RECONSTRUCTING EIGHTEENTH CENTURY MILITARY KNOWLEDGE NETWORKS: THE USE AND ABUSE OF ARCHIVAL SOURCES

This post is part of a week of cross-posting between Defence-in-Depth and Imperial Entanglements, the blog of an AHRC funded funded project in the Hispanic Studies Department of Warwick University.

DR HUW J DAVIES

The experience of warfare in different geographies and climates, and against and alongside different cultures and societies profoundly affected its practice. Britain’s army experienced war, more than any other western military in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as a result of imperial expansion in America, Asia and Australasia. The methods and techniques which evolved in response to geographical or socio-cultural challenges in one theatre, had an inevitable impact on the practice of war in another. The question, therefore, arises, as to how knowledge and experience was exchanged between one theatre and the next. In this context, eighteenth-century British military personnel were among the most travelled of the British Empire.

Historiographical analysis has obviously tended to focus on their military exploits, while disregarding their often extensive cultural and scientific interests. Although frequently tinged with racial prejudices that were prevalent in eighteenth century militarism, many officers made extensive observations of the cultures and peoples they encountered. This knowledge was used in a variety of ways, ranging from altruistic individual-improvement, through to militaristic collective-improvement. In 2004, Natasha Glaisyer argued that if empire could be ‘thought of as a set of networks of exchange then … the scientific, cultural, social, political, and intellectual histories of empire’ were inextricably linked. It is curious that the military dimension is rarely, if ever, considered.

This paper explores the different imperial networks that enabled the exchange of knowledge within the British Army and across space and time. The way in which knowledge was transferred was multifaceted and complex; the most common manifestation being linear in nature: knowledge was transferred from one person to another, and carried across time and space by that person. In the process of experiencing conflict, new knowledge was constructed and then passed on. Evidence of this exchange can be found in journals, diaries, and both official and unofficial correspondence. If knowledge exchange from one generation to the next can be termed a linear network, then there were also occasions when knowledge was exchanged between multiple individuals. These instances might be termed cluster networks, and in effect new knowledge was generated by the interaction of multiple experiences in one space.

The military, in particular the atmosphere of the regiment or a deployed army, provided the perfect conditions for the development of cluster networks. Evidence of cluster networks exist in diaries and journals, particularly those that recount daily life. Conversations at the mess table, in which senior personnel relate their experiences to junior officers are particular examples of cluster networks. Besides the exchange of knowledge between personnel, knowledge was also conveyed in less physical ways: books and published memoirs proved vital vessels of knowledge exchange. Furthermore, the physical environment also enabled knowledge and experience to be transferred across space and time. In times of peace (and occasionally during wars) junior officers visited the sites of previous battles, learning directly from the terrain and environment.

Though a hierarchical organisation, the British army infrequently engaged in the vertical transmission of military thought: the senior command rarely, if ever, provided official guidance on the best or latest military thinking. Some senior officers did make unofficial recommendations. For example, in 1756, General James Wolfe recommended an aspiring young officer read ‘Of the ancients, Vegetius; Caesar; Thucydides… There is an abundance of military Knowledge, to be pick’d out of the Lives of Gustavus Adolphus, & Charles 12th King of Sweden…’ Historians have concluded that the officer corps of the British Army was therefore predominantly unprofessional, amateur in nature. A modest cadre of young officers viewed their service as a profession, and sought to improve through self-education and reading. As such, knowledge generation and innovation and adaptation happened informally in the British context, usually the result of personal experience, interaction, correspondence or memoir writing. British officers communicated with each other in a variety of ways, and thus information and knowledge was transmitted, more often than not, horizontally. Tony Ballantyne sees this phenomenon in social and cultural spheres as a ‘web of empire’, with information passing from colony to colony, around the periphery, rather than exclusively between the periphery and the centre. This is not to suggest, however, that military information and knowledge did not pass from periphery to centre; indeed, it is one of the aims of this paper to illustrate how peripheral experience and innovation was rendered at the centre.

For Ballatyne, a New Zealand based historian, ‘colonial development was shaped by a complex mesh of flows, exchanges, and engagements that linked New Zealand to other colonies as well as to Britain, the heart of the empire.’ As a result, this web was composed of a ‘range of personal, institutional and textual connections’ carrying ‘ideas and arguments about cultural difference and racial history shaped by British colonialism in India to New Zealand’. Certain individuals, places or objects within this web might be seen as nodal points or ‘centres’ within the empire. Their influence undercut the binary divide between colony and metropole, and helped drive knowledge exchange within the periphery. Ballantyne’s research focusses on the relationship between British India and New Zealand, but this article will illustrate that certain individuals, places (usually of military significance) and objects acted as nodes within a military network – whether linear or cluster – which facilitated knowledge mobility, specifically military knowledge mobility, across the empire, as well as between the empire and the centre.

Proving the existence of networks is problematic, primarily because of what officers chose to record in their diaries and correspondence. There is some evidence to suggest that this knowledge mobility was facilitated through networks of correspondence, which were the primary means of knowledge and information mobility in seventeenth and eighteenth century empire. Historians have illustrated that the efficiency of the postal service, for example, helped transform the empire. Although possessing an immediate impact, personal correspondence was limited in scope to the author and his intended reader (and whoever the latter chose to share the information with). Next to correspondence, journals and diaries provided an opportunity for similar knowledge exchange. This form of communication had a limited immediate effect, though perhaps greater longer term impact, as later generations absorbed the experiences of their predecessors more readily than they could through access to private correspondence. Even so, in order for wider dissemination, these journals would need to be published, and in some cases, publication changed the nature of the journal: readers consumed published material from a different perspective to private, unpublished, material.

In short, then, despite initially seeming the most fruitful source of evidence of knowledge mobility within the military, correspondence and journals were, in fact, significantly limited as a means of facilitating such a network. Add to this the inescapable reality that military personnel infrequently wrote about their day-to-day experience of war. Military correspondence catalogued routine daily living arrangements and were punctuated by moments of intense activity. Battles were uncommon, but understandably, it was soldiers experience of them that excited most attention. Such infrequent and fleeting experience would prove of limited value for generating useful military knowledge and information. Where correspondence might prove useful is in identifying how military personnel interacted with other cultures, but even here, the writing is tinged with pejorative racial connotations: Native Americans were referred to frequently as ‘savages’, whilst the Indian sepoy was seen as loyal and trustworthy on the battlefield, but incapable of independent action. Even other European powers were the subject of propagandist denunciations: the French were frequently portrayed as effeminate.

If correspondence networks are imperfect records of the nature and character of knowledge networks, where might we look for evidence of knowledge mobility? Military personnel were perhaps unique among a large set of travellers throughout the British empire, in that soldiers and officers were frequently expected to travel to multiple locations across the empire. Rather than correspondence networks which were anchored at the centre and the periphery, military personnel themselves acted not just as nodal points in static locations, but as mobile, ‘ephemeral and even fleeting’ networks, moving between and within colonies. In place of correspondence, such personnel linked their experiences to their reading, their physical experience of war and the societies they were interacting with. Networks were composed and driven by the interaction of books, experience and terrain – the latter viewed ‘with a military eye [and] rendered memorable by having been the theatre of brilliant achievements in war’. These individuals were translating the static physical experience of war into a conceptual, mobile manifestation.

Image: The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West, via Wikimedia Commons.

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