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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Key develoments in the British army in 17th century


In the 1690s the English army’s matchlock musket (slow to load, clumsy to operate at the mercy of the elements) was replaced by a lighter weapon with a more robust firing system known as the flintlock. At the same time the old plug bayonet gave way to a socket version that fitted around the muzzle and enabled the gun to be fired. When allied to the new tactic of fighting three ranks deep and firing rolling volleys by platoons (18 to a battalion), these innovations made the English (later British) infantrymen the dominant factor on the battlefield.

Captain Thomas Hewitt, 10th Regiment of Foot, by William Tate. Captain Hewitt holds his socket bayonet
Captain Thomas Hewitt, 10th Regiment of Foot, by William Tate. Captain Hewitt holds his socket bayonet
The first two Hanoverian monarchs, George I and II, were both soldiers who made important changes to the internal organisation of the British army. George I introduced German methods of organisation, economy and tactics, including a standard arms-drill and annual regimental inspections. He also beefed up the code of discipline known as the Articles of War; and regulated the purchase system for officers’ commissions. George II, who had a horse run away with him at Dettingen, made promotion more meritocratic by rewarding length of service and martial achievement. these reforms would help British troops win the Seven Years’ War.

Portrait of King George II at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743
Portrait of King George II at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743

James Wolfe is best known for dying at the moment of victory at Quebec in 1759. But his greatest contribution to the development of the British army was the introduction of a groundbreaking new firing drill – known as the ‘alternate-fire’ system – and the use of the bayonet as an offensive rather than a defensive weapon. He combined the two in a simple but effective battle tactic – a close-quarter musket volley, followed by a bayonet charge – that British infantrymen would use to sweep all (or almost all) before them for much of the next century.

The portrait of General James Wolfe by J.S.C. Schaak
The portrait of General James Wolfe by J.S.C. Schaak

A failure as a field commander, Prince Frederick, the Duke of York, found his meter as commander-in-chief by introducing a host of important reforms: he reorganised the Headquarters Staff and founded both the Senior and Junior Departments of Royal Military College (later the Staff College and RMA Sandhurst respectively) in an attempt to ensure that all officers were more professional. He improved service conditions (by increasing pay and reducing the term of enlistment) and training; and he revolutionised the use of light troops by issuing,  new training exercises and creating a new ‘Corps of riflemen’ (later the Rifle Brigade).

Cadets of the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. Junior Department
Cadets of the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. Junior Department
During the American War of Independence, cannon were still largely the same weapons that had been used by Marlborough: smooth-bore, muzzle-loading and mounted on heavy two-wheeled carriages, and firing round-shot, canister and shell. But in 1785 Henry Shrapnel invented a new shell for howitzers that took his name and gave British artillery a crucial edge on the battlefield. It consisted of the same hollow cast-iron sphere and fuse as a common shell, but filled with gunpowder and lead balls that burst over an enemy position with lethal consequences. Other artillery innovations at this time were elevating screws for quicker and more precise aiming, and a lighter single block-trail carriage and limber for greater manoeuvrability.

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