the impossible task of subduing the colonies -- 7/18/16

Today's selection  -- from The War for America by Piers Mackesy. Some scholars believe that England never had much chance to prevail in the 1776 American Revolution. First and foremost, Britain was spread thin militarily in securing a global empire, and if it overcommitted troops to America it would leave itself vulnerable to an attack from the French and Spanish in Europe. In fact, after the Americans prevailed early in the Revolutionary War at a battle in Saratoga, the French seized the opportunity and entered into war against their old nemesis, and there was an immediate call for a reprioritization of military resources for this new war against France. Furthermore, the British could never contemplate total war against the Americans since the goal was not destruction but reconciliation. Perhaps the biggest obstacle was a shortage of manpower -- a problem occasionally and temporarily overcome with the purchase of foreign mercenaries -- and the herculean task of sending and supplying troops to a destination 3000 miles away:

The Americans storming the redoubts on 14th
October 1781 during the Battle of Yorktown

"It was [British Lord George] Germain's task to ... supply the orders and the men [for the American Revolution]. [British General William] Howe had asked for six or seven thousand recruits and 4,000 foreign troops, in addition to the seven regiments which were coming out by way of Charleston. ...

"The reinforcements had not been easy to find. The Tsarina [of Russia] had dashed the
summer's hope of [supplying 20,000] Russian troops. At home the Ministry had been at its wits' end to find recruits. The East India Company had refused to suspend its own recruiting -- a measure of the weakness of executive government in the eighteenth century -- and would certainly siphon off a thousand recruits. As for completed regiments, the Charleston expedition left only four battalions fit for immediate service in England and Scotland apart from the Foot Guards; and the old croker Lord Barrington declared that there were not enough troops at home even to keep public order against 'the very levelling spirit among the people'. In Scotland, where four or five battalions were needed, there would not be 600 infantry to maintain order and collect the revenue. There was a large force in Ireland; but the executive in Dublin Castle refused to take German mercenaries or the Scots-Dutch brigade in exchange for their own regiments, on which the Protestant ascendancy depended. Their contribution was reduced, but at the expense of the force in England.

"Foreign troops were the only answer to the shortage. As soon as the Russian refusal was known, the Cabinet had resolved to close with the offers from Hesse-Cassel and Brunswick, and hire Germans. The German regi­ments were originally intended to relieve British troops in Ireland; and when the Irish executive protested, to be used in garrison in America to release all Howe's troops for the field. Only gradually did the King and his Ministers accept the necessity of using Germans for general service. In January 1776 treaties were signed for 18,000 German troops. These were tough and dis­ciplined regulars officered by veterans trained in the school of Frederick the Great and Ferdinand of Brunswick. By accepting them England solved her man-power problem for the moment. Without them the attempt to subdue America would have unthinkable.

"Thus the troops were secured. But the greater task was to deploy and maintain them on battlefields 3,000 miles beyond the ocean. This colossal task was shouldered by Germain. ... Five major embarkations had to he arranged for the spring: the Guards at Spithead, the Highlanders in the Clyde, Irish infantry for Canada at Cork, Germans in the Elbe and Weser. Innumer­able other embarkations and convoys were required: for recruits, for tents and camp equipment, for artillery and ordnance stores, for provisions. From Germain's office went forth the ceaseless stream of instructions which were to marshal troops, stores and landing craft in the approaches to New York and the St. Lawrence."


Piers Mackesy


The War for America, 1775-1783


Bison Books


Copyright 1964 by Piers Mackesy


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