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Britain’s Military Enlightenment

The British did not acquire an empire through martial strength alone.

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The Wandering Army: Campaigns that Transformed the British Way of War, by Huw J. Davies

Babur, the first Mughal emperor, was apocryphally said to have observed after the first battle of Panipat in 1526 that the “Hindustanis” were skilled swordsmen but not very knowledgeable about military tactics, such as flanking, or advanced technology, such as cannons. Tactics and technology were for him the two pillars of military greatness. 


Huw J. Davies endorses this theme in his superb new book, The Wandering Army. It charts Britain’s path from a European sea power to a globe-spanning empire. Davies, who teaches at King’s College, London, identifies two variables behind Britain’s triumph in both tactics and technology. A deliberate and abiding great power competition led to technological innovation on one hand and tactical knowledge on the other, aided by an imperial meritocracy. The result was not an empire acquired in a “fit of absence of mind” but rather the opposite. 

Davies’s journey starts with the British defeat in America. The British army, never a massive land force, had enjoyed three decades of peace before conflict started to brew with France and the American colonists. British officers were woefully underread in strategy. According to Davies, the officer class of the mid-18th century “preferred to read the classics—Vegetius, Polybius and Thucydides—and campaign histories rather than continental treatises on the art of war.” 

It was only the catastrophic wars of Austrian succession (1740–48), as well as the Jacobite uprising (1745), that led to British officers and soldiers renewing their focus on tactical issues such as fortification, intelligence, and rate of musketry. Davies calls this “Britain’s accidental military enlightenment.”

An entire culture developed around military history, with bookshops serving new recommendations to their educated clientele. “Eighteenth-century military officers were exposed to a period of almost unparalleled experimentation in the conduct of war throughout the second half of the century,” Davies writes. Soldiers were encouraged to chronicle their experiences. Anonymous captains wrote lengthy essays and books on European fortifications with odd bits of anthropological commentary “on the odd fashions of German women, and the extraordinary ability of French soldiers to keep their hair in place in strong winds through the use of copious quantities of powder.” 

Davies’s finest chapters are the ones detailing Britain’s expansion into India and struggle with local warlords. Indian princes were at a curious bend of time in the 18th century, pre-modern as a society but with modern weapons. The combination was deadly. It instilled a sense of fear, stoicism, and discipline among the British.

The benefit of superior European discipline was visible in clashes with local troops. It reached its apogee when Clive faced the Nawab of Bengal, then the most prosperous feudal lord in India. With an army of merely 750 Europeans and 2,100 local troops, Clive defeated an army of 55,000. “Using the terrain to his advantage, Clive’s men withstood a sustained artillery bombardment and then deployed a devastating hail of disciplined musketry and artillery fire against the Nawab’s cavalry. The Europeans ‘kept up a continual fire with their small arms,’ and the enemy’s cohesion began to collapse.” 

Discipline was not racial but cultural. Indians under European training were far more disciplined and effective than Indian troops under local warlords. When Haidar Ali’s army was decimated by Indian musketeers under a British generalship, Sir Eyre Coote wrote of his men that “the spirited behaviour of our sepoy corps did them the greatest credit; no Europeans could be steadier.”

Today it is unthinkable that the Pentagon would incorporate the Taliban fighting style, like the British learned from their wars, or that the random observations of a private soldier would get past the gatekeepers of modern publishing. America rests confident in its superior strength in arms, which will only increase with the coming age of automation and swarm warfare. But the British did not acquire an empire through martial strength alone. It succeeded through realpolitik, the intelligent application of “divide and rule,” and propping up proxies and letting foreign footsoldiers do the bulk of the fighting. These are lessons America still needs to learn. The benefit of this book is that it shows that intelligent study of history will always yield lessons to those willing to undertake it.


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