Learning and Innovation in the Eighteenth Century British Army

by DR HUW J. DAVIES

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.

6 thoughts on “Learning and Innovation in the Eighteenth Century British Army

    1. Good question, and thanks for your comment. I don’t know the answer to your question, I’m afraid, but I can talk a little bit about the training the British Army engaged in during this period.

      Throughout the eighteenth century, there were infrequent ‘Camps’ – such as the Bageshot Heath Camp of 1792, when new ideas about drill and training would attempt to be implemented. These were frequently satirised as a waste of time, but the system allowed incremental adoption of an army-wdie drill system – until then, each regiment had its own slightly differing approach.

      In the 1800s, two regular training institutions were established – the Shorncliffe Camp in Kent was established to train the newly raised Light Infantry regiments, such as the 95th Rifles and the 43rd and 52nd. In High Wycombe, the first establishment that looked vaguely like a Staff College was set up by Colonel John Le Marchant. This institution was designed to instruct officers on how to plan and conduct operations and battles – it was very much an operational ‘science’ rather than operational ‘art’ establishment.

      I’m sorry I can’t offer a more direct answer to your question. Perhaps there is reader out there who knows the answer!

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  1. Hi Huw, thanks for the great post. I was looking for information on 18th-century “staff rides,” in search of some context on Guy Carleton, and up jumped this blog post. You might be interested to know (if you don’t already … it’s relatively new info to me) that Carleton was the military tutor of Lord Lennox, Duke of Richmond, and in the early 1750s led him on a tour of battlefields from the War of the Austrian Succession. That’s the extent of my knowledge on their tour(s). I wonder what battlefields they visited? I wonder if they ever got out of the Low Countries and western Germany? Does someone in your shop know more?

    There were a lot of really interesting things at play during and after those tours, imho, not the least of which was how the Army would dump someone of clear talent if he ran afoul of the wrong people. The king (George II, a man not to anger) hated Carleton for some crude comments he made about the Hanoverian troops in the Army of Observation, and essentially purged him from the army. But James Wolfe wanted Carleton on his staff (it seems the Wolfe family and Carleton “went way back”–James’s father got Guy the tutor gig with Lennox) and managed to get approval (from Ligonier) to serve as his QM. It was only America, so who cared, right?

    I think there might be an avenue to explore as part of your very cool “education of British officers in the late 18th/early 19th centuries” work. I think it would be interesting to compare the educational backgrounds of the old hands (Sackville, Bligh, Marlborough 3.0) who commanded, and their “staffs,” in Europe with the “young” up and comers in North America: Wolfe & Amherst of course, but also Barrington [in the Caribbean], Monckton, the Townshend brothers, and the foreigners [Haldimand and Bouquet] who made up the 60th Royal Americans. Do you know of any general or specific works that might cover this? I know it’s a little before your period of preference (and Europe is a bit outside of mine despite a focus on the 7YW). We know what the 18th-century officer corps read or didn’t (Gruber), and we know a bit about their training (Houlding), and the issues they faced avoiding penury in the service (Guy), but is there something accessible on their formal and informal “professional military education” to borrow a term? I have to claim and own much ignorance on this front. Thanks for reading, and please pardon any times becuase this is from an iPad.

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    1. Thank you very much for these very useful and helpful comments, John. No, I did not know Guy Carleton had led a tour in the early 1750s. What a brilliant find – thanks for letting me know! I will be making a trip to Kew in relatively short order to have a look at Carleton’s papers which commence in 1747 (copies in the New York Public Library). I wonder if he wrote anything about it in his correspondence.

      As to your more general questions about histories of education and training in the eighteenth century – well, aside from the works you mention, there does not appear to be anything – hence why I am writing about it! I’ll be posting a new blog piece in the next few weeks which explores more generally the ways in which officers learnt from experience – drawing on a conference I recently attended, and will post the paper shortly on academia.edu

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