Mechanisms of Knowledge Exchange in the Eighteenth Century British Army


Over the last few months, I have written on a number of occasions about how the British Army learned from its experiences – successful and unsuccessful – during the wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This is important because accepted historiographical analysis has it that the British Army was anti-intellectual, incapable of sharing ideas, and rooted in an anachronistic purchase system that saw the rich and wealthy able to buy promotion over and above more capable but poorer individuals.

The merits and pitfalls of the purchasing system can be set aside, because it is rather more interesting to question the premise of the assumption. Was the British Army institutionally incapable of learning the lessons of its failures and successes? And if not, how did this learning process occur? More generally, when viewed across a large canvas, the British Army learned from experiences and encounters right across the world. Between 1750 and 1850, British soldiers fought on almost every continent (all except Antartica), and it is clear that knowledge and experience was transferred from one theatre to the next.

But before we can come to a conclusion about what affect this global experience of warfare had on the British ‘way of war’, it’s necessary to explain how this knowledge was exchanged. I’ve already explored how British officers learned from exploring battlefields of previous campaigns and learning from the terrain of their predecessors.

Elsewhere I have also discussed what books British Army officers spent their time reading, whether it was treatises and polemics on the art of war, more systematic advice for officers, or military histories. The future Duke of Wellington, for example, had a healthy interest in military history, from Caesar to Marlborough and Saxe. Wellington also engaged in specific reading on the politics and history of the countries he was deployed to fight in. On his voyage to India in 1797, he read general histories of the subcontinent, as well as memoirs of recent military campaigns fought there.

Journals and diaries were one way in which knowledge was exchanged, albeit to a very selective audience. An even more select group might learn lessons and gain knowledge from correspondence with serving officers and soldiers. But in trying to prove a more widespread process of knowledge exchange and learning, neither of these are very satisfactory.

Perhaps the most systematised form of knowledge exchange occurred at one of the few military training camps. In 1803, a new training establishment was created at Shorncliffe in Kent, under the command of American and Egyptian veteran, General John Moore. He was tasked explicitly with creating and training an experimental rifle corps.

Shorncliffe was one of a number of innovative training establishments, some permanent, some temporary. At Shorncliffe, newly raised (or newly re-badged) Light Infantry regiments were trained in the art and practice of their new role. Moore was placed in command of the newly formed ‘Light Brigade’. Commanding the various regiments were Lieutenant-Colonel Kenneth Mackenzie, commanding the 52nd; Colonel Coote Manningham, commanding of the 95th; and Lieutenant-Colonel William Stewart, commanding I/95th.

All three were veterans of the petite guerre or Light Infantry campaigns in North or South America. Manningham gave a series of lectures on the role of Light Infantry in the order of battle, whilst Mackenzie drafted a new drill manual, perhaps taking inspiration from Regulations for the Exercise of Riflemen and Light Infantry, and their Conduct in the Field, by Baron de Rottenburg a Hessian officer with experience from America and Europe.

Shorncliffe was founded in the wake of one of the most successful British expeditions of the French Revolutionary Wars, the Egyptian expedition of 1801, which I wrote about in my last post on Defence-in-Depth. This campaign was remarkable more than for the success it achieved. The year prior to the amphibious landings at Abukir Bay, this expeditionary force had been floating around the Mediterranean in search of suitable target. A hand drawn map of the expedition’s progress accompanies this post. It records in meticulous detail the location of the expeditionary force at regular intervals.

Eventually alighting on Egypt, the GOC, General Sir Ralph Abercromby set about preparing his force for an amphibious assault with a month training on the Turkish coast. This much we know. But what interests me is what we don’t know. Cooped up on vessels for months on end, veterans of Britain’s past imperial campaigns, glorious and inglorious ,broke bread with the future leaders of the British Army, men who would go on to achieve success under Wellington’s command in the Peninsular War.

We’ll never know what conversations they had, of what experiences were shared and what knowledge was exchanged, but it is interesting to speculate, and I have written more on this subject here. As I write this, I have just returned from a study evening with 1 Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Brigade as they prepare for their Battlefield Study of Salamanca next week, exploring in more detail the role of Wellington’s intelligence networks, and the lessons the study of this history can provide the modern soldier.

Learning will take place during that trip, and knowledge will be exchanged and experiences, good and bad, will be talked about. An informal learning process will continue, as it always does. The process began in front of my eyes. I witnessed conversations between individuals who barely knew each other, but who were excited to discuss their experiences and pass on their knowledge. History cannot record everything. Few, if any of them will record a journal entry tonight and mention those conversations, and so this informal learning process will be lost to the historian.

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