Hidden away in a tiny archive in Connecticut, I found, to my surprise, a diary of a Grand Tour of Europe conducted in the 1770s. I might not have looked at it, had the catalogue not specified its author as a cavalry Captain in the British Army. With nothing left to do one afternoon, I called it up, and found an immaculately written journal of a Grand Tour with a twist.
The unnamed captain was not just visiting the usual sights of cultural significance, but was also visiting militarily significant locations – most commonly fortresses, but occasionally the odd battlefield from recent and more distant campaigns. Apart from the surprising revelation that battlefield tours and staff rides are not the sole preserve of twentieth and twenty-first century staff colleges, the journal also suggested that the captain was eager to learn from past military campaigns.
The British Army has an historical reputation for being anti-intellectual. A separate discussion about whether this is true or not can be had elsewhere, but if this was the case, then I believe it to be a product of Victorian sensibilities, of coming to terms with Pax Britannica, and the moral and ethic quandaries that accompanied imperial expansion and climax. This imposed anti-intellectualism was the retroactively superimposed on the eighteenth century, and forwards into the twentieth century.
The cavalry captain’s journal is one piece of evidence that suggests a rather different outlook on intellectualism existed, at least in the eighteenth century. Travel was widely considered to be an excellent education for the wealthy, and the journal indicates that military tourism also occurred, although it is difficult to judge how extensive this was. Then, as now, military practitioners could learn much about their profession by visiting the sites of previous engagements and sieges. Knowledge and experience was therefore transmitted by interpreting the terrain itself.
I’m writing this blog-post in Brussels. I’m about to engage on a similar, though much shorter, expedition, visiting the battlefield of Waterloo and explaining its significance to twenty-first century military professionals. Waterloo is strategically significant not just because it is the sight where Wellington, Blucher and the Anglo-Dutch and Prussian Armies stopped Napoleon in his tracks, but because the battle itself was operationally unnecessary. A far larger army, composed of Austrians and Russians was gathering to the East, and Napoleon realistically faced very difficult odds in any battle against them.
But Waterloo was strategically vital for the British. Vital in securing British war aims early and decisively, and preventing Napoleon from cutting off British access to the channel. For these reasons, Wellington fought at Waterloo, and because his Prussian counterpart, General Blucher promised his assistance as soon as he could deliver it.
But, like the unnamed cavalry captain, Wellington was a student of history. As I wrote about a few weeks ago on this Blog, on his journey to India in 1797, the then 28-year old Arthur Wellesley had read a ‘Military History of Prince Eugene and the Duke of Marlborough’ published in 1736. In 1705, Marlborough had established his headquarters just to the south of what would become the battlefield of Waterloo. Then, he had commented that if Brussels needed to be defended from a French attack to the south, the ridge of Mont St Jean would be the place to do it.
Whilst travelling to Paris in 1814, Wellington had reconnoitred the terrain to the south of Brussels. ‘The face of the country is generally open, and affords no feature upon which reliance can be placed to establish any defensive system,’ Wellington had written. The terrain was ‘intersected by roads, canals and rivers, running in all directions.’ Despite this, there were a number of strong defensive positions, Wellington observed, ‘between Tourney and Mons; … about Nivelle; … and the ridgeway of Mont St Jean.’
A keen observer of terrain, Wellington had clocked the defensive significance of ridge of Mont St Jean, and it was here that he chose to fight a defensive battle on 18 June 1815. Like the cavalry captain four decades earlier, Wellington used a combination of military history, terrain analysis and clear-sighted strategic thinking to help him prepare for an uncertain future.
I will be talking more about learning and innovation in the eighteenth century British Army as a Research Seminar in JSCSC on Wednesday 3 December. Click here for details of the event, and check our YouTube Channel shortly afterward for a podcast of the seminar.
Image: The Battlefield fo Waterloo from the position of Napoleon’s Grand Battery.