The American War of Independence, as experienced by the British Army

Book Review

Matthew H. Spring’s With Zeal and With Bayonets Only (University of Oklahoma Press, 2008) examines the American Revolution from the perspective of the British With Zeal and Bayonets OnlyArmy. In doing so, Spring determines that the popular representations of the British forces as a monolithic, unthinking war-machine confounded at every turn by American skirmishers is unfair and untrue. The King’s armies, he concludes, “tailored their conventional tactical methods intelligently to local conditions,” which is why they proved victorious in the majority of engagements.[1]

Spring examines the British Army’s performance at both the operational and tactical levels. The American theater was an exceedingly challenging one that made it nearly impossible for the British to impose a war of general actions, where two armies could bring to bear their full strength in linear combat. Tasked to subdue a wide, wild frontier nation that did not necessarily need her urban centers to continue to fight, the British Army nevertheless was able to achieve constant success that nearly extinguished the Continental Army in the early years of the American War. By delving into such fundamental factors such as “grand tactics,” logistics (ground, riverine, and maritime), the manner of maneuver, and the type and quality of firepower, Spring portrays a disciplined military force that actively sought to adapt to the unique challenges of America.

However, With Zeal only partially proves the author’s thesis that the British Army’s success was largely due to tailored operational and tactical methods. It often seems that much of his evidence drifts in the opposite direction. For instance, the logistical shortfalls common to European armies were even more complicated by the fact the British had to rely primarily on transatlantic resupply.[2] The British Army, despite ample opportunity to adapt and plan, was largely unable to break away from the European-minded reliance on magazines and strategic food reserves. On a more tactical level, Smith does give ample attention to the “flank battalions,” comprised of light infantry that were more prepared to engage with rebel forces on their terms.[3] After a relatively unimpressive start at the beginning of the war, this light infantry became increasingly confident about besting rebels in “bushfighting.” Smith presents a number of British sources which exude satisfaction at besting the rebels in fighting “in the very style that the Americans think themselves superior…”[4] Yet these troops were apparently used effectively primarily in the northern campaigns, and this not even in the far northernmost wooded areas.[5] In the end, Spring does present a more nuanced understanding of British Army capabilities and limitations, and the book is quite valuable in this respect. However, I don’t believe that the overall image of an army primarily designed to fight a European Continental-style war is completely rehabilitated.

[1] Matthew H. Spring, With Zeal and Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775 – 1783 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), xii.

[2] Ibid, 33-34.

[3] Ibid, 57-62.

[4] Ibid, 253.

[5] Ibid, 62-63, 255.

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One thought on “The American War of Independence, as experienced by the British Army

  1. I must look out for Spring’s book. Setting aside the specific issues they faced during the American War of Independence, I sometimes wonder whether the British army of the period – and well into the nineteenth century – was more iconoclastic than some of its mass European counterparts, in part due to the regimental system which encouraged ‘siloed’ and often distinct subcultures. Certainly in the New Zealand wars of, 1845-47 and 1861-64, much depended on the style of individual commanders and the subculture of their regiment – an area I’ve brushed across in my own military analytical work (I’ve written four books on the NZ wars and am hoping to get my main analysis republished soon – it was well received at the RMC Sandhurst but the publisher was subject to a take-over and the book, ‘Two Peoples, One Land’, went out of print. Sigh…).

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