Saturday, 16 September 2017

Book: The Army of James II 1685--1688. The Birth of the British Army

This new book in the Century of the Soldier 1618-1721 series by Helion & Co was announced already in late 2016. However, those with an interest in the post-Restoration British army had to wait until August 2017 before the title finally became available. The (long) wait was well worth it! With The Army of James II 1685--1688, that has as sub-title The Birth of the British Army, mr Stephen Ede-Borrett delivered a fine monograph and very useful contribution to the available literature on the armed forces of the later Stuart monarchs.


In just over 200 pages, including all front and back matter, the author gives an overwhelming amount of detail on the regiments of James II during his short reign. The regiments and troops of guards, horse, dragoons and foot are dealt with in neatly written separate chapters, each detailing the composition, uniforms, equipment, flags, and other bits considered of interest. This is supported by almost a dozen of appendices that give more fine-grained details, like a succession of colonels, independents troops and companies raised in 1685 and 1688 and a very interesting overview of deserter notices compiled from the London Gazette. A good selection of illustrations complements the text.

Adding everything up, mr Ede-Borrett goes a long way in showing James II's efforts to improve the effectiveness of the regiments forming his army, in particular those that were on the English Establishment (in 1685 there was no single British Army. All three kingdoms enjoyed their own military establishments (``armies''), each with its own characteristics). This fine book should be welcomed, with the author congratulated by its completion, and will  form a useful addition to the library of anyone with an interest in early modern military history who want to form an idea of how the regiments under James II were organised, how they were uniformed and what armament they carried.

There are, however, a number of comments to be made on this work.

As with other works in this series by Helion, it is surprising that some, I think, basic book layout rules have not been observed: page numbering of the front matter is usually done in Roman numerals; new chapters usually start on the right-hand (odd) page; the page where a new chapter started does usually not bear a page number.

Secondly, there are several loose ends in the author's narrative, in particular in the introductory chapter. For example on page 13, there is mention of Charles II's attitude towards the army (a `necessary evil') that goes without any references. So this point remains somewhat in the void. Though Charles may have preferred the lady's dress over the battle dress, he was also short of funds to allow for a larger military establishment army. (Until William III, the army (the Guards & Garrisons) was the king's, who (had to) paid for it and not Parliament.) 
Another example is on page 16, where it is mentioned that in 1685 the army had `little logistical support' and could not have functioned as an army in a Continental sense. The improvement on the logistical support is, unfortunately, not mentioned further. (On the back of the book we read 'a fully-fledged Army with all of its necessary supporting arms and services', but none of these statements are proved inside.) As to the functioning of the army in a Continental sense, that is of course a hypothetical question that can never be answered (nunc pro tunc). Under Charles II, in case of an emergency, new regiments were raised to form a field army. This happened in 1667, in 1673 and again in 1678. Only in 1678-79, a corps went over to Flanders, but this did not see any combat.
On page 17, the author narrates on the continuation of the army after the Dutch invasion of late 1688 and removal of James II. Here the phrase `perhaps reflects on how the new king saw the quality ...' ignores that William III needed the men as he had to fight in Flanders, Scotland and Ireland. As to William's resistance to disbanding the army after 1697, that had all to do with the looming conflict over the Spanish inheritance. Actually, much of James' army was legally disbanded from the English Establishment in 1697 and 1698, when most of the regiments were transferred to the Irish Establishment.
These loose ends somewhat blur the argument the author wants to make.

Thirdly, with the amount of details gathered, it is unavoidable for some facts and details to remain unclear or unmentioned. For example:
In Chapter 2, on the Horse Guards, the Royal Regiment of Horse Guards is mentioned. Though that designation was used to denote the three, later four, English troops of guards between 1660 and 1688, with an adjutant appointed in 1685, it was a not a regimented regiment, i.e., with a colonel on top, etc, since the troops remained distinct. This becomes not entirely clear.
Also, with the reference to the company (troop) of horse grenadiers added to the Scots troop in 1702, a reference to the grouping of the English horse grenadiers into a single troop in 1693 would have made the narrative clearer.
Likewise, in Chapter 5 on the Foot Guards, the use of 'Royal Regiments' seems strange. The regiments of guards formed part of the Royal army, and were Royal regiments in the that sense, but only the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards was at times designated as Royal.
As to the formation of regiments of dragoons in 1685, John Berkeley, the future 3rd Baron Berkeley Stratton never was colonel of regiment in 1685. Also, the regiment of dragoons that was transferred to Ireland, under the command of Richard Hamilton, was raised specifically for Ireland (see CSPD James 2, 1685, 20 June).
On the foot regiments, the summary of Prince George of Denmark's Regiment on page 78 would have benefited from a remark that it was constituted as a normal foot regiment already in 1667: both this regiment and the Holland Regiment were initially on the Naval Establishment, until September 1667 when transferred to the Military Establishment. A grenadier company was added to the regiment already in 1678 (albeit for a short period only).
As to the Royal Regiment of Fuzileers, Lord Dartmouth already commanded a regiment in 1678 that  had this additional gunsmith -- an indication that a regiment for the purpose of guarding, maybe even serving, the guns was not new? Though unconfirmed, since the regiment was also called 'the Ordnance Regiment', and had miners attached, it could very well have been an embryonic Royal Regiment of Artillery?
Table 5, page 136ff, stated that the Holland Regiment dates from 1572, which is a somewhat loose interpretation of the regiment's lineage. See, for example, by blog post on the origin of this regiment for details. The assumption that the Royal Regiment of Foot (future Royal Scots) was formed from ex-Scots in Swedish service could have been nuanced: the 1633 regiment was a new entity (a few years later, Scots in Swedish service were absorbed into the regiment). The regiment had been on the English Establishment in 1661 and 1666, and finally in 1678 (not 1679). The regiment takes it's precedence from 1661.

That brings me to the last category: the 'it would have been nice if'.
In this distant era precedence (rank) between (gentle)men was observed very closely. With regiments being the property of the proprietor, precedence between regiments was also something that was looked upon very seriously. A few words on this subject would have been nice.
The author provides a succession of regimental titles in Appendix III. Strangely, only the 1985 successor regiment is given, many of which disappeared in the reforms afterwards.
With support arms and services (engineers, artillery, logistics) belonging to the concept of an army, these topics are, unfortunately, barely touched -- the garrisons in England and Scotland are mentioned (table 6, page 139-40), those in Ireland are lacking.
Also, the publication would have benefited from short biographies of some of the more influential officers under James II: who were these men, Catholics or Anglicans? what was their career path?

Finally, the sub-title, the birth, is somewhat misleading. If the British Army was born at some point, it was (officially) in January 1661. Rightfully, under James II the army grew very fast from a toddler into an promising and aspiring adolescent. But, this army was never tested in the field. It can be said that under William III, under the umbrella of the Confederate Army in Flanders, it learned the trade of continental warfare (and got a legal status through the Bill of Rights) and finally achieved maturity under the Duke of Marlborough.

Though the above list of comments seems long, it is well understood that 200 pages is simply not enough to cover such a detail-rich subject -- it may also very well be beyond the intended scope of the monograph (like, for example, biographical information).

When it comes to the regiments of James II between 1685 and 1688, this book provides the essential details on organisation, equipment, uniforms and flags. And for that reason this book is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in those aspects. Regarding the army of James II, as it covers not all aspects that constitute and define an army, I consider this book still valuable but with some reservations.

I rate this book 8.5 out of 10.

2 comments:

Unlucky General said...

A fine review. Thanks. Given your blog and dedicated research into the subject I'm genuinely surprised that the author failed to reach out and seek some input. I'm most likely going to order this book and keep a print out of your review noted with it. Thanks for your efforts.

Wienand Drenth said...

No thanks needed! It is a subject that I really enjoy researching, and the period is equally fascinating (in all its aspects).