From 1600 to 1783, the British army was characterized by the growth of a professional force and an increased ability to cooperate with the Royal Navy in order to project power around the globe. In 1600, Britain relied on a militia system for defense. By the end of the American War for Independence, Britain possessed an extremely capable professional army, albeit one unable to defeat the American's Continental army. The British Army, shown marching into Philadelphia in 1777, was a formidable fighting force experienced, well equipped, and well trained.
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Its defeat in the American Revolution is attributed to failures in leadership and repeated underestimations of colonial fighting abilities. (Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pennsylvania) The 1620s saw the abject failure of the English militia system. In that decade, the English attempted to stage expeditions against Cadiz and New Rochelle.
Both were appallingly ad hoc, and both failed completely. Only with the outbreak of the English Civil War would a professional army begin to develop. The parliamentary forces proved far more adept at warfare and incorporated new military developments such as a slower cavalry charge (which was easier to control) and new infantry tactics.
Inspired leadership and effective tactics allowed the Roundheads to win against royalist troops in Ireland, and in Scotland as well. In the 1680s, King James II's relatively large, standing army outraged many in England, especially in light of his tendency toward Roman Catholicism. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 saw James II overthrown and replaced with King William of Orange and Queen Mary.
During William's reign, the English army fought on the Continent during the Nine Years' War and in Ireland as well. English forces also fought extensively in Europe during the reign of William's successor, Queen Anne. The War of the Spanish Succession saw British troops in some of the most famous battles of the eighteenth century, under the command of one of Britain's most famous generals, John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough.
In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, a debate raged in Britain over the size and character of a standing army in Britain. Many suspected that a permanent standing army would only lead to tyranny, either in the form of a military coup or as the muscle for a tyrannical regime. This debate would be settled in Britain with the acceptance of a relatively small permanent army.
The true importance of the debate took place across the Atlantic, as colonists in America studied the arguments used against a standing army and increasingly during the eighteenth century saw the British army in North America as an instrument of tyranny. In the aftermath of the Seven Years' War (known as the French and Indian War in North America), as British troops were stationed throughout the American colonies, many colonists began to fear that those troops would destroy American liberties. Even today, the British army possesses a unique structure that evolved during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Regiments are the principal units of the British army; many have long lineages and their own distinctive characters. Regiments were commanded by a colonel and a colonel proprietary. The former actually led the regiment and attended to the daily administration; the latter owned the regiment.
Officers' commissions were secured by purchase, not by merit. This practice helped to reinforce the social structure of Britain and to ensure that only aristocrats or those from prosperous backgrounds could afford to purchase a commission. Regiments were composed of smaller units known as companies, each normally commanded by a captain.
In battle, these units would be drawn up in a line two deep that could deliver volleys against an enemy. Contrary to popular images of the British fighting in lines while their opponents sniped at them from cover, the British did develop light infantry tactics of their own and could, in most cases, hold their own in wilderness fighting. Structure and Operations During the eighteenth century, the British army developed a rare talent for close and effective cooperation between the army and navy, which allowed the British to project power around the globe.
In 1711, the British staged an expedition against Quebec and failed. Thirty-one years later, the British attacked the Spanish fortress city of Cartagena and failed, largely due to the devastation of the expeditionary force by an outbreak of yellow fever. During the Seven Years' War, British conjunct operations came into their own with a long string of successes: Louisbourg (1758), Quebec (1759), Havana (1762), and Manila (1762).
Conjunct operations played a major role in the American War for Independence as well. One of Britain's greatest triumphs, the campaign to take New York City in 1776, came as a result of British dominance of the waterways in the area of operations. The rare occasions when such operations did not succeed led to disastrous results for the British.
The American victory at Yorktown in 1781 came about because of the Continental army's ability to corner the British army on the York-James peninsula, and because the French fleet prevented the Royal Navy from rescuing the besieged British troops. Operations in the coastal areas of North America and in the islands of the Caribbean did expose British soldiers to killer diseases, often far more lethal than their military opponents. Mosquito-borne illnesses such as yellow fever could exact a fearful toll on their victims: yellow fever leads to fever, vomiting, and severe diarrhea, and in extreme cases death.
The Cartagena expedition of 1742 largely failed due to the heavy toll taken by yellow fever. In addition, the unhealthy water and extreme heat of parts of America and the Caribbean devastated soldiers born in Britain's cool climate. Although the British army performed well in most conflicts of the eighteenth century, it eventually was defeated in the American War for Independence.
While the rank and file fought bravely, poor and lethargic leadership failed to destroy the Continental army. At the battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775, British troops charged into the teeth of the colonists' entrenchments, believing that militia would never stand against superbly trained regulars. During the 1777 campaign, the British high command attempted to attack on three fronts: north from New York City, south from Canada, and against Philadelphia, but a lack of coordination and worse generalship doomed the enterprise.
The army of General John Burgoyne, moving south from Canada, suffered a series of defeats near Saratoga, New York, and eventually surrendered to its American opponent on October 17, 1777. In addition, British prejudices about the colonists' fighting abilities led them astray. In some instances, such as the battle of Cowpens and, later, the 1781 siege of Yorktown, the Americans both outgeneraled and outfought their opponents.
Mitchell McNaylor See also: Braddock, Edward; Bunker Hill, Battle of; Fortifications; French and Indian War; King George's War; Lexington and Concord, Battles of; Military and Diplomatic Affairs (Chronology); Military and Diplomatic Affairs (Essay); Native AmericanEuropean Conflict; Navy, British; Queen Anne's War; Revolutionary War; War of Jenkins' Ear. Bibliography Anderson, Fred. Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754 1766.
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