Re-assessing the Grand Old Duke

By Philip Ball

HRH The Duke of York (NYPL)

Personally, I am very glad that the French Revolutionary Wars are finally increasing in prominence, as they surely are with the From Reason to Revolution series. As a schoolboy and undergraduate I studied the Revolution itself but the wars it occasioned were always something that was going on elsewhere; to be manipulated by the various political factions in the National Assembly or a threat to the existence of the newly fledged Republic. The wars themselves rarely got a mention. I always thought this was odd as the Napoleonic Wars which came immediately afterwards are immensely popular with writers, wargamers, and those with an interest in history. The French Revolutionary Wars involved many of the same characters as those later wars, colourful costumes, a plethora of set piece battles, and can hardly be bettered for sheer drama. The great victories thrown away through folly, the brilliance and ineptitude shown in equal measure by both sides, and the chaotic unpredictability of the French Republic at war make for an exciting area of study.

Whilst working at the Museum of the Royal Leicestershire Regiment I came across reference to the Helder campaign.  This, I read, was a campaign fought by the British army alongside Russian allies, to provoke a counter revolution in the Netherlands. Two battalions of the regiment had fought in this campaign but I had never heard of it and could find little written about it. So, I was drawn to this period through a lack of information, the exploration of something familiar and yet unknown. I later wrote my Masters dissertation on the failure of the Helder campaign and was moved to research the Duke of York’s previous campaign; that fought in Flanders 1793-95. This, as it turned out, was quite a large subject and is known to us today largely through the nursery rhyme ‘The Grand old Duke of York’, so I felt that this was a large gap in the history of the period which needed filling.

The Duke of York, as the nursery rhyme would imply, did little to enhance his military reputation in the course of this campaign which, like the later one, ended in an ignominious withdrawal on the part of British forces and the surrender of the Netherlands to French forces. There have been attempts in recent years to revive the reputation of the Duke of York; to paint him as an early Eisenhower, holding coalitions together with his diplomacy and a general able to defeat his enemy when allowed to exercise independent command. Unfortunately there is little evidence of any of this when we look closely at the conduct of this operation. As the famous Gillray cartoon, ‘Fatigues of the Campaign in Flanders’, suggests, York seems to have lived well on campaign (he was accompanied by a vast retinue of cooks and liveried footmen) while his troops struggled with supply issues. An English lady visiting the Duke said that he was constantly surrounded by a coterie of young staff officers and rarely dined with the commanders of his army which did not endear him to them or give him the opportunity to discuss issues with the army. When the outgoing Hanoverian commander, Marshal Freytag went to report to his Elector (George III of England) York wrote a very telling letter to his father, the King, saying that he wasn’t to believe anything the old veteran said about York being perpetually drunk.

‘Fatigues of the Campaign in Flanders’, Cartoon by James Gillray (Public Domain)

York didn’t spend very much time with his army and when it wasn’t actually on the march he tended to find comfortable quarters away from camp. At the battle of Beaumont the army had to wait, drawn up to repel the French attackers, while York was fetched from his bed. It is not unsurprising therefore that the army, which is said by some to have been the worst to have ever left England, suffered some problems with indiscipline.  In  a war that was being pitched to the British taxpayer and the world in general as a crusade against the beastly excesses of republicanism, the British army committed a number of atrocities against the civilians it was supposed to be saving and upset almost as many allies as its commander did.

York’s biggest failing as a commander was perhaps the way in which acted towards his allies. In the later Helder campaign he was accused of being loudly critical of his Russian allies and it seems he was no different in Flanders. A young man, son of the King, fond of drink and rowdy company, he probably saw nothing wrong with his behaviour but his letters home are full of contempt for his allies, whom he blamed for every mishap he encountered.

This book has a number of themes but perhaps the central one is the difficulty of keeping coalitions together. The force that York was part of consisted of; troops of the Austrian Empire; Germans, Hungarians, Croats and Slavs, the Prussians and the Dutch, as well as various mercenary troops in the pay of Britain. All of the states involved had different motivations for being in the coalition and hoped for different things from the war. The various contingents were commanded by professional and experienced soldiers who doubtless resented York’s, widely broadcast criticism.

Whilst the personal feelings of the commanders did not have as much effect on the future of the coalition as the manoeuvring of their political masters, it almost certainly affected relations between the armies. Some commentators have even alleged that Austrian generals deliberately abandoned York to his fate at the Battle of Tourcoing due to their personal antipathy towards him. Remarkable as this is, by the end of the campaign the Dutch, the very nation that the British contingent had been sent to defend, were exhibiting more sympathy to the invading French than to their erstwhile allies and began negotiations while the British were still in the country.

So, this is a tale of personalities and alliances; it is also an account of a large number of battles. The campaign in Flanders seems to have been extraordinarily hard-fought: although the battles achieved little as the action see-sawed across Flanders, some towns changing hands several times, there were lots of them. For me one of the most interesting parts of this story is phenomenon of the republican war machine; the genesis of total war. This is a period that holds an almost mythological status in the annals of French military history; the ragged, starving, but ideological armies, led by men soon to be household names (Carnot, Jourdan, Vandamme, Macdonald, Bernadotte and Bonaparte to name a few) saved the republic from autocratic forces bent on its destruction.  What we see is the entire resources of a nation flung with abandon against its enemies. This book examines the effectiveness of the forces they raised and casts a critical light on the legends.   

‘Le désagrément d’être joli garçon’ (Anne S.K. Brown Collection)

After two years of bloody but fruitless campaigning the coalition failed. The vast hydra-like forces of the French Republic wore down the allies’ will to fight. Although generally successful on the field, the coalition lacked the clarity of vision to concentrate its efforts and was overwhelmed by French numbers and aggression. Numerous defeats did not seem to dent the republican war machine and as the coalition foundered it returned to the offensive.  The Prussians went back to pick over the carcass of Poland, the Austrians fell back to their own territory, and the Dutch surrendered, becoming a satellite of France until 1814. York was removed from his post and sent home to command the army from Whitehall while his men endured one of those harrowing retreats which dot the landscape of British military history.  They would return eventually, but spent most of the war nibbling at the rind of France in limited amphibious operations.

Neither Up Nor Down is part of our From Reason to Revolution 1721-1815 series, and can be ordered from the Helion & Company website here.

The Army of George II

Peter Brown talks about the writing of his recent book for our From Reason to Revolution 1721-1815 series.

If you’re a fan of the British Army of the eighteenth century then you may feel that you don’t need to read this book. After all, much ink has been spilled on the subject over the years, with uniform guides and accounts of the battles and campaigns easily available. Believe me, I was acutely aware of how much was already in print when I sat down to write it.

However, almost all of the work currently available on the army of George II provides the reader with a snapshot of army life. There are many books on the French Indian War, for example, the Jacobite ’45, or the campaign in Germany during the Seven Years War. What appeared to me to be lacking was a view of the army ‘in the round’, so to speak; looking at every aspect of it from the accession of George II in 1727 to around the time of his death in 1760. How did it develop? How was it recruited, trained and disciplined? What were the officers like and how did they learn their trade? What about the medical services, the system of command and control and the changes to all of this that had to be made on campaign? We all know that the army marched to battle, but how exactly was this achieved and who was responsible if it all went wrong?

Fusilier, 23rd Foot (Royal Welch Fusiliers), War of the Austrian Succession (Reconstruction by Richard Marren Craft Workshop – photograph © Alan ‘Kael’ Ball)

Filling all of these gaps in our knowledge became the aim of the book and it often took me down some very unglamorous roads. I had to begin with the accounts, looking at how the army was funded and who exactly held the purse strings. Readers with a love of military history often do not share a love of eighteenth-century accounting, but none the less, the detail of how the army was funded is necessary if one is to understand why it was always short staffed, under equipped and often much too small to carry out the tasks allocated to it. I also had to explore the often-overlooked topic of logistics, which any military man will tell you can make or break a campaign. The housing, supply and movement of the army from A to B was no easy task and this book explores the intricacies of the system alongside its obvious failings.

The organisation and uniforms of the infantry, cavalry and artillery are dealt with in depth, with a chapter on each arm that tracks the development of their uniform and structure as the century wore on. Details are also provided of their colours, officer distinctions, and the role of the various officers in battle.  The medical facilities available to the army, both on campaign and at home, is not a topic well covered outside academic circles and I wanted to cover this, especially in regard to the aftermath of battle and the treatment wounded soldiers could expect. I was certainly surprised by the key role the soldier’s wives played in this, alongside the general support that they provided not only to the men, but to the regiment they were attached to.  Indeed, they were, in many ways, an invisible and often unrecognised logistical arm. The final chapter looks at how the men and their families mustered out, sometimes with a pension but more often simply laid off when the war ended and left to fend for themselves.

15th Light Dragoons, 1760 (Original artwork by Patrice Courcelle, © Helion & Company)

Writing this book was not all hard slog. From the chapter on recruitment, through the court martial system and on to the officers and their ‘duels of honour’, I found much to smile about. The British squaddie, it would appear, has not changed over the centuries and if there was trouble to get into he was sure to find it. There are some great little stories that I was keen to retain as they show off the indomitable spirit of the British soldier whilst showing the reader that army life was not all floggings and drill.

Going back to my opening paragraph, my aim throughout this project was to fill that hole in your knowledge that previous books on the subject had failed to do. Hopefully by the end of it you should have a complete understanding of the eighteenth-century British Army. It was a joy to research and write and I do hope you enjoy it.

You can order The Army of George II from our website: https://www.helion.co.uk/military-history-books/the-army-of-george-ii-1727-1760-the-soldiers-who-forged-an-empire.php