Friday, 5 April 2013

Forest Warfare in 1840s North America - Part 1

The 24th Regiment in summer dress, 1840

In 1842, war with the United States was regarded as a distinct possibility in British military circles. There had already been tensions over the Canada/ Maine border and American involvement in two rebellions, as well as American insurgents crossing the border. Eighteen regular regiments were stationed in Canada, Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia (all separate entities at this stage), as well as 2 battalions of the Rifle Brigade and 2 cavalry regiments (see previous blog for more details).

Fortifications such as Fort Henry had been built at great expense, but much of the fighting would probably be in the heavily wooded countryside, as it had been in the previous two failed attempts to invade Canada, in 1776 and 1812.

In the 1842 volume of the United Service Magazine of London (available as a free Google ebook) Sir J.E. Alexander of the 14th Regiment of Foot, stationed in Canada, gave his thoughts of the special requirements of fighting in this area, in an article entitled "On Bush Fighting"

From the tone of the article it is clear that some officers reckoned that parade drill would suffice, in Canada as it had in Waterloo.

" Some old officers think that the rifle is not equal to the musket and bayonet, in or out of the woods—that one fire with a common piece, and a charge under cover of the smoke, will clear every enemy from the front."

Sir Alexander firmly disagrees, pointing out that in the successful campaign in Canada in 1814
"it was found necessary to intermingle the newly arrived regulars with the Glengarry Light Infantry, a provincial corps, to show them how to cover themselves, and to teach them, in short, wood-craft."

In contrast, he  believes in the virtues of "light infantry training", as was being introduced for all British regiments at the time, and gives some advice on adapting this to the North American theatre, the nature of which is given in the following passage...

" In bush-ranging, his camping ground may at one time be among rocks overhanging a clear stream, alive with fish; at another among majestic trees on the edge of a prairie richly decked with wild flowers; a third bivouac maybe on a hill-side, commanding a prospect over boundless forests and lakes, frequented only by wild fowl."


Campaigning was likely to involve long marches in difficult terrain.

"For British troops to rival the walking and running feats of Indians, (who, lightly equipped, can march in a day five times the distance the white man accomplishes, and Kafirs, as we know, can accomplish seventy miles in one day,) it would be well if much more attention were paid than there is at present to gymnastic exercises. "

To this end Alexander recommend that sport be encouraged at every opportunity, so that " the men could leap, wrestle, spar, play single-stick, and otherwise harden and make supple their frames". Especially to be encouraged were the " exhilarating games of football and cricket" but even skittles or quoits would help. However, he cautions though that " Moderate, active, and daily exercise is what does good to the frame, not a sudden and violent strain on the .system. We speak from long experience in training."

 Sir Alexander does not refer to the harsh Canadian winter, but it was one more reason that the men had to be fit. Here we see the 43rd Regiment marching by the St Lawrence, to New Bruswick from Canada.

Furthermore, equipment should be adjusted to the conditions. Alexander recommends jettisoning as "much useless leather" as possible including the "large crowned shako" worn at the time, and that all "useless baggage (the bane of Indian armies)" dispensed with.  Boots should be primed with "talin and rosin melted together".

Training should involve as much actual field work as possible

Alexander quotes Colonel James Fitzgibbon, formerly of the 49th, that
" Without much practice in the bush, the men cannot have such confidence in themselves or in one another, and must, through ignorance, greatly expose themselves to the enemy's fire".

To this end, "Preparatory to taking the field, it is highly desirable, in many of our colonies, that the troops should be drilled in the woods, both by companies and in greater numbers."

Duties of an officer

" In the bush, a cheerful demeanour, without the least familiarity, is best; being on the move, has naturally an exhilarating effect, and if an officer is seen contentedly to partake of the very same fare as his men, they will cheerfully go through much rough work."

As well as taking care of his men, ensuring they have good food and lodging, Alexander recommends that an officer should pay careful attention to the individuals under his command.

" The peculiar superiority possessed by each individual would be ascertained, and well known in his company, and when choice men were wanted for a forlorn hope, or for any other special service, the fittest men could at once be selected. Swimmers, for example, where swimmers only could be of service. Men thus grouped together would have the highest confidence in each other; under the influence of which confidence they would be elevated and stimulated to make greater efforts than under other circumstances."

No comments:

Post a Comment