Tuesday, June 20, 2017

How did the British Army adapt to North America in the French and Indian War?

Old Fort Niagara Staff portraying 46th Grenadiers at the 1759 Siege event

Dear Reader,


After tallying up the votes, more people wanted to hear about the French and Indian War in North America than any other topic. Well, the people have spoken, here is your post! Feel free to vote in our next post selection, up in the right hand corner of the page.

By this point, in most academic, reenacting, and wargaming circles, it has been firmly established that the British army adopted a two-rank, open-order formation during the course of the American War of Independence. Thanks to the painstaking research of individuals such as Matthew Spring, Don Hagist, and Steve Rayner, we know much more about the British Army during the American War of Independence than was thought possible thirty years ago. This shallow open formation, coupled with a rapid advance was the hallmark of British tactics for most of the American War of Independence.[1]

A company of AWI British reenactors formed in the "common open order of two deep" 
Scholars and reenactors rightly point out the importance of inter-war experimentation in the development of this formation, namely those carried out by Townshend and Howe in the early 1770s. However, the point of today's post is to highlight the use of this formation during an earlier war in North America: the French and Indian War.

Stephen Brumwell's excellent 2002 work, Redcoats:  The British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755-1763, should be the starting point for anyone interested tactical developments of the British army during this era. How did the British army fight in North America? And is that fighting style accurately portrayed by reenactors and simulated by wargamers?

Observers in the era of the American Revolution remembered the adaptations of the British army during the French and Indian War quite clearly. During his stay in Canada in 1776, General Friedrich Riedesel (a soldier from Brunswick fighting as a British ally) recalled:

“But the English make it one of their chief rules and principles in this country, that no maneuvers may ever be carried out in serried ranks in these districts that are so terribly wooded. They found that out to their cost in the last war against the French in North America, in which they were always unsuccessful at the commencement, until they had taught their men to maneuver with open ranks and cover themselves by means of trees, after which they were always successful.”[2]
Riedesel's wife also kept a detailed journal of her experiences on campaign in North America
It is possible that Riedesel's received this information from British soldiers or French Canadian locals who were present at events. This quote makes it seem as though the British adopted this formation as a result of the harsh terrain of North America- a commonly cited reason for its adoption in the American War of Independence. Other observers in the revolutionary era, such as David Dundas, also commented on the development of the two-rank open-order formation as arising in North America during the French and Indian War.
"The Method almost universally adopted in our infantry, and in ours only, of forming two deep, and at open files, deserves the most serious consideration. It was not produced by the experience of the German war [War of Austrian Succession], but by that of the first American [French and Indian War]...The desultory service there carried on by small bodies of men...first introduced it as proper for that country[.]"[3]
Dundas clearly states that the low number of British troops made a two-rank open-order tactical system feasible in North America. As we shall see, contemporary commanders from the French and Indian War agreed.  Dundas also formulates another belief on why the two-rank open-order system could be adopted in North America: the lack of cavalry:
"The very small proportion of cavalry employed in the American wars, has much tended to introduce the present loose and irregular system of our infantry. — Had they seen and been accustomed to the rapid movements of a good cavalry, they would have felt the- necessity of more substantial order, of moving with concert and circumspection, and of being at every instant in a situation to form and repel a vigorous attack."[4]
There are numerous orders indicating that men should be drawn up two deep. Captain John Knox reproduces several of the general orders from Amherst in the campaign of 1759 in his journal. These orders give us a good window into how common practice of forming men two-deep had become in the French and Indian War era:
"The grenadiers and brigades are, do be drawn up on all services two deep...The men to be acquainted that this is ordered, as the enemy have very few regular troops to oppose us, and no yelling of Indians, or fire of Canadians, can possibly withſtand two ranks, if the men are silent, attentive, and obedient to their Officers, who will lead them to the enemy ; and their silence will terrify the enemy more than any huzzaing or noise they can make, which the General abſolutely forbids[.]"[5]
Careful students of the American War of Independence will notice that this is quite the opposite of British noise discipline practice then, when British soldiers were encouraged to cheer at the enemy frequently. So, why did British infantry embrace this practice in North America, and were the files spaced apart, as in the American War of Independence?

Two men, possibly from the 60th Regiment Light Company, portrayed in a painting by Benjamin West

The first explanation is that it was simply a North American practice transferred from the provincial forces to the regular army. Amherst recommends that the provincials form in a two-deep order, "as they have always been accustomed to it."[6] This would go a long way towards explaining why the regulars did so early in the war, especially at disasters like the Battle on the Monongahela in 1755 and Carillon 1758. The British did indeed form in two ranks deep at both of these disasters.[7]

On the other hand, it is possible that necessity forced the British to open their files, and that the two-rank formation was not always in open order. Quarter Master Sjt. John Johnson of the 58th Foot explains that at the Plains of Abraham in 1759, Wolfe ordered the British fight with a formation opened to a three-foot space between files, in order to extend the line.[8]

You can almost hear him nitpicking.

Again and again, sources indicated that the practice of drawing up two deep in the battle was a desperate measure designed to make the British force appear larger than it actually was, or extend the line to cover key portions of terrain. At Sainte-Foy in April of 1760, John Knox reports that, "The second line was composed of the thirty- fifth, and the third battalion of Royal Americans, drawn up, to appear more numerous, two deep."[9] So, perhaps as the war continued, the slightly different practice of forming two deep was modified into what became the "common open order of two deep"  by the American War of Independence.[10]

This could occasionally have disastrous consequences, as Brumwell argues happened at the Battle of Sainte-Foy. At Sainte-Foy, the open ranks of the British formation produced a relatively low volume of musket fire, especially as the firefight continued for a long period of time. Likewise, the British regiments at the Battle of Freeman's Farm in 1777 were unable to quickly drive off the enemy and began the process of slowly losing an infantry firefight with rebel Americans. Fortunately for the British at Saratoga, they had German allies prepared to support them in the nick of time; there were no such allies at Sainte-Foy in 1760.  

So, what does all this mean? For reenactors, forming in two ranks, usually in open order, should become the norm if portraying troops after 1758. It could certainly be used before 1758, although more sources have survived from the Plains of Abraham and Sainte-Foy to document its specific use in those field battles. Again- just to be clear, these sources are not describing light infantry, but rather are orders designed to manage the entire rank and file of the British army. 

For wargamers, basing British units a bit wider than normal might be a way to incorporate these changes. Also, after the first volley (which was quite devastating at close range at Quebec in 1759) the firepower of British infantry in this formation should drop off considerably. Likewise, they might want to take slightly fewer casualties than normal, to represent the space in the formation. At the Plains of Abraham, this formation was used to full effect: the British advanced with opened files, taking light casualties from long-range French fire before replying with a devastating double-loaded volley of their own. The ready adaptability of the supposedly hide-bound British army proved to be a great strength at battles such as Quebec and Brandywine. However, it also proved to be a weakness in the face of determined opposition, in battles like Sainte-Foy and Freeman's Farm.

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Best Regards,




Alex Burns


[1] Spring, With Zeal and With Bayonets Only, 139.
[2] Riedesel, Journal of General Riedesel, in Hessian Documents of the American Revolution, 118. (Microfilm)
[3] Dundas, Principles of Military Movement, 51.
[4]Ibid, 11.
[5] Knox, An Historical Journal of the Campaign in North America, Vol I, pg 384-395.   
[6] Ibid, 374.
[7] Brumwell, Redcoats, 255.
[8] Doughty eds, The Siege of Quebec and the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, Vol V, 107.
[9] Knox, An Historical Journal of the Campaign in North America, Vol II, pg 293.
[10] Quoted in Spring, With Zeal and With Bayonets Only, 143.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting post, thanks for sharing the information.

    ReplyDelete