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By Fire and Bayonet by Steve Brown

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4.5
In 1793 Republican France declared war on Britain. As usual we went to war in our socks and the Government dithering made that even worse. The need to service operations in Flanders, and on the French Atlantic coast, as well as in the West Indies, resulted in endless shuffling of what few soldiers we had. Major General Sir Charles Grey (1729-1807, later 1st earl Grey) was charged with capturing the French sugar islands. Against a staff assessment of 16000 men needed for the job, fewer than 7000 were made available. Grey found units assigned to him one day and taken away the next. Fortunately he was able to create composite Grenadier and Light battalions out of the same companies - the best soldiers - taken from a raft of separate regiments. His other stroke of fortune was that the naval component was commanded by that acme of naval professionalism, and also his great friend, Sir John Jarvis.

The first third of the book ably sets the scene - a very complicated one with the French West Indian islands riven by cleavage planes between Royalists and Republicans; planters and the middling sort; whites, those of mixed race, African slaves and free Africans, each group with its own agenda and objectives. The Republic (later, this would not survive Napoleon) declaring the slaves free meant that a British victory would be a disaster for them.

The British force eventually sailed on 26 November 1793, two months late, and late in the season for sailing - by a mercy it did not get as mauled by weather as Sir Cloberry Christian's replacement expedition the next year - arriving when half the campaigning season was already past.

Unsurprisingly, with the naval contribution under Jarvis, the assault on Martinique in early 1794 was a copybook example of amphibious warfare, exploiting to the full the flexibility and capability of the supporting fleet's mobility, firepower, and ships' landing parties. Grey's favourite tactic of a night approach and a dawn assault with the bayonet obtained rapid victories, particularly against what were basically local militias. The subsequent St Lucia and Guadeloupe campaigns were walkovers. Elsewhere our rule encountered 'brigandage' by bands of escaped slaves ('Maroons') who basically lived by plunder. Detachments to deal with these and most of all galloping sickness rates left us weak everywhere. The Republic sent out troops and the fire-eating Jacobin Hugues and we were rapidly thrown out of the southern half of Guadeloupe although our diseased and exhausted men managed to hang on in the North for another few months. St Lucia fell in mid-1795.

As regiment after regiment fell to bits through sickness their remaining troops were reassigned while their officers and NCOs were sent home as cadres to re-raise them. Few of the ordinary soldiers ever saw Blighty again. Sadly predictably, thousands of all ranks, sailors as well as soldiers, died of yellow fever.

The story is well told and sources are meticulously annotated, supported by a comprehensive bibliography. There are clear maps of the three islands involved although these cannot show all the places mentioned in the text, which makes following the detail sometimes difficult. There thirteen illustrations appropriately positioned within the text. The book is also a biography of Grey and carries extensive biographical notes of many other participants.

This is an excellent treatment of a particular campaign, with lessons for many others, even today. Steve Brown has done a service to history.
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