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"Were the British really “The best army in the world”?" Topic

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Personal logo John the OFM Supporting Member of TMP16 Sep 2020 9:51 p.m. PST

I'm talking about the American Revolution British, of course.
But were they really?
I keep reading that. I've read it for years.
But I've never seen proof, beyond that bold statement of "fact".
Were they better than the French? The Prussians?
Or were they just comparable to other armies, and American propaganda wanted to inflate the Bad Guys?
One thing. They weren't all that large, since Britain immediately started to rent Hessians, and tried and failed to do the same with Russians. (Pity that. Think of all the new figures to paint and play with!)
And it seems to me that one battalion regiments would be rather inefficient at keeping units in the field up to strength.

I honestly don't know. The question has been gnawing at me for years. I'm open to proof.

BTW, I will not accept assertions from authority. Just because your favorite historian says it was so doesn't make it so.
Let's see some proof, one way or other. Being able to push a barely trained Patriot army around in 1776 proves little.

Yellow Admiral Supporting Member of TMP16 Sep 2020 10:41 p.m. PST

Excellent question.

All English-speaking historians are motivated to call the British army the best, on both sides of the pond, and I've always found it hard to believe the British army was better than the army of Friedrich der Große. I have proof either way, and without direct field comparisons, proxy comparisons and speculation are probably all we've got. I will have to await the opining of the sublime cognoscenti of TMP.

I'll be back. I have to make popcorn.

- Ix

Jeffers16 Sep 2020 11:03 p.m. PST

It was clearly stated in the Washington mini-series starring Barry Bostwick. After the Monmouth action someone – might have been Baz himself – said something like ‘we've just beaten the best army in the world'. So it must be true.

Apart from the foam fight at Trenton, that's all I remember.

Cerdic Supporting Member of TMP16 Sep 2020 11:43 p.m. PST

Load of old cobblers, I reckon.

The British army in the later 18th Century was probably about average, with some very good bits. At home, it tended to be a despised and distrusted institution that was starved of funds. Ruthlessly cut to the bare bones by a penny-pinching Parliament whenever it wasn't needed.

So whenever troops were needed, they had to be hastily scraped together and trained.

It's not really a recipe for creating a crack organisation!

Any military love and glamour and stuff was reserved for the Navy. And even they had their budgets slashed the moment peace was declared!

John G17 Sep 2020 1:39 a.m. PST

No-one wants to beat the second or third best army, and no-one say's we have the second or third best.

advocate17 Sep 2020 1:54 a.m. PST

The troops in North America weren't the best, at least at the start of the Revolution.

parrskool Supporting Member of TMP17 Sep 2020 2:38 a.m. PST

…. in a European situation …. possibly. In a guerilla

Brechtel198 Supporting Member of TMP17 Sep 2020 3:23 a.m. PST

But the Revolution was not a guerilla war…

Andy Fyfe17 Sep 2020 4:28 a.m. PST

Quite simple; 'no; they were not the best'.

Poorly led, poorly trained and poorly supported.

Smaller than a lot of the continental European armies so 'better' by comparison of the average soldier. But not 'better' overall and certainly not the 'best'.

altfritz17 Sep 2020 5:28 a.m. PST

Can you imagine! Pennsylvania Rus!? (Where did the Hessians settle after the war? Maybe it wasn't PA. I thought I heard that somewhere though…)

Wasn't Sackville Minister of War? Aka "The Coward of Minden"? Yes, I know he beat the rap but that could have been b/c of connections. Had somebody else been in charge the outcome might have been different.

Dn Jackson17 Sep 2020 5:29 a.m. PST

I think I could make an argument either way. Prior to the war they had been cut to the bone financially after the SYW. The army was made up of gutter scrapings, battalions were severely under strength, and they didn't perform well during the Boston campaign.

However, did they ever lose a stand up fight? They pretty much won every face to face battle I can think of with some relatively minor exceptions or when the Americans were able to force an attack on a fortified position.

Did the British lose a field battle against a European foe during the war?

doc mcb17 Sep 2020 6:17 a.m. PST

"Guerilla war" requires definition. But I hardly think Trenton-Prineton, nor Greene's campaigns, quite qualify as "conventional." Was the US fighting a "guerilla war against the NVA? Depends on definition, but the VC were certainly guerillas.

doc mcb17 Sep 2020 6:26 a.m. PST

OFM, I'll offer this argument: Like other European regulars, the British knew two tricks: they could use close order volleys and bayonets to disburse a mob, and they could fight similar armies of other kings on an equal basis. They tried the first approach in Massachusetts, 1774-1775, and it ended with the evacuation of Boston.

They then switched to treating the Continental Congress as a sovereign and defeating its army and capturing its major cities. 1776-1777 They beat Washington like a drum and captured NYC and Philadelphia.

Only when the two things they knew how to do failed to work did they look for new strategies, and what they came up with, to use the British army to shield and stimulate the organization of Loyalists into a militia to control the population, came very close to working. It failed in part because the war was now a worldwide conflict and they simply lacked the troops; and because the Patriots likewise adapted under Greene and Marion etc. But that third phase of strategy is an impressive achievement, just too little too late.

doc mcb17 Sep 2020 6:35 a.m. PST

I agree that the British loss was not the army's fault. Had the war been conventional, there'd have been no political problems with using Hessians; they had been used in Britain previously. And it was British diplomats who demonstrated utter incomprehension of the Indian threat by returning Louisburg to the French. What beat Burgoyne, besides Arnold's delaying tactics, was the publication of the account of the murder of Jane McCrea. Burgoyne drowned in a sea of outraged militia.

Brechtel198 Supporting Member of TMP17 Sep 2020 6:45 a.m. PST

…but the VC were certainly guerillas.

Initially, but they developed into a conventional force that launched the TET offensive in early 1968.

And they were destroyed as both a military and political organization because of their defeat in that offensive. The regular VC battalions were rebuilt with NVA and were no longer 'guerillas', though that fiction has been kept up by their supporters and the old US anti-war groups that collaborated with them.

Brechtel198 Supporting Member of TMP17 Sep 2020 6:47 a.m. PST

If anyone is interested in the British Army deployed to North America from 1775-1783 I would highly recommend With Zeal and Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775-1783 by Matthew Spring.

It is excellent and the comments about the American militia as well as the Continental Army are also of interest.

Bill N17 Sep 2020 7:06 a.m. PST

Was the British army the best in the world in 1775? Its a claim I frequently heard growing up. My gut instinct is to say "no".

However do we really know how far other 7YW armies had shrunk in quality? The 7YW had ended 12 years earlier and all the major players had allowed their armies to shrink in size. By the time the shooting started in North America I would imagine in many of those armies there was a significant turnover in NCOs and junior officers. I would also imagine among senior ranks there would be a number of old timers past their prime who were kept on, and a number of well connected but inexperienced men. When the shooting started Britain had to run with the peacetime army it had. France and Spain had a chance to ramp things up.

@ Dn Jackson, how do you define a "stand up fight"?

Personal logo John the OFM Supporting Member of TMP17 Sep 2020 7:09 a.m. PST

Please let's save the anti-militia arguments for a dedicated thread on that topic.
Can we just answer the question I posted? Without the anticipated 5 or 6 long paragraphs about "Longfaces" that have nothing to do with whether the British army was the best in the world?

Personal logo John the OFM Supporting Member of TMP17 Sep 2020 7:11 a.m. PST

I would offer the opinion that the Boston garrison in 1775 was certainly rusty.

Ed Mohrmann Supporting Member of TMP17 Sep 2020 7:31 a.m. PST

I can but offer another question or four.

Is it fair to change 'British army best in the world?'
to 'British army in North America best in the world ?'

If so, an examination of the quality of those units
stationed in NA might provide a hint at an answer.

In addition, if the NA-stationed units were not 'best'
quality, where were the 'better' units stationed and

Finally, was there any effort among the REGULAR arny's
upper echelons to adapt the training and so on of units
to be sent to NA to counter the likes of Marion, the
'Old Waggoner' and so forth since the 'Southern
Strategy' seemed to be the Crown's main effort at a
win, recognizing the British people's (at home) 'war

Personal logo John the OFM Supporting Member of TMP17 Sep 2020 7:34 a.m. PST

Burgoyne certainly adapted.

Brechtel198 Supporting Member of TMP17 Sep 2020 7:39 a.m. PST

Please let's save the anti-militia arguments for a dedicated thread on that topic.

And which 'anti-militia arguments' are those?

None were posted here.

Have you read the book referenced?

Brechtel198 Supporting Member of TMP17 Sep 2020 7:41 a.m. PST

I would offer the opinion that the Boston garrison in 1775 was certainly rusty.

'Rusty' is probably not applicable. They were probably not combat veterans, or a large part of them were not, and the British army had not been at war since Pontiac's Rebellion in 1763.

See Thomas Fleming's Now We Are Enemies, later retitled The Battle of Bunker Hill.

historygamer17 Sep 2020 7:41 a.m. PST

The British army was no better or worse than the better European armies of the period. But comparing the 1775 British army to the veteran 1777 army is an apples to watermelon comparison.

I think this mythology about being the best comes from American writers spinning the victory.

Now, the British Navy was indeed the best in the world at at time.

It was the introduction of the other European powers into the war, the drain of troops to defend the islands, and the lack of an overall, coordinated stategy and in-theater commander that sank the Crown chances for victory. Thank goodness. :-)

Brechtel198 Supporting Member of TMP17 Sep 2020 7:43 a.m. PST

Howe trained his units after evacuating Boston and he was a competent commander.

Cornwallis was an excellent commander.

Grey, Fraser, and Phillips were also excellent commanders.

The idea that the British did not have competent commanders in North America is not correct.

And there were also competent German general officers such as von Riedesel and von Knyphausen.

Brechtel198 Supporting Member of TMP17 Sep 2020 7:45 a.m. PST

I will not accept assertions from authority. Just because your favorite historian says it was so doesn't make it so. Let's see some proof, one way or other.

The conclusions, backed up by factual material, from historians is proof.

Whether or not you 'accept' it is irrelevant.

Sajiro17 Sep 2020 8:10 a.m. PST

If they were not the best, I think they were certainly near the top. Their ability to mobilize, equip, deploy, and sustain themselves in operations around the world was pretty impressive given the level of technology. As someone mentioned already, the British were able to innovate and adapt at the same rate or faster than their foes- I would point to their success a generation earlier in the F&I War as an example.

Personal logo John the OFM Supporting Member of TMP17 Sep 2020 8:15 a.m. PST

The conclusions, backed up by factual material, from historians is proof.

That's all I ask. If you say that your favorite historian simply says they were the best, no. If he offers proof and examples, that's exactly what I'm asking for. Proof. Not reputation.

Can we agree in advance that Bill O'Reilly or Brian Kilmeade are not real historians. grin
That's a joke, son.

Personal logo Mserafin Supporting Member of TMP17 Sep 2020 8:22 a.m. PST

I suspect the French may have been better overall, as they had been actively working on making their army better after the poor performance in the Seven Years War. Whereas the British rested on their laurels and cut their army back to the bone.

All Sir Garnett17 Sep 2020 8:46 a.m. PST

No, but they thought they were, which has a quality of it's own…

historygamer17 Sep 2020 9:16 a.m. PST

"Howe trained his units after evacuating Boston and he was a competent commander."

Well some showed up knowing already how to deploy and fight at open order, sometimes called the common order – 18 inches between files.

"Cornwallis was an excellent commander."

He was a good tactical commander, but seemed to fall short on being a good strategical commander, at least during this war. Lots of examples of that. Of course, there were other factors at work too. He did prove much better during his time in India, but of course, he was much more experienced and in command by then.

"Grey, Fraser, and Phillips were also excellent commanders."

Battfield yes, but they did not have command beyond that, so hard to say. The Americans had lots of good battlefield commanders too, espcially as the war went on.

"The idea that the British did not have competent commanders in North America is not correct."

Clinton, Burgoyne and Howe. Bow wo, wow. Period quote. Take it for what it's worth.

"And there were also competent German general officers such as von Riedesel and von Knyphausen"

Again, von Riedesel, good battlefield officer. Knyphuasen, and before him, von Heister, were not viewed as very good at all by the British – even allowing for bias. How good was Knyphausen's plan during the Springfield campaign (if you can call it that)? He was excluded from all councils of war too. He, like so many of the German officers, was older (60s), and not viewed up to the task.

This is a basic question, but with a complex answer. Overall, I have no idea how you would even figure out how to rate them, other than to say that most countries were copying the Prussians to some degree.

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP17 Sep 2020 10:02 a.m. PST

British infantry regiments were often very good indeed. I hate rating entire armies because outside of miniature wargames, armies are not constructed and maintained to win battles against 1,000 points of unspecified opponents, but to win wars--against certain enemies, within specific constraints and in particular places.

Hmm. I think I could make a decent case that the AWI to some degree played to the British Army's strengths. Battles ran small so the lack of Prussian army-level maneuvers didn't matter so much. Neither did the lack of large-unit cavalry training, or the shortage of personnel and equipment for siege warfare. Charleston was something less than a Vauban fortress. But the British were relatively experienced in woodland fighting, knew the language and in some cases were familiar with the country. The British might not have done equally well in Flanders, and a French, Austrian or Prussian army dropped in Boston or New York might not have done as well as the British--which is why I don't rank armies like sports teams.

42flanker17 Sep 2020 10:20 a.m. PST

Assessment of the merits of the British army depends on which level you are looking, and even at which regiment.

The proprietary regimental system had both strong and weak points. There were good colonels who managed their regiments well, and colonels who were negligent; ditto professional field officers commanding battalions as well as committed and agressive company officers leading the troops. We all know how well the 'flank battalions' adapted to 'loose files and Amrican scramble.'

Cornwallis managed the 33rd well, and kept them with him in the north and southward. Lt Colonel Stirling took the trouble to train the 42nd in elements of bush fighting when they arrived in America. John Maitland stands out as a battalion commander of both light infantry and, briefly, of Highlanders.

The purchase system, much decried, wasn't as bad as it is made out but the officer corps in a regimentcould be riven with resentment or rivalry regarding promotion.

Regiments also varied in the quality of rank and file in corps, in terms both of experience and fitness. Some regiments got better, others were worn out by the wear and tear of campaigning. Others were sickly.

Coming to this subject relatively recently, I was amazed at the degree of professionalism with which the much satirised Foot Guards prepared for service in America. By contrast it appeared that the garrison troops in America at the start of the war had been languishing somewhat, declining in morale and fitness, although Don Hagist has demonstrated elements of thorough training taking place; firing at marks, etc.

At command level one problems had been the lack of opportunitiees for battalions to train together at brigade level and the lack of unified drill. Howe seems to have gone some way to making up for that in Halifax and his experience training battalions as light infantry also stood him in good stead. The campaigns in New York and Pennsylvania showed an army functioning well at brigade and battalion level.

However, there continued to be a degree of complacency and erratic behaviour at command level which contributed to the set backs and debacles that mitigated the successes of 1776-1777. One could hardly call professional the command cock-ups that resulted in the disconnected Burgoyne-Howe campaigns, and the disaster at Yorktown. Much ink has been spilled over Howe's priorities and self-indulgence. Clinton was an able commander but neurotic and wilted at the challenges of high command. However, whether these characteristics were really different from any other army of the time, or even today, is another discussion.

In my experience, the label of 'the best army in the world' tends to be deployed in celebrating the success of the Americans in defeating the British attempt to hold onto the colonies.

I don't think the minority of people who give it much thought this side of the water would say so. Many, having been brought up on images of bewigged musketeers are, as I was, surprised to learn how effective the British army was in the field for most of the war, despite the outcome.

On a separate note, my understanding was that at the beginning of the war the Royal Navy was also on its uppers having been run down after 1763 and as a result suffered somewhat by comparison with the French whose ships tended to be superior. Was that not the case?

historygamer17 Sep 2020 10:33 a.m. PST

+1 to 42nd.

And you are spot on about the RN. It was somewhat in peace time decline, though Lord Sandwich had laid in a good amount of seasoned wood for expansion. The French copper bottomed ships were much prized, and often taken as prizes for that reason. The British were behind on that innovation and that had some repurcussions during this war, IIRC.

The inter-service rivalries did not help the cause either. That said, as compared to the then American army, the British were much superior overall. How the British Army compared to the French, Spanish, and Dutch was a mixed bag, also based largely on the naval support.

Bill N17 Sep 2020 11:05 a.m. PST

An interesting assessment of the British Army in North America 42flanker.

Any assessment of the British navy should probably consider not only the ships available in 1775. but the potential to ramp up. Historygamer mentioned the seasoned wood that had been stored up. There was also the pool of experienced sea men, ship yards, rope walks, etc.

Brechtel198 Supporting Member of TMP18 Sep 2020 5:59 a.m. PST

If you say that your favorite historian simply says they were the best, no.

I use a variety of sources, not simply my 'favorite historian.' Perhaps you should widen your viewpoint…?

Have you read Spring's book? And for that matter Babits and Howard on Guilford Courthouse, Wright's on the Continental Army, and Col Elting on Bunker Hill and the Saratoga campaign?

Brechtel198 Supporting Member of TMP18 Sep 2020 6:01 a.m. PST

Just because your favorite historian says it was so doesn't make it so.

Are you saying that anyone's 'favorite historian' cannot be an authority on the subject?

Personal logo John the OFM Supporting Member of TMP18 Sep 2020 7:50 a.m. PST

It would be nice to respond to what I actually said, in context, instead of selecting a single sentence.
Here is what I said, in context.

BTW, I will not accept assertions from authority. Just because your favorite historian says it was so doesn't make it so.
Let's see some proof, one way or other.

For some reason, you keep leaving out the part in bold.
If Homer G W Snodgrass says that "the British army was the finest army in the world", leaves it at that, and then moves on without explaining why, that's just an opinion.
If he goes on to explain why, that's another story. That is what I want to see in this thread. Reasons why. Or not.
It's difficult to deny that the Boston garrison in 1775 did not act in a disciplined manner on the retreat from Concord. It's also difficult to deny that the assault on Bunker Hill, or Breed's if you prefer, was tactically incompetent. Brave, but not well lead.
It's also difficult to deny that leaving Burgoyne in the lurch and instead swanning off to Philadelphia was strategically inept.
Plenty of other examples above.

If you are going to bring out your favorite historian and quote him as saying that the British were the finest army in the world, I would expect you to explain why he said that. He may be right, but why does he say that?

Again. Respond to what I actually say, without lifting single sentences out of context. And please refrain from attacking straw men.
If Babits or Elting say they were the finest army, why do they say it? Is it that difficult? Asking me if I have read them is a cheap shot. Apparently you have. If you have, do they say that the British army was the finest in the world? If they did, explain why. You brought them up, so it's your responsibility to quote them. If they never said that, then you are just throwing names around. The ball is in your court. Whether or not *I* read them is beside the point. You are arguing from authority, which any college Philosophy 101 course will pound into your head is invalid. Tell me what proof they offer. Don't just throw out a name.

doc mcb18 Sep 2020 12:05 p.m. PST

"Best" is relative. Leaving aside the Prussians (or perhaps accepting the Hessians as stand-ins), the other major powers who the British would need to be better than, in order to be best, would be the French and the Spanish. Both faced the redcoats at least a few times; what do those fights reveal? The Spanish under Galvez performed well. The French at Yorktown ditto.

RudyNelson18 Sep 2020 3:31 p.m. PST

As doc said best is relative. As I told my students never use never or worst or always which would be best in these comparisons.
An alternative thread may be listing the order of ability and why.

Dn Jackson18 Sep 2020 8:20 p.m. PST

"@ Dn Jackson, how do you define a "stand up fight"?"

A field battle such as Monmouth, Brandywine, Cowpens, Guilford Courthouse, Saratoga, etc. As opposed to an assault on a fortified/dug in position such as Second Trenton, Bunker Hill, or Yorktown. So, how did the British fare in field battles against other European armies?

"French and the Spanish. Both faced the redcoats at least a few times; what do those fights reveal? The Spanish under Galvez performed well. The French at Yorktown ditto."

Good points, but not field battles which, in my opinion, makes a difference. After all, the French didn't do to well at Savannah. :-)

historygamer18 Sep 2020 8:55 p.m. PST

+1 dnjackson

42flanker19 Sep 2020 1:44 a.m. PST

"Aside from being outmanned by the best army in the world when the American Revolution started…"

TMP link

Or, more properly:


Militia Pete19 Sep 2020 4:51 a.m. PST

No, they were not the best army. Prussia would have been better.

The Brits had the best Navy in the world.

Overall leadership in America was mediocre. The British had an issue that they had so many old Generals hanging around London and not wanting to go to America for the fight. Howe could have wiped up the Americans at New York but failed to follow up swiftly.Could it have been for his fondness of the colonists for the memorial to his brother? Possibly.

Personal logo John the OFM Supporting Member of TMP19 Sep 2020 5:39 a.m. PST

Could it have been Mrs Loring?

42flanker19 Sep 2020 6:04 a.m. PST

Oh, if not the best, she must have been pretty good.

doc mcb19 Sep 2020 10:05 a.m. PST

Replying to Dn Jackson, I would argue that, especially in the 18th century and in the thinly populated colonies, the ability to hold or to seize strong positions was easily the most important quality an army could have. WHO SAYS open field "stand-up" fights reveal quality best? Stand up fights depend heavily on morale and training, and certainly those things are part of being "best." The longer actions like sieges probably depended more on other factors like stolid perseverance. and logistical support. and command.

doc mcb19 Sep 2020 10:07 a.m. PST


Galvez' actions at Baton Rouge are MOST impressive, and the Brit opposition seems to have been high quality.

Brechtel198 Supporting Member of TMP19 Sep 2020 10:56 a.m. PST

Prussia would have been better.

Half of the Prussian officer corps was killed during the Seven Years War. And the Prussian artillery arms and engineers were the poor cousins in the army-not respected and Frederick didn't know diddly about those two arms.

And half the Prussian army after the Seven Years War was composed of non-Prussians. And much of it was put on leave during a good part of the year to save money.

The Prussian Army had a great reputation after the Seven Years War, which they nearly lost, but the losses of that war started the Prussians on the long, downward slide that ended in disaster at Jena in 1806.

RudyNelson19 Sep 2020 11:29 a.m. PST

By the time of the American war for Independence which is when we are rating armies , the Seven Years War would have been almost 20 years earlier. So the Prussian officer corps, especially senior staff would be Otto old an dead to influence the New Prussian army

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