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Commentary for Volume 2, Chapter 14: Master General of the Ordnance

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Robert Plumer Ward:

Ward took the additional name Plumer when he married for a second time in 1828, so that in his years at the Ordnance he was known simply as Robert Ward; however he is so much better known by the later name that it has been used in this chapter despite being an anachronism (seen the entry on him in the ODNB).

Members of the Board of the Ordnance:

There were five members of the board including the Lieutenant-General of the Ordnance, Sir Hildebrand Oakes and the Clerk of the Ordnance, Robert Plumer Ward.   The three remaining members of the Board were much less valuable, but they were all well connected. The Surveyor-General was Vice-Admiral Robert Moorsom, who was closely associated with Lord Mulgrave’s family, and who had distinguished himself in command of the HMS Revenge at Trafalgar. The Clerk of Deliveries was Lieutenant-General Edmund Phipps, Mulgrave’s brother and confidant, like him a close friend of Pitt’s and an accomplished and popular figure in government circles. Finally there was the Principal Storekeeper Mark Singleton who, when a young captain in the Guards, thirty-five years before, had eloped with Lord Cornwallis’s daughter and married her at Gretna Green. Cornwallis had been Master-General in the 1790s and had appointed Singleton to his position in 1795 which he had held ever since, except during the brief interregnum of the Ministry of All the Talents. All three men were MPs and, naturally, dependable supporters of the government, although none carried any personal weight in the House. Wellington’s preference was to remove Singleton, but the Prime Minister intervened; Singleton was saved and Moorsom was sacrificed instead, with Wellington writing a pretty apology to Mulgrave to soften the blow. His place as Surveyor-General was taken by Ulysses Burgh Wellington’s old ADC, although even this modest change was not implemented until 1820. Phipps and Singleton both retained their positions throughout Wellington’s years at the Ordnance, the former unobtrusively, the latter causing the Master-General considerable irritation by his sloth and obstructionism. (Biographical information from Thorne History of Parliament vol 4 p 630-1 (Moorsom) 797-8 (Phipps) vol 5 p 186-7 (Singleton); Annual Biography and Obituary vol 21 1837 p 17-23 (Moorsom); Ross Life of Cornwallis vol 1 p 10n (Singleton). Wellington to Mulgrave n.d. February 1819 WND vol 1 p 20-21. For Wellington’s problem with Singleton see Wellington to Mr Crew 23 July 1822 WND vol 1 p 248-9 and Wellington to Bathurst 28 November 1824 HMC Bathurst p 576).

Gother Mann:

Porter History of the Engineers vol 1 p 400-401 prints a letter from Mann (24 December 1814) strongly protesting at the idea that the rewards of the profession should be allocated on anything except strict regimental seniority which took no account of performance in the field. This, and the arguments in his letter objecting to the transfer of responsibility for works in Canada to the Ordnance (see below) suggest a hidebound and rather limited officer, although there is not really quite enough evidence to be sure.

Lieutenant Colonel John Macleod:

When Wellington arrived at the Ordnance he received a letter full of complaints and accusations of abuses in the Department from Colonel P. Riou. There are rather too many complaints to be credible – the whole letter suggests either a crank or a man with a grievance, but for what it is worth, he says of Macleod:

The indifference of General Macleod respecting the character and qualifications of officers sent to command at different places is a notorious injury. I will only mention the two most important commands. Colonel Wiltshire Wilson, a man whose swindlings are known far beyond the regiment and who when he left Woolwich to take the command in Canada was not spoken to by any of the garrison. Colonel Worsley at Gibraltar is an instance in another way of a commanding officer who never for a moment thought of his profession in his life and had the repute of being wrong in his head. (Col P. Riou to Wellington January 1819 WP 1/613/1).

Wellington and the one-handed:

It is surely nothing more than a coincidence, but Felton Hervey, Fitzroy Somerset and Henry Hardinge had all lost a hand in action: Hardinge was not close to Wellington until after Hervey’s death, or it would have made a striking tableaux to have them together.

Hardinge’s success:

Another sign of Hardinge’s success may be the suggestion from the influential Opposition MP John Calcraft that Hardinge’s salary actually be increased – and Hume did not object, merely arguing that salary of other officers should be reduced. (Parliamentary Debates n.s. vol 10 9 March 1824 col 861). Nothing appears to have come of the suggestion, and Calcraft had a sort of interest in it, having held the office under the Talents, but it was not the sort of idea which would have been floated if the incumbent had not won the respect of the House.

Fitzroy Somerset and Felton Hervey:

There is a problem here. From July 1816 Fitzroy Somerset was Secretary to the British embassy in Paris and Felton Hervey was Wellington’s military secretary. Hervey moved with Wellington to the Ordnance and there is a letter of 30 January 1819 from Wellington to Lieutenant Colonel Chapman (Mulgrave’s Secretary) telling him to expedite Hervey’s appointment (WP 1/616/33).

Yet John Sweetman quotes a letter from Wellington to Somerset dated 3 January 1819 saying that he had spoken to the Prime Minister ‘respecting your removal to the Ordnance’; Liverpool had no objection, though it would take a couple of months to complete the arrangements. (Sweetman Raglan p 73). Possibly Wellington intended Somerset for the Surveyor General’s job, or thought that there would be a second vacancy; or Hervey may have been reluctant to go to the Ordnance. But so far as we know Somerset was not actually appointed to an Ordnance position until Hervey’s death created that vacancy.

Parliamentary debates on the Ordnance Estimates, 1819-22:

The attitude of the radicals and other advocates of reduced government spending had been very different in Wellington’s early years at the Ordnance, when the passage through parliament of the annual estimates was the occasion for criticism and dispute led by the indefatigable, if slightly ridiculous, Joseph Hume. Their efforts frequently received more support in the press than in the Commons. For example, in 1819, Hume was the only Opposition member to attack the Ordnance estimates (he objected to the government manufacturing its own gunpowder rather than relying entirely on private enterprises, and argued that Ceylon, Mauritius, the Cape of Good Hope, Malta and the Ionian Islands should pay for their own defence), but the Times ran four stories on the subject over two days. The paper objected to ‘the frightful expense of the Ordnance Department’; queried why the Master General’s official secretary should be paid £1000 when in 1780 Lord Townshend had made do with private secretary costing only £200; and reported – or invented – rumours from Paris that Wellington was about to be sent on a diplomatic mission to Stockholm which it hoped would open the way for the abolition of the office of Master-General. (Parliamentary Debates vol 40 2 June 1819 col 837-40; The Times 2 and 3 June 1819; the timing of the story from Paris is suspiciously convenient and the idea of Wellington’s mission to Stockholm appears nowhere else).

In the following year, 1820, the House was evidently bored by a long and tedious speech by Hume, replete with endless figures comparing the proposed Estimates with those of 1792, and the debate digressed into a discussion of the valuable sinecure held by Lord Castlereagh’s uncle which, however enjoyable for those taking part, was an old bone with nothing to do with the Ordnance. (Parliamentary Debates n.s. vol 1 2 June 1820 col 805-821). But in 1821 Hume and his friends were better prepared and the House, having weathered the storm over Queen Caroline, was in a mood to humour them. Proclaiming at the outset that ‘retrenchment was the object he had in view’, Hume attacked the method of keeping accounts at the Ordnance, which meant that actual expenditure always exceeded the estimates by a considerable margin, and demanded that Parliament be given far more detail of the proposed expenditure. He continued to hammer away with comparisons with 1792 and 1796 (barely acknowledging that until 1801 the Irish Ordnance was a separate establishment), but enlivened his account with enough individual details to keep any country gentlemen who had remained in the chamber awake. The Master-General’s secretary was again attacked (his salary now said to be £2,000), while when a position was abolished, as that of under-secretary had been, the saving (£300) was divided among the clerks rather than being returned to the public. And then there was the storekeeper at Dover whose salary had risen from £120 in 1796 to £500 in 1820. ‘By cutting away useless offices in one quarter, and by curtailing the salaries of them in another, he was convinced that the Ordnance estimates might be reduced from £1,500,000 to £1,100,000’. Robert Ward appeared taken off-guard by the onslaught – many of the more detailed criticisms would normally have been reserved for committee – and his reply was hesitant and unconvincing. Sir H. Parrell and Lieutenant-General Sir R. Ferguson, Wellington’s old comrade from 1808, joined in the attack. Hume’s motion was still lost 44 to 58 but the margin was unpleasantly narrow for such a question, and there is little reason to doubt that the debate played an important part in preparing the ground for the reforms which Wellington introduced a few months later. (Parliamentary Debates n.s. vol 4 16 February 1821 col 726-42).

In the debate on the Estimates in 1822 Mr Hume admitted that many improvements had been made, but declared himself far from satisfied with the extent of the reductions and continued to hanker after the lean government of yesteryear (in this case 1796). The question of whether the British artillery and engineers were significantly better in 1822 than they had been in 1796 (let alone 1792) was one which he disregarded, if indeed it ever occurred to him. The House as a whole seems to have been more impressed with the reforms instituted at the Ordnance, for although the rage for economy was then at its height the Estimates were passed by a healthy majority of 65 (30 v 95). (Parliamentary Debates n.s. vol 6 col 1264-78 25 March 1822).

The debate of 19 February 1823 on Beresford’s appointment:

Hume attacked Beresford’s appointment in Parliament in the Committee of Supply on 12 February 1823, strongly implying that the office was a sinecure which had been bestowed in order to cultivate the electoral influence of his kinsman the Marquess of Waterford. Other speakers, including Hume’s allies, pointed out that he was misusing the forms of the House, and he agreed to raise it as a separate question. The resulting debate was held a week later with Hume resting his case on the 13th Report of the Commissioners of Military Inquiry who had concluded, a decade before, that the position of Lieutenant-General of the Ordnance was unnecessary and should be abolished. Ward attempted to rebut the argument but was not very convincing largely because that was indeed the Commissioners’ recommendation. Canning then intervened in a speech that was both lively and vigorous in marked contrast to the pedestrian efforts on both sides which had gone before. He ridiculed Hume for failing to provide any evidence that the Marquess of Waterford had anything to do with the matter and quoted from Wellington’s letters to Hopetoun, Hill and Beresford to show how the Duke had emphasized the labour involved in the office. What could be more natural than that Wellington would offer a military position to one of the generals who had won glory under his command; while the fact that Wellington was making the offers while engaged in an important diplomatic mission on the Continent showed the importance of his having a capable deputy to act in his absence. Did the House really think that the Duke of Wellington ‘whose transcendent talents had acquired for him that commanding situation which he occupied in the councils of Europe … should merge in the mere discharge of the office, those great qualities which might be so essentially useful to his country [?]’ Put like this, the House had no doubt, and Hume’s motion was defeated 73 to 200. (Parliamentary Debates n.s. vol 8 19 February 1823 col 140-72 quote on col 164. See also Phipps Memoir of Plumer Ward vol 2 p 104-5 and Journal of Mrs Arbuthnot 21 February 1823 vol 1 p 216 for accounts of this debate.). A few weeks later the Ordnance estimates passed with little discussion, although Hume showed why he was not taken entirely seriously even by those who felt that he played a useful role, when he told the House that he ‘attached no importance to what the Duke of Wellington might say on such a subject … He would not give a fig for such authority’. (Parliamentary Debates n.s. vol 8 14 March 1823 col 597-99).

One of Plumer Ward’s friends, Sir Michael Shaw Stewart wrote to him after the debate to congratulate him on his performance, although it is probably significant that Shaw Stewart was not in the House at the time:

My dear Ward,

I have just been reading your admirable reply to Hume, and I feel an impulse that I cannot resist, to congratulate you on the complete drubbing which you so genteely gave him, and to express the satisfaction I experienced in the ample proofs which you so forcibly brought forward of the fair, honourable, and disinterested conduct of all the individuals concerned in the appointment he so illiberally attacked. Nothing could be more effectually done …’ (Shaw Stewart to Plumer Ward Edinburgh 26 February 1823 Phipps Memoir of Plumer Ward vol 2 p 104-5).

Mrs Arbuthnot’s account of the debate in her journal sits much more comfortably with the impression given by Parliamentary Debates:

Two nights ago there was a most furious debate upon the appointment of Ld Beresford to be Lt-Genl. of the Ordnance. Mr Hume, as usual, put himself forward to assert that it was a scandalous appointment, for the purpose of ministerial patronage. Mr Canning proved that it was a very laborious office and that Lds Hopeton [sic] & Hill had refused it on account of the business & confinement it wd occasion. He abused Mr Hume furiously & called his charge false, calumnious & malicious. Lord Normanby (whose father was Master-General & appointed Genl. Oakes, & whose uncles are both in the office) was not ashamed of abusing the whole office. They were, however, deserted by all the moderate Whig’ (Journal of Mrs Arbuthnot 21 February 1823 vol 1 p 216).

Beresford as Lieutenant-General of the Ordnance:

Unfortunately Beresford’s actions ensured that the question of the Lieutenant-General of the Ordnance, which should have been settled, was revived in the following session. At the beginning of October 1823 Beresford was granted leave to visit Lisbon to settle his personal affairs. In late November Wellington wrote warning him that he must return home by the end of the year or early January at the latest. In response to this Beresford resigned from the Ordnance but Wellington, with misjudged loyalty, refused to accept it until after Parliament had resumed in February, when he bowed to the inevitable and appointed George Murray to the vacancy. The affair was complicated by the fact that Wellington believed that Beresford’s office gave him more influence in Lisbon, and by his hope that each mail would bring definite news of Beresford’s return or his re-appointment to the Portuguese army. However these considerations were outweighed for Liverpool and Canning by the political damage the government was bound to suffer from Beresford’s prolonged absence so soon after the Commons had been told that his office required constant diligence and attendance. (Memorandum from Wellington to Hardinge and Peel re Lieutenant-General of the Ordnance n.d. February 1824 WP 1/786/1; Wellington to Beresford 25 November 1823 WND vol 1 p 182; Wellington to Canning 15 January 1824 WP 1/783/3; Canning to Wellington 16 January 1825 WP 1/781/17; Wellington to Beresford 19 January 1824 WP 1/783/5 and Wellington to Canning 18 February 1824 WP 1/786/17). In the event the anticipated storm was an anticlimax: Hume belaboured the point in his annual assault on the Estimates, but Hardinge dexterously parried him and other opposition speakers did not pursue the issue. (Parliamentary Debates n.s vol 10 27 February 1824 col 529-534).

The Ordnance as Parliamentary Patron:

As well as being the subject of debate, the Ordnance had a modest institutional role in politics as a parliamentary patron. Board members often sat in the Commons, generally for seats they held independently through family or other influence, but the Ordnance itself shared with the Admiralty a predominant say in the election of the two members for Queensborough in Kent. In the 1818-1820 Parliament both members came from the Ordnance: Admiral Moorsom and General Phipps. Moorsom retired in 1820 and Phipps returned to Scarborough, a Mulgrave family seat which he had held from 1794 to 1818. Neither of the new members for Queensborough had close ties to the Ordnance, although both were loyal supporters of the government: George Holford was connected to both Castlereagh and Liverpool, and had been in Parliament since 1803; while J.C. Villiers who had worked with Wellington in Portugal in 1809-10, had represented Queensborough previously from 1807-1812. When Villiers succeeded his brother as Earl of Clarendon in 1824, Lord Frederick Bentinck took his place. (Dates and connections from entries in Thorne History of Parliament 1790-1820). Maintaining the influence of the Ordnance in Queensborough required constant attention and the frequent use of patronage to secure small benefits for the leading figures in the town and their dependents. Even then the result was not secure for the electorate divided into factions and aspiring local kingmakers attempted to play one government department off against another with considerable success. In 1826 Bentinck lost his seat to a ‘rascally stockbroker’ named Capel as a result of local intrigues which, Wellington complained, were supported by the Home Secretary or other officials in the government. Fortunately the other seat was held by Ulysses Burgh (now Lord Downes) so that the claims of the Ordnance were not totally slighted. (Wellington to S. R. Lushington (joint secretary to the Treasury) 24 June and 29 August 1825 WP 1/822/20, WP 1/826/11; Lord Downes to Fitxroy Somerset 12 June 1826 (includes description of Capel) WP 1/857/8; Wellington to J. C. Herries 6 September 1826 Aspinall & Smith (eds) English Historical Documents vol 11 p 264. There are more than fifty letters in the Wellington Papers for these year relating to Queensborough and the interests of its elections, many of them by Fitzroy Somerset).

The cost of maintaining the government’s influence in Queensborough was periodically attacked by the Opposition for example by Hume and others in the Navy Estimates in 1825 (Parliamentary Debates n.s. vol 1812 14 February 1825 col 351-2.

The Danger of Stagnation:

Porter History of the Royal Engineers vol 1 p 407 is good on this:

The high-pay list now choked with men waiting to be brought to the active list, and all prospect of promotion was practically at an end for many years.

The results were in every way most disencouraging. Time passed on, and men grew grey whilst still holding the commission of subaltern, until at length it took as long as twenty-three years to obtain a Second Captaincy, of which no less than nine had been passed in the subordinate grade of Second Lieutenant …

Matters having reached their worst, began slowly to mend. The first gleam of returning prosperity broke forth in 1825. It had been decided to carry out an Ordnance Survey of Ireland, and it was wished that the work should be pressed forward with the utmost rapidity. To do this, a large number of additional Survey Officers were required, and these could not be furnished from the attenuated list. A new Warrant was therefore issued, dated 19th November 1825, granting an increase of forty-eight officers of all ranks. This brought back the numbers to five battalions, and cleared off all the remaining expectants from the half-pay list, so that now some little movement might be anticipated.

But of course that only applied to the Engineers, and a larger problem remained in the artillery.

Wellington objects to interference in appointment of Artillery and Engineer Officers:

In November 1824 Wellington wrote to Knighton in response to pressure from the Court to ensure that Captain English of the Engineers was attached to the Survey of Ireland rather than proceed to the West Indies as he would be according to the roster. Wellington strongly objected to any interference in the Irish survey and with the duty roster, although he agreed to ask Major Colby if he would like English, and to delay the latter’s sailing for the moment. He concluded:

I must say that I cannot approve of officers running about to look for influence to obtain their regimental objects, instead of confiding in their own claims for employment, founded on their qualifications. I never entertain a very high opinion of these qualifications when I have such a case before me, as there is not one of them who does not know that I am well acquainted with his character and acquirements, and that if he deserves it he is quite certain of being employed as opportunities occur. (Wellington to Sir W. Knighton WND vol 2 p 332-333; the manuscript with English’s name is WP 1/806/4).

And in 1820 Wellington responded to a pleas from Lord Camden that a proposed re-arrangement of the Engineers not affect a friend’s nephew with a firm refusal: ‘We must make these arrangements in our several departments as will enable us to transact the publick business with the limited means afforded to us; and when it is necessary to reduce establishments I must make the reduction fall upon those whose claims upon the service are in my opinion the least strong’. (Wellington to Lord Camden 5 July 1820 WP 1/650/1).


The Abolition of the driver corps and the system of gunner-drivers:

No part of the artillery suffered more from the reductions than the drivers. In the horse artillery gunners and drivers existed in the same unit, but in the foot artillery they were quite separate, and a detachment of drivers would be assigned to a company of foot artillery if it was being sent on campaign with field guns. This system was actually an improvement on the 18th Century practice in almost all armies where the drivers were conscripted peasants or civil contractors not soldiers at all. The British driver corps had been militarized in 1794 but had a mixed record. In the Peninsula the drivers had suffered from a shortage of officers and supervision developing a bad reputation for plundering and indiscipline. Gradually the officers commanding the companies of gunners extended their influence and control over the drivers attached to them, sometimes for years. Wellington approved this development but it was said to have been frowned upon by the authorities at Woolwich – a phrase which almost certainly means John Macleod who had played a large part in the creation of the Driver Corps. (Duncan History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery vol 2 p 342; Hime History of the Royal Artillery p 39-53). It had always been widely assumed that the Driver Corps would be abolished with the coming of peace and its strength had been reduced from a peak of 7,440 officers and men in 1814 to only 1461 in 1817 when the Army of Occupation was still in France. By the beginning of 1822 only a rump of 288 all ranks remained, and the number of animals had fallen proportionately. (Hime History of the Royal Artillery p 50-51). Wellington then decided to abolish the corps as a separate body and absorb the remaining drivers into the regular companies of foot artillery. To ensure that they retained some mobility the companies would successively pass through a three month course to acquaint the men the handling of horses etc. The detail of these plans was worked out in conjunction with Alexander Dickson, although it appears that he would have preferred a longer course, perhaps lasting a year, even if this meant that fewer units would receive any training. (Memorandum for the Reduction of the Corps of Artillery Drivers by Wellington 12 September 1821 WND vol 1 p 182-3; Dickson to Somerset 27 August 1821 WP 1/676/17 and Dickson’s comments on Wellington’s proposals past 12 September 1821 WP 1/679/7). The whole question caused considerable tension inside the Ordnance with Macleod making little secret of his disapproval. The system of ‘gunner-drivers’ was not a success: almost all the men were still primarily gunners and few had any real understanding of horses. They tended to be large strong men, capable of the sustained labour of manhandling heavy field guns all day in action, rather than the smaller lighter men who could ride the heading horse of a team without adding too much to its burden. Nor did the companies have the chance to develop bonds of affection with the horses, for none were permanently assigned to them. Part of the problem was that other than the horse artillery all gunners were expected to be capable of serving either in the field or in defense of fortresses. Admirable as such multi-skilling is in theory, it almost invariably amounts to deskilling. If the foot artillery had been divided into companies specially trained to use the heavy fixed pieces of coastal and other defenses, and other companies expected to use field pieces on campaign, the importance of mobility for the latter might have been better recognized within the companies as well as by superior authorities. But even this would not have been a solution for the fundamental problem was lack of money. When the Ordnance was forced to make such drastic cuts after the war it was probably inevitable, given the low status of the Driver Corps, that it should suffer the most, on the assumption that a new body of drivers could be recreated more quickly than gunners in time of war. Wellington might possibly have salvaged something from the wreck in 1822 if he had found a couple of good officers to revitalize the drivers and attached them all to a few companies of foot artillery, relegating all the rest to immobility. Yet it is not unlikely that it if he had done so there would have been objections in Parliament, for Britain had not had either horse artillery or artillery drivers in 1792 so why should the tax payer be burdened with them in 1822? Hime History of the Royal Artillery p 55-65. In 1825 there was only 307 horses in the whole foot artillery (ibid p 64).

It is worth noting that while Hime, whose account was published in 1908, unequivocally condemns the gunner-driver system, while Duncan writing forty years earlier, welcomed its creation (History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery vol 2 p 342), which rather suggests that changes in military doctrine long after the events described influenced the way that they were judged.

The Royal Artillery and Drivers in the Peninsula:

Howie Muir sheds light on this in his introduction to the reprint of the Memoir of Hew Ross:

Nevertheless, for all the dedication, skill, and courage of the RA brigades, their form and mobility remained a less efficient reflection of the RHA troops. The central flaw what that, unlike a troop, the drivers belonged to another corps, and was not an integrated, organic part of the commanding captain’s company. The detachments of the Royal Artillery drivers serving with the brigades did so often with no officer of drivers to manage them directly, oversee pay, clothing, reward or discipline; the drivers had no unit-cohesion of their own, only identities earned largely through the brigade to which they were transiently attached. With no properly constituted authority actively responsible for their welfare, discipline and efficiency suffered, leaving conscientious artillery captains to provide what the institution had failed to contrive: active oversight. Wrote one veteran:

[At the Peninsular War’s] commencement the horses were still under the Driver-officers and those of the regiment did not trouble themselves much about them, and as there was only one Driver-officer to do everything, looking after his men, horses, and harness gave him so much to do, that often he did nothing. Such a state of affairs could not last, as everything went to the bad and nobody responsible. However, in a little time subalterns of the company attached were told off to divisions and made responsible for everything belonging to it, in a short time a spirit of emulation sprung up among them as to who would turn his division out in the best manner, and from this was formed the field-battery of the present day. (C. S., “Artillery”, in United Service Magazine (1863), Pt.2 p 543).

Indeed, the officers of the RA brigades drew of their RHA colleagues’ arrangements for inspiration. Captain Cairnes wrote to a colleague in April 1813, some six months after arriving with his company from garrison duty at Cadiz to serve in the Peninsular field army:

My Standing orders are framed on Horse Artillery principles throughout – every Officer being wholly & solely responsible for their division – whether Gunners, Drivers, horses, harness, carriages or stores. And the Officer of drivers does nothing whatever but attend to the accounts […] You are to understand that this is the general system of the Brigades in this army … (Cairnes to Bedingfield 4 April 1813 in Leslie Dickson Manuscripts vol 5 p 864; see also Duncan History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery vol 2 p 341-2).

To his stepfather, Major-General Cuppage, Cairnes wrote:

My own Officers look to the Stable duties and (as a wholesome check on the Officer of Drivers) inspect the Drivers Kits of their divisions every Saturday, with those of the gunners, their Mess Accounts, &c. The poor Drivers are sadly to be pitied: – considering the labour of taking care of two horses & their harness (& oftentimes of three) they are worse paid than any other troops, and when left entirely to the management of their own Officers, they are luckless indeed. By being with a Brigade, there is some hope of instilling in them the idea that they are soldiers, and when they find themselves looked after and treated precisely as the Gunners of the Brigade, they certainly evince a difference. (Cairnes to Cuppage, RA 30 May1813 in Leslie Dickson Manuscripts vol 5 p 895).

            It was on the drivers and horses that field artillery’s ultimate achievement of mobility squarely depended. By integrating drivers within the troop, the Royal Horse Artillery had united those who gave it mobility and those who delivered its firepower under a unified discipline, management, and command, as well as assured the greatest possible harmony of morale and esprit de corps within the unit.


I have accepted Hime’s verdict that the gunner-driver system was an unqualified failure, but it is worth noting that not only did Alexander Dickson continue to defend it, but Sir Hussey Vivian became converted to it when he was Master-General of the Ordnance in the 1830s. In 1838 he gave evidence to an inquiry:

      As a cavalry officer I confess I felt considerable doubts whether it would be possible to make the gunners of the artillery equal to the duties that they would be called upon to perform as drivers; since, therefore, I have held the situation of Master–general, I have felt it my duty to look into the effects of the change, and observe how well it has worked, and I have no hesitation in saying that I think it is a most advantageous measure, and that, in the event of a war, it would not again be necessary to appoint a corps of artillery drivers as during the last war. Upon the old system there might be said to be two interests in each field-battery. The gunners considered the care and working of the guns their immediate duty – the drivers thought only of their horses and harness; the battery is now one great whole, and every man feels a degree of interest, both in the horses and in the matériel, which was not the case before; and every man also is now equal to the duty of either a gunner or a driver …’ (Evidence of Vivian to the Commission of inquiry into Naval and Military Promotion and retirement: evidence given on 17 July 1838 question 929 p 56. Dickson’s opinion in ibid 17 July 1838 questions 830 and 831 p 50. Report of Commissioners for Inquiring into Naval and Military Promotion and Retirement (London, Clowes, 1840).

Wellington chaired the inquiry which may have discouraged criticism of a system which he had introduced, but it would hardly have produced such an unqualified endorsement from Vivian who had held high office himself.

Other changes to the artillery:

Other changes to the artillery were less contentious. In 1819 Dickson recommended the adoption of a four wheel limber waggon for the carriage of small arms ammunition in preference to a two wheel cart, and this was adopted in 1822 as part of a number of similar changes ranging from the substitution of boxes for barrels for the storage of gunpowder in magazines, to the change from one type of howitzer to another. (Dickson to Wellington 10 March 1819 WND vol 1 p 44-46; Memorandum to Mr Crew and Sir A. Farrington 3 April 1822 ibid p 228-9). It was at this time that Paixham’s shell firing guns were being developed in France and arousing much interest across Europe, and with Wellington’s approval General Millar’s 8-inch and 10-inch guns began their trials, to see if they would be suitable for the navy and for coastal defense. Early results were not particularly encouraging and it took many years before they were improved sufficiently to be widely adopted. (Strachan From Waterloo to Balaclava p 126-8; Burgoyne to Somerset 3 February 1826 Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne vol 1 p 345-6; Andrew Lambert ‘Preparing for the Long Peace’ p 49).

Wellington on new inventions:

On 9 December 1820 Wellington told Melville: ‘we have them of all sorts and descriptions and we shall very soon not know where we are and shall have a different description of gun or carriage for ever ship in the service’. (WP 1/658/2).

Wellington was very alert to the benefits of steam, as can be seen both his plans for the defense of Canada (steam powered tugs to pull barges full of troops or supplies) and his involvement in the American and Colonial Steam Navigation Company (see Ch 13). But at this time (1824) he did not apprehend any danger of invasion from it, although he did think that it increased the risk of a coup de main against one or other of the great naval bases, and took precautions to improve their defenses. (Wellington to Sir Herbert Taylor 27 December 1824 WND vol 2 p 381-383).

The Ordnance Survey of Ireland:

This had also be questioned in Parliament in 1824 when Sir J. Newport

wished to know whether the long projected survey of Ireland was to take place on the trigonometrical plan. If they were to wait as long for this survey of Ireland, as they had done for the completion of the same survey in Great Britain, he should protest against the measure. Valuable as the survey of Ireland would be for the distribution of the grand jury assessment – in other words for equalizing the taxation of Ireland – he thought the trigonometrical plan perfectly inadmissible. When completed it would be nearly a nullity and of little use, compared with a parochial survey and valuation. (Parliamentary Debates n.s. vol 10 27 February 1824 col 541).

However other speakers disagreed as they did later in the session when the survey was against discussed before being referred to a committee. (Parliamentary Debates n.s. vol 10 10 March 1824 col 870-1).

It seems that the Committee hearings may have been lively, for later in the year Wellington told Sir William Knighton:

This survey of Ireland stands on very peculiar grounds, and, as you will see, cannot be interfered with from a view to patronage or favour.

It has been undertaken in consequence of discussions in Parliament, and has been the subject of inquiry in a Committee of the House of Commons; towards when Committee I was obliged to hold very strong language, stating my determination to have nothing to say to it if not allowed to perform the service in my own way, and by qualified officers of the Ordnance. I positively refused to employ any surveyor in Ireland upon this service. With what face, then, can I refuse any man in Ireland, duly qualified, to employ him upon the service, if such employments are made matters of patronage and private favour in the corps of Engineers?

But this is not all. Major Colby is at the head of the service, and is responsible to me for the due conduct of its details; and accordingly I have allowed him to select every individual who is to be employed under him. I have not named one nor even suggested one.

Would it answer, would it be fitting, that Major Colby should have it in his power to say: It is true that such and such parts of the survey are not so accurate as they ought to be, as the Master-General, upon the recommendation of Sir W. Knighton, desired me to employ Captain ____ [English]; and Captain ____ was employed in those parts’. (Wellington to Knighton 6 November 1824 WND vol 2 p 332-2. English’s name from WP 1/806/4 on Wellington and the Ordnance survey of Ireland see also WND vol 4 p 331, 333-4).

Wellington’s plans for the Defence of Canada:

In the long memorandum which Wellington presented to Lord Bathurst on 1 March he took elements from the different papers he had examined and wove them together into an imaginative, flexible and realistic plan. The keys to Canada were Quebec, Montreal and Kingston, and Wellington recommended that work on a proposed citadel at Quebec and the fortification of Isle aux Noix on the Richelieu River guarding the approach to Montreal from Lake Champlain proceed as soon as possible. Plans should also be prepared for an entrenched camp upon the Heights of Abraham but work on this should not begin until war with the United States was clearly imminent or had actually broken out, as it would be most effective if the Americans had not taken it into account in their plans. Wellington accepted the view of naval officers that Britain was unlikely to retain control of the Great Lakes – America had so many more resources on the spot that she would almost certainly be able to outbuild the British – and recognized that this imperiled communications with Upper Canada. Indeed throughout the Memorandum there was much more emphasis on lines of communication (from Britain to Nova Scotia, from Nova Scotia to Quebec and thence further into the interior) than on troops, or even fortifications. With the St Lawrence and the Lakes too exposed to the enemy to be relied upon for the passage of troops and supplies Wellington proposed the development of an interior line of communication making extensive use of rivers and canals and even, for short passages, of railways, although these had yet to be combined with steam locomotion. (Stephenson’s work was in its early stages but would not make much impact for another few years, until the mid 1820s). Steam would however be used for towing barges in the canals and rivers. Kingston on Lake Ontario, should be well fortified against attack by land or water, but Wellington saw less value in defences on the Niagara frontier at the other end of the lake, although it would probably be necessary to retain one fort to reassure the local inhabitants. Ideally Wellington would have liked to remove the capital from York (Toronto) which he regarded as virtually indefensible, but he accepted that this might prove politically impossible. Still if his other plans were adopted and the local population remained loyal, Wellington believed that Canada could be defended by a force of only 13,000 regulars plus militia. (Memorandum on the Defence of Canada [for] Lord Bathurst, London, 1 March 1819 WND vol 1 p 36-44).

The government adopted Wellington’s plans and work on many of the proposals soon began, and proved vastly more expensive than the estimates made on the spot had suggested. The fortification of Isle aux Noix cost not £10,000 but £57,668 while between 1820 and 1831, the British Treasury expended £236,500 on the citadel of Quebec. Work on the communications (‘improving’ the Ottawa River and constructing the Rideau canal) proved the task of many years, and it is not surprising that when Wellington proposed to spend £100,000 on these works in 1826 Liverpool, faced with a depressed economy and falling revenues, would only approve £25,000. (Bourne Balance of Power in North America p 36; Memorandum from Wellington and Hardinge dated 31 January and 17 February 1826 in WND vol 3 p 79-80.).

Wellington and the Rideau Canal post-1827:

Ellenborough Diary vol 1 p 32-33 14 February 1828: ‘The Duke of Wellington is decidedly in favour of the Rideau Canal, which would, he thinks, so completely protect the communication between Upper and Lower Canada as to make all the designs the United States might entertain quite abortive, and induce then to be very quiet on all points of difference between the two countries, which they will not be while they think they can easily annex Canada to their territory. If they see they can gain nothing by a land war, and must lose by naval hostilities, they will be tranquil enough’.

Clashes between Ordnance officers and Colonial Authorities:

Porter History of the Royal Engineers vol 2 p 90-91 illuminates this with the strong suggestion that the Ordnance officers tended to be unco-operative and to subvert the authority of colonial officials while reserving to themselves the best quarters, land etc greatly to their personal profit.

Gother Mann’s objections to the transfer:

Mann was writing purely about responsibility for works in Canada of which he had personal experience. He made some good points notably that requiring estimates for repairs to be sent to London could lead to excessive delays especially from Upper Canada; and that in the past of the Treasury had shown itself more willing to fund works for which it had a direct responsibility; but the letter was also infused with a spirit of entrenched conservatism: no change should be made unless one could be quite sure that the results would be unequivocally beneficial, and there was nothing wrong with the existing way of doing business which had been in place since 1786! (Mann to R. H. Crew 8 April 1822 WO 44/265 f 328-330).

Parliamentary opposition to spending on the Barracks Department:

The Opposition and the radicals made the barracks the centre of their attack on the Ordnance Estimates in Parliament in 1824. Joseph Hume strongly objected to their expense: £114,000 compared to only £41,000 in 1797 when the country had just as many troops, and he particularly complained of the further charge of £65,000 for their repair and maintenance of the fabric of the buildings. Other speakers of similar persuasion agreed. Colonel Davies thought that barrack masters were overpaid (at 10s a day maximum!), while John Cam Hobhouse made an impassioned speech condemning the King’s Mews barracks in Westminster and the whole principle of barracks in general. ‘It was now plain to every man that the troops were kept in the midst of the city to be ready to act against the people!’ ‘Many citizens did not like to have soldiers in their vicinity. They were disturbed at night by drums beating etc’. And yet, paradoxically, he opposed barracks not merely because of their cost but because they ‘separated the soldier from the citizen’ and so were a threat to freedom. To which Hardinge responded that the alternative to barracks was billeting soldiers upon the people which had been a grievance ever since the reign of Charles I. And, he asked, ‘would the hon. member who was so jealous of the soldiers send them to learn patriotism, honour, and morality in the pot-houses of Westminster?’ Hume’s motion was defeated 38 to 95. (Parliamentary Debates n.s. vol 10 27 February 1824 col 544-9. The Opposition returned to the subject on 9 March but declined to test their support with a division, ibid col 861-5). When the Opposition came to power at the end of 1830 it sharply reduced the already inadequate spending on barracks, and kept it down throughout the decade it remained in office, so it is curious to find radical politicians in the mid and late 1830s waxing indignant over the living conditions of the ordinary soldiers.

Conditions in the Barracks:

Anglesey A History of the British Cavalry vol 1 p 130 states: ‘By the 1820s, on the insistence of the Duke of Wellington, individual beds had become common’. Unfortunately I have been unable to confirm this statement.

The Transfer of Commissariat Store Department to the Ordnance and Colonial Problems:

The transfer of the Commissariat stores from the Treasury to the Ordnance seems to have proceeded relatively smoothly after an initial hiccup when Mr Singleton, the Principal Storekeeper, attempted to defy Wellington and was sharply checked for his pains. (Wellington to Mr Crew 23 July 1822 WND vol 1 p 248-9). However many of the colonial properties created long-lasting problems. These difficulties were often due to uncertainties over the legal title of the properties, sometimes compounded by the unco-operative attitude of the colonial authorities. In some cases the colonies had paid for part or all of defense works themselves and were naturally reluctant to admit any question over their ownership, and in these instances the Colonial office generally sided with the locals not the Ordnance. (Burroughs ‘The Ordnance Department and Colonial Defence’ p 128-132). Unfortunately the work which had been done as a result of such local initiatives tended to be poorly designed or badly executed. For example in 1821 Wellington received a report that the defenses of Jamaica were in a deplorable, ruinous and dilapidated state, not, primarily, due to any fault on the part of the local legislature which had granted sufficient money for the works, but from the lack of expertise and judgment in the way that the funds had been spent ‘Until very lately the island has been without any officer of the corps of Royal Engineers; and now the officer who is there is not of sufficient rank to have any charge of the works of defence, nor even to be admitted to the presence of the Governor’. (Lieutenant-General Mann to Fitzroy Somerset 5 February 1821 WP 1/661/4/1).

The Artillery and the Expedition to Portugal:

Hime History of the Royal Artillery, 1815-54 is highly critical of Wellington for over-ruling ‘the man on the spot’, and there are interesting parallels between the events of 1826 and Wellington’s own complaints (and those of Lt-Col Robe) at the quality of the horses provided by the Ordnance for the expedition to Portugal in 1808. But while appealing this is a superficial judgement, and the expedition needs to be studied in greater detail before conclusions can be confidently advanced.   An example of one complication overlooked by Hime is that the overall commander of the expedition, Lieutenant-General Sir William Clinton, was also the Lieutenant-General of the Ordnance: although it is not clear if this gave him the authority to approve Webber-Smith’s changes, or if he did so.   There are also hints at rivalries and politicking among the Ordnance officers which influenced the information which was sent home and the way it was received.




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© Rory Muir

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