in different ways, basically fit the NATO model for the British army of the 1949-91 era. Thus we see, once again, how the historian's work is mobilized for public-policy ends.

I don't have, exactly, an contrasting position to set against the British Establishment view. However, one could start constructing one by examining the role of the Royal Navy in Wellington's 1813 campaign in the Peninsular War. Rather than devote a long series to my theme, I want to use one specific incident to illustrate my point.

During his 1812 campaign, Wellington had failed in laying siege to Burgos, a key communications centre in the French line of supply that connected their occupation armies in Spain to France. In October, he abandoned the effort and withdrew his army into winter quarters at Ciudad Rodrigo. Given leisure to think, he developed the ideal campaign to capitalize on something that happened while he was fighting his 1812 campaign, including his great victory at Salamanca.

During the summer of 1812, a small squadron of British ships, including the 74-gun ship-of-the-line HMS Venerable, sailed off the coast of northern Spain, giving aid to Spanish guerrillas. With Napoleonic armies in the field dependent on supply trains that were vulnerable to guerrilla raids, these Spanish irregulars were invaluable to Wellington's campaigns. The Royal Navy did all it could to ensure the guerrillas received whatever help could be delivered. They also assisted the guerrillas in operations directed against ports under French control. You can find an account of the Royal Navy's landing forces in this online version of James's Naval History of Great Britain.

The next page after the one I've linked to describes the taking of Santander in August 1812. Wellington realized that if the Royal Navy could land supplies there and transport them to his army in the field, he could bypass Burgos, and force the French either to fight for the place or abandon it. The campaign resulted in the Battle of Vitoria, the last major battle of the Peninsular War in Spain, and the defeat of the French occupying army.

Where Haig and Montgomery worked within coalitions, engaging the main enemy force, Wellington and the Royal Navy conducted an independent campaign on the fringes of the main theatre, but one which played an important role in winning the war against Napoleon. There has always been a line of thought in modern British military thinking that followed the Peninsular War logic - fight on occupied territory, fix the enemy on your main force, attack his supply network with the navy, and take advantage of any resistance movement to his occupation. It more or less was the strategy Churchill embraced after the Germans were defeated in the Battle of Britain, and informed many of the disputes the British had with the Americans in 1942-4. However, after 1945 it seems to have fallen entirely out of favour with the British military establishment. During the Cold War that seemed practical enough, since Britain lacked the military force to withstand a Soviet onslaught on its own. But nowadays? Has the time come to rediscover a uniquely British Way of War?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The British way of winning war is aligned to the ability of th "working class" men of England to rise to the occasion. Why this takes place, as it did in the second World War is that the idea of Queen or Kind makes the solier shiver with purposfulness and makes him realize he is above the mundane events and battles of the war. In other words he is not just a working class "stiff" but a man who values his country and his wife and family which he "must" defend to the death.