I write stories—stories drawn from past military conflicts where cold calculation and tactical expertise play in high stakes contests under some of the most intense and brutal conditions people will ever face. My stories relate what men (and now women) endured in combat. However, I feel it is important to put those experiences within the context of the mission and higher-level decisions that placed the soldiers, sailors and airmen in harm’s way. I have no interest in rehashing overdone topics or fanning nationalistic fervor. The campaigns and battles that hold the most appeal to me are ones that instruct readers on the application of the military art, yet are unfamiliar or misunderstood. To absorb new lessons from past wars I try to unearth overlooked facts, examine different perspectives or explore fresh analyses.
Why I Wrote About an Obscure War
Curiosity first drew me to the West Indies expedition of 1740-42, the subject of my latest publication. Much had been written about the War of Jenkins’ Ear 275 years ago but not much since. The more I researched, the more I became fascinated by the scale of the campaign, the magnitude of the British-American failure and the squabbling over the many reasons for its miscarriage. The list of British oversights, misfortunes and errors has more entries than Kevin Bacon’s address book: poor strategic planning, a yellow fever epidemic, slow proceedings by the army, lack of cooperation between land and sea forces, lousy recruits, ladders that were too short, etc. However, none of the most cited causes could explain the debacle. This expedition needed another look.
Unnoticed details emerged that made me question commonly accepted facts. The vast majority of British and Americans (and Spaniards) who perished died from disease rather than combat. Yellow fever was the supposed culprit, yet the deaths soared after the British withdrew from Cartagena and continued after the surviving troops had gained immunity from the flavivirus. Yellow fever could not have beaten the British at Cartagena nor could it have caused the majority of later deaths. Another interesting oversight, no one had ever put together the details of the British army’s climactic assault on Castillo San Felipe de Barajas.
British, Spanish and American historians have written about the expedition but mostly from their own national perspectives. I thought it important to look at all three points of view to get a more complete picture of events. Comparing the decisions and timelines of the opposing commanders unveiled key decision points in the Cartagena campaign missed by previous accounts and revealed the true drama of the struggle. The British had the Spaniards on their heels when they abruptly gave up, much to the astonishment and delight of their opponents.
Because Admiral Vernon’s narrative dominated public discourse, the majority of historical treatments have come through the lenses of naval historians who pointed accusing fingers at the pace of the army’s siege operations. What has been missing is a critique of land operations based on the tactical doctrine of that era.
Lessons from Doctrine
An analysis of the terrain, military situation and the tactics of siege warfare turned up an interesting conclusion. The general, who had been roundly faulted for the campaign’s demise, had been condemned for what he did right. When he later deviated from sound doctrine the army suffered a terrible setback. I also found myself at odds with most histories of the expedition which laud the conduct of Admiral Vernon, the sea commander who, at the least, must share blame for the expedition’s collapse.
Finally, my focus on this colonial era military adventure sharpened once I understood that its lessons on force projection, joint operations and preservation of the force’s health and morale are as salient today as they were in the eighteenth century. The commanders and common servicemen in 1740-42 struggled under conditions that were both challenging and unfamiliar for people coming from the temperate zone. Their ability or inability to see through the mass of confusing facts and assumptions and to correctly perceive the most critical issues produced a disastrous defeat for Britain and an unexpected victory for Spain. The conditions of warfare have changed drastically since the War of Jenkins’ Ear, but modern warriors still face the same dilemmas as those confronting the Britons, Americans and Spaniards who fought in the Caribbean tropics so long ago.