From Reason to Revolution Conference, 29 April 2018

By Andrew Bamford.

The inaugural From Reason to Revolution series conference took place on Sunday 29 April at York Army Museum. Fans of Century of the Soldier will know that the conference tied to that series has become an eagerly-anticipated annual fixture, and after an opening event attended by over 40 people it seems as if its eighteenth century equivalent is set to follow suit.

For anyone not familiar with the York Army Museum (http://www.yorkarmymuseum.co.uk/), it’s worth including a word about our hosts. Housing the regimental museums of the Yorkshire Regiment and the Royal Dragoon Guards, the museum occupies a purpose-designed underground space in the centre of York and is a perfect example of a modern museum that still retains a traditional collections-driven ethos. Perfect for fans of the From Reason to Revolution series, the collection is heavy on items from the eighteenth century and the Napoleonic Wars, with artefacts relating to campaigns stretching from Dettingen to Waterloo. The main museum gallery also houses an area for talks and lectures, which was taken over for the conference, and a mess table from which our buffet lunch was served, so that the whole event could take place in one room.

Our theme for the conference was ‘Command and Leadership’, which was explored in a variety of different ways by eight speakers whose papers took in the armies of France, Austria, Portugal, and Britain (and touched in passing on those of Prussia and the Netherlands too), and whose geographical remit encompassed North America, Europe, and Africa. Our speakers themselves were an international bunch, with Yves Martin joining us from France and German scholar Tobias Roeder making the slightly shorter trip from his current position at Clare College, Cambridge.

We began with a panel looking at lower-level leadership, with a focus on ideas of expertise and professionalism. Will Raffle’s paper on New France explored the tensions between local expert knowledge and professional officers from the mother country, taking as its case study the campaign for Oswego in 1756. Tobias Roeder looked at the Habsburg officer corps during the eighteenth century and the tensions between the dictates imposed by the profession of arms on the one hand and the social expectations of a gentleman on the other. Lastly, Mark Thompson looked at a little-known body of men from the Peninsular War in the shape of the Portuguese Army’s corps of engineers. Although larger than the British Royal Engineers when the war began, the role of this corps has been largely overlooked by Anglo-centric historians.

After a buffet lunch and the chance for a guided tour of the museum, proceedings resumed in the afternoon with the first of two panels with a more specific chronological focus. This consisted of two papers looking at the opposing commanders in the Jacobite Rising of 1745, which threw up some interesting parallels between two young royals who were both obliged to rely on their own charisma and force of character to address difficult and complex military situations. For Charles Edward Stuart, Jacobite Prince of Wales, the challenge was to create an army from scratch out of a collection of self-willed and self-opinionated individuals. Arran Johnston’s paper looked at how he did this, but also at the tensions that were inherent in the Jacobite command structure. Conversely, Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, inherited command of an army of regular troops but one which had its morale at rock bottom after defeat at Falkirk. Jonathan Oates looked at how Cumberland was able to restore order and self-respect to his command, and take it on to victory at Culloden.

Our final panel jumped forwards by a half-century, to look at the events of the French Revolutionary Wars. Carole Divall began by looking at the Flanders campaigns of 1793-1795, considering the problems faced by generals on both sides and concluding that all would have been far better off had their respective political masters left them to it. Jacqueline Reiter, by contrast, looked at someone who was both general and politician in the shape of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, and her paper on his role in the 1799 Helder Campaign both restored a reputation as a brigadier unfairly sullied by Sir John Fortescue but also considered the tensions caused by his dual role as subordinate general on the one hand and senior cabinet minister on the other. Finally, Yves Martin looked at the three very different personalities who successively commanded the French Army of the Orient in Egypt, providing very illuminating pen-portraits of three larger-than-life characters each with pronounced strengths and weaknesses.

The proceedings of the conference will be published next year, and it is hoped to launch them at a second conference which, in contrast to this one, is planned to take a look at the armies of the era from the bottom up showcase new work on the lives of ordinary soldiers.

In closing, it is necessary to thank again our hosts at York Army Musuem who did everything they could to make us welcome, to the Society for Army Historical Research (http://www.sahr.org.uk/), which generously sponsored the event, to the chairs of the three panels, and to all eight speakers.

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