An exasperated al-Qa'ida terrorist in Iraq once grumbled to an interviewer that he feared being betrayed by the locals, "the very people I'm here to help". It is amusing that our adversaries experience the same "ingratitude" that American soldiers have complained about in Vietnam, Somalia and the Middle East over the years. During the American Revolutionary war, British redcoats also knew the feeling. Sent ostensibly to defend the colonies from French aggression, they arrived only to be abused and spat at in the streets of Boston. While many officers were apt to sympathise with the rebels as a breed of Whig liberal, the common soldiery knew otherwise and viewed them as foreign devils.
As Mark Urban tells it in this sharply original and well-researched book on the Royal Welsh Fusiliers' involvement, this may also be why the first shots fired at Lexington in 1775 had nothing to do with the arrogance of the English upper classes. They came from soldiers spoiling for a fight who were disappointed when the locals opted to surrender or retreat. As for the notorious burning of the Concord Townhouse, the commanding officer on the scene formed bucket lines to quench the flames rather than urging his forces to complete their arson. Urban shows that it was a lack of discipline in the ranks rather than too much of it that cost the British so dearly.
It is said that the minutemen, that select band of the Massachusetts militia that vowed to be ready for battle with just a minute's notice, would pick off redcoats from behind trees while their enemy helpfully lined up shoulder to shoulder to present an unmissable target. But it was not always thus. Military authorities knew that the answer to the minutemen was to goad the enemy into wasting his ammunition at long range before moving in to fire a single salvo, followed by a bayonet charge before he could reload. Unfortunately, according to Urban, British discipline was not up to the job and textbook tactics tended to be ignored on the ground. At the pyrrhic victory of Bunker Hill, the colonials did indeed run out of ammunition, but for the reason that two thirds of the fusiliers in the field became casualties. In mitigation, the British had attacked an evenly matched force in an entrenched position, so what followed that day can partly be blamed on the high command's arrogance as tradition prefers. But in several early engagements of the war many men were slow to follow their officers forward and only too quick to rush after a retreating foe so they could loot his property. Violence against officers became commonplace in the army, and was also directed against any civilian who questioned the theft of his goods.
If only the officer class had been more arrogant they might have kept a firmer grip on the unruly soldiery. However, punishments in the army were lenient and often commuted altogether for the reason that it was very easy for a disgruntled soldier to desert. Of around 1,250 men who served with the regiment, 75 were killed in action and 400 died of disease. The desertion rate was around 15 per cent. Urban wryly remarks that more Fusiliers were seduced away from their unit by American girls than were killed by rebel soldiers.
It is refreshing to hear the story told without the sentimentality that usually infects descriptions of the ordinary British infantryman, but the author limits his criticism to the early part of the book. One wonders whether he had an attack of conscience at the half-way mark, because thereafter the redcoats can do no wrong.
Perhaps he decided that they were saints compared with their opponents, for this was no civil war between Whigs and Tories. As a Fusilier lieutenant commented, it was rich of the rebels to identify with the former, adding that Boston contained "no such thing as a play house, they were too puritanical a set to admit of such lewd diversions, tho' perhaps no town of this size could turn out more whores than this could". He was not the only officer to suspect that the war was started not by men desirous of more freedom, but by religious enthusiasts who desired rather less. Their subsequent actions proved his point.
George Washington executed more of his own troops than did the British, and his officers were perfectly willing to shoot down their men should they attempt to flee the field of battle – an event that occurred only once on the British side. Rebel prisoners suffered from disease aboard the King's prison ships, but loyalists and redcoats taken prisoner by the other side were sometimes deliberately massacred. Lieutenant-Colonel Nisbet Balfour suggested taking a number of captured militiamen "hostage" to guarantee decent treatment of their opposite numbers, but his superior would hear of no such thing. In the end, Balfour had a single turncoat executed to make an example. This backfired when the men who had put hundreds to death shamelessly smeared him as a murderer. The rebels persistently cast Britain's defeats as catastrophes and her victories as "bloody massacres". The home press then repeated the American reports verbatim and undermined the cause.
In the later stages of the war one officer noted that, "Whenever a rebel army is said to have been cut to pieces, it would be more consonant with the truth to say that they have been dispersed, determined to join again at the first favourable opportunity." Rebel soldiers were often merely disarmed and released on a promise never again to rise against their king. As in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the British pursued their aims for the most part with a decency thought laughable by their opponents, who took it as a sign of weakness and lack of resolve. Urban gives the impression that the rebels were a shower of selfish, cruel, hypocritical scoundrels. As he puts it, the redcoats' enemy was "possessed of determination for a cause, as well as a belief in ends justifying means, that they could not match." It must have taken considerable self-control for the author not to add a postscript describing the acts of genocide made possible by Britain's departure from the continent. *
Faber £20Reuse content