John William Fortescue.

Military history; lectures delivered at Trinity college, Cambridge online

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English sergeant was kiUed by a stone. At Inker man
again the British threw stones at the Russians, not


without effect ; and I am told upon good authority
that the Russians and Japanese, both of whom
profess to love the bayonet, threw stones at each
other, rather than close, even in this twentieth

To this stage, then, had the art of war advanced
at Elizabeth's accession, but no effort was made to
train the national forces according to the latest
methods. A few foreign mercenaries were imported
from time to time, and a great many English went
abroad, and served either in the armies of Spain —
which were the most efficient of their day — or in
those of the revolted Dutch which, under the Princes
of the House of Nassau, were rapidly improving upon
the Spanish methods. Thus some ideas of foreign
practice crept into England, and a great deal of
foreign nomenclature, which still remains with us.
Nearly all of our military terms are foreign, drawn
mostly from the French, the Italian or the Spanish.
Regiment, battalion, colonel, sergeant-major, captain,
lieutenant, ensign, cornet, corporal, centinel — all
are words borrowed from Latin sources, and one
could multiply the number of instances. Pistol and
howitzer are Bohemian, relics of John Zizka. For-
lorn hope (which has nothing to do with the English
word Jwpe) is Dutch. Even Shakespeare speaks
twice of recruits by the Spanish name bisono,
corrupted into Bezonian.


Little progress was made in Elizabeth's time,
and no more in the reign of James I ; but meanwhile
a great military reformer arose in the person of
Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, who recognised that
missile action was that which must triumph in the
future, and set himself to improve the firing tactics
of infantry. This he did by reducing the depth of
the infantry to three ranks, and forming the mus-
keteers shoulder to shoulder, the front rank kneehng.
He then distributed the whole of his battalions into
sections, or platoons, of twenty to thirty men each,
and introduced the system of firing by volleys of
platoons ; the usual method being that the first,
third, fifth, seventh and ninth platoons fired first in
rapid succession, and then the second, fourth, sixth,
eighth and tenth, by which time the odd-numbered
platoons had reloaded and were prepared to begin
again. Thus a continuous fire was maintained
without unsteadiness or disorder ; and the system
was so good that it lasted until the introduction
of breech-loaders. There being many Scots — even-
whole regiments — and a good many English in the
Swedish service, the drill and tactics of Gustavus
became known to a number of people in both

Now followed the Civil War, wherein the armies
on both sides were ridiculously inefficient until
Cromwell, recognising that the King had most of


the gentlemen — that is to say the more efficient
amateurs — upon his side, decided that he must train
professional soldiers to beat them. So he raised
his famous regiment of horse, and for the first time
since the days of Harry the Fifth brought true
military discipline to bear upon English soldiers.
In 1645 the Parliament perceived that a whole army
trained upon the new principle would mean the
difference between triumph and defeat, and there-
upon organised the famous host called the New
Model Army, consisting of twelve regiments of foot,
eleven regiments of horse and a train of artillery.
The effect was immediate. The Royalist cause was
utterly overthrown, whether upheld by English,
Scots or Irish ; the irresistible army displaced the
Long Parliament and took from it its usurped
authority ; and Cromwell during five years of unrest
and uneasiness kept the peace in the three kingdoms
by means of regular troops and an armed constabu-
lary. Never before or since have we been kept in
such order. Scottish Highlanders, Irish Tories,
English colliers — as lawless a people as the other
two — were hammered and cowed into obedience.
Some north-country colliers attempted a strike ;
"they would neither work themselves nor suffer
others," said the newspapers. The Lord Protector
sent a regiment of horse to the spot, and nothing
more was heard of the strike. Nor was it onlv within


the British Isles that he was feared, for, in virtue of
his army, he was dreaded throughout Europe. His
reign was brief, but he contrived within his five short
years to strike a fatal blow at Dutch commercial
supremacy, to ensure by his regulations as to trade
and navigation that it should pass to England, and
to call representatives from an United Kingdom to
a single Assembly at Westminster.

And now pause for a moment to look at the
portentous changes that had come over England in
the hundred years between the accession of Elizabeth
in 1558 and the death of Cromwell in 1658. In the
first place England, as I have said, had been jfinally
cut off from the Continent ; in the second she had
become mistress in her own house, for, though
Scotland was not administratively joined to her,
the two crowns had been united upon one head and
closer union was only a question of time ; while
Ireland had been subjected to so stern a discipline
that she still chafes at the remembrance of it. In-
sular therefore the British Isles were as never before
in their history : and yet in the earlier half of the
seventeenth century there had been laid by private
adventurers under Royal Charter the foundations of
a colonial empire in North America and the West
Indies, that is to say in the temperate and in the
torrid zone, as also of a great agency for foreign trade
in India. Moreover Britain's powerful neighbour,


France, had almost simultaneously formed settle-
ments or trading establishments precisely in the
three same quarters. Almost at the instant there-
fore when the British were relieved of the perils and
anxieties of a land frontier at home, they began to
acquire such a frontier over seas. Lastly they had
evolved, in what may be called its perfected state,
a scheme of commercial policy which was not likely
to make for peace with their neighbours. Mean-
while, owing to the accidental circumstance of a
civil war and the happy advent of a man of genius,
they had produced quite casually the very thing
that was needed for the new conditions, a regular
army subject to proper military discipline.

When Charles II was restored, the intention was
to disband the entire army of the Commonwealth,
or to keep at most a regiment of foot-guards, which
had fought against the forces of the Commonwealth
in Flanders, and a regiment of horse-guards, com-
posed of Royalist gentlemen. But as these showed
themselves inefficient in dealing with the London
mob, two of the Parliamentary regiments were also
retained, Monk's of infantry — now the Coldstream
Guards — and a composite body of horse, which we
now know as the Blues. This sufficed for domestic
poUce ; but soon there arose the question of colonial
garrisons, for Katharine of Bragan^a, Queen of
Charles II, had brought to him as a dowry Tangier


and Bombay ; and there were other places, notably
New York and St Kitts, where the close neighbour-
hood of the French made a little protection very
desirable. How were these to be provided ? It was
a time-honoured custom in England that all fortified
places should have a smaU permanent garrison
indissolubly attached to them, rather to keep the
buildings in order than to provide for their defence ;
and this custom was now extended. A few com-
panies were raised for New York and St Kitts, and
two regiments of foot and one of dragoons for
Tangier ; but even so it was necessary to send the
Guards abroad from London to quell a rebeUion in
Virginia, and to give further assistance at Tangier.
In India the East India Company pursued the same
policy, keeping some companies of white troops
at Bombay and Madras, and forming also companies
of natives, the number of which was constantly
increased, for defence of their factories.

James II who succeeded his brother in 1685 was
a trained soldier and sailor who had seen much active
service, and an admirable departmental adminis-
trator. He made a pretext of Monmouth's rebellion
to augment the standing army considerably ; and, if
more time had been given to him, he would probably
have established an efficient War Office and laid the
foundations of a sound military system. Further,
noticing the danger to the American colonies from


their constant divisions and quarrels in the presence
of the smaller but perfectly united and organised
French settlements, he remodelled the governments
of many of them, grouping them together under
English Governors, who were also soldiers, so that
in time of danger there might be harmonious action
and efficient defence. These changes, principally,
cost him his throne.

During all these years the English had never
ceased to chafe at the continued existence of a
standing army. The country gentlemen, who had
made the Revolution of 1642, had the terror of Oliver
Cromwell before their eyes, and dreaded lest the
Stuarts might emulate his summary and efficient
methods. They professed, some of them no doubt
conscientiously, solicitude for the liberties of England,
forgetting that their forerunners of the Long Parlia-
ment had abolished the Monarchy and the House
of Lords and erected themselves into a permanent
committee of tyrants. They protested that a
standing army was unknown to the Constitution of
England, but they had not awaked to the fact that
there was a British Empire in the making, and that
such an Empire requires police. They could not,
or at any rate did not, look one inch before their
noses except at one principal object, namely the
supplanting of the monarchy, in substance if not
in fact, by an oligarchy of their noble selves. They


therefore encouraged sedition and discontent with
the new arrangements in the colonies, and invited
William of Orange to come with an armed force and
accept the Crown from them. It suited William's
policy exactly to have in his hands the resources of
England for his desperate struggle against France;
and he came, bringing with him the certainty of
a great war.

It has been my fate to study the departmental
administration of England at various periods, but
I have never found it quite so corrupt and inefficient
as in the early years of King William's reign. James
had improved it amazingly in his three years of
power ; but his men were of course displaced in
favour of the Whig magnates and their nominees,
naturally with bad results. The administrative
reforms of James in the American colonies were
likewise upset by the Revolution ; and this folly
brought us within measurable distance of the loss
of North America, besides taking the resources of
England to defend people who ought to have been
able to defend themselves. However there the
matter was. It was necessary to raise a number
of regiments and improvise an army for the pacifi-
cation of Ireland, which was, I think, the very worst
force ever put together under the English flag.
After many disgraceful episodes Ireland was re-
conquered ; and then the army, which was by this


time beginning to improve, was transported over to
Flanders for operations there. It fought in many
severe actions with credit but mostly without
success, for William III was not a great general.
However, it learned a great deal, particularly in the
matter of sieges, of which it had known very little,
and being thrown into company with some good
troops and into opposition against others, it was
roused to emulation of the high standard of
French and Dutch efficiency. In 1697 the war
came to an end through the exhaustion of both

Of the solid improvements effected by the
incidents of this war, the first was the passing of
the Mutiny Act, in consequence of the mutiny of a
regiment which was faithful to King James. This
Act empowered the king to punish military crimes,
for which the civil law provided no penalty. A
standing army being unknown to the Constitution
of England, the Act was passed for twelve months
only, a ridiculous piece of pedantry which is still
perpetuated in the Annual Army Act. The next
reform was the adoption of the bayonet, a recent
invention, which united the pike and the musket
into a single weapon, and made an end of the
distinction between shock infantry and missile
infantry. A third was the gradual disuse of the
pistol by cavalry ; the discarding more and more of


its defensive armour and the reversion to shock
action by the charge at high speed.

Immediately upon the conclusion of the peace
there was a howl in the Commons for the reduction
of the Army ; and it was carried that the English
establishment should be fixed at no more than
seven thousand men, though the much poorer island
of Ireland had been permanently charged by an
earlier act with an establishment of twelve thousand.
I must explain that until 1708 there were three
separate military establishments for England, Scot-
land and Ireland, and after 1708 two for Great
Britain and Ireland until the Act of Union in 1800.
Moreover, you must remember that even within
the memory of living men the infantry and cavalry
were under the War Office, the artillery and engineers
under the Office of Ordnance, and the commissariat
and transport under the Treasury, so that, while the
three kingdoms were disunited, there were nine offices
concerned with the administration of the Army ;
and the colonels, who were responsible for the
clothing, made a tenth authority. Hence it was
no easy task to get the Army under way for any duty ;
while the creation of any new force was a most be-
wildering labour. The Commons, however, cared
for none of these things. France was evidently only
taking breath for another spring ; but that they
ignored, and, as I have said, cut down the Army to


the ridiculous figure of nineteen thousand men.
WiUiam very nearly abdicated the throne of England
in disgust at their conduct.

Here then we must notice the first flagrant
instance of a besetting sin, which, practically from
the very beginning up to the present time, has
afflicted and still afflicts the House of Commons.
No sooner is the country at peace than it raises a
cry for the reduction of the Army. In the eighteenth
century this cry was very much a matter of faction.
The Whigs had always bitterly opposed a standing
army under the Stuarts, when they thought it adverse
to their interests ; and the Tories naturally con-
ceived a mortal detestation of it after it had become
a weapon in the hands of the Whigs. Thus both
parties were committed to general discouragement
of the force ; and any member who desired to pose
as a champion of liberty could do so effectively by
denouncing the evils of a standing army. It has
been my hard fate to wade through a prodigious
number of speeches upon this subject, and I have
been absolutely nauseated by their hoUowness and
cant. It is of course possible for a man to object
sincerely and conscientiously to any description of
army ; but I have never met with such a one in the
Parliamentary debates of the eighteenth century.
Their abuse of standing armies, in which was generally
mixed some vituperation of the military profession


at large, was simply hypocrisy and cant, most
mischievous and dangerous, inasmuch as it brought
the calling of a soldier into contempt, and kindled
the entire civil population into hostility with the

Compelled to reduce the Army to a mere handful
of men, William sought to turn this handful to the
best account by keeping the skeletons of a great
many regiments, which might on emergency be filled
out with additional men, rather than a very few
complete regiments ready to take the field at once.
He was quite right ; and his example has repeatedly
been followed down to our own days ; but the system
of skeleton regiments means always unreadiness for
war. In the haste and urgency of the first hostilities
all the trained men are swept into a few battalions,
so as to fill up their empty ranks ; those few bat-
talions are sent into action ; in six months they are
so much reduced by losses as to be ineffective ; and
you are left with nothing but recruits who need two
or three years to convert them into soldiers. This
has happened again and again, and the first instance
of it came in 1701. In November 1700 the accept-
ance of the throne of Spain for his grandson by
Louis XIV roused all Europe to arms ; and Louis
to secure his object invaded Spanish Flanders,
surrounded several towns which were occupied,
under the Treaty of 1697, by Dutch troops, and so


cut off fifteen thousand of WiUiam's best men.
Under a former treaty of alliance with Holland
England was bound to furnish to her ten thousand
men, and both Houses of Parliament prepared
faithfully to fulfil the obligation. Twelve battahons
were accordingly ordered to the Low Countries
from Ireland, eked out of course by a great many
young soldiers, but with a fair leaven of old ones; and
the country flattered itself that it would escape with
no further burden. But, as usual. Parliament had
forgotten the Empire. Bad news came just at the
same moment from the West Indies, and it was
imperative to send two thousand more men to that
quarter. Thus at one fell swoop the garrison of
Ireland was snatched away, and it was necessary to
raise at once ten thousand new recruits and four new
battalions. Before the end of the year Louis XIV
recognised the son of James II as King of England ;
and Parliament, at last roused to indignation,
agreed to furnish a contingent of forty thousand
men — eighteen thousand British, and the rest
foreigners. Thereupon orders were issued for the
raising of fifteen more new regiments, at enormous
expense ; for, in consequence of the ill-treatment
of the army by Parliament at the close of the
last war, men could not be tempted to enlist except
by large bounties. In 1703 the English share in
the contest extended to the Spanish Peninsula, and


eight new regiments were raised for the purpose. In
1704 the capture of Gibraltar and other operations
demanded the levying of six more regiments ; in
1706 thirteen new regiments were added ; and to
make a long story short, before the war ended in
1713 sixty -nine new corps of horse and foot had been
formed to carry on the war.

But we must not leave that war without a sketch
of the greatest of English generals who conducted
it. John Churchill was born, you remember, in
1650, received his first commission in the Guards in
1667, saw active service against the Moors in Tangier
a year or two later, and serious warfare in 1672
against the United Provinces under Conde, Turenne
and Luxemburg, continuing to serve them under the
colours of Louis XIV, as was not uncommon at the
time, until 1677. In the course of those five years
he learned his work under the great master Turenne,
while fighting another great master, Montecuculi,
In 1689 he commanded a small contingent of
British troops against the French once more in
Flanders ; besides which, saving a httle work in
Ireland, he was employed no more by WiUiam
until 1698 ; being suspected, I fear with justice, of
treasonable relations with the exiled King James II.
Finally in 1702 he was appointed to the command
of the Allied Forces in the Low Countries, thus
finding himself for the first time a general-in-chief

F. M, H. 6


at the age of fifty- two. In those days of bad roads
there were few districts where armies could keep
the field, owing to the difficulty of feeding them ;
for a campaign, as I told you in my first lecture, is
a picnic. The delta of the Rhine and Meuse was
a cock-pit because it was in the first place rich in
food, and in the second traversed by navigable
rivers and canals, which made the transport of
victuals, of heavy guns, and of ammunition com-
paratively easy. But being a cock-pit, its water-
ways were studded with innumerable fortresses,
constructed to prevent ingress into France from
the north, and into what we now call Belgium but
which in Marlborough's time was known as the
Austrian Netherlands, from the south. Hence it
naturally followed that a war in that quarter signified
a war of sieges ; and the French Court was fond of
sieges, because it could attend them in state and
take charge of the operations with much glory and
httle discomfort or danger. It must be added that
incessant warfare in that unfortunate country had
made every feature in it so familiar, that the ordinary
tactical and strategical movements in it were as well
known as the moves on a chess-board.

It was a mark of Marlborough's originality of
mind that on this familiar ground he contrived
always to do something unexpected. Had he not
been hampered by disloyal Dutch Generals and


timid Dutch deputies, who controlled the Dutch
contingent of his army and therefore the Com-
mander-in-Chief also, he would have driven the
French out of Flanders in two campaigns. As it
was, these so-called allies deliberately foiled him
again and again ; and, since the French arms had
been uniformly successful against the Imperial
troops on the Upper Rhine and Danube, the way
to Vienna was by the year 1704 practically open
to the French armies. Then it was that Marl-
borough, seeing that the case was desperate, con-
ceived the magnificent idea of a march of some
three hundred miles from the Low Countries to
join the Imperial army on the Danube. The
difficulties were immense. In the first place he
had to gain permission from numbers of petty
princes to pass through their territory ; in the
second he had to provide magazines of food and
clothing for his army all along the line of march,
as weU as money to pay them with ; and all this
he had to do with secrecy and circumspection for,
in the third place, it was essential that the French
armies should gain no inkling of his intentions,
but should be absolutely deceived by his movements
until he was so far advanced upon his way that he
could not be caught. It seems impossible that
such a thing could have been done ; but done it
was ; and the two victories of the Schellenberg



and of Blenheim were the result. Moreover, this
campaign, though the most celebrated because of
its extreme originality and boldness, by no means
stands alone as an example of Marlborough's sur-
passing skill in the field. You may go through
the whole of the campaigns that he fought in
Flanders, ten in all ; and in every one you will find
some salient feature which betrays the master.
The forcing of the French lines on the Geete in
1705 ; the feint which beguiled Vendome into a
fatal blunder at Ramillies in 1700 ; the wonderful
march before Oudenarde in 1708 ; the investment
of Toumay in 1709 ; the amazing wiles by which
he turned the lines of La Bassee in 1711 — any one
of these achievements would suffice to make the
fortune of an ordinary general.

What then were the qualities which made
Marlborough so astonishingly successful in the
field — and not in the field only — ^for you must
remember that he was no less great as a diploma-
tist than as a general ? First I should say what
Wellington t-ermed his strong cool common-sense.
This sounds perhaps a small matter to you ; but
what after all is common-sense ? It is above aU
the faculty of seeing things as they are, and of
framing your action accordingly. The faculty of
seeing things as they are, swift, true and penetrat-
ing insight into the heart of things, undistracted


by their outward semblance — this, whether it be
the attribute of statesman, general, poet or painter,
is genius. And to frame your actions, as a man
of action, upon real insight, what does that mean ?
It means transcendent moral courage, the courage
of faith in one's own judgement, the courage to
depart from beaten tracks, the courage to brave
the disapprobation of those who cannot do without
such tracks, the courage, in a good sense ^ to take
liberties. It is the union of courage with insight
which makes a man original. And there was

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Online LibraryJohn William FortescueMilitary history; lectures delivered at Trinity college, Cambridge → online text (page 4 of 13)