The first major British involvement in the French Revolutionary Wars came right at the start, when the Duke of York commanded the British contingent of the Coalition army in Flanders. This isn’t one of the better known campaigns of the period, perhaps because it lacks the clarity and drama of the campaigns of Napoleon or Wellington, but it was the point at which the Eighteenth Century armies of the Coalition powers first came up against the new armys of Revolutionary France and were found lacking, so does deserve some attention.
At the start of this campaign the British army hadn’t fought on the Continent since the Seven Years War, nearly thirty years earlier, while the most recent experience of large scale battles had been in the American War of Independence. The army was far smaller than its Continental rivals, and most of the regular units were scattered around the British Empire. The Duke of York himself was a young man with no experience of command, only in his mid 20s at the outbreak of war. Most of the best parts of the ‘British’ army under his command came from several German states, so the Duke commanded a coalition army within the wider coalition army!
This is one of the best accounts of this campaign that I’ve read. The author does a good job of getting the balance between a readable overview and a detailed campaign history right, so we get enough detail to understand the many battles of the campaign, without getting bogged down. That’s quite tricky to achieve when looking at this campaign, which took place over quite a large area, and see-sawed repeatedly, with a series of short lived French commanders achieving some success before being dragged off to the guillotine or deserting, and the same areas being fought over repeatedly. Although the focus is on the Duke of York’s army, we do get good material on his allies, and on the dramatic changes taking place in France, both politically and in the evolution of the French army.
There is a slightly irritating tendancy to critisise the influence of British polititians as civilians interfering with military matters, but without making the same comment for the Prussians or Austrians – Frederick William of Prussia had no military experience, and the young Emperor Francis II had spent a short period with an army regiment, so neither of them can conceivably count as trained ‘military men’, but their role in the decision making process isn’t subject to the same harping. That isn’t to say that the British leadership didn’t mistakes – the decision to focus on the capture of Dunkirk was one of the reasons for the failure of the 1793 campaign, but the Prussian and Austrian leaders also allowed their short term interests to dominate their actions in that year.
Two main reasons for the Coalition failures emerge from this account. First was a failure to get to grips with the problems of fighting with a coalition army. Apart from a brief spell with Francis II turned up to take command in person, the army was led by a group of men of similar rank, with competing aims and instructions from home to obey. Any significant cooperation required councils of war to thrash out a plan accepted by all, leading to some dangerously over-complex plans. When the various armies did cooperate at a single battle they don’t appear to have coordinated their activities very well, so neighbouring columns of troops would remain entirely unaware of each others actions. Second was a failure to move away from the careful, siege based warfare of earlier wars, so when chances did appear to take advantage of French defeats and weakness early in the campaign, the coalition forces simply settled down to besiege a series of fortresses. This gave the French time to recover from any defeats, and for Carnot’s massive new armies to enter the field.
The Duke of York himself emerges from this account quite well. He was clearly a popular commander, and was often aware of the flaws with his government’s or allies’ plans. His army did win some impressive victories during the campaign, but also suffered major defeats, and the campaign, which began with the aim of invading France and overthrowing the Republic, ended with the French conquest of the Spanish Netherlands and the Dutch Republic. Probably the best thing to emerge from this campaign from the British point of view was that the Duke learnt how not to run a campaign (although clearly not in time to avoid a similar disaster in 1799).
Part 1: 1789 to 1792: The Road to War
1 – A Thousand Feudal Elements
2 – The First Coalition
3 – War is at Our Very Door
4 – The First Coalition Force
5 – Phoney War
Part 2: 1793: The Coalition of the Unwilling
6 – Advance to Contact
7 – Valenciennes
8 – Linselles to Dunkirk
9 – The Channel Ports
10 – Winter Quarters
Part 3: 1794: A New Campaign Season
11 – Good Cavalry Country
12 – Tourcoing
13 – Tournai
14 – Exit Austria
15 – Defending the United Provinces
16 – Every Disgrace and Misfortune
Part 4: 1795: The Most Unhappy Expeditionary Force
17 – Winter on the Waal
18 – Retreat to Bremen
19 – Ringed with Enemies
20 – Torpor and Treachery
Author: Steve Brown