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Commentary for Volume 2, Chapter 29 Commander-in-Chief, 1842–52
The Queen wrote to Wellington on 12 December 1845:
The Queen has to inform the Duke of Wellington that, in consequence of Sir Robert Peel’s having declared to her his inability to carry on any longer the Government, she has sent for Lord John Russell, who is not able at present to state whether he can form an Administration, and is gone to Town in order to consult his friends. Whatever the result of his enquiries may be, the Queen has a strong desire to see the Duke of Wellington remain at the head of her Army. The Queen appeals to the Duke’s so often proved loyalty and attachment to her person, in asking him to give her this assurance. The Duke will thereby render the greatest service to the country and to her own person. (Letters of Queen Victoria vol 2 p 55).
Wellington replied, explaining why he did not think anything should be settled without the approval of Lord John Russell or whoever was to be the Queen’s next prime minister:
He humbly submits to your Majesty that the duties of the Commander-in-Chief of your Majesty’s Land Forces places him in constant confidential relations with all your Majesty’s Ministers, and particularly with the one filling the office of First Lord of the Treasury.
Under these circumstances he submits to your Majesty the counsel, that your Majesty would be graciously pleased to consult the nobleman or gentleman who should be your Majesty’s first Minister, before any other step should be taken upon the subject. He might think that he had reason to complain if he should find that it was arranged that the Duke of Wellington should continue to fill the office of Commander-in-Chief, and such impression might have an influence upon his future relations with that office. (Wellington to the Queen, 11pm 12 December 1845 Letters of Queen Victoria vol 2 p 55-57).
Russell had, in fact, already been consulted and had urged the Queen to appeal to Wellington directly rather than through him (Prince Albert to Peel, 12 December 1845 Parker Peel vol 3 p 243; see also Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey and Fulford) 13 December 1845 vol 5 p 255-56). So there was the paradoxical situation of a Whig politician supporting the Queen’s right to appoint (or retain) a commander-in-chief on her own initiative, without formal advice from a responsible minister; while Wellington, the Tory defender of the rights of the Crown, put the Whig case that she needed to consult her minister before confirming the appointment.
Under the circumstances Wellington’s argument was unassailable: it might or might not have been possible for the Queen to inform her prime minister in 1845 that she had decided to appoint a non-political soldier as Commander-in-Chief – there was a precedent for this in George III’s appointment of the Duke of York fifty years previously, but the Crown had lost a great deal of power in the interim – but Wellington was so closely associated with the Conservative party that he could not possibly have been retained in office without the approval of the prime minister.
Throughout all these negotiations it is evident that all parties were striving to be as considerate and conciliatory as possible: Russell clearly wanted Wellington to remain in office; and the Queen and Wellington were equally keen to ensure that this happened. Wellington voluntarily announced that he would take no part against the government in Parliament, even though he had been willing to do so if Goderich’s government had not pre-empted him by resigning in 1828; but in 1845 or 1846 Russell could hardly have left him at the Horse Guards without some such assurance.
Wellington sent Peel copies of the Queen’s letter and his reply, and Peel responded, ‘I think it would be a great misfortune if under any circumstances the Command of the Army were to pass into other hands than yours; and that you acted very judiciously in requesting the Queen not to press your continuance in the Command unless it had the concurrence of her responsible advisers.’ (Peel to Wellington, 15 December 1845, Parker Peel vol 3 p 244).
Lady Westmorland, Wellington’s trusted niece Priscilla, wrote on 2 July:
I sat by the Duke at dinner yesterday, who told me he had seen John Russell, who had called upon him. He was very anxious to make everything smooth for the Duke’s remaining. Expressed great anxiety for his own part as well as the Queen’s, and gratitude at the Duke’s acquiescence – with the proviso that he would not do anything to obstruct or to assist the rest of the concern, and that he should leave off going to the House of Lords. (Lady Westmorland to Lord Westmorland, 2 July 1846 Correspondence of Priscilla, Countess of Westmorland p 75).
Greville gives a second or third hand account of Russell’s meeting with Wellington in July 1846:
John called on the Duke, who received him with equal frankness and cordiality, talked over everything that had passed, said that his own political career was at an end, that his age and the progress of events would deter him from ever taking a part any more, that he should speak no more in the H. of Lords, except upon matters relating to his own department, or such questions as Gough’s and Hardinge’s pensions; talked of Peel, and said he did not believe he contemplated ever coming back to office, and did not think he ever could. (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey & Fulford) 4 July 1846 vol 5 p 330).
Wellington’s withdrawal from active politics was not as complete as this suggests, but he honoured his promise not to oppose the government even when he greatly disliked some of its measures.
The retention of Wellington at the Horse Guards attracted little notice and no controversy, although some papers sympathetic to the government suggested that it implied support for the new ministry. The Bristol Mercury commented that ‘The country, generally, will rejoice that the Duke of Wellington, though he retires from public life, will still continue at the head of the army. It is his proper position, and long may it be before the army has another Commander-in-Chief.’ (Bristol Mercury 4 July 1846). The Examiner reported his retention, and his statement that his political life was now over, without comment (The Examiner ‘Political Examiner’ 4 July 1846). The London correspondent of Freeman’s Journal wrote of the danger that the new ministry would be too strong, going on to mention ‘the support of the Duke of Wellington indicated by his acceptance of office’; and this line was also taken by The Leeds Mercury which stated that ‘It is on every account gratifying to know that the Duke of Wellington has been asked, and has consented, to retain the office of Commander-in-Chief of the Army, which is not strictly a political office, but which yet his Grace would hardly have retained, or been asked to retain, if he had felt any hostility to the new Cabinet.’ (Freeman’s Journal 4 July 1846 and The Leeds Mercury 4 July 1846).
Wellington at the Horse Guards:
Our best source of information about Wellington’s working routine at the Horse Guards comes from a letter Sir George Brown, the long-serving Deputy Adjutant-General and Adjutant-General, provided G. R. Gleig for Gleig’s biography. Although Gleig does not give the date of the letter, he uses it in the first edition of the biography published in 1858-60 so it was clearly written while memories were fresh. In his biography Gleig remarks that ‘there is probably no interval in [Wellington’s] public career with respect to which so much misunderstanding prevails [as the command of the army].’ (Gleig Life of Wellington (Everyman edition) p 336).
Unfortunately Gleig himself largely contributed to this misunderstanding for later generations of readers by a passage of his Personal Reminiscences which were composed many years later when he himself was an old man. Here he wrote that,
Regularly as noon came round the Duke got upon his horse and rode to the Horse Guards. He would accept of no help either in mounting or dismounting. The slope of the junction leading to and from his underground stables at Apsley House afforded some vantage ground during the former process, while the latter, though accomplished in the end, was accomplished slowly and with great difficulty. Arrived at the covered passage which separates what was once the Commander-in-Chief’s office from that of the Secretary of War, he had nothing for it but to let himself down as well as he could from the saddle. A little crowd always collected to watch this proceeding, and on every face there was an expression of mixed reverence and alarm. Wearily the right leg scrambled, so to speak, over the croup of the saddle. Slowly and painfully it sank towards the ground, and then the whole body came down with a stagger, which was never witnessed without dismay. Yet nobody presumed to touch or even approach him. Through the open doorway he passed without taking any notice of those about him, and, mounting the steps, made straight for the little room in which he transacted military business. But the business transacted there came in the end to be sometimes of the smallest possible importance. Not unfrequently he would fall asleep the moment he sat down in his arm-chair, and the Adjutant-General, Quartermaster-General, and Military Secretary were all too full of respect to disturb him. They looked in one after the other, each with his papers in his hand. They withdrew again silently, waiting till his bell should ring, and if it never rang at all, as was not unfrequently the case, they being familiar with his views, and having numerous precedents to guide them, went on with the current business of the day to the entire satisfaction of themselves and of the army. On these occasions the Duke usually slept on till four o’clock, when his horses were brought round, and he departed as he had come, the observed of all observers. (Gleig Personal Reminiscences p 337-8).
This description of a feeble old man on the edge of his dotage has had an immense influence on impressions of the Duke’s last years, largely because very few biographers have paid much attention to his involvement in public affairs after the fall of Peel’s government. At the end of describing a long life, full of incident, the temptation to hasten forward is understandably great, and Gleig’s account, coming with the authority of a contemporary and a biographer, has too readily been accepted as an excuse to dismiss Wellington’s role in public affairs between 1846 and 1852 as insignificant. However this impression cannot survive serious examination. Wellington may have nodded off in his arm-chair at the Horse Guards, but he also made an extensive personal tour of the country’s coastal defences in the autumn of 1845, and, as the rest of this chapter attempts to demonstrate, played an active and influential part in national affairs, especially (but not entirely) those related to the army and the state of the country’s defences, throughout the final years of his life.
Wellington’s method of doing business:
When in London Wellington would generally walk or, more commonly, ride to the Horse Guards from Apsley House arriving about one o’clock, having spent the morning dealing with this private and miscellaneous correspondence. He would usually stay until about five in the afternoon if the House of Lords was sitting, or six or seven o’clock if it was not. When out of London his official business followed him and he would work through boxes of papers whether at Walmer, or Stratfield Saye, or staying with friends. His routine at the Horse Guards was well established: as soon as he settled in his office his messenger would inform the heads of department of his arrival and they would each go to him in turn discussing their business and leaving papers with him for him to consider. Even when they had no business required his decision that day they would still attend him, if only to say, “I have nothing with which to trouble your Grace this morning,” to which he would reply, “I am very glad to hear it.” (Gleig Life of Wellington (Everyman edition) p 336-7).
Wellington’s handwriting in these years was abominable, not always decipherable even by those who knew him best, but this did not stop him complaining of the writing of others, and when documents were submitted to his consideration they were generally fair copies in a good clerk’s hand with a précis. As was customary with official documents at the time the paper would be folded in half vertically, creating two columns, and the left hand column would be left blank, like a wide margin. It was in this margin that Wellington would write his decision, ‘for the most part laconically, but sometimes in great detail.’ (Gleig Life of Wellington (Everyman edition) p 338).
Many sources comment on Wellington’s hasty temper and violent explosions in these years, and it is often suggested (implicitly or explicitly) that this was a further sign of the effects of age. However there is no reason to believe that Wellington’s temper was any worse in the 1840s than it had been in the Peninsula or when he was Prime Minister.
Wellington’s use of Patronage at the Horse Guards:
As Commander-in-Chief Wellington was responsible for many senior military appointments, while others were made in consultation with the relevant minister in the government, (the Home Secretary for Ireland and the Channel Islands; the President of the Board of Control for appointments in India; the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies for Canada, the West Indies, South Africa and all Britain’s other colonial garrisons). He had always disliked receiving applications for positions, preferring to select officers on the basis of his own knowledge of their merits or enquiries that he instituted. This may have led to some bias against officers who had never had the opportunity to serve under his command, but by the end of his active command in 1818 such a large proportion of officers had served under him at one time or another the problem was not serious. There was never a question of a ‘Wellington circle’ or faction of officers in the army has there had been in the days of his youth with officers connected to Abercromby or David Dundas, and as there would be, much more seriously, later in the nineteenth century with rival parties associated with Wolseley, Roberts and Kitchener. It is also worth noting that the officers given senior independent commands in the 1830s and 1840s, men like Charles Napier, Hugh Gough, William Maynard Gomm, and Harry Smith, who had cut their teeth under Wellington’s command in the Peninsula, generally came from less aristocratic and privileged backgrounds than the rising generation of military ‘reformers’ who had needed wealthy connections to secure rapid promotion in the constricted postwar army. (For Wellington’s dislike of applications see Stanhope Notes 29 October-4 November 1839 p 191-2 and main text p 254). The ‘reformers’ championed by the military press in these years included the Peninsular veteran Sir Charles Napier, Prince George of Cambridge, the Queen’s cousin, and Lord Frederick Fitzclarence, the illegitmate son of King William IV: Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 27-34).
Some officers required more of the Commander-in-Chief’s time and attention than others. Lord Cardigan had already been at the centre of several controversies in the 1830s and early 1840s in which he was much criticized for harsh punishment of his men and quarrels with his officers. Having attracted the hostility of the press he was demonized and became the favourite subject of radical attacks in which the aristocracy and the army as a whole could easily be implicated. Fitzroy Somerset, who had no sympathy for Cardigan’s bullying and insensitivity to the feelings of others, commented that ‘The hell hounds of the press are let loose upon Cardigan and the Horse Guards.’ And Hill, the mildest and most patient of men, declared ‘I am thoroughly sick of the 11th [Cardigan’s regiment]! And all that belongs to it.’ In 1841, before he took over from Hill as Commander-in-Chief, Wellington grumbled that he was ‘up to the Ears as usual in Lord Cardigan’s last Indiscretion’, while in 1848 a fresh quarrel scandal ‘gave me a great deal of trouble’ – not surprisingly it ‘has not been correctly represented in the Newspapers.’ As if this was not enough Cardigan’s extra-marital affairs and quarrel with his almost equally troublesome brother-in-law Lord Lucan received a good deal of publicity. On one occasion, when the Duke was at Walmer, the Adjutant General brought him a large bundle of papers, and asked what they were about said “Another complaint from Lord _____”. At which the Duke seized the papers and dashed them down with a thump on the table angrily remarking “By _____, these two lords, my Lord C_______ and my Lord L____, would require a commander-in-chief for themselves; there is no end to their complaints and remonstrances.” (Sweetman Raglan p 94-97 (including quotes from Somerset and Hill); Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 180-1; Wellington to Lady Wilton, 11 May 1841 (‘up to the Ears’) and Wellington to Angela Burdett-Coutts, 15 November 1848 (‘great deal of trouble’) Wellington and His Friends p 161, 270-1; Gleig Life of Wellington (Everyman edition) p 346 (‘commander-in-chief for themselves’). In this context ‘Lord L____’ might be either Lord Lucan or, as Longford presumes, Lord Londonderry: Longford Wellington: Pillar of State p 372).
Renewed debate over flogging:
The old issue of flogging was revived almost as soon as Russell took office when a private of the 7th Hussars died at Hounslow almost a month after being flogged for striking an officer with a poker. By the standards of only a few years before, the sentence was remarkably lenient – 150 lashes – and the soldier had been healing well when he suddenly died. However the coroner of Middlesex was also an anti-flogging MP, and he had the body exhumed and concluded, contrary to the opinion of the regimental surgeon, that the flogging had caused the death. He took the matter up in Parliament on 7 August and received much support in the press, with papers ranging from the Times to Punch vying with each other in their displays of moral indignation. Even before the debate in Parliament Wellington reluctantly accepted the political necessity of concessions, and reduced the maximum punishment to fifty lashes, which could only be awarded by a general or district court martial. (Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 82; Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 272-3).
Wellington’s concern for economy and opposition to Camps to practice manoeuvres:
‘There was nothing of which the Duke was more jealous, than of proposals which involved, or threatened to involve, any addition to the expense of maintaining the army. … he retained to the last a persuasion that the less the army, its expenditure and general management, is brought into the public notice, the better. “Depend upon it gentlemen” (a common expression of his when in earnest), “that the greatest enemies the army has in this country, are those who would add unnecessarily to its expense.”’ (Gleig Life of Wellington (Everyman edition) p 338-9). This concern probably encouraged his opposition to a number of ‘reforms’ which came at a cost and which were not obviously useful. It also sometimes lead him to oppose useful measures, such as Prince Albert’s proposal in 1847 for camps where relatively large bodies of troops could practice manoeuvres (Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p164-5). But while such a camp would have been beneficial to the army it would have risked encouraging radical criticism of the army’s budget – and the radical upsurge of 1848 and the consequent reductions in military spending in that and the following year show that this was not merely a theoretical danger. In any case Wellington’s priority at this time was to persuade the government spend more money on defence, and specifically on a larger army and a militia, and he was well aware that any hint of extravagance in the spending of existing funds would be immensely damaging to this cause.
Examinations for Officers:
Wellington gave way under pressure, and agreed to introduce exams for candidates for a first commission and for lieutenants hoping to be promoted to the rank of captain. Although the original intention was for a simple test to ensure that candidates had ‘the elementary principles of a liberal education’, and to eliminate young men with ‘of gross irremediable weakness of intellect’, this inevitably evolved so that candidates might be tested on ‘the first four rules of arithmetic, proportion, fractions and the use of logarithms; algebra, Latin, or French or German … the histories of England and the Ancient World; geography, particularly of Europe, Britain and the Empire; and fortification but only to the standard of sketching Vauban’s first system.’ Not surprisingly the failure rate was high (at least a third and up to two thirds until the Crimean War led to a relaxation for standards), and there was much discontent among the families of young men who naively believed that they would make good regimental officers despite their lack of Latin, and haziness about the relative position of the Leeward and Windward Islands in the Caribbean. (Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 128-37 (including the quotes); Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 274).
One effect of the introduction of examinations for officers was to create yet another barrier for men who had risen from the ranks: it was difficult for a non-commissioned officer to find the time and resources to study the largely theoretical curriculum on which he would be examined, while the vive voca examination itself, with its emphasis on the ‘education of a gentleman’ provided many opportunities for social snobbery to have full play.
The examinations also encouraged the rise of a large number of ‘crammers’, private tutors and small schools whose sole purpose was to prepare a youth to pass his entrance exam to Sandhurst, rather than give him a broad liberal education. Wellington had always been strongly opposed to such ‘military academies’, arguing that if officers had the foundations of a broad education they would have no difficulty in subsequently acquiring specialized professional knowledge, but that if their original basis was narrow and constricted regimental life was unlikely to broaden it. (See above Commentary to Chapter 27 and Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 128).
The introduction of new weapons for the Infantry:
The Duke had often praised the ‘Brown Bess’ as ‘the most efficient [weapon] that had yet been produced. The fire from it undoubtedly and acknowledged to be, the most destructive known. It is durable, it bears all sorts of Ill-Usage; is easily repaired, and kept in Repair and Serviceable; and besides its Power as a Missile, its length is an advantage in the use of the Bayonet.’ Nonetheless he was also clear that given ‘the numerical weakness of our army, as compared to the great continental powers, British troops ought to be the best armed troops in the world.’ (Wellington quoted in Strachan Waterloo to Balaclava p 31 and Gleig Life of Wellington (Everyman edition) p 339).
Throughout the 1830s and 1840s the Ordnance experimented with many new ideas for muskets and rifles and keenly observed developments on the Continent. Amid the host of competing weapons it was difficult to identify which particular one was most suitable for adoption by the army, especially as there was always a fresh development in prospect which seemed likely to supersede the existing contenders. For example the promising Brunswick rifle, introduced to rifle regiments in 1839 with high expectations, soon proved too flimsy and poorly made for the demands of active service in South Africa. Despite this disappointment the old Brown Bess was phased out during the 1840s and replaced with percussion muskets, but the process was dangerously slow, not due to obstruction from the Horse Guards or incompetence at the Ordnance, but because the Birmingham arms industry proved woefully incapable of high quality mass production. In 1845, the year after the war scare with France over Tahiti, Peel was dismayed to discover that the Ordnance had only 35,000 percussion muskets in store, while in the following year Anglesey told Wellington that ‘The present means [of supplying firearms] can only produce what is required, at a fearfully distant period.’ As late as 1849 only half the intended stockpile of 200,000 percussion muskets had been achieved. If the British army had been forced to fight against one of the great European powers in the 1840s, whether at home or abroad, it would have been seriously disadvantaged by a shortage of modern weapons. (Strachan Waterloo to Balaclava p 34-37; Peel to Graham, 13 August 1845 Parker Peel vol 3 p 217-18).
The percussion musket was itself replaced in 1851 by the Minié rifle. Wellington was initially sceptical of the new weapon but Sir George Brown took him, and Lord Charles Wellesley, to Woolwich to observe a trial of the Minié, and later recalled,
There were about a hundred men extended in a line of skirmishers for the purpose of firing at a target, placed near the butt. I took the Duke up to the butt, in order to see the practice [that is, the hits on the target] they made, but he did not remain there five minutes before he expressed a wish to go back to the skirmishers. It was not the practice made that he desired to witness, – of that he had no doubt, – but the loading and manipulation of the cartridges, in respect to which he was anxious to satisfy himself. He accordingly went along the whole line, watching each man as he loaded his musket; and having satisfied himself that there was no difficulty, at once recommended that the manufacture of the arms should be proceeded with. (Brown quoted in Gleig Life of Wellington (Everyman edition) p 340).
Wellington stipulated that the model of the Minié adopted by the army should have the same bore as the old muskets, so that at a pinch it could use the same ammunition. This was a purely pragmatic concession to the fact that it would take several years to introduce the new weapon throughout the army, with the risk that troops might otherwise be left in action without ammunition their weapon could use. It had the disadvantage that the bullets were heavier than they would otherwise have been, meaning that soldiers could only carry fifty instead of sixty rounds, but in the Crimea the greater penetration of the heavy bullet was much admired. He also insisted that the weapon be officially described as a musket not a rifle, arguing that ‘we must not allow them [the soldiers in line regiments] to fancy they are all riflemen, or they will become conceited, and be wanting next to be dressed in green, or some other jack-a-dandy uniform.’ Behind the quip lay a real and well-founded concern to retain the ‘solidity and steadiness of our infantry’, for despite the increased accuracy of the new weapons, the days of fighting shoulder to shoulder in close ranks were far from over. (Wellington quoted by Sir George Brown in Gleig Life of Wellington (Everyman edition) p 340; Strachan Waterloo to Balaclava p 41-42).
A letter from Lord Anglesey, the Master-General of the Ordnance, to Sir John Burgoyne in December 1851 illustrates the difficulties the Ordnance faced, both in the choice of the best weapon, and in getting it manufactured in sufficient quantities. Burgoyne had written praising a new Swiss rifle:
My dear General,
Your letter just received brings me the first notice of the Swiss arm. It increases the sad dilemma in which we are. We are almost without spare arms, and when we had hoped that we had at least decided upon the best construction with which to replenish our stores, out comes a new project which professes very greatly to improve upon the small arm lately decided upon.
With our niggardly Treasury (or rather, House of Commons,) it is impossible to keep pace with all the hostile powers with which we may have, and probably shall have to do; but the curious and really distressing fact is, that even with the pitiful sum allotted for this year’s supply of money for small arms, we actually cannot expend it. This is almost incredible; it is however true. The gunmakers will not contract. What then are we to do? Must we trust to our labourers and to pitchforks? for we have neither soldiers nor muskets. I have been set upon getting a grant to enable this all-powerful nation (as it is called, but which I consider the most helpless one amongst even the second-class powers), to form a great establishment for the manufacture of our own arms, but I doubt that being granted; we must therefore endeavour to get them from Liège or elsewhere, as we can. What a state for England to be in! And I see no prospect of amendment. (Anglesey to Burgoyne, 23 December 1851 Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne vol 1 p 492-3).
The Minié proved accurate, easy to use and reliable, and it served the army well in the Crimea; it was replaced by the 1853 pattern Enfield (essentially a similar weapon with a smaller bore), which lasted into the 1860s. The problems with procurement continued until the demands of the Crimean War forced the government to expand the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield.
The hostility of the Military Press towards Wellington as Commander-in-Chief:
John Philippart, the editor of the Naval and Military Gazette from its foundation in 1833 until 1868, had served in the War Office for more than twenty years, and at that time had acted as a link between Palmerston and the wider press on military matters. His writing, and that of the military press in general, reflected the established hostility of the War Office towards the Horse Guards. This may also have coloured his attitude towards Wellington, characterizing him as the chief obstacle to the ‘reforms’ that it so keenly advocated. In reviewing the events of 1844 the Naval and Military Gazette declared, ‘In no year … have we had fewer changes to remark on … The Duke of Wellington has ever been in the Army disposed to a conservative system … Whenever his Grace issues orders to the Army, we observe that they are generally to enforce the existing regulations or to restore a lapsed discipline; but Reform in its usual sense never comes under his consideration … We somewhat regret that his Grace is not a Military Reformer – for there is much to reform.’ (Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 19-24).
Wellington did nothing to conciliate the military press and its hostility may have been sharpened by wounded amour propre (which the press in the 1840s, newly discovering its power and importance, was even more susceptible to than usual). He refused to read the United Service Journal and rejected an invitation to contribute an article to the Naval and Military Gazette. He disapproved of officers writing on military subjects in the press, citing King’s Regulations which prohibited ‘Deliberations or Discussions among any Class of Military Men, having the object of conveying Praise, Censure, or any Mark of Approbation, towards their superiors.’ In this he was upholding the existing practice of the Horse Guards, for in 1838 Lieutenant-Colonel Senior was required to explain his comments in the United Service Journal praising a new system of colonial reliefs while criticizing the previous arrangements. Nonetheless a great many officers did contribute to the press including figures such as Sir John Burgoyne and Sir George Brown (Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 25-27).
In 1850 he told Lady Salisbury: ‘Your Brother Lord West will have seen a good deal of abuse of me in one of the Blackguard Military Newspapers, for having recommended him in Promotion by Brevet, and other another officer. If he does not care about it, I do not! and mean to take no notice of the gentleman or his abuse!’ (Wellington to Lady Salisbury 9 September 1850 Great Man’s Friendship p 95).
Strachan’s criticisms of Wellington as Commander-in-Chief:
Hew Strachan makes many criticisms of Wellington in his account of the British army between 1830 and 1854 and writes with an evident animus which may simply reflect the attitude of the military press of the time which is one of the principal sources for his study. His work, like that of Philip Dwight Jones, is also explicitly structured around ‘the reform of the British army’, and takes almost for granted that such reform was generally beneficial and needed. His focus is not on the tasks that the British army was performing in the 1830s and 40s, but – at least implicitly – on whether it was preparing itself for the war in the Crimea, a conflict which no one in these years would have considered a serious possibility. However Wellington’s focus had to be on the immediate work in hand: the colonial conflicts that erupted continuously in almost every corner of the British empire throughout these years; the domestic disturbances in which the army was required to support the civil power; and potential conflicts with foreign powers, most obviously France, but also the United States.
Strachan accuses Wellington of showing ‘little concern for the quality of the troops, for their training, armament and equipment.’ (Wellington’s Legacy p 14). It is certainly true that Wellington was deeply sceptical that the quality of recruits could be raised by reducing the length of service, the abolition of flogging, or any of the other ideas put forward by the reformers; and experience proved that this scepticism was well founded. The introduction first of the percussion musket and then of the Minié rifle while he was Commander-in-Chief makes it hard to accept that he showed ‘little concern’ for their armament; although this was primarily the responsibility of the Master-General of the Ordnance. The only grounds for accusing Wellington of neglecting training would appear to be his refusal to countenance large scale camps in Britain to practice manoeuvres; this was unfortunate, but as we have seen there were significant political considerations to be taken into account.
A more substantial accusation is that Wellington was preoccupied by his position as a cabinet minister and leader of the government in the Lords, and did not devote enough attention to the internal affairs of the army, at least until Peel’s government resigned in 1846. (Wellington’s Legacy p 14). There may well be some truth in this, although any accusation of delegating too much has the charm of novelty for a biographer of Wellington who has so frequently seen him accused of not delegating enough and stifling the initiative of his subordinates. Nor does Strachan’s argument gain any credibility when he goes on to write that even the Peninsula Wellington ‘had shown a remarkable lack of ability to assimilate and use the ideas of others’ (Wellington’s Legacy p 14). This is, quite simply, untrue, as the example of the origins of the Lines of Torres Vedras among others makes clear (see Muir Wellington: the Path to Victory p 367).
In general Wellington’s reputation as an opponent of the ‘reform’ of the army was much exaggerated: he supported some changes and opposed others on their merits as he saw them, while also being keenly aware of the need for economy, both for its own sake and to avoid fuelling radical criticism in parliament. In many instances experience vindicated his judgement: the ‘reforms’ that were introduced against his opposition or with his reluctant consent often proved of little value, while his insistence on enforcing existing regulations and officers doing their duty was necessary and valuable if unpopular and dull. Nonetheless it does appear to be true that he seldom took the initiative in instituting changes, even to redress problems which he himself had identified during his campaigns, but then lacked the power to address. For example in 1812 and 1813 he had argued strongly that NCOs should be paid more to reward their additional responsibility and elevate them a little more above the private soldiers; and he had been keenly aware of the anomaly that some provision was made for the families of militiamen but not for families of regular soldiers. Even in the 1840s he did not have the power as Commander-in-Chief to correct either of these problems, but he does not seem to have used his position to press the government of the day to do so. And the sense that he was far removed from the outlook and interests of the average young regimental officer in the 1840s also had a good deal of truth, although the same could be said with equal truth of his predecessors and successors at the Horse Guards, and so long as Fitzroy Somerset was Military Secretary any officer, however junior or obscure, could rely on a courteous and fair hearing for any reasonable problem or complaint. (Gleig Life of Wellington (Everyman edition) p 338-9 (need for economy); Wellington to Bathurst, 24 September 1813 WD VII p 21-22 and also Wellington to Torrens, 28 January 1811, WD IV p 560-2 (both re the lack of provision for the families of soldiers); Wellington to Liverpool, 10 June 1812 WD V p 704-6 and Wellington to Bathurst 2 July 1813 WD VI p 575-6 (re higher pay for NCOs)).
Wellington’s attitude towards Peel:
In 1847 Wellington was excited by some – as it proved, misleading – signs that Peel might be looking to a reconciliation with the Protectionists, and very much hoped that this could be achieved. Charles Arbuthnot took a different line and was reported to have ‘a perfect horror of Peel’, and begged Lady Westmorland to use her influence with Wellington to discourage the project, which she refused. (Lady Westmorland to Lord Westmorland 18 June 1847 Correspondence of Priscilla, Countess of Westmorland p 98-102).
In 1849 Disraeli reported that, ‘A friend of mine had yesterday an interview of an hour with the D. of Wellington. He is much agitated by the affair [the proposed repeal of the Navigation Acts – see below], tho’, I doubt not, will support the government. Abused the bill very much, tho’ not so much as he abused Peel, on whom he lavished all sorts of execration. He s[ai]d that Free trade had ruined the country: that he had supported their measures against his will in order to keep out Cobden & Co. & that he feared change now for the same reason.’ (Disraeli to Lady Londonderry, 30 April 1849, Benjamin Disraeli Letters no 1820 vol 5 p 174-6).
Wellington and Stanley:
In early October 1847 Stanley wrote a long letter to Arbuthnot clearly explaining the difficulties he felt in his relations with Wellington given the Duke’s ‘anomalous’ position, despite the great goodwill which was felt on both sides:
I cannot for a moment doubt the sincerity of the Duke’s attachment to the Conservative party; & he has given me many and repeated proofs of personal kindness and goodwill which I should be most ungrateful if I did not deeply feel. When he accepted the office of Commander-in-Chief, he was most kind in expressing his wish that I should endeavour to keep a Conservative party in the House of Lords; and on the occasion on which you advert, that of the Irish [representative] peerage [vacancy] … he used his best exertions to bring those men upon whom he exercised personal influence to take the view which I did as to the choice of the new representation. I must also in fairness say that he has always shown himself most open and unreserved with me; and I can easily understand that I may have appeared backward in reciprocating the confidence which he has shown himself willing to place in me. But the fact is, at least I have so felt it, that the Duke is in a very anomalous position; and one in which it becomes a matter of extreme delicacy to communicate with him with that entire unreserved which I should otherwise hold it a high privilege to be allowed to use towards him. It is impossible not to be aware that on many of the leading questions that are to be discussed in Parliament, the Duke is previously consulted by the Government; modifications are adopted at his suggestion, and communications take place which are very natural in the position which he occupies as Commander-in-Chief, bringing him into confidential intercourse with the members of the Cabinet – but this intercourse, natural as it is, renders it a matter of delicacy for me also, who have no such tie to the Government, and am avowedly in opposition to them, to consult with him on the same subjects, and thus to establish, as it were, an indirect communication in between two opposed political parties. I feel that in these cases the Duke cannot, and ought not to open his whole mind to me – I have no right to know what passes between him and the Queen’s Ministers; and without knowing it I cannot place myself in the position of viewing a question in the same light in which he looks at it. Thus, I have no doubt, the previous negotiations between the Duke & the Cabinet led to the course which he took in defending a measure [the 1847 Enlistment Act] which his influence had made less objectionable than he found it; but which, as it stood, could not commend itself to my judgement, nor indeed to his own, nor that of any military man. The result of this state of things is that the Duke, with a strong partiality for the Conservative party, never appears in public except in opposition to it. Where he differs with the Government, he thinks it his duty to be silent; where he thinks they ought to be supported he supports them warmly; and this even in cases, as that of the Enlistment Bill, where the merits are against them. I do not say this by way of complaint; but merely for the purpose of explaining the difficulty I feel, in my position, in taking counsel with the Duke, standing in that which he occupies; but I should be very sorry that my having abstained from frequent communication with him on public matters should have produced an impression in his mind that I was otherwise than sincerely grateful for the personal kindness with which he has always honoured me, and the confidence which he has placed in me. (Stanley to Arbuthnot, 7 October 1847, Correspondence of Charles Arbuthnot p 244-46).
Wellington had evidently been feeling a little hurt by Stanley’s reserve, but this letter appears to have reconciled him, and a few weeks later he wrote to Stanley saying that there was nothing that he wanted more than,
a cordial Union of the Influential Proprietors of the Country, the Mercantile & Manufacturing Interests, the Learned Professions the heads of the Professions of the Law and Church and in Short the Education and good Sense for the Support of good Gov’t. and everything that is valuable to us as a Nation.
There are formidable obstacles to the attainment of this Object. But you have in your Hands a Nucleus! and I earnestly urge you to persevere. You will certainly in the end succeed! (Wellington to Stanley, 29 October 1847 quoted in Thompson Wellington After Waterloo p 231-2).
Palmerston’s foreign policy:
The account of Palmerston’s foreign policy given in the text reflects the views of his contemporary critics rather than his admirers, but it is not inconsistent with modern scholarship. David Brown in his study Palmerston and the Politics of Foreign Policy, 1846-55 writes that ‘Palmerston [was], if not the disciple of Canning, at least the heir to his legacy, followed his erstwhile mentor in grounding the moral justification for his foreign policy in the weight of popular approbation.’ (p 3). And, ‘Canning succeeded in establishing certain principles or practices in foreign policy which Palmerston’s own later handling of foreign policy was to mirror, or at least invoke. Not only did Canning’s ‘English’ policy represent a positive alternative to the ‘European’, or supposedly unduly conciliatory approach of Castlereagh…’ (p 7). Roger Bullen quotes Palmerston writing to Sir Frederick Lamb, the British ambassador in Vienna in 1838:
My doctrine is that we should reckon upon ourselves; pursue a policy of our own; aim at objects of our own, and act upon principles of our own; use other Governments as we can, when we want them and find them willing to serve us; but never place ourselves in the wake of any of them. Lead when and where we can; but follow never. (Quoted in Bullen Palmerston, Guizot and the Collapse of the Entente Cordiale p 53).
Bullen goes on to write that Palmerston ‘saw ambition and conflict as the dominant characteristics of international society …. [He] never sought war nor relished the prospect of it, but neither did he share Aberdeen’s dread of it …. Palmerston’s unswerving belief in the greatness and power of England was perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of his foreign policy…’ (ibid p 54) And,
Palmerston was convinced that England’s power was the result of her progress. He therefore believed that it was her duty to act where and when she could as the agent of progress, ‘to maintain the liberties and independence of all other nations’ and ‘to throw her moral weight into the scale of any people who are spontaneously striving for freedom, by which I mean rational government; an to extend as far and as fast as possible civilization all over the world.’ The vigour with which Palmerston promoted this doctrine, his hectoring and insulting condemnation of repressive systems of government, have frequently been criticized. The greatest defect of his gospel of progress was not the way it was expressed but its insularity and the naivety of its premises. Despite Palmerston’s extensive knowledge of European affairs, he had little understanding of any society other than that in which he lived. He was convinced that what was good for England could be achieved by others and would prove equally good for them. He had no real conception of the continuous political development of any society other than England; constitutional government, if not ‘pure’ in the way he thought English constitutionalism to be, was to him not constitutionalism at all. Thus his policies towards Greece, Spain and Portugal, with their insistence on pure constitutionalism, invited failure; these countries would always fall short of his expectations. (Bullen Palmerston, Guizot and the Collapse of the Entente Cordiale p 54-55).
However Palmerston’s professed support for ‘the liberties and independence of all other nations’, was not matched by any respect for their sovereignty or any reluctance to interfere in their internal affairs. The old doctrine of ‘non-interference’, that had been so long and so vehemently championed by the Whigs, was completely disregarded. British diplomats, acting under Palmerston’s instructions and general guidance, played a prominent role in the internal politics of many countries including Spain, Greece and France, attempting to bolster local politicians whom they regarded as friendly and oppose those they regarded as too sympathetic to France, (while in France itself, Normanby, the British ambassador, openly worked with the French opposition in an endeavour to force Guizot from office). (Bullen Palmerston, Guizot and the Collapse of the Entente Cordiale p 65, 74-75).
Palmerston viewed foreign affairs as a contest between competing powers, not as a family where, whatever the quarrels and disagreements, members would still have to live together. He was determined to ‘win’ any negotiation, and viewed with contempt Aberdeen’s habit of making small concessions on matters of little consequence in order to promote a harmonious and co-operative atmosphere. Moreover ‘Palmerston not only enjoyed winning his battles, he also wanted his victories known and appreciated.’ (Bullen Palmerston, Guizot and the Collapse of the Entente Cordiale p 57). Contemporaries accused him of chasing ‘the popular feeling of the hour,’ while he used his extensive contacts in the press to celebrate his victories, triumph over his enemies (both foreign and domestic) and inflame public opinion. Some critics even thought that this was his prime motive:
The object of almost every one of Lord Palmerston’s affairs seems not to have been its ultimate end but when the desired Parliamentary question was placed in the hands of some admiring satellite that [the] answer should round a telling point in a speech and that his dispatches should not sleep within the countless pages of a big Blue Book but should contain specific paragraphs to be extracted under his own auspices by some friendly editor to furnish an article in a convenient organ for his glorification. The purpose once effected in all probability the affair was never again heard of. (Normanby quoted in Bullen Palmerston, Guizot and the Collapse of the Entente Cordiale p 56).
This almost certainly goes too far, but it is clear that in determining his policy on any particular diplomatic question Palmerston was never unconcerned with how it would read in the newspapers; so that in almost every respect his approach to foreign affairs was diametrically opposed to Wellington’s.
(For a more sympathetic, and very interesting, assessment of Palmerston’s place in British politics, see the conclusion of David Brown’s biography Palmerston p 481-9).
Wellington’s attitude to Palmerston’s foreign policy:
Wellington was unusually discreet about Palmertson’s foreign policy, seldom voicing his opinion, but soon after Palmerston’s dismissal he told Lady Salisbury that he did not imagine that Derby would find it possible to co-operate with Palmerston in office, because ‘there is nothing so inconsistent with the interests and honour of this country as what is called Palmerstonian Policy! which is neither more nor less than the creation of confusion everywhere.’ (Wellington to Lady Salisbury, 2 January 1852 Great Man’s Friendship p 241).
And, ‘The Whigs and politicians of the day cannot understand that there is only one crying danger for this country. That is War with France, without the Continental allies. Instead of quarrelling with the Northern Powers, they should do everything in their power to conciliate, pacify and strengthen them and bind them to this country. That done, they may laugh at revolutions in France. An attentive perusal of the history of the world in the last sixty years could prove this to them in the clearest manner. But their senses are obscured by the spirit of party.’ (Wellington to Lady Salisbury, 22 December 1851 Great Man’s Friendship p 234-5).
Wellington and the Government in February 1847:
Greville wrote in his journal in February 1847:
Called on Friday morning at Apsley H[ouse] and had a long talk with Arbuthnot. [The] Duke came into the room, staid a very little while, but excited himself talking about Spain and the Treaty of Utrecht, the pother about which he declared was “all damned stuff.” A[rbuthnot] told me he was most anxious for the prosperity of this Government – very well with John; had been very angry with Grey about his enlistment measure and had determined to resign upon it; had actually written his letter to the Queen, but that John settled it, made Grey give way, and pacified the Duke. A. did not confirm what Graham had said about the Duke’s leaning to Stanley; on the contrary, talked of Stanley’s being lost amongst such associates as he has; talked with bitterness of Peel’s conduct and the breaking up of the party… (Greville Memoirs ed Strachey and Fulford [12 February 1847] vol 5 p 417).
Wellington and the 1847 Enlistment Bill:
Greville’s account of the background to the debate is interesting, even though some the material is third hand:
The other night the Enlistment Bill was debated in the H. of Lords, and the Government got a small majority by the aid of the Peelite Peers. The Opposition were full of eagerness and heat on this Bill and quite persuaded that the Duke of Wellington was with them. He had certainly given them to understand that he was so. Last week Stanley and Richmond were at Newmarket, and one day after dinner at the Duke of Rutland’s we talked it over. I said they would find the Duke was not opposed to the Bill. “Then,” said Stanley, “he must be very much changed since I talked to him about it. There can be on secret as to what passed, because three or four people were present. I said to him, ‘Pray, sir, what is the necessity for this Bill?’ and he said, ‘I’ll tell you: they have got a d___d good Army, and they want to make it a d___d bad one.’” This (which was very characteristic) might very well convince Stanley and the rest that he was against Grey’s measure, as, in fact, and in spite of his support, he really is but he came to an agreement with the Government and promised to speak in favor of the Bill. So he did, but he spoke in such a way that though the Opposition were surprised and vexed at his supporting it at all, they saw pretty clearly that the did not like it, and they accordingly were not deterred from voting against it. Ellesmere told me yesterday that the Government must not attempt to try any fresh experiments with the Army, for if they did the Duke would certainly resign. (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey and Fulford) 30 April 1847 vol 5 p 441).
Wellington and Grey in the wake of the Enlistment Bill:
Greville reported on 3 May:
The Duke [of Bedford, the brother of Lord John Russell] had had a long confidential letter from Arbuthnot about the Duke of Wellington, and his dread of Grey and his reforms, the object of it being to deter the Government from attempting anything else. It is clear they have dragged the Duke with them as far as he can be persuaded to go, and if they try anything more, and make any further attempts on his patience or condescension, he will turn restive and resign.’ (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey and Fulford) 3 May 1847 vol 5 p 445).
Even in 1850 Wellington told Lady Salisbury that he was engaged in ‘a perpetual controversy in writing with Lord Grey [that] keeps me well employed.’ (Wellington to Lady Salisbury, 26 July 1850, A Great Man’s Friendship p 56.) And in 1852 Grey insisted upon recalling Sir Harry Smith as Governor of South Africa despite Wellington’s strong objections, which led the Duke to express his unreserved approval of Smith’s conduct of military operations in the Cape in a speech to the Lords on 5 Februrary 1852 (Wellington Speeches vol 2 p 728-30; Muriel Wellesley Wellington in Civil Life p 375-6; A Great Man’s Friendship p 233-4, 243-8).
Grey favours increased use of Colonial corps:
Grey was also keen on increasing the strength of locally raised troops in the colonies. Again his motives were excellent: such troops would save money, reduce the demands on the regular army and encourage the colonies to take greater responsibility for their own defence. But Wellington doubted whether such corps could be kept efficient, regarded their loyalty as potentially suspect, and pointed out that while regular troops could be moved around the globe in response to different threats, colonial corps were generally limited to local defence. He did not discount them completely, but did not believe that they had much potential for useful expansion; and again, experience proved that these doubts were well founded. (Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 189-92; Jones ‘The British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 263-7).
Wellington’s warning of the threat of invasion:
In his Memorandum of 8 February 1847 Wellington wrote:
little time will elapse between the first announcement to the public of the prospect of hostilities; and the declaration of War; and still less time between the declaration of War and the necessity for the defence of the Country against the attack of our formidable neighbour; and the defeat of his armament at Sea; or a contest and Battle on English Land for the possession and Sovereignty of the Country; a trial to which our adversaries and Enemies have long boasted that they have been looking forward; and from which they anticipate the triumphant attainment of Vengeance for all their former defeats and misfortunes; and that of all their ambitious objects in Europe and the World. (Memorandum by Wellington of 8 February 1847 quoted in Thompson Wellington after Waterloo p 233).
Steam power and the threat of invasion:
Lord John Russell explained why the application of steam power to naval vessels made the old British strategy of blockading French ports less reliable in his cabinet memorandum of 10 January 1848: ‘It is obvious that our steamers could blockade or watch a port with a strong wind blowing in shore, but our sailing vessels would be driven away. Could the steamers oppose the egress of the French force alone? If such a force comprised line-of-battle ships and frigates, must not the blockading or watching steamers retire? Would not their retreat leave the passage open to the enemy?’ (Confidential memorandum for the Cabinet on National Defences by Lord John Russell, 10 January 1848 in Walpole Life of Lord John Russell vol 2 p 20-24, quote on p 22). The same vulnerability had existed before steam power, but then the French were dependent on a combination of suitable winds and tides to get an invading force out of harbour and across the Channel, while steam power made any calm weather suitable. On 3 February 1847, in the middle of winter, Greville noted in his journal that he had returned to London from a visit to Paris: ‘Got to town on Monday; one hour and fifty minutes crossing the sea, which was like a duck-pond.’ (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey and Fulford) 3 February 1847 vol 5 p 412). The Channel did not seem much of a barrier to an enterprising enemy.
Concern at the Threat of Invasion:
On 10 April 1847 Greville had written in his diary:
Just before I left town last week I saw Arbuthnot, who entreated me, if I had any influence with the Government, to get them to take up the subject of the defence of the country. He said it haunted the Duke of W[ellingto]n, and deprived him of rest, and night and day he was occupied with the unhappy state of our foreign relations, the danger of war, and the defenceless state of our coasts. (Greville Memoirs ed Strachey and Fulford 10 April 1847 vol 5 p 439).
A week earlier, Wellington had written to Lord Anglesey:
It is a matter of regret as well as astonishment not only that I should not have made any of the last three Administrations sufficiently sensible of its existence, with your assistance in respect to the present administration; but that, in fact, the Gentry of the Country, the great landed Proprietors, the Publick and Parliament appear to entertain no suspicion of its existence.
It consists of one simple fact! The appreciation of Steam Vessels at sea has exposed all parts of the coasts of this Empire … to be attacked and devoured by an enemy, at all times, and in any state of weather.
There is no protection against this danger excepting a superior Fleet at sea! We all know to what chances, risks, and mistakes the operation of such a force is exposed. We have no security however. We have works for the protection of our … Naval Dockyards; but supposing them to be armed, we have not men in sufficient number even to occupy them for their defence against a serious attack. (Wellington to Anglesey, 3 April 1847, quoted in Anglesey One Leg p 322).
I am at a loss to find the best means of making known to the Country the real danger in which it is, at the very moment at which we are writing. No one dare stand up & state to the House of Commons the extent of our imminent peril….
The Ministers must be called upon to act vigorously and immediately, and if they were to begin today, I doubt if we shall still be in time to avert the evil, but it behoves us to make the effort, and I will join with you in any course that you may point out to effect our object. (Quoted in Anglesey One Leg p 323).
And Palmerston wrote,
We are all of us sleeping on a barrel of gunpowder and fancying it a feather bed; and some fine day some hot headed Frenchman will apply the match and blow us up. It is mere childish fatuity to be discussing Poor Laws, and Free Trade and Education and Health of Towns and other such like things when we are liable to be swept away as an independent nation whenever France chuses to make the effort. If the country is worth improving it is worth defending and there is no defence for a country but men armed, organized and trained. (Palmerston to Clarendon, 14 April 1847 quoted in Bullen Palmerston, Guizot and the Collapse of the Entente Cordial p 202n).
Wellington’s frustration at the failure of the government to take any substantive action in response to his warnings emerges in a letter written to Angela Burdett-Coutts in August:
I am so situated that I must be considered responsible and I think that I must be so with justice if I did not apprize those in Authority what I think! I do so to such a degree as that I doubt not I am considered a Bore! But as yet I have produced no effect! …. I declare that if I cannot prevail upon those who have the Power in this Country to take necessary Precautions in time, we shall probably, very certainly, be in such a state in this Country, as that even an Angel could not save us! … I know everything! All our Danger! I am sensible of my old Age! Of the Possibility that I may live to see it realized, and the Probability that if I do I may no longer have the Power of Mind or Body to contend with it! This will explain so far some of my anxiety and uneasiness! (Wellington to Angela Burdett-Coutts, 24 August 1847 in Patterson Angela Burdett-Coutts p88-89).
Cabinet discussions over defence, 1847:
Hobhouse commented on a memorandum from Palmerston and Burgoyne on the state of the defences, ‘I think they prove too much. If the evil is so great as they state there is no remedy – and if we go to war we must submit to the invasion of 30 or 40,000 French and the sacking of London.’ Palmerston agreed that if the French succeeded in making a landing there was, as it stood, ‘nothing to stop them going to London; and how horrid it would be to have that capital of the commercial world sacked by an enraged soldiery.’ Rather surprisingly he ‘did not imagine that capture of London would force England to [make] peace.’ Russell said that he could not consent to leave the country unprotected and was willing to resign over the issue and Macaulay supported him. (Hobhouse diary 2 May 1847 quoted in Partridge ‘The Russell Cabinet and National Defence’ p 244 – this entry not printed in Broughton; see also Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne vol 1 p 433-444, Anglesey One-Leg p 322-23 and Partridge Military Planning p 9-11).
Opposition in Cabinet to increased defence spending in 1847:
Sir Charles Wood, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, told Russell in May 1847 that ‘it will be better to postpone this matter [defence] till after the general election. I entertain a strong opinion that this will be very unpopular amongst the class of persons from whom we generally derive our support at elections.’ (Quoted in Bullen Palmerston, Guizot and the Collapse of the Entente Cordiale p 202n).
Wood was one of three members of Russell’s cabinet closely related to the 2nd Earl Grey: there was Grey’s son, Howick, now 3rd Earl Grey, the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies; Wood was married to the 2nd Earl’s daughter, Mary; Sir George Grey, the Home Secretary, was the nephew of the 2nd Earl and cousin of the 3rd Earl Grey. Edward Ellice, who remained an influential Whig politician although not a minister, was married to the 2nd Earl’s sister. (Samuel Whitbread was another of the 2nd Earl’s brothers-in-law, but had committed suicide in 1815).
Lord Clarendon, who was in cabinet as the President of the Board of Trade, 1846-47 and then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (and so not in cabinet but a significant figure) was also often grouped with the Grey party because he shared their opposition to Palmerston’s foreign policy, but according to Greville he sided with Palmerston in support of increased defence spending in the spring of 1847. Greville also says that Wellington ‘attributes all the obstacles his plans encounter to Grey.’ (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey and Fulford) 18 April 1847 vol 5 p 440).
Prince Albert noted in July 1846 when the government was being formed: ‘There is the Grey party consisting of Lord Grey, Lord Clarendon, Sir George Grey and Mr Wood; they are against Lord Lansdowne, Lord Minto, Lord Auckland, and Sir John Hobhouse, stigmatizing them as old women.’ Russell was closer to the latter group. (Albert quoted in Prest Lord John Russell p 231; however Prest goes on to argue that ‘they were scarcely a party within a party’.)
Cobden’s attack on Wellington:
On 27 December 1847, before Wellington’s letter to Burgoyne was published in the Morning Chronicle but two days after Ellesmere’s letter to the Times raised the subject of National Defences, Sir John Burgoyne looked ahead to the coming session of Parliament:
After the recess, Lord John is to advert to the defences of the country, which are to be largely discussed. A party, headed by Cobden, are to treat it as twaddle, and as an attempt to run the country into a prodigious and unnecessary expense. They will assert that the Duke of Wellington is in his dotage; that the French have no adequate naval means, while we shall sweep the seas; that so large a force as is necessary could not be embarked and conveyed across the Channel, &c. (Quoted in Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne vol 1 p 470).
His prediction proved perfectly accurate. As early as New Year’s Day the Examiner headed its lead article ‘The Irrational Defences’, and argued that ‘alarm is always popular, and John Bull is ever ready to be frightened out of his wits’, and went on to ridicule the idea of an invasion as absurd (in the process making some good points about the difficulties of amphibious operations and of co-ordinating complicated operations, but gliding over the difference between difficult and impossible with journalistic ease), and looking to Free Trade to end the possibility of conflicts between nations. (The Examiner 1 January 1848).
Cobden, in a widely reported speech at Manchester on 27 January 1848, said
Now I am sure that everyone of those men has shared with me the shock which my feelings sustained, when, within one short twelvemonth almost after we had announced ourselves as free-traders to the world, we are startled with the announcement that we are going to increase our warlike armaments. I ask what is the explanation of this? Probably we may find it in the Duke of Wellington’s letter, in his private efforts, which he announces he has made with the government, and in the correspondence which he has had with Lord John Russell. We may attribute this then to the Duke of Wellington and his letter, and his persevering efforts. I do not profess to have the veneration which some men entertain for successful warriors [Hear!]; but is there among the most ardent admirers of the Duke one man, possessing the ordinary feelings of humanity, who would not wish that that letter had never been written, or never published? His Grace has passed the extremest probable duration of human existence, and we may say, almost without figure of speech, that he is tottering on the verge of the grave. Is it not a most lamentable spectacle, that that hand which is no longer capable of wielding a sword, should devote its still remaining feeble strength to the penning of a letter – and that letter may possibly be the last public letter which he may address to his fellow-countrymen – which is more calculated than anything, in the present day, to create evil passions and animosities in the breasts of two great and neighbouring countries? [Great applause]. Would it not have been fitter employment for him to have been seen preaching forgiveness and oblivion of the past, rather than in reviving recollections of Toulon, and Paris, and Waterloo, and, in fact, doing everything to invite a brave people to retaliatory measures to retrieve themselves from past disasters and injuries? Would it not have been a more glorious object to contemplate, had he poured oil into those wounds which are now almost healed, rather than have thus applied the cautery, reopening wounds, and leaving to another generation the task of repairing the mischief which he has perpetrated? [Applause]. I leave here the subject of the Duke’s letter. When I first read it, and came to its conclusion, where he says, “I am in my seventy-seventh year,” I said, “That explains it all, and excuses it.” [Hear! hear! and great applause]. (Cobden’s speech quoted in Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne vol 1 p 476-77).
Charles Greville was so incensed that the speech and the attack on Wellington that he wrote a letter to the Times which was published on 2 February and he noted that it ‘has had great success. I have received innumerable compliments and expressions of approbation about it from all quarters, and the Old Duke is pleased. I had no idea of making such a hit, but the truth is, everybody was disgusted at Cobden’s impertinence and (it may be added) folly. His head is turned by all the flattery he has received…’ (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey and Fulford) 8 February 1848 vol 6 p 12).
Wellington on British foreign policy and the state of Europe in 1848:
It is difficult to see what will happen in France. This single Chamber will be a despotism; if they can only get an officer of some reputation to command their army, they will govern France with a rod of iron. They will probably not leave in the hands of the officer in command sufficient power to enable him to do all that they will require from him.
It is impossible to conjecture what will be the result of the existing chaos in the world. It must first explode a little. But I see no man anywhere capable of conducting any great affairs, or even of understanding the position in which he is placed.
I can’t tell what Lord Palmerston has done; but nobody is satisfied with or has confidence in him. Everybody complains of him. I believe that he and Lord Minto encouraged the foolish Pope; and that the mischief in Italy, which has caused the whole, was done by them. I detest this French Convention. But I confess that I should be sorry to see it broken off under existing circumstances. (Wellington to Croker, 19 October 1848 Croker Papers vol 3 p 190-1).
Wellington and the Chartists:
On 17 March Wellington had told Lady Wilton that, ‘There is no mischief which we may not expect from them; and however contemptible, their movements must be attended to or much mischief may be done.’ (Wellington to Lady Wilton, London, 17 March 1848 Wellington & His Friends p 209). While on 10 April he sent her a running account of the events of the day:
I am writing to you from the Horse Guards, where I have been since ten this morning. The Parks and this neighbourhood are as quiet as on any day in the whole year. But the whole town in commotion and alarm! I shall remain here till it will be time to go to the House of Lords in the afternoon, to superintend what is going on and to give such Directions as may be necessary. I shall hear how everything is going on, and I will add to this a line to let you know what will have passed up to five o’clock, when I shall put this note in the Box at the House of Lords. …
The Accounts from the Country are very uncomfortable. In short, if these Mobs are to be permitted, we cannot go on as we are.
One p.m. I heard some time ago that a large body, as many as 25,000, was formed for the procession on Kennington Common. An officer in coloured Cloaths saw them, Fergus O’Connor addressing them. I have since heard that he had announced that the procession would not be allowed to pass the Bridges, and that he would present their Petition, and had come away from the Ground. I have heard just now that he is with Sir George Grey at the Home Office.
3/4 past one p.m. An officer is just now come in to tell me that the Petition is loaded upon a Cabriolet and coming over Vauxhall Bridge; The Procession dispersed upon Kennington Common; Flags struck; and Mob dispersing in all directions! There is now a considerable Body in Palace Yard, and a Mob coming over Westminster Bridge.
In short, I do not doubt that we shall have Crowds going about the Streets all afternoon, possibly the Evening and Night. But there will be no more than giving the Police a little trouble. I consider the heart of the Affair broken, and I am already proceeding to have the orders made out to send the Troops to their Barracks.
2 p.m. The Secretary of State considers the whole affair over. Fergus O’Connoer is much obliged for the Civil Treatment of Him by the Government. He says that His friends on the Common do not treat Him so well, as they trod upon His Toes and Picked His Pocket! ….
1/2 past three p.m. It has commenced to rain, and the troops are ordered to return to their stations. In short the War is over, and the Rain will probably keep the Town quiet this night. (Wellington to Lady Wilton, 10 April 1848 Wellington & His Friends p 210-11).
Charles Arbuthnot exulted over the success of the day’s events:
Never was anything more successful than yesterday’s result. The Duke had made the most perfect arrangements. Not a soldier was to be seen; but every man was close at hand if the mob had been too much for the police.
Guizot [in exile from Paris] is in admiration & astonishment! He could not have believed it possible. It will have a gt. effect on the continent. (Arbuthnot to his son Charles, 11 April 1848 Correspondence of Charles Arbuthnot p 249).
Wellington and the nationalist rising in Ireland, 1848:
Wellington was equally concerned with the situation in Ireland where the horrors of the famine had heightened resentment against Britain. O’Connell was dead, but his place had been taken by a new generation of Irish nationalists in the Young Ireland movement who appeared, at least for a time, just as dangerous and even more radical. Wellington remarked in March that, ‘There can be no doubt now of the object of the disaffected in Ireland – To deprive the Queen of her Crown! and to establish a Republick! To obtain that object they are ready to arm and attack the City of Dublin.’ He ordered the commander in Dublin to take precautions, and increased the Irish garrison from 20,000 to 29,000 men. The government in London passed a fresh coercion bill and suspended habeas corpus, while the Irish government arrested a number of the leading members of Young Ireland. This was not quite enough to prevent a small uprising in southeast Tipperary and western Kilkenny which lasted barely a week and failed to trigger a wider rising, but, as was so often the case in Ireland, gained a symbolic significance in retrospect that it did not have at the time. (Wellington to Lord Glengall, 27 March 1848 quoted in Partridge Military Planning p 7; Sweetman Raglan p 120; Palmer Police and Protest p 490-501).
Wellington had attended a cabinet meeting on 24 July and had recommended that Hardinge be sent to Ireland to command the troops in the event of an insurrection. Hardinge was in Ireland by 3 August; and Wellington publicly approved the government’s handling of events in Parliament. (Benjamin Disraeli Letters no 1678 vol 5 p 53n4; Parliamentary Debates vol 100 col 1110-1111 but cf Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey & Fulford) 5 August 1848 vol 6 p 97 who denies that Wellington was consulted before the appointment was decided, and claims that Wellington did not entirely approve of it). In his speech on 3 August (which is not included in Wellington’s Speeches), Wellington accepted the general view that the rising had been put down and that there was no likelihood of further imminent risings, but nonetheless warned that it was equally generally agreed,
that a conspiracy still exists throughout Ireland—that bodies secretly formed, bodies among whom there is a secret combination, bodies trained in some degree in arms, bodies bound together by a description of organisation that can be turned to military purposes—that these bodies do exist in the country, that they require the anxious observation and attention of the Government, and that Government must still continue in a state of preparation to resist all the consequences that may result from the existence of such bodies in that country, under the management and direction of those who have already occasioned this outbreak, which we all rejoice has been so easily put down. (Wellington’s speech of 3 August 1848 in Parliamentary Debates vol 100 col 1110-1111).
Two days after this speech Disraeli commented that ‘I am told that Ld John throws himself entirely on the Duke of W[ellingto]n to extricate the government from the Irish Scrape – who, for this surplusage of Whig Toadyism, grows quite maudlin in his devotion “to my Sovereign”, so that it is rumoured today, that if the constables don’t contrive to capture O’Brien by next telegraph, the Duke is to go himself with all the general officers who dine at the Waterloo banquet, & try his venerable & heroic hand.’ ((Disraeli to Lady Londonderry, 5 August 1848, Benjamin Disraeli Letters no 1678 vol 5 p 51-53).
Wellington’s relations with the Whig ministers in 1849:
Wellington’s relations with Russell’s cabinet in early 1849 are illuminated by two entries in Hobhouse’s diary concerning the position of Lord Gough, the Commander-in-Chief in India, whose handling of the Second Sikh War was attracting criticism both in India and in the British press. (Hobhouse was the President of the Board of Control). ‘At Cabinet today,’ Hobhouse wrote on 23 January 1849,
I stated my opinion that it was absolutely necessary to put the chief command in India in other hands… Lord Grey broke out, and was very loud against allowing Lord Gough to remain so long as we had done, and when I told him that the Duke of Wellington did not wish him to be removed, said I had no business to give way to the Duke of Wellington. I was responsible, the Government was responsible, and the Duke of Wellington was not responsible, all of which I said was very true, but the conditions of our Government were that in military matters we should give way to the Duke of Wellington and I had done so. (Hobhouse diary, 23 January 1849, Broughton Recollections of a Long Life vol 6 p 231).
And, a few days later,
Went to Cabinet. Lord John Russell told us he had seen the Duke of Wellington. The Duke said Gough must be replaced, he condemned the battles on the Chenab. I then read two letters from the Duke of Wellington to Lord Dalhousie. They were admirable in every respect, equal to any of the public despatches of this great captain. The one of January 7 was written before the news of the late battles arrived, and the result of them has shown his great sagacity. He condemns in the strongest manner “running after a great battle,” and forcing an enemy to fight. I have got these letters. Even Lord Grey burst into a note of admiration: “How great he is on military matters, how clear, how comprehensive!” (Hobhouse diary, 26 January 1849, Broughton Recollections of a Long Life vol 6 p 231-2).
The letters were privately circulated and at the end of March the Duke of Bedford (Russell’s brother) showed them to Greville who commented that they ‘show that [Wellington’s] mind is as vigorous, comprehensive, and sagacious as ever.’ (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey and Fulford) 30 March 1849 vol 6 p 172). This was not the reaction of men predisposed in Wellington’s favour, but of his political opponents, and both Hobhouse and Grey had clashed frequently with the Duke in the 1830s when they had each served some time as Secretary at War.
Lord Gough and the Command in India:
Gough had commanded British forces in the first Opium War, and had then been appointed Commander-in-Chief in India in 1843. He commanded the army in successful operations against the Marathas at Gwalior (1843) and in the first Sikh War (1845-46). Ellenborough, when Governor-General, had warned Wellington that ‘despite his many excellent qualities, [Gough] had not the grasp of mind and the prudence essential to conduct great military operations’ (quoted in DNB), while Hardinge declared that he ‘has no capacity for administration. He is at the outpost wonderfully active, but the more important points, which he dislikes, of framing proper orders and looking to their execution are much [neglected]’ (quoted in Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 147). While very popular with his men, he was also much criticized by his subordinates, who did not hesitate to publish their views in the Indian press, and these articles were often picked up by the papers in London which made much of his Irish background accusing him of ‘Tipperary tactics’ (Fortescue History of the British Army vol 12 p 469 and DNB).
This disquiet was increased by news of the early actions in the Second Sikh War which broke out in late 1848. The reports from India suggested that these actions had been mismanaged, and that Gough had incurred unnecessary casualties in his eagerness to bring on a decisive action. Wellington had already nominated Lieutenant-General William Maynard Gomm, the Governor of Mauritius to succeed Gough; but the alarm over the Sikh War in Britain was so great that he, and the cabinet, decided that Sir Charles Napier should be sent out instead, despite considerable opposition from the East India Company. However by the time Napier arrived in India Gough had brought the war to a successful conclusion; and Fortescue argues that the criticism of Gough was largely unfair, and that the high casualties incurred in some of his actions were primarily due to the quality of the Sikh infantry and (in at least one case) the errors of a subordinate (Fortescue History of the British Army vol 12 p 469-73). On his return to England Gough was made a viscount and given a pension, and received honours from the City of London and the East India Company, while at a dinner in his honour at the United Service Club Wellington praised him as ‘affording the brightest example of the highest qualities of the British soldier.’ (DNB and Wellington quoted in Fortescue History of the British Army vol 12 p 473).
Greville gives a circumstantial account of the outcry in England in February and early March over Gough’s costly victory Chillianwallah and the ‘universal cry’ for Napier to be sent out to replace him; and takes a great deal of credit for achieving this result by acting as an agent of communication between Apsley House and the ministers. According to him, Wellington was reluctant to volunteer advice to the cabinet on any subject unasked, while Hobhouse had been discouraged from pressing the appointment by the opposition of the East India Company. This may all be true as far as it goes, although it is likely that Greville rather exaggerates the significance of the part he played, while the decision – right or wrong – to replace Gough had already been taken in January, as is shown by the entries in Hobhouse’s diary quoted in the main text. (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey and Fulford) 7 March 1849 vol 6 p 162-5).
Wellington’s attack on Grey in the Lords on April Fool’s Day, 1851:
Wellington remained a formidable figure in these years, but there were occasions when age and infirmities betrayed him, and Hobhouse records one such incident appropriately enough on April Fool’s Day 1851. Grey made a vehement speech in the Lords defending himself from criticism from a Commons committee. In the course of his speech he made a harmless allusion to Wellington’s views on martial law; however the Duke, ‘who was sitting in his usual place at the table, with his ear in his hand, misheard Lord Grey, and thought he had compared the two cases, whereupon he rose, and, going to the opposite side of the table, spoke very vehemently, rapping the box and stammering out his notions of martial law, which he said, truly enough, was no law at all. I felt quite sorry at the exhibition.’ However this can be blamed as much on his deafness, his hasty temper, and his dislike of Grey, as on old age or any decline in his mental powers, and he had admitted to Hobhouse two years before that one ear ‘the left, was of no use to him, the other very little, and that he could scarcely hear at all in the House of Lords.’ (Hobhouse diary, 1 April 1851 and 10 March 1849, Broughton Recollections of a Long Life vol 6 p 278, 232).
Greville also gives an account of the affair but does not explain the circumstances as clearly as Hobhouse:
Torrington made his speech last night, and did it very well, making a very favourable impression, and a good case for himself. Nobody said anything, and all would have ended there, and ended well, if Grey had not unwisely got up and made a bitter speech against the Committee, and on the case generally, in the course of which he said something about martial law, and the D. of W[ellingto]n’s administration of it in Spain; on which the Old Duke rose in a fury, and delivered a speech in a towering passion, which it would have been far better for Torrington to have avoided. The Duke was quite wrong, and Grey made a proper explanation, but the incident was disagreeable. (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey and Fulford) 2 April 1851 vol 6 p 290)
The Repeal of the Navigation Acts, 1849:
In 1849 both the government and Stanley eagerly sought Wellington’s support in the debate over the repeal of the ancient Navigation Acts which restricted trade between Britain and her colonies to British ships. It was initially thought that Wellington would oppose this additional measure of free trade, and Greville commented that ‘though he would probably not carry many votes with him if he went with Government, he would carry a good many if he went against them.’ In the end, much to Stanley’s annoyance, he supported the government, although without speaking or attempting to persuade other peers to follow his lead. In the course of the debate Stanley ‘made a sort of attack on the Duke’, accusing him of ‘standing coldly aloof’ while fellow Conservatives, who were as devoted as the troops who had ever bled under his command, struggled to preserve principles ‘which I will not but believe that the noble Duke in his own heart approves’. According to one observer Wellington ‘appeared moved, turned restlessly in his seat, and covered his face with his hands’, although this sits oddly with his reported comment that the speech was ‘not only the finest which [Stanley] had ever made, but the finest ever delivered in Parliament.’ As was often the case in these years, Wellington was forced to support measures he disliked in order to keep Russell’s government in office, because he did not believe that Stanley and the protectionists were capable of forming an alternative administration. (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey and Fulford) 1 and 2 April and 11 May 1849 vol 6 p 172-176; Morton ‘A Melancholy Sight: Wellington and the Protectionists’ p 292-4).
If Greville’s account is accurate the ministers were almost as disappointed by Wellington’s stand on the issue as were the Protectionists. On 1 April he noted ‘John Russell sent on Friday for Ellesmere, and asked him to go and talk to the Duke of W[ellingto]n, who is going to vote against the repeal, for they justly think that though he would probably not carry many votes with him if he went with Government, he would carry a good many if he went against them.’ (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey and Fulford) 1 April 1849 vol 6 p 172). At this point the government had already resolved to resign if it was beaten on the question, while it was thought that Stanley had resolved to make every effort to defeat them, and that it was a best doubtful whether the ministers would have the numbers. Prince Albert, whose sympathies were largely with Peel and the free-trade conservatives, and who was alarmed at the possibility of a Protectionist government, used whatever influence he had to encourage peers to vote for the government, and wrote to Wellington urging him to save the country from a dispute between the Lords and Commons which might have to be resolved by an election. (Hawkins Forgotten Prime Minister vol 1 p 361). On 2 April Greville wrote that, ‘Ellesmere went to the Duke of W[ellingto]n and to talk to him about the Navigation Bill, and found him in excellent disposition. He promised to do all in his power to support the Government, and he advised P[rince] Albert, who called on him a day or two ago, to keep quiet and say as little as possible on the subject to anybody.’ (ibid 2 April 1849 vol 6 p 174). At the end of April, Disraeli reported that Wellington had ‘lavished all sorts of execration’ on the bill, on Peel, and on Free Trade, but would still vote for it in case the defeat of the government opened the door to Cobden and the radicals (see above ‘Wellington privately abuses Peel’ for the full quote) (Disraeli to Lady Londonderry, 30 April 1849, Benjamin Disraeli Letters no 1820 vol 5 p 174-6).
On 11 May Greville reported the result:
For the last fortnight everybody has been occupied with the division in the H. of Lords on the Navigation Bill; the greatest whip-up was made on both sides that ever was known, and the lists made and re-made out with such accuracy that every vote was pretty well ascertained, and the numbers quite correctly calculated. Stanley made a magnificent speech, the best it is said he ever made, and on eof the most brilliant and effective ever made by anybody. He made a sort of attack on the Duke of Wellington which was both unjustifiable and in bad taste. The Duke behaved oddly in this matter. He gave repeated assurances to the Government that he would assist them in every way he could, but he really gave them no assistance at all, for he refused positively to communicate with any Peers on the subject, would not speak to those who wished to consult him, and he never opened his lips in the debate. I am compelled to believe that Stanley really meant, if he could have defeated this Bill, to have taken the Government if offered to him (ibid 11 May 1849 vol 6 p 176).
In his biography of Stanley, Angus Hawkins shows that while the Protectionists were busy drawing up lists for a putative cabinet, their leader suspected that the attempt to form a government would be premature, an echo of 1834-35, and that he was not unhappy with the final outcome: pushing the ministry near defeat, displaying their weakness, but requiring them to remain in office. (Hawkins The Forgotten Prime Minister vol 1 p 362).
Wellington wants Prince Albert to succeed him at the Horse Guards:
In the spring of 1850 Lord John Russell proposed the amalgamation of the positions of Adjutant-General and Quartermaster-General following the death of Sir John Macdonald, the Adjutant-General. Wellington was strongly opposed to the idea, arguing, as it always had, that it would create a chief-of-staff would would inevitably act as a rival rather than an assistant to the Commander-in-Chief; and that as the two departments could not be merged the saving would be paltry and would not compensate for the inefficiency it would create.
However on reflection he considered that there was one circumstance in which the arrangement might be advantageous: he was already over eighty and the prospect of his dying or being forced to retire could not be ignored. Who would succeed him? A professional soldier, even Fitzroy Somerset or Hardinge, would be much less able to resist pressure from the prime minister to gain control of the patronage of the army for political purposes, and interference from the parliament in the internal affairs of the army whether to save money or in pursuit of some half-baked notions of its own, such as the abolition of flogging. The Horse Guards would also be in a much weaker position to resist the aggrandizement of the War Office. But it was the Queen’s army, not parliament, and it was important that the connection to the monarch be maintained if the army was not to become factionalized along political lines with disastrous results.
The best solution that Wellington could see to this problem – and it was not a perfect one – was that Prince Albert should succeed him as Commander-in-Chief. This would ensure that the royal connection was maintained, and give the Horse Guards considerable political weight: no prime minister would risk a major confrontation with the Prince unless there was a significant problem to be addressed. There were, however, several disadvantages: the Prince was still very young (he was only 30 that spring), and was no soldier. He was quite intelligent, earnest and studious, but had an inflated opinion of his own ability and was susceptible to arguments presented in the language of ‘reform’; but he had great influence with the Queen, and had shown considerable judgment and discretion in the years since his marriage. What is more, if he was Commander-in-Chief, he would probably be too wise and too busy to interfere in the details of the administration, leaving them to the professional soldiers at the Horse Guards. In this case a chief-of-staff would be able to act in most respects as the Commander-in-Chief, only calling on the Prince’s support when necessary.
Wellington presented this idea to the Prince in early April 1850. Albert was surprised and pointed to his obvious lack of qualifications for the task, and questioned whether it would be constitutionally proper. Wellington responded (in Albert’s record of the conversation) that,
he was most anxious, on that account, that I should assume the command, as with the daily growth of the democratic power the executive got weaker and weaker, and that it was of the utmost importance to the stablility of the Throne and the Constitution, that the command of the army should remain in the hands of the Sovereign, and not fall into those of the House of Commons. He knew that as long as he was there the matter was safe enough; he had well calculated the strength of his position, and knew, he said, “that the democrats would blow me up if they could, but they find me too heavy for them.” He had always stood up for the principle of the army being commanded by the Sovereign, and he endeavoured to make the practice agree with that theory, by scrupulously taking on every point the Queen’s pleasure, before he acted. But, were he gone, he saw no security, unless I undertook the command myself, and thus supplied what was deficient in the Constitutional working of the theory, arising from the circumstance of the present Sovereign being a lady. Strictly constitutionally, I should certainly be responsible for my acts, but before the world in general the Chief of Staff would bear the responsibility, and for that office the man of the greatest name and weight in the army ought to be selected. (Memorandum by Prince Albert, 3 April 1850, Martin Life of the Prince Consort vol 2 p 211).
The Prince’s initial objections to the idea were confirmed on consideration, and he rejected the idea with the Queen’s support. His appointment would undoubtedly have caused controversy and he was wise not to undertake it, and his decision was greeted with approval by both Lord John Russell and Sir Robert Peel who were advised of the discussion. But neither Peel nor Russell cared much for the political independence of the Horse Guards, and while Wellington’s proposal was bold it was not ridiculous. When he died the United Service Gazette considered Prince Albert the leading candidate to replace him along with the Duke of Cambridge, the Marquess of Anglesey, Lord Hardinge and Lord Fitzroy Somerset (Hardinge was appointed) (Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 35). The royal connection with the army would be renewed by the appointment of the Queen’s cousin, the Duke of Cambridge, as Commander-in-Chief in 1856. (The Duke was no older than Albert, but was a professional soldier who had served in the Crimea. In his youth he had a – probably spurious – reputation as a military reformer, but as Commander-in-Chief he soon came to be regarded as a great obstacle to ‘reforms’ in just the same way as Wellington had been.)
With Albert’s refusal, Wellington moved to block the proposal abolition of the position of Adjutant-General and appointed Macdonald’s deputy, Sir George Brown, to the position.
Wellington’s reaction to Peel’s death:
Hobhouse, attending the Queen’s Levee on the following day, saw Wellington ‘in the inner room, sitting alone in a window-seat, leaning on his hands and looking pensively into the garden as the royal procession entered the gates. He was more than usually grave, and, when I went up to speak to him, held my hand some time in his and spoke with great kindness. He was evidently much affected.’ (Hobhouse diary, 3 July 1850, Broughton Recollections of a Long Life vol 6 p 259-60).
Greville’s reaction to Wellington’s remarks in the Lords tends to show that they carried more weight than most eulogies: ‘The Duke of Wellington pronounced in the House of Lords a few nights ago a panegyrick on his love of truth, and declared that during his long connection with him he had never known him to deviate from the strictest veracity. This praise would be undeserved if He had ever been guilty of any underhand, and insincere conduct in political matters, and it leads me to suspect that resentment and disappointment may have caused an unfair and unwarrantable interpretation to be put upon his motives and behaviour on some important occasions.’ (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey and Fulford) 6 July 1850 vol 6 p 234-5).
Wellington’s role in Russell’s return to Office, 1851:
The political crisis can be followed in the Letters of Queen Victoria vol 2 p 288-314. Prince Albert wrote to Wellington on 28 February: ‘Lord John Russell has declared his inability to carry on the Government. Lord Stanley has then declared his inability to form one until every other combination should have failed. We have tried all possible combinations between Whigs and Peelites, and have not succeeded, and now Lord Stanley throws up the game a second time! The Queen would be happy to consult you and hear your advice in this dilemma…’ (ibid p 308).
Hobhouse gives an admirable précis of Wellington’s advice to the Queen: ‘The Queen told Lord John Russell that the Duke said to her:
“Is your Majesty dissatisfied with your Ministers?”
“No,” replied the Queen.
Said the Duke: “Then you had better keep them.” (Hobhouse diary 3 March 1851 Broughton Recollections of a Long Life vol 6 p 274-5).
A subplot in the negotiations was an attempt by the Queen and the Prince to ensure that Palmerston did not return to the Foreign Office. Lord John Russell finally responded that Palmerston was too popular in the House and with the Radicals for it to be wise to quarrel with him at that moment, but he promised that he would remove Palmerston from the Foreign Office in the Easter Recess or resign himself. (This was a renewal of an earlier promise and, like the assurances Russell repeatedly gave his colleagues in cabinet that he would restrain Palmerston in future, it was worthless). (Memorandum by Prince Albert, 3 March 1851, Letters of Queen Victoria vol 2 p 311-12).
On resuming office Russell told the Queen ‘that it would be a very weak Government, and one not likely to last any length of time.’ (Memorandum by Prince Albert, 3 March 1851, Letters of Queen Victoria vol 2 p 311-12).
Disraeli later claimed that Wellington had said to Stanley, in the wake of the crisis, that the Whigs ‘are in the mud, and now you can look around you,’ but this sits oddly with contemporary records of his view of events, and needs to be regarded with caution. (Disraeli’s Reminiscences – composed in the 1860s – quoted in Hawkins The Forgotten Prime Minister vol 1 p 404).
Greville minimized the significance of Wellington’s role: ‘On Friday morning the Queen resolved to send for the D. of W[ellingto]n, which, however, was in reality a mere farce, for the Duke can do nothing for her, and can give her no advice but to send for J.R. again….’ And ‘The last act of the drama fell out as everybody foresaw it would and must. The Duke of W[ellingto]n advised the Q. to send for John again. He was sent for, and came back with his whole Crew, and without any change whatever.’ (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey and Fulford) 2 and 4 March 1851 vol 6 p 277-78).
The War Scare of 1851-52:
The British press violently attacked the French government in the wake of Louis Napoleon’s coup and caused great offence in Paris, heightening the tension and apprehensions of war between the two countries. Clarendon, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, commented in February 1852:
If we were invulnerable, and had an army, and navy, and rock-defended shores, we might thunder away to any extent; but in our present helpless state, it seems to me that to persist in irritating France is a luxury for which we may pay dearly; every newspaper, at the same time, over-flowing with proofs of national panic, and the naïf indications of where we can be best attacked and how most easily conquered. (Quoted in Bartlett Great Britain and Sea Power p 278).
At the same time the First Lord of the Admiralty wrote to the commander of the Mediterranean fleet: ‘There is an impression in the Cabinet that France may move her steamers suddenly from Toulon to the Channel, and they consider it advisable that our Mediterranean force should be in a position in such case to be called home.’ The fleet was therefore ordered to remain west of Malta, and a watch was kept at Gibraltar for any French move through the Straits. (Bartlett Great Britain and Sea Power p 279).
The future Lord Cranbrook noted at the end of January 1852 that there was not much public news ‘except of the successive atrocities of Louis Napoleon. All the world talks of invasion, which should be provided against, as, though not probable, it is very possible if tried.’ While Baring, at the Admiralty, observed that ‘the alarm seems daily to increase – John Bull exaggerates everything and grave people talk of invasion as an affair of five minutes.’ And Henry Reeve – who was very influential in forming the views of the Times – wrote from Paris that ‘all the French statesmen whom we were able to consult warned us to be on our guard; many of them believed that some foreign coup was imminent.’ (All these sources quoted in Bartlett Great Britain and Sea Power p 277-79).
Wellington told a friend in January 1852: ‘I do not much like the state of the world; and least of all our extreme weakness; it has attracted great attention and occasioned uneasiness.’ (Wellington to Lady Salisbury, 25 January 1852 Great Man’s Friendship p 253-54).
Wellington concerned that the government intends further Parliamentary Reform in 1852:
In December 1851 Disraeli reported to Lord Derby that he had seen Lyndhurst who had seen Wellington ‘with whom he had a long coners[ati]on respecting the Reform Bill.’ Lyndhurst had been alarmed by an editorial in the Times which he thought alarming. ‘The Duke seemed also not very easy, & said that he had made every effort to get intelligence about the government plan, but had learned nothing.’ (Disraeli to Derby, 9 December 1851, Benjamin Disraeli Letters no 2205 vol 5 494-5).
Prince Albert’s criticism of the Whig government’s proposals for the Militia in 1852:
Prince Albert wrote to Lord John Russell on 8 February:
My dear Lord John, – The Queen wishes me to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of yesterday, and in returning you the outline of the Plan for the Local Militia, adopted by the Cabinet, to transmit to you, and through you to the Cabinet, the considerations which have arisen in her mind with reference to our defences in general, and to the specific measures now proposed.
This is the third time during the Queen’s reign that an apprehension of war and consequent panic about invasion have seized the mind of this country. The Queen has witnessed on the previous occasions, that under the pressure of this panic hasty measures had been prepared by the Government and introduced into Parliament, but that before they had passed through the necessary parliamentary stages, the panic had materially subsided, and the Government had consequently gradually arrived at the determination to leave the measures thus proposed inoperative.
The Queen conceives that the same thing may happen in the present instance. She would seriously lament this, as she is of opinion that it is most detrimental and dangerous to the interests of the country, that our defences should not be at all times in such a state as to place the empire in security from sudden attack; and that delay in making our preparations for defence till the moment when the apprehension of danger arises exposes us to a twofold disadvantage.
1st. The measures will be necessarily imperfect and expensive as taken under the pressure of the emergency and under the influence of a feeling which operates against the exercise of a cool and sound judgement.
2nd. Our preparations will have to be made at a time when it is most important, for the preservation of peace, neither to produce alarm at home, nor by our armaments to provoke the Power with which we apprehend a rupture. (Prince Albert to Lord John Russell, Windsor, 8 February 1852 Martin The Life of the Prince Consort vol 2 p 353-4).
There was nothing in this with which Wellington would not have entirely agreed; but the Prince went on to criticize the detail of the government’s plans for the milita, telling the Prime Minister on 14 February that ‘My impression is that you could get a cheaper and more efficient force by the enrolment of an increased number of pensioners, and of such men as took their discharge from the army after ten years’ service, and one less likely to be distasteful to the people in the long run.’ (Prince Albert to Lord John Russell, 14 February 1852 Martin The Life of the Prince Consort vol 2 p 354). And he elaborated this scheme in a letter to Wellington a few days later (Prince Albert to Wellington 19 February 1852 Martin The Life of the Prince Consort vol 2 p 354-55).
It was, of course, far too late for the government to change its plans even if it had wished to do so, and it is possible that the Prince was indicating his desire to be consulted earlier so that his – or rather the Queen’s – views could be taken into account. In any case Wellington replied by pouring cold water on the Prince’s ideas, which were very similar to the hopes Grey had entertained of the 1847 Enlistment Act. Essentially he argued that an experienced regular soldier serving in his regiment was far more valuable than the same man, discharged from the army, and serving in a reserve unit which only assembled for a few days training each year and which therefore had no opportunity to develop confidence in its officers and build up esprit de corps. Nor could such a force of pensioners equal the proposed militia and provide the number of men needed to supplement the regular army in the face of invasion, by providing the bulk of the garrisons needed to defend the naval bases and other critical points as well as co-operating with the regular army in the field, in the same way that the British army had been supplemented, in other theatres, by ‘Sepoys, or Portuguese, or Spaniards, or Belgians, or Hottentots, or other troops less accustomed to the operations of war in the field’. (Wellington to Prince Albert, n.d. [c. 20 February 1852 Martin The Life of the Prince Consort vol 2 p 356-7).
The ‘Who? Who? Ministry’:
Angus Hawkins, the biographer of Lord Derby who presided over the government writes that,
One thing I am sure of. From Paul, Monypenny and Buckle to the current day the growing assertion that Derby’s 1852 government was popularly dubbed and widely referred to as the ‘Who, Who’ ministry is without any contemporary foundation. I have never come across it being referred to thus in letters, correspondence, diaries etc of the time. In this sense, it is an anecdote that has taken on a vigorous life of its own. Derby’s government in 1852 was not referred to anywhere, of which I know, as the ‘Who, Who’ ministry.
Did Wellington say it? We have no contemporary evidence (of which I am aware) that he did. Was Derby’s ministry commonly described at the time as the ‘Who, Who’ government? No it was not. Yet, that the story has had a flourishing career in the historical literature is undeniable. (Private communication, published here with permission, 17 July 2014).
The first appearance of the story in print appears to have been in Justin McCarthy’s A History of Our Own Times which was first published in 1879, and which became immensely successful and influential. In this McCarthy wrote,
In addition to all the ordinary difficulties of the ministry of a minority, there was, in this instance, the difficulty arising from the obscurity and inexperience of nearly all its members. Facetious persons dubbed the new administration the “Who? Who? Ministry”. The explanation of this odd nickname was found in a story then in circulation about the Duke of Wellington. The Duke, it was said, was anxious to hear from Lord Derby at the earliest moment all about the composition of his cabinet. He was overheard asking the new Prime-minister in the House of Lords the names of his intended colleagues. The Duke was rather deaf, and, like most deaf persons, spoke in very loud tones, and of course had to be answered in tones also rather elevated. That which was meant for a whispered conversation became audible to the whole House. As Lord Derby mentioned each name, the Duke asked in wonder and eagerness, “Who? Who?” After each new name came the same inquiry. The Duke of Wellington had clearly never heard of most of the new ministers before. The story went about: and Lord Derby’s Administration was familiarly known as the “Who? Who? Government”. (Justin McCarthy A History of Our Own Times vol 2 p 122 (this is of the 1897 Boston edition, but the story appears in the 1879 first edition).
In fact there is no evidence that the story was told in 1852, or even in the 1850s. McCarthy was an Irish journalist of strongly liberal views, and was a popular and partisan rather than a scholarly historian. Whether he originated the tale himself, or whether he took too seriously a piece of worthless gossip, hardly matters: the label has stuck, but the implication that Wellington was so out of touch with politics that he was unfamiliar with the ministers in Derby’s government (most of whom sat with Wellington in the Lords) is most implausible
Wellington remained Commander-in-Chief under the new government, and this seems to have been taken completely for granted by all sides, so that the question never even arose: it does not appear that he was asked to remain, that he offered to resign or that anyone gave the question any thought at all.
Election of 1852:
Derby’s government called an election which was held in July 1852. It did not resolve the impasse in Parliament, for neither the Conservatives nor the Whigs gained an outright majority in the Commons, with the Peelites, the Radicals and the Irish representing separate blocs which were reluctant to favour either of the larger parties, although each had more in common with the Whigs than the Conservatives. The country was prosperous in the summer of 1852 and there was an expectation, both before and after the election, that the Conservatives would secure a majority, with Greville commenting that ‘the only satisfactory part of this general election is the undoubted proof it affords of the strength of the Conservative element in the country, and it is only to be regretted that it should be found all enlisted on the side of such a Government as this, and associated with so much of ignorance and fanaticism.’ (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey & Fulford) 23 July 1852 vol 6 p 347). The fact that a government as weak as Derby’s, and subject to such widespread ridicule in the press, could nonetheless come close to securing an absolute majority, supports the idea that in the 1840s and early 50s the Conservatives would have been the natural party of government, if only they had managed to handle the repeal of the Corn Laws in a less divisive and self-destructive manner. As it was, the Protectionist party was forced to abandon its commitment to re-imposing duties on the import of corn in the wake of the election, but by then the chances of regaining some of the talented younger men who had followed Peel in 1846 had been greatly reduced.
Even before the election was called Wellington was involved in a dispute with some of the electoral managers of the Protectionist party apparently over the use of his influence as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports in the poll in Dover. The details are obscure, but it is possible that he felt that his position as Commander-in-Chief would make it improper for him to use his influence to side with one party or the other. At the same time he complained that ‘The Protection movements have driven my Son Charles out of Parliament … The Government cannot have a better friend than I am! [But] I shall be under the necessity of declaring against Lord Chelsea at Dover! They may rely upon it, they must rally round them the great landed Proprietors. Otherwise they will find it impossible to carry on a Government.’ (Wellington to Lady Salisbury, 19 April 1852 Great Man’s Friendship p 261-2; see also subsequent letters p 262-4, 281-2).
Continued fears of war with France:
In early August 1852 Wellington wrote of his fear that France would intervene if an existing dispute between Britain and the United States led to blows:
The American Minister was there; and although the fall of the Funds was mentioned, I observed that nobody ventured to advert to the real cause of the fall! The anxiety felt is about the prospect of a discussion with the United States of America about the fisheries. I am very anxious upon this subject, and I wish much that I could have stayed in London to converse upon it with Lord Derby or Lord Malmesbury. But I could not! This may be relied upon that if there is any dispute with the United States of America, Louis Napoleon will not have power, supposing him to have inclination, to endeavour to prevent the French Nation from taking part against us! I doubt the inclination from what I have heard lately! (Wellington to Lady Salisbury, 8 August 1852 Great Man’s Friendship p 303-4).
Wellington’s continued activity and relevance in the last weeks of his life:
On 5 September 1852, nine days before Wellington died, Lord Derby, the Prime Minister, wrote to Disraeli, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, discussing British strategy in the war in Burma, whether to annex the province of Pegu and then stand on the defensive, or to continue to advance on Ava:
If the King of Ava should consent to our present terms, our military preparations may undoubtedly be much curtailed, but I do not think it probable he will do so, until he has received a severer lesson than he has yet done … I feel confident that an offensive course of operations is much more likely to effect our ultimate object, than one firmly defensive … These are shortly the considerations which have led me to concur in the view strongly expressed by the D. of Wellington, and to approve of the spirit of instruction which Herries and the Secret Committee propose addressing by this Mail to the Governor General. (Quoted in Disraeli Letters vol 6 p 131n)
The Army and Commissariat in the Crimea:
A number of modern and some older scholars have examined the performance of the British army in the Crimea and concluded that the popular image of incompetence and inefficiency established by William Howard Russell’s famous articles in the Times, and perpetuated by Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why is both greatly exaggerated and fails sufficiently to differentiate between regular army and its support services such as the commissariat. The decline of the latter, from the high state of efficiency it achieved under Wellington in the Peninsula and France, was probably inevitable, but the failure to make any improvement in the 1840s and early 50s, despite concern from the Horse Guards and other senior soldiers, was due entirely to the arrogance and complacency of the Treasury (which was the responsible department) and in particular its permanent head Sir Charles Trevelyan. (See Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 236-40 and in particular Trevelyan’s evidence to the Roebuck Committee quoted on p 240). But again, there was no thought of Britain mounting such an expeditionary force; local arrangements proved adequate for colonial wars; and a French invasion of England was likely to result in a short scrambling campaign in rich, plentifully supplied country, where the inadequacies of the commissariat would have been of little consequence.
Nonetheless the popular assumption remains that the army performed poorly in the Crimea and that this was, at least in part, Wellington’s fault. This is view is endorsed by Longford: ‘for the army’s general unpreparedness to face the Crimean War … Wellington [must] bear a heavy responsibility, since he was Commander-in-Chief for ten out of the twelve preceding years.’ (Longford Wellington: Pillar of State p 373). While even the 7th Duke of Wellington agrees: ‘The incompetence shown during the Crimean War is often with some justification laid at his door. No man should ever cling to a job when he is too old, and on one will ever tell him when that moment arrives.’ (Quoted in ibid p 374).
© Rory Muir