Once more we step away from Scottish history and take a wider view of the world, with another British military disaster…
Ticonderoga was an engagement between the British and the French Armies in upstate New York in 1758 during the Seven Years War. Described in some quarters as “an unsuccessful British attack on a numerically disadvantaged French Garrison” it was in fact a crushing and humiliating defeat of a British force armed with all possible situational advantages. A bitter result made all the harsher by the nature of the shambolic and humiliating retreat they embarked upon as the battle came to its conclusion.
Once again a redcoat force, far far from their own shores, with superior numbers and all the tactical advantages they could wish for, were crushed by numerically inferior opposition due to the shortcomings of their leadership.
Commanding the British was General James Abercrombie, a Scot born in Banffshire. He was a commander deemed to have considerable administrative abilities but with a reputation for indecision in combat and had acquired among his men the soubriquet of Mrs Nanny Cromby.
The French were led by Louis-Joseph de Montcalm. A veteran of both Wars of the Polish and Austrian Succession with an outstanding service record as a battlefield commander, he was to die the following year at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, along with that other distinguished leader of men James Wolfe.
Abercrombie has taken considerable criticism over his performance at Ticonderoga. The prominent American historian and Pulitzer Prize winner, Lawrence H. Gipson,
commenting on Abercrombie’s Ticonderoga campaign said that “no military campaign was ever launched on American soil that involved a greater number of errors of judgment on the part of those in positions of responsibility”. James Holden noted that American and British writers, both contemporary and historical, used words like “imbecile”, “coward”, “unready”, and “old woman” to describe him.
Up till this point the war had gone badly for the British with a string of French victories including the Battle of Fort Bull, the Battle of Fort Oswego and the massacre at Fort William Henry (as depicted in that ace movie The Last of the Mohicans). Consequently, the British Prime Minister William Pitt had felt it necessary to take over direct control of the North American campaign. He devised a strategy of standing on the defensive in Europe where the French were strong and initiating offensive operations in North America where they were weak.
The French force which Montcalm assembled at Ticonderoga in June comprised some 5000 regular French troops, the same again in militia raised from the French settlers and some Indian allies. Abercrombie meantime set off by boat on July 5th from the ruins of Fort William Henry at the head of the largest military force that had ever been assembled on the continent; some 16,000 regular British troops, including the 42nd (Highland) Regiment (aka The Black Watch) plus militia.
Montcalm assessed his position and his numerical inferiority and decided not to simply hold the fort and await besiegement. He opted instead to defend the likely approaches. Monsieur Le Montcalm set about improving his defensive position. Over the course of the two days before the battle his men dug out trenches on the rising ground about a mile north west of the fort and strengthened these with felled trees sharpened to a point: obstacles which would hinder infantry but could provide no obstacle to cannon fire. He also dispatched a portion of his force to monitor the approach of the British fleet but when this hove into site and its size became apparent this force was rapidly withdrawn
On the morning of July 6th, two days before the battle, the British force landed unopposed at the north end of Lake George and headed towards the fort. On arriving at the French defences north west of the Fort, Abercrombie ordered his engineer, Lieutenant Matthew Clerk to climb the adjacent Rattlesnake Hill and assess the French position. Young Clerk duly reported to his General that the French defences appeared incomplete and could easily be forced. Apparently Montcalm had managed to disguise the strength and completeness of his defence works by the simple stratagem of covering them with shrubbery.
Heartened by his engineer’s thoroughly professional assessment, Abercrombie met with his senior officers that evening to discuss his attack plans. Debating simply whether they should go forward in ranks of three or four they settled on three.
Battle commenced just after noon with Abercrombie sending forward Rogers Rangers (sans Spencer Tracy) and some light infantry to force the outlying French defenders back. These were followed by three columns of his regular troops. Montcalm had set out his defensive force with seven battalions forward, each covering approximately 100 metres of front. He had entrenched cannon on each flank and the low ground between his left wing and the river was manned by militia.
The French were able to pour withering fire into the redcoat formations as they tried to work their way through the defensive obstacles the French had deployed and by 2 pm it was clear that the initial attack had failed. Montcalm, dressed as an ordinary soldier, moved among his men encouraging their efforts and ensuring that all needs were met. Abercrombie meanwhile remained somewhat to the rear, positioned to receive progress reports.
On being informed of the failure of his initial attack, Abercrombie then ordered his reserve forward, provincial troops from Connecticut and New Jersey. And within half an hour it became clear that their attack had met with the same results as that of their more experienced comrades. At this point it seems that Abercrombie ordered a withdrawal along the entire frontage but apparently two regiments on the left wing, the 42nd and the 46th persisted with their efforts and as late as 5pm the 42nd were still thrashing away, indeed they almost made it to the point where they were able to physically engage with the enemy.
It was only as night fell that the last of the British troops withdrew and Abercrombie was able to commence the march back to his ships. This retreat in the dark and through the woods became disorganised and, as rumours spread of French pursuit, panic-stricken. The humiliating nature of the whole episode being fully apparent to its participants with one of Abercrombie’s own Lieutenant-Colonel’s describing it subsequently as “shameful”.
British losses were of the order of 1000 dead and 1500 wounded with the Black Watch incurring particularly heavy proportional losses of 300 men and 8 officers. French casualties were reported in the order of 550, dead and wounded.
The criticisms of Abercrombie’s handling of the battle are primarily: the French garrison was poorly provisioned and would have been unable to resist a siege for ling. Information which Abercrombie could easily have acquired from the various prisoners and deserters that passed through his hands; deploying artillery on the undefended Rattlesnake Hill would have led to the rapid destruction of the French defensive position. A consideration which apparently no one on the British side thought of; on realising that his initial attacking plan had failed Abercrombie could have taken time to consider a fresh alternative; similarly the option of outflanking the French right wing never occurred to Abercrombie or his men and would appear to have been well worthy of consideration. And carrying out the full retreat in the dark and through the woods to his initial landing position was wholly unnecessary.
Abercrombie never commanded another military campaign but in the proud and noble tradition of the British military he continued to be promoted until his eventual retirement.