It happened today - August 27, 2015

Gen. Sir William HoweOn August 27 back in 1916 Romania entered World War I on the Allied side in the hope of seizing Transylvania. But I’m brushing that aside as “it didn’t even seem like a good idea at the time” to talk about an intriguing mystery connected with George Washington’s 1776 defeat at Brooklyn Heights by General William Howe and his brother Admiral Richard Howe. The mystery isn’t why they won. It’s why they didn’t follow up.

Washington’s force was outgunned by the British and he knew his job wasn’t to win battles. It was to win the war. But for that he had to avoid overly disastrous defeats. And on two occasions during Brooklyn Heights Howe failed to seize obvious chances to capture Washington and his senior commanders, which probably would have finished the rebellion. And while he did capture New York, his tenure as Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in America from October 1775 to his resignation in 1778 was marked by a peculiar overall lethargy in prosecuting the war.

Now possibly he was simply lazy, drunk or confused. But it’s also possible that he didn’t want to win the war, especially as he was regarded then and later as one of the best officers in the British army then and later.

He certainly wasn’t generally noted for incompetence or sloth. His distinguished military career including leading a hotly contested amphibious landing at Louisbourg in 1758 and commanding a battalion under Wolfe at the Plains of Abraham; in fact he led the famous ascent up from the St. Lawrence to the battlefield. He also helped capture Havana in 1762. After his older brother, also a General, was killed during a skirmish outside Fort Carillon (now Fort Ticonderoga) in 1758 during the Seven Years’ War, he was elected to Parliament for Nottingham, a seat he retained until 1780. And after leaving America, he continued to serve with distinction into his seventies.

So surely it is revealing, given his passive conduct of the American war, that he was known to be sympathetic to the rebels, opposing the “Intolerable Acts” as an MP and assuring constituents in 1774 that he would resist service against the colonists and insisting that the whole British army could not defeat them.

Suppose such a man were nevertheless given the job of doing so, and was unwilling, as he said publicly at the time, to incur “the odious name of backwardness to serve my country in distress.” Might he not instead execute his tactical duties with dispatch but avoid strategic enterprise?

It’s not something a man could publicly avow then or later. Indeed, it would be a distinctly awkward position for a principled patriot to find himself in. But if he did, is it not plausible that he would act as Howe did?

When he resigned and returned home, along with his brother Richard, it was partly to answer charges of dereliction of duty. Indeed, they demanded a Parliamentary inquiry. That both duly cleared and went on to serve with distinction including in the French Revolutionary Wars suggests that there may have been many others in the British military establishment, and government, who understood what the Howes had done and why.

I do not see how such a thesis could ever be proved unless extremely indiscreet letters should somehow come to light. And I resist conspiracy theories as a rule. But if I were ever going to toast a loyal and honourable man who “threw” a war, it would be William Howe.