Blessing or Curse? | Adventures In Historyland

The British army in the light of Waterloo.

“As a battle of science, it was demonstrative of no manoeuvre” wrote Sir Harry Smith sometime between 1820 and 1848. Writing in July of 1815 Baron Marbot was incredulous at the defeat and confirmed that “We were manoeuvred like so many pumpkins”. Smith went on to say “It was no Salamanca or Vitoria, were science was so beautifully exemplified: it was as a stand up fight between two pugilists “Mill away” until one is beaten. The Battle of Waterloo, with all it’s political glory has destroyed the field movement of the British Army. So scientifically laid down by Dundas, so improved by that hero of war and drill, Sir John Moore. All that light troop duty that had taught, by which the world, through the medium of the Spanish war was saved, has been replaced by the most heavy of manoeuvres, by squares, centre formations, and moving in masses, which require time to collect and equal time to extend; and all because the Prussians and the Russians did not know how to move quicker, we, forsooth must adapt to their ways…”

The operational tactics of the British army post 1815 can be summarised by well over 30 Squares at Waterloo and a single line at Balaclava. The traditions of the British army were born in 1815, throughout the 19th century it took its character from the exploits of the national contingent at Mont St Jean. Determination, courage, stolidity, resilience, the rock hard determination to stand unflinching against all odds. The strange thing is that he opposite was true previously. All through the 18th century, when the bedrock for the traditions of Waterloo was set down, from 1701 to 1814, the focus was on amphibious landings, offensive movement and increasingly open formations, as the experiences of war in America altered strategic thinking. By 1854, the lessons of the 18th century had…

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