Commentary Explorer Results

Commentary for Volume 1, Chapter 30 : Life at Headquarters

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Headquarters at Freneda:

Wellington certainly arrived at Freneda on 23rd, 24th or 25 November, (his last letter from Ciudad Rodrigo is dated 23rd, the first from Freneda the 25th).   Many letters are dated the 25th, suggesting a full day at his desk, although it is possible that letters were not always dated the day they were drafted, (i.e. he might take two or three days to work through a batch of letters but date them all the same day).   Neither Alexander Gordon nor Larpent give a date (nor do Dickson or Aitchison).  The only source giving 24 November as the date is T. H. Browne Napoleonic War Journal p 199.

On 22 May 1813 Wellington wrote to Graham from Ciudad Rodrigo, ‘I arrived here this day’, and a GO of 21 May is dated Freneda, so I think it is clear he left Freneda on 22 May (WD VI p 497 – both).   Alexander Gordon told Aberdeen on 19 May that they would move on the 22nd (At Wellington’s Right Hand p 376).   T. H. Browne (Napoleonic War Journal p 206) and Larpent (Private Journal p 120, 121) both confirm the date.

Oman vol 6 p 194 says that Wellington was away on his trip to Cadiz and Lisbon from 12 December to 25 January.   WD VI p 212, 253 confirms the dates.

Conditions in and near Freneda:

Lieutenant Thomas Henry Browne, of the Adjutant-General’s department was typical of the junior officers attached to headquarters but not to Wellington’s personal household.  ‘The room I lived in was over an old Cow-house, to which I ascended by a flight of stone steps on the outside; my bed was on the floor in a corner, & as the snow used to come in through the roof, I got a couple of tarpaulins from the Commissary, & suspended them over it which completely sheltered me; & a mason made me a fire-place in another corner.  Two other tarpaulins on the floor served me for bed-side carpets.   There was a bench, table & two stools, and the rest of the furniture was supplied from my canteen.’   He messed with Colonel Waters and Captain Wood, both also of the Adjutant-General’s department, with Browne’s soldier-servant preparing the food from their rations, supplemented by the occasional purchase, or the results of trout fishing and coursing.   According to Browne, ‘This arrangement experienced occasional interruptions, as my servant was not the most sober man in the world, & it has happened that when we assembled for dinner, we found our Cook drunk under the table, & no preparation made for our meal.’   After dinner the three officers ‘used to smoak [sic] cigars and drink grog till bed-time’ which was usually about nine o’clock for good candles were expensive and they generally rose with the sun. (Browne Napoleonic War Journal  p 201-202).

Captain Wood’s servant was Private John Green of the 68th who wrote his own memoirs.  He lived in a stable with Wood’s three other servants, an English groom named Crawley, a Spanish muleteer and a Portuguese boy, and declares that ‘we were very comfortable and happy indeed after our late unparalleled sufferings and fatigues, the stable was like a palace.’   Green enjoyed the relative freedom and independence of his life as a servant, and was dismayed when he had to return to the regiment when Captain Wood was appointed to the staff of Sir Charles Stewart who was sent on a diplomatic mission to Prussia in the spring of 1813.  (Green Vicissitudes of a Soldier’s Life  p 131-7).

William Warre’s quarters at Celorico:

In May 1810 William Warre, Beresford’s ADC, had told his sister:

I have lately changed my abode, as in the last the rain ran in upon my bed and we were three in a very small room with one window without a pane of glass.  Indeed in the whole of the Marshal’s Quarters there are but 6 in one window.   We have only one bason [sic] and one jug, and you may imagine the squabbling as to who was to wash first.   I have deposed some silk worms from my present room, and at least have the luxury of being alone, and having a broken pewter bason, none of the cleanest, to myself.   There’s luxury for you!   The rain, however, which has been incessant for the last 3 months or more, has found its way in, and runs in tolerable streams in four parts of my dismal abode.   My bed escapes, and by bason and some broken jars catch water.  Therefore I am rather well off. (Warre to his sister, Fornos d’Algodres, 23 May 1810, Warre Letters from the Peninsula  p 82).

Headquarters at Lesaca in 1813:

George Eastlake, a civilian, accompanied Admiral Martin on his visit to headquarters at Lesaca in September 1813, and found his billet unwelcoming and dirty.   As he settled down for the night wrapped in a borrowed cloak on a bed well populated with fleas, he reflected ‘that there was nothing like the comforts of “Old England”.’ (George Eastlake ‘Mr Eastlake’s visit to Spain in 1813’ edited by S. G. P. Ward J.S.A.H.R. vol 70 summer 1992 p 77-78).

Larpent describes headquarters at Lesaca in August 1813:

               This small, dirty place Lezaca, is a curious scene of bustle just now; crowded with Spanish fugitives – the headquarters no small body, with all our stragglers … [and an] abundance of Spanish and Portuguese officers (for both troops are near), as well as with English, with wounded and prisoners passing with mules and muleteers innumerable, besides all the country people who come here to turn all they have got into money.   Noises of all sorts; thrashing all going on in the rooms up stairs; the corn then made into bread and sold in one corner; “aguardente” being cried all about; lemonade (that is, dirty water with dark brown sugar) the same; here a large pig being killed in the street, with its usual music on such occasions; another near it with a straw fire singeing it, and then a number of women cutting up and selling pieces of other pigs killed a few hours before.   Suttlers and natives with their Don Quixote wineskins all about, large pigskins, and small ditto, and middling ditto, all pouring out wine into our half-boozy, weary soldiers; bad apples and pears, gourds for soup, sour plums, &c, all offered for sale at the same moment.  Perpetual quarrels take place about payment for these things between the soldiers of the three allied nations and the avaricious and unreasonable civilian natives; mostly, however, between Spaniards and Spaniards. (Larpent Private Journal 8 Aug 1813 p 225-6).

 By October Larpent noted that the town had ‘grown very unwholesome, like an old poultry-yard, and the deaths of the inhabitants are very numerous.’ (Larpent Private Journal  9 Oct 1813  p 275). This was hardly surprising for back in August he admitted that ‘The people say we have brought the plague of flies, and I really believe we have increased the swarms by the number of dead carcasses, and various kinds of filth caused by the density of the population at present.  We do not bury so regularly as the French, either our offal or dead animals, or anything; the Spaniards not at all, unless we do it for them.  To give you a notion of the flies, they eat up all my wafers, if left open, and spot my letters all over if left one day on the table.’ (Larpent Private Journal  23 Aug 1813 p 241).

Getting supplies up to Freneda:

‘Communication as to necessary articles and others is so difficult with Lisbon, that one of Lord Wellington’s aides-de-camp has been six months getting two bridles up, and C. Campbell four months in getting up a greatcoat.’  (Larpent Private Journal 4 April 1813 p 82).

Both T. H. Browne and Larpent give many examples of the cost of articles offered for sale by the sutlers at headquarters.

Headquarters baggage train:

Ward Wellington’s Headquarters p 58 cites Larpent for the statement that the baggage train might extend for eight miles, but this appears to be based on a misreading of a passage which also refers to the baggage of three divisions.   Aside from the sheer implausibility of a headquarters of a few hundred men (or even double that if we add the Portuguese HQ) have that much baggage, Larpent himself says elsewhere (Private Journal p 130) that the HQ baggage plus the reserve artillery and the baggage of the Fourth Division extended for three miles.

Wellington under canvas:

Wellington very rarely camped, but he did so at the 1812 siege of Badajoz.   James Thornton gives some details:

The Tent the Duke occupied to sleep in was enclosed in a large Marquee, the Marquee serving for sitting and dining room, the gentlemen of the staff had a tent each, smaller than the Marquee, – I had a round tent to sleep in, the Butler one also, my two assistants had one between them, the Duke’s footman and all the staff servants had one tent for two servants, all the servants’ tents were round ones, the gentlemen’s small Marquees – the Duke’s tent was very near the others, they were all pitched in one field.  (Your Obedient Servant  p 105; confirmed by Stanhope Eyewitness p 75).

Longford attributes to Wellington the maxim ‘The worst house is better than the best tent’ (introduction to Your Obedient Servant p 38) but I cannot trace any occasion on which he said it, nor any suggestion that it was original to him.   Certainly it was a well known military axiom in the nineteenth century, with many variations of wording, and the contrary opinion was also often put forward.

Wellington’s Appearance:

Antony Brett-James quotes an excellent description of Wellington’s appearance at this time from an ‘officer of the Light Division’ (unidentified, but it appears in Stocqueler’s Life of Wellington vol 1 p 210-11n, and may originally have appeared in the United Service Journal for 1842 p 435):

      We know Lord Wellington at a great distance by his little flat cocked-hat (not a fraction of an inch higher than the crown,) being set on his head completely at right angles with his person, and sitting very upright in his hussar saddle, which is simply covered with a plain blue shabrack.   His Lordship rides, to all appearance, devoid of sash, as, since he has been made a Spanish Field-Marshal, he wears on his white waistcoat, under his blue surtout coat, the red and gold knotted sash of that rank, out of compliment to our allies.   From the same motive, he always wears the order of the Toison d’Or round his neck, and on his black cockade two others, very small, of the Portuguese and Spanish national colours.   His lordship, within the last year, has taken to wearing a white neckerchief instead of our black regulation, and in bad weather a French private Dragoon’s cloak of the same colour.

      I give these details respecting our great Captain (who may yet lead us to the gates of Paris), as I always found every minutiae of celebrated characters as much sought after by the inquisitive as the very deeds which have brought them to notice.   Often he passes on in a brown study, or only returns the salutes of the officers at their posts; but at other times he notices those he knows with a hasty “Oh! How d’ye do”, or quizzes good-humouredly some one of us with whom he is well acquainted.   His staff come rattling after him, or stop and chat a few minutes with those they know, and the cortege is brought up by his lordship’s orderly, an old Hussar of the First Germans, who has been with him during the whole of the Peninsular war, and who, when he speaks of him, uses a German expression, literally meaning good old fellow, emphatically implying in that language, attachment and regard.  (Brett-James Wellington at War p 264-5).

Wellington at Dinner:

Augustus Frazer describes a dinner in May 1813 that went on till 11.30 pm, and no one (except the Prince of Orange) was able to leave the table until Wellington did so.  However this was evidently a special occasion following a review of the Light Division when 28 sat down to dinner, and in any case etiquette was looser, not stricter, at headquarters than in London society.  (Frazer Letters  p 107-8).

On 19 May Larpent noted that Wellington, ‘began today to dine at three o’clock instead of eight’ (p 149-50).   Evidently an adjustment connected to the imminent opening of the campaign, although late dining seems to have been resumed when the army was in the Pyrenees.   Possibly they dined early when the army was going to undertake a series of marches – which always began very early in the morning and were usually completed by noon, while when the army was stationary later dinners were possible, if not always practical.

Wellington the early riser

Similarly, Wellington’s rising at 6 would be when the army was in cantonments – he would have risen much earlier when it was on the march, for the troops often began their march, it is said, as early as 3 am.

Given the tendency of some Victorian writers to attribute all the sterner virtues to Wellington it is interesting to read:

Lord Wellington is not so easily roused from his bed as he used to be.  This is the only change in him; and it is said that he has been in part encouraged to this by having such confidence in General Murray.  I understand his was always naturally fond of his pillow.   He had rather ride like an express for ten or fifteen leagues than be early and take time to his work.  (Larpent Private Journal 23 July 1813 p 199)

            As for the particularly objectionable maxim, ‘when it is time to turn over, it is time to turn out’, the original context makes it clear that it was not intended as a precept.   According to Stepney Cowell, Sydenham, visiting headquarters, expressed satisfaction that Wellington was looking so well, adding that with all his responsibilities and cares ‘I cannot conceive how you can sleep in your bed’, to which Wellington replied, “When I throw off my clothes I throw off my cares, and when I turn in my bed it is time to turn out.”  (Stepney Cowell Leaves from the Diary of an Officer of the Guards  p 37).

Food at Headquarters:

Eastlake’s description of the food is worth quoting at greater length here:

 Our dinner consisted of some excellent white soup, a boiled fish (but what I know not), a small saddle of mutton (less than any to be found in this country), roast beef (thin and tough) and a variety of made dishes which appeared to be of excellent cookery.   A dish prepared with rice and apples was very good.   The dinner was served on plate, and the wine, and water, was in black bottles, there being no decanters.  Silver goblets supplied the place of tumblers and some short thick wine-glasses, not very liable to break, were the only articles of glass at table.   Lord Wellington is rather silent than otherwise.   The dessert, consisting of apples, peaches and some fine walnuts, was put down without removing the cloth.  (Eastlake ‘Mr Eastlake’s visit to Spain in 1813’ p 76).

After dinner:

In November 1813 Wellington told Larpent ‘that I kept him up reading Courts-martial until twelve o’clock at night or one in the morning; and this every night.  I hope, however, that this will not last long.’  (Larpent Private Journal 26 Nov 1813 p 306)   This was clearly unusual, but at other times there would have been business from other departments.

Two million words:

This is a rough calculation based on the published dispatches: 500 words to a page, 800 pages to a volume, five volumes = 2 million.  Each figure is a bit high (e.g. includes GOs not necessarily written by Wellington) but many letters are not printed, so that it should, at least, be of the right order of magnitude.

Wellington’s method of work:

Chris Woolgar, the archivist in charge of the Wellington papers at Southampton who has an unrivalled knowledge of the manuscripts, wrote (in an e-mail of 22 Jan 2007):

I think the pattern is this: official despatches are drafted by Wellington and then copied out fair, and he signs the fair copy and keeps the draft.   Private letters he writes out, usually straight into their final form (occasionally not), and the secretary then takes a copy for the files.   This can look a little confusing from the archive here, as there seem to be many private letters here in Wellington’s hand – but in fact most of these are originals which Wellington gathered in from, e.g. Villiers, or Bathurst, when he was working with Gurwood on the edition of the Dispatches in the 1830s – and we can see this from the folds, dockets, etc.

           I don’t have any note of him dictating, but he may have done; rather, I believe, he drafted himself.  Sometimes secretaries write replies based on his instructions, rather than there being a formal draft, e.g. Benjamin Wyatt sometimes does this with the Irish material in 1807-8, as there are some of his drafts at this which have been amended by Wellington.  (I can give you chapter and verse if you wish).

I’m not sure how common a practice dictation was at this period.  I think the notion of what a secretary might do has changed very considerably, and the tools to do it with have also changed, e.g. short-hand.

On the last point, there are, of course, many stories of Napoleon dictating to two secretaries at once – which lack of good shorthand (rather than showing off) may explain.

Consider also this from Larpent:

Two or three days ago I was somewhat puzzled, when, upon my pointing out the sentence of a Court-martial as illegal, Lord Wellington said, “Well, do write a letter for me to the president, and I will sign it, and it shall be sent back for revision.”   I did not know his style, but my letter was fortunately approved of.  (Larpent Private Journal 12 Feb 1813 p 57)

Still, letters such as this would only constitute a tiny proportion of the correspondence that was published, the great majority of which was conceived, composed and written by Wellington.

Conversation at Dinner:

Larpent (Private Journal 1 March 1813 p 65) mentions Wellington giving them ‘the whole history of the battle of Fuentes d’Onore … in which the French were three to one’.   T. H. Browne gives an extended account:

Ld. Wellington was evidently must disappointed with the result of the attack, which I had an opportunity of ascertaining, as I dined with him this Day, & he scarcely spoke a word to any one at Table.  This Table, in fact, to which I was in the habits of being frequently invited, was pleasant or gloomy, in exact proportion to the good or ill success of projects, carrying into effect at the time.  If matters went on badly, Ld. Wellington preserved so determined a silence, that no one ventured to interrupt it, & we were all heartily rejoiced, when he called for Coffee, the usual signal for wine drinking to cease, & immediately after taking it, he used to retire, & we were expected to do the same.   But whenever all was going on well, no one was more cheerful, or full of anecdote & good humour.  He would sit later than usual, ask some good natured question of every one, & make the evening as pleasant & sociable as possible; nor have I ever seen more gaiety & fun than on such occasions.   At times he would relate anecdotes of Indian Campaigns, the recollection of which appeared to interest him exceedingly, & which of course was highly acceptable to us, & it appeared to me, that he took peculiar pleasure in old Indian stories, as was particularly apparent, when an old Officer who had served with him in the East (Col: Shawe) came from England, to pass a month or two at his Head Quarters.  We then had constant stories of what had been the events of those Days, & all this helped the evenings off most agreably [sic].   The Officers of the Adjutant & Quarter Master General’s Department, in the former of which I held my Staff Appointment, were usually invited in turns, to dine with Ld Wellington.   The Dinners were good or indifferent according to the place we were in, & the possibility of obtaining anything more than the rations, but the Wine was always good, being principally French, which had fallen into hands of plundering Guerilla parties, who sold it afterwards, & not unfrequently sent to Head Quarters a quantity as a present to the Commander in Chief.  I remember the circumstance of a Butcher in London sending him an immense round of Beef, cased in sheet Lead & soldered up.  It was three weeks on passage, but arrived at Head Quarters, as good & fresh as possible.  (Browne Napoleonic War Journal p 226-7).

Religious services:

In November 1813 for ‘the first time these fourteen months’ Larpent attended divine service.  It was, he reported, ‘short, plainly read, but tolerably well; the sermon homely and familiar, but good for the troops, I think, and very fair and useful to anyone.   Lord Wellington was there, with his attendants, a few officers, and our new staff corps.’   A few weeks later he went again, this time to an open air service on the sands by the sea where the two brigades of Guards were present along with Wellington and his staff (Larpent Private Journal 6 and 29 Nov 1813, Private Journal p 293 and 307).  In January 1814 Wellington formally appointed the Rev. Samuel Briscall, whose work he had praised as early as 1810, as his private chaplain. (Michael Glover  ‘”An Excellent Young Man”: the Rev. Samuel Briscall, 1788-1848’ History Today vol 18 1968 p578-84; Wellington to Briscall, 30 Jan 1814 WD III p 712).

Wellington’s Butler:

There is a story that Wellington’s butler and Sir Thomas Picton had an altercation over the right of way in which Picton beat the unnamed butler with his umbrella.  (Myatt Peninsular General  p 163).   James Thornton makes several references to Wellington’s butler (Your Obedient Servant p 55, 65) whom he called Mr Abordian and described as ‘the Duke’s butler and valet’.   It is hard to reconcile ‘Abordian’ with ‘Bonduc’ or ‘Smily’ but names are difficult and Thornton talking (and his answers being transcribed) many years after the event.

Wellington’s old nurse:

A contemporary but secondhand accounts states, on the authority of the Prince of Orange, that ‘Lord Wellington’s old nurse always follows him on a mule.   That he always wears white neck-clo[a]thes and that she washes them, and that she is always treated with great respect by the army.’ (Glenbervie Journals  edited by Walter Sichel  21 Sept 1813 p 192).

Toadying at Headquarters:

I take it in the army that the officers in the lower branches of the staff are sharp-set, hungry, and anxious to get on, and make the most of everything, and have a view even in their civilities.   I have tried not to notice much that I could not help seeing, and which gave me a moderate opinion of the profession, which has not the independence to be seen in all the most respectable at the bar.   There is much obsequious, time-serving conduct to anyone who is in office, or is thought to have a word to say to his lordship.  (Larpent, Private Journal 6 March 1813, p 69).

The Life of an ADC:

Lord William Pitt Lennox, who joined Wellington’s staff after the peace in 1814, gives a romanticized description of the life of an ADC in his recollections Three Years with the Duke:

we must point out that the duty of an aid-de-camp of Wellington’s, although one of the highest honour, was not quite the bed of roses many suppose it to have been.   Fancy a long ride of some fifteen leagues, under a broiling sun, or the pelting pitiless storm, over a wild mountainous tract, or through plains intersected with rivers and ditches; a straggler from the enemy’s ranks, deserter from your own, or pilfering peasant of the country, looking to enrich himself by quietly shooting your through the head.  You reach the place of your destination, deliver your despatches, devote the half hour your chief has allotted you to rest and refreshment, and retrace your steps to head-quarters.   The next morning the note of preparation is heard, an action is anticipated; the eagle eye of Wellington burns with unusual fire, some deed is to be done before sunset.  Before noon, you are in the midst of it; you are ordered to the right of the line to bring up a regiment to support another nearly overwhelmed by the superior force of the enemy.   You gallop along the ensanguined field, strewed with the wounded and the dead, the bullets whistling about you; you reach the commanding officer, deliver to him the brief order of Wellington, written with pencil in his own hand, and torn from his memorandum book, and then hasten to return to your chief.   A few straggling dragoons of the enemy, having left their main body, recognise you by your dress to be a staff officer, they wheel round, and make a dash at you; your trusty steed answers to your touch, and away you go, like Mazeppa’s wild horse, “upon the pinions of the wind:” at one time the unevenness of the ground gives them a chance but, on a level your charger, formerly a high-metalled racer, leaves them far behind, to anathematise you in no very measured terms.   The day is over, our arms are crowned with victory; but even then what thoughts come over you!   It is true you are saved, but many of your dearest and best friends have fallen.  The reflection is mournful, and nothing but the excitement of the time could keep up your sinking spirits.  In the depth of the night, when lying on your straw pallet, exposed, perhaps, to the inclemencies of the weather, to heavy bursts of rain, and vivid flashes of lightning, the loud claps of thunder, the furious gusts of wind, the thoughts of “home” and those dear to us will come over the mind of the bravest, and fill it with reflections, easier to be understood than depicted.  (Pitt Lennox Three Years with the Duke p 232-4)

 However it should be noted that Pitt Lennox never served with Wellington on campaign or in action, and that he was writing many years later.

Fremantle’s contemporary comments on life as an ADC:

A much more prosaic picture of life as an ADC emerges from the letters of John Fremantle: a few days after his appointment he told his uncle:  ‘During these last forty eight hours I have filled nearly 11 sheets of paper.  I never wrote so much before in my life, but believe me I am heartily content to do it. I have no doubt I shall be able to satisfy Fitzroy Somerset.’ (Fremantle Wellington’s Voice 3 Nov 1812 p 130)  Each ‘sheet’ probably consisted of eight or sixteen pages.   Fortunately the pace eased and in February 1813 he described his daily routine: ‘Nothing can be more pleasant and agreeable than my occupation here. I have just enough to do to make the time pass quickly.  I attend about noon, and if Lord Wellington does not go out riding I write from then till near dinner if Fitzroy has employment for me so long.’  (Fremantle Wellington’s Voice  24 February 1813 p 135-6).    He also mentions some of the inevitable quarrels among the ADCs:

There has been the devil to pay here lately.  No less than three boils in the family with Lord March, which were nigh ending seriously.  He has been generally made so much of that he is quite spoiled, and is never rosy except when putting his jokes into practice or amusing himself at the expense of his neighbours.  We were and are now very good friends, but it happened to me to be obliged, the first, to have an understanding with him on that point. Gordon, (the second) who I believe is as little disposed to be quarrelsome as myself was more unpleasant, as the sparring with words took place at table and ended most grossly, before Lord W[ellington], who was exceedingly vexed at it.  (Fremantle Wellington’s Voice 14 April 1813 p 137-9)

And he makes clear that there was considerable rivalry and ambition amongst the ADCs, often focused on whose turn it would be to take the dispatches describing the next victory home, and so be promoted.  (For example his letter of 8 November 1813 Fremantle Wellington’s Voice p 162-3).

The Prince of Orange:

In the spring of 1813 he was described as ‘a very amiable, deserving youth, [who] is liked by everyone. … [He] has had the greatest of all advantages for a young prince, that of being educated in a great measure with persons who have behaved to him as if he were their equal.   So, indeed, he is treated now; except that he has a little more respect paid to him, which I believe is really felt, for he lives nearly on terms of equality with Lord Fitzroy Somerset, Lord March, Colonel G[ordon], &c, and is quite one of the set, and is little or no restraint to anyone.’  (Larpent Private Journal  12 April 1813 p 88. The original ‘Slender Billy’ was William Heberfield, a disreputable character well-known to the boys of Westminster School who was hanged in 1811 for passing forged bank notes, Albemarle Fifty Years of My Life by George Thomas, Earl of Albermarle 2 vols (London, Macmillan, 1876) vol 1 p 324-6.  Larpent 11 Jan 1814 p 354 on the Prince’s answering to the name without rancour).

George Murray:

It is worth making a few points about Wellington’s relations with George Murray.  First, it is a significant sign of Wellington’s failure to create esprit de corps at headquarters that Murray would have been willing to go home at the beginning of 1812, and so exchange such an exciting and demanding campaign for a mere desk job, however much it helped his ascent up the professional ladder.   Second, some of Larpent’s comments are worth recording.   In July 1813 he described Murray as ‘the life and soul of the army next to Lord Wellington’ and ‘decidedly the second man; and it is thought that without him, and perhaps Kennedy, the Commissary-in-Chief, we could never have done what we have; even Lord Wellington would be, in some degree, fettered and disabled by a bad Quarter-Master-general and a bad Commissary-general.’  (Larpent Private Journal 16 July 1813, p 188-9).   A week later he added, ‘things do not appear to go on well, unless Lord Wellington or George Murray are on the spot.’  (23 July 1813 p 199).    He also gives a nice vignette of Wellington and Murray at work together: ‘I found Lord Wellington the day before yesterday busy with all the Spanish staff and General Murray, with a dozen great Spanish drawings and plans of the mountains about them; they were comparing our several labours together.  The Spanish staff draughtsmen have a good character.  I should have liked to have been called in, but I was only waiting an audience at the other end of the room.’  (Larpent, 28 Aug 1813 Private Journal p 246).

Still, the fact remains that in 1809-10 Murray had no confidence in Wellington’s plans for the defence of Portugal and his influence was clearly limited; while in 1812 Wellington did without him completely.   It is not possible to argue with any plausibility that he, or anyone else, was the eminence grise behind Wellington’s success.

Staff officers at headquarters and with the divisions:

Thomas Henry Browne was probably quite typical of many of the officers of the staff.   The son of a prosperous Liverpool merchant who had fallen on hard times, he joined the army (without purchase) as an ensign in the 23rd Fusiliers in 1805 when he was 18 years old.   He served at Copenhagen and Martinique before reaching the Peninsula in late 1810 where he fell ill.  He employed his convalescence ‘in learning the Spanish language, in which I took great interest, and made rapid proficiency.  I had long observed how many advantages, both of observation and promotion, Officers of the Staff had over those who remained with their Regiments, and the appointment to a Staff situation was an object of my ardent wishes.   This made me the more anxious to acquire the Spanish language, as I thought it more than probable that Officers acquainted with it would be sought for, and brought forwards, and the result proved that I was correct in this, as in the following September it was my principal recommendation to the Staff appointment which I then obtained.’ (T. H. Browne Napoleonic War Journal p 124-5).  The initiative and commitment he had shown, together with his eagerness for the position, counted for far more than Browne’s unremarkable record of service and limited family connections.

Browne was unusual among staff officers in spending most of the rest of the war at headquarters.   The great majority of staff officers were employed with the infantry divisions or cavalry brigades, or on some detached service – such as the famous ‘reconnaissance officers’ of the Quartermaster-General’s department.   These officers answered to the divisional or brigade commander they served and to the head of their department, and they might have little or no contact with Wellington himself – although they were much more likely to come to his attention than a purely regimental officer of the same rank.   At headquarters the Adjutant-General and Quartermaster-General’s departments each consisted of about half-a-dozen officers including the head, with about a dozen NCOs and privates.   While Charles Stewart, Edward Pakenham, Lord Aylmer and John Waters are the best known officers of the Adjutant-General’s department, its smooth operation probably depended at least as much upon Major Düring, the KGL officer who did most of the work preparing the regular states and returns, and upon Lieutenant Hurford who had first been attached to the office when a sergeant in the Third Guards, but who had made himself so useful that he was given a commission and employed as an unofficial assistant (Ward Wellington’s Headquarters p 56).  Similarly George Murray was assisted by William De Lancey (or Charles Broke from mid 1813), and by junior officers Captain James Reynett, Lieutenant Ralph Heathcote, and Lieutenant James Freeth, with Sergeant Charles Hockey of the Buffs being the chief clerk – although the copying of the movement orders on which the whole army depended remained in the hands of the commissioned officers. (Ward Wellington’s Headquarters p 57; Heathcote’s letters have been published as Ralph Heathcote. Letters of a Young Diplomat but they tell us nothing of life at headquarters).  Both offices also had a number of NCOs and privates serving as orderlies some of whom were employed as couriers.   Other departments were established in the course of the war under the aegis of the Quartermaster-General, such as the Office of Military Communications headed by Lieutentant-Colonel Richard Sturgeon, and the Staff Cavalry Corps, or military police, established in 1813 in response to Wellington’s complaints over misconduct in the retreat from Burgos, which was commanded by George Scovell.

The Commanding Officer of the Royal Artillery had a small staff at headquarters and conducted his own independent correspondence with his masters at the Ordnance, as did the commander of the engineers, although both were under Wellington’s orders.   Then there were the civil departments: James McGrigor, the Inspector-General of Hospitals headed a medical staff which included the Purveyor to the Forces and the chief physician and apothecary.  The Paymaster’s department had a sizeable staff of clerks, but Mr Larpent, the Deputy Judge Advocate General, acted virtually alone.   The largest and most important of these civil departments was the commissariat, to which Richard Kennedy had returned in October 1812.   Kennedy was the son of George III’s physician and a Westminster scholar, a man of great energy and ability, but whose lavish lifestyle at headquarters raised doubts about his probity – always a sensitive subject for commissaries – which even a sympathetic modern study has not completely dispelled. (Ward Wellington’s Headquarters p 73-74; Ward ‘The Peninsular Commissary’ p 235 (the authoritative modern study); T. H. Browne Napoleonic War Journal p 202-3 (for the lifestyle and the comments it attracted)).   And finally there were the Provost Marshal and his assistants, and the Quartermaster to headquarters.

Charles Cureton:

Good clerks were invaluable, and when Fitzroy Somerset discovered a ‘well educated young man, and a particularly good penman’ serving as a sergeant in the 14th Light Dragoons, he had no hesitation in enticing him to headquarters.   This was Charles Cureton, the son of a respectable family and an officer in the Shropshire militia, who had got into financial difficulties, faked his death by drowning, and enlisted in the cavalry as a simple private.   Somerset employed him not only in writing but as a mounted orderly, and as he showed both gallantry and coolness, secured his commission.  After the war he went to India and had a long and distinguished career rising to high rank and receiving many honours (Brotherton Hawk at War  p 44-45; ODNB).

The tedium of staff work:

Charles Stewart complained to Castlereagh of the tedium of his work at headquarters:

The situation and business of adj[utan]-gen[era]l is reduced to keeping accurately the returns of all descriptions of the reg[imen]ts, making general returns from these for the offices in England or for the com[mande]r of the forces, corresponding with all the detached officers of the army and officers comm[andin]g corps on all casualties that occur, making arrangements for the sick, convalescents &c of the army, having all this correspondence regularly and accurately kept, managing all gen[era]l c[our]t martials [sic], preparing the evidences, crimes &c, fixing all the details of duty with the different divisions of the army &c.  This is all most essential to the existence of an army, but you will admit it does not carry with it interesting or pleasing occupation.   To many officers who have been brought up in the school of an orderly room, it is not disagreeable, but to others who have been more constantly employed in the field, it becomes irksome. (Charles Stewart to Castlereagh, 24 Aug 1809, PRONI D 3030/P/229).

Stewart also complained that in the British army the senior staff officers lacked sufficient power and independence, and that the concentration of power in the hands of the general inflated the importance of the (generally much junior) Military Secretary:

 I think this has grown up with us from the system at the Horse Guards, which, by throwing every matter of interest or moment into the hands of the military secretary (an inferior officers as to rank[)], places both the adj[utan]t and q[uarte]r-m[aste]r-g[enera]l in a great measure under him, and after him in all confidential and secret communications and all important business of the army.  I know this is felt by Murray here as well as by myself, and I have no doubt it is also felt, though submitted to, in England.’ (Charles Stewart to Castlereagh, 24 Aug 1809, PRONI D 3030/P/229)

How Wellington Worked:

McGrigor’s description is worth quoting in full here:

After this I daily made my appearance to take his orders, and to make my reports on the number of sick and wounded with all the details of their movements.  These reports I made to his lordship ever afterwards, whether in the field or in quarters, immediately after his breakfast, which was the time he fixed for seeing the adjutant-general and quartermaster-general, the commissary-general, myself, and occasionally the paymaster-general, and the head of the intelligence department when at headquarters, my brother-in-law, the late Colonel Colquhourn Grant.  At this time he gave me notice of movements, and after my giving him a statement of the total sick and wounded of the army, I gave him the total in each hospital station in Portugal, Spain, and afterwards in France, and the total number of dead; the number fit to be marched to their regiments or convalescent; the cases or diseases, with the causes of these; and in fine, everything relating to the health department of the army.

         At first, it was my custom to wait upon Lord Wellington with a paper in my hand, on which I had entered the heads of the business about which I wished to receive his orders, or to lay before him.  But I shortly discovered that he disliked my coming with a written paper; he was fidgety, and evidently displeased when I referred to my notes.  I therefore discontinued this, and came to him daily, having the heads of business arranged in my mind, and discussed them after I had presented the state of the hospitals.   When money was required for hospital purposes, I brought with me the purveyor’s estimates, under different heads, such as purchase of provisions, wine, building repairs, &c. (McGrigor Autobiography  p 262-3).

McGrigor does not mean that he went in to see Wellington without any papers – the states of the hospitals, the purveyor’s estimates &c would have been written – but that he didn’t go in with a list of points to discuss with Wellington.   Larpent frequently mentions taking in bundles of papers to Wellington – mostly proceedings of courts martial – and he worked well with Wellington.

In 1814 a capable officer lost Wellington’s confidence because he ‘seems to be too much of the English official school; [and] has too much regard to forms and regular orders.’  (Larpent Private Journal 16 Feb 1814 p 392 – the officer was probably Sturgeon, whom Wellington had praised on previous occasions.)

Still life at Headquarters:

Schaumann makes the same point as Buckham:

Had it not been known for a fact, no one would have suspected that he was quartered in the town.  There was no throng of scented staff officers with plumed hats, orders and stars, no main guard, no crowd of contractors, actors, valets, cooks, mistresses, equipages, horses, dogs, forage and baggage wagons, as there is at French or Russian headquarters!  Just a few aides-de-camp, who went about the streets alone and in their overcoats, a few guides, and a small staff guard; that was all!   About a dozen bullock carts were to be seen in the large square of Fuente Guinaldo, which were used for bringing up straw to headquarters; but apart from these no equipages or baggage trains were visible.  (Schaumann On the Road with Wellington  p 317).

Wellington’s Bullying:

G. R. Gleig tells a story (Personal Reminiscences of the Duke of Wellington  p 289-90) of Wellington abusing Major Todd at dinner for the failure of his bridge in 1814, and Todd going out and getting himself killed next day.   This has been discussed and refuted by John Hussey ”Let No Man lay to Wellington’s Charge the suicides of these Two Men’: the Problems of Reminiscence and the Failings of Old Age’ J.S.A.H.R. vol 80 2002 p 98-109.   Hussey establishes that at best the story is confused – Todd survived the war, and the officer who may have deliberately put himself in the line of fire was Sturgeon, though eyewitness accounts cast doubt even on this.

George Napier Passages in the Early Military Life… p 248-50 actually tells the story far more credibly than Gleig, and names Sturgeon, although he only refers in general terms to Sturgeon having been ‘very severely reprimanded by his Lordship in presence of a number of officers who were at dinner at headquarters.’   This must have come from the gossip of the army, rather than George Napier’s personal observation, and as Hussey shows, there is at least some doubt whether Sturgeon really did expose himself to enemy fire with the idea of getting killed.  The echoes of Colonel Bevan in 1811 are a bit too clear, with the facts twisted a little to improve the story and conform with the prejudices of those who told it.   Which is not to deny that Wellington could be harsh, or that he was unfairly critical of Sturgeon in 1814 – as seems to be shown by Larpent’s comments re ________ (16 Feb 1814 Private Journal p 392), but to go a step further and take the word of George Napier and Gleig that this drove Sturgeon to virtual suicide, would need some evidence from the time, not many years later.

Wellington and Fisher:

One reported exchange between Wellington and Fisher shows both Wellington’s temper and the informality of doing business at headquarters.   Fisher had tried Wellington’s patience beyond its limit by some discussion over a friend coming up from Lisbon.   ‘Lord Wellington got irate, and told him pretty nearly that his friend concerning whom he was inquiring “might go to h___”.   Colonel F____ came out muttering “I’ll go Sir, to the Quarter-Master-general for a route,” which Lord Wellington heard, and laughed at well.’   (Larpent 24 April 1813 Private Journal p 96)

Sir Charles Oman’s portrait of Wellington:

Oman gives one of the most interesting and stimulating portraits of Wellington in a chapter in vol 2 of his History of the Peninsular War and in Wellington’s Army.     Written at a time when late Victorian popularizers had wildly exaggerated Wellington’s personal as well as professional virtues, it was refreshingly iconoclastic and plausible; but reading it now, I feel that it does not quite hit the mark, and that it has helped perpetuate some myths of its own.

Much of it, however, remains excellent – for example its insistence that we do not read into the Wellington of the early Peninsular campaigns the image of the established hero of later life: he was not, ever, in the Peninsula “The Duke” with all that is implied in the phrase.

Yet many of Oman’s own points clearly reflect his assumptions of what such a man as Wellington must have felt, rather than any actual evidence.   An early example comes in writing of Wellington’s tenure as Chief Secretary for Ireland when Oman declares that

 It was a post whose holder had to dabble in much dirty work, when dealing with the needy peers, the grovelling place-mongers, and the intriguing lawyers of Dublin.   Wellesley went through with it all, and not by any means in a conciliatory ways.  He passed the necessary jobs, but did not hide from the jobbers his scorn for them.   When the Secretary for Ireland had to deal with anyone whom he disliked, he showed a happy mixture of aristocratic hauteur and cold intellectual contempt, which sent the petitioner away in a bitter frame of mind, whether his petition had been granted or no.  (Wellington’s Army  p 40)

If this were true, Wellington would have been a very bad Chief Secretary indeed, but the language and outlook is clearly that of a man born in 1860 not 1769.   There is very little evidence of Wellington’s scorn for the business of patronage, let alone ‘aristocratic hauteur and cold intellectual contempt’ – Oman assumes that it must be there because that is his view of Wellington, and in turn it reinforces his view in a circular argument.   And so he goes on to attribute similar behaviour to Wellington in the Peninsula:  ‘Unfortunately, he carried this manner from the Irish Secretaryship on to the Headquarters of the Peninsular Army. It did not tend to make him loved.’   Clearly there was something unlovable in Wellington’s manner in the Peninsula, but it is simply wrong to suggest that he treated his staff or subordinates like ‘needy peers’ or ‘grovelling place-mongers’.

Much more convincing is that phrase that Wellington ‘was marvellously capable, but that he was without the supreme gift of sympathy for others’ (Wellington’s Army  p 41).

Oman then moves on to discuss Wellington’s dealing with his troops, especially, but not only, the rank and file, hanging this discussion on a quotation from Cooke which suggests that Wellington was admired, but not much liked in the army.   The picture he paints is certainly unattractive: Wellington never praised his men, never appealed to their better nature, and was a great supporter of flogging.   Having thus damned Wellington, Oman enters a mitigating plea that such stern virtues were necessary, at least in part.   However the picture is fundamentally flawed: Wellington frequently did praise his troops, thanking them for their service after a victory, and noticing the departure of veteran battalions in glowing terms.   Certainly he did not go in for the romantic phrase making of Napoleon’s Bulletins, but then, their audience was always more the salons of Paris than the men in the ranks.   And while he undoubtedly regarded flogging as necessary to maintain discipline in the army as it was constituted, his emphasis was always on regimental officers performing their duty in order to prevent the soldiers from misbehaving.   We also know that in at least one instance he decided several serious malefactors be sent to a regimental court martial (which could award them no more than 300 lashes), rather than to a General Court Martial (which could award 1,000) arguing that there was nothing to be gained by the heavier sentence ‘for three hundred lashes was as good as a thousand’ (Larpent 22 July 1813 Private Journal p 198).

In this, as in other cases, I think Oman’s view of Wellington is over-influenced by memoirs written after the war, by liberal-minded officers (largely from the Light Division) who disliked Wellington’s politics in general, and in particular saw him as an insuperable obstacle to their plans for ‘improvements’ in the army.   This is where the picture of Wellington the arch-reactionary opposed to all change and progress comes from; and it is also very largely from this source that there is the harping upon his ‘aristocratic hauteur’.

Oman also reprises the idea that Wellington required blind obedience from his subordinates and disapproved of any independent initiative.   This is quite a complex issue: Wellington certainly did not favour subordinates disobeying orders, and early in the war sent Catlin Craufurd a rocket for doing so, even with the best of intentions.   But so would any commander worth his salt.   He was generally disinclined to give subordinates much discretion in the exercise of their commands – he tended to give detached officers very long instructions which covered every likely contingency, but most preferred this, and it was important that he know what they were likely to do in any case so that he could make his plans to come to their assistance.   Even so this did not prevent them making a mess of things – think of Spencer destroying Almeida in 1811 and Victor Alten running full tilt away from Marmont in 1812 – examples which do not suggest that he erred in not trusting his subordinates with more rope!   Yet the day to day workings of headquarters may have been rather different, as is suggested by Larpent’s comment, probably written about Sturgeon, in 1814:  “But then, were I ______, I should ask for the guard and do it, propose it first, or try to get it quietly from the Adjutant-general without troubling Lord Wellington, and let him find the thing done.  ______ seems to be too much of the English official school; has too much regard to forms and regular orders.’  (16 Feb 1814 Private Journal p 392).  This hardly suggests that Wellington wanted nothing by rigid, unquestioning obedience from those around him.

Finally Oman claims that Wellington seldom explained his orders to his subordinates – ‘that Hill, Beresford, Graham and Craufurd, were the only officers to whom Wellington ever condescended in his correspondence to give the why and wherefore of a command that he issued: the others simply received orders without any commentary. ….  This foible of refusing information to subordinates for no adequate reason has been shared by other great generals – e.g. by Stonewall Jackson….  It is a trick of the autocratic mind.’  (Wellington’s Army p 46).   Again, the premise is simply wrong – dozens of letters to subordinates, Cotton, Mackenzie, Hope, Paget and even Henry Clinton could be brought forward where Wellington explains the strategic position before describing the role they were to play, not to mention McGrigor’s story of receiving a long letter from Wellington explaining why the reasons for several of his decisions (McGrigor Autobiography p 329, quoted in the text of this chapter).   Oman appears to be arguing for a pre-determined conclusion.   But even if it was true, does it really show an ‘autocratic mind’ ? or a desire that the army should function as an army, not be divided into competing factions and cliques, each with its own plan, trying to catch the general’s ear?   Given the lack of confidence in the senior ranks of the army from late 1809 to mid 1810 Wellington had little reason to invite discussion of his plans – especially when anything he said was liable to appear in the British newspapers a few weeks later.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

© Rory Muir

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.