Leaving Vegetius Behind: The British Army’s Departure from Classical Military Influence (1754-1783) – Part 2

Read Part 1 here

During the spring and summer of 1754, conflict over colonial possessions in North America erupted in western Pennsylvania. England’s military influence was ousted from the Ohio River Valley, and before the year was over the Captain-General of His Majesty’s Forces, the Duke of Cumberland, planned to dispatch regular troops to the colonies. Major General Edward Braddock, along with a thousand men of the 44th and 48th Regiments of Foot, was ordered to Virginia to organize a four-pronged summer offensive against the French at the Forks of the Ohio River, in Nova Scotia, the Great Lakes region, and along Lake Champlain. The two British regiments with Braddock had served primarily in Ireland, and possessed minimal experience in combat (Colonel Sir Peter Halkett’s 44th Regiment was lightly engaged at Culloden in 1746). Historian David Preston described the experience carried to North America by the senior and junior officers of Braddock’s expeditionary force:

While there was a growing sense of professionalism in the mid-eighteenth-century British Army, most younger officers had formed whatever expertise they possessed through studying manuals, guidebooks, and historical works by ancient and modern authors such as Thucydides, Caesar, Vegetius, and Humphrey Bland, whose Treatise of Military Discipline, first published in 1727, was the unofficial guide to basic drill and maneuver for young officers. The officers’ own lack of formal training, along with their mechanistic daily regimens, prevented them from achieving competency much beyond the level of basic training that they were expected to perfect in their soldiers. While some senior officers had tasted battle, the first test of combat leadership for many of the junior officers or subalterns came on the banks of the Monongahela.[1]

Despite the lack of battlefield experience, King George II, the Duke of Cumberland, and Braddock were confident that the “professionalism” of the regular troops would be enough to oust French forces (Troupes de la Marine, Canadian militia, and Native American auxiliaries from the Ohio River Valley and Great Lakes) from Fort Duquesne.

The first break from Vegetius’s influence and British army doctrine in the Age of Enlightenment occurred before the campaigns of 1755 even commenced. The 44th and 48th Regiments of Foot were understrength and carried with them to North America roughly 500 men each. To raise their numbers to full battalion strength – 700 men – the units were augmented with colonial levies from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Already lacking in experience, the addition of colonial militiamen (militias were the largest recruiting pools in the colonies) did nothing but delegitimize the “professionalism” of the two regiments. The levies, who previously only drilled once every few months or so with their respective militias, were expected to conduct themselves like British regular soldiers.

Along with the colonists augmented into the regiments of foot, the task of capturing the various French strongholds in Nova Scotia and along Lakes Champlain and Ontario that summer was given to non-regular troops. To subdue the French garrisons, small armies of colonial provincial soldiers were recruited in New England, New Jersey, and New York. Braddock’s army, too, was supplemented with provincials from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Carolinas. The expeditionary force ordered to bag Fort Saint-Frédéric (Crown Point) along Lake Champlain was composed of 3,000 provincial troops with only one British regular, Captain William Eyre of the 44th Regiment of Foot, serving among them.[2] Again, these provincial regiments were entirely green (other than some veterans of various frontier services and the Louisbourg Expedition of 1745) and made up of levies and volunteers drawn predominantly from local militias. Also, attached to these armies were Native American auxiliaries, whose style of warfare was completely foreign to regular troops and far from professional. Service against and alongside these “savages” was the first exposure to irregular warfare in North America that His Majesty’s soldiers would receive. Vegetius believed that heavy reliance on auxiliaries, in this case Native Americans, colonial provincials, and colonial troops on the British military establishment, was detrimental to the performance and survival of professional units and overall cohesion.[3]

For the most part, the colonial provincials held their own on the battlefield against French forces, more so than the British regulars did early in the French and Indian War. They obtained victories in Nova Scotia, along the southern shore of Lake George in New York, and diligently defended the frontier against French and Indian raids. However, the colonists could never truly mesh with the regulars from Great Britain. British officers held them in contempt. “The Americans,” Brigadier General James Wolfe declared, “are in general the dirtiest most contemptible cowardly dogs that you can conceive. There is no depending on them in action. They fall down dead in their own dirt and desert by battalions, officers and all. Such rascals as those are rather an encumbrance than any real strength to an army.”[4]

Officers serving in North America and British authorities in London, like William Pitt, began to recognize the importance in 1758 of separating from the seemingly arrogant professionalism that the British Army had so dearly held on to. The conflict being fought in the colonies was not a conventional European war. Even as a world war was being waged elsewhere around the globe, it became evident that something needed to change if His Majesty King George II was to claim North America as his own. William Pitt, Leader of the House of Commons and Secretary of State for the Southern Department, put forth and instituted an agenda that shifted the sole focus on winning with professional soldiers in North America to building a substantial military force consisting of a majority of colonists. He ordered 20,000 colonists to be levied or recruited into provincial units. The crown would supply them the required arms, ammunition, tents, and provisions, and would reimburse the colonial assemblies for the costs of raising, clothing and paying the men. In response to this proposal, the colonies mustered over 23,000 troops for the upcoming 1758 campaigns.[5] These men complimented the 20,000 British regulars dispatched to the colonies that year. At close glance, the measure instituted by Pitt’s administration resembled France’s levée en masse in 1793 on a smaller scale.[6] This was an early example of the departure from Vegetius’s classical reliance on professional soldiers in favor of larger armies consisting of men serving shorter terms of enlistment. Discipline for these men was mild and their training was limited. “Men,” one of Vegetius’s general maxims read, “must be sufficiently tried before they are led against the enemy.”[7] Quality was displaced by quantity. This was not the only aspect of the British Army that was transforming in the wilderness of North America. The nature of the conflict was forcing a change in the way the war was being waged as well.

Edward Braddock’s expeditionary force of regulars and provincials crossed the Monongahela River on the morning of July 9, 1755 and precipitated a departure from Vegetius and Humphrey Bland’s strategic, operational, and tactical influence. Less than ten miles outside of Fort Duquesne, the 1,400-man column engaged and was easily defeated by a smaller force of Canadians and Indians fighting in an irregular manner. Braddock’s Defeat signaled an end to England’s classical style of linear warfare – it had officially met its match and was countered. Vegetius and Bland’s disciplined closed-rank formations had faltered. Vegetius wrote that, “The nature of the ground is often of more consequence than courage.”[8] However, this referred to terrain and its effect on the seven linear formations that Vegetius had presented. General engagements in Europe did not take place in thick vegetation. Maneuvering, let alone fighting, in closed-ranks was nearly impossible to accomplish smoothly in North America. As Braddock’s army had learned along the banks of the Monongahela, His Majesty’s Forces needed to adapt to the current conditions and nature of warfare in the colonies. To do so, officers needed to adjust tactically and borrow from the colonists and their Native American auxiliaries who were accustomed to loose formations and irregular warfare. Adapting meant completely altering preconceived tactical doctrine.

wounding of general braddock
The Wounding of Edward Braddock at the Battle of the Monongahela, July 9, 1755

While the entire British military establishment may not have been ready to hastily depart from Vegetius’s influence, certain individuals like George Howe, Thomas Gage, and Lord Loudoun, were not afraid to shake things up. “An important consequence of the British Army’s efforts to respond to North American wilderness conditions,” historian Stephen Brumwell asserted, “was the evolution of regular light infantry.”[9] “Rather than drawing upon European antecedents,” he continued, “the British light infantry boasted New World lineage.”[10] As early as 1756-1757, then commander-in-chief in North America, John Campbell, Lord Loudoun had advocated for British regular officers to serve and train amongst the ranks of colonial rangers (most notably Rogers’ Rangers). When Loudoun was replaced by Major General James Abercromby at the end of 1757, the formation a regular light infantry units began. Prior to the Seven Years’ War, Austria and Prussia were the only nations to truly utilize light infantry, and the concept was new to British tactical evolution. The first regiment raised in North America, 500 men of the 80th Regiment of Light Armed Foot, was fully financed and led by Thomas Gage. Shortly thereafter other light companies were formed as well and attached to regular line regiments. These light troops did not serve as flank companies, but instead as skirmishers and intelligence gatherers. By 1759, the effectiveness of the light troops had made its way across the ocean, and in Ireland the 90th Regiment of Light Infantry was recruited.[11] Colonial rangers and light infantrymen fought in open rank formations, which Vegetius and Bland would have viewed as against the disciplined order of closed ranks. The tactical nature of warfare was evolving, however, and it required officers to adapt and stray from traditional influence and doctrine. As the Seven Years’ War officially came to an end in 1763, a decade of peace began that would bring about further assessments of military doctrine and theory.

80th Regiment of Foot
Soldiers of Gage’s 80th Regiment of Light Armed Foot

During the interwar years in Europe, Lieutenant John Clarke of the Royal Marines translated and published his own English version of Vegetius in 1767. The Seven Years’ War had revitalized military theory in England with as many as four works by Thomas More Molyneux, James Anderson, John MacIntire and Campbell Dalrymple during the course of the conflict.[12] Clarke’s translation came a little too late however. Vegetius’s physical (tactical) influence was already diminishing, and his work took on the role of predominantly a moral guide for discipline and principles, or a quick introductory book on the Roman Legions. It represented the professional soldier’s honor and valor, and his devotion to a monarch. When open rebellion broke out in the colonies in 1775, British regulars once again embarked for North America to carry out the King’s business. Would the lessons learned from the previous colonial conflict be applied to the current war? For the most part they were. The British Army continued to transform, but this time in a seemingly vengeful manner.

When tasked with subduing a rebellion, British military policy veered towards a Machiavellian “the end justifies the means,” approach. After defeating “Bonnie Prince” Charlie’s Jacobite Army in 1746, the Duke of Cumberland ordered the British Army to scour the Scottish countryside in search of rebels and rebel sympathizers. The result was horrific. Food, homes, and religious structures were destroyed, and Jacobite supporters were taken prisoner and exiled or executed.[13] The British had abandoned any sense of professionalism as laid out by Vegetius and assumed the role of ruthless conquerors. The end of the Jacobite Rebellion was not the last time that His Majesty’s Forces would lay the hard hand of war down upon their enemy in order to suppress a rebellion. The same methods were used against patriots in the colonies, whether soldier or civilian, mainly in the form of partisan warfare.

The use of partisan warfare was not necessarily foreign to classical Roman doctrine – or at least partisan operational and tactical objectives were not. “Vegetius…,” according to Ira D. Gruber in his 2010 study, Books and the British Army in the Age of the American Revolution, “admired … generals who avoided general engagements and exhausted the enemy with small attacks on magazines, supply trains, and detachments.”[14] Loyalist militiamen and England’s Native American auxiliaries utilized partisan tactics to wreak havoc upon patriot armies’ war-making and war-sustaining capabilities. Northern Iroquois targeted civilians and were met with retaliation in 1779. In the Southern theater of war, Banastre Tarleton and his British Legion went a step further and struck fear into the hearts of American soldiers and civilians. For example, in May 1780 at the Battle of Waxhaws, Tarleton and his dragoons chased down and butchered over 300 Virginia Continentals who were trying to escape. He showed no mercy and gave no quarter.[15] The brutal partisan tactics resembled Machiavelli more so than Vegetius, and a breakdown of discipline by British soldiers and Hessian mercenaries throughout the colonies added to the treachery. Occupying British armies became viewed more so as ruthless conquerors. Younger officers who had read Vegetius needed to adjust and adapt to the reality of war when leading their men. The moral principles of Vegetius and their physical application became extremely difficult. Corporal and capital punishment remained a key piece of England’s military justice system, but prior training and discipline frequently failed the “professional” soldiers.

“Tarleton’s Quarter” at the Battle of Waxhaws, 1780

Other breaks from Vegetius’s classical influence occurred during the Revolutionary War for the British Army at the strategic and tactical levels. Light infantry and open formations were still utilized, but the light troops were instead used less frequently as skirmishers and more so as flank companies. The extremely offensively aggressive mentality of British officers in North America was also a shift from the cautious approach to engaging an enemy that Vegetius had presented in On Roman Military Matters. “Every plan,” he recorded, “therefore, is to be considered, every expedient tried and every method taken before matters are brought to this last extremity [battle]. Good officers decline general engagements where the danger is common, and prefer the employment of stratagem and finesse to destroy the enemy as much as possible in detail and intimidate them without exposing our own forces.”[16] This approach greatly resembled that taken by George Washington, but not his enemies. The British high command was forced to chase and attack the Continental forces in order to initiate decisive engagements that could potentially bring an end to the war.[17] Standing pat and waiting until the perfect moment to assume the offensive was not an option for British officers. Doing so yielded the initiative to the enemy who took calculated risks and translated his efforts into battlefield victories like at Trenton and Princeton. Vigorous campaigning by Charles Cornwallis in the southern colonies proved that an aggressive and seemingly reckless mentality was necessary to succeed. This furthermore confirmed that many of Vegetius’s principles were losing their merit in the face of reality. Although England failed to subdue the rebellion in America, her armies’ evolving military doctrine almost succeeded on multiple occasions.

In summary, this essay has argued its thesis by examining the roots of Vegetius’s influence within the British Army, and more particularly, on its officers. This essay has analyzed the changing nature of warfare on the North American continent (the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars) and why England’s military arm in the colonies was forced to adapt and transform in camp and on the battlefield.

In conclusion, military thought and theory is constantly evolving. It is pivotal for the military establishment to analyze and comprehend military theory in order to assess what aspects and principles are still relevant and can be utilized in current war and warfare. The fact that Vegetius’s influence lasted for over one thousand years is a testament to the Roman’s unchanging principles laid out in his written work. While the majority of his basic maxims still remain true to this day, his idea of an entirely “professional” army was difficult to stay true to as standing armies needed to be supplemented by unprofessional troops in times of war to increase their size. The French military reforms of the 1790s and the onset of the Napoleonic Wars have served as a departure point from Vegetius’s influence in Europe. However, the French and Indian War signaled an official break from classical thought, albeit on a smaller scale, for His Majesty’s Forces. It was continued during the American Revolutionary War as well. This transformation in military thinking did not occur overnight, but was necessitated through experience on the battlefield. It took individual officers to admit when they were wrong and recognize that the times were changing, and that warfare was not so one-dimensional. Creativity and the ability to adapt were required for success. Overly aggressive and growing keen to the hard hand of war, England’s forces broke apart from Vegetius’s influence even more during the 1770s. His Majesty’s Forces always seemed to adopt a cruel and vicious mentality when suppressing rebellions. It was far from the professional conduct that Vegetius and Humphrey Bland argued was the key to an army’s success. This essay has demonstrated that the British Army began to depart from Vegetius’s military influence during the North American conflicts of the latter half of the 18th century. Military doctrine of the day was in large part inspired by the Roman theorist’s principles that had withstood the test of time. For standing armies, Vegetius offered clear guidance for organizing, training, and disciplining men in order to instill a sense of honor and professionalism. However, the changing nature of warfare prompted a military transformation that would carry into the continental wars of the early 19th century. When British troops departed for North America, they left their homes and Vegetius behind.

[1] David Preston, Braddock’s Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015), 63-64.

[2] Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2000), 119.

[3] Flavius Renatus Vegetius, On Roman Military Matters (De Re Militari): A 5th Century Training Manual in Organization, Weapons and Tactics, as Practiced by the Roman Legions, John Clarke, trans. (St. Petersburg, FL: Red and Black Publishers, originally published in 1767), 34.

[4] Quoted in Eliot A. Cohen, Conquered into Liberty: Two Centuries of Battles Along the Great Warpath That Made the American Way of War (New York, NY: Free Press, 2011), 45.

[5] Stephen Brumwell, Redcoats: The British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755-1763 (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 23-24.

[6] Martin van Creveld, “Through a Glass, Darkly: Some Reflections on the Future of War,” Naval War College Review, (Autumn 2000), 23, accessed February 17, 2017, https://norwich.equella.ecollege.com/file/e7c0b917-0ab7-4204-bcb7-ac993891893b/7/reading_van_creveld.pdf.

[7] Vegetius, On Roman Military Matters, 90.

[8] Ibid., 91.

[9] Brumwell, Redcoats, 228.

[10] Ibid., 233.

[11] James McIntyre, British Light Infantry Tactics: The Development of British Light Infantry, Continental and North American Influences, 1740-1765 (Point Pleasant, NJ: Winged Hussar Publishing, 2015), 32, 42.

[12] Adam Parr, “John Clarke’s Military Institutions of Vegetius and Joseph Amiot’s Art Militaire des Chinois: translating classical military theory in the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War,” (Doctoral dissertation, University College London, 2016), 69, accessed February 10, 2017,  http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1485839/7/Adam%20Parr%20Translating%20Classical%20Military%20Theory%202016.pdf.

[13] Gregory Fremont-Barnes, The Jacobite Rebellion, 1745-1746 (New York, NY: Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2011), 85-86.

[14] Ira D. Gruber, Books and the British Army in the Age of the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 43.

[15] James Kirby Martin and Mark Edward Lender, A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763-1789 (Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1982), 156.

[16] Vegetius, 67.

[17] Matthew H. Spring, With Zeal and with Bayonet Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775-1783 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 50-51.

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