Insurrection Reading List
The British Army regards the American Revolutionary War with the same zeal as it regards our most recent escapades in southern Iraq; a campaign that is to be acknowledged grudgingly and preferably consigned to the dustbins of history. We are sore losers. That is a shame as there is a great deal to learn from both campaigns; in fact somewhat perversely there are likely to be more lessons to be learnt from those campaigns that veer between an inconclusive result and an outright defeat than there are from our better known victories. These lessons are also more likely to be at the operational and strategic level, levels at which the current British reputation is somewhat lacklustre. This is clearly the case for the American Revolutionary War which is highly pertinent to today.
The American Revolutionary War lasted from 1775 until 1783. It grew from a colonial rebellion to a broad conflict encompassing France, Holland and Spain. Unlike the common misconception of British defeat being due to incompetent British officers leading the thin red line against plucky Americans unsportingly hiding behind trees (British soldiers adapted very quickly to North American requirements, petite guerre was not new, and British light companies were very good) the reality reveals campaign lessons on:
- Logistics. Inter-Theatre the British were at the end of a 9 week supply chain from the UK to the US ( and in this in the days before refrigeration). Intra-theatre the communications/transport system network simply was not as developed as it was in Europe and the ground posed significant challenges. This conflict more clearly than many, highlights the impact of logistics on campaigning.
- Joint Operations. We think of the American Revolution in terms of British joint operations, but the entry of the French fleet into the fight was a pivotal point in the war, and Franco/American joint operations in the Yorktown campaign were superb. We lose control of the sea at our peril.
- Mass matters. The British never had sufficient combat power to secure terrain and take the offensive. Without the ability to secure the population, Loyalists never felt secure enough to commit to the Crown. With the broadening of the conflict to include France, Spain and Holland, British commitments increased (we had to strip manpower from Theatre to meet greater priorities while the Americans received additional combat power.
- Alliances matter. It is debatable whether the Continental Army was sufficient in itself to defeat us, it is undeniable that the alliance (America, France, Spain and Holland) did.
- Peer Power Competition. As we move from a super-power world to a multi-power world there are lessons to be learnt for us about strategy in a multi-polar competitive system.
- It’s all about the economy, stupid. Wars are expensive, and we in the military tend not to look at the overall impact of their costs, but politicians (rightly) do. At the strategic level the costs of war weigh heavily.
In looking at this campaign at the operational and strategic levels I found the Ucko and Marks framework for analysing armed threats particularly instructive.
Lastly in thinking of this campaign I was minded very much of General Sir Rupert Smith’s comment from the recent RUSI Land Warfare Conference: “You and your opponent share the objective; legitimacy, populations access to basic resources, imposing the rule of law or not. These are competitive relationships, not adversarial. A race, not a boxing match.”
For those who do wish to study the campaign some more, here are my top four picks:
- The West Point History of the American Revolution. Probably the best single book you can buy on the American Revolution due to its combination of history, analysis, illustrations and maps. Provides an excellent oversight and grounding for further study. Reviewed here.
- With Zeal and Bayonets Only. A more in depth study of British Army tactics, equipment and performance over the course of the war. The author (in his own words) aims to “show in the course of this work, the King’s troops won the vast majority of their battlefield engagements in America because they tailored their conventional tactical methods intelligently to local conditions…” The work is narrowly focused on the operational and tactical levels and is best read after gaining an understanding of the broader contours of the war. Reviewed here.
- A Respectable Army. The first book I was introduced to when looking at the Revolutionary War and rightly so. It is one of the definitive accounts of the war and of the Continental Army. Reviewed here.
- The Men Who Lost America. No one likes a loser, as is clearly shown by how history has treated those in charge of British efforts during the war. As we consider our recent campaigns and some dubious decisions closer to home (I think of the outsourcing of recruiting and housing in particular) it is worth considering that we rarely select idiots as generals, now or ever (there are a few honourable exceptions). This book provides a good look at British higher command during the Revolutionary War, and should make one consider the linkages between strategy and operations. Reviewed here.