Noble Volunteers

From The Wall Street Journal:

Few stereotypes from the American Revolution are as well-developed as that of the soldier who fought for Britain. The caricature is ubiquitous: A one-dimensional “lobster,” the “bloody-back” regular, motivated by selfishness, who fought for the love of money. He was heartless and cowardly; a pawn of the king, inept on the battlefield because of his old European ways. Here was a convenient foil for the resourceful Patriot, who fought valiantly on the winning side and for all the right reasons—family, farms and freedom. In “Noble Volunteers,” Don Hagist invites us to peer beneath the red coat. What do we find?

One central insight is that “there was no ‘typical’ British soldier.” British regulars encompassed “such a range of nationalities, ages, skills, and socioeconomic backgrounds” that we are better off “appreciating how they were different rather than how they were the same.” What, for instance, motivated them to enlist? The reasons were as many as the men who joined, with neither unemployment nor impoverishment ranking high on the list. Most were between the ages of 20 and 25, but little else united them. Some sought new careers. Others to escape overbearing mothers, or wives. Others still were moved by wanderlust or boredom. Mr. Hagist is skeptical of accounts, such as Sylvia Frey’s “The British Soldier in America,” that draw conclusions about soldiers’ motives from quantitative data. Too much was idiosyncratic, a mystery.

Mr. Hagist concentrates on the particular. We follow the British soldiers in America from Boston in 1773, before hostilities break out, to Yorktown in 1781. But it is not the battlefield that is most intriguing here; it is instead Mr. Hagist’s wealth of detail about all other aspects of a British soldier’s life. Recruitment in Britain (and elsewhere); monthslong transport in private vessels across the Atlantic, its trials and wonders (“flying fish, sharks, sea turtles, seals, and icebergs”); soldiers’ wages, within and without the army; literacy rates; training exercises; living arrangements in barracks, huts, wigwams and encampments; what they wore, ate and drank; the diseases they contracted; their desertions; “the plunder problem” (“the army’s Achilles’ heel,” says Mr. Hagist, because of its effect on the “hearts and minds” of the local populace); soldiers’ prizes, promotions and demotions; drafts and impressments; punishments and courts-martial; entertainments; religious dispositions; injuries, imprisonments and, occasionally, deaths; and, for some, their postwar lives. It is all here.

Every reader is sure to learn something, and in the process will come upon a favorite among the British soldiers. One of Mr. Hagist’s is Roger Lamb, whom he wrote about previously in “British Soldiers, American War” (2012). Lamb, from a middle-class Dublin family, enlisted with the 9th Regiment of Foot in 1773, at the age of 17, having lost all his money gambling. In America he saw heated action in two major campaigns; was captured twice; and, twice escaping, rejoined the British army each time. Returning to England in 1784—and discharged (from the 23rd Regiment) but “denied a pension because he had served only twelve years and had no disability”—he became a schoolteacher and published author, living until 1830.

Or, take William Crawford. An “ardent disposition for adventure” led him to join the 20th Regiment knowing that meant war in America. Captured, he was interned at Saratoga, N.Y., and marched for months throughout the north, then south to Virginia. Escaping, he was recaptured and jailed. Not to be so easily outdone, he befriended the jailer’s daughter hoping she would release him. Things didn’t go quite as he planned. “She forged a marriage certificate, spirited him out of jail, and presented him to townspeople as her husband.” Crawford accepted his fate. Others also remained in America, many with land grants. Still, most soldiers’ lives were not as well documented, and many ended in much darker places.

. . . .

[T]hinking historically about the war is difficult. It requires us not only to forget how events turned out, but also to recapture very particular moments from the participants’ perspectives. “Standing sentry on a storm-swept shoreline in the middle of a winter night, fending off a rising fever while fearful of imminent attack by assailants unseen, may have been one man’s most difficult hours of an eight-year war,” writes Mr. Hagist, “but histories focused on pivotal campaigns are unkind to such personal experiences, trivializing or entirely overlooking most of the hardships endured by most of the soldiers.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG is not an expert on military history, but he has read enough books about people fighting in war to conclude that for those actually and physically engaged in the front lines of battle, the experience is far more random than that described by the memoirs of the generals and admirals or the books written by historians based on copies of the orders, after-action reports and official histories describing the wars and interviews with the generals or admirals and examinations of the personal letters and memoirs the commanders wrote about the wars.

PG is not aware of any general who instantly died in the 20th century wars because he was inattentive or caught off guard for a split-second.

One of PG’s neighbors from many years ago had served as a Captain in the Army in Vietnam. During his service, he was engaged in extremely close-quarters and intense fighting on more than one occasion.

Like many veterans who have experienced close, person-to-person fights where lives were in immediate peril, PG’s neighbor did not spend a lot of time talking about his Vietnam fighting experiences.

However, on one occasion, he told PG that the only reason he was alive to converse about the war was because an enemy soldier had failed to clean his gun.

In the thick jungle where he and his men were actively engaged in a firefight, an enemy soldier sneaked through the jungle and emerged about five yards behind the Captain, pointing his AK-47 directly at him. The Captain, focused on the fight going on in front of him, heard something behind him, looked back and saw the soldier pointing his gun directly at him, pulling on the trigger. However, the submachine gun did not fire and the Captain was able to turn and fire his rifle in time to kill the Viet Cong soldier.

After the fighting ceased, the Captain examined the enemy soldier and his gun.

The gun was fully-loaded and ready to fire, but it had jammed because the soldier hadn’t cleaned out the powder residue present as a result of one or more earlier fights during which the soldier had evidently fired the gun a lot.

After the battle was over, while a few of his men were watching, the Captain picked up the AK-47, cleared the jam, examined the firing chamber then took out his knife and scraped away some of the built-up gunpowder residue he found. He then closed the action and the gun fired instantly when he pulled the trigger.

He said it was a good object lesson for his men about the importance of maintaining their weapons carefully.

PG doesn’t remember General Pershing or Generals Eisenhower or Montgomery describing any similar experience in the accounts of their wars.

4 thoughts on “Noble Volunteers”

  1. The caricature is ubiquitous…

    I’m willing to believe that this ubiquity is true, but cannot but wonder whether this is not a very Americocentric view, or indeed whether it is actually held by Americans who have read anything other than very superficial works of military history.

    Is there a similar caricature about sailors of the RN? If so, Mr Hagist would have a good subject for his next book as the “other ranks” of the Napoleonic period are a fascinating and extremely varied multi-ethnic group. Thouigh judging from some of the things I’ve seen recently the Puritans may be in greater need of to be de-caricaturisation.

    • Did you ever see Mel Gibson in THE PATRIOT?
      That is all the exposure many folks have to the War of Independence.

      Except for the modernists, who decry everything and anything before they hit University.

      History used to be written by the winners but not any more. Nowadays history is whatever the politics of the day require.

      • I have had that misfortune. As someone once said: “Truth is the first casualty of Mel Gibson”.

        I suspect your “modernists” would have a good time denouncing his laughable treatment of slavery (and for once they would be right) though they probably would not care that he pretended that the British carried out the 1944 massacre of French villagers in Oradour-sur-Glane during your war of independence (after all it’s allowable to lie about imperialists).

        • Oops.
          Make that post-modernists.

          Anyway, it’s not just Gibson.
          It’s Hollywood.
          Research is generally beneath them and historical accuracy tend to be inversely proportional to their budget.

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