Despite a gradual loss of direct power, the monarchy as a wider institution nonetheless occupied an important place in British political and social life. Study of the British monarchy in this period is simplified by the longevity of King George III, who reigned from 1760 to 1820. The role of the King in military matters ties into the wider role the monarchy came to adopt in British society. Unlike his immediate predecessors, George III never commanded an army in the field, and none of his successors would do so. This in itself is symptomatic of the shift in the role of the Crown. For as long as the concept of kingship had existed, one of its most important aspects had been military. Kings had long been expected to command armies in person, and even to engage in combat themselves. In a Christian European context, doing so was taken as evidence not only of the King’s essential worthiness to rule, but of divine favour. This practice continued into the first half of the eighteenth century, when the role of monarchs in war began to change. The role of commander-in-chief traditionally played by monarchs had two particular capacities. One was the commanding of an army on campaign and in battle, while the other was the creation and maintenance of armies. In the absence of any established system for the maintenance of large armies, generals had to be capable in both capacities in order to be successful. This state of affairs persisted until the latter half of the eighteenth century, when European states began to establish more extensive systems of military organisation. This created a split between the abilities required for active leadership and those required for organization and maintenance.
To be capable in one context but not the other was not the serious problem it had once been. Empress Maria Theresa of Austria never commanded an army on campaign, yet possessed a greater knowledge and understanding of military matters than many of her generals, and was much loved by her soldiers for her consideration of their welfare. George III never commanded an army, and never held actual military rank, but this did not prevent him from performing a specific role with regard to the armed forces. Aside from his decision-making capacity, George III also acted as a symbolic military leader in a manner recognisable today. This included the carrying out of inspections and reviews, and the receiving of salutes. Such practices served an important symbolic purpose, displaying and reinforcing the connection between the Crown and the army. He would also provide the British army with one of its most important figures in the person of his second son, Prince Frederick Augustus, Duke of York and Albany. While the ‘Royal Family’ as an institution had not yet been invented, it was custom and practice for Princes to be given important posts, in some cases after a suitable period of apprenticeship. Prince William Henry, third son of George III and future King William IV, began his naval career as a midshipman aged thirteen, the usual fashion at the time.0
Though he was in no position to act as an autocrat, George III nonetheless took a prominent part in the decision-making process during his periods of lucidity, his role falling very broadly into the mould of a civilian executive Head of State. His involvement in decision-making during the early years of the Revolutionary wars can be seen in the handling of the Flanders campaign. The decisions were made by a triumvirate consisting of the Prime Minister William Pitt, the Foreign Secretary Lord Grenville, and the Secretary of State Henry Dundas, with the King acting as the final authority. Britain did not possess anything approximating to a modern general staff, and this state of affairs may be considered an example of why such institutions were developed. None of the three had any military experience, George III’s advantage lying in his own, indirect experience of war. He had ruled through two major wars, and took an interest in military matters, though his relatively indirect role makes it difficult to judge how capable he really was. As head of the armed forces, George III had the final say in all significant military decisions, which included the appointment of commanders, and all commissions were issued in his name. Furthermore, as King of Hanover, he could command that country’s forces entirely on his own authority.0
It is difficult to judge precisely how capable George III was on the basis of his decisions, since his involvement in the running and use of the armed forces was relatively limited, and non-existent during his periods of incapacitation. He supported the adoption of General Dundas’ Rules and Regulations as the army’s standard drill manual, but it is difficult to say for certain whether this support was based on an informed understanding of its meaning and arguable necessity, or because he simply trusted the Duke of York, a son of whom he was particularly fond and in whose abilities he had full confidence.0 The King’s military role was as a symbolic leader, a focus for loyalty and a centre of identity, while his role in the issuing of officer commissions tied in to his regal status as the ‘Fount of Honour’, by which he bestowed aristocratic titles. An example of George III performing his symbolic leadership role occurred on 25 February 1793, when he inspected the Guards battalions prior to their deployment for the 1793 Dutch campaign. Following the inspection, the battalions paraded before the King in Slow Time.0 That an inspection and parade were held on a specific occasion, in this case when the troops were about to be sent abroad, is an indication of their purpose. Performing such ceremonies in the presence of the King served, in symbolic terms, to bind the units participating, and by implication the army as a whole, to the King.
The Duke of York
George III also had a more personal connection to the war effort, embodied in the contributions of his children. Of these, the most famous was his second son Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, who spent much of the period as Commander-in-Chief of the army. Frederick began his military career in 1780, when he was breveted Colonel at the age of sixteen. In this respect he was representative of a common and not entirely helpful practice within the British officer corps, that of using purchase and breveting to allow young would-be officers to advance quickly. The Duke of York’s rapid advance would prove ironic, not only because he would command a company that included Arthur Wellesley, but also because in the future he would do all that he could to prevent such promotions. The Duke’s contributions to the reform of the British army were significant, though he is remembered primarily for his involvement in the campaign of 1793 to 1794 in Flanders, and even then by association with a certain nursery rhyme. His role in Flanders was nonetheless significant in that it provided him with a wealth of practical experience. Having had responsibility for an army on campaign, and seen the conditions under which soldiers lived and fought first hand, the Duke was left with a clear conception of how the army needed to be improved. This he would do in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief, a post he held from 1795 to 1809, and then from 1811 until his death in 1827, the brief interruption occasioned by his resignation over the Clarke scandal.
That the Duke was put in charge of the British contingent sent to Flanders in 1793 is not as surprising a decision at the time as it would seem today. The Duke was indeed relatively young, aged only twenty-nine, in contrast to the fifty-six-year-old Prince Friedrich Josias of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, who held overall command. The appointment is best understood in light of the situation into which he was being sent. The allied army in Flanders would also include contingents from the Dutch Republic, the survival of which was in the balance, Prussia, Hanover, and the Landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel. The commanders of the Austrian and Dutch contingents, Friedrich Josias and Friedrich, Prince of Orange, enjoyed the same status. The appointment can therefore be seen as a political decision, intended to maintain the status of the British contingent relative to the others.0 He was also arguably the best qualified of all the available candidates in terms of training. While in Hanover in his youth, Frederick received military education from Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel, then widely regarded as the greatest general in Europe. He was also a guest of Frederick the Great of Prussia, whose general had been his mentor, which helped instil in him an admiration for the Prussian system of training, then regarded as the best in Europe.0 The real significance of Frederick’s role in the campaign is the effect it would have on his later career, specifically on his time as Commander-in-Chief.
There can be no doubt that Frederick’s programme of reforms was influenced by the practical experience he gained in Flanders. It is also the point where his connection to his father becomes particularly significant. Were it not for the social status he derived from his position as a prince and royal duke, he was highly unlikely to have attained so important a post, let alone force through a programme of substantial reforms, many of them going against vested interests. Indeed his reform programme did not go without resistance, especially from regimental colonels who found their traditional powers and privileges under threat. The abolition of the practice of soldiers powdering their hair and wearing it in queues in 1808 earned Frederick an angry letter from Edward, Duke of Kent, Colonel of the 1st Regiment of Foot. Edward’s complaint was not over the abolition itself, but the passing of the order directly from brigade generals to the battalions, bypassing regimental colonels. A similar issue arose in 1810 when Viscount Palmerston, then the Secretary at War, suggested that colonels be issued with uniforms directly rather than allotted money as was the usual practice. This rapidly escalated into an argument over whether the Secretary at War was responsible to the Commander in Chief or to Parliament directly. It was eventually decided that the Secretary at War was indeed responsible to Parliament, and that colonels should continue to have discretion in regimental sartorial matters.0
The reforms were at first largely structural, transferring some of the Secretary at War William Windham’s responsibilities to himself and a new Military Secretary, not without some resistance from Windham. Much of Frederick’s popularity as the ‘soldier’s friend’ derived from those reforms. The salaries of privates were increased by eighty per cent, a reform unlikely to attract resentment. Uniforms were also improved, with the long skirted coat being shortened to the Napoleonic jacket, hair powder and queues being abolished, and all soldiers being provided with greatcoats. The medical service was also reformed, with purpose-built hospitals being established, along with ‘lying-in’ hospitals, as maternity hospitals were then known, for the use of soldiers’ wives, as well as formal rules and procedures established. A programme of vaccination was instituted for all ranks, the Duke having undergone it himself in his youth, with orders that it be properly explained to the men.0
Such reforms would have had a noticeable and measurable effect on the lives of ordinary soldiers. As far as officers were concerned, the most significant reforms related to the suppression of underage promotions and the introduction of minimum seniority requirements for promotion, a fact that doubtless caused resentment among those officers who would today be dubbed ‘careerists’, wishing to advance themselves quickly. These reforms represent a shift in the social position of the soldier, at least as far as the government was concerned. That the Duke of York’s reforms had a tangible effect is evidence that the administration was similarly inclined, as he could not have carried out his agenda without its assistance. This was part of a longer process by which the public image and status of the British soldier was transformed.