How War Made the British Army Better—and Peace Made It Worse

REVIEW: ‘The Wandering Army: The Campaigns that Transformed the British Way of War’

The Battle of Waterloo by William Sadler
March 26, 2023

The Duke of Wellington is credited with saying that the Battle of Waterloo was "won on the playing fields of Eton." It is hard to believe he did say it, for Wellington knew better than most that this was not the case. The knowledge and training that defeated Napoleon Bonaparte and revolutionary France were won in earlier battles for the woods of North America, the plains of India, and the hills of Spain and Portugal.

The Wandering Army is a detailed reconstruction of how, in the decades between the start of the Seven Years War (1756-1763) and the end of the long war against France (1794-1815), a European army became an imperial one, and an early modern army became a modern one. It would be tempting to surrender to the mood of the age Huw J. Davies describes and identify a "revolution" in these changes, but the actual story is one of erratic alterations, lessons missed or misunderstood, slow professionalization, and irregular institutional reform and development. This might not sound as exciting, but it is in many ways more interesting.

Davies, who teaches early modern military history at King’s College London, identifies two feedback loops in Britain’s military culture. One was practical, traditional, and particular to soldiering: the enlightening and alarming effects of battlefield experience. The other was abstract and new, and it infused the upper reaches of civilian society: the Enlightenment impulse to understand human motivation and order human behavior.

Davies does not explicitly describe these two forms of knowledge as Kant’s Erlebnis (experience) and Erfahrung (the interpretation of experience), though Kant’s fellow Prussians were a crucial influence on the British Army’s modernization. Nor, though practical lessons almost invariably went up the ranks and from the imperial periphery to the metropolis, were the top-down orders that formally changed training and tactics invented in London. The two forms of knowledge frequently inhered in the same person and acted upon each other.

The Wandering Army may sound abstract, but Davies illustrates the interactions of knowledge-making and its procedural corollary through close study of the officers and battles that generated them. The man in the middle was a career officer. He accumulated wide battlefield experience and interpreted it through his readings in a new, Enlightenment-inspired literature which sought to impose rational structures on the organized irrationalities of war. In the period in which the British, to repeat another saying which might not be accurate, acquired an empire in a "fit of absentmindedness," the interactions of these two forms of knowledge combined, Davies writes, to create an "accidental military enlightenment."

Between 1714 and 1742, the British Army enjoyed nearly three decades of peace. Its doctrine and training stagnated, and its experienced officers retired. It was unprepared for pitched battles on the European continent when the War of Austrian Succession broke out in 1740 and untrained for mixed operations with the Royal Navy of the kind attempted a year earlier at Cartagena, Spain, during the War of Jenkins’ Ear. George II’s attendance at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743 was the last time a British monarch commanded his army in the field. Inexperience and poor discipline nearly resulted in a French victory.

At Dettingen, two young officers, Jeffrey Amherst and James Wolfe, noticed that the battle was nearly lost when the British infantry discharged their first musket volley at too great a distance, and won because the infantry had reloaded quickly and fired accurate second and third volleys. After Dettingen, daily training was ordered. This did not prevent defeat at Fontenoy in 1745, where the British troops advanced in good order, struggled against defensive fortifications, broke the French line, but were then forced to retreat by flanking artillery fire and harassment by irregulars.

Maurice de Saxe, the victor of Fontenoy, wrote in his own treatise on war that soldiering was "a science covered with darkness." The onset of near-constant imperial warfare shed light on the British Army’s manifold weaknesses. Sir Edward Braddock issued his men with light packs and short muskets for fighting in the "Woody Country" of Virginia in 1755, but operating without an intelligence network, a field commander, John Campbell, Earl of Loudoun, said, was "grasping in the dark."

Amherst and Wolfe applied different conclusions in North America. Amherst, now a major-general, saw the need for "caution, good intelligence, and detailed planning." Wolfe, now a brigadier and Amherst’s subordinate, valued "decision and action." Wolfe won Quebec in 1759 by sneaking his men up a cliff path onto the Plains of Abraham, then saved them from French cannon fire by ordering them to lie down (a trick adopted by Wellington in India in 1803 and used again at Waterloo). But inspired leadership was not enough, and there could be no method without a methodology.

At Bunker Hill in 1775, Henry Clinton, who followed the new-fangled "German school," suggested a flanking assault. But the army did not train for those, and so his commander William Howe ordered a frontal assault. The army’s agonized self-consciousness during the American Revolution resembles the Bunker Hill experience of Captain George Harris. As Harris entered the colonists’ redoubt, a musket ball grazed his head. When the surgeon trepanned him, he gave Harris "looking glasses so as to give me a sight of my own brain."

The army’s thinking was not up to the task in America. Howe had drafted a light infantry manual in 1774, but his failure to translate "evident tactical and even operational victories" into strategic or political success dissuaded the army’s commanders from integrating light infantry fighting ("indirect manoeuvres" as Clinton called it) into the order of battle.

Still, defeat could be more instructive than victory. A "web of empire" carried British officers from North America to India, where Earl Cornwallis, his reputation somehow surviving the surrender at Yorktown, became governor-general of India in 1786.

Cornwallis and his commander, Sir Archibald Campbell, incorporated their American experiences. Cornwallis improved supply chains and infantry discipline, and Campbell taught infantry battalions how to move in rough country and sending Cornwallis a "sample of Cartridge Pouches" that, campaigning in America had shown, were lighter and cheaper than army issue and better at keeping powder dry. Their opponent, Tipu, Sultan of Mysore, commanded armies that were larger and better equipped than Britain’s Indian levies. Again, light infantry ("bush fighting" as the British called it) was neglected.

Officers who returned from America to Europe did, however, recognize the value of light infantry training. The urgency of early encounters with the mobile troops of revolutionary France pushed the findings of the "informal knowledge networks" into the higher echelons, which themselves had by now accepted that some kind of military theory was necessary. The new model of the army integrated American and Indian experiences with European needs and modern theories. It cohered in the early 1800s under Wellington, a veteran of the Indian campaigns, in the Peninsular Wars in Portugal and Spain.

Sir Eyre Coote, one of the authors of light infantry doctrine, described the army of 1800 as "a wandering army": lost for ideas, and lost in the map. But it was just then, Davies argues, that the army found its way. The senior officers had served together for years, a critical mass of experience had accumulated, and knowledge-sharing was rapidly turning into new approaches. The cavalry officer John Le Marchant suggested revisions to cavalry training and redesigning the sword so that it was less likely to injure its wielder or his horse. Marchant trained his men on tactics just as the navy trained officers in navigation. He also pressed for the establishment of a national military school. In 1799, the forerunner of the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, was established in a pub at High Wycombe, near London.

Operating in hard terrain and on a tight budget, Wellington fought a war of logistics and information with subordinates who understood what he wanted to do. He moved his supply base to keep his lines short and concentrated first on defensive operations. The first to divide his forces into what he called "divisions," he set up intelligence and map-making units at division level. His divisions came to specialize in different kinds of operation: In 1810, he fielded a division solely composed of light infantry.

The victory at Waterloo represented the triumph of the new way, but Napoleon, somewhat to Wellington’s perplexity, fought in the old way, head-on. William Napier, the soldier-historian of the Peninsular War, drew the wrong conclusions and said that "theorising has never been the characteristic of the Englishman," even though theory as much as practice now underpinned the army. Apparently unaware of the previous century, let alone Clausewitz’s recent excursions in the Prussian tradition, Napier declared that a "Philosophy of War" did not exist in any language.

In the long European peace that followed Waterloo, the army reverted to native traditions of anti-intellectualism and inertia, willing itself by the 1840s into a state of rigidity, inexperience, and technical ignorance reminiscent of the 1740s. It was shocked into embarrassment by the Crimean War and further reformed in the 1870s. Decades of "bush fighting" ensued, leaving the British Expeditionary Force of 1914 both superbly trained in light infantry maneuvers and marksmanship, and also ill-prepared for trench warfare. As Napier had said, "in the beginning of each war, England has to seek in blood for the knowledge necessary to ensure success."

The Wandering Army: The Campaigns that Transformed the British Way of War
by Huw J. Davies
Yale University Press, 384 pp., $38

Dominic Green is a Wall Street Journal contributor and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

Published under: Book reviews , Britain