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The formation of the British Light Infantry companies and their employment in the Saratoga campaign of 1777



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During the period 1771-1772 the British Army formed light infantry companies in their regiments of foot. Before the end of the decade these companies were trained, equipped and sent to war. This period covered only a small portion of the time over which Britain developed light infantry troops. The formation of a large, well-trained light infantry force was an evolutionary process that stretched over the greater part of the eighteenth century and into the Napoleonic Wars. The process consisted of alternating peacetime reflection and theorizing with battlefield experience. The events of 1771-1783 constitute a vital link in the chain that led to the fruition of British light infantry and the formation of such famous units as the "Light Division" of the Peninsular War. The campaign of the American War selected to demonstrate the use of light infantry in this period is John Burgoyne's ill-fated expedition down the Hudson River commonly known as the Saratoga Campaign.l The campaign had several aspects that lent it to this study. Burgoyne was aware of the general trends of military development and thought in both Europe and America. He was not important in the development of British light infantry but was, as were so many of his contemporaries, keenly interested in the potential uses of light troops. By 1777 he was an experienced leader with a reputation as a military reformer and a student of the "Art of War." Burgoyne had with him several experienced leaders of light troops, most notably Simon Fraser (Frazer). Burgoyne, Fraser and the leaders of the British Army as a whole formed most of their ideas about light troops during the Seven Years War. They applied the lessons and took the traditions of that war into the American War. In 1777 Burgoyne commanded, in his army, ten companies of light infantry. Until that time onlyone of these had seen a real test in the American War, although all were involved in the somewhat desultory campaign of 1776 that expelled the Patriots from Canada.2 They were in 1777 relatively fresh and untested. These companies had also, again with one exception, come directly from the British Isles. Here they had been training since 1771-1772. The light companies received training in the year that they spent almost idle in Canada, 1776-1777. They were in the unique situation of having experienced some form of training in peacetime and larger scale group training in the field during wartime. Their actions in the campaign of 1777 would reflect the nature and extent of the training of the light infantry. The wooded region between Canada and Albany was the type of terrain that light infantry could be expected to deal with more effectively than would the line troops of the battalion.3 An examination of the light companies with Burgoyne in 1777 illustrates British attitudes and experiences in using light troops up to that point.





Master of Arts (M.A.)







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