Simcoe - The Making of a Junior Officer

In the 1760’s, if you were a young man and wanted to become an officer in a British infantry regiment you had to be a gentleman. That did not mean that you should not womanize, gamble or drink too much. That did not seem to matter. You certainly had to have the money to buy a commission, the starting rank of Ensign would cost about £400 (£50,000 in today’s currency) and you had to be able to pay your Officers’ Mess bills.  

Most  importantly, you also had to fit in. That is, you had to have the professional ethics, manners, and loyalties to be reliable in the minds of your fellow officers and your Colonel. You did not have to have any military training. In fact, there weren’t military colleges such as Sandhurst to provide professional officer training. You were expected to learn by reading, observing and practical experience, for example, paying attention to what your experienced sergeants thought was very good advice as you learned your duties.    

Simcoe was more diligent and serious than most. He hired a tutor in military affairs to prepare himself for the army. In April 1770, at the age of 19, Simcoe purchased an Ensign’s commission in the 35th Regiment of Foot. With his father’s history and the influence of his godfather Admiral Samuel Graves, the Royal Navy would seem to be the more logical choice for the young Simcoe. Maybe with his liberal education he felt better suited to the army. More likely, it was the influence of his friends, several of whom were with the 35th Regiment stationed in the area and were frequent visitors to his home. Regiments of that era drew recruits from the area they were in and found that the bonds of kinship and friends were important elements to its “esprit de corps”. 

Edward Drewe was a close friend of Simcoe since boyhood and at that time was an officer in the 35th Regiment’s light infantry company. Although Drewe’s career in the army would be cut short by his criticism of the army establishment, he would still become an expert in the training and management of light infantry troops. Drewe's influence would lead Simcoe to join the light infantry company and start him down the path of learning the tactics of fighting in small highly mobile units. 

The 35th Regiment would have ten companies with up to thirty men in each.  Eight of the companies would be line infantry.  In addition. there would be a grenadier and a light infantry company acting as advance or rear guards when on the march or positioned at the extreme right or left of the infantry when it was drawn up in line of battle.  Their role here would be to protect the infantry line from being attacked from the side or rear. For these tasks, these companies were comprised of men chosen from the regular infantry companies based on their special size, intelligence or ability.

The attachment of a light infantry company to a regiment was a new concept for European armies of this period, and the role of a light infantry officer was not markedly different from a regular infantry company. Simcoe would have been trained in drilling troops in set disciplined maneuvers executed quickly and without confusion such as changing from marching in column to forming up in line of battle.  All the while keeping a tight formation of troop standing shoulder to shoulder three deep facing the enemy.

In battle the officers were to ensure that their company formed up and held their position within musket range of the enemy.  They must ensure that there were no vulnerable gaps between them and the next company in the line and that their troops maintained a constant rate of fire into the enemy.  Accuracy of fire was not important as the smoke would be so bad after a couple of rounds that they would not see the enemy anyways. Once the enemy’s ranks showed gaps and their will to stand weakened.  The officer would to lead a bayonet charge to dissolve the enemy’s will to stand.  When faced with a well-timed, cohesive and determined bayonet charge most opposition formations dissolved into flight. These infantry tactics worked in Europe where the open country and good roads supported large formations maneuvering as one unit controlled by a centralized command.

There were two generals in the British army of the 1770s that specifically trained their troops for light infantry formations fighting independently of the regular infantry.  They were William Howe and Lord George Townsend.  Both had served in North America during the Seven Years’ War. Howe had personally been introduced to the nature of war and tactics of Roger’s Rangers, a provincial unit specializing in fighting “la petite guerre” tactics of the wilderness. Howe developed the practise of detaching the light infantry companies from their regiments to form a separate highly mobile battalion able to maneuver quickly around a battlefield through broken country where bush, poor roads and gullies made it difficult for regular infantry to operate. To facilitate this, he introduced a more open formation for the light infantry whereby they would be able to form up and fire by platoons two deep standing 18 inches apart. In this role, the officers had to remain aware of their friendly units’ positions but had to think and act more independently to implement the battalion commands. 

In 1773, the 35th Regiment of foot was moved to Ireland where it came under the influence of Townsend.  Townsend had a more expansive vision for light infantry and insisted that all light infantry companies in Ireland  be trained more in the style of a North American Ranger unit. This training involved fighting over heavily wooded or swampy ground where their lines would be broken up by the terrain and the men would move forward and fire using whatever cover was available. This could be a tree, rock or fence, and would require the troops to operate in small teams. Officers and men had to think and work independently to support and be supported by their mates and fellow units while still pressing the enemy and ensuring they were not cut off or surrounded by the enemy themselves.  Men were to practise target shooting and fighting in pairs where they could use cover and alternately fire and reload to maintain a constant volley on the enemy.   In gaining this experience, Simcoe had luck on his side as it gave him special qualifications to seek the command of the Queen’s Rangers during the American Revolution. 

On March 27, 1772 Simcoe was appointed Adjutant of the 35th Regiment. This was an administrative role where he would work closely with his Colonel learning the practical, if unglamorous, aspects of running a regiment.  This period of learning still had its social components as in 1773 Simcoe became a Free Mason. In 1774, Simcoe was promoted to the rank of lieutenant. 

By 1774, what started as a protest against the commercial and taxation policies of the British Government had evolved into civil disobedience and then outright revolt. The severity of incidents grew to include the tarring and feathering of those loyal to the authority of the British Government and of having the goods of British merchants plundered. The Prime Minister, Lord North, judged that “Whatever may be the consequence, we must risk something.  If we do not, all is over.”  This attitude of the British Government became punitive with Parliament passing the Coercive Acts focusing on the most rebellious colony, Massachusetts.  By rescinding its charter, garrisoning troops in Boston and closing the Boston Harbour to commerce, the British government enflamed opinion in all the American colonies and galvanized all the colonies to seek ways to act together in resistance to the British government’s authority. 

The result in America was the formation of the Continental Congress as an assembly of the 13 colonies to organize resistance across all the colonies. In Britain, the result was that the British Government sent four additional regiments including the 35th to Boston. The 35th arrived in June 1775 just in time to experience the outcome of politics when the moderate and conciliatory voices on both sides were pushed aside.