Informal Learning in the British Army in the Eighteenth Century


This is the first of several posts running on Defence-in-Depth over the next few weeks arising out of the Military Learning and Innovation Roundtable held at the Joint Services Command and Staff College on Wednesday 17 June 2015. The roundtable explored the various ways in which militaries have learned, adapted, and innovated in times of war and peace, austerity and pressure from the eighteenth century to the present day. You can read more about the aims and objectives, research outputs and future events of the Military Innovation and Learning Research Group at Podcasts from the roundtable are available to download here.

Although branded anti-intellectual by historians, I have argued in previous posts (here, here and here) that this anti-intellectualism was a veneer designed to disguise a significant element of intellectualism within the eighteenth and early nineteenth century British Army. Not until Victorian times, as Britain approached the pinnacle of her power, did real anti-intellectualism take hold, as arrogance and hubris convinced many in the army that learning, adaptation and innovation was unnecessary for the military of the world’s leading superpower. Even then, learning took place, although this was mainly inward looking, reflecting on previous examples of British success. In the eighteenth century, the British Army was far away from the successes it would achieve under Wellington in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo. The glory of Marlborough’s successes lay behind it, and bright points, such as the defeat of the Scottish Rebellion in 1745/6 were either mired in controversy, or sullied by decisive defeats elsewhere, such as at Fontenoy, or in the early years of the French and Indian War. Defeat, the fear of defeat, and the humiliation associated with defeat fostered the conditions for learning, adaptation and innovation in the British Army.

The mechanisms by which this took place were many and varied and ranged from formal to the informal: military histories, military treatises on the art of war (for example), journals and diaries, formal training camps and institutions and through bitter experience. I have written about these in a previous post (here), but I have long speculated that most informal means by which learning took place in the British Army was the same then as it is now: common discussions of different experiences over dinner or a drink in the mess. My own personal experience tells me this is when officers and soldiers are most relaxed, their guard is down and they are most willing to discuss their own experiences of war. This informal knowledge exchange is a highly effective means of learning, and arguably subconsciously affects the way a problem is approached and solved. The problem has been proving this. If anyone keeps a diary then it is most unlikely that they will record everyday events in them, and certainly not anything as mundane as conversations over dinner in the mess.

In all honesty, I had resigned myself to merely relying on speculation and circumstantial evidence to prove that such learning took place. That was until couple of weeks ago. I had been asked to Maynooth University to give a keynote presentation on the Battle of Waterloo. On a whim, I sent a few extra days at Trinity College Dublin Library, inspecting the papers of General Sir John Hely-Hutchinson. Succeeding to the command of the British expedition to Egypt in 1801 following the death of its commander Sir Ralph Abercomrbie, Hely-Hutchinson’s papers were a potentially useful source explaining how lessons and experience was transferred from one command to the next. Unfortunately, very little of his correspondence from Egypt survives (at least in this collection), but amongst the various other papers dealing with Hely-Hutchinson’s later career, was a journal kept by his younger brother, Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Hely-Hutchinson,a member of the divisional staff of of Brigadier Sir James Fox. I expected the younger Hely-Hutchinson to provide some useful colour and a different perspective the existing narratives I had stumbled across. In fact, my attention was drawn to the hundred or so pages of the diary that pre-dated the British landing in Abukir Bay in March 1801.

These were months spent floating around the Mediterranean, or ashore in Gibraltar, Port Mahon or Marmaris Bay, Turkey. Hely-Hutchinson was an apparently depressive character, drawn to considerable reflections on the conceptualisation of happiness, the toll life in the army must take on those in the King’s Service, and the legitimacy or otherwise of the recent formal union of Britain and Ireland (the Hely-Hutchinson’s were Irish, and Christopher was decidedly anti-union). Perhaps his personality drove Hely-Hutchinson to record in quite minute detail his daily regimen. In any case, here was a diary that recorded really quite boring and mundane details about conversations and arguments held around the dinner table in the officers’ mess. Boring and mundane, of course, unless one happens to be looking for just this sort of evidence. Besides increasingly unpleasant exchanges about the Union, Hely-Hutchinson and his messmates, (among them, variously, Colonels Rowland Hill, John Kempt, Brigadier John Hope, and Major General John Moore – to name but four – all of whom would go on to serve in some capacity and with distinction in the Peninsular War) discussed previous campaigns, including experiences in the West Indies, North America and elsewhere in Europe, as well as discussions about the forthcoming campaign. Also included are a detailed description of the garrison of Gibraltar, including a tour of the defences and a discussion of the siege during the American Revolutionary War. Whilst stationed in Port Mahon, Hely-Hutchinson described in exquisite detail the defences of the Port, its strength and weaknesses, and one afternoon even rides with General Moore and Colonel Hill to visit the sight of the British attack to retake the island in the French Revolutionary War.

Here, then, is evidence (albeit one source, but from that we can extrapolate) that eighteenth century British Army officers discussed previous campaigns during meal-times in the mess (and, indeed, on more formal occasions). The same officers also engaged in recognisably professional activities such as surveying previous battle-sites, and learning from the experiences of their predecessors. The next step is proving that this learning materially impacted on the way officers and soldiers thought about their own situation. Did they utilise ideas and experiences from different theatres, cultures and societies bequeathed by their predecessors to adapt, or possibly innovate, in the face of unprecedented and seemingly insurmountable challenge? Historian Kaushik Roy, in a seminal article in the Journal of Military History in 2004 argued just that. Conceiving of the notion of ‘military synthesis’, Roy argued that success in India depended on the ability of one side or the other to adapt to both the physical conditions they fought in and the tactical innovations of their enemy. Such a phenomenon was, in my view, decidedly apparent in the British expedition to Egypt in 1801, and elsewhere in the British Army’s campaigns between 1799 and 1815 (and beyond). This was at least in part the result of a streak of intellectualism and informal innovation and learning.

Image: Philip James de Loutherbourg – The Battle of Alexandria, 21 March 1801

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