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Proposed Research: British Army Combat Doctrine and Practice, 1740 – 1784

This research will build on the work and methodology of my doctoral thesis; Destructive and Formidable’: British infantry firepower, 1642 – 1765. During the course of my research it became clear that the knowledge and understanding of the British Army’s practices concerning infantry firepower were incomplete and frequently misunderstood. As a result of my work I have been able to identify for the first time a continuous combat doctrine and explain exactly how the British Infantry were able to generate their overwhelming firepower. I was also able to correct a number of long held misapprehensions and to identify and describe several previously unrecognised, but important changes in their practices. It has also become clear that these shortcomings in modern understanding are true of other aspects of the infantry’s practices, such as how it was organised and manoeuvred and how command and control was exercised. It further became clear that this was also the case with regard to the Army’s combat doctrine and practices across the cavalry and artillery. Furthermore these shortcomings are true of the third of Britain’s major wars of the mid-eighteenth century, the American War of Independence, but which fell outside the scope of my thesis. The result is that while the narrative of events of the wars of the mid-eighteenth century is well known, there is little understanding or analysis of just how the British Army achieved such feats as the defeat of the entire cavalry and much of the infantry of the French Army by just six battalions at the Battle of Minden in 1759.

The proposed research project would build upon the work carried out in my thesis to extend the period covered and broaden the work to cover all aspects of the combat doctrine and practices of all three branches of the army, infantry, cavalry and artillery between 1740 and 1784. The artillery is in particular need of examination. For instance, it is generally thought that the usual rate of fire of a smooth bore cannon of the period was two or three rounds a minute, on a par with the musket. There are, however, several accounts that mention rates of fire in excess of ten rounds a minute. Just how this was achieved, the implications for ammunition supply and the tactical use of artillery have never been addressed.

The outcome of the work would be a thorough examination and explanation of how the British Army operated on the battlefield during the mid-eighteenth century in a number of different theatres. These were primarily Western Europe and North America, but also included the West Indies, India and Scotland, which all presented different challenges requiring different approaches. The research would cover a number of subjects, including, but not exclusively:
• The drill and combat techniques of the individual soldier, including such things as the organisation of firing, the use of the bayonet or sword, and horsemanship.
• The combination of individuals into units and their organisation, how these units were moved and fought, their management and command and control.
• The development of artillery organisation, firepower and tactics.
• The tactics employed in battle under varying circumstances.
• Where possible the effectiveness of all three arms would be analysed.

The resulting analysis and explanation of how the Army operated would have multi-disciplinary benefits and practical applications. Most obviously it would provide the military historian with the means to move beyond a simple narrative history. It would make it possible to interpret and analyse contemporary accounts of fighting, to understand why the actions of one side in a battle were more effective than the other and to explain how the outcome of an action was achieved, not just what the outcome was. Combat is the raison d’etre of an army and thus influences all aspects of it. An understanding of its nature, what it involved and its demands on soldiers would help historian in other fields to understand the broader nature of the army as an institution, its particular needs and its position in society. It would also be of use to museum curators, allowing them to understand the context of their military hardware, the way it was used and what it was like for the soldiers, getting away from the rarefied view of generals and closer to the experience of the rank and file. This would result in improved interpretation of museum objects, helping to bring them to life for the visiting public. For the relatively new discipline of battlefield archaeology it would assist in the understanding of finds and linking them to events described in contemporary accounts. On a more popular level the work would be of use to wargamers and re-enactors who seek to recreate the conflicts of the period, both in Europe and North America.

The methodology is that of a practical military history approach. This is a different approach to the more traditional ‘old’ or narrative military history and the ‘new’ approach that treats armies as institutions and is concerned with their social, economic and religious histories. Neither of these explains the practices of the army, making it impossible to critically analyse the course of events of an engagement or the decision making of commanders. This new methodology involves gaining a detailed understanding of the theoretical practices and methods of the army through a detailed examination and analysis of drill manuals, both official and unofficial, and other contemporary, theoretical military writings. This knowledge would include a familiarity with the terminology and the language of the Army, making it possible to analyse contemporary accounts to identify the application of those practices, or deviations from them, resulting in an understanding, not simply of the narrative of an event, but how the actions of an event were executed. This methodology, as demonstrated by this work, could be applied to the military history of any period.

The sources for the work include official and unofficial drill manuals, theoretical military works, soldier’s letters, diaries, official reports, order books and court martial records. The work on my doctoral thesis and my book on British cavalry of the period means that I am already familiar with these sources, which include such sources as the Cumberland Papers and the Amherst Papers. Also important for the British Army in North America are the holdings of the Huntington Library in California, particularly the Loudoun Papers. Research would be conducted in The British Library, The National Archives, The National Army Museum, The Royal Artillery Institute, The National Library of Scotland, The National Archives of Scotland and, subject to funding, the David Library of the American Revolution, New Jersey, and the Huntington Library, California. Other research resources in local record offices or museums would be consulted as necessary.


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