Military history

BOOK II

LIBERTY OR DEATH

The Rise of the Liberal Revolutionaries

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13.

IRREGULARS IN THE AGE OF REASON

Hussars, Pandours, and Rangers, 1648–1775

NOTHING DEMONSTRATED THE importance of ideology, propaganda, and other relatively new elements of guerrilla warfare more powerfully than the revolution that broke out in Britain’s North American colonies in 1775. This was the first in a series of liberal upheavals, many of which would involve considerable guerrilla fighting, that would flare across Europe and its settler colonies for a century—from the late 1700s to the late 1800s. This book examines not only the skirmishes of American rebels, which are well covered in American history texts, but also less-familiar struggles—Spaniards and Haitians fighting French troops, Greeks fighting the Ottomans, and Italians fighting Habsburgs and Bourbons. But before we get to these wars, it is important to understand how the 1648 Peace of Westphalia transformed European warfare.

The dividing line between regular and irregular warfare, which became so blurred as to almost vanish during the Middle Ages, was to grow more distinct after the end of the Thirty Years’ War with the spread of standing, national armies. That process, which went hand in hand with the growth of nation-states, reached a critical mass in the second half of the seventeenth century. This period saw the spread of barracks to house soldiers, drillmasters to train them, professional officers to lead them, logistical services to supply them, factories to clothe and equip them, and hospitals and retirement homes to take care of them in times of distress. By 1700 France alone had 400,000 men under arms year-round.

Western warfare reached stylized heights in the eighteenth century seldom seen before or since, with monarchical armies fighting in roughly similar style and abiding by roughly similar rules of conduct. (Those limitations on warfare would not survive into the more ideological age of conflict to come, when conventional armies were often pitted against irregulars who fought by their own rules.) Just as in ancient Greece, elaborate procedures were concocted to guide every aspect of warfare, from besieging fortresses to marching cross-country, thereby bringing to the battlefield the scientific, or, more accurately, pseudo-scientific, ethos so beloved of contemporary philosophes. The ultimate result was to send brightly clad lines of troops marching into battle at a slow, steady pace without making any attempt at concealment. Soldiers were taught to cultivate an air of nonchalance as bullets whizzed around them. Ducking was considered bad form.1

No change was more important symbolically than the adoption of standardized uniforms—scarlet red for the English, white for the French, dark blue for the Prussians, pearl gray for the Austrians. The advent of uniforms meant that the difference between soldiers and civilians could be glimpsed in an instant. Fighters who insisted on making war without uniforms therefore became more distinctive. In time they would become known as guerrillas. It is not a perfect definition, because some guerrillas have adopted uniforms, too, and some regular units have fought in the style of guerrillas or have worn out their uniforms, but by and large the principle of “clothes make the man” applies. As does as its obverse: lack of a uniform makes an armed man a bandit, spy, or guerrilla, not a proper soldier entitled to all the protections of the laws of war, which began to be codified and intermittently observed in European warfare starting in the seventeenth century.

Since the Spanish term for “guerrilla war” had not been coined yet, the practice was referred to by its French and German equivalents: petite guerre and kleine Krieg (“small war”). Its practitioners were known as partizans. The importance of such troops, after declining for a century, began to grow again during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48), a multifaceted conflict pitting Austria, Britain, Hanover, Hesse, and the Dutch Netherlands against Bavaria, France, Prussia, Saxony, and Spain. Austria lost the war’s early battles, allowing foreign troops to occupy a substantial portion of its territory. The Austrian comeback was spearheaded by the so-called wild men from the fringes of the empire—hussars from Hungary and Croats, pandours, and other Christians from the Balkans who had been fighting the Turks for centuries. These irregulars dealt mercilessly with small French or Prussian units in the Austrian provinces of Silesia, Bohemia, and Moravia, seldom giving quarter and sometimes even chopping off heads. Once Austria went on the offensive, these tribal marauders were at the forefront, burning villages and killing peasants. An Austrian prince described their war making as “setting fire to houses, pillaging churches, cutting off ears and eyes, murdering citizens and raping women,” while a nineteenth-century author lamented that “Bavaria was overrun and almost destroyed by the terrible swarms of barbarian pandours and all the rabble of the Turkish border.”2

Frederick the Great and other generals denounced these raiders as “savages.”3 But as soon as they saw the irregulars’ effectiveness, the other rulers of Europe, Frederick among them, copied the Austrian example. Some of the newly recruited irregulars, such as the Prussian hussars or the Russian Cossacks, were drawn from lawless areas on the periphery of Europe. Others, such as the Hessian jägers or the French chasseurs, were hunters or gamekeepers skilled in the use of a rifle, which was slower to load than the smoothbore musket employed by troops of the line but more accurate. Gradually regular troops were detailed for light infantry duty to perform such tasks as screening the regulars’ march, scouting, and disrupting enemy supply lines. By the 1770s light troops made up 20 percent of most European armies.4

In North America the British army came increasingly to rely on a new variety of light infantry known as rangers. Precursors to today’s “special forces”—troops trained in guerrilla tactics and enjoying more leeway than normal infantry but still subject to greater discipline than stateless fighters—they were raised for “wood service” against French colonial troops, the Troupes de la Marine, and their Indian allies. The most famous were Rogers’s Rangers, led by Major Robert Rogers, a strapping Scotch-Irish frontiersman from New Hampshire, a “very resolute” man “of few words” whose face bore the scars of a lifetime of combat. He had been battling, and sometimes cooperating with, Indians since the age of fourteen while growing up in a small town on what was then the edge of British settlement. Upon joining a colonial army regiment when he was twenty-four, in 1755, he was charged with scouting and similar missions. He was so successful that within a year he had been asked to raise “an independent company of Rangers” who were “well acquainted with the woods” and would, in the words of a British officer, “dress and live like the Indians.”

Much of what Rogers did sounds like a chevauchée transported straight from the Middle Ages. When he stumbled upon a lightly defended French village, Rogers wrote, “we employed ourselves . . . in setting fire to the houses and barns in the village, with which were consumed large quantities of wheat, and other grain; we also killed about fifty cattle, and then retired, leaving the whole village in flames.” Rogers was not above scalping the odd Frenchman who crossed his path, murdering a prisoner too badly wounded to walk, or even massacring an entire Indian village. In 1759 he and his rangers killed at least thirty Abenaki Indians, including women and children, in the village of Saint Francis, whose warriors were notorious for their raids into New England. Such ruthlessness earned Rogers the sobriquet “white devil” among the Indians. He later grew to be reviled by his own countrymen because he sided with Britain in the War of Independence. It was not until many years later that he became enshrined in the pantheon of American heroes.

His most lasting legacy was the twenty-eight rules “to be observed in the Ranging service” that he compiled to train his men. They included:

If the enemy is so superior that you are in danger of being surrounded by them, let the whole body disperse, and every one take a different road to the place of rendezvous appointed for that evening. . . .

[Y]ou should not attack them till the evening, as then they will not know your numbers, and if you are repulsed, your retreat will be facilitated by the darkness of the night. . . .

If the enemy pursue your rear, take a circle till you come to your own tracks, and there form an ambush to receive them, and give them the first fire.

These rules have stood the test of time; they are still issued in modified form to U.S. Army Rangers today. But, as one of Rogers’s biographers notes, their “simplicity” is “deceiving”: “they actually could be applied only by expert woodsmen.”5

Besides Rogers’s rules, which he published in his Journals, light infantry tactics were discussed in general military manuals such as Marshal de Saxe’s Reveries as well as in numerous specialized monographs. A typical example was La petite guerre (1756), written by a French officer who counseled, “It is therefore necessary to admit the necessity of light troops against an enemy that has them. . . . The advantage of an army with many light troops is even clearer against an army that lacks them.” There were so many books on this subject that in his own Treatise on Partisan Warfare published in 1785, the Hessian officer Johann von Ewald conceded, “I know that I am not writing anything new.”6

One of the cherished myths of American history is that independence from Great Britain was won by plucky Yankees armed with rifles who picked off befuddled redcoats too dense to deviate from the ritualistic parade-ground warfare of Europe. That is an exaggeration. By the time the revolution broke out, the British had had considerable experience of irregular warfare, not only in Europe with Austrian pandours and Scottish Highlanders but also in the Caribbean with Jamaican maroons and in North America with Indians and rangers. Redcoats certainly knew enough to break ranks and seek cover in battle when possible, rather than, in the words of one historian, “remaining inert and vulnerable to enemy fire.”7

But many other lessons of frontier fighting were forgotten by the time the American Revolution broke out. Much like the U.S. Army with its post-Vietnam amnesia about counterinsurgency, which helped lead to the early disasters in Iraq, the British army was to pay a steep price for forgetting how to fight on an unconventional battlefield. The redcoats’ difficulties were compounded because in the war to come they would encounter not only the kind of traditional hit-and-run tactics employed by tribesmen but also a new factor in guerrilla warfare—the power of public opinion. This new weapon was to prove even deadlier and harder to cope with than a tomahawk in the back.

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