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#WavellReviews “How the Army made Britain a Global Power: 1688-1815” by Jeremy Black

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

Available here from Casemate

Jeremy Black is a remarkable historian.  He has written over 150 books, and counting.  It is not simply the quantity of his publications which have impressed – and sometimes intimidated – scholars, but also the range of his expertise.  In addition to writing across the entire span of military history, he has also made major contributions to 18th century British political history and to the study of cartography; he has also written some fascinating books on James Bond.

Black’s corpus is extraordinarily wide; however, in terms of military history, it is possible to identify two central methods which have unified all his writing.

Firstly, Black was one of the first military historians to recognise the requirement for truly global analysis.  For Black, it is a major error to explain war or warfare on the basis of limited western examples.  He was advocating an inclusive, international perspective, many years before post-colonial theorists have called for the ‘de-colonization’ of security studies.

Secondly, Black is unconvinced by convenient and lazy teleologies.  Throughout his career, he has argued that military organisation is not the product of rational evolution, but rather the more immediate attempt to solve specific problems.  Military history should not be understood as a continuous logical development but rather, as unsatisfactory, temporary and incomplete attempts to address specific circumstances.  This means that while a global view has to be taken, different military forces have often adopted similar solutions to equivalent problems across history.  Black has repeatedly punctured conventional historiographic wisdom or the more grandiose theories of military development.  The reality is messy, contingent, diffuse.  This historical method is very evident in ‘How the army made Britain a global power’.  The book might, therefore, be a little too specialist for a general, military reader.  Yet, the central argument is of great important to serving soldiers today; senior officers should take note.

It has long been presumed that the Royal Navy was alone responsible for the British Empire; the Army was an irrelevance.  Clearly, the Royal Navy was primary in Britain’s colonial expansion.  However, in this book, Black usefully reminds us of the important role which the Army played.  Like the Army of 2021, the British Army of the eighteenth-century was a very small, professional and a genuinely multi-national force, heavily recruited from colonial subjects.  It was committed mainly to expeditionary operations, many of which were small scale and of low intensity.

Unlike the Royal Navy which was always regarded as defending the liberty of the freeborn Englishman, the Army was not generally popular in the eighteenth century.  Its performance was also sometimes questionable.  Consequently, historians have often presumed that it was a poor army which compared unfavourably with those of its European rivals, especially Prussia.  Black rejects this claim.  While the Prussian Army “needed to fight only in Europe and, indeed, within a few hundred miles of their bases. The British Army, in contrast, had to face rebellions, both in the British Isles and in the colonies, had to mount amphibious operations, both within Europe and further afield.”1

The British Army must, in short, be understood in its proper political and strategic context, in terms of its global, imperial missions, rather than any single campaign, less still by one battlefield performance.  Black perceptively contextualises the American War of Independence.  In a detailed and illuminating narrative, he explains Cornwallis’ ultimate defeat.  Yet, he notes that “failure to hold onto the Thirteen Colonies that became the United State was to create a lasting idea of the obsolescence of the British Army”.  He eschews this assertion; “To expect a military to face all its tasks with proficiency and success is unrealistic, and notably so for imperial powers that had wide-ranging commitments, such as, for this period, Manchu China, Mughal India, Ottoman Turkey, Russia and Britain”2.  It is a salutary point.  One defeat does not define an Army.

The most powerful section of the book for the contemporary readers emerges later.  Although Black explains that the Army’s defeat in North America cannot be taken as evidence of general incompetence, he nevertheless highlights that its defeat in 1783 had severe implications.  After America, the Army was demoralised and further weakened by poorly handled disbandment; organisation, training and leadership were subsequently inadequate.  As a result, the British Army performed poorly during the French Revolutionary Wars between 1793 and 1797.

Yet, by 1815, the British Army had been transformed into a formidable force: perhaps the finest in Europe. Black argues that the rise of the War Office, especially after 1809, and the reforms implemented by the Duke of York, the commander-in-chief, were critical to this improvement.  York’s emphasis on “consistency helped to turn a collection of regiments into an army, a development from which Wellington was to benefit greatly”3.  At the same time, the Army discovered some effective commanders, such as Sir John Moore, and of course, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington.  The description of the improvement of this Georgian Army, and its performance in the Peninsula War through to Waterloo, is one of the high points of the book.

In the light of Iraq and Afghanistan (including the recent debacle in Kabul) and the Integrated Review which has favoured the Navy and RAF at the expense of the Army, this section of the book becomes immediately pertinent for defence planners and senior officers today.  After 1783, the Army was in a similar predicament to the one it now faces in 2021.  It is arguably demoralised and inadequately resourced – unclear about its role.  In 1783, the Army renovated itself through thoroughgoing, consistent reforms which created a unified, coherent, properly equipped fighting force, which was effective against a very dangerous opponent.  The question which Jeremy Black’s timely new book raises is: can the Army reform itself again?  Can it meet the new challenges of the coming decade?

Anthony King

Professor War Studies at Warwick University

Anthony King is the professor of war studies at Warwick University.  In 2019, he completed a trilogy on western military transformation, The Transformation of Europe's Armed Forces (Cambridge University Press, 2011), The Combat Soldier (Oxford University Press, 2013), and Command (Cambridge University Press, 2019).  His most recent book, Urban Warfare in the Twenty-First Century was published by Polity in July.  He has advised the British Army and Royal Marines for nearly two decades.

Footnotes

  1. p. x
  2. p. 86
  3. p. 150

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