Could the British Army have fought a successful COIN in 1776?

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IRG member and KCL PhD student Andrew Exum is raising hackles over at the Guardian’s Comment is Free

At the moment, Americans are reliving their revolutionary era through HBO’s slick new mini-series on founding father John Adams. But this interest in the American Revolution surely opens the door onto an interesting thought experiment: What would have happened had the British army applied contemporary counterinsurgency doctrine against those pesky colonists in the 18th century?

This question is one currently being asked by several smart US army and Marine Corps officers who have taken their experiences fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan and applied them to historical analysis of other American wars. In his paper [PDF] on British counterinsurgency efforts in the American south during the revolution, US Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Paul Montanus notes with incredulity that while the British army garrisoned over 15,000 troops to defend New York City, only 8,500 men were left to execute counterinsurgency operations in the south. That meant the British had a troops-to-population ratio of 2:195 – far below what most contemporary military planners would deem necessary to fight an effective counterinsurgency campaign.

I’d not venture a strong opinion on the matter–not my area really. It strikes me, however, as the descendant on one side of United Empire Loyalists (aka ex-American colonists)) who fought against the Revolution and fled to Canada after it, that there was quite a bit of loyalty to the British Empire which was eroded/squandered. Doesn’t this make the troop ratio something of a red herring? Anyway, it’s too bad we lost.

Exum notes that his ancestor Colonel Benjamin Exum fought the British in the mountains of North Carolina which is rather cool. It’s nice to be in the winning side. My Empire Loyalist ancestors, on the other hand, were French Huguenots who fled France to America via a stint in Yorkshire. Twice-refugees, in other words; and intercontinental refugees at that–not bad for the 18th century. Another ancestor, Henry Lapp, fought the Americans in various places in Upper and Lower Canada and the northern states in the War of 1812. He narrowly escaped death in 1813 when they attacked York. He was the only survivor of an artillery battery of 12 men–the rest were killed by an explosion of the cartridge chest hit by an American shell.

War of 1812. Now there’s an interesting bit of historical parallelism, Andrew. (Ps. You lost that one, you know?) Thomas Jefferson is reputed to have said ‘the acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us the experience for the attack on Halifax, the next and final expulsion of England from the American continent.’ Canadian nationalism (such as it is) has strong roots in the idea that they showed in 1812 that they could and would fight for their country against American aggression and hubris. We can be quite chippy about it actually. Evidence: this hagiographical site on General Sir Isaac Brock (‘Canada’s Originial War Hero’) where you can find, believe it or not, a Brock action figure(!). Brits hardly remember the War of 1812 which might have something to do with Andrew Jackson and New Orleans (mutter, mutter) but for Canadians it’s a big deal because we kicked American ass and you lost. Did I just drop all scholarly pretense, use vulgarity, and bold at that? You see what I mean? Chippiness. And I haven’t lived in Canada for over a decade. Sadly, speaking of chips, we failed to defend this mighty icon of Canadiana against American incursion some centuries later. But I digress…

Ah well, the Anglosphere’s a big happy family now.

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One Response to “Could the British Army have fought a successful COIN in 1776?”

  1. RedRob Says:

    David,
    Though I am still a somewhat prickly Canadian nationalist despite years in heart of the Great Satan, I feel compelled to point out that American ass was kicked by a combination of British regulars who were none too happy with being in Canada (that great Canadian hero, Sir Isaac Brock wrote of it with the affection that Judas might have had for the Ninth Circle of Hell — for similar climatic reasons), their Indian allies who had their own reasons for fighting the Yanks, and a French Canadian militia which won the only purely Canadian triumph of the war despite being deeply ambivalent about loyalty to the Crown and all that.

    Somehow this seems typical of our homeland, don’t you think?

    As Canadian as possible under the circumstances,
    Rob

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