Thursday, February 27, 2020

Review - "Bull Run to Boer War: How the American Civil War Changed the British Army" by Michael Somerville

[Bull Run to Boer War: How the American Civil War Changed the British Army by Michael Somerville. (Helion & Company, 2019). Softcover, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:331/380. ISBN:978-1-912866-25-0. $44.95]

Michael Somerville's Bull Run to Boer War: How the American Civil War Changed the British Army begins with a critical review of American military historian and Basil Liddell Hart protege Jay Luvaas's The Military Legacy of the Civil War (1959) and that work's enduring influence on the study of how European military professionals perceived the American Civil War. Though Luvaas's views, which were rooted in looking backward from the carnage of the Great War, were somewhat modified over time, his general conclusion that the major European armies all failed to heed the lessons of the Civil War echoed throughout the literature for decades and was still firmly anchored in the pages of the 1988 2nd edition of his book. In addition to challenging Luvaas's conclusions, Somerville's wide-ranging reassessment, which focuses exclusively on the British response to the Civil War, also properly situates British observations in the military context most appropriate to their time. Thus the book's outlook is distinctly late-Victorian, bounded by the Second Boer War (1899-1902) rather than the Great War that abruptly altered the army's longstanding traditional role from fighting distant colonial campaigns to remodeling itself on the mass conscript armies of mainland Europe.

Perhaps only a handful of British military observers are household names among today's Civil War readers, but Somerville notes that British officers flocked to see the conflict in great numbers (in the three figures), and he provides an informative survey of their activities and written observations. Unfortunately, only a few of these firsthand witnesses actually wrote formally about their experiences, but the fact that most seemed to have been either adventurous Guards officers or officers of the more technical ordnance and engineering branches is suggestive of main areas of British interest. In discussing the men, Somerville is persuasive in finding them neither dismissive nor uncomprehending of what they saw. Exposed to few true surprises, they were primarily concerned with seeing in person the practical applications of newer technologies and weaponry. Of course, in exercising their own personal judgment, individual and cultural biases were frequently in play, but these officers largely achieved what they set out to do.

Given that Britain was an island nation with a strong navy and traditional strength in the area of combined operations, it is natural that they would have an interest in harbor warfare and defenses. Fixed obstructions, armored batteries, and floating mines were not novel to the experiences of British officers, but they were greatly interested in seeing for themselves how such tools were used at this unprecedented scale. Union manufacture and deployment of heavy rifled artillery was another main concern, though mainly as a new data point be evaluated alongside their own extensive ordnance testing (the latter results of which they tended to favor in part due to their conclusion that U.S.-made fuses were greatly inferior to British-manufactured ones). In the end, what British artillery specialists saw of massive-bore, lower-velocity Union siege guns tended to reinforce their own view that smaller-bore, high-velocity artillery was the preferred option for reducing forts and earthworks. Though British engineers were generally unimpressed with American fortification designs, supporting defensive measures, particularly wire entanglements, became significant objects of interest.

In the area of small arms, Somerville considers mostly false the popular view that the British Army was too slow to adopt the breech-loading, repeating arms that many Civil War units (mostly cavalry) used to fine effect. Instead of seeing mere hide-bound conservatism as the culprit, the author finds that the authorities had very practical reasons (including safety, reliability, and logistics support) for holding off on the mass distribution of magazine-fed rifles. They had the same defensible wait and see attitude when it came to machine guns, which in their early forms were less than mobile and prone to malfunction. Like the Americans, the British saw those guns as most useful in occupying fixed positions guarding bridges, defiles, and forts. When it came to single-shot breech-loading rifles, the British already had several cavalry regiments outfitted with them before the Civil War, and their army-wide adoption of breech-loading rifles actually preceded the U.S. Army's by a couple years. Thus, Somerville more persuasively sees American ordnance developments as not revolutionary but rather part of a larger trans-Atlantic pattern of arms innovation that British observers were keen to review and incorporate into their own processes of evaluation.

The tactical and strategic evolution of cavalry is another source of alleged British failure to heed the lessons of the Civil War. Indeed, Luvaas considered American cavalry firepower and tactics revolutionary, with dismounted fighting and strategic mobility replacing outmoded mounted shock forces employed in close support. Somerville holds a contrary view on the matter, seeing Civil War cavalry as greatly influencing British thought. Commonly defining American cavalry as not true cavalry (or even mounted rifles) but rather mounted infantry, some British leaders saw the great potential of adopting what they learned of Sheridan's command in Virginia in 1864-65 as a model for enhancing British colonial control of India through replacement of infantry with smaller numbers of mounted infantry. Strong proponents of heavy cavalry being used in its traditional shock role still remained for many decades, but even the more conservative cavalry leaders eventually became convinced through study of the Civil War, contemporary European conflicts, and their own experiences in places like the Sudan, that British cavalry needed more firepower to maintain its presence on the modern battlefield. Of arguably more explicit influence, but much less commonly approached in discussion than matters of tactics, was the strategic-level influence of Civil War cavalry. The British, the Prussians, and especially the Russians in the 1870s all recognized the value in using independent cavalry to perform behind-the-lines attacks on enemy railroads and lines of communication. The vast increase in the size of late-Victorian national armies that led to battle zones resembling long, continuous fronts also convinced the British that using cavalry to screen marches and seek enemy flanks was more important than ever.

Somerville is also skeptical of claims that the British Army disregarded ACW lessons when it came to infantry tactics, firepower, and field works. Well cognizant of what increased firepower and range meant to current and future battlefields, while also appreciating that ultimate success required forward movement in spite of newfound defensive capabilities, British authorities were most impressed with how late-war ACW commanders (particularly General Sherman around Atlanta) were able to use trenches on the offensive. As the author keenly points out, in primarily attributing widespread late-war use of hasty field entrenchments to the need to protect armies in close contact for extended periods of time rather than as a response to increased firearms lethality, British writers such as Charles Cornwallis Chesney anticipated Earl Hess's interpretive work on the matter by many decades. Independent of Civil War manuals, British officers recognized that tactical movements would have to be sped up in response to modern firepower, and, like prominent American officer and theorist Emory Upton, realized that future survival and success on the battlefield required extended lines, more open order formations, and increased delegation of initiative and responsibility to lower-level commanders. Many British writers repeatedly cited the exceptional nature of the American war, with its wilderness fighting conditions and its application of supposedly unique national characteristics, to discount the relevance of many alleged lessons from the Civil War, but that does not mean that they weren't still seriously considered.

Given that Union authorities basically abandoned military ballooning by 1863, it might seem odd at first glance that Somerville devotes so much space in the book to the Civil War's aeronautical legacy. However, he points out that some British historians have directly traced the origins of the Royal Flying Corps (later the RAF) to the British response to Civil War ballooning. The section also serves as a useful case study of the British Army's review and procurement process when it came to new technologies.

In the broadly approached final chapter, the author demonstrates how British study of Civil War employment of railroads and telegraphy reinforced their own views on the current and future values of those modern advancements in movement and communications. On a strategic level, the British military establishment also closely studied the Civil War's mass mobilization of national industrial resources and manpower, in the latter case coming to the conclusion that an adaptation of the U.S. volunteer system was preferable to Prussian-style conscription for creating an imperial manpower reserve. The author also addresses claims that a stubborn British quest for decisive battle ignored abundant contradictory evidence offered by Civil War armies. He counters this common criticism with the reasonable contention that it should be tempered somewhat by recognition that the Victorian British Army was most often matched against numerically superior colonial foes over whom quick and decisive victory was required.

Ironically, Somerville envisions combined operations as perhaps the largest gap in British appreciation of the lessons of the Civil War. Even though, as mentioned above, the British singled out the Charleston harbor campaign for special attention, they nevertheless failed to apply their observations to improving their own formal forms of land and naval cooperation (the author cites Alexandria in 1882 and Gallipoli in 1915 as primary examples of poor interservice coordination).

When rich volumes of historical material are to be had on any given topic (which seems to be the case here), it unfortunately becomes all too easy for authors to cherry pick sources to support a given thesis. However, to Somerville's credit, one of his study's great strengths is its in-depth sampling and analysis of the full range of British views on nearly every major topic under discussion. The author is almost certainly correct to argue that too much criticism of the British military is unfairly rooted in negative post-WWI commentary. In addition to pointing out that tremendous advances in twentieth-century firepower necessarily clouded the value of many teachings drawn from 1860s warfare, Somerville makes a powerful case that British late-Victorian intellectual engagement with Civil War lessons was significant and sustained.

While not wholly satisfactory in nature, Somerville's answer to the important question of why British forces were seemingly so unprepared for the Boer wars if they had indeed learned a great deal from earlier conflicts is a compelling one. Lacking an institutional authoritative body tasked with continuous study (something on the order of the German General Staff) the British Army primarily addressed change on an individual or "interest group" level. So with this in mind, it is the author's view that it is misguided to generally ascribe responsibility for particular Victorian-era failures and disasters to an alleged sorry state of the British Army as a whole. At least according to Somerville, many of these unfortunate events are better understood as being the result of poor tactical decision-making from local commanders.

The truth is that all major armies of the period struggled mightily to cope with the dilemma of how to conduct successful offensive operations in a modern battle arena swept by incredible defensive firepower. By the end of the 1800s, all branches of the British Army (infantry, cavalry, and artillery) had accepted that firepower decided the battle, and Somerville's study offers abundant evidence that British assessment of what the American Civil War could teach in these areas was neither ignorant nor unresponsive. Even so, the author extends a cautionary note to his revisionism, admitting that British integration of relevant operational lessons from the Civil War, though deserving of being viewed in a much higher light, were still far from complete by the end of the Second Boer War.

In the end, Michael Somerville's Bull Run to Boer War is highly persuasive in making that case that the Civil War's role in reshaping the British Army to meet the challenges of the next century, though limited in scope, remains greatly underestimated in both popular and professional historical writing. Somerville's work certainly contains more than enough intellectual heft to force us to freshly question many traditional interpretations related to the matter. This book is very highly recommended reading for all students of the American Civil War as well as those concerned with the half-century of British Army development that preceded its involvement in the Great War.

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