I have long been curious about Britain’s first campaign in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars – in Flanders in 1793-5. I was curious because I had seen so little written about it. For most people British military history in this era starts with the Maida campaign of 1807 or Moore in Spain 1808-09. There is sometimes a reference to the Anglo-Russian Expedition to North Holland in 1799. How much was the vaunted proficiency of the British army evident before these campaigns, I wondered? So when I saw this history published by Frontline Books, I couldn’t resist it. It proved a most interesting read, and shed light on an episode that wargamers should take more notice of.
The book covers the history of the First Coalition (1793 to 1795) more generally, which I found very useful, before looking at the Flanders campaign in detail. Until near the end, Britain’s contribution to this coalition effort, which was led by the Austrians until they withdrew at the end, was led by Prince Frederick, the Duke of York and Albany, the second son of George III. It was his first experience of military command, but it was the fashion for armies to be led by “princes of the blood”, and this eased relations with coalition allies (the prince was fluent in German and familiar with the dramatis personae of high society in Austria, Prussia and Hanover). Apart from Austria, these allies were Hanover (part of George III’s realm), the Netherlands, and Hesse – with a theoretical contribution by Prussia that failed to materialise. The campaign was a failure for the Allies, mainly because of poor Austrian leadership. This resulted in Austria losing Belgium (as we now call what was then the Austrian Netherlands) to France, followed rapidly by the rest of the Netherlands.
Why did Austrian leadership fail? I didn’t find the book very satisfactory in explaining this. Two main reasons are offered: divergent strategic interests, and outdated strategic doctrines. While these were both doubtless true, I think that Steve Brown fails to explain them properly. What did Austria want to achieve? In the end what undermined Austrian resolve (and that of the Prussians) was a Russian threat to Poland. Was that their worry all along and did that make them hesitate to commit troops deep into France? This idea is not explored. The Austrians were not the only ones guilty of a lack of clear focus – the British government insisted on a diversion to try and take Dunkirk, and diverted troops to campaigns in the West Indies and the Mediterranean. Coalition warfare always struggles when it comes to clarity of objectives – and historians too often moan about this, rather than properly interpreting the conflicting aims. Warfare is politics by other means, after all, and not a be-all and end-all. On outmoded strategic ideas, Mr Brown makes much of the Austrian attachment to the “cordon system”, which let them to disperse forces. This builds on a narrative that was current at the time (the Duke of York himself refers to it), developed later by such writers as Clausewitz, and has been a staple of historians ever since. But that leaves a question: if it was so obviously wrong, why did the Austrians stick with it? If that was actually what they were doing. My main rule of historical analysis is that if you don’t understand how you yourself could have been tempted to take a particular course of action, then you haven’t actually understood it. Nobody defends the cordon system – which means that nobody is taking the trouble to understand what commanders who used it were trying to do. I was not able to pick up a deep enough appreciation of this campaign to develop a view myself. The maps in the book are generally unsatisfactory, and Mr Brown assumes too much knowledge of the local geography.
Mr Brown is a bit better on the tactical details of the battles. These are extremely interesting. There were no great set-pieces along the lines of the Napoleonic period – but rather a series of much more scattered encounters, often relating to the capture of fortresses and strategic towns. The coalition troops fought very well for the most part, with the general exception of the Dutch (whose people were not bought into the defence of royalty and aristocracy). Often Allied troops won out against vastly superior numbers. The French forces were in a state of flux – with elements of the old royal army combining with various flavours of volunteers and conscripts. The French did start to develop tactics that made best use of their advantages – which were mainly numbers – which has been the main historical interest of these campaigns hitherto. This has been dealt with expertly by the late Paddy Griffiths in particular, and this account of the Flanders campaign bears Griffiths out, though it doesn’t dwell on this aspect of the campaign. Griffiths suggested that the French innovations, far from being a new and superior way of war, were developed as a way of using poor quality troops against superior professional armies – and were largely dropped as the French army regained its professionalism under Napoleon. But until I read this book I didn’t appreciate just how effective the coalition troops generally were. The Austrian army was considered the best of the major powers, and their performance in this campaign bears this out (though Mr Brown reckons the Hessians to be the best troops in this campaign). This should provide a lot of interest to wargamers. The two sides provide an interesting contrast. Coalition armies may be nightmare to command, but the variety of troops they incorporate is a wargamer’s delight. And what’s more the coalition’s cavalry arm was very strong – including a substantial British element, featuring Household cavalry, the Union Brigade, and many other units, who had a good campaign. Britain did not field such a strong force of cavalry until 1813, Mr Brown reckons. Of course, the uniforms are totally different to the Napoleonic phase of the wars, but even so this era deserves more attention form the hobby than it gets. If I was in the mood to take on another army-building project, I would be tempted!
As for British tactics, Mr Brown has not much to say – as the British contribution to the coalition effort was not a major one. Many of the British infantry units were freshly raised and of very poor quality. Officers were often inexperienced surplus sons from aristocratic families, who had acquired commissions through purchase. Having said that, the British units generally seem to have fought well enough, using the conventional three-deep line for infantry. They seem to have been used aggressively in bayonet attacks, rather than attempted much with musketry. The Guards units performed well, as well as the cavalry. The weaknesses of the British units was more a question of a loss of discipline off the battlefield, with a lot of looting in particular.
The campaign ended in ignominy, when the Austrians pulled out, and then the French attacked in the winter. The remaining coalition forces were forced into a calamitous retreat where the logistics and discipline broke down and many men were lost. This was doubtless a searing experience for those that were there. And this was something of a Who’s Who of British and Hanoverian officers who were to feature prominently later on, not least of whom was the future Duke of Wellington, who commanded a regiment of infantry. There is an interesting appendix listing these officers who came to prominence later. There are many familiar names on the French side too, such as MacDonald and Vandamme, but most of the famous French names of later were elsewhere. There was another important participant, whom Mr Brown barely gives a mention: Gerhard von Scharnhorst, who served as a staff officer in the Hanoverian army. His experiences of the new French tactics deeply influenced him, and this in turn was very influential in the rebuilding of the Prussian army after 1807.
The Duke of York’s performance was undistinguished, though Mr Brown suggests that much of the criticism he has received is unfair. However, he does suggest that he lacked the gravitas to stamp his authority on an unruly army. He moved on to command the whole British army, where he is reckoned to have done an excellent job, helping to make it become the effective force of the Peninsular campaign. For him, and for the many other British alumni of the campaign, the Flanders episode was a powerful lesson in how not to manage a military campaign. That can certainly been seen in Wellington’s insistence of stern discipline and focused command.
This is an interesting book on an interesting campaign. I think it falls a bit short on the analysis, where it too often follows conventional wisdom, often quoting other historians’ analysis verbatim, and not leaving me with the clarity on events that I had hoped for. The maps are disappointing. But it throws welcome light on an important episode of British military history.