Although the British Army has only existed since the Act of Union was signed in 1707, which amalgamated the then English and Scottish Parliaments into a single political legislature, the earliest and therefore the oldest military regiment in Britain is said to be the Royal Scots, or the Royal Regiment of Scotland, which has existed since 1633, a decade or more before the New Model Army of England was first raised by the English Parliament.
|Sir John Hepburn|
When Charles II died on the 2nd February 1685, his younger brother James II succeeded to the English, Scottish and Irish thrones, although his right to rule the kingdoms was immediately contested by James Scott, the 1st Duke of Monmouth, who was an illegitimate son of the late monarch, Charles II. However, despite Monmouth’s royal bloodline and his protestant faith, he failed to gain any widespread support for his royal claims, which resulted in his ill-equipped forces being easily defeated by James II’s far better armed and much more experienced troops, including the Royal Scots. In the year following the suppression of Monmouth’s claim, the regiment was reported to have been increased in size when a second battalion was added to their ranks, possibly illustrating King James II increasing concerns over the security of his own reign, which was said to have come under increasing threat largely because of his Roman Catholic faith and his habit of appointing fellow Catholics to important government posts. Almost inevitably, with Parliament and the monarch at odds with one another, a number of England’s leading nobles and members of Parliament were reported to have approached James’ son-in-law, William of Orange, to invade the country, in order to remove King James II from power.
According to some sources, His Majesty’s Royal Regiment of Foot, the Royal Scots, were said to be the only British regiment that actually remained faithful to the unpopular Stuart king, to the point that when James finally abandoned the country in favour of William and Mary in December 1688, members of the Royal Scots mutinied rather than serve the new foreign monarchs and as a result had to be forcibly disarmed. It was also reported that as a direct result of the army’s faithfulness to the monarch, as opposed to the people through Parliament, one major piece of legislation passed by the English legislature was the Bill of Rights 1689, which finally put an end to a British monarch’s right to raise a standing national army and placing control of such military forces firmly in the hands of the country’s political representatives, a situation that remains in force to the present day.
Within late 17th and early 18th century Britain, several military conflicts were reported to have raged around the attempts of the exiled Stuart family to regain their rightful place on the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland, a royal claim that was only finally extinguished by the Act of Settlement 1701, which was intended to ratify the right of succession to the Three Kingdoms, ensuring that only Protestant heirs or relations of William and Mary could ascend to the monarchy of the various kingdoms and that Roman Catholic heirs could not. Although this particular piece of legislation had not been passed by the time the ousted king, James II, attempted to recover his throne through the support of Roman Catholic’s in Ireland, all of the subsequent Jacobite rebellions that took place in Ireland and Scotland ultimately proved to be military disasters for the Stuart cause.
|King James II|
In addition to those that were killed outright by the soldiers, a further forty or more men, women and children were reported to have died from starvation and exposure, after they were driven out of their homes in order to escape the murderous onslaught. Although no single individual ever faced charges for what was later deemed to be murder by a Scottish court of inquiry, the outrage was even reported to have cast a shadow over the reign of the monarch’s William and Mary, as well as helping to harden the attitudes of those Jacobites who would continue to fight for the Stuart family’s cause for the next sixty years or more. However, for Britain’s evolving military forces, this particular period of Scottish history was reported to have been incredibly valuable, with a significant number of loyalist regiments being raised, which would go on to play a vitally important role in helping to create the British Empire, by imposing Britain’s political will around the globe, guarding its overseas territories from foreign enemies and helping some of their regiments achieve almost legendary status in some of history’s bloodiest conflicts.
|William of Orange|
Much of the problem for the army as an employer was that it also had to contend with the various merchant companies who regularly recruited the very best soldiers and officers for their own private armies, in order to impose its commercial will on the native population of the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere. Although these private armies were thought to have performed reasonably well when faced with most native forces, who were less well trained and well-equipped, in 1756 Britain found itself at war with its traditional European adversary, France, which was reported to have had a much larger and more effective land army. Known formally as the Seven Years War, this military conflict has occasionally been called the “First World War”, simply because it involved the two sides waging war against one another in Europe, Asia and North America, as well as on the high seas, becoming one of the most extensive conflicts that had ever been fought up until that time. Driven by the competing imperial ambitions of Britain, France and their respective European allies, for the most part, Britain’s military forces were reported to confronted their adversaries in North America, including the territories of Canada, India, the Caribbean and West Africa, as well as in the world’s great oceans, where the Royal Navy continued to reign relatively unchallenged. However, in the initial stages of the conflict, British land forces were reported to have fared comparatively badly, often failing to match the effectiveness of their French enemies and regularly falling victim to the many unknown diseases that plagued many of Britain’s overseas territories. As a result, British officials were often forced to raise additional native levy forces, who were not only less prone to outbreaks of disease, but who knew the local terrain far better than the incoming foreign soldiers and in some cases proved to be far more successful troops than their British counterparts.
Although Britain did not supply significant numbers of ground troops to the European theatres during the Seven Years War, Royal Navy ships and raiding parties were reported to have played an important role in attacking French interests along the coast, thereby diverting French troops from more important uses. For its part, the ships of the Royal Navy were also known to have thwarted a number of planned Franco-Spanish naval operations that were intended to be launched against Britain and her allies, including a military invasion of Britain, which was finally undone after the Royal Navy defeated a combined Franco-Spanish fleet at Quiberon Bay on the 20th November 1759. However, Britain only sent its first land forces into the European theatre in April 1758 when some nine thousand men were despatched to support the Hanoverian army of Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick, who was reported to have made significant gains over the French before being forced back by a much larger enemy force.
|Duke of Wellington|
The seven Years War was also thought to have seen the birth and development of the first specialist American militias who were able to conduct armed campaigns against those native Indian tribes who were actively supporting the French cause in North America. Units such as Rogers’ Rangers were reported to have been independent light infantry companies that were used for reconnaissance and special operations against both French and hostile Indian forces during the period of the Seven Years War, which is often referred to in North America as the French and Indian War. Founded in 1755 by Major Robert Rogers, although they were thought to have been regarded by most British commanders as little more than a local militia, the fact that these units could and would fight in the most atrocious conditions and were responsible for countless attacks against enemy forces undoubtedly made them one of the most effective fighting forces of the entire conflict, regardless of the fact that the British authorities singularly failed to recognise their achievements.
|Major Robert Rogers|
Although France was reported to have tried to undermine British interests in India, mostly through the actions of their local native allies, who were becoming increasingly concerned by Britain’s growing influence within the subcontinent, France’s reluctance, or inability to provide significant numbers of regular troops to support such native resistance, almost inevitably ensured that the British East India Company would go on to successfully suppress all such French inspired campaigns. Although French agents were reported to have tried to foment anti-British feeling throughout much of India, for the most part such campaigns were largely unsuccessful and it was only in the region of Bengal where they achieved some degree of success, encouraging their traditional ally, Siraj-ud-Daulah, to take up arms against British interests.
The most infamous incident connected with this particular Indian Nawab, or ruler, was reported to be that of the Black Hole of Calcutta, where captured British and Anglo-Indian prisoners from the captured Fort William in Calcutta, were said to have been held overnight in such cramped conditions that many of them died as a result of crushing, suffocation and exhaustion. Although some later reports would claim that well over one hundred and twenty prisoners had died as a result of their incarceration, in all probability only some forty-odd people died because of the conditions, which had little to do with Siraj-ud-Daulah himself, who was said to have been unaware of the prisoner’s physical predicament. However, Siraj’ initial attack on Fort William, along with the subsequent incarceration and deaths of the British prisoners was said to have been used as part of a much wider political campaign to remove Siraj-ud-Daulah from power and have him replaced by a more pro-British leader.
|Clive of India|
Having made diplomatic approaches to Britain and her allies, the Seven Years War was only formally ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris 1763, which saw a number of France’s lost colonies and possessions returned to her, including the economically vital sugar producing islands of Guadaloupe and Martinique. However, as part of the same agreement France was also reported to have surrendered its North American territory of Louisiana, which was ceded to her military ally Spain, in compensation for the Spanish lands of Florida that had been captured by Britain during the war. Additionally, France was also compelled to formally grant possession of its remaining New France territories in North America to Britain, thereby creating the basis for the later state of Canada, which Britain managed to retain following the later American Revolutionary War that brought an end to Britain’s ownership of her thirteen American colonies. Even in India, France was reported to have lost control of many of its pre-war possessions, although she was granted the return of her former trading posts, allowing her to recover much of the commercial business that she had once enjoyed, but without having the military and political influence that had proved to be so troublesome to Britain’s own interests. Finally, in the European theatre, national boundaries were said to have reverted to their earlier limits, although Prussia, one of Britain’s leading allies, was reported to have gained substantial influence in continental Europe, establishing the basis for the later unified German state, which Britain and numerous other European nations would have cause to confront in future decades.
Typically, these seasoned soldiers would regale any potential candidate with talk of the comradeship and adventures that they had experienced in some or other military campaign, often failing to mention the hardship and brutality that formed part of the same military service. In most cases, young recruits would agree to join particular regiments, having been regally entertained in a local tavern and having consumed more alcohol than was good for them, would wake up the following morning to find that they had inadvertently taken the “King’s shilling” and with little chance of escaping the bargain that they had made the previous evening. Alternatively, new recruits could often be found amongst the local criminal classes, with local magistrates and judges giving convicted miscreants the choice of serving time in prison, being transported overseas, or saving themselves by serving in the nation’s military forces. As a consequence of having an army that was largely made up of conscripts, discipline within the various regiments was reported to have been severe, with public lashings, starvation, imprisonment and even capital punishment used to exercise control over the growing ranks of generally poorly educated, badly paid, overworked and often highly disaffected men who made up the majority of the British armed forces.
The officers who were chosen to lead, what the Duke of Wellington would later refer to as the “scum of the earth”, or the British soldier, were often little better than the common men that they led, save for the fact that they were better educated and had significantly more money, or at least their wealthy families did. In common with their lowest soldier, many of these supposedly professional officers were often paid a pittance for their military service, monies that were generally in arrears and that were insufficient to cover the running costs of having to provide much of their own military equipment, including a horse, if they happened to be commissioned within a cavalry unit. As a result of the practice of individuals being able to buy their commissions, almost inevitably this was thought to have had a damaging effect on the overall performance of the British army, with significant numbers of badly trained, foolhardy and even cowardly officers being responsible for leading British regiments into battle against enemy forces. It is fair to say though that amongst both the officer corps and the common ranks there were any number of highly capable and extremely proficient soldiers, whose own military experience not only helped to maintain discipline, but also ensured that each regimental community managed to function efficiently and effectively.
As a military community, the family quarters were also thought to have been governed by a whole series of rules and regulations, which ensured that the civilian camp remained calm and peaceful, vital requirements in a community that was often bristling with weaponry and where personal scores could quite easily be settled by the use of deadly force. In order to maintain discipline, especially in an environment where the presence of women might cause personal rivalries or jealousies, most regiments were thought to have arranged their own procedures for dealing with such incidents, with men who were found guilty of attempting to covet another man’s wife reasonably expecting to face the most severe form of censure, right up to being executed for his actions. Likewise, those who the regimental commanders felt might be a cause of disunity within the civilian camp, such as an erstwhile husband or wife, a disruptive teenager, or a young man who did not want to enlist alongside his father, would often be ordered to leave the camp, their behaviour, or refusal to serve, being regarded as reason enough for the army to stop feeding, housing or transporting them. In most cases though, according to some records, most young men either chose to enlist with their fathers, or were otherwise found an apprenticeship with some or other local tradesman, whilst soldier’s daughters were either found some form of domestic employment, or were married off to a suitable partner, who may or may not have been part of the camp community.
One of the most traditional aspects of these early British army units was undoubtedly the russet red tunics that had first been adopted during the English Civil War by units of the New Model Army, a result of the newly raised military force being clothed, armed, fed and paid by the English Parliament. Although previous royal regiments were reported to have been dressed in varieties of red ever since the late 15th century, often in conjunction with other royal colours, the emergence of a standardised uniform, for a brand new professional English army was thought to have marked the beginning of a British army look that would continue right through to the late 19th century, when most regiments were outfitted with the much more practical khaki colours of the Indian subcontinent.
By modern standards of course, red uniforms would seem to be the most impractical sort of tunic to wear, given that today’s weaponry is far more lethal and far more accurate than those that were employed during the 17th and 18th centuries. Unlike today, where battles are often conducted from a distance and through the use of specialised weaponry such as missiles, tanks, drones and fixed wing aircraft, the battlefields of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were often highly confusing places to be, with deafening noise, poor visibility and close quarter combat being regular features of such military engagements. The sorts of weaponry available to most infantrymen of the period, were reported to have included various types of muskets, such as the heavy Wheel lock and Matchlock guns that were fired from a movable stand, to the lighter Flintlocks and Cap locks that could be carried and fired by hand whilst on the move, as well as having a detachable bayonet that could be used in hand-to-hand combat. However, the biggest drawback of these early firearms was that they lacked any sort of accuracy, only being reliable over comparatively short distances, often as little as fifty yards, thereby presenting little danger to soldiers beyond that range, whether they were wearing red uniforms or not.
However, as battle was joined between facing armies, the smoke and noise caused by the firing from dozens of cannons and many hundreds, possibly thousands of muskets would have quickly seen the immediate area enveloped by swirling clouds of gun smoke, making it hard for the already confused and often frightened soldiers to find their bearings in a cauldron of competing sights, smells and sounds. However, the presence of familiar red tunics would no doubt have provided some sense of security for the British troops that were awaiting the advance of enemy troops, or those who were ordered to move forward against the massed ranks of their adversaries already fixed positions. With hundreds or thousands of red uniformed British soldiers moving towards an enemy line, it was said to have offered some degree of comfort to many of the troops that they were simply one amongst several hundreds potential targets, for the enemy musketeers, making their own death or survival little more than a chance event, which was regarded as being one of the major advantages of wearing the famous red tunics.
|Colonel Smith (Lexington)|
Significantly, at the time of the outbreak of the American Revolutionary Wars in 1775 the total military strength of the British army worldwide was reported to have numbered less than forty thousand men, most of who were scattered around the globe defending Britain’s vast overseas possessions, including those on the Indian Subcontinent, West Africa, the Caribbean and North America. The man in charge of British forces in North America just prior to the outbreak of the Revolutionary War and whose actions were said to have precipitated the revolt, was General Thomas Gage, an individual, better suited to being a colonial administrator, rather than an outstanding military commander.
According to some sources, Gage was thought to have gained his position as Commander-in-chief of British forces in North America largely through the lobbying of his well placed friends and relatives, as opposed to having attained it through his own abilities, a fact that would become all too evident, when he was finally faced with the prospect of imposing unpopular British legislation on a generally resistant and highly antagonistic colonial population.
|General Thomas Gage|
The Stamp Tax itself was said to have proved to be so unpopular, on both sides of the Atlantic that in 1766 the British Parliament was reported to have repealed the legislation, although by that time, significant damage had been done to the previously cordial relations which had existed between Britain and her American colonists. However, despite ending the divisive tax, at the same time, the British legislature was reported to have introduced the Declaratory Act of 1766, which formally asserted Parliaments right to enact legislation both on the British and American populations, essentially ignoring colonial demands for the sort of political representation that was enjoyed by the population of Britain. Around the same time that colonial leaders were becomingly increasingly irritated by the often high handed attitude of British Parliamentarians, the London based legislature also introduced the Quartering Act of 1765, which permitted British troops to be accommodated in private dwellings, irrespective of the individual householders permission, helping to add to the growing resentment felt by most of those colonists who happened to live in the towns and cities of America’s eastern seaboard.
It was said to be during General Thomas Gage’s tenure as Britain’s military commander-in-chief that local tensions were thought to have risen to such an extent that he ordered large numbers of British troops to withdraw from the frontier areas of British North America, back to some of the larger urban centres, including Boston and New York, both of which were said to have been inhabited by highly resentful and suspicious colonial populations.
Perhaps predictably, the large scale quartering of regular British troops in a number of America’s largest cities was not generally welcomed by the local populations, who saw the move as a form of military occupation, which could only end in some form of bloody conflict, given the presence of large numbers of armed troops on their streets. Almost as soon as the British troops moved into Boston, tensions arose between them and the local population, which was generally characterised by a series of brawls and fights between men from both sides, although for the most part, such outbreaks of violence rarely resulted in any lives being lost. Tempers were thought to have been further inflamed by continuing press reports that concentrated on the mutual antagonisms, to the point that rather than helping to reduce the almost regular fights, the articles were thought to have heightened tensions further, although some regiments were withdrawn from Boston in order to prevent any serious outbreaks of disorder. However, despite the best efforts of all concerned, the almost inevitable loss of life, which many had feared would result from the ongoing tensions, was said to have occurred on the evening of the 5th March 1770.
Almost immediately Gerrish’s companions began to argue with Private White and his officer, challenging them to a fight and raising such a commotion that before long a large crowd was said to have gathered around the two British soldiers. Another British officer, Captain Preston, who happened to be close by and who had witnessed the confrontation, then ordered a detachment of one NCO and seven soldiers to go and retrieve Private White and the Captain from the increasingly angry crowd, although as they moved towards the two men, they themselves were said to have become hemmed in by the crowd, which by now was thought to have grown to well over several hundred angry citizens. Believing their lives to be at risk, the detachment of troops was reported to have loaded their weapons and aimed them in the direction of the slowly encroaching crowd, who rather than retreating from the small band of soldiers, were reported to have started pelting them with snowballs and whatever else they could lay their hands on. One member of the crowd however, a local innkeeper called Richard Holmes, was said to have escalated matters by rushing forward and striking one of the soldiers, a Private Hugh Montgomery, on the side of the head with a club. As he recovered his senses, the young soldier was reported to have discharged his musket into the crowd, but without hitting anyone with the shot, even though he later admitted to firing the weapon deliberately.
However, as if to goad the remaining soldiers into repeating Montgomery’s actions, the crowd reportedly began to chant “Fire” at the group of soldiers and having repeated the chant several times, the troops did exactly that, hitting eleven members of the crowd with the volley, killing three of them instantly. Two more civilians would subsequently perish in the aftermath of the shooting, bringing the total number of fatalities to five, for which Captain Preston and his eight soldiers were charged with murder on 27th March 1770. As a direct result of the incident, all of the remaining British troops were said to have been withdrawn from the city and were relocated to billets on Castle Island in Boston Harbour, whilst Captain Preston and his co-accused were remanded in custody to stand trial at Suffolk County Courthouse in October and November 1770.
Captain Preston and the eight accused British soldiers were reported to have been tried separately and after a delay of several months, in order that local tensions might be eased before any sort of jury trials took place. Initially however, it was said to have proved extremely difficult to find a local lawyer who was prepared to defend the soldiers, mainly because it was felt that to do so would have a highly detrimental effect on any attorney’s career, leading to many simply refusing to accept the papers. Eventually though, John Adams, one of the areas leading lawyers, colonial leaders and later America’s second freely elected President, agreed to take the case, mainly to ensure that all of the accused men received a fair trial and that justice was seen to be served. At Captain Preston’s subsequent trial, the basis of Adams’ defence was that the British officer had not actually ordered his men to fire their weapons into the crowd and was therefore not responsible for the actions that led to the deaths of the five colonial civilians, an argument that was eventually accepted by the jury after a trial lasting some six days. The second trial, which involved the eight British soldiers, who were accused of firing into the crowd, took place in November 1770 and centred round Adams’ main argument that the troopers had opened fire on the crowd ostensibly because they felt their own live were at risk from the large and extremely angry civilian crowd.
It was incidents, such as what later became known as the “Boston Massacre” and the introduction of a new “Tea Act” in May 1773 that were said to have created even greater divisions between the British Parliament and the colonial leadership in America, which inevitably led to the conflict that the British establishment regarded as a rebellion, but that most colonists saw as a war of independence, the American Revolutionary War. One of the most notable events that led to the outbreak of war between Britain and its American colonists was said to have been the Boston Tea Party of December 1773, the criminal destruction of several tons of tea by colonists, reportedly because the cargoes would have been taxed without their consent, if indeed the tea had ever been officially landed, which was not the case.
Even the likes of Benjamin Franklin were reported to have been outraged by the actions of the colonists, who were said to have disguised themselves as native Indians to carry out the raid and a number of local American merchants even offered to compensate Britain for the loss of the cargo, although all such offers were subsequently refused. Today the Boston Tea Party is widely regarded as being symbolic of the American revolutionary cause and its opposition to the supposedly overbearing and illegal taxation imposed by a wholly unrepresentative British government, significantly a viewpoint that was only widely promoted some fifty or sixty years after the raid first took place. However, even though the “Tea Party” itself was thought to be little more than an aggravating assault on a single British tea clipper and its cargo, the action of the so-called patriots who carried the raid, was said to have had a far more serious consequences for the wider colonial community. As a direct result of the attack, the British Parliament was said to have been so incensed that they immediately introduced a series of legislative Acts, which were not only designed to punish the port of Boston and its population for the destruction of the tea, but also to reinforce the generally held view of the elected assembly that Parliament’s authority was absolute, not only in Britain, but throughout its colonial Empire.
By imposing these Acts on the people of Massachusetts, the British Parliament had, in the view of many American colonists, violated their basic rights, not only constitutionally, but also under the terms of the colonial charters which had been used to establish the British settlements in the first place. Even outside of Massachusetts, the introduction of these new Acts was reported to have caused outrage amongst the colonial population, especially amongst those who believed that a formal American separation from Britain was the only legitimate way forward and who used the imposition of such unfair legislative Acts to underpin their own argument for full American independence.
In response to these new measures many American colonies were reported to have sent representatives to the First Continental Congress, a meeting of colonial leaders, who agreed to form the Continental Association, an arrangement which called for the wholesale boycott of British made goods being brought into America. More importantly however, at the same meeting, colonial leaders also agreed to support Massachusetts in the event that the colony was attacked by British forces, a pledge that would ultimately be tested when the British commander-in-chief in North America, General Thomas Gage, sent troops into the towns of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, with orders to seek and destroy armaments that were being held by local colonial militias.
As a response to the introduction of the previously mentioned Intolerable Acts, a number of local militias within Massachusetts had begun to store large quantities of arms, just in case the political situation continued to deteriorate and in the event that any sort of armed action was taken against the local population by the estimated three thousand British troops that were said to have been stationed in the colony. Aware that the colonists were storing arms and ammunition, General Gage, who was generally seen as being sympathetic to the colonial cause, mainly because he had an American wife, undertook his duty as a British officer all the same and was said to have made plans for seizing the American arms caches in the most effective and quietest way possible.
The intention of Gage’s military expedition of the 18th April 1775 was for a force of around seven hundred regular British troops to leave their main military bases in Boston and make towards the colonial centre of Concord, where they expected to search for and seize the militias arms depots, as well as arresting a number of colonial leaders, whose activities were deemed to be suspect by the British authorities. Drawing men from a number of the elite infantry regiments that were billeted in and around Boston, rather than taking command of the expedition himself, Gage was reported to have assigned a Colonel Smith who would take overall command of the force, with a Major Pitcairn as his immediate subordinate. By the time that Gage was announcing the military operation to his junior officers, the general was said to have been completely unaware that large parts of the plan had already been leaked to the local colonial forces, either by Margaret Gage, or other sympathisers within the British camp, essentially rendering most of the proposal useless from a strategic point of view.
He would have also have been unaware that by the time he began to instruct his officers on the morning of the 18th April 1775, many colonial militias were already being assembled by their leaders, in readiness for the British advance on Concord, giving the American forces plenty of time to prepare for the regular troop’s arrival. Unfortunately, even though most of the British infantrymen were highly experienced soldiers, due to the way that Gage’s forces were constituted, many of the more senior officers who were charged with commanding each of the various battalions and regiments were said to have been drawn from other units and were therefore largely unknown to the men that they were expected to lead on the vitally important expedition. However, regardless of such issues, on the evening of the 18th April, the various British troops were ordered to prepare themselves to leave Boston by boat, for the comparatively short journey to Lechmere Point on the other side of the Bay, where they would join up with the main route to Concord. However, even though the boat journey was said to have been largely uneventful, the fact that most of the troops were forced to stand during the trip and were then asked to wade through waist deep freezing cold water to come ashore, was thought to have been a less the favourable start to a campaign, which left many of the men and their equipment soaking wet.
With uncertainty overcoming good order on both sides, almost inevitably someone discharged their weapon, although most reporters later agreed that the shot had not been fired by any of the men on the common, but rather by somebody away from the scene, with both sides subsequently accusing one another’s supporters for the first sign of aggression. Initially only a few shots were exchanged between the two sides, but perhaps due to their better training, the British troops were reported to have begun to fire almost regular volleys of shot into the American ranks, without having been given any sort of order to fire, according to later American reports. As the minuteman company began to withdraw with some haste, the British regulars were said to have moved forward with their bayonets fixed, purportedly killing and wounding several more members of the militia, who were trying to escape the scene. According to British reports of the incident, much of the soldier’s confusion was caused by a lack of information and leadership by their officers, who seemed to have been taken as much by surprise as was everybody else, leading to a temporary loss of command, during which the troops followed their normal practice. It was only when a more seasoned officer, Colonel Smith, came forward from the main column that some form of order was restored and the troops were ordered to reassemble.
Having left Lexington in relatively good order, the British force continued on its journey to Concord, no doubt aware that their earlier actions and the deaths of the local minutemen had already been reported to the main militia headquarters. For their part, local colonial forces were reported to have been generally undecided as to what action to take, whether to withdraw from the town, remain at their current posts, or march out to meet the British troops that were fast approaching the town. According to most sources, the decision was made to march out and confront the regular troops, although having left Concord, within a short distance they were said to have met the vanguard of the seven hundred-strong British force, realised they were outnumbered by three to one and subsequently marched back the way they had just come. Arriving back in the town with the British troops a short distance behind, rather than face a similar fate as their comrades in Lexington, militia leaders then made the decision to withdraw from Concord to a position just north of the town, where they could monitor the British troops, before deciding on any further action.
As they arrived in the town, Colonel Smith was reported to have despatched a contingent of soldiers to guard the bridge at the north end of town, in order to protect the main body of troops from the militia forces that were known to be gathering in that general area. Likewise the British commander also detached a number of men to protect their line of retreat if that should become necessary, before ordering the remainder of his soldiers to begin searching the town for the weapons that were believed to be stored there. The main stockpile, which was said to have been located at a nearby farm, was fairly quickly found, containing three large artillery pieces and numerous pieces of shot which were subsequently destroyed and disposed of by the troops, who also ruined a significant amount of foodstuffs that were considered to be unusually high and might well have provided sustenance to an enemy force. Although the British troops were reported to have ruthless in their pursuit of any contraband items, for the most part they were thought to have been reasonable in their treatment of the local population, reimbursing the local businesses for any items of food and drink that were consumed during their search of the town.
However, rather than attacking the regular troops from a distance, which would have proved largely ineffective, the militia commanders were reported to have ordered their forces to advance on the bridge, but cautioned them not to open fire, unless they were fired upon first. With a much larger enemy force approaching, the British infantrymen were ordered back across the bridge and told to adopt a street fighting position, a tactic which was completely unsuitable for the situation that they now found themselves in. As they rushed to assemble in their ranks, at least one soldier was said to have fired his weapon in the direction of the advancing militia, causing a handful of his comrades to do the same, as a result of which, at least two minutemen were killed and wounded, causing both sides to open fire on one another. Limited by the width of the road that they were walking down, the first few ranks of minutemen were reported to have fired around one another, killing and wounding a large number of the British troops who had been incorrectly gathered into a relatively tight group, making one big target for the minutemen to aim at. With most of their officers and senior NCO’s killed or seriously wounded, the remaining British troops were said to have taken to their heels, abandoning their wounded comrades at the bridge and leaving behind the other British troops that were still searching the immediate area for the militia’s secret arms supplies. As they fled back towards the town, the flight of the soldiers was only brought to a halt by the arrival of two Grenadier companies, under the command of Colonel Smith, who had moved forward towards the bridge having heard the exchange of gunfire that had taken place between his troops and the minutemen. However, having observed that members of the local militia were content to remain in a defensive position and not open fire on his troops, Smith was reported to have rounded up all of the search parties who had been looking for the hidden arms caches and retired back to Concord, where the main British force was said to have continued searching for weapons, before finally reassembling to make their way back to Boston.
According to some sources, having killed and wounded a number of the British troops that were holding the northern bridge, members of the militia were thought to have acted in a variety of different ways, with some retiring back up the hill, others advancing over the bridge, whilst a handful of others left the scene entirely. However, most of them remained nearby and simply waited for orders to be issued, as to what action they should take next, retreat, advance or hold their ground, although with no command to fire being given, as the advancing British Grenadier companies arrived at the bridge, the minutemen simply waited to see what action the troops would take. As the British soldiers retired back towards Concord, having recovered their scattered search parties and the wounded troops from the bridge, so the militia were left in control of the immediate area, later moving towards the town as the British forces moved out, on their way back to Boston, their mission having been largely accomplished. Most historical reports suggest that as the regular troops travelled back along the main road to Lexington and then Boston, their every move was shadowed by a growing number of colonial militia, who were intent on attacking the British party at every opportunity, a tactic which was said to have been expected by Colonel Smith, who put out flankers on both sides of the main column, in order to deter any large scale and unexpected attack on his main body of troops.
Each of these militia ambushes, set up by the various colonial units who had been drawn into the area, were thought to have steadily reduced the British force, which lost handfuls and then dozens of men to each and every assault, but were still able to push forward, overcoming each and every enemy position that was placed in their way. However, by the early afternoon of the 19th April 1775 and having been on their feet for very nearly seventeen hours straight, during which they had been soaked, shot at and seen many of their friends and comrades killed or wounded, even some of the surviving British officers were beginning to find it difficult to keep their men encouraged.
Fortunately for Colonel Smith and his remaining troops, just as it seemed that they would be unable to continue with their journey, the arrival of a second larger British contingent, numbering around a thousand troops, who were equipped with cannon, was thought to have saved the day. Under the command of Earl Hugh Percy, although this second British force was reported to have been ill-provisioned for any sort of large scale expedition, ostensibly because Percy was in such a rush to make his way to Lexington, ultimately their arrival was said to have saved Colonel Smith’s original force from being captured or destroyed by the colonial militia, which would have been a complete disaster for the British authorities.
|Earl Hugh Percy|
Although the colonial forces were thought to have been initially been stalled by the arrival of Percy’s military column and its cannons, within a relatively short time they were said to have adapted their strategies, so that they shadowed the now much larger British force at a distance, occasionally firing into the ranks of the military column, with the expectation that their shot would kill or wound somebody. The fact that they refused to engage the British troops in a more formal battle line, was said to have irritated many of the regular officers and soldiers, as did the colonial’s habit of using trees, walls and even private houses as firing positions, a custom that would inevitably lead to civilians being caught up in the increasingly bitter march. As the British column moved closer to its ultimate objective, their military base at Boston, so the numbers and formation of the militia was said to have grown, making them more of an obvious target for Earl Percy’s cannons, which were said to have been used to great effect on the latter part of the journey, with many minutemen being killed and wounded by the British artillery. Apparently aware that the colonial’s would attempt to ambush him on the final part of his march to Boston, Percy was reported to have moved his column along a much more circuitous route and away from a large militia force, who subsequently found themselves unable to intercept the regular troops, much to their own frustration.
Although the detour was said to have taken the British troops into the neighbouring town of Charlestown, rather than Boston itself, the settlement still allowed the exhausted British troops to take up a series of well-defended positions from where they could be reinforced by other British infantry units and protected by the guns of HMS Somerset which was stationed in the nearby harbour. For many of Colonel Smith’s surviving troops, those who had participated in the original operation against Concord, their undertaking had proved to be a remarkable feat of military strength and discipline. Not only had they gone nearly two days without sleep, but had also travelled well over forty miles on foot, a good deal of the time under direct enemy fire, something that few military units of the time would have been able to cope with. Despite the British positions though, the militias were reported to have continued to gather on the outskirts of Boston, with an estimated fifteen thousand minutemen assembled there by the morning of the 20th April 1775, although virtually all of these forces were said to have been withdrawn, once it became clear that the city was generally unassailable, without a huge loss of life.
|18th C Redcoat|
The fact that mistakes were made by individual British officer’s in the deployment of their men, as was the case at the bridge located to the north of Concord and which resulted in a number of regulars being killed or injured, had little to do with colonial military strategy, but more to do with a highly inexperienced British officer. Likewise, the withdrawal of the troops from Concord was simply the result of the British forces having completed the task assigned to them, rather than any sort of pressure exerted by the colonial militia, who for the most part seem to have remained on the outskirts of the town, awaiting additional reinforcements who then took up position along the British column’s line of withdrawal. Bearing in mind that throughout much of the journey from Concord to Lexington and then on to Charlestown, the British troops were in plain sight, unlike many of the minutemen who were hiding themselves behind walls, trees and nearby buildings, obviously unwilling or unable to expose themselves to direct and sustained British fire. It is also worth recalling that at one point during the day the British troops were thought to have been outnumbered by some three or four to one and yet the colonial militia still did not feel confident enough to stand toe to toe with their adversaries.
If the colonial’s did secure any sort of tactical victory over the British in respect of this very early military engagement, then it was almost entirely political in nature, especially given the fact that the colonial leadership was particularly adept at producing and distributing highly misleading propaganda, which could be used to proclaim their own version of events to the wider world. Unlike the British authorities, who were known for being particularly bad at reporting or justifying specific events, often because they felt no need to do so, the colonial leadership saw the need for and benefit of being the victim in the ongoing dispute, not only to sell such an idea to their own population, but more importantly to sell it to the wider world, to countries like France, Spain and the Netherlands, who would later go on to support America’s colonial cause. As part of what became a carefully prepared story for the outside world, details relating to the colonist’s preparations for war, intelligence gathering and some of the less palatable aspects of their militia’s behaviour during the Battle of Lexington and Concord, including the reported scalping of a British soldier and the use of civilian properties to launch attacks, were deliberately suppressed by colonial leaders, whereas every infringement, real or invented, which had purportedly been carried out by British troops, was meticulously reported to the watching world.
|Battle of Bunker Hill|
Although the British were said to have been aware of the colonial’s presence on the hills above Boston, for the most part they were said to have been relatively unconcerned, although several vessels in the harbour were reported to have fired at them, but with little real effect. Eventually though, General Gage was said to have become concerned enough to order an attack against the position, which he was assured, would be easily overcome. As tended to be the case with the highly organised British forces, much time was said to have been lost while sufficient infantrymen were found to be used for the attack, after which they had to be inspected and then marched down to the harbour where they then had to wait to be embarked on the boats that would carry them to their target. However, having landed their forces, it was said to have come to one of the British commander’s attention that more colonials might be present, than had first been thought, so he sent back for reinforcements, allowing his fifteen hundred soldiers to rest and eat while they waited for these additional troops to arrive. With the British forces below them making it plain that they intended to attack, the colonial militia at the top of the hills immediately sent back for their own reinforcements and whilst they waited, arranged for their newly built redoubt, to be further strengthened in readiness for the forthcoming attack.
|General William Howe|
Eventually, as this third and final attack was made on the militias defensive redoubt, the colonial volley fire was reported to have caused significant losses amongst the advancing British line, but not to the point where the assault was stalled and with some colonials running low on ammunition and others keen to escape the scene, this time the regulars were able to close with the militia forces. With bayonets fixed, the surviving British marines and infantrymen quickly began fierce hand to hand fighting with the colonists who were eventually driven off both Breed and Bunker Hill’s and back towards their main base at Cambridge. However, by the end of the bloody and costly engagement, which is generally known as the Battle of Bunker Hill, the British forces were reported to have sustained exceptionally high numbers of casualties, with over two hundred men dead and more than eight hundred wounded. According to some contemporary reports, British officers were thought to have suffered a disproportionate number of fatalities during the engagement, ostensibly because they were often leading their men from the front, putting themselves at greater risk of being killed or wounded by the guns of the colonial militia.
Although the Battle of Bunker Hill was generally deemed to be a British victory, largely because they managed to remove a potential military threat to the city of Boston, ultimately the way in which they achieved that victory and the losses that they suffered as a result of it, proved to have much wider and longer lasting repercussions for Britain’s interests there. Not only was General Thomas Gage subsequently replaced as the senior British military commander in America, but attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic were said to have hardened as a result of the ongoing conflict, with some political and military leaders becoming increasingly sympathetic to the colonial cause, whilst others adopted a much more hard line approach, believing that any and all means should be used to crush the rebellious militias and their political leadership. Unfortunately, the military commander appointed to replace Gage, General William Howe, was said to have been the commander who was directly responsible for the unnecessary losses at Bunker Hill, a man whose reticence was widely known and whose reluctance to secure victory at any cost would ultimately prove to have catastrophic results for the British cause in America.
|Sir Henry Clinton|
One of the first orders that General Clinton was said to have received upon taking over from Howe as Britain’s overall commander in America, was for him to withdraw his regular troops from Philadelphia and send some five thousand regulars to the Caribbean, in preparation for any French attacks that might be directed there by the colonial’s newest European ally. With his land forces dramatically reduced and with little expectation that they would be replaced from Britain or elsewhere, Clinton was initially instructed to hold whatever grounds he could, without seeking to expand his areas of control. However, as a highly able military commander, Clinton was reported to have ignored his instructions and despatched what troops he had, to a number of theatres, often with mixed results, as he lacked the numbers to successfully suppress colonial activities outside of the main British held enclaves.
As a highly experienced military commander, Clinton’s actions were almost always directed against an enemy army, rather than against the civilian population that might be associated with them, a distinction that was not always shared by his political masters back in London. However, with hostilities largely at an impasse by the end of 1778 Clinton was said to have found his position undermined by the British government’s regular habit of refusing his requests for specific military commanders, who he believed might make a marked contribution to his campaign. Unfortunately, many of those who were provided were often political appointees, those who could be relied upon to support the government’s plans, rather than those of Clinton himself, who was the commander on the ground. As a consequence, Clinton often found it difficult to cultivate good working relationships with some of these commanders, a situation that was inevitably exacerbated by the fact that the British authorities remained unwilling or unable to send him fresh troops which might reinforce his limited and often exhausted forces.
A number of Britain’s leading admirals and generals who would have been vitally important to Britain’s war effort in America, were reported to have resigned, rather than participate in what was often regarded as an unnecessary and unwanted conflict with American settlers, many of whom originated from British stock. Even some of the senior officers who directed the course of the war in America, were said to have been unhappy about the situation, but excused their own involvement by insisting that they were simply following orders and as serving soldiers had little say in exactly where they served. However, the divisions caused by the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, was said to have had a marked effect on the levels of recruitment undertaken by the British government, forcing the authorities to rely on other sources for troops, including mercenaries from the European state of Hesse-Kassel, whose ruler, Frederick II, was said to have hired out many of his own troops to his nephew, King George III, for the war in America, earning themselves the nickname “Hessians” in the process. Up to thirty thousand of these hired troops were thought to have been employed during the American Revolutionary War, along with an estimated fifty thousand British troops, as well as an unknown number of freed black African slaves and the loyalist settlers who were said to have taken up arms in Britain’s cause.
Opposing them, a reported thirty five thousand Americans were said to have joined the Continental Army, often serving anything between one and three years depending on their personal circumstances, whilst this regular force was said to have been supported by another forty five thousand militiamen, who tended to fight on a state by state, or engagement by engagement basis. Added to these American forces, something like ten thousand regular French troops were reported to have fought on American soil, although many more were thought to have attacked British interests around the globe, including in the Caribbean, India and Europe, forcing Britain to divert much needed troops away from the American theatre, in order to protect these overseas territories from French, Dutch and Spanish attacks. Ultimately though, there were thought to have been any number of decisions that contrived to defeat the British Army in America, few of which had anything to do with the military capability of the Continental Army and its leaders directly.
With reasonably well trained colonial militias in most areas of the thirteen British colonies, most of whom had been raised to fight and defend against Indian attacks, although they lacked the uniform discipline of regular troops, they were ideally suited to fight an extended guerrilla war against any sort of enemy, whether European or native. This ability to launch highly effective hit and run raids against an enemy force was said to have been well demonstrated during the British journey back from Lexington and Concord, when colonial minutemen were reported to have taken a heavy toll on the regular troops, as well as managing to raise a total force of some several thousand men by journey’s end. For the British forces to have suppressed such activity, they would almost certainly have needed to occupy substantial areas of the country, which given their limited numbers would have been almost impossible, unless of course Britain had prepared to commit hundreds of thousands of troops and carry out a highly repressive occupation of the territories, neither of which solution was possible for, or indeed acceptable to the British government of the day.
It was also thought to be the case that a number of the military commanders who were given overall control of the American colonies, seriously underestimated the ability of the colonial militias to stand up against British regulars, which of course, they very rarely did. General Thomas Gage was said to have been the first commander to misjudge the mood and fighting ability of the colonials, with his own personal character traits and the possible connivance of his wife, both helping to alert the colonists to most of the military proposals that Gage intended to implement. It was said to have been a combination of Gage’s and General Howe’s poor judgement which allowed the fiasco at Bunker Hill to occur and Howe alone that permitted the colonials to force him out of Boston, a sea port that the British forces would have been well advised to defend with a little more vigour. Howe’s successor, General Clinton, despite being a highly capable and quite successful strategist was said to have helped create the final defeat of the British forces in America, by ordering his immediate subordinate, Lord Cornwallis, to establish a secure base at Yorktown in Virginia, an order that would prove to be catastrophic, when the enclave was later besieged by French and American forces.
However, even though hostilities between British and American forces were not brought to a end until April 1782, when the British Parliament voted to end the war in America, the wider conflict involving the likes of France, Spain and the Netherlands, nations that had supported the American cause, were only finally concluded with the signing of the Treaties of Paris and Versailles in September 1783. Although no definitive figures exist regarding the numbers of British land troops who died of wounds received during the fighting, a basic estimate would seem to suggest that anything between seven and ten thousand soldiers died as a direct result of the conflict, but with far more dying as a result of the various diseases that all sides were exposed to during the same period. For many of the men who survived the war, especially those soldiers specifically recruited to oppose the colonial cause, the British defeat resulted in a significant number of British regiments either being amalgamated or disbanded entirely, their former members having being transferred to other units or discharged back into the civilian community. However, with the territories of British North America, later the state of Canada, still in Britain’s possession, large numbers of troops were said to have been retained in order to protect these British held lands, along with the Empire’s other overseas territories including those in the Caribbean, West Africa and the Indian subcontinent. Even though the fate of the thirteen American colonies and the attached western frontier had been decided by the outcome of the Revolutionary War, ownership of the more northerly territories would remain a source of contention between Britain and America for the next twenty nine years, until it erupted into armed conflict between the two sides in what became known as the War of 1812, which has been discussed elsewhere.