March 13, 2012

History should be treated with truth-loving respect...

I was looking through old posts, and thought this one worth re-posting. Just for my own satisfaction; no one else is likely to care. From November 26, 2001...

British attack in  the film Barry LyndonThe Captain [i.e. Steven den Beste, much missed in the Blogosphere] has written a great bit debunking the persistent myth that the American colonists fought the British by shooting from behind trees and rocks, while the redcoats foolishly paraded in lines.

This is a tall tale that never dies, but in fact the linear tactics were used by both sides for good reasons.

The smoothbore muskets used then were very inaccurate. An individual sniper would be unlikely to do much damage. (Even at Lexington and Concord, the majority of the British survived that long cruel day.) Only with masses of men firing in volleys was firepower effective. AND, muskets were slow to reload. While you were reloading, your only defense was the bayonet. Again, the individual was vulnerable, but a line of men could present a bristling front of bayonets.

Some colonists had rifles, which were very accurate. BUT, rifles then were VERY slow to load, and didn't have bayonets. They were a grief to the British, but never decisive in battle.

Just as important, no one back then had figured out how to control a battle when men were crawling about taking cover. It was a then-insuperable problem. (It was really only solved in 1918, when the Ludendorf Offensives almost defeated the Allies)

I have read that Baron von Steuben, who taught infantry tactics to Washington's army, was flagrantly homosexual. I don't know the details, but gays might want to keep him in mind.

Also good to remember is that the British at Lexington were peace-time soldiers who had never practiced their craft seriously; and didn't expect to find themselves at war (their position was similar to modern "peacekeeping missions".) If the same battle were fought a year later, they would have burned Lexington and Concord to the ground, and massacred any Minutemen who couldn't run very very fast.

I would add that the British at the time of Lexington had the tactics to deal with the colonial rabble. But they hadn't practiced, and were simply not ready. Every battalion (maybe 800 men in 10 companies) had a "light company." These were supposed to be agile and intelligent chaps who could move ahead of the line, dealing with enemy skirmishers and irregulars. They should have given the colonists some real difficulties, but didn't.

The famous British Rifle Regiments emerged from the Revolutionary War. They were fast-moving units clothed in dark green, with black details. They carried no flags, because they did not form a line. Bugles were used for rapid signaling. They marched twice as fast as the ponderous redcoats, and prided themselves on self-discipline and initiative. In a Rifle Regiment—they still exist—"red" is an insult! But it has nothing to do with Communism.

The French await British attack in  the film Barry Lyndon

The pictures are from Kubrick's film Barry Lyndon, set in the Seven Years War. It is very good as a historical picture—give it a try. Some of the scenes were filmed by candle-light, which was astonishing at the time, 1975. I will never forget my frustration when I went to see it, and as the British attacked in line (the picture at the top) some guy loudly said, "I never understood this!" I could have explained it to him, but alas it was not possible. The lower picture is of the French unit bracing for that oncoming British attack. White was the pre-Revolutionary French color.

Just as a crazy extra for you, the Seven Years War was actually started in America. It was started, in fact, by a colonial officer. A certain young Colonel George Washington, whose rash and bloodthirsty attack on Frenchmen who were not at war with the British, ignited a conflagration that might well be called "the first world war." Fun facts for you. Only available at RJ.

Posted by John Weidner at March 13, 2012 7:51 PM
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