Friday, November 13, 2015

"Destructive and Formidable : British Infantry Firepower 1642 - 1765" - a review..

I'd spotted a brief mention of this book over on Keith Flint's blog, and upon seeing it in the library a few weeks ago I borrowed it based only on his comment that it was well worth reading... bloody pleased I did...

Let's get the pleasantries out of the way first - this book is without a doubt my book of the year, it is everything the "Marlborough's Other Army" book is (ie. informative, incisive, facts, figures), but also with the additional benefit that it is hugely readable. Lots of anecdotes, personal histories, and well reasoned argument as to why the author thinks a certain way was followed in the absence of clear evidence or proof, make it a very enjoyable read.. I unashamedly recommend this as a required reading to anyone with an interest in 'black powder' military history or wargaming..

Blackmore's book covers the period from roughly Edgehill to the Fall of Quebec, roughly 120 years, but his argument that this comparatively short period of time moulded the British Army to such an extent that tactical doctrine founded in this time still shapes the British Army today.

Starting with the English Civil War he describes the firing methods and drills of the time, explains why they were so inefficient (slow loading matchlocks muskets, firing by ranks/files, too long a range etc), but how developments towards the end of the war (volleys at very close range followed up immediately by close assault) set the stage for developments in later periods.

Moving on to the Nine Years War and and the War of the Spanish Succession he describes how the British Army discovered the "platoon firing" method (and no one knows where it really originated - Blackmore quotes Chandler who argued that it may have been the Swedish under Adolphus, but he also argues it could have been originated by the Dutch) that then dominated for the next 100 years through myriad changes and increases/decreases of complexity.

Put simply - a British battalion of infantry was divided up into "firings", this could be by platoon, by company, or even by rank within platoon (depending on the period), and these firings meant that the battalion was always shooting. The complexities and developments over time were aimed (no pun intended) at concentrating that continuous fire to maximum effect.

The following (and I'd like to point out the copyright bottom left) dates from the War of the Spanish Succession - a fairly simple platoon firing method. By the time the 3rd firing had completed, the 1st shooting had reloaded and was ready to fire again.. the French at this time were still firing by rank, and continued to do so for some time...


It probably reached it's maximum period of complexity under Cumberland (and I have no idea how they managed to control it on the battlefield, I was having enough difficulty sat in a chair in the garage with a beer and a cigar!) where I think they had managed to work up to 13 "firings" involving part platoons and even ranks, but it was simplified, without losing impact, by Wolfe and used to devastating effect at Quebec.

In summary, the British army had discovered a doctrine of firepower towards the end of the English Civil War that developed during these 100 and odd years meant they were largely unbeaten on the battlefield for the next 3 or 400 years..  continuous fire via the platoon firing methodology, at very close range (30 yards is quoted), followed up immediately by bayonet.. seemples..

10/10 ...  now what are you waiting for? My own copy has already been ordered.... 

36 comments:

  1. - there is a post under te smae name on my blog- I've had the book for a wehile- as I said then probably the best book I'd read on the subject. Have tried to get some of the precepts into rules but wargamers do fart about- unlike most infantry officers.
    Splendid book

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    1. Andy - a cracking read... "+1 for British/Dutch Infantry Firing" is all that's required.. :o))

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  2. OK, for somebody getting into the ECW and the 7YW that sounds like a must have.
    Thanks for the heads up!

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    1. Paul - without a doubt a required text for anyone with an interest in the period... and a damn good read to boot...

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  3. Dammit Steve....I had convinced myself I didn't need this one.

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  4. Nice review Steve, thanks. But while +1 to British/Dutch firing might be one way of factoring this doctrine into a game, you might want to make it +1 to British/Dutch in melee after firing instead? Depends on whether your reading of the book makes it seem that rapid British fire killed more people, or rather created more confusion in the enemy ranks that could then be exploited by that bayonet charge?

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    1. Ivan - very valid point.. it was definitely a one two, rather than each in isolation..

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  5. I am afraid I have to disagree and I would read it with a lot of skepticism.

    First of all the good point. It does give a very good breakdown of the mechanics of the various firing systems used by the British/English during this period. The period drill books can be confusing and tedious to work through. So if you are interested in the various modifications to British/English drill then this is useful.

    Unfortunately after that things go down hill. I am afraid the conclusions and indeed much of the other content is a problem. I could go into a catalogue of problems but the basic, and easiest to understand, problem is that he has used very few sources, if any, that look at the other side and are not (often patriotic) British/English language sources. Any serious attempt to prove what he sets out to prove would have lots of foreign language works. At least 50% and probably lots more of his sources should be non British/English, he has just a few. Use of non English sources would have told him that many of his ideas are wrong.

    In short what he is saying is that of the systems he has looked at then the British/English system is the best, mainly because he only actually looked at that system. He has looked at a lot of (often patriotic/not balanced) British/English sources which unsurprisingly also think the British/English army is the best of those discussed, again usually just the British/English. The book is not balanced and I would not recommend relying on it. It would be interesting to see how he explains why the British/English lost more battles against foreign opponents than they won, in the period he discusses. Of course you are not going to find out from this as the sources he uses let him down.

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    1. Hello Unknown - interesting view, no reason to disagree with you, and I for one would be interested in hearing more of the "other side".. as you say the problem is a lack of accessible content.. as far as I know only John Lynn writes in detail on the French (ignoring the usual Osprey summaries).. do you have any recommendations??? PS. Introduce yourself, "unknown" is a bit impersonal! :o)

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    2. But Mr Unknown- yopu very carefully do not say WHY or indeed mention any of the myriad battles we lost- I can think of 3 offhand in the War of Austrian succession and 1 Almanza in the WSS- whch is not my majore period of interest and some in the League of Augsberg - again not my thing but in essense all of these support the developement of the systemas a result of the defeats . But can list more that we- and our Allies- Dutch Hanovarians Hessians etc won - and it is clear that the Dutch used a similar system-and of course we exclude ECW battles (no foriegn opponents!!) Starting with Blenhiemand ending at the end of the SYW each bump in the road sees a development of the system. I'd love to see this list of defeats ....

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    3. Yes sorry about the 'Unknown'. I am having problems posting here. I can't do it at all if I am signed in and only with difficulty as 'Unknown'. I am not sure why but I think it is my problem and not you.

      On the 'other side' I should really have said the other sides. Obviously the French are a major alternative to the British/English model but not the only one. For example the Austrians and Russians in the WSS era have their own version of platoon firing and indeed variants on rank firing. While the Prussians firing later on is also different.

      Unfortunately I don't think that there is current a single work that covers all this, indeed I suspect that would be difficult to do over a relatively long period/wide area and one of great changes. I know that there is an updated version of Nosworthy's Anatomy of Victory on it's way. This time he has used a lot of 'foreign' references so it should be a great improvement but it will also probably be 2 or 3 volumes covering this period. I don't know when this will be available but he was talking about it a few months ago on various groups. I also know there is a work on the 'myths' of the WSS era which will cover this topic at that time. That will be a while.


      Nick

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    4. I am sorry Andy I must have been writing or trying to post when you posted your message. I am afraid I am not sure exactly I ‘do not say WHY’ about? Hopefully I have answered this in my previous message or this one. If not I would just return to my main original point and clarify it a bit. My point was that because of the way he has done it you can’t tell anything, either way, from this.

      On the battles lost/won clearly this depends on what battles you include and who. You could clearly include the Dutch, Hanoverians, Hessians and your mention them is something I also considered mentioning. The author claims that the British/English were uniquely ‘Destructive and Formidable’, so why weren’t they equally ‘Destructive and Formidable’ as they were using the same/similar system? Indeed on ‘the who one battles’ then I would guess the Hanoverians and Hessians have a ‘better score’. Not because they were on the winning side of more battles than the British/English but because they weren’t at some of the loses. These armies also usually had a lot more units at the victories than the British/English so presumably could also claim to be the ‘battle winners’ because of that.

      Similarly the author claims the British/English discovered a ‘magic formula’ during the ECW and essentially used it from then on with some tweaks. Personally I didn’t find this argument convincing at all but ….. Also the pattern of wins/loses doesn’t suggest a steady progress. This brings me back to the battles won/lost.

      As already mentioned this is always going to be open to all kinds of questions about what counts. But perhaps the general pattern for British/English battles in larger battles in the various foreign wars is NYW/LOA all loses (100%?), WSS no loses in Flanders/Germany, majority loses in Spain/Portugal (maybe 30% loses overall?), WAS mainly loses (maybe 70% loses?), SYW minority loses (maybe 40% loses?). Now obviously this is very subjective but I think most people would agree on the general pattern (which is erratic) and that this ‘Destructive and Formidable’ army lost a lot of battles. Why are these the case if the authors ideas are right?

      Even if you don’t agree with this then any kind of balanced look at a topic surely has to look at why it failed, when it did fail.

      OK so I have gone on a lot longer than intended and I could mention more but it would take far too long.


      Nick

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    5. Cheers Nick - you have definitely not got on longer than you needed to.. I always welcome positive comment even where it disagrees - you have to learn to progress... :o)

      I think your points are valid, but to be fair to the author he is writing a book primarily about the British army, he is fair in doling out the plaudits as to where other armies did better, or the British army stole/adapted their idea's... he's also fairly fair on where the pattern/system broke down (versus Highland charge and the open skirmish type warfare in North America) but how the system could be adapted.. it's fairly noticeable that the book ends before the Napoleonic Wars, almost as if he believes "their work was done" by then.

      The messages I took away from the book were one, the importance of platoon firing in concentrating the fire of a British (or Dutch, or indeed any number of other nations according to the Dorrell book), but the battle winners for the British were firing at close range, and two, the immediate attack with bayonet or whatever other heavy/sharp implement they had at hand... two is a numbers game.. however destructive and formidable they were, when faced against greater numbers then they could/will lose.. but man for man, battalion for battalion, they were more "effective" for want of a better word; which I find difficult to disagree with.

      PS.Thanks for the heads up I will definitely be getting the Nosworthy when it comes out..!

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    6. INick I'm only really at varience here with you on the idea that there is not a progression from the LOA to the end of the SYW as for me that is the crux of the argument. as for why it failed- when it did fail- yes of course you need to look at the reasons- and were those reasons to do with the failure of the tactical doctrine or some other failur- of generalship or strategy (as most of the WAS battles perhaps).
      Like Steve I find that it is the combination of close range, comparatively fast firing and close assault that is the difference in doctrine
      my orgional comments on the book are here
      http://gloriouslittlesoldiers.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/destructive-and-formidable.html

      and the not entirely successful rules amendments
      here
      http://gloriouslittlesoldiers.blogspot.co.uk/2015/06/those-age-of-reason-amendments.html.
      That there is more work to do on this is a given and it is certainly not quite as cut and dried as it first seems yet considering their relatively small numbers I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with Steve here they do seem to have been more effective somehow.

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    7. Part 1: I couldn't fit it all in one post!

      This is a complicated subject and not one we are likely to decide here. So I will just make a few food for thought comments and then go back to my original thoughts.

      I take your point on it focusing on the 'British' and what they did. But that can only be considered 'different' if you look at what the others are doing. You both mention close range firing and I think the author mentions 30 yards, rather than say a relatively long range like 80 or 90 yards. He gives an example of this at Blenheim on page 74 (I think, I have a kindle edition and the numbering is strange) we have giving the first fire at 30 yard. While later on (page 75 I think) we have firing 'outside truly effective range' at 80 to 90 yards away. The problem is that the first one at close range is the French firing at the 'British' and the second the 'British' later on!

      Now of course you can prove almost anything if you just choose a few favourable examples, but this is exactly what the author has done. This of course doesn't prove that the author is wrong as such but as I originally mentioned you should be very sceptical. Personally I think the truth is that almost always the defender shot first, whatever the nationality of the unit was.

      Similarly with the bayonet charge immediately after firing then YOU may be right but then you would have to provide some evidence that others didn't do this. A prest, the 'official' French tactic of the LOA/WSS era, was to fire and then charge but I think that is also dubious. That is as maybe but I said YOU because this is not what he says. I suspect you think so as you are thinking of Napoleonic times. As I understand it the fire then charge tactics were introduced/re-introduced in the AWI and perfected in the Napoleonic wars. The author says, I think, that these tactics were used in early times which seems possible as they were standard European tactics around that time and later. On page 65 (again it might be different on a paper copy) he specifically states that this was abandoned in circa 1690 and the 'British' relied on firepower alone from then on.

      Finally looking at the battles as a whole what was the decisive 'British' infantry contribution to the victories? Obviously I am simplifying here but if you take the 4 big WSS battles then you have to say not great, or at least not greater than any other participant. So at Blenheim the 'British' attacked and failed to take the village & then basically did little else until after the battle was won. Not this was their fault particularly but the decisive part of their attack was the incompetence of a French general's reaction to it. He didn't even reverse the mess once it was clear the British had stopped attacking. At Ramilles and Malplaquet (ignore the fictional Irish thing at this last) the 'British' infantry were barely engaged, again not there fault. Finally at Oudernaarde they are rarely singled out at all, they are just some of the units involved and not noticeably different from the other units involved. Once again no doubt they did well and could have done better if given a chance or in the right circumstances. But that is also true for say the 27 French battalion doom to be made to look like idiots by the incompetence of their commander at Blenheim. In short where are the battle winning actions of the 'British' infantry in easily their best theatre/war?

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    8. Part 2:

      So back to the book specifically. As previously mentioned I think it is a good breakdown of the British/English drills over this period, but much of the rest should be treated sceptically. It may be right but I don't think you can tell either way from this. Would I recommend it? I think yes but only with reservations and in the hope you will try to get another view. I would whole heartedly agree with Andy and others that this is not the whole story. There are as 'nundanket' points out grave doubts about whether they actually did these things in practice. While the effect of them was minute compared to the more traditional factors effecting battles - numbers, unit quality, leadership, command, luck, etc. I think the WSS is especially interesting in this as there were 2 theatres where the' British' fought the same or similar foes. The fact that the 'British' won all the battles with Marlborough (and Eugene, etc) but lost most of those in Spain/Portugal (where there was usually a bigger percentage of British troops involved) strongly suggest that something is wrong with the idea.

      I forgot to say that Nosworthy is also planning to bring out some 'booklets' which will be translations of 'foreign' texts, drills, etc, and also mini books on smaller subjects rather than the whole period. Again I have no idea when but they should be worth the wait.

      Finally thanks Steve for this interesting blog and also Andy for his. Keep up the good work.

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  6. Hmmmm . . . I took this off my 'wish list' last week. What to do . . . . ?

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    1. Gary - put it back on immediately.. :o)

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    2. Steve is rght- get it back on that wish list.

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  7. Now that was a good read!!! And I haven't even read the book yet either!! I'll put it on my Christmas list that's for sure!

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    1. Ray, I don't think you'll be disappointed given your interest in the war in Ireland..

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  8. Re: Unknown Nick's comments, Duffy says a fair bit about different firing systems in The Mil Experience in the Age of Reason. He has read sources in a number of languages. The prevailing impression I got was that complicated systems like platoon fire tended to quickly descend into "rolling fire" (a 'polite term' for every man loading and firing as individuals). When you think about the effect of noise and the smoke on command and signals, this makes sense. Always exceptions of course, but if it was that much better than other methods everyone would have adopted it.

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    1. Nunadket, my reading of it is that Blackmore thinks the same, especially some of the more hideously complex firings practised by the army under Cumberland.. by the time you get to Wolfe he'd clearly had enough (he was a colonel under Cumberland if I remember), so you increasingly get two ranks rather than three,and alternate platoon fire in three firings - must have been much easier to control as the soldiers would be able to see and hear when the "other end" had fired... must add Duffy to my list, I've kind of ignored him up until now as I'm more a WSS man..

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    2. Steve, Duffy is still the benchmark for mid-18th century and smoothbore era siege warfare IMO. Good entertaining style as well as well-researched. Must say i found the book on the 45 (the old one at least) heavier going though. Russia's Military Way to the West covers the GNW (as well as the SYW, Turkish Wars and Revolutionary War) so closer to your period than the books on Fred etc.

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  9. Steve, on the basis of your review I have added this to my Christmas pressie list. I look forward to reading it. I have also added the new Duffy book about the '45.

    Guy

    PS I'm no huge expert on the '45 so please don't shoot me down(!) but although one of the regiments at Culloden was called Wolfe's (the 8th) I believe the colonel was another Wolfe and not our hero. I have painted the regiment using the Cran Tara figures including the pushing bayonet figure which I understand Duffy is now saying didn't actually happen.

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    1. Hello Guy - was looking at the Culloden book yesterday at Warfare - looked interesting...

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  10. Possibly not the place for this but a linked point occours to me- How did the largely very successful French army of the WAS become the rather mediocre force of the SYW- are we looking at a decline in the quality of French infantry especially- set against an arguable rise in quality of the Britis - Hessians, Hanovarians etc?. Is the French doctrine over complex? in comparison. Waht actaully happened at Quebec(The most perfect volley)??? or Wandewash- did Lally's really advance in column and get shot to bits.- There is little or nothing on the Indian battles in Blackmore- yet all the British troops - Kings or Companies used the same system.
    as far as I can tell.

    Wolfe- the Quebec one was a junior officer in the 45- who apparently decamped with more speed than dignity at Falkirk-(see Reid) but did fight at Culloden

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  11. Damn me theis is intrestin' stuff ..... thanks to all

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    1. Andy - it sure is... fascinating reading...I may edit/digest these and put this up as a post in its own right.. thanks to everyone who has left a comment - it's what makes the web and blogging so good (at times!).

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  12. Big Andy,

    "How did the largely very successful French army of the WAS become the rather mediocre force of the SYW..."

    For one thing Contades was no Maurice de Saxe. When de Broglie took over, things improved and the record becomes much more even.

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    1. But was it only generalship ? My overall impression is that the quality of the French infantry dipped significantly. Rossbach and later Warburg and Emsdorf being examples of a notexactly wonderful performance was it simply generalship or were the regimental level officers not up to it?
      Equally Sackville and even Granby were neither of them Marlborough- and of course neither were CinC in the field yet the actual quality and training of the Bitish and Allied troops- especially the infantry.

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  13. Seems like I'm hijacking the excellent review of Destructive and Formidable which I have and like very much. If so, I apologize.

    I don't pretend to be an expert on the French Army, 18th Century military history or anything else with the possible shining exception of bad dice rolling. Of course generalship can only go so far but it is often easier to perform better if you have confidence in your leadership. If you have been discounted and neglected by the Generals and continually placed in awkward or impossible positions you are likely defeated before you start.

    Rossbach is usually held as a prime example of the decline of the French Army. All I can say to that is Soubise, for various reasons put his army in a disastrous position before the battle began. Weren't the Empire troops, of questionable utility, in the van and took the initial Prussian onslaught precipitating the rout?


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    1. William - no hijacking I can see, please feel free to carry on, it really is quite interesting..

      On a less serious note, it does seem that the 18th C armies were a little like top flight international rugby teams; most pundits seem to think they also cycle between periods of maximum effectiveness for a few years with dips in between (where new players/methods/management and coaching staff may be involved)! :o)

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  14. I think a lot has to be put down to the leadership in the two wars, not just the French but the 'British' as well. De Saxe was one of the best leaders of (at least) the century and he was often facing enemy commanders of the calibre of the Duke of Cumberland and Charles of Lorraine. Both of whom were amongst the worst commanders of the SYW. Cumberland of course also managed to nearly lose big time to the French in the early part of the SYW. In contrast Ferdinand of Brunswick was a pretty good commander of the 'British' in the SYW and all the French commanders in this war were mediocre at best.

    The contrast between the quality of commanders is very marked but perhaps the troops were about the same. relative to each other. in both wars. I am from now on relying on a half remembered something academic/serious I read some time ago so please bear this in mind. In any case if I remember correctly this claimed that the French, I can't remember what it said (if anything) about the British, were basically the same in both wars and had definitely lost the edge. The difference was that De Saxe understood the strengths/weaknesses of his army and avoided the weaknesses and used the strengths. i.e. he was good enough to be able to use a bad/poor army and still win.

    The other thing mentioned was differences in the big picture. Basically in the WAS the balance of naval power was more even with the French spending a bigger proportion of their more on navy and also having Spanish allies with a biggish navy. In contrast the French spending on the navy was smaller in the SYW, they had cut back, & no allied navy. So in the WAS the French could contest the colonial campaigns better, forcing the Brits to use up resources and also limiting losses which would have to be traded for in the peace negotiations. Similarly because the French had a credible naval threat in the WAS the Brits were forced to take this into account and had to worry about stuff like the '45. In contrast in the SYW the Brits could pick off isolated French colonies who had no chance of help, could strip garrisons down to the minimum and also force the French to guard their coast, etc, more.

    There was other stuff like British were also getting richer/more populous compared to the French as the century went on. Also the British 'credit rating' was miles better than the French (and indeed everyone else) and so they could borrow more/easier. There was more but in short these kinds of 'big picture' stuff were a lot more favourable in the SYW than in the WAS. The 'not funding the navy' in particular was seen as a big mistake after the SYW and the French spent a lot more on it afterwards & this paid off in the AWI, according to the book.


    Nick

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    1. Nick - De Saxe sounds very much like Morgan at Cowpens - understand his troops qualities and played to their strength.

      The picture that comes out is that not everything is as "seemples" as I first suggested (albeit tongue in cheek), I agree that leadership is key though, and more than helps to explain the disparity in performance between Allied forces in northern Europe and Spain, and undoubtedly (British) naval support helped with Gibraltar and Minorca..

      Fascinating discussion..

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